BGBS 035: Sarah Kauss | S’well | What Would You Do If You Could Not Fail?
Founder and Chairwoman of S’well, Sarah Kauss created a new product category when she fused fashion and water bottles. Her business was birthed from a passion to find a way to combat single-use plastics and has now sold over 20 million products since launching. S’well is a brand that my family and I use and as I interviewed Sarah, I had my sleek white S’well on my desk. Sarah has been recognized as a Fortune 40 under 40 honoree and EY Entrepreneurial Winning Woman, while S’well has been named the #1 fastest growing women-led company by Women Presidents Organization. S’well has also received the brand design award from INC magazine and is sold at places such as MOMA and Bloomingdales in New York City. Find out how Sarah has built a global lifestyle brand that is giving back.
Is your water bottle making the world a better place to live?
What we’re talking about
- Creating A Business Based On Passion & Purpose
- Hearing “No” As A Challenge & Pivoting Along The Way
- A Product That Is Literally Changing The World
Creating A Business Based On Passion & Purpose
Sarah had dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur one day, as both of her parents were, but she didn’t feel she had the idea or confidence to do so early on. The aha moment came to her on a mountainside and asked herself what she could create that would tie all of her passions together…fashion, women’s empowerment, and sustainability. The answer was a reusable water bottle. She hadn’t thought the idea of a water bottle was big enough, but combining it with her passion for climate change and understanding mankind’s impact on the planet and how that impact was affecting the climate and other people.
Armed with an idea and a paperweight from her dad which said, “What would you do if you could not fail?,” Sarah decided she would create accidental activities. Sarah created a product for herself and started a marketing plan that was aimed for consumers like her. She was able to rely on her corporate experience as a CPA for Ernst & Young as a resource in finances and utilized her worldview based on her skills and experiences prior to becoming an entrepreneur.
Sarah wanted the design of the S’well bottle to be old fashioned and without bells and whistles. Although her focus was on fashion, she wanted it to be something everyone could use. It took some trial and error to get it right, but after being a consumer for a long time and being observant of other companies, she became a student of the world and understood what the bottle should look like.
Before S’well got its name, it was called Can’t Live Without It. The marketing team laughed at that and together, came up with Swell. Attorneys rejected that and a friend suggested adding the apostrophe in order to have it registered. And the history of S’well began.
Hearing “No” As A Challenge & Pivoting Along The Way
S’well isn’t a water bottle, it’s a hydration fashion accessory. The first website Sarah created was mission focused. Her hope was that people would feel as passionate about making an impact as she did, but it had the opposite effect. People would visit the website and feel bad about themselves and leave. Sarah knew she had to pivot and turn it into a fashion website that was beautiful, change the copy, and have people want to spend time on the site and ultimately buy the product that would in turn do something good for the planet.
A Product That Is Literally Changing The World
S’well products have saved over 4 billion single use water bottles in the last ten years and isn’t stopping anytime soon. With consumers looking to brands to bring a more thoughtful approach, this small step leads to a much bigger impact. Sarah loves the feeling she gets when looking at the S’well bottle and knowing the love and care that has gone into the creation of the product, brand, and company. Knowing the assets, steps, photography that goes into creating this product, makes Sarah appreciate it even more.
What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
- 36:43 – 37:36 (53 sec SK) – Bloomingdales said no…great partner and really fun to work with now.
- 9:30 – 10:04 (34 sec SK) – I was living in New York City for awhile…more impact overall.
- I was underestimating the size of the market when I created S’well. SK
- When you force it, it just doesn’t come. SK
- Any situation you’re in, there’s something to be learned. SK
- Even if it’s a bad experience, there’s something you can learn that you’ll do different in your venture. SK
- I needed that fire in my belly to sell, sell, sell in the early days. SK
- In order to further your mission you have to backup forward facing from it. MG
- If there’s a way for me to turn this upside down and make a product that’s beautiful and by the way, works better than anything….it could lead to more action and impact overall. SK
- You have to start somewhere. All little steps have the opportunity to grow if you just put your mind to it. SK
- Tiny steps grow from support of customers, collaborations and others. SK
- Each one of our products is like one of my favorite children. SK
- I still get really excited about our company and our product even this many years and products in. SK
- I wanted to create accidental activists. SK
- We aren’t a water bottle, we’re a hydration fashion accessory. SK
Sarah Kauss 0:02
I hired an accountant to come like set up my QuickBooks file, which was like the backbone of my whole system, you know, for the first number of years and sat down and he’s like, okay, bring me all the bank statements, and I’ll set up the file and get you started. And he goes, No, I told you all the bank statements, and I said, No, this, this is all the statements. And he just looked at me and he’s like, how much is the rent of this apartment because you actually have less money in the bank.
And then you have to pay rent on the space that we’re sitting right now. And of course, I showed him underneath the table. I had all this inventory that was sort of underneath the kitchen table. And I said, Well, that’s fine. I’ve already pre purchased all the inventory for the next six months. I just have to be motivated to get out and sell it. And he’s he’s looked at me and he’s like, but you could get a real job like you don’t have to keep doing this.
Marc Gutman 0:55
This is the Baby Got Back story podcast, we dive into the story. Behind the story of today’s most inspiring storytellers, creators and entrepreneurs, I like big backstories and I cannot lie. I am your host, Marc Gutman, Marc Gutman, and on today’s episode of Baby Got Back story. How a kid from Florida created a completely new category by fusing fashion and water bottles is a way to battle single use plastics and sold millions of units in the process. All right, all right. Now if you like and enjoy the show, please take a minute or two to rate and review us over at iTunes.
iTunes uses these as part of the algorithm that determines ratings on the apple charts and ratings help us to build an audience, which then helps us to continue to produce the show. Better yet, why don’t you go ahead and share the show with a friend who you think might enjoy listening. Today’s episode we are talking to Sarah Kauss, founder and Chairwoman Well bottle swirl is best known for has now become their iconic fashionable water bottle.
They’re getting into other related products, complimentary bottles and tumblers cutlery, snack containers and other travel related vessels. And so on was one of those brands that I personally use, and I had no prior connection to other than being a happy customer. Prior to this interview, the sleek white swell sits on my office desk every day, and our family each has our own color specific swell from when we’re at home.
Sarah is you’re about to hear built the company from the ground up is a bootstrap venture. This July 2020. They will celebrate their 10 year anniversary herculean achievement for any business, let alone startup. Sarah has been recognized as a fortune 40 under 40 honoree and he why entrepreneurial winning woman While swell has been named the number one fastest growing woman led company by the woman presidents organization, and honored with the brand Design Award by ink magazine.
The bottle has become such a recognizable design that their products are sold at the MoMA museum store in New York City. As an entrepreneur and advocate, Sara is building a global lifestyle brand that gives back. She currently sits on the UNICEF USA New York Regional board and is a member of the 2018 class of Henry Crowne fellows within the Aspen Global Leadership Network at the Aspen Institute. And this is her story.
So Sarah, preparing for this interview. It really got me thinking about the first time a water bottle meant something to me. And so when I was a young kid, my grandfather had given me these National Geographic books and the one book that I would stay up late night reading was about His family that went backpacking and I just loved that I thought everything was so cool my family didn’t backpack so it was such this like different kind of experience and it was never really talked about it but the one piece of gear that was always like omnipresent every photograph was this like Nalgene water bottle and it was like the milk carton white plastic but the blue lid had always a coveted that water bottle you know I I didn’t even get what I don’t think until I was in college.
But it made me feel like an adventure. It made me feel like a backpacker. Like I was some sort of mountain near Do you remember the first time a water bottle meant something to you?
Sarah Kauss 4:37
That’s an interesting question. The first time a water bottle meant something to me you know I think for me, the first time a water bottle meant something to me it was when I saw so many people using the single use plastic bottles you know i i went to school in Boulder and always carried a reusable bottle but I don’t think that the bottle I carried had any type of meeting, Just the fact that it was reusable and I think that when you asked me that question, the first thing that really comes to mind, are these crystallizing moments where I’d see people you know, clutching on to their, their single use plastic bottle and and just really having not such a positive reaction to it.
Marc Gutman 5:16
Yeah. And so what was it about and when did you first become aware that that single use plastic was something bad? I mean, I remember for the longest time, I just didn’t know.
You know, I would use a single use plastic bottle. I thought that’s how you bought water or whatever. And I didn’t know it wasn’t like, intuitive. I had to be taught. Do you remember the first time that that really hit home for you?
Sarah Kauss 5:38
I think the first time it really hit home for me was I was on a family vacation in Peru and we were on fairy world boat ride about an hour and a half from civilization, in a canoe with a motor going to sort of an eco preserve and it was absolutely gorgeous and beautiful and The fish and the being a dolphin.
And you it is as gorgeous as you can imagine. And then when you really focused in on the banks of the river, you could see floating water bottles, you know, floating pieces of plastic. And, you know, this is as remote as the place that I had been at that point in my career. And I was taking pictures and next thing I knew, I found myself taking pictures of floating trash instead of the beauty of the landscape because I was so Godsmack by it.
Marc Gutman 6:29
How old were you at that time?
Sarah Kauss 6:31
Oh, I was probably in my early 30s
Marc Gutman 6:36
Yeah. And so you’re seeing all this plastic and is that when you resolve to do something about it, or it was well already in existence?
Sarah Kauss 6:46
You know, I think swell was in existence in my mind for a while, you know, I was a bit of a restless soul. I wanted to start a company. I didn’t think I had a big enough idea. I was reading a lot about the global water. crisis and about, you know how almost a billion people at the time on the planet didn’t have access to clean water.
I was very passionate about climate change and trying to understand how how, you know, mankind’s impact on the planet was, you know, having an impact on on climate change and how that is affecting populations. So sort of thinking and reading and thinking about trends.
You know, at the same time that in my career, I was unsettled and thinking like, what can I do about it? And you know, is there a product or company that could solve some of this? So I think I was thinking about swell for a long time until it really crystallized and became a company and a product and a mission for me. But I think for me, personally, I kind of had to percolate on it for a number of years until it kind of came out in the manifest manifestation of the company that that became.
Marc Gutman 7:46
Yeah, and it’s such an interesting thought to me, because those are some big challenges you just listed those are big problems. And so, you know, there’s a story that when I was doing research for this interview about your dad, who gave you a paperweight And on that paper where I thought that was so cool. He said, I’m looking for a note here.
Sarah Kauss 8:07
What would you do if you could not fail?
Marc Gutman 8:09
Right? And so that is such a big idea. Such a big challenge, hey, I want to take on the environment. Like how did you think that you could do that by starting a water bottle company?
Sarah Kauss 8:21
You know, I kind of thought that if I could create accidental activists, so if you know, I, I was an activist, but I wasn’t necessarily a dark green tree hugger. You know, I was buying fashionable, you know, handbags and shoes and dresses. And if I could create a product that was an itch thing that people would want and covet, because other people were buying it or because it was in fashion magazines, and sort of turned the conservation piece upside down, and actually create a product that looked better work partner did something for you, or your You know, your your feeling of self then I could could potentially get more people to adopt and use the product and then become activists you know for the planet and for the mission because you know I realized that there were already so many reusable bottles on the planet you mentioned the Mowgli bottle which is a great product right ubiquitous and I went to school in Boulder and everybody was you know walking around carrying one of those the carabiner to your backpack, but then you pull out and you you know, I was I was living in New York City for a while and you see fashionable people pulling out you know, a single use plastic bottle out of their their fancy handbag or briefcase or you know, backpack and so I thought if there’s a way for me to turn this upside down and make a product that’s beautiful and by the way, works better than anything else with you know, insulating properties, keeps it hot and cold, whatever, by the way more people will adopt it and happenstance do better for the planet. So I think that was sort of the insight that I thought would sort of lead to more adoption and then more impact overall.
Marc Gutman 10:04
I just got caught up. I think I’ve been pronouncing Nat going wrong, apparently the whole time the whole life. So that’s a good, that’s a good lesson right there. I like that. Thank you for graciously informing me without correcting me on my own show. But I’ll admit that I was. I’m being corrected here. I like that. And so what I really heard in that was that you were looking around and you just felt underrepresented. You didn’t feel like there was anything like you out there, addressing this need that I get that right.
Sarah Kauss 10:34
That’s right. I think I was under estimating the size of the market when I started swell, but I really created a product for myself, assuming that if there was a spot in the market that would that could fulfill the need that I had for a product. There were many other people like me, or you know, a pivot to the right or left of me, but I don’t think I was really thinking, you know, how hard Just the ocean when you stand and look at it from the shore, you know, I don’t think I realized when I was starting the company how big of a mission and a vision we we couldn’t should have. I was really just starting small thinking, why don’t I see if I can make something for myself and market to people like me?
Marc Gutman 11:16
Yeah. And I think like, I don’t know about you. But you know, I think if I think of those big things upfront, I might not even do them. You know, it might be so big. That it’s overwhelming. Yeah,
Sarah Kauss 11:26
it’s overwhelming and then you don’t get started. Exactly.
Marc Gutman 11:29
So it sounds like that you have led a life of activism of environmentalism. Were you always this way? I mean, was eight year old Sarah, you know, growing up in Florida, were you were you an environmentalist at a young age?
Sarah Kauss 11:44
You know, I was I was, you know, what my parents raised me in such a way that, you know, I was I was a girl scout and you take the oath of, you know, making the world a better place wherever you go. And, you know, when we would take a boat ride, we would, you know, pick up plastic, you know, From the ocean that we would see bobbing along or, you know, we would go for a walk at the beach and instead of picking up shells, we would, you know, pick up things.
You know, we were the first people to recycle on our block before they had curbside pickup. And, you know, one of my girl scout projects was making our local camp more accessible to two handicap girls. So they also could be experienced, you know, the outdoors. So, you know, I really thank my parents for sort of instilling in me at a very young age, you know, just sort of the community spirit and you know, how to how to view the world. I grew up in a small town, so there, there weren’t a heck of a lot of you know, distractions anyway.
So you know, going for a hike or going for a walk seemed like the biggest adventure you could be having, but I felt my parents really took the time to use that backdrop of our town or our experience to really teach my brother and myself a lot of lessons along the way. So I’m pretty fortunate in that aspect. And we’re the
Marc Gutman 12:59
entrepreneur. I mean, I love that story about your dad that paperweight like that’s just like, you know, yeah, I don’t have paperweight for my dad, by the way, like, I wish I did like, not not that story. Love you, dad. But But I mean, I mean, that seems like a great teaching lesson, a very strong presence in your life. Was it was your father or your mother entrepreneurial? I mean, were there they role models for you?
Sarah Kauss 13:23
Yes. So my parents actually were both entrepreneurs growing up so my mom had her own business and it was an ice cream store. And not only did she you know, own and manage and run the ice cream store, but she drove the ice cream truck and, you know, for Easter, she would actually dress up late as the Easter Bunny and bring you a bunny cake to make sure that you know, she had all of our sales numbers, you know, for that month.
She used to joke around that she thought she’d be she’d be buried with rocky road on her arms from making cakes. And then my dad was an entrepreneur as well super hard worker and, and owned and managed a carwash Gas Station sort of a mini Plaza and in Florida for for nearly 40 years I just recently sold it so my parents were both small business owners and and really instilled in myself you know growing up just sort of the spirit of you know, hard work and can do ism, you know, and you know, being around them both was was definitely part of you know, who I was when I grew up and you know, became a business woman.
Marc Gutman 14:27
Yeah. And I have to imagine that having both those strong role models in your life that the idea of owning your own business at least you know, was planted as a seed all throughout your, your early and formative years. Did you try going into a normal career as they would say, or were you right from the get go you focused when you went to CU Boulder? Were you like, I’m going to be an entrepreneur?
Sarah Kauss 14:51
Well, I always thought I would be an entrepreneur, entrepreneur, but i don’t know that i i don’t know that i had the idea or I don’t know that I necessarily had the competence. You know, I love With these stories of these, these young people that you know, their first job, you know, either they drop out of school or their first job out of school is starting a business. I don’t think that I was I was ready for that straight out of school.
So I took a real job, I took a day job, I took a bit of a windy path to, to starting swell, but you know, my, my first, you know, job or career out of Boulder was, I became a CPA and I worked at Ernst and Young and I did audit and I did tax and I learned a lot that people were nice, but it was terrible. It was just an absolutely, it wasn’t where I was meant to be. It wasn’t creative.
And, you know, there wasn’t, you know, what I what I’m doing today, but when I really look back on it, it was absolutely essential for me to have an understanding of accounting and finance, you know, know my way around the numbers, really understanding so many different industries like my clients were everything from media, financial services, consumer products, your hospitals. Something like manufacturing, so I got to get in and out of a lot of businesses, you know, in my early 20s you know, instead of just sort of taking a typical day job and getting to see one industry, I got to see all kinds of things is as much as you know, becoming an accountant wasn’t really fitting for myself. And, you know, my, my overall skill set of, you know, what I wanted to do with my career.
Marc Gutman 16:23
Yeah, and I love you know, a bit of your path and we can talk about this but you know, you grew up in Florida, you you decide to go see some of the world and you you know, even if you lived anywhere in between there, but you go to Boulder to university, you go to Ernst and Young, and it says here that, you know, you’ve you’ve lived in, you know, Denver and Los Angeles, and then you take that that work experience and you decide to go to Harvard and to go get your MBA and again at this point, are you like, I’m going to start a business or is it more like hey, I just know I want to be in business and to further my career. I need to you know, go get my MBA.
Sarah Kauss 16:59
You know, when I was working at at our sweet young at Ely, which has been renamed in Los Angeles, before I went to business school, most of my clients were entrepreneurs. And so you know, I would do the hard work and get their financial packages together and bring them their audit work. And then I would sit down and say to them, like, how did you get to where you are, you know, what’s your background? How can I become you instead of, you know, basically doing your accounting?
And one of the common themes that they seem to have was, you know, a business background and further business education. And so, as much as I didn’t know how to just sort of one day wake up and become, you know, a great business person, I thought, two years of Business School, which certainly allow me to be exposed to, to more people to more ideas, and give me the gift of time to really try to think about, you know, myself and my skill set and also the world and in what I might contribute and what type of a company I might start. So, really, Business School is more of a filibuster to try to figure it out.
Kind of a place to hang out for a few years to try to find that aha moment that that, you know, launched my career. You know, unfortunately, when I was in business school, you know, the economy had a bit of a downturn, September 11 happened when I was there, there weren’t a lot of jobs. It was a bit of a scary time to graduate with a lot of debts. And so I wound up sort of just taking a job after school for a few years until I could, you know, come up with some idea, you know, to start swell.
Marc Gutman 18:29
What was that job?
Sarah Kauss 18:30
Oh, gosh, I first were a year worked for the school. I work for Harvard for a year, they had a bit of a, a wonderful program for wayward souls that couldn’t find a job. So I stayed at the school for a year. And I actually worked for the now Dean in the Leadership Initiative, sort of reading and writing leadership paces and doing some like internal consulting for the school and then from there, I wound up getting into commercial real estate development of all things and I work for a publicly traded REIT that builds science buildings and laboratories. And I stuck there for about five or six years, doing these large public private partnerships between sort of cities and, and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
It was very entrepreneurial in that every project had its own stakeholders, its own, you know, p&l, its own set of employees or consultants. So even though the underlying theme was, you know, real estate or, you know, science building, the neat thing was my company had a fair amount of confidence in me and sort of let me go, sort of one run some projects on my own in a very entrepreneurial way, which I think finally gave me that dose of confidence and that little bit of a kick in the pants that that you know, I probably had probably had what I needed to go start my company Finally, I didn’t need to keep taking jobs, you know, for promotion, working for others.
Marc Gutman 19:53
Yeah, not so cool. And I think you know, I meet a lot of entrepreneurs and mentor entrepreneurs myself, and you know, I think there is this misconception You have to do it right out of school or go to an entrepreneur, ship track at university and then get right into it. And I think that there’s something really powerful about your story in your experience of going out and forming your own worldview and kind of figuring out what it is you care about and learning all these different skills and you know, on somebody else’s dime while you’re making a salary also with someone else’s momentum, because as you know, as an entrepreneur, it’s like really hard to get momentum.
And so, I mean, I think that there’s something just really really powerful in that and a lesson to be learned for listeners and that you know, you don’t have to you know, start some fabled business the second you get out of school or the second you even decide you have an idea. You know, there are different ways of getting there.
Sarah Kauss 20:47
That’s great advice. I oftentimes give other entrepreneurs that same advice as well. And I would say add to that is just be patient with yourself because I you know, I was not very patient with myself when I was so frustrated when I wasn’t coming with the idea of I was, you know, but I think that, you know, when you try to force it, sometimes it just doesn’t come.
But you know, I also like to say, you know, just, as you mentioned, learn on someone else’s dime, but but also, just in any, any situation you’re in, there’s something to be learned. I mean, there’s some if it’s either from a functional perspective or leadership perspective, even if you’re in a position that there isn’t good leadership or either isn’t good, you know, even if it’s a bad experience, there’s something so positive that you can learn when you start your own venture, you’re just going to do it completely differently. Right. So I think that’s great advice.
Marc Gutman 21:32
Yeah. And so you’re you’re getting experience you’re working in some cool businesses. Where did the idea first well first come about?
Sarah Kauss 21:40
It was that little literal, you know, aha moment on a mountainside. So I was working pretty much non stop when a by character flaws is you know, when I put my mind to something I, I can’t I can’t do it in moderation. And so even though I was working for someone else’s business, I was working all the time, and my My my mom said listen I’m having a mini intervention I’m taking you away for a vacation weekend a three day weekend and we’re going to go hiking and we’re going to have spa day and you know we’re just going to kind of get out in the world and talk and literally hiking with my mom on a hot day in Arizona.
And I took a sip of water out of a stainless steel single walls kind of a cheap bottle that they gave us there at the at the hotel. And it just came to me I literally had to get out of my day to day life and and be on the side of a mountain and drink warm water and I thought all of the things I’m passionate about right now are the from the environment to you know women movement empowerment and you know, thinking about you know, access to clean water and you know, sustainability and you know and fashion and all that was just literally just popped into my head I thought what if I created a better water bottle, and then from that moment on, you know, for the last 10 years as well Bolton turn 10 that summer I that’s the that’s the sole mission and focus I’ve had in my life.
Marc Gutman 23:05
And it’s interesting to think about and if you could take us back and think about what was the environment in terms of water bottles like back then like What did it look like because now like there’s probably no better time to be a water bottle consumer you know? There’s so many choices like you can get a fashionable swell water bottle now but you couldn’t then what like what did that what did the market look like when you’re when you started doing your research?
Sarah Kauss 23:30
So there were a lot of bottles on the market, great, great companies that made you know, fine products, but it was more of a camping accessory. When you think about what the bottles look like or where you would purchase them or how they were designed. The products on the market were more functional, they were more you’re going to the gym and this is your bottle with a sports top you are going camping overnight and here’s your you know your bottle with a carabiner that you wasn’t necessarily a product that would be sold in a fashion store or you would buy to express your personality.
It was more of just sort of a widget that that solved a need. And so, you know, as I, as I mentioned previously, like I was really thinking about creating a new product, but really creating a new category for that product and not even bother with the current competition, because I wasn’t looking to compete. I was looking to actually create something entirely new and change customers, actual experience and behaviors by creating something that looked differently and work differently.
So no, I wrote a two page, you know, embarrassing business plan. But I basically said, you know, we’re going to be the partner of fashion week we’re going to be the partner of the TED conference. We are going to be sold in Bloomingdale’s and, and Saks Fifth Avenue, and we’re going to be this coveted it thing. And that wasn’t that wasn’t the current market for any of the water bottles. They were just, you know, carry Water for your hike in the mountains. And what was
Marc Gutman 25:03
your relationship with fashion at that time? I mean, you’ve mentioned that a bunch that seems to be a pivotal component of the perspective of swell like what what was your relationship to fashion
Sarah Kauss 25:13
you know, I like to think I’m a fashionable person but I’m really not I’m really not I’m generally wearing a dress and pearls and I’m pretty conservative I’m but I love to follow fashion and, and I really thought that the way that I could launch a product without a consumer products background and without a marketing background, and quite honestly, without any budget, was to hook a product into the fashion cycle or the sight guys of people’s wants and needs.
And so I thought, you know, try to get earned media to try to get you know, women’s fashion magazines or partners, you know, with with fashionable, you know, people and brands that that would be a way to hook my product into kind of a bigger stream that would allow it to sort of click Catch on instead of just making something putting on the shelf and then trying to market it.
So when I say fashion, what I’m really trying to express is, is sort of, like how did I sort of hitch myself to something that was was bigger than my product? And how did I kind of take something and put it into sort of a different stream? So people would think about it differently.
Marc Gutman 26:23
Wow. Yeah. And that like strategy that that approach is just this like really beautiful combination of the magical and the logical, you know, you really thought it through you know, the magical being your product and the hangman to create a category but the logical like how you’re going to go out and distribute it really interesting and really intentional, which, which I just don’t hear a lot from either first time entrepreneurs or, you know, bootstrapped startups like yourself,
Sarah Kauss 26:48
but I think part of it just came with age and experience. And so I didn’t start swell until, you know, in my role I was in my early 30s. And so I think it just took me Being a consumer for a long time and being really observant of other companies and other brands and just you know, being a student of the world I think that’s, you know, as much as I was frustrated that I didn’t come up with the idea, you know, decades ago and you know, I’m not long retired and still working really hard.
I don’t know that we would have been so successful if I if I didn’t have some, you know, you know, twists and turns in my career and some, you know, some gray hairs when I started the company.
Marc Gutman 27:33
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So you had this great idea. You wrote a two-page business plan, which is very impressive. And, you know, you had this theory and that you were gonna hook up with, you know, Fashion Week and other you know, use that as a way to pull you through. Is that the way it works? Like how did you actually start so you have this idea like, how’d you get you know, start how’d you get your first bottle
Sarah Kauss 29:00
It was messy, you know, it was it was things did not just jump off the page and into the stores, you know, it was trying to talk to people in my network, you know, trying to figure out, you know, how do you make a website? How do you come up with a brand name? How do you make a product? How do you find a factory?
So there were there were a lot of sort of twists and turns. I think the one thing that I did though, was just take a lot of people out for lunch, a lot of people out for coffee, you know, try to just explain the best I could, you know, what I was trying to do and just ask for help for the things that I didn’t know. And you know, of course now, I understand how to make and launch a product but there are a lot of a lot of things that took 10 times longer in those early days because it was also new to me
Marc Gutman 29:48
was the like, was the design of the bottle was that that we see today the classic swell bottle was that in your mind when you envision it in Arizona, or how did that come about?
Sarah Kauss 29:58
You know that actually came about is that I wanted to make something really old fashioned. I wanted something that didn’t have any bells and whistles, I wanted it to be sort of, you know, not just for that fashion girl, but I wanted it to be for everyone. And so you know, one of the things that I kept coming back to for a very short period in my life growing up, we actually had milkman delivery, and didn’t work out it was a startup, but my parents wanted to support another small business in our town.
And, you know, for a period of time in my life, we actually had someone that came in, you know, delivered, you know, milk and cheese into a cooler on on our front porch. But when the company went out of business, they just left us with those milk bottles. And so one of the things that I thought about was like, how do you create something as iconic as the original, you know, milkman, but how do you do it in a way that’s like a very beautifully designed product that would be, you know, fitting to sit on the shelves, you know, at the MoMA store where we’re sold in New York.
And so I worked with them with a freelancer and a design team in New York to really take idea and put it on paper and then from paper to, you know, to CAD to, you know, 3d prints and then to a product. But there was a lot of pantomiming along the way, like, could it be taller? Could it be shorter? You know, do I have a friend that has a baby that could try to put it in their stroller to make sure it fits? Do I have them? Do I have a friend that has, you know, a different type of car that we could try it out in so that we there wasn’t a lot of like real, you know, in home consumer user testing and things like that, you know, in those or early days and things that we do now. But it was more just sort of kind of using my gut of what I thought the product should look like.
Marc Gutman 31:36
Do you remember the very first prototype you ever received? I mean, it didn’t look like the bottle that looks now or was it a heartbreaking story?
Sarah Kauss 31:45
Well, it was. It was a heartbreaking story. It was it was pretty bad. But I still remember it coming and I asked friends to be around me when I opened it and we all kind of looked at it and no one wanted to say that my baby was ugly, but we all kind of Looks at each other like, Oh, no.
It wasn’t perfect in the beginning. I’ll tell you that.
Marc Gutman 32:07
Yeah, and what it How were you as an early leader were you like, like, I know me like I, if I if I opened up that bottle and it was just misshapen or just wasn’t living up, I would be crushed, you know, and probably take me days to rebound and and some people are obviously much more resilient. I we were you like thinking of quitting?
Were you just the type of person that was like, Hey, I can make this better? Like, how did you react to that?
Sarah Kauss 32:31
You know, I would say, Oh, I mean, there were certainly moments in the early days where it’s like, well, maybe this isn’t working out and I used to go do something else. And then you know, I’d go for a walk or call a friend and calm down about it and then say, No, no, actually, I think that there’s a way around this. I think that you know, let’s just give it one more. One more try.
And could we just do this? And so I think it was a little bit of both. Like there was certainly some discouraging moments and thinking gosh, how am i did i think i could do this? And then really thinking it through thinking Ah, maybe maybe that was an knucklehead thing to do, but if I just tried it, you know, one more time, maybe it’ll work out better.
Marc Gutman 33:04
I mean, did anybody ever tell you hey Sarah, this this probably isn’t gonna work out anyone that you respected and oh, yeah, really made you like double
Sarah Kauss 33:12
double think? Yeah, I mean friends family members, I hired an accountant, which is funny that I hired an accountant to come and like set up my QuickBooks file, which was like the backbone of my whole system, you know, for the first number of years and really nice guy and he came over to my apartment was awesome my office at the time and sat down and he’s like, okay, bring me all the bank statements, and I’ll set up the file and get you started. And he goes, No, I told you all the bank statements and I said, No, this this is all the statements and he just looked at me and he’s like, how much is the rent of this apartment because you actually have less money in the bank, then then you have to pay rent on the space that we’re sitting right now.
And of course, I showed them underneath the table. I had all this inventory that was sort of underneath the kitchen table, and I thought, well, that’s fine. I’ve already pre purchased all the inventory. For the next six months, I just have to be motivated to get out and sell it. And he’s he just looked at me and he’s like, but you could get a real job like you don’t have to pay doing this. You know, and we still laugh about that moment. But yeah, I mean, it literally was like, you know, they’re not really any decimal points behind the balance of that first file we set up but you know, it worked out and I think I almost needed that fire in my belly to get out and you know, sell sell sell in those early days. But you know, I had all kinds of people thought this was a real crazy idea.
Marc Gutman 34:32
So what did that like early sales activity look like? Because I’m guessing if I’ve got my timing right, you probably just didn’t go to Facebook and start putting up ads and sit back and watch all the traffic coming in. I mean, were you going door to door and were you just, you know, pounding the pavement so to speak.
Sarah Kauss 34:48
I was Yeah, I was going door to door, walking into stores asking to talk to the buyer. introducing myself. I made a little folder with a little press kit and wrote the copy and paste The pictures and dropped it off. I wrote postcards, old fashioned postcards and put them in the mountains. And I’m Sarah, I’m going to be coming to your store on Tuesday afternoon, keep an eye out for me. Just Just try to have a human connection.
You know, in some cases, people will be very skeptical of the price point. I said, Well, why don’t I just leave them here on the shelf. And if they don’t sell, I’ll come pick them up next Tuesday. And when I pop in the next Tuesday said, actually, you know, we sold half of them you dropped off, maybe we’ll put it in order. So it was great. I mean, I I still keep in touch today with you know, some of those very first stores that that took us in, and I’m still so appreciative of the fact they gave me a chance.
And they taught me a lot. You know, I asked them like, you know, how do you find all these products, all the entrepreneurs couldn’t walk in the door themselves and they said, Oh, we go to trade shows or we have sales reps or you know, so I be just being on the front lines of my own business really allowed me to kind of see what I needed to do to grow and scale. So even though It was not very sexy. And with a lot of hard work it kind of it. It gave me a great education.
Marc Gutman 36:06
And what about those stores that said, No, what was that, like?
Sarah Kauss 36:09
Oh, so frustrating, so frustrating. And what was so frustrating is sometimes stores would say no forever. And then they would call me out of the blue and say, Oh, I was just reading a magazine, I discovered your product. And I’d like to sell it now. And I’m thinking, you discover the product because you have five samples sitting in your back room because I’ve been trying to get in there.
But everybody wanted to kind of, you know, be part of our success, you know, as we were starting to take off so I just let people say, oh, okay, thank you for discovering us. But you know, in some cases, you know, those noes were really just a fun challenge for me like like Bloomingdale’s. Bloomingdale said no for two years and they said we don’t carry water bottles, and I kept saying, but we are not a water bottle. We are a hydration fashion accessory.
And we belong on yourself, shelves, just as much as you know, a scarf, a handbag, a pair of shoes, because we’re Fashion statements and the cool thing about that is when they finally said yes and came around they have been such an incredible partner like we’ve actually had entire window displays in their 59th Street store in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue. We’ve had holiday Windows you know they’ve done custom products with us they’d buy today right like little brown bottle you know like their little brown bag on our bottle.
So you know that perseverance we can laugh about it now as much as I’m like, you know come on guys. This was this was really hard for you to see the light you know, they’ve been they’ve been a great partner and they’re really fun to work with now.
Marc Gutman 37:37
Yeah. And how close to the brand we see today was that original brand was it called swell that did you have the website you know, swell calm like that? Did it look and feel very similar to to what it is today?
Sarah Kauss 37:53
No. So we just recently launched swell calm, we were swell bottle in the early days, even before That we were even a worse name, which was can’t live without it.com. Because I thought that was a great name for a water bottle company. But you know, within the first couple of months we became became swell and bought swell bottle. But the first website was very mission focused, you know, I had, you know, this is a mission driven company and has been from the beginning and I had a bit of a platform where I wanted to tell people about how much plastic was in the ocean.
You know, I wanted, I wanted people to understand, you know, the impact you could have about, you know, using a single use bottle, you know, I basically had statistics on there, like, you know, by 2021, it’s expected that 583 billion single use drinking plastic bottles will be sold and less than two thirds of those would be recycled. You know, I had stats about the water crisis, and you know, people that don’t have access to clean water and the fact that we partner with you know, UNICEF to bring clean drinking water to people in need, and people will come to the website and they would spend about 10 seconds, and then they would feel bad about themselves. And then they would leave the website.
And, and I realized that what I needed to do is sort of turn that upside down and leave with product, I had to have beautiful pictures of the product. You know, I had to be a fashion company, you know, when you looked at the imagery, they couldn’t be pictures, I took myself, you know, I had to get a photographer to take some pictures. You know, I needed to kind of pump up the copy.
And you know, and really have people want to spend time on the site, and I had to have people want to buy the product. And then by the way, they’re doing something good for the planet. And it’s people because they’re doing that. So like if you look in that Wayback Machine, where you can visit websites from a long time ago, like will be a case study of, you know what not to do. But I didn’t know any differently. When I was starting. I just thought all of our consumers would be passionate about all the same things that I was.
Marc Gutman 39:53
Yeah, that’s such an interesting insight into so like, My head’s kind of blowing up a little bit because I think, you know, we We, you know, in our company, we work with purpose driven brands, a lot of people have missions, and it’s core to what they do. But it’s almost in order to achieve your goal and your mission, you can’t lead with your mission.
And that’s a, you know, sometimes it’s just too much to take, like you said, it makes people feel bad about themselves, or, hey, like, I want to help out, but I don’t want to be all in on this, you know, activism, like I want to do my part type thing. And it’s just a really interesting insight hearing you speak and have that realization that sometimes you have to, in order to further your mission, you have to back away from it forward facing a little bit.
Sarah Kauss 40:35
Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. You know, one of the things that I’m feeling really positive right now is, we can embrace the sustainability piece a lot more now. I’d like to take a little credit for it. But I think we can be a little bit more forthcoming on sort of those statistics and the impact, then I could be in the beginning not to say that you know, that fashion and design still isn’t central to what we do. But because sustainability and in sort of just the mindset around sustainability is taking a center stage, we can start to kind of come back to some of that original messaging, still not as green, but you know, kind of.
So I think it’s interesting for brands to kind of think about, like, what are those levers and how you turn them up and turn them down? Depending upon you know, what, what society you know, can handle and and, you know, how do you get your mission in people’s hands, you know, are you focusing on the product? are you focusing on the story?
Marc Gutman 41:32
Yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s so great. And like I said, my head spinning and so thank you for sharing that. Where did the name swell come from? It’s such like a beautifully compact, it’s like one of those names. It’s kind of like a you’re like no, like a like, of course, like what a great name but I’m sure I don’t know if you felt that like when it was first presented. Like where where did that name come from?
Sarah Kauss 41:54
You know, I really wanted something old fashioned and I wanted something that was very positive like something that was happy. be something that makes you feel good. So I work with the design team on building the first website. And they were not asked to come up with a name. I thought I had a great name can’t live without it can’t live without a calm, I purchased it, you know, you can’t live without water, bringing water to people in need, you know, it all made sense. And they asked me, they said, Hey, what are you going to call this company? And I said, well, can’t live without it. And they all just cracked up laughing. And they said, Listen, you’re not a marketer. Why don’t we come up with some names?
Why don’t we come up with the name exploration and, you know, in addition to helping you build out the website, we’ll just name this thing for you because we really want this to be successful? I said, Okay, fine. You know, my ego being a little bit hurt that you know, my name wasn’t good enough, then you know, I started running it by friends and they totally agreed that was a terrible idea.
So they came out with you know, a handful of names and swell was the first one I was really gravitated to. And unfortunately, the attorney said that we couldn’t have it And long story short, a friend of Mind said that he put an apostrophe in the word swell, you know, between the s and the W, it becomes sort of a logo and not a name. And we were able to register it as you know, as a name. So it was a bit of a back and forth between sort of the marketing branding side and the legal side of what you’re allowed to do, and to call it but, but what I love about swell as a name is, you know, it’s not only old fashioned and positive, but there’s so many meetings, you know, there’s like, the whole groundswell of support. And you know, the whole the fact that people say, I need to go find my swell, and it actually becomes an object and object of desire. And it just sort of is it’s part of the personality of the brand.
So I’m glad we stuck to it. I’m glad we were able to make that work, because I think we would be a different company if we were called anything else.
Marc Gutman 43:47
Yeah, I love it. And thanks, man, answering the my burning question about the apostrophe and all sorts of like conspiracy theories, but you answered it and it was perfect.
Sarah Kauss 43:57
It’s hard not to put an apostrophe and everything. We have We launched food containers last year, I called them snack. And you know, we’ve got a whole bunch of other, you know, new products that are coming out and I keep putting us apostrophes in front of everything now, I think it’s part of our magic and my I think my team is kind of looking at me like, Okay, here we go again.
So not all of our products have an apostrophe in them, but some of my favorite ones do.
Marc Gutman 44:18
Yeah, I love it. It’s recognizable. It’s become your brand, which is, which is really all you can ask for. Right?
Sarah Kauss 44:23
Marc Gutman 44:25
That’s cool. So what does swell look like today? So you started 10 years ago. So when is the anniversary Did you have it already? Or is that coming up?
Sarah Kauss 44:34
Well, officially, it’s small. We kind of made up when it’s going to be but we’ve kind of passed it but we’re doing it in July. So we are having our big 10 year anniversary in July.
So coming soon and really just honoring our customers, you know, our customers that have been by our side and have you know joined us on this mission and helped us make such an impact. You know, we’ve together saved over 4 billion single use plastic bottles. In the last 10 years, and that’s a conservative estimate. And we just know that we can do so much more together. So we’re just going to take the whole month of July and it’s honor our customers and say thank you.
Marc Gutman 45:09
Yeah, like how many water bottles have you put out there in the world? Maybe the last we counted with last year, and it was over 20 million. How does that make you feel?
Sarah Kauss 45:20
You know, it makes me feel really proud. You know, I think as an entrepreneur, you’re always you’re always looking at your to do lists, and you’re always, you know, thinking that there’s so much more you couldn’t should be doing. But it makes me incredibly proud. You know, it’s, it’s hard to not run into my products everywhere, you know, on, you know, Netflix movies and TV shows, and, you know, the the war room for putting SpaceX up.
You know, there’s one of those smart engineers sitting there as well, like, it’s hard not to turn on the TV and zero in and see my product in the background. You know, or, you know, really great people that have supported us and You know, put pictures on Instagram and, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s so cool to just kind of see the way that our product has been embraced by our customers and is really out there and in different lives.
So as much as I like to think about, you know, how much more we could and should be doing and, you know, have plans for the future, it just makes me incredibly proud, you know, to think there’s so many of these things walking around, and they’re such a big part of people’s lives.
Marc Gutman 46:25
Totally. And so what, you know, you just mentioned it, what does the future look like for swell?
Sarah Kauss 46:30
You know, what I’m excited about is that right now, there’s such a trend about consumers looking for brands to deliver on a more thoughtful approach to production and commerce. And that, you know, it’s it’s really thinking about how everyone is connected and how all these small steps can contribute to a bigger impact. And so, you know, what we’re finding is that, you know, we’ve just recently announced that we’re a B Corp, and it’s a Really good time because we’re finding that consumers really want to work with a purpose driven brands, you know, they’re willing to try new products from from brands that they know and love, and spend more with those brands, which means that we can actually have a bigger impact on the planet.
One of the things I’m super passionate about right now is just working with some of the biggest companies in the world, as they’re rethinking their supply chains. Because a lot of these big companies, they’ve put out these huge, amazing sustainability goals, but they don’t necessarily know how to how to meet them or reach them. And we’re really the best known reusable container company. And it doesn’t matter what type of you know, food, beverage, you know, you might be making, you need to think about what kind of a reusable container will customers use, adopt, covet, you know, clean and reuse.
And oftentimes, swell is sort of that first call that these these companies or these sustainability teams have these calls companies are making. So I’m finding sort of a real sense of excitement. Me personally, and you know, even within swell of really thinking beyond the products we make right now. But thinking about how we use partnerships to do even more, all around sort of our mission of, you know, getting single use plastics and just less waste in the world.
Marc Gutman 48:24
It’s crazy to think I mean, this all goes back to those moments where you were either hiking in Arizona, or you’re in Peru and looking at, you know, a bunch of dirty bottles in the water.
And you know, and it was just, to me, something that’s so powerful is that was just an idea by Sarah that didn’t exist. It was this like figment of your imagination. And you’ve turned it into reality, which is actually making a difference and impacting the world in a way that you dreamed of. So you turned your dream into your story and Clearly the ending is not written yet. It’s still evolving. But that when you look back that has to make you feel pretty good.
Sarah Kauss 49:08
Yeah, it’s me when you put it that way, it’s it is pretty crazy, but it does, it does make me pretty, pretty proud. It makes me feel pretty good. You know, I think it just shows I mean, you just have to you have to start somewhere, you know, all these, all these little steps have, you know, the opportunity of growing if you just sort of put your, your mind to it, you know, a lot of you know, hard work and tears over over the years, right.
But you know, all these little steps, you know, kind of grow with, you know, support, you know, support from customers, collaborations people with a shared vision. It’s, it’s pretty amazing what can happen if you put your mind to it?
Marc Gutman 49:42
Absolutely. So when you’re holding a swell bottle today, and you’re looking at it, like what’s special about it? Why is that important to you?
Sarah Kauss 49:52
Yep. So what’s special when I see as well as I know how much love and care went into this? Well, so I’m sitting I’m sitting here with one of our travelers right now which is sort of a wide mouth swell. It’s great for for coffee or smoothie I have ice cubes in it but I’m sitting with a design that it’s called Oasis officially but internally we joke around and call it the sound of music bottle because there’s these beautiful mountains and clouds and you know even though I’ll be indoors, most of today on calls, I feel like I’m in a beautiful mountain mountain scape when I’m sitting here with this bottle and I see it and I know the meanings and the conversations and the photography and the assets and the coffee and you know, the 10,000 steps that went into making this product.
I know and I appreciate I know our customers don’t always sort of see see that level of you know, of love and magic with each one. But you know, when I’m when I’m using our product for me, it’s like each one of them is like one of my favorite children. You know, I have a hard time not getting excited when I wake up in the morning and they’re still From the night before, and I think, gosh, if I didn’t know this company, I’d want to write to them because it really works.
You know, so it’s, I still get really excited about, you know about our company and our products, you know, even even this many, you know, years and this many products in.
Marc Gutman 51:15
Yeah, well, thanks for sharing that. If you could see me right now I have a big grin ear to ear. I just loved hearing that I could really feel it. So it wasn’t just that it wasn’t just your words, but yeah, but I could feel it. So thank you. So Sara, as we come to a close here and thank you very much for for sharing your story. If the 20 year old you that that young woman probably at CU Boulder ran into you today. What do you think she’d say?
Sarah Kauss 51:40
You know, I think she’d be proud. I think she would probably tell me that, you know, go to the gym. Try to take myself a little bit less seriously. Try to have a little bit more fun. But I think 20 year old Sarah would be proud that she finally figured it out. You know, you know, I think if I could go and tell her something, I would say kind of Give yourself some time. Be gentle with yourself. You’re going to get there, you’ll figure it out. You know, there’s probably going to be some dead ends along the way, but it’ll all be fine. But yeah, I think I think 20 year old Sarah would would be pretty, pretty glad it all worked out.
Marc Gutman 52:19
And that is Sarah Kauss from swell bottle. What would you do? If you could not fail? Would you take on one of the world’s biggest challenges like single use plastics? Sarah story is a great example of what a single person can do when they put their mind to a big, audacious goal. Will it be easy? No. Will the path be linear? Most likely not. Where the reward is worth the struggle. Most definitely.
If you haven’t seen swell bottles, you can check them email@example.com that’s swell.com. Thank you again to Sarah in the Team at swell keeps saving the world one bottle at a time. Well, that’s the show. Until next time, make sure to visit our website www.wildstory.com where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher or via RSS, so you’ll never miss an episode. I like big backstories stories and I cannot lie, you other storytellers can’t deny.