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THE INC. LIFE

Why S’well Could Only Have Become a $100 Million Dollar Company in New York

S’well founder Sarah Kauss says being based in New York City gave her company an invaluable edge.

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BY Will Yakowicz - 05 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

S'well is unlike most other reusable water bottle companies. Each season, the New York City-based company releases new limited-edition design collections. By giving its products the fashion and design treatment (while maintaining a message that promotes utility and save-the-world environmentalism), S'well has successfully hit its stride. Last year, the company earned $100 million in revenue.

17oz. Oahu S'well bottle.

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Sarah Kauss moved to New York a few years after getting her MBA at Harvard University in 2003, and it was one of the best decisions in her life.

Kauss was just 35-years-old when she launched S'well in 2010. This year, the company ranked No. 99 on the Inc. 5000 list of America's fastest-growing private companies. But unlike other Silicon Valley startups, S'well had a secret weapon: Its location.

A Proud New Yorker

"We're based in New York City, and there seems to have been this magic that has happened to S'well because of that," Kauss says. If the company were based anywhere else, it'd have been harder to access the city's immediate benefits of trends, partnerships, networks, and resources.

In the early days, when Kauss was growing the company company from her her apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side, she'd call her classmates from Harvard, many of whom moved to the city after graduation, and buy them wings and cheap beer at Brother Jimmy's. She received helpful on advice on how to make her product and design a website. For inspiration on what color to pick for the first S'well's bottle, Kauss went to the Barnes & Noble that used to be in Columbus Circle and flipped through the Pantone book of colors until she found the perfect "Ocean Blue."

Space for Scrappiness

After hiring her first three employees, Kauss was ready to move out of her apartment. But as a lean startup, she had to rent an office space without needing to put down a deposit. Luckily, there was WeWork in the Meat Packing district.

S'Well's New York City office.

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When S'well grew to 10 employees, a Union Square brownstone--complete with a fire place and floor-to-ceiling gilded mirror--became available on Craigslist. Kauss would invite fashion buyers from J. Crew and Bloomingdale's to mingle and view the collection after work hours.

"I don't think these brands would've had a warm reception to me if I was lugging a suitcase full of bottles and in town from the suburbs," she says. "That's all New York."

For two years, Kauss worked on getting her products into Bloomingdale's. Full with determination, she'd hop on the subway a couple times a month just to swing by the store and pitch her "hydration fashion accessory." When they finally said yes, Kauss had them came by the brownstone to a S'well neon sign to display in the store.

"Would I have gotten into Bloomingdale's if I wasn't a subway ride away? If I was in the Midwest, I don't think I would've been able to fly back and forth just to get rejected for two years," says Kauss.

A New York-Centric Design

"We made a rose gold bottle two months before Apple started using the color," says Kauss. Her well-designed, double-walled, stainless steel bottles have featured designs by artists like Anna Sui and Richard Haines, and brands like Lilly Pulitzer and Starbucks.

S'well has since expanded to 2,600 across 65 different countries from specialty shops like the MoMA Design Store to high-end department chains like Nordstrom. Recently, it launched a smaller and cheaper bottle for the mass market to be sold in Target.

"Our employees, they were taking the subway, going to museums and catching the pulse of fashion and trends--we got to see what people are wearing and what they're doing everyday," Kauss says. "When I think about how does this all come together, how did we get to where we are today? It's a lot of hard work, but it's also 'x' factor of New York City."

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