How to Thrive in a Competitive Industry With No Experience, According to Hint Founder and CEO Kara Goldin

MAKING A CAREER CHANGE IN MIDSTREAM will always be risky, but Kara Goldin is a risk taker. 

In 2005, Goldin, who had previously left her job as VP of shopping and e-commerce at America Online, founded unsweetened flavored-water company Hint. At the time, unsweetened flavored water wasn’t even a category in the beverage industry. Hint eventually became the drink of choice for those who want to avoid soft drinks but find plain water boring. With a valuation above $150 million, the San Francisco-based brand is also wildly popular among employees at Bay Area tech companies.

“We didn’t intend to become the largest beverage in Silicon Valley,” Goldin says, adding that Google’s decision to stock Hint at its offices led employees who’d left to start their own companies to do the same.

Samantha Ettus has Hint-level ambitions, but she’s not your typical startup founder. A best-selling author of five books and host of the women-in-business podcast What’s Her Story With Sam & Amy, Ettus has built a career around supporting women who are pursuing their dreams. In 2018, she founded Los Angeles-based payments company Park Place Payments with the goal of transforming how financial services are sold to small businesses. She got the idea after speaking at a payments conference, where none of the attendees seemed concerned with the needs of small-business owners. Starting the company also presented a new oppor­tunity to create jobs for women.

“The one group of women I couldn’t help were those who’d left the workforce and wanted to get back in but found very few openings,” Ettus says. “I thought, what if I could train this talented group of women to sell financial services to their local businesses?”

Despite having no experi­ence in payments processing, Ettus was determined to bring much-needed change to an industry that wasn’t looking out for its customers. While payments are a far cry from the beverage industry, Ettus can see parallels between the two founders’ experiences. Goldin knows exactly what it takes to break into a highly competitive market–and she has plenty of advice for any female founder who’s trying to pull it off.

Ettus: Tell me about how you built your brand as an outsider coming into a well-established industry. How did you make a name for Hint with tons of players that had huge budgets?

Goldin: As I started to share the story of why I came up with this idea and felt that this category was important for this retailer to put on the shelf, what I realized was that my story was the most powerful thing I could sell with. It’s one thing to have a brand name, but I do believe that consumers and buyers are buying the story. They’re buying your “why.” They may remember the name Hint–it’s a cute four-letter word–but the backstory is how people build the relationship.

Ettus: I was at a payments industry conference 10 years ago and all of my current competitors were trading stories about how they could charge their customers more. I remember thinking, “Why would these people be out to get more from small businesses that don’t have huge margins to begin with?” It struck me that something’s really broken here. Park Place can make payments a pleasant experience, but our challenge is how we get that across to businesses.

“I’d ask people in the industry, ‘Why is it done this way?’ And they’d say, ‘Because it’s always been done that way.’ That’s the worst answer ever. That’s when innovation stops.”–Samantha Ettus

Goldin: In any industry that competes on price, it’s a race to nowhere. There will always be somebody who can cut their price, but at the end of the day, the companies that survive are the ones that are able to get sticky with that customer and offer something more. I think you show everybody that you understand the industry, that it is partially about price, but here are other things that have been pain points for some of our other customers and we were able to solve those problems for them. I think another thing that could be really important is the third-party testimonials of people who have used the product. That is such a power­ful thing, especially if you’ve tried to connect with someone four times and they’re just not responding. It goes back to knowing when you need to bring in another story as a way to actually get them over that hump.

Ettus: It’s a great point, because 40 percent of our customers are in the medical arena. We also have a major league sports team, D.C. United, so we have a wide range of customers, but those who choose us typically value the fact that we’re not just saving them money–we’re also delivering great service. You’ve talked about how you didn’t go just to beverage conferences but also to other industry conferences, and that when you went to beverage conferences, you would say to yourself, “What am I doing here? I’m talking to my competitors as opposed to my customers.” Why was that?

Goldin: Frankly, I felt like my time could be better spent going to places where my customer was. I started to prioritize speaking at confer­ences where there were tech executives, because I thought if I could share the story of how we started getting our product into Google, then maybe there would be other tech companies there that would want to put our product in their micro kitchens as well. So if 40 percent of your business is medical offices, instead of focusing on going to payments conferences, focus on where those customers in medical offices are.

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Ettus: That’s a great idea.

Goldin: If you’re coming as an outsider, you may think you’ve got to get educated by industry people. But what you’ll realize quickly is if you spend too much time getting edu­cated about the industry, then you turn into one of them.

Ettus: I think that when you’re an outsider in an industry, there is this hunger to be around people in that industry so you can absorb stuff. But then, at a certain point, there’s not much more to absorb. When I first started Park Place, people said, “You have to hire people only from the industry, because they’ll be able to fill in all the gaps around you.” But a lot of times, I’d ask people in the industry, “Why is it done this way?” And they’d say, “Because it’s always been done that way.” That’s the worst answer ever. That’s when innovation stops.

Goldin: That’s the challenge for large companies. If you’re the new little guy coming into an industry, you can actually disrupt and innovate, because you’re thinking differently. So it’s important to understand what they’re doing, but then get out of there, because you need to keep your creative juices going. You need to focus on solving the problems. You need to get as close as possible with your customers. If 40 percent of your customers are in the medical community, keep solving problems for those people, and then, sooner or later, you’ll start to grow. And maybe the payments industry will ask you to come speak about how you did it.

Ettus: Finally, what advice can you offer me about pursuing partnerships?

Goldin: One thing I always talk about is borrowing equity from other partners. When we were starting to grow Hint and didn’t have big budgets, we got into the Revlon Fun Run, which is for breast cancer and other health issues. I would see if there’s an event or maybe a pop-up that has some com­munity effect to it where you’re able to show how your system works. When you’re partnering with somebody that has a bigger brand and a louder voice, you don’t have to do the yelling.

From the October 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine

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