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Seems impossible right? And well, maybe to most it is.
I frequently say, “Starting a company is like climbing a mountain. But creating a new category within an industry — that’s like climbing Everest.”
We climbed Everest when we launched Hint. (Well, not literally.)
You see, two months into launching Hint in stores, I realized something. Customers didn’t understand what an unsweetened water was. And neither did the category buyers who were controlling Hint’s destiny on the store shelves. You see, it’s great to come up with a new idea for a product that has no existing competitor. But know that you’re going to have to educate a lot of people in order to succeed. In my case, it was both the customer and the grocery buyers.
I found a solution to a health problem that had challenged me for years. I hated the taste of plain water. So I had been drinking diet soda for years thinking that it was healthy. Boy was I wrong! When I finally started slicing fruit and throwing the fruit in water, that’s when I realized that I had uncovered the key to great tasting water. Giving water a little hint of flavor. And without sweeteners. Sounds simple enough, right? Yet what I soon realized is that my kitchen concoction wouldn’t be so easy to create. And there might be a reason why no one else had done what I was setting out to do. (And not just because it was difficult to make.)
Soon after I decided to develop Hint, I started sharing my samples with friends – and frankly anyone who wanted to try a product that made water taste better. I soon realized that I was on to something! Parents, kids, so many people actually wanted better tasting water without sweeteners. And more and more, people wanted to know where they could find Hint – “which stores?” they would ask.
I found myself educating people a lot too. While they liked the taste, they also wanted to know what it was sweetened with. Even though the bottle of Hint was clearly labeled, “Unsweetened.” Like me, people didn’t realize the junk they had been putting in their system. Diet this. Vitamin that. Products that were on the shelves in grocery stores all hiding next to water trying to act healthy with a deceptive brand name. Healthy perception versus healthy reality. Tricky words to get the consumer to buy the product on the shelves. Evil that I had been manipulated by as well.
Here’s what I finally realized when Hint made it on the shelves of our first Whole Foods in San Francisco. While not having competition might be an advantage in some ways, it also makes things more difficult. Creating a new product is challenging. Creating a company is super challenging. Creating a new category within any industry is a challenge on a whole new level. You with me so far?
You not only need to educate the consumer, but also the gatekeepers who give you access to the consumer. In our case, it was the buyer at the grocery store who made decisions about what to put on the shelves to sell. Remember: 16 years ago, there was no direct-to-consumer for beverages. And today, DTC might sidestep a gatekeeper, but that still doesn’t eliminate how fast or slow the consumer will embrace the thing you’re telling them they need. It’s new to them, remember.
There is a process for consumers to embrace a new category. They have to discover it. They have to want to learn about it. All of that takes time. This can’t be rushed. And it requires patience on your part as the founder for sure!
In the early days of Hint, we would hand out samples at supermarkets or find events where people could try it. That’s how we found many of our earliest fans of the brand. Most consumers didn’t understand what I was talking about when I described Hint as an “unsweetened flavored water.” They had to fall in love with the taste of Hint before they could fully comprehend it. Those people who did though were the early Hint evangelists — fans who spread the word of the product I had dreamt up. These evangelists who loved “their” new drink. A new category in the beverage industry was slowly building an audience.
Taste is a critical component for food and beverage products, which of course doesn’t apply to other industries like tech. But in many industries, entrepreneurs push to educate the consumer and often try to spend their way to speed up the process. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in most cases. Getting the consumer to listen and see your ads or other marketing is a daunting proposition and takes creativity. Especially when a consumer doesn’t know that they need what you are offering.
So, while developing a new category might be for the craziest of entrepreneurs, here’s why it’s worth it. One of my favorite marketing gurus and category design experts, Christopher Lochhead, recently analyzed the one hundred fastest-growing companies in the U.S. While he found that only 1 in 5 companies were what he deemed “category creators,” those companies accounted for a majority of overall growth for their industry. Creating a category requires one to be bold and fearless, but once the consumer embraces it, the reward will be there.
So, getting back to my original point. Know what you are climbing. Is it a mountain or is it Everest? Both are doable. But knowing how arduous the climb might be is critical. That doesn’t mean you let that stop you, but know that It takes time. And resilience. Curiosity. You’ll need a really sharp pickaxe to cut through your own doubts about whether or not you can make it. Get ready for all the confusion you’ll encounter when you take your trailblazing new product to market – not to mention the skeptics you’ll meet along the way. It will take them time to catch up to what you already visualize and understand. And you’ll need the perseverance to keep putting one foot in front of the other – even after you’ve planted your flag at the peak.
I’m rooting for you! Enjoy the journey.
She has received numerous accolades, including being named EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 Northern California, one of InStyle's 2019 Badass 50, Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business, WWD Beauty Inc.'s Feel Good Force and Fortune's Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs. The Huffington Post listed her as one of six disruptors in business, alongside Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
Previously, Kara was VP of Shopping and Ecommerce at America Online where she helped lead the growth of its shopping and ecommerce business to over a $1 billion in revenue.
She is an active speaker and writer and, in 2017, she launched Unstoppable with Kara Goldin, a podcast where she interviews founders, entrepreneurs and disruptors across various industries. Kara's first book, Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters, published by Harper Leadership, will be released in October 2020.
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