Kara Goldin suggests all sorts of hacks for growth, but the No. 1 imperative for her fast-rising company, Hint, is this: follow the customer. It isn’t rocket science, but heeding that axiom helped Goldin explode sales by roughly 50 percent last year despite the pandemic, propelling her brand of nutritionally enhanced waters and other products into a $225 million enterprise—and positioning it for bigger gains in the months and years ahead.

“We focus on the customer, and luckily, when you have a relationship with them, that actually tells you how to service them,” says Goldin, who helped develop AOL’s e-commerce business, then ventured out on her own to pioneer the new beverage segment of unsweetened waters flavored with fruit oils and other essences before Coca-Cola and other beverage giants could move into it. “You need to figure out where their heads are, and that will tell you the best way to grow your business. We’re going to keep going on this journey with the customer, and that’s why 2021 will be successful for us, too.”

Welcome to the post-pandemic global economy, likely one of the most exciting and explosive eras of expansion since the end of WWII. As vaccines do their job and billions of customers the world over emerge from Covid-induced hibernation, all signs are go for a big year—and beyond—in nearly every industry. How to make the most of this time? Chief Executive reached out to CEOs at companies of every size and shape for ideas. 

For Goldin, staying on top of what retailers and consumers want next from her San Francisco-based company is the alpha and omega. She widened the Hint product lineup by branching out into items like lip balm and broadened distribution through big store accounts. Most important, she built a dedicated e-commerce platform for Hint that accounts for about half the company’s sales and keeps it intimately responsive to what its shoppers want. 

Building Hint to this point required savvy, boldness, perseverance and more in the 15 years since the company’s start. As a seasoned executive, Goldin knew how to hunt for new opportunities. Like so many food entrepreneurs, her genius came in recognizing she couldn’t satisfy the dietary needs of her young family with existing products. Ditching her daily Diet Coke habit, Goldin began experimenting by slicing fruit and adding it to water.

She called a Coca-Cola executive out of the blue who told her that her product couldn’t be commercialized because it needed preservatives—one thing Goldin wasn’t going to include—to solve distribution and shelf-life challenges. (He called her “sweetie”—but that’s another story.) “Sweet was all they knew, and sweet drinks were all they wanted to sell,” Goldin wrote in her autobiography, Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts + Doubters. “That was our big and very real advantage over” Coke and other beverage titans. “We had the commitment, the understanding and the passion for a new approach. If only we could solve the technical and business problems.”

Goldin kept iterating, extending shelf life, creating intriguing flavors such as honeydew hibiscus, adding a kids’ line, landing endorsements from celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and inking a co-branding deal with Disney. 

Coke and others have muscled into Hint’s category, but Goldin kept growing, to about $150 million in annual revenues before the pandemic. One big reason is she continues to take Hint personally. For example, early on during last year’s pandemic, Goldin headed into a Marin County Target one evening and executed a corporate duty she’d left behind a decade ago: merchandising. 

“I wanted to show my executive team that this is what should be done,” says Goldin. “I should lead by example—not lecture people on what they should ultimately be doing. They appreciated that. And then they were like, ‘If Kara is doing that, maybe we should be doing that, too.’” Goldin shared more of her growth tactics with Chief Executive:

Source for resilience

Goldin built Hint’s supply chain around a handful of bottling plants sprinkled across the U.S., with an emphasis on automation to restrain costs. That network came in handy during Covid when a huge new potential customer, Costco Wholesale, wanted to pick up Hint as a replacement for other water brands that suffered from foreign sourcing entanglements. “We’d had some discussions over the years as to whether we could save a few bucks by sourcing differently, but we thought it might not be worth it,” Goldin says. “Even if it’s a little more expensive to source everything in the U.S., it’s just easier to maintain that. And we wouldn’t have gotten the Costco deal without it.” 

Overcompensate for setbacks

Creating a new segment didn’t insulate Hint from big competitors. In 2014, for example, Starbucks began to nudge Hint out of its coolers in favor of its own branded products. Goldin took the snub as an opportunity to ramp up experimentation on Amazon, and Hint’s quick success—in a product category whose bulkiness had held back online sales—was a revelation.

Covid, too, brought a stunning blow to the company, abruptly removing the 15 percent of revenues that came through sales to corporate campuses. Pandemic protections also robbed Hint of being able to sponsor and sample at events. “We made some really fast bets early on by reallocating budgets” to store and online marketing, Goldin says. “We also began sending our event-sales teams into merchandising in stores.”

Talk, talk, talk with customers

Early in Hint’s expansion into e-commerce, Goldin embraced the idea of creating a drinkhint.com site and turning it, not Amazon, into the brand’s main sales platform. Creating intensely direct individual relationships has more than compensated because it has given Hint access to and control of customer data and an instant feedback mechanism. “If you don’t have that kind of communication with your customers, you’re in a tough spot,” Goldin says. “For 2021, we’re just staying connected with this consumer and making them feel and recognize that our focus, like theirs, is health.”

Follow your gut

Viewing the role of Hint holistically rather than by category ratified difficult decisions for Goldin, such as jumping into better-for-you lip balm, sunscreens and hand sanitizers. Her personal brush with skin cancer added narrative impetus to such moves. “Does our consumer just care about water?” she says. “We see a person who’s yearning to be healthier but finding it really hard. And they ask us literally on a daily basis: What’s the next product that you’re developing? So, we also educate our retailer customers on what these consumers might want.”

Sweat the details (all of them)

In many cases, they move from marginal to salient to decisive. “At points I’ve wondered if I really need to pay attention to all the details because I’m a little bit paranoid,” Goldin says. “But everything you do is important when you’re operating a company. And it’s a lesson for our teams as well, that everything can drive the bottom line.”

What other CEOs are doing to make the most of the post-Covid boom:

Deal Hunting

Jordan Jayson, CEO
U.S. Energy Development / Arlington, Texas

Jordan Jayson, CEO, US Energy

“We’re a privately held oil-and-gas developer that has been adapting to the plunge and subsequent slow recovery in prices. We’re a small-cap player, so there is great potential for acquisitions that are accretive. As the green wave flows through energy, our view is that upstream oil and gas will still be a necessity for at least 10 to 15 years.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not aware of the transition and looking for renewable and ESG-related opportunities. But as some of the larger players are beginning to shed some of their non-core assets in North America, and merging portfolios, the assets that are small in their minds are much different in our minds.

“As we adjust, we’re very mindful of the downside and getting our team to talk about it. We adjust to the rhetoric and the huge price swings by focusing half our discussion on what could go wrong. We still need to protect our base so we can explore and innovate and look for new opportunities.”

Removing Friction Everywhere

Brent Lang, CEO
Vocera / San Jose, California

“Our systems allow voice communications among healthcare workers and with patients. With Covid, they’ve allowed people to communicate without any risk of infection. So, we’ve leaned into this situation and are investing for growth. The phrase inside our company is, ‘Accelerating out of the turn.’

“We see an opportunity to grow market share by investing in new products, such as one that allows patients to communicate with family members from the hospital, which was invented for the operating-room environment for kids’ surgeries. In Covid times, it’s become even more relevant because of limitations on visitors.

“Meanwhile, many hospital IT departments won’t even be on the hospital campus, so our ability to work with them virtually becomes a competitive advantage going forward.”

“Some companies have retreated, but we want to invest in this transition. So, we have poured resources into new-product development and into a virtualization of our marketing organization. We’ve built a virtual ‘trade show’ that potential customers can visit online instead of at a convention center.”

Maximizing Technology Opportunities

Guru Gowrappan, CEO
Verizon Media Group / New York City

“Digitization of transactions during Covid accelerated our transformation as the company that runs many Internet platforms including Yahoo. We’re a mission-led company building on three pillars: trusted content, connections built one-on-one with consumers and transactions through e-commerce, such as sports betting and other things that close the loop.

“One thing that changed is that, in the Covid world, people haven’t been gathering for sports and events, so we launched Watch Together with the NFL, a co-viewing experience designed to innovate live events and give fans the ability to interact. On the ad side, we’ve grown connected TV and digital out-of-home a lot.

“We think 5G connectivity will introduce another industrial revolution, and we’re already scaling up a lot of experiences in advertising and content. For example, we’ve got a Super Stadium app that gives iPhone users multiple camera angles for an NFL game, with no image latency.

“We are also conscious that our content needs to be trusted. We don’t have any consumer-network ecosystem like Twitter, and we have strong policies that make sure none of our content providers are putting out fake news or fake ads.”

Building Marketing Muscle Under Our Roof

Terry Kroeger, CEO
Smith Kroeger / Omaha

Terry Kroeger, CEO, Smith Kroeger

“We’ve spent a couple of years building the tools that a marketing agency can use to help companies grow their own businesses. Covid put the brakes on some of the pitching, but the infrastructure we’ve built—with digital, strategic and video capabilities—makes us a little different than our competitors.

“For instance, we’ve taken all of our digital production in-house, making us cheaper and faster for clients. We built a state-of-the-art video studio that includes 4K cameras, sound baffling and a lot of other stuff. We’ve probably invested $100,000 in the last 12 months on capital items and have added five positions to a staff that was 20 people.”

Franchising to Accelerate Expansion

Chris McCuiston, Co-Founder and CEO,
Goldfish Swim School / Troy, Michigan

“We teach a life skill that practically every parent wants their kids to learn, so we didn’t have a lot of chinks in our armor outside a global pandemic. That was evident. Plus, the virus sent everyone outdoors, and bodies of water became more regular in everyone’s life.

“We started franchising in 2008, allowing us to grow our brand through others and not tied to debt. Building one of our pool facilities requires as much as $2.5 million, so we can expand much faster this way. We also benefit as an organization from a bunch of different minds and personalities and experiences, making sure decisions are right for all of us.

“After Covid, we created a less-expensive franchise that is suitable for the many smaller urban markets where we have interest from potential franchisees. But with the change of administration in Washington, we are wary of potential litigation from any changes to the joint-employer rule that would hold franchisors more liable for franchisees’ employees.”

Hiring at Home

Ray Berry, CEO
Health Business Solutions / Fort Lauderdale, Florida

“We help hospitals fix denied insurance claims and leave behind tools for them to do better. For a typical client, we would bring in 80 people and leave 20 behind. But Covid stopped that.

“Fortunately, 10 years ago we had begun piloting a work-from-home solution. Hospitals did hate that because you don’t want people messing with medical records at home. But we’ve been able to lock all of that down so all of that processing occurs in a closely monitored central office.

“And as costs came down from remote work, we passed those savings primarily on to clients. That was even after we voluntarily took a 25 percent fee reduction as hospital patient volumes went down. That wasn’t an unwise thing to do.

“Work-from-home has opened the world to us in terms of hiring the best people to do their specialty from wherever. Now hospitals are giving us expanded duties. We’ve signed some new contracts and will likely double our revenues this year.”

Making Delivery Cheaper

Matt Johnson-Roberson, CEO
Refraction AI / Ann Arbor, Michigan

“Development in our space and in our town is expanding so much that there are humorously awkward moments where we pull up at an intersection and there are a couple of other companies’ experimental AVs there. But key to our growth is the fact that there are usually two to three people in those vehicles; ours are human-less.

“From day one we decided we weren’t going to be carrying people but goods and that we were going to focus on the last mile for delivery, because our AVs were going to go slower than a full-size car and be lighter and smaller. The most frequently transported good in our 25 vehicles in Ann Arbor is food.

“With a flat-fee delivery of $7.50 for as many as a half-dozen bags of groceries, we’re challenging the dynamics of what third-party deliverers like DoorDash do, where their chunk of the order can be fairly expensive for a small merchant. We’re looking forward to expanding our model to another city over the next year.”

Scaling for Customers

Chuck Sykes, CEO
Sykes Enterprises / Tampa

“We help our clients deliver good customer experiences to consumers, in centers for phone calls and email and chat and social media, with 55,000 employees operating out of 80 facilities in 21 countries.

“We’d been preparing for the work-at-home revolution, and the pandemic accelerated that to where 72 percent of our employees were working from home at one point. No less than half of our employees will continue to work from home.

“But we’re looking at growth also through creating microsites in smaller locations that might have 100 or even 50 seats instead of the 400 seats, with a training center and a cafeteria that are typical of today. We also are growing beyond our Fortune 1000 clientele by working with digitally enabled, hyper-growth startups where quality service is important to them.”

Catering to the Lives of Digital Natives

Doug Donovan, CEO
Interplay Learning / Austin

Doug Donovan, CEO, Interplay Learning

“We provide online and virtual-reality training for essential skilled trades. Manufacturing kept going during the pandemic, but companies saw the need for effective remote learning even of advanced skills. We had a 300 percent year-over-year sales increase. They’ve jumped over a fence, and they’re not going backward.

“Companies have gone from complaining about the manufacturing-skills gap to fixing it themselves. We help them build that foundational workforce with tools that look and feel the way they’re working and living. They can try a VR or augmented-reality device that allows them to actually experience what it might be like to work on a cooling tower on a roof.

“We’re going after this market now by marketing a value proposition in true digital transformation in areas where they haven’t done it. We publish white papers and case studies. And on the technical side, there have been some breakthroughs in VR hardware and distribution so that we’re going to start dropping $300 headsets as a marketing tool. We don’t need to explain the IT to them anymore—we just send customers these headsets for HVAC or electrical training.”

Broadening the Brand

Bob Wheeler, CEO
Airstream / Jackson Center, Ohio

“We’ve seen a dramatic spike in our retail sales and wholesale orders, and we just continue to pile backlog on top of backlog. It stands at about a year now versus typically about 12 weeks.

“But we want to grow our output in an intentional and controlled manner no faster than we can maintain and improve product quality. We also want to make sure that the new buyers who’ve come to us out of convenience then fall in love with the Airstream lifestyle, so they’ll become lifetime customers. We’re building the business for the next 10 or 20 years.

“A key part of that is extending the brand to things that people have to go out and purchase for the RV experience, like outdoor furniture and grills and things for inside the Airstream. We’re curating great products for them to help them get through the process of buying what they need or what they don’t know they need yet. We’re also incubating other small brands that work with us. It’s all a brand-building tool we’re having great success with.”

Supplying Demand

Brian Morrison, CEO
Terraboost / Bolingbrook, Illinois

“We had a media company that runs a network of wellness kiosks in retailers, which dispense wipes and provide advertising to clients such as Eli Lilly, PayPal, local hospitals and insurance plans. When Covid happened, consumption of wipes went up by 20X. Suddenly, we became a $100 million company by making and selling wipes.

“We had contracted out the manufacture of our wipes in China, but we wanted to capitalize on the demand. So, we’re investing $25 million in a new local plant that will nearly triple our capacity. We are providing 110 different kinds of advertising kiosks that dispense wipes and expanding contract manufacturing. We have the goal of making 90 percent of our wipes in America by the end of this year, from about 60 percent now.

“It’s a little bit crazy, but we’re riding this wave and trying to have a good blend of customers and contracts to sustain growth. Plus, demand for wipes isn’t going away, even after all the vaccines are distributed.”

Building the Board

Dan Springer, CEO
DocuSign / San Francisco, CA

Dan Springer, CEO, DocuSign

When Dan Springer joined DocuSign as CEO four years ago, the company’s solution for obtaining signatures on legal documents was gaining momentum as businesses of all sizes seized the opportunity to smooth what is often an arduous process. Realizing its potential, he knew, would mean getting the right people in the right roles—both within the company and on its board. “It was a matter of going through area by area and thinking about what the future leadership needed to be, and bringing in the folks that we thought could get us to that next level,” he says. 

In recasting the board, Springer started by bringing in Maggie Wilderotter, former CEO of Frontier Communications, as chairman. “Maggie and I pretty much transformed our 12-person, all-white-male board into a nine-person board that is about one-third women and one-third people of color,” he explains. “As with the management team, it wasn’t that we were trying to get rid of people, it was about the leadership capability and experience we needed for the future.”

When Covid-19 sent demand skyrocketing as lockdowns began sweeping the globe, Wilderotter and a strong board aligned behind the company’s strategy were just the edge Springer needed to avoid the stumbles that rapid growth often brings. “One of the most important things she’s done for me as a partner here was helping me to see the company not as we are today, or even in the coming year, but multiple years out,” Springer says. “We’re growing so fast that it’s easy to focus on just next year versus really thinking through the challenge of having people with the leadership experience for the company we were becoming—a very large public software company.”

Springer credits annual strategy sessions with the board and management for laying the groundwork to build up to 40 percent annual growth rate and sustain it during a pandemic. “When something like Covid hit, we were ready because we understood what our long-term plan was,” he explains. “That made it easy because we just accelerated our playbook. It’s the preparation and the alignment of the board in advance that sets you up to be successful when good things, bad things or challenging things arise.” —Jennifer Pellet