On a hot day in Arizona more than a decade ago, Sarah Kauss found herself on a hike drinking hot water. It wasn’t pleasant. The moment inspired her to make an insulated reusable water bottle. In 2010, Kauss launched S’well, which sells a line of high-design water bottles with a cult following that brought the company to a $100 million valuation without outside funding. Kauss recently sat down with Inc.‘s Lindsay Blakely in an exclusive Real Talk stream event to talk about her journey and her tips for launching a successful business.
Early on, S’well was featured in Oprah’s magazine, something that Kauss says was invaluable to the brand’s viral success. The coverage was the result of a lot of hustling. Once a week, she went to Barnes & Noble to write down the editors’ addresses for magazines she wanted S’well to be in, and she sent samples two at a time. “I still remember the look on the post-office worker’s face when I handed over that package, and it literally said, ‘Oprah,’ ” she says.
An editor from O, The Oprah Magazine, called right away, says Kauss, and was enthusiastic about the sample bottle, having taken it on vacation. But it almost didn’t get featured, because its color–blue–didn’t look good on the page. “It was really then and there on the phone that I decided that I needed to double down and expand the product line,” she says.
One reason S’well grew so quickly, says Kauss, is that customers didn’t want to purchase just one bottle. “That was a surprise to me, quite honestly,” she says. “Customers really became advocates for the brand and collectors.”
Because a water bottle is a highly visible product on the go, the brand became highly marketable without having to spend much. “It’s not necessarily something that you leave at home, but you take with you to work in school and the gym. And it’s a product that invites conversation so very early on. The story of our brand was really being told and sold organically person to person,” she says.
S’well bottles also make great gifts because their designs are always changing. What’s more, they’re a way for passionate customers with robust collections to share S’well’s mission of sustainability with others.
At the start of 2020, Kauss decided to step down as CEO. “I didn’t want my involvement with the business to ever be the bottleneck, no pun intended, that held us back,” she says. “My value was potentially so much larger to the business being on the outside of the company, looking out, than being internal.” By hiring a CEO, Hugh Rovit, who could get up every day and be excited about the day-to-day operations, she was freed up to think about the company’s vision and mission.