Business Unusual

How a Thirst for Fashion Is Driving Sales for This Hot Accessory

How a Thirst for Fashion Is Driving Sales for This Hot Accessory

S'well Bottle

Image credit: S'well Bottle | Facebook
This story appears in the January 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

S’well founder and CEO Sarah Kauss likes that Tom Hanks and Ellen DeGeneres are fans of her company’s chic stainless-steel water bottles. And that The Big Bang Theory actress Kaley Cuoco regularly Instagrams about the product. (Even when #obsessedwiththisbottle crashed S’well’s website.) But what Kauss really enjoys talking about is how one of her bottles survived the Apocalypse. At least, the Hollywood version as seen in the movie The Rover.

“Actor Guy Pearce is such a fan of S’well, he wanted a bottle in his movie,” Kauss says. “Of course, it had to be terribly beat-up so that it looked like it survived the end of the world. Even beat-up, its beautiful design was evident.”

S’well is not the first company to make insulated, stainless-steel bottles. But it is the first to make them stylish enough to be sold at Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, J.Crew, Shopbop and, recently, Apple’s Cupertino, Calif., store. “We like to think of ourselves as a beautiful, well-crafted fashion accessory that does really well staying hot or cold,” Kauss says. “Our customers are interested in the environment and in being green, but even more so in being on trend and being fashionable.”

The bottles -- all the same sleek, simple shape -- come in 9-, 17- or 25-ounce sizes and are vacuum sealed to keep contents cold for 24 hours or hot for 12. Prices range from $25 to $42. The company also makes customized bottles with logos for companies and sports teams.

S’well follows the same calendar as fashion brands, releasing spring, summer, fall and winter lines. This winter’s line features metallics: white gold, rose gold, yellow gold and titanium. “We’re not following the trends but making them,” says Kauss, whose rose gold bottle debuted before Apple’s rose gold iPhone.

The New York-based company -- which Kauss, a graduate of Harvard Business School and former CPA at Ernst & Young, launched and funded in 2010 -- generally has about 100 designs available at any time. Some require extensive development. S’well spent 18 months getting the painting technique just right for the bottles in its (faux) Wood Collection; Kauss jokes that they need tags that say “No trees were harmed in the making of this bottle.” In fact, the company takes it a step further: For every Wood Collection bottle sold, S’well pays for American Forests to plant a tree.

Fans collect bottles to go with their outfits and moods. “S’well has become the water bottle to be seen with on the street, at spin class and everywhere in between,” says Dan Leppo, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of Home at Bloomingdale’s, where S’well is merchandised in the women’s ready-to-wear, men’s and home departments.

Kauss had always carried a water bottle but was “embarrassed by it,” she says. “It never fit my aesthetic as a businesswoman, but I wanted to do my part to rid the world of plastic bottles. With S’well, I was creating a bottle for myself, first and foremost, and hoping there would be a market for other people like me.”

That market has far exceeded Kauss’ expectations. For the past two years, the company has experienced 400 percent revenue growth. In three years, S’well went from a one-woman show to a company with 35 employees. In 2015, the company was on target to sell 2 million bottles in 35 countries.

The international presence is mostly through Starbucks, which last summer began stocking S’well bottles in three colors at 10,000 stores around the world. “We’re just starting to do a big Asia push ourselves,” Kauss says. “Also in Europe. Globalizing it and making it work for an international crowd is one of the next big challenges.” 


Quenching Retailers’ Thirst

Though S’well has buyers calling from high-end retailers, during the first couple of years in business, it was founder Sarah Kauss “hitting the pavement” that got the bottles into stores. She took online preorders, mostly from family and friends, before she had actual inventory, but waited until she had product in hand (shortly before Christmas 2010) to approach retailers. Then, “I just walked in the door of a boutique in Greenwich Village and told them my story and showed them my S’well,” she says. “Since there was only one size and one color, I could carry the entire line in my bag.” The shop owner placed an order.

In 2011, Kauss shopped her bottle at 17 trade shows, mostly targeted at gift buyers. “I stood in the booth, talked to buyers and told them my story,” she says. By the end of that year, 600 independent retailers carried the bottles, and Crate & Barrel was selling S’well’s Silver Lining bottle online and in its stores.

In July 2011, the bottle was featured in Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine. “O helped open doors,” Kauss says. “We started getting a fair amount of calls from buyers whose customers were looking for S’well bottles.”

The answer wasn’t always yes. “We turn down a lot of retailers,” Kauss says. “I only want to be in the best places. We want to protect the brand and product. The retailers we do work with want to understand that we are going to keep the brand at a high level. If it doesn’t sound or feel right to me, it isn’t hard to say no.”

Edition: December 2016

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