Could Letting Go of Perfectionism Be the Key to Success?

An American businesswoman sits down with Real Simple to talk about perfectionism, happy hour, and the winding road to entrepreneurial success.

sarah-kauss
Photo by Patric James Miller via S'well

Some entrepreneurs are born; others are made. Sarah Kauss, 40, the daughter of two small-business owners, was born with the DNA but spent years working for others before she landed on her big idea, in 2010: a sleek stainless-steel water bottle that keeps cold drinks cold for 24 hours. Her company, S'well, now sells products in more than 10,000 stores in 35 countries.

What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Jupiter, Florida, and was very close with my family. They were hard workers. My dad owned a car wash and a gas station, and my mom had an ice cream store.

Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
I probably knew that someday I'd be running a business, but I had no idea what it would be. I changed my mind on a regular basis. I think my first major in college was international affairs. It turned out I wasn't great at languages—or maybe I wasn't dedicated enough to them. I ended up majoring in business and accounting.

You worked in accounting after college for four years.
Yes, then I went to Harvard Business School. And after that I worked in commercial real estate. I hate to say I felt unfulfilled, because I did have a career. I was a vice president and had a business card that looked impressive. But I didn't feel passionate about what I was doing.

When did the idea for S'well hit you?
In 2009 I was on my first vacation in many years, hiking in Arizona with my mom. It was a hot summer day at this beautiful spot in the desert. I took a drink from my water bottle, and it was warm. I thought, There has to be a better way to not waste plastic bottles and keep water cold. Later my mom and I were talking about work, and she said, "What would you do if you didn't have a job and you were finally going to start a company?" I knew the answer right away. I started writing the business plan for S'well on that vacation.

How did you create the product?
It took time to find engineers and design firms I could afford who would take me seriously. I needed people with the skills I didn't have. I wound up working with creative consultants in New York on the engineering and design and other consultants on the intellectual property. Then it was up to me to find a factory that could take it off the page and make it in 3-D.

What were the early days of S'well like?
It was just me in my tiny [New York City] apartment. I kept cases of S'well under the kitchen table. If a customer put in an order, I'd ship it from the post office. The first national account I got was with Crate & Barrel. It was for a couple of thousand bottles. I printed out the barcode stickers on my home printer and asked my friends to come for a "packaging party." We drank wine and put stickers on every box and got that order out. It was such a relief that we were able to deliver it on time.

What did you learn in those early days?
I realized I had to get over being a perfectionist. I was doing shipping and customer service and fulfillment and going to trade shows. It was a constant challenge in time management.

Anything you would have done differently in retrospect?
The company would have grown faster if I hadn't been embarrassed to talk about it—if I wasn't waiting for everything to be perfect before I brought it out in the world. There are so many people who helped me along the way, but they could have helped me sooner or to a bigger extent if I had just asked.

Why didn't you ask?
I didn't want to be this girl with a dream; I wanted to be a woman with a business.

What helped build your confidence?
That first big order. It was really exciting.

Your company has a strong eco mission.
Yes, through a group called American Forests, we've funded the planting of more than 100,000 trees across the country, including in my hometown.

You have 35 employees now. What type of leader are you?
I think I'm fair but tough-minded. I love my team. I want people to grow in their careers but to also like to come to work.

You have office happy hours on Fridays.
That's probably my favorite part of the whole week. We celebrate mini milestones and laugh about anything silly that happened. Having a glass of wine with coworkers is lovely because you feel like you've put everything behind you before going into the weekend.

How about your life outside of work?
I recently got engaged. My fiancé is also an entrepreneur, so he's very understanding of my life. I'm a terrible one to talk about work-life balance, because I don't really have much balance.

Do you cook during the week?
I do. I'm a big fan of the Crock-Pot. You get the credit of a home-cooked meal, but it's so easy. I try to make a big supper every Sunday and invite friends over. It's kind of old-fashioned, and it helps me start the week off feeling really stable.

What's your advice to women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Your idea doesn't have to be perfect. It's about being confident in it. If you think it's good, there are probably many people out there who will also value it.

Any final thoughts?
Be patient with yourself. I wish I had been more accepting that all the answers didn't have to come when I was 25 or 30 or even 35. At every job and every stage, you're picking up skills, ideas, maturity, confidence—and that all leads to where you end up.