S'well is unlike most other reusable-water-bottle companies. Each season, the New York City-based company releases new limited-edition design collections. By giving its products the fashion and design treatment (while maintaining a message that promotes utility and save-the-world environmentalism), S'well has successfully hit its stride. Last year, the company earned $100 million in revenue.
Kauss was just 35 years old when she launched S'well in 2010. This year, the company ranked No. 99 on the Inc. 5000 list of America's fastest-growing private companies. But unlike Silicon Valley startups, S'well had a secret weapon: Its location.
A proud New Yorker.
"We're based in New York City, and there seems to have been this magic that has happened to S'well because of that," Kauss says. If the company were based anywhere else, it'd have been harder to access the city's immediate benefits of trends, partnerships, networks, and resources.
In the early days, when Kauss was growing the company from her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, she'd call her classmates from Harvard, many of whom moved to the city after graduation, and buy them wings and cheap beer at Brother Jimmy's. She received helpful advice on how to make her product and design a website. For inspiration on what color to pick for the first S'well bottle, Kauss went to the Barnes & Noble that used to be in Columbus Circle and flipped through the Pantone book of colors until she found the perfect "Ocean Blue."
Space for scrappiness.
After hiring her first three employees, Kauss was ready to move out of her apartment. But as a lean startup, she had to rent an office space but couldn't afford to put down a deposit. Luckily, there was WeWork in the meatpacking district.
When S'well grew to 10 employees, a Union Square brownstone--complete with a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling gilded mirror--became available on Craigslist. Kauss would invite fashion buyers from J. Crew and Bloomingdale's to mingle and view the collection after work hours.
"I don't think these brands would've had a warm reception to me if I were lugging a suitcase full of bottles and in town from the suburbs," she says. "That's all New York."
For two years, Kauss worked on getting her products into Bloomingdale's. Full with determination, she'd hop on the subway a couple times a month just to swing by the store and pitch her "hydration fashion accessory." When they finally said yes, Kauss had them come by the brownstone to take a S'well neon sign to display in the store.
"Would I have gotten into Bloomingdale's if I weren't a subway ride away? If I were in the Midwest, I don't think I would've been able to fly back and forth just to get rejected for two years," says Kauss.
A New York-centric design.
"We made a rose-gold bottle two months before Apple started using the color," says Kauss. Her well-designed, double-walled, stainless steel bottles have featured designs by artists like Anna Sui and Richard Haines, and brands like Lilly Pulitzer and Starbucks.
S'well has since expanded to 2,600 outlets across 65 different countries, including specialty shops like the MoMA Design Store and high-end department chains like Nordstrom. Recently, it launched a smaller and cheaper bottle for the mass market to be sold in Target.
"Our employees, they were taking the subway, going to museums and catching the pulse of fashion and trends--we got to see what people are wearing and what they're doing every day," Kauss says. "When I think about how does this all come together, how did we get to where we are today? It's a lot of hard work, but it's also the X factor of New York City."