Making Eco-Friendly Eco-Chic – Sarah Kauss, CEO at S’Well Bottle

Carla Rover Issue 03 - Jan/Feb 2013, Operations Leave a Comment

Sarah Kauss left the corporate world to launch an eco-accessory company that has attained cult status.

By Carla Rover

The Sarah Kauss story begins with a virtually unanswerable question: Why not follow your passion? Kauss, a Harvard MBA at the height of her career asked herself that question three years ago. Soon after, she found herself in a place far different from a typical corporate executive track: producing a coveted eco-chic sports accessory and helping a nonprofit organization create sustainable clean water systems for villages in third-world countries.

Tapping True Passions

Like many other successful entrepreneurs, Kauss’ company, S’well, began with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and a demonstrable need in a burgeoning global industry.

“I was traveling the world and helping put together multimillion-dollar real estate development deals, but despite the excitement and challenges involved, I just wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled,” Kauss said.

“One of the hardest leadership qualities to develop is learning to let go of a good idea”

Kauss’ jet-set work honed her negotiation and analytical prowess, but it did not appeal to the part of her brain that was bursting with new ideas and a desire to make a difference. During a family hiking trip, Kauss was asked by her mother why she continued in her present work if it was not deeply connected to her true passions—the outdoors, the environment and creating a positive change in the world. Kauss did not have an answer and set about studying the possibilities of launching a venture of her own.

Stemming from that conversation and research, Kauss’ reusable water bottle company now has achieved a cult-like status among fashionistas and the environmentally conscious. The woman behind the idea had always disliked the waste associated with plastic water bottles, along with the fact that most water bottles failed to provide what athletes and outdoors enthusiasts needed most: cold refreshment after hours of exertion. Seeing an opportunity to enter into a growing niche market and possibly help reduce environmental waste, Kauss began developing her concept for the S’well bottle, a product she hoped would combine compelling style with high function.

Curing the Hiccups

Kauss’ development track toward her current product was not without hiccups, however. One of her most successful failures proved to be her original idea to have the S’well bottle include a filtration system. Despite extensive research and product prototyping, Kauss eventually determined that the focus should not be on water filtration, but rather on devising a system that kept water cold for up to 24 hours.

This, according to Kauss, is one of the hardest leadership qualities to develop: letting go of an idea or putting it on hold until later. Today, employing the valuable research gained in its early development, Kauss’ classic S’well product also keeps liquids hot for 12 hours, and the product line includes reusable wine bottles using the S’well technology.

Branding & Marketing

Kauss took the branding and marketing of her company as seriously as product development, making a decision early on to hold off on the “big-box” stores while her embryonic company gained popularity and critical acclaim through boutique outlets. The decision, on the surface, seemed risky to some. Kauss, however, was confident as her product rose in prominence in a highly competitive market that the unique nature of its appeal—high style combined with exceptional performance and an environmentally friendly theme—would serve to grow her company intelligently.

The result, she said, was a flurry of press attention and the development of lasting, highly communicative relationships with the company’s retailers. Today S’well has a successful flagship retail outlet in Palm Beach on exclusive Worth Avenue, Florida’s rival to the famed Rodeo Drive.

“Our fans are really loyal, wonderful brand ambassadors,” Kauss said, “and we really listen to them in terms of our product development.”

Keeping Focused on the Cause

Despite her significant commercial success, Kauss’ company has not lost its original emphasis on environmentally friendly initiatives.

“I don’t really care if people are first attracted to the S’well bottle because it’s fashionable or because it’s environmentally friendly, but we want everyone to become interested in the environmental aspect once they’ve discovered our product.”

More than 800 million people on the planet do not have regular access to safe drinking water and because of this, S’well is active in the charity world, raising awareness among its fans. S’well supports projects directed by Water Aid, a 30-year-old global charity that develops sustainable technology to create clean water systems in third-world countries, coupling immediate aid with extensive educational programming to help communities maintain their water systems and learn how to use water effectively to improve community health and safety. Kauss cites her collaboration with Water Aid as one of the aspects of her business which is closest to her heart.

Moving Forward as a Team

Kauss has new S’well products and accessories in the works, and hopes to open new retail outlets in other locations in the future, along with effecting more creative collaborations around improving global water access.

“We can really create significant change by getting our customers to think about these significant environmental issues in a different way,” she said.

Kauss’ biggest challenge is learning how to balance time and her passion for her work. Despite her talented staff and global reach, “I just have more projects in my head than there are hours in the day.” According to Kauss, this is a critical skill for any entrepreneur or manager. “You learn that you don’t have to do absolutely everything when you have a talented staff, even if you began your company as an solo entrepreneur and are used to doing everything yourself.”

Carla Rover is a freelance writer based in Miami, Florida.

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