CREATING ART IN ITS SIMPLEST FORM
THE STORY BEHIND S’WELL
When you think of a concept or a design, your brain will automatically link it to an art form ; a canvas. When you start thinking outside the box (or the frame in this case) something magical happens. That, in essence is what Sarah Kauss did to water bottles. She turned them into art…and who doesn’t like art ?
Tell us about the birth of S’well.
When I was working in real estate, I always carried a re-usable water bottle. I was encouraged as an undergraduate not to use plastic ; it was part of the culture [I had pledged to follow] since University. It looked like something good for hiking in Colorado, not something to have in a board room, carrying around in your designer handbag. I was working in real estate, I hadn’t taken a vacation for a long time. I decided to take time off and went on a retreat with my mother. We were hiking in Arizona, it was all about mindfulness, meditation classes, going into the desert and really think. That’s when I had this entrepreneurial buzz. After five years in the real estate industry, I felt like I didn’t want to build forever. I wanted to create something.
On this hike with my mom, overlooking the mountains and breathtaking scenery, I asked her if she had the opportunity to do something, anything she wanted, what would she do ? “I would paint” she said. Then she asked me, “what would you do?” I’m playing with this idea to design a water bottle. That’s when we both realized, being in a mindful place, maybe we should go and do what we love! My mom is a painter now. I came back home, and started working right away on a business model. In our day to day, we’re so connected we have no time to be cre- ators, artists, sometimes you have to allow yourself the gift of time to explore those avenues.
Did you always know you had an entrepreneurial mindset?
For me, my business venture, the “big idea” needed to be huge – it couldn’t be something as simple or elegant as creating a water bottle. I came from a background in accounting, from University of Colo- rado. I worked at EY for two years, where I was exposed to business from all across the country – services to creative companies ; compa- nies that made medical supplies or suitcases. One year I was assigned inventory count for RV’s – making sure they were the ones in the books. It was an interesting way to work. I was on the tax side in Los Angeles and I worked with the internet entrepreneurs during the “.com” era of 1999-2001.
One of the entrepreneurs who was a mentor to me told me : “since you enjoy the client interaction, maybe you should think about going into business school”. I went to Harvard to get my MBA. I moved into a dorm, lived on campus and really tried to absorb the whole experience. I went to every single talk, lecture, career day and really explored every option and opened my mind to different things.
I worked for the University for a year – Harvard Leadership Ini- tiative. I worked for some skilled professors, did consulting, built social networks, learned how industry players came together to create trends.
Then I did international real estate development for five years, build- ing laboratories. [I realized] I loved the tacit nature of real estate. There was a beginning, middle and end to a project. That was the first time in my career where instead of building a model or spread sheet, I felt rewarded in seeing a physical product in the world. I did that for five years before I came up with the idea for S’well.
What struggles did you face as an entrepreneur?
It’s really hard to be an entrepreneur, to focus on what’s unfin- ished – things you did accomplish – I think it’s important to have balance.
We live in a culture of “busy”. I think that as a leader, if you can’t model the fact that you can take some time off, or leave the office at a reasonable time, [your team] also feels like they can’t take a vacation or be with their family. I’m trying to model that behaviour for others in the office – this is the way that I do it and I really want others to feel like they can too. That’s how it gets done. I’m a new mom — I’m trying to be present for my son. I’m trying to leave my phone behind and be present with him. Spend good quality time. I’m also trying to keep a journal every day.
Our customers. We’ve sold close to 20 million bottles at this point, to see our products out in the world is what drives me. I got up at midnight to buy the Starbucks bottle before it opened – it motivates me to keep going. All the hard work has impact for our customers.
Our team. Over 100 people in New York, an office of five in London. We’re not a start up anymore. The culture of the organiza- tion, where the individuals can create a career, opportunity for men- torship, we built an environment I would want to work at. It’s not about the product, it’s about the magic that the employees create.
Traveling – everywhere. I travel as much as I can, to Colorado, in the mountains, around other entrepreneurs. Our office is in the flat iron of Union Square – you don’t have to go far in New York to see what they’re doing. I try to keep my eyes open anywhere and everywhere I go – going to local museums, I can’t turn my creative brain off. I’ll be in a grocery store and I’m looking at the packaging. I think [as an entrepreneur] it’s necessary to think about the world differently.
Just get started. It doesn’t need to be perfect or finished, or even make sense. It’s OK to do something that’s imperfect. I think as a young person you [always] want to get it validated, or build a business plan when sometimes you don’t even need that. It doesn’t always have to be the next breakout star, create eco-sys- tems, embrace the imperfection – the passion piece of the project – and take it from there.
Some of us are so cautious to put everything that’s perfect but if you actually saw what happened two minutes after the picture, it would make you feel more comfortable. That’s something I’ve always struggled with – what helped in those moments was I kept a journal, I had a positive mindset. Whatever the problem was, we put our heads together and we figured a way around it. History has shown time and time again that we’ll make it through. Always put one foot in front of the other and just GO!
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