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One woman and a $45 water bottle made a $50M company

CNBC CNBC 6/04/2016 Katie Little

At S'well, water bottles cost up to $45, and still, sales are brisk.

Sarah Kauss knows her S'well bottles are pricey, but she's proven people are willing to shell out for the distinctive bottles, which keep drinks cold for 24 hours and hot for 12.

Last year, the company generated $50 million in sales, a sharp uptick from $10 million the year before, said Kauss, its founder and CEO. While S'well has generated strong numbers since opening in 2010 and is now sold in 35 countries, things didn't always go swimmingly. 

In the beginning, many stores just didn't get it.

"They wanted to know why it was $35 and who was going to buy it. It certainly got a lot of no's," she said.

Kauss credits the company's success despite the higher price to delivering on a quality product. She pitches it as a functional and fashionable water bottle.

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"We had rose gold before Apple had rose gold," she says.

Kauss got the idea for the bottle after a hike with her mother. The next year, she quit her real estate job to focus on launching the company— a move some friends thought was crazy.

S'well started as a one-woman operation with just 3,000 units in the first year because that's how many fit in Kauss' apartment.

"We never had investors. We still don't. For the first year and a half, I was the only employee," she said.

The early days were "a really steep learning curve" during which Kauss took numerous friends and others in her network for free lunches and drinks for advice and tackled the logistics of bringing a product to market.

Since then, the team has grown from one employee to about 35.

Kauss credits having "the right people at the right time and right systems and structures in place" as key to scaling the business.

She advises other entrepreneurs to use their networks to help develop their ideas. Another tip is to think bigger and bolder — it can be easy to get bogged down in the details and how much work needs to get done rather than focusing on the larger picture.

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