Building The Future Show - Radio / TV / Podcast

A consumer products leader who founded S’well and started a reusable bottle movement. Also happen to be a doting mother, former CPA and advisor to the next generation of business innovators. All in on uplifting entrepreneurs, protecting mother nature and experiencing life.

What is Building The Future Show - Radio / TV / Podcast?


With millions of listeners a month, Building the Future has quickly become one of the fastest rising nationally syndicated programs. With a focus on interviewing startups, entrepreneurs, investors, CEOs, and more, the show showcases individuals who are realizing their dreams and helping to make our world a better place through technology and innovation.

Welcome to building the Future, hosted by Kevin Horrick. With millions of listeners a month, building the future has quickly become one of the fastest rising programs with a focus on interviewing startups, entrepreneurs, investors, ceos and more. The radio and tv show airs in 15 markets across the globe, including Silicon Valley. For full showtimes, past episodes or to sponsor this show, please visit

Welcome back to the show. Today we have Sarah Kaus. She's an advisor, investor, advocate and founder, and she was the former CEO of Swell. Sarah, welcome to the show. Yeah, I'm excited to have you on the show. I think, well, let's be honest, swell is a huge brand that's been around a long time, and I think everybody's probably heard of it at this point and probably owns a bunch of the product, myself included. I was saying earlier, I went into the pantry, I was like, oh yeah, we got like four, five, six of these things. So I've been using your product for a number of years and love it. Before we maybe get into swell and what you're doing today, because I think that's really exciting as well.

Maybe let's get to know you a little bit better and start off with where you grew up.

Sure. I grew up in a small town in Florida called Jupiter.

Okay. Very cool coast.

And I have a small family, mom and dad, one brother who's really close to my age, and we grew up in a very sort of simple, happy place.

Okay, interesting. So walk us through. You went to university. What did you take and why?

So I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder.


And I wound up with a degree in accounting because the accountants were getting really good jobs and I had some college debt that I needed to work off coming from out of state and all. But while I was in Boulder, all of my science classes were earth science classes and the labs were actually hiking up in the mountains. So I spent a fair amount of time out in nature in Colorado while I was in school, all the while using a reusable water bottle. So I probably had some early ideas for swell while I was hiking around as an undergrad in Colorado, but just didn't know it at the time.

Okay, interesting. So what made you go so far west? Because arguably Florida is very nice, especially the area you're in. I've actually been to where you're from before, and it's very nice.

It's very nice. Well, I think I had wonderlust as a child, so I was out growing up and I was lucky enough to go away to some sleepaway camps. And one of the camps I went to was in the west. And I fell in love with the mountains. I think being from a small town, I went to Jupiter elementary, Jupiter middle, and Jupiter high. And it was the same.

Kids got it.

Yeah, I love those kids. But I thought, if I'm going to go off to college, I should probably go off to college. So I convinced my folks to let me go to Boulder.

Okay. No, very cool. I live close to the Rocky Mountains, so I get it. They're beautiful. So, I'm curious. Walk us through your career. Getting your mba and then coming up with the idea for swell. And then let's dive into that and then kind of what you're doing today.

Sure. So I would say I took a lot of sharp right hand turns in my career. I graduated, as you mentioned, with an accounting degree. I got my CPA, and I worked at Ernst and Young in Denver for a few years in the audit department. From there, I stayed with EY and I went to Los Angeles. It was sort one. And I did the taxes for entrepreneurs that were starting a lot of the Internet companies in 99, 2000, 2001. It was a really fun time. It was pre Sarbanes Oxley. So the company that I was working with the individuals, with the people starting the company at the same time that EY was working with the companies, mostly to take them public on some exchange.

And it's really where I met a fair number of pretty young, but pretty inspirational entrepreneurs. Young enough in my career that I didn't want to be doing their books for the rest of my life and their taxes. I really wanted to jump to the other side of the table and become them. So one of the entrepreneurs that I was working with, an Internet entrepreneur, sat me down and said, what are you thinking? What are you doing? And he had gone to get his MBA and said, maybe you should consider an MBA almost as a business finishing school, where you give yourself the luxury of time to think about what you might start and what you might do. And I was lucky enough to get into Harvard Business school.

And in 2001, right as the market was crashing for a lot one, I went off to HBS.

Interesting. Okay, so I know you've told this story a million times, but how did you come up with the idea of swell? And for people that maybe that don't know, what exactly is it and what has it become? Because it's obviously a very well known brand now, but you've been at it a long time. So it's obviously evolved over time.

That's true. So I had the idea for swell to create a water bottle, just a single water bottle, something that looked better and worked harder, that would have a positive impact on the planet. So, as I mentioned, I was always hiking around when I was an undergrad with a reusable water bottle. It was sustainable, but it wasn't necessarily fashionable, and it wasn't insulated, so it didn't keep things hot and cold for a really long time. Hiking on a hot summer day wasn't necessarily a refreshing sip of water. And so I had this aha moment while I was hiking in Arizona with my mom. I had this idea to create a better water bottle, but really start from the beginning with a company on a mission to tell a story.

So I really wanted people to have your designer a beautifully designed product that they would covet and they would use because I felt differently about it. There are plenty of water bottles out there. When I started swell, but they were sold in hiking and camping stores. They weren't something that you would express your personal identity or style with. I wanted something that if you were fashionista like, I like to think that I was at the know, would you be buying it in a beautiful department store, or was it designed in a way that you could hold it up equal with your Apple iPhone? So I really wanted it to be functional but covetable, beautiful at the same time.

And from that very first swell bottle that I ever sold, I was on a mission to not just tell the story about sustainability and trying to get people to use less single use plastic and plastic water bottles, but I partnered with water with charities that were bringing clean drinking water and sanitation in developing countries that didn't have access to drinking water. So I was on a mission to tell a story that you can drink the tap water here. It's really good. And by the way, by making this one sustainable choice, we can altogether provide clean drinking water to those in need. Now, that was a lot packaged in one story, one little product.

But it was literally that day on a hike, Kevin, that it all sort of came together in my mind that I thought, I think that there's a there, and there's a space to create a better product with a mission attached to it.

Sure. It's interesting because you started this, like, 13 years ago, correct? Around there. So now what you just outlined is, well, of course we're going to do like that. We're going to partner with charities. We're going to try to do all these things, and we're going to have this product. But back then, nobody was doing that or very few people were doing. That is fair to say.

I think that's fair to say, Kevin, I would like to think that swell hopefully inspired a number of companies to infuse mission and purpose in what they're doing sooner than they might have otherwise.

Sure. Well, and I also think you've inspired other, probably even water companies, because there's water companies now that just put their water in cans. Now. They obviously put them in almost like juice box type cartons that came after what you were doing. Right. So I think you inspired a whole movement around a lot of that. Right. Not just competitors.

I think that's true.

Yeah. Well, yeah, I would say that's true. So I'm curious, maybe give us, like a quick history of swell, and then let's get into what swell's up today and what you're up today, because I think that's just as cool.

Oh, Kevin, you.

Okay. Did you hear me? A question?

I think you said, give a quick history of swell and then tell me what swell is up to now.

Yeah, basically. Can you give me, like a quick history of swell, what it's doing now up to now? And then I want to dive into what you're doing because I think that's just as interesting and cool.

Oh, thanks. So brief history as well. As you mentioned, I started the company 13 years ago. I started the company very humbly with myself as the sole employee and sole entrepreneur, sole founder. I never raised capital. So because of that, I didn't necessarily put together an advisory board or a formal board. Fast forward a few years. I added a few additional colors to that original swell bottle shape, started adding some larger sizes, a bigger size that holds a whole bottle of wine for picnics or a lot of water for a soccer practice, a smaller one for maybe hot coffee or tea or fitting in a small handbag. Fast forward a few more years. We got into food containers and lunchboxes and ice cream containers and a whole proliferation of other products.

Very well designed to make you happy, but always thinking about how do you reduce single use plastic and waste overall? And then fast forward to last year. I actually sold the company.

Congrats. That's huge.

Thank you. Yeah, it wasn't something that I ever really thought about. I loved swell. Loved swell like my first child. It was something that I enjoyed. I enjoyed the team, I enjoyed the building. I enjoyed the culture. But at the same time, I never really thought about what did it look like? Where does swell go when it goes off to college? What happened to the company when it grows up and leaves the nest? And I found a really good partner for Swell last year and made the decision to move on. So swell is in good hands. I still follow the brand on instagram, and I'm always happy to see what's happening and the new colorways and patterns that are coming out.

There's a fair number of old swelly employees that are still working, toiling away and bringing the company and the brand into the future. But officially, I am a free agent, and I'm off doing other things now.

Okay, very cool. So hopefully you took some time off, but what are you doing now? Because it sounds like you're doing some really interesting stuff.

So funny enough, Kevin, I didn't take any time off.

No. Okay.

Maybe that would be the advice to any company is don't say yes to anything for a number of months. I don't know what happened, but I think for so long, I was really just focused on swell that I said no to almost everything else. And I was starting to get a bunch of inbound requests, and I had some ideas of some things that I wanted to do, and I think I overfilled my dance card a bit in the last year. So no rest for the weary. But it's actually been a really good year. So I've done some investing, I've done some board work. I'm doing some advisory. I would say sustainability is really my north star.


But I have gotten involved in some things that aren't classically involved in sustainability because I find that I really fall in love with founders, and I probably was the poster child for what not to do in entrepreneurship. I made a lot of mistakes. I didn't necessarily have the help that I needed at every stage. And because I did swell for so long, I learned a lot. And so when I meet founders that I realize that either they're struggling or they're honest enough to ask for a little bit of help, I always make room and time in my calendar to say, okay, what is it that you've got going on? What can I help you with?

And so I have a fair number of individuals that I'm not an official board member, but I'm an advisor, and I really enjoy it because I know I can help set them on their way.

Okay. So obviously, you're probably getting pitched all the time for investment, to be an advisor, maybe a board member, et cetera. How do you filter that out. And what exactly are you looking for? Because you said in a person, but what are you looking for to actually help and get involved?

Well, some of it is scalability.


For me. And part of it probably is coming because I started my career in accounting.


I look for a good, solid, profitable, scalable business.


If you're going to have impact, you're going to have some profitability, at least at some point, to be able to plow it back into your employees and back into the impact and the mission of what you're doing. And so at the end of the day, I do get pitched a lot, but I'm generally flipping the deck to the back and looking at the numbers first and really trying to understand what is the business model, what are the margins, what are the gross margins, what's happening here? How does this get big, how does this win? And then thinking about how do you use that then for impact? How do you use that then for whatever the purpose is of the company that this individual or this team is trying to bring to the world.

Okay, so when you say sustainability, what does that really mean to you? Because obviously in the swells case, it was really easy to tie clean drinking water to a bottle. Right. But not everybody that's creating a business that actually could be a good business, maybe struggles with actually connecting it with a sustainability or a cause or something that could actually make the world a better place. What advice or thoughts do you have around that you would give to people?

Sure, I think about sustainability in sort of two different ways. So I think classic sustainability, as you just mentioned, with sustainability with a capital s, and that is saving the world, saving the planet, reducing plastic waste, having an impact, thinking about global warming, the very classic sustainability. And that's something that's very close to my heart. And I'm involved in a sustainable fashion technology company, a sustainable packaging company, a company that's doing wellness and sustainability and rethinking supply chain. So that's sort of my classic sustainability with the capital s. But I'm also helping and advising and investing in companies that think about sustainability with a small s. And the way that I define that is it's culture, it's morale, it's creating sustainable teams and environments and they don't have to be out saving the world.

But at the same time, as you mentioned earlier, it is a different day and time than when I started swell twelve years ago. And thinking about how do you create a place that individuals want to be and work, how is that work? Getting accomplished how are you sourcing those people? How are you making sure those individuals feel valued at work and they're going to stay for the longer term? There's something very important about that level of sustainability and that creates a more sustainable business because of sort of the softer, smaller s internally.

And I think that potentially could be just as important and I think just as meaningful for me to help these companies, because I can see that even sort of small conversations and small tweaks can have very big impact when it comes down to hiring and motivating key employees that will be with you. And because they're there, then it helps you achieve whatever the business model, the service, the product, whatever it is the company is trying to do, even if it's not out saving the world.

Yeah, I agree with you, and I don't mean this in the negative way it's going to come across, but I think that might be the harder one to solve. I agree.

Yeah, I don't think that's negative. I think it is very hard to solve.

And why I say that is because I think you're never going to be able to build a really good product that could potentially do some of maybe the earth saving type stuff if you don't nail the sustainability with your employees. And I've noticed that a lot. I think even five years ago I think it was starting to happen. But I've really noticed that over the last, maybe like Covid and post Covid or whatever, we could argue whether we're still in it or not. But just let's just say post Covid, how tricky it is to keep good employees and make them happy. I've seen that just the turnover with some of the companies I've been working with is crazy sometimes and trying to figure that out.

Absolutely. And I think you've really hit the nail on the head. I think it was maybe four or five, six years ago that we started to see a really big evolution of this. And it's one of the things that, whether I'm formally working with the company on a board or informal as an advisor, I think this is one of the things that we spend the most time. And I always bring it up. If it's not on the agenda, I say let's talk about it.

But I think the first thing that the companies can and should do is really think about what are those core values again, if it's capital s, sustainability or small s sustain, whatever it is that the company is trying to do or set out to do is defining what those core values are and say, what is it that we stand for? It's sort of a trickle down from there. And then how do you design the company, the systems, the process around those big rocks, those core values of what the company stands for? And then how do you embed those behaviors in the rewards and the system processes for the people? Right. And so it can't be just this thing that you do. Zoom. Happy hours on Friday, and everyone's great. No employees are too smart and too important, regardless of the company or the industry.

Right. But I think that it's really getting in there and sort of, I hate to say breaking things apart, but really stopping what the company is doing. And I think in some companies, you really have to tie it back to the numbers. You have to tie it back to, this is the product, this is the service. This is what we're trying to deliver. And we can't do it if we don't know what those core values are and we don't know what we're going to stand for, and we know what we're going to say yes to or no to. But it has to be infused into almost everything. And those are the conversations that I find they are the most difficult, as you said, but when you get them right, you have the biggest unlock, and those are the employees that are the happiest.

They stay the longest. They come up with the most creative solutions. The culture is better. I mean, it's hard work, but it's worth it.

I 100% agree with you, but where do you start with a company? You don't have to name company names, but can you maybe give us some examples? Because we've all sat in those rooms where we go through the big rocks and all the things to corporate values, and then we talk about it once a year, and then it's never talked about or heard from again. Right. So how do you actually go from that team meeting, for lack of a better term, for it, to actually living it where people can actually see it and that they're actually cared about and their opinions matter? Because that's the real struggle.

I think it is the real struggle. I think it's starting with being really open and comfortable, having candid and honest conversations with each other about what's working, what isn't. And oftentimes I see there's this real dichotomy between, I hate to say, management and employees or HR and the rest of the team, but you mentioned you have those big posters with the core values and the KPIs, and you spend all the time and you wordsmith them, and then you go to cocktails afterwards, and then you never look at it again. If you ask anybody at the company, what are those things that we stand for? They're like, let me run in the break room real quick because I know that there's like that pyramid on the wall. I think we've all been in those before. And I'm joking because we've had those posters as well.

And I've also said, let me go get the poster. But I think it's having those conversations, but distilling it down and then being comfortable and honest, like when you're in a one one conversation, even if it's with your superior or with your coworkers at your sale level, you have to say, but wait a minute, we said that we believed in this as our core value, but the way that we're treating this issue, the way that we're servicing this client, the way that we're working, isn't in service or appreciation to how we said we're going to operate. But I think it's not waiting till the annual performance review at the end of the year. I think it's being in the moment to be able to have that conversation.

I'm actually working with a company right now that's really struggling because they've never had candid conversations, they've never had performance reviews, they've never had, and there's a fair amount of disconnect between the strategy of where the company is going and the work that the individuals that are doing and the performance that people think that they're doing versus what. But no one's talking about it. Right. And they are a sustainable company and they're making positive impact in the world, but nobody is happy there because nobody's willing. Everyone's sort of sitting there looking at each other like, who's going to address it first? And I think it's sort of getting comfortable with the messiness of saying, we don't have it all figured out. It's not going to be packaged.

But let's just talk about who we are, what do we believe in, where are we going, how do we approach it together and doing that on a really regular basis until you're not uncomfortable with having those chaotic moments?

No, I think that's actually really good advice. The one thing I would say, and I'm curious to get your thoughts on, is I find a lot of, because I deal a lot in the startup space, something like you do too, where a lot of times the founder was a designer developer maybe has a business background, maybe doesn't have a business background, but they don't do what you just outlined, like the annual reviews or salary because they honestly just maybe they've never had themselves. They don't know how to do them. They don't really want to give even any sort of criticism. And then on the flip side of that, employees don't want to tell them their opinions either because they don't know how they're going to be taken. Right.

And especially with kind of tech's been all doom and gloom lately with layoffs and whatnot. I think there's like this weird layer of tension sometimes where management is like, well, I've never done this before. I don't know how to do it. And then employees are kind of like, why aren't they doing these things that I've had maybe at other jobs? And I feel like we're at this weird space because sometimes I get to see, I hear both sides. What are your thoughts and how do you kind of bridge that gap with the companies you work with?

I think it is bridging the gap, but I think it's sort of meeting somewhere in between. Right. It's not saying we're going to implement a big 360 process and it's going to be as corporate as wherever you might have worked before, employee y, but I also think it's doing something and getting started for those entrepreneurs that maybe had never done it before, they're not comfortable with it. Right. So it's sort of taking a mini version of those processes that might work or sort of work in bigger firms and making them startup sized and getting started. And I think I mentioned in the beginning that I didn't have an advisory board and I didn't have a board of directors and I didn't necessarily surround myself with individuals that had done it before.

And I think that's one of the real challenging things for a fair number of the founders that I work with and I speak to on a regular basis is the individuals that they're talking to for advice aren't necessarily giving them the helpful tips of how to get out of where they are or how to help accelerate their growth to get to the next level. So I'm not saying you need to go and put together a formal board or find advisors, but it is really helpful to kind of get up on the balcony and look down on your organization every so often or at least get that fresh perspective of this is what isn't working. Right. This is what I need help with. This is what my employees would say in a candid conversation. How do I solve for it?

But I don't think you need to start with a giant, enormous process. Like, sometimes it's just sitting around the table and having a conversation about things and then process your way from there.

Okay. No, I think that's really good advice. How have you seen, or what have you done in the past to get your employees or the companies you work with, their employees comfortable to actually tell management maybe some of their ideas or what they could, some of the negative stuff. Right. Because that can be challenging, especially if you're earlier in your career.

Well, I mean, you could always do an informal walking around the office, but you're right, you're not always going to get the candid comments. I mean, at swell, we used to do a Friday survey with three questions. I always laughed because one of the open comment text boxes was always, we need more champagne at happy hour.

Every time.

Whoever that person was, God bless them. I would say those are true champagne problems, but those were sometimes really the serious things that somebody was struggling with that they didn't necessarily know how to bring up and they wanted to talk about. So it's really just encouraging. People either talk to your friend at work, talk to HR, talk to your manager, but sometimes you really just need that survey that goes out, that gives people the conversation in anonymous way to say, like, here's what I'm thinking. Here's what nobody's asking me and what we need to talk about. But then you asked something else I thought was great. And that question is, like, how do you get the great ideas? And at swell, we actually put our creative team and our design team right in the middle of the office, in a very open office.

And I know a lot of people work from home now, but we made every single employee, whether they were an accountant or a Bookkeeper, somebody in HR, walk by the design team and give their feedback.

That's smart.

And see the boards and see what's coming and touch and feel. And we're based in New York. We had 110 people on the subway, going to cool restaurants, going to museums. These were our thought leaders that happened to be our employees. And so I do think that polling your employee base on a regular basis not only lets them and encourages them to feel heard, but it allows your team to see themselves in the final product because someone took the time to.

Ask, yeah, no, that's actually very good. The other thing that I would add to that still sticks with me from probably like a job like 1015 years ago was, I remember I went to my boss and I said, I can't even remember what it was, but I asked for something or if we could do something. And his response to me was like, I don't know, I got to look into it. I'll get back to you. And I think it ended up, they didn't do it. But the thing that I found interesting about it is he was like, we can't do this, but here's why. And I could disagree, but at least they gave you the why we can't do something. Because I find so many times management is just like, no.

And you're like, well, yeah, but you're not even giving me a reason. Right. And I find just telling people, being honest with them, it's like, or, we can't do that this quarter because of x, or we'll do that. We're thinking about that for next year, whatever. Right. Like, give people a reason I think is a huge. Just to validate that you put some thought and effort into their opinion, even if you have to tell them no, for whatever reason.

That's right. I like that, Kevin.

So I'm curious, what are you seeing in entrepreneurship right now? Because I was reading an article the other day that a lot of younger people aren't becoming entrepreneurs. What do you think the state of the entrepreneurship is right now? Because investment seems like you always read, oh, nobody's investing right now, or this isn't happening, or that isn't happening. It seems all negative. But what are you actually seeing?

I'm seeing a lot of really good positive signs right now.

Yeah, me too.

Green shoots. I'm seeing green shoots. Yes. The negatives are, it's really hard to get funding right now.

But it's always been hard, isn't it?

I never got funding.

Yeah, sure, funding.

But it's not only hard for this round, but I think that investors are really thinking about what is it going to take to bring this to scalability and profitability. How are you going to get this from here to where it needs to go for your next few rounds. That being said, I think that for good entrepreneurs and good ideas and good companies, there's always going to be the funding that's needed. You're just going to have to work a little harder for it. What I'm seeing right now is a fair amount of creativity. I would say business models are different. The go to market is changing. The retail landscape is completely upside down and different and very difficult right now.

But I am seeing a fair amount of really interesting creative business models that aren't tested yet, but some will make it, some will break through. I'm probably seeing more tech enabled and AI in plans than maybe you need to. You're probably seeing that, too. Not everything needs an AI solution, but you should think about it. I mean, there probably should be one page in every deck that says, here's how we'll win with this in the future. But I am seeing some green shoots. I do think that there's some really good, positive things coming out of this. I guess, downturn in an economy, it all sort of depends on which numbers you're looking at and how you're deciphering the tea leaves right now.

Sure. No, I think that's actually really good advice. I'm curious because you came up with an idea out in the world and kind of solving your own need. What advice do you give to people to do the same thing and then actually go for it? Because there's so many times you sit with friends and they're like, you can tell, they're like, oh, I wish this product exists. And then you just call them on it. You say like, why don't you do that? And they're just like, well, I can't for X, Y and Z. But what made you actually go, you know what, I need this and I'm going to do it because that's a huge thing that I wish. And a lot of people look back later and say like, oh, I should have done that.

So what advice do you give them to actually just go for it. Like you.

You know, Kevin, the whole reason I did it is I was going to kick myself when I saw somebody else. Do you know, I mentioned I started out as an accountant, but I think the most important thing that I did with Swell wasn't necessarily the design of the product, but it was building a brand.


When you mentioned at the beginning, like, I went into my kitchen and I looked in the closet and there were five swells. You couldn't say there were five beautifully designed water bottles in there. Right. You needed to.

Yeah. Interesting.

This thing had to make for me. It was having something that had very positive connotations, like swell, like the idea of the brand. The idea was like having a good, positive impact on the planet and the people of the planet, but it had to make you happy because you're so clever, because you're keeping your favorite beverage hot and cold. For me, I think were successful. I was successful because it wasn't the product, it was the brand. And so when I talk to individuals that have this idea and I get to see a lot of consumer products, like a lot of here's my idea, here's this thing the universe needs, I always say, well, what are you going to call it? What is the brand? What are the core values of the brand? What does the brand stand for? How do you spell it?

Some of that is the product, but a lot of it is how you feel. Because unless you're inventing something completely new, you're probably coming up with a derivative of something that's there that you need to break through. And it is such a hard environment right now. It's so expensive to reach customers. You need people to be your street soldiers to go out there and use the product and tell the story for you. And to do so, it makes it a lot easier if you're building a brand in service to the product that you're creating. So I would say that's probably the first piece of advice that I give to individuals that are thinking.

And then I would say the second piece of advice I give to all the companies I work with is just to be really picky and cutthroat about getting the best partners that you possibly can, and partners being everything from your accountants and lawyers as vendors to your first and middle employees that you hire, the manufacturers, the warehouse. Because entrepreneurship is death by 1000 paper cuts. The better that you can be about having better partners and those that have made mistakes on other people's dimes and that you're not having to do it yourself every time and switching costs are hard. I would say those are probably building a brand and being lucky to have the better partners is probably the easier ways to get started than not.

No, I think that's actually really good advice. But you did something, I think, that actually adds another layer of complexity, is you went for a high end product and that's tricky to do no matter what. But how did you make sure that your first few rounds of bottles that actually got shipped and were going out to people were of that high quality? Because that's hard to do even if you've been at it for a number of years. Right. It's almost like you're trying to build like the iPhone of the smartphone game, right? Obviously that's challenging. Right? So how did you do that? And what advice do you give for people to actually achieve that?

You can get a lot of things wrong in the back end that no one ever needs to know. But if you're selling a product, it really has to be right. From the beginning, because you only have so many opportunities, maybe one opportunity to really wow someone and to get that person to get out, to buy multiples and tell everybody, go, love this product. And so for me, it was very important to get the product right from the beginning. It took a lot longer and it was a lot more expensive to bring to market than even I thought with my one or two page business plan that I came up with in the beginning. But for me, the product was essential to get right. And there are a lot of ugly babies along the way of prototypes that just didn't meet my personal expectations.

And so I was really picky about making sure the product looked great and worked really well from the beginning because I didn't want to have to change it or tinker it after it came out.

No, that makes a lot of sense. So did that delay the first kind of launch or shipments at the beginning because you were that much of a perfectionist?

Yeah, absolutely. So I had done a bit of a friends and family first, everybody that I knew, I sent them an email and sent them the website. Of course, the website looked terrible, like a dog's breakfast, because I wrote it myself. You would be so embarrassed, Kevin, to see my first website because I wrote the copy, I took the pictures, I did it, I plug and play on myself. It had so embarrassing. But again, that was one of the things that I was like, okay, this doesn't have to be perfect. We can change this later on.


But I sent that first website to every kid I babysat when I was little, every cousin I had, every friend I had from business school, whatever, and said, listen, I'm starting this company and if you could support me and buy one or two, that'd be wonderful. And the product was, I thought it was going to come out. Three months after that, I think it was almost a year later, I was still saying, I sent you my $35 and it still hasn't come. And I'm like, I'm sorry. It's coming. It's going to be perfect. But what happened then is I started getting orders from people I didn't know because I started getting a little tiny bit of press, like blogs and things like that.

And there was a fair amount of pressure that I needed to get this product out so people didn't give up on what I was trying to execute on.

Because at that point, you could have given up. What kept you going and pushed through kind of some of the darker times.

Fear. I didn't want to go back to being an accountant okay. I really wanted to make it as an entrepreneur. I also bought a fair amount of inventory.


So there's something inelegant about a consumer product company is you actually have to buy the product.


So when you have cases of these things sitting underneath your kitchen table, you got to put your backpack on and march into retail stores and ask if you can put them on the shelves. And so for me, I just kept putting 1ft in front of another, even during those darker days. But some of it was just a pure escalation of commitment. Like, I've already done this, I've already done that, I've committed to this. And next thing you know, we've sold tens of millions of these things and they don't fit in my house anymore.

Yeah. Bad problem to have, right?


So I'm curious, what other advice do you give to people that are maybe on the fence about starting a company? Because I think more people should, but I feel like not enough people are right now.

I would say you don't always have to go all in. So I totally quit my day job and went all in because I knew one thing about myself is I just couldn't balance a few things. But I have a fair number of good friends that have been incredibly successful entrepreneurs, and they did it on nights and weekends while they had day jobs. And so there's a way to dabble and to get proof of concept and to get something up and running to give yourself and your family and your network confidence that you're onto something and there's there before you go into real debt or you give up your safety net. So I don't know that you always have to go all in and that there's ways that you can test before you make the leap.

I would say the other piece of advice is to ask for help and to give up on the idea of perfection. It took me a number of years to not lead with how great everything was going, but to lead with what I needed. When I ran into other friends or entrepreneurs and they'd always say, oh, how are things with swell? I didn't even think about it instantly, but just come out great, wonderful. Let me tell you all the wonderful things that are happening. And that wasn't helpful to me at all. And what was actually a huge turning point for me was in admitting what I didn't know. And so now when I talk to some younger entrepreneurs, I'm an entrepreneur in residence, and I talk to a number of people that are just starting out. I just tell them, don't lead with being overconfident.

Lead. Everybody wants to give advice. You don't have to take their advice, but ask people out to coffee or lunch or whatever and just say, can I have 15, 2030 minutes of your time? Because I'm really struggling with x and I think you know about Y. And that really helps you build the skill set that you need and really plug the holes of where your boat might be leaking instead of just pretending everything is fine and then going out of business because you didn't have the expertise you needed at the time you needed it.

No, I think that's actually really good advice. The other thing, it helps build your network. And on top of that, I find, like, sure, you'll probably hear some no's or certain people won't get back to you, but I think majority of people, if you give them a specific ask, they will try to help you. Majority of people, I would say.

I think that's right.

Yeah, it's interesting. But it's also mind boggling to me how many people don't ask. And I get it's easier said than done, right? Especially now, once you get over that hump. But I think that's actually really good advice and I hope people actually do that more. So I'm curious. We're kind of coming to the end of the show, but what else are you seeing right now? Or is there any spaces that you think need innovation, maybe, or more sustainability that you think maybe people could try to maybe generate some ideas to build businesses in?

Well, I always would encourage anyone to build sustainability into any business.

Sure. Okay, fair enough.

But I probably have a little bit of selection bias in what I get to see and what I'm looking for. So I'm lucky in that I get to see some really positive solutions. I'm seeing a lot in sort of health and wellness, healthy eating, healthy food, a lot in, I guess, green packaging and single use packaging and sort of thinking like leapfrogging over just recycling disposables. So I think that's a place that I'm encouraged from an innovation perspective. And I mentioned earlier, I'm just seeing a lot of really unique business models, which I think is keeping me younger. I think it's keeping me more fresh because as you mentioned, I started swell a dozen, 13 years ago. It was an easier time. It was an easier time.

I think it's a little harder right now to just say direct to consumer, plus a couple of key retailers. And there you go. I think I had it easy. I think I had it easy. But now you have to think about how do you find your customer and how do you do it in a unique, authentic, inexpensive way. And I think that there's some pretty cool companies out there trying to attack the market and I'm enjoying supporting them and learning from them at the same time.

Yeah, I would agree with that. I think it's easier nowadays to build software and maybe even get a prototype built, but actually getting it into people's hands is the harder part. Right? Yeah, that's interesting. So sadly, we're kind of coming to the end. So how about we close with mentioning where people can get more information about yourself and any other links you want to mention?

Oh, sure. I'm glad Kendra's on the phone. I think my website is But it is.

Yep, it is.

Ok, great. Yes. So I'll say it so you can visit Sorry, Kendra, I really should know. I know that there's a link in my LinkedIn.

Kendra had me put it there and it's





Thanks. Kendra giving me the thumbs up. See, I told you, Kevin. I get nervous, like you're going to ask me how to spell my name. I don't remember.

No, it's all good. No, it's all good. Very cool. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to be on the show and I look forward to keeping touch with you and have a good rest of your day.

Yeah, you're great. Kevin. Thank you for being a customer and thank you for asking such thoughtful questions.

Thank you. Okay, bye.

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