A $100 million company founder spent a year in meetings and interviews before hiring a CEO.
It was a pair of 100s — more than 100 employees and $100 million in annual revenue — that led Sarah Kauss a few years ago to a big decision: The founder of S’well, which sells insulated stainless steel water bottles, decided to hire a CEO. The hire would represent the first time since Kauss founded the business in 2010 that she wouldn’t be captaining nearly every day-to-day decision.
Over the course of a year of meetings and interviews, Kauss learned a lot about the eventual CEO she hired, Hugh Rovit, who previously ran a $175 million home decor business, Ellery Homestyles. She also learned a key, albeit well-traveled entrepreneurial lesson, that in many cases, for a business to thrive, the founder has to get out of the weeds and into a visionary mindset.
“So much of my identity is wrapped up in the founder role. A big part of the interview process was to get me ready for the transition, that I would have someone by my side who can take us to even greater heights,” Kauss says. “You say you want the best person for the job and come and do amazing things, but I had to get myself prepared for really amazing things.”
"I think one of the mistakes was hiring for the place we were — not the place we were going." — Sarah Kauss
Kauss is now working on strategic vision and global partnerships for S’well, a hot company in the burgeoning sustainability scene. The overarching goal of the company is to rid the world of single-use plastic bottles. S’well does that through a variety of stylish multiuse water bottles, with multiple looks and colors, in addition to a line of other products. The company, Kauss says, has sold 25 million products in 10 years; it stopped disclosing revenue data after it surpassed $100 million in 2017. “We’ve been talking sustainability for 10 years now, ever since I sold the first bottle,” says Kauss, a Florida native.
Kauss is something of a sustainable business rock star. Accolades include being named a Fortune 40 Under 40 recipient, an EY Entrepreneurial Winning Woman and a LinkedIn Top Voice. Kauss, who thought up the idea for S’well on a hike in Arizona in 2009 with her mom, spoke on a panel in early March at NaplesNext, a conference and ideas festival. In a phone interview prior the event, Kauss spoke with the Business Observer about S’well and her career.
You started your business career as an accountant at Ernst & Young. What did you learn there that helped you launch S’well?
I learned the basics of business and really understanding how to find my way around financial statements. That became incredibly useful especially because we started S’well being scrappy and bootstrapped. My time at EY [also] made me realize the importance of making the most of every role. Being the most junior person on the team, I wasn’t always doing the most glamorous work. But I think it taught me a really good lesson that regardless of the position you have, there’s always a lesson to be learned.
What are some mistakes you have made at S’well that have turned into key lessons learned?
Most of the mistakes are not necessarily having the right people in the right chairs at the right time. Because we grew so quickly, we didn’t always have the people, process or systems we needed. I think one of the mistakes was hiring for the place we were, not the place we were going.
What makes a great S’well employee?
A lot of it has to be culture fit. I like to say to really succeed at S’well, you have to be tough-minded but also warm-hearted. Not only do you have to be great your job, your function, your domain, what it is you were hired to do, but to really succeed at S’well, you have to have the warm heart and really understand the mission and the vision of what we’re trying to achieve.
What led you to start looking for a CEO?
I told the team at a town hall about a year ago I thought I was at the point where I needed someone who can help me and someone who could unlock my time and energy. What I found was my time is spent best looking outside the company instead of looking internally at spreadsheets and running payroll and all the other important things I was doing for 10 years.
What keeps you up at night thinking about the next decade for S’well?
The thing historically at S’well that has kept me up is knowing what time to act. Knowing when to act quickly when you realize you need to upgrade on a person or a system, or have a [tough] conversation with a client or customer.