Illustrations: Eva Cremer

The Cutthroat Battle Between S’well and Its Bougie Water Bottle Copycats

Entrepreneur Sarah Kauss built a thriving $100 million business — but she never imagined the hell she’d find on the other side

Stephanie Clifford
Published in
22 min readNov 25, 2019

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SSarah Kauss makes water bottles. Those bottles hold liquid. That’s it. That’s what your average person might think. But when Kauss looks at one of her bottles, she sees methodical, scrupulous detail, like a mother might notice her child’s Australia-shaped birthmark on her left leg. There’s the bottle’s body that keeps liquids cold for up to 24 hours or hot for 12. There’s the fluting on the bottom, a metal cap, two layers of stainless steel — one made of copper so it doesn’t sweat — and a wide mouth for ice cubes. Kauss gives her bottles the runway treatment too, unveiling themed, sometimes limited-edition collections twice a year, with designers like Lilly Pulitzer, or partnering with charities like Unicef. Some bottles have been splattered gold and ivory inspired by Calacatta marble, others with the whirls and grain of distressed teak. And they’re socially indestructible; a stylish Dallas dad can swig from it at private-school dropoff, an ad exec can set hers alongside her Moleskine at a client pitch, or a couple on a picnic can fill the 25-ouncer with an entire bottle of chilled rosé.

So, although it’s a water bottle, Kauss has worked to make it a whole lot more. In the process, she’s transformed a commodity into an affordable luxury — that sweet spot of consumerism — charging $35 for a standard bottle. She’s also upended an entire product category. And, unexpectedly, found herself mired in a web of lawyers, private investigators, shell companies and digital sleuthing that seem more the realm of an action movie than bougie product developer.

Kauss studied the fakes and did some frantic Googling, discovering the fakes’ factory was in the same town as Kauss’s authorized factory.

Kauss first got the idea for S’well while she was hiking in Arizona in 2009. An accountant who got her Harvard MBA, then worked in commercial real estate, she was a lifelong recycler and had become anxious about water bottles filling trash cans. On that…

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Stephanie Clifford
Marker

Journalist covering criminal justice and business; novelist (NYT bestseller Everybody Rise). Latest: https://marker.medium.com/inside-the-surreal-and-emotional-