01 Jun 2016
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How Do I Get Your Job?

Talking entrepreneurship with S’well bottle founder Sarah Kauss (MBA 2003)
Re: Sarah Kauss (MBA 2003)
by April White

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Sarah Kauss (MBA 2003) is the founder and CEO of S’well reusable water bottles, beloved by everyone from the Kardashians to TED Conference attendees. HBS student Ollie Wilson (MBA 2017) is already at work at the Harvard i-lab on his first entrepreneurial venture. Here, one entrepreneur asks another for advice on that aha moment, the HBS network, and keeping your perspective.

OW: After graduation you went into real estate. What made you want to make the leap to entrepreneurship?

SK: I always wanted to start and run a company, but I hadn’t had that aha moment. I decided to make the leap when I couldn’t stop thinking about a reusable water bottle. If I didn’t do it, someone else would do it first, and I would kick myself later on. I thought S’well could be the first hydration accessory that people would want to use because of what it looks like or how it functions.

OW: Once you came up with your idea, what steps did you take to validate it?

SK: I wish I could say that I hired consultants and did a focus group, but honestly, it was my HBS friends. We’d sit around the pool talking about price point, packaging, colors. I wanted to make a product that I would buy and that my friends would buy.

OW: I’m sure it wasn’t all smooth sailing in the early months or years. Were there any moments where you thought, this is not going the way I want it to?

SK: Now we do millions and millions of units a year, but back when volumes were small, one full container of product would be everything I would have to sell for a quarter. And I had an entire container of goods that came damaged. I had to call up the customers who I fought so hard to get and say, “I’m so sorry.”

I keep a business journal where I write down my challenges and also my successes. It’s a five-year journal, so I can see what happened five years ago today, four years ago, three years ago, all on the same page. It helps me put things in perspective. Every year when I get back to that story, I remember that we got through it. Even though at the time these things seem like the worst thing ever, they really made us a stronger company.

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OW: How did your aha moment come about? Was it an active process of brainstorming or something that just came to you in the street?

SK: It was a combination. I was actively thinking about business ideas, always keeping it in my mind when I was shopping or talking to people or looking at business models.

At my five-year HBS reunion, I went to a presentation on the water crisis. Afterward, I read everything I could on the water crisis. I thought it would be hard to turn it into a for-profit business, but I thought somehow people needed to know about it and what could be done.

And then came the aha moment: I was hiking in the desert with my mother on a very hot day, drinking out of a water bottle that wasn’t keeping things cold. Suddenly, I thought if I made a better water bottle I could use that product as a way to tell people about the billion people in the world who didn’t have access to that water.

So it took a long time, and then it was actually quite sudden.

OW: What do you want your customers to derive when they buy and use the S’well bottle?

SK: In the beginning, I really wanted everyone to know about our charity partners and the water crisis. If you looked at one of our early websites, it would look like we were a nonprofit. Now I want customers to have an emotional connection with a very beautiful, well-made product that works and then educate them about these issues. It took a real pivot for me—a real U-turn—to understand that I couldn’t shame customers into feeling bad about past decisions. I could only give them a product that made them feel really great about what they’re doing now.

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