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Career Curveballs: When “It’s Policy” Can Cost Millions of Dollars

Originally posted by hint founder & CEO, Kara Goldin, in LinkedIn Pulse here.

My husband and I moved to San Francisco in 1994, attracted by technology startups with incredible visions of how we would live, work, shop and interact with one another in the future. After hundreds of informational interviews I landed at a tiny company called 2Market that set out to create an exciting shopping experience on the computer. My job was to convince the nation’s leading retailers to embrace our bold experiment and step into the future. I lined up J.Crew, Bare Escentuals, The Gap, Lands End and a ton of innovative new retailers and our team helped them build an incredible online shopping experience on CD-ROM (the internet was way too slow when we started). Soon after our second edition of the product, 2Market was acquired by AOL. We took over the AOL Shopping Channel and brought many of the top catalog merchants and bricks and mortar retailers online for the first time.

Then AOL did what they always did with new acquisitions and threw some of their own career curveballs: they told us we all had to move to Virginia or accept a severance package. I tried to explain that it didn’t matter where I lived, that I was traveling 200,000+ miles a year and that they should just let me stay in San Francisco, but that was not an option. With a reorganization under way, I didn’t even have a direct boss to speak with. This ultimatum, handed down by a committee that had no idea what my team did for the company, was absolutely crazy. We had annual renewals for the entire Shopping Channel coming up in a month and a hundred million dollars on the line, but they were willing to let their sales person walk. So I took the package.

A few weeks later, I got a call from my new “boss” who was in a total panic over how AOL was going to get the retailers signed up for another year. He wanted to hire me back! He and I agreed on terms that better recognized my contributions and he told AOL legal that I would be returning to the company and working out of my home in San Francisco. Legal said “no”. It was “against policy” to have an employee who isn’t working out of an official office and, BTW, they said I would have to give back the severance package. We were both dumbfounded.

I was getting calls from all of the other Internet portal companies who had been lagging way behind AOL in e-commerce. They were based in SF, but I really believed that AOL had a brighter future and wanted to be able to continue to build upon my past success. AOL legal dug in their heels and kept trying to kill the deal until there was less than a month left before all the shopping contracts would expire. I could have moved hundreds of millions of dollars to Yahoo or Excite, but I really wanted to continue to build upon my past success and I believed in the rest of the team at AOL.

So, I took a huge chance. I negotiated a consulting arrangement with my boss in which I would work on a percentage of sales, but there was no assurance that AOL Legal would allow the deal to go through. They delayed and delayed. My boss was freaking out at Legal for bringing the Shopping Channel to the brink of collapse over a “policy issue” but the lawyer involved was not backing down. Meanwhile, the retailers knew I had left and had been reaching out to me for advice on their next move online. While my boss fought with AOL Legal, I quietly got the retailers to sign a renewal, contingent on my return to AOL. In the final days before the contracts expired, legal agreed to allow the consulting arrangement. As soon as I received the signed copy, I put a big stack of renewal paperwork on the fax machine and hit send.

Ten minutes later the phone rang. I had saved the day and put in place the next step in AOL’s ongoing domination of e-commerce, but the lawyer at AOL was livid. He felt tricked and manipulated and was oblivious to how much value I had just delivered. Years later, I learned that not long after that episode he was hauled out of the AOL office on child molestation charges, but that’s a story for another time.

Six months after re-joining AOL as a consultant, they convinced me to return as a full-time employee and they allowed me to remain in San Francisco on condition that I agree to designate our apartment as an official AOL office! Over the next few years I took on additional responsibilities and AOL built the e-commerce business to a billion dollars a year. When the company merged with Time Warner in 2001, my stock vested and I left AOL to focus on my young family and do some consulting on the side.

A few years later, I used the money earned at AOL to launch my own “big idea”, unsweetened hint® water, as a way to make it easier for people to drink more water without any sugar or diet sweeteners. Ironically, we’ve built that business almost entirely in bricks and mortar stores, but I’m excited to (finally) be launching our own direct-to-consumer online store in the next couple weeks at Consumers will be able to subscribe to receive regular shipments of their favorite flavor direct to their door. Many of my former clients at AOL have helped us design our e-commerce strategy and we’re excited to be rolling it out this year so that we can make it even easier for people to Drink Water, Not Sugar®.

4 replies
  1. Cara Londin
    Cara Londin says:

    Congrats from one of your biggest fans and consumers! I am a walking advert for Hint — whether at my office (always on my desk — right now a hint fizz blackberry and flat mango-grapefruit), the gym, yoga or cheering from the bench at little league or travel hoops. Good luck with your next stage of development. I am inspired by your story and the success of your “Big Idea” especially when I pass your storefront up the road from where my grandfather started his business on NYC’s LES many years ago.

    • hint water
      hint water says:

      AWE! Cara, LOVE it! Thank YOU sooo much for writing in! And cheers to your grandfather too! Ideas are where all the magic happens and when you add in a good one + follow through = “BIG IDEAS” + big things happen:) Thanks for the love!

  2. Damon Crabtree
    Damon Crabtree says:

    Way cool! Some extremely tasty water! I appreciate hint water so much because there are very few alternatives for drinks when you have diabetes.

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