Editor's note: This post is part of a series of interviews with inspiring women founders by Mark Miller and Lucas Conley, collaborators at Team One’s Legacy Lab and the authors of the new book Legacy in the Making.
S'well--the eco-friendly brand Sarah Kauss founded in 2010--is more than a reusable water bottle company. S'well's products have soul. Now sold in 65 countries, S'well's "hydration accessories" are beautiful, well-crafted, and support a diverse array of charitable initiatives--including delivering clean water to communities in need. We sat down with Kauss to ask how she built the fastest-growing woman-owned brand in the U.S. while working towards sustainable, long-lasting change.
Where did you get the inspiration to launch S'well?
I was working in real estate in Manhattan, and I was spending my weekends out in the Hamptons. Traveling back and forth, I noticed that everyone had really nice handbags but they all carried plastic water bottles. I had always been an environmentalist, and I carried a reusable water bottle everywhere I went--but it didn't necessarily fit in at my real estate board meetings or feel as luxurious as the handbag I was carrying. I thought: What if I could create a bottle that looked better, worked better, and gave back?
So, I created the product with myself in mind as the customer, knowing that there had to be other people with the same need. I didn't have a background in consumer products, marketing or luxury goods, but I understood that I had an opportunity to shift the way people use and consume. It may sound lofty, but a water bottle is something you often carry around with you, and it's something that can remind you about other life choices you make.
There are countless bottles out there. How did you get people to pay attention to yours?
When I started the company in 2010, our website made it look like we were a non-profit. I had pictures of the Great Pacific garbage patch, and I talked about how many pieces of plastic get thrown away every day. S'well has always worked with water charities, so I had pictures of wells that we were helping build in Africa. At that point, my approach made it look like we just happened to be selling a product on the side.
I learned I had to flip that equation around and lead with desire. I needed to lead with this beautiful thing that would make people say, "I love that. I want that. What is that?" Instead of leading with the cause or shaming the use of plastics, we got people to covet this gorgeous, useful product. We take the guilt away because we're giving back to charities, ultimately helping customers create impact and change by taking simple steps in their daily lives.
What is your most memorable make-or-break moment?
Early on, when I was just getting started, I got a call from an editor at Oprah's magazine, O, who loved our bottles. She asked me to send every color we had for a photo shoot. I only had Ocean Blue, the original bottle. They were all stored in my apartment. She said, "well, that's a problem, because it's a summer issue and colors look really good on the page. Why don't you call me back when you have more colors?"
I could have seen this as an obstacle, but I was undeterred. I went across the street to a Barnes & Noble, bought a Pantone book, picked out an additional five colors plus silver, and called the manufacturer. It was a long shot, and there was no guarantee I'd even be featured, but I was driven to make the impossible possible. We wound up getting a lot of positive attention because of that Oprah article, but more than anything it inspired a lot of people to take action and try the product out.
How would you describe the guiding principles that drive your brand onward?
At S'well we aim to create products that are beautiful, sustainable and charitable.
With over 200 designs and countless limited-edition collections, people first gravitate to S'well for its beautiful design. But beyond its aesthetic, they realize that the product is incredibly hard working, keeping drinks hot or cold for long stretches. They also can feel good about their purchases knowing that they are contributing to environmental impact. We work with charities like (RED), UNICEF USA, and BCRF (Breast Cancer Research Foundation). We also make sure we're proud of every corporate partnership we enter into.
This philosophy guides our organization in all aspects - from the work, innovation and strategy to the people and culture.
What kind of advice do you have for other entrepreneurs looking to build their own modern legacies?
My advice: Look for the opportunity in every obstacle. I've had moments where I think this is it, this is the end. But the interesting thing is somehow we've always been able to get through it, and that has built resiliency, both in myself and throughout the organization. We know that we can get through this new thing because there was an even bigger hurdle a year ago, or three years ago, and it didn't hurt us or slow us down.
In fact, sometimes I think those hurdles come for a reason, because they need to slow you down, or teach you something, or show you a hole in your process before something even bigger is coming.