GRAYL's Startup Lessons: Listen to Your Audience, Find Your Path

26 June 2018

Like its water purifiers, the GRAYL team is small but mighty. In honor of the United Nations Micro-, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises Day on 27 June, we’re excited to share the company’s origin story of launching an essential tool for staying healthy while trekking the globe.

In technical terms, GRAYL makes travel-friendly water purifiers. But what GRAYL truly offers is something downright magical: Anyone, anywhere can make dirty, potentially dangerous water clean, safe, and great tasting in just 15 seconds.

Learn more about the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) and GRAYL initiative, #PurifyWaterAnywhere, designed to help travelers and tour operators reduce their dependency on single-use plastic water bottles and provide safe drinking water to their guests.

Creating safe water has been a challenge since time immemorial. However, it’s only in the past 20 to 30 years that portable water treatment has become widely available. Development of water filters and purifiers has largely been driven by the outdoor industry — for hikers, campers, and backpackers who need access to safe drinking water in the backcountry. It was with this customer in mind companies developed an array of pumps with hoses and suck or squeeze water treatment devices.

GRAYL launched in late 2013 with a different idea: to design a purifier that was easy, fast, compact, and lightweight with no moving parts and would work as well in a hotel sink as a backcountry river. In other words, GRAYL sought to create the best way for people to make their own safe water, anywhere in the world. This meant no hoses, no multi-step process, and no pumping, sucking, or squeezing. Instead, GRAYL would purify in one simple movement, or, as the tagline says: Fill. Press. Drink.

GRAYL products are easy to use, fast, compact, and lightweight.

When the first GRAYL purifier hit the market, the streamlined design won praise from outdoor enthusiasts, but there was another group of avid users who soon came to light.

Global travelers were thrilled to have an easy solution to the issue of unsafe drinking water abroad, whether they were trekking up Machu Picchu drinking from a mountain stream or from a sketchy hotel tap in Mexico.

It was this response from customers that helped Travis Merrigan and the GRAYL team realize the true value of the purifier technology and shape the path forward for GRAYL.

“Pretty quickly, we started receiving emails and social media messages from customers returning from international trips — from India, Jamaica, Peru — saying, ‘This thing saved my life, weeks in Southeast Asia and I didn’t get sick once,’” said Merrigan, co-founder of GRAYL, who worked on the original design with a small, talented team of three.

The six-person team at GRAYL has realized that international travelers as well as outdoor enthusiasts are using the purifiers.

“We thought travelers would be a secondary market, but we had to be humble, listen to our customers, especially industry professionals, and re-examine how we addressed the market. While GRAYL is fantastic for a hike, kayaking, or camping, it’s best for adventurous international travel,” Merrigan said. “We didn’t know this when we sold our first purifier in late 2013.”

With these insights, GRAYL started to build a stronger relationship with the travel community, especially the adventure- and experience-seeking side of the industry.

“One of the benefits of being a small company is that we’re nimble. When we get feedback from intrepid travelers who spend weeks and years trekking the globe, we can take those insights and put them into our product,” he said.

The GRAYL Ultralight purifier bottle was designed for use in rugged environments yet is unobtrusive and simple enough to use in a restaurant abroad. Not only does the GRAYL Ultralight filter out particulates, bad odors, and tastes, but it also purifies, removing bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. This means no more Montezuma's Revenge or other nasty travel bugs often caused by drinking contaminated water.

“For the international traveler, there’s no faster, simpler way to purifier water from any of the freshwater sources you might come across while traveling abroad,” Merrigan said.

Travelers around the globe have applauded GRAYL for its innovative product.

While GRAYL sees its small size (six full-time employees) as an asset, GRAYL is facing industry goliaths in the world of water filtration: $100 million USD companies selling a variety of products, not just water purifiers. However, most of these companies evolved from the outdoor industry and still make products best suited for that use.

“What works for a camping trip doesn’t work so well in your hotel sink,” Merrigan said. “We came at the problem from a different angle, using a very different purification technology and without the weight of history and decades of product development. Our small size is a challenge, but it allows us to be receptive to new directions and adapt.”

Yet this new path for GRAYL has not been without its challenges. When a backpacker is getting ready for a backcountry trek, taking something to make safe drinking water is a necessity. However, travelers rarely include water purification on their packing list. As a result, many international travelers rely on purchasing single-use water bottles while abroad.

“Most travelers don’t realize that not only are single-use plastic water bottles a huge environmental problem, but also a simple, easy-to-use alternative exists that doesn’t involve purchasing bottled water from a convenience store,” Merrigan noted.

The choice to travel with a water purifier like the GRAYL Ultralight is still gaining traction. The main way to overcome this challenge is through education, and the adventure travel industry has been a great partner in helping people realize there is a more conscientious way to travel. For example, the recent initiative to reduce single-use plastics launched in partnership with the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) helps educate and provide resources to tour owners and operators who want to reduce their plastic footprint.

This partnership is representative of GRAYL’s effort to grow into the adventure travel space, building relationships with retailers, partners, and industry experts.

“We have met some amazing people doing incredible things,” Merrigan said. “We are lucky and excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with the ATTA. Often the best thing we can do is just listen, learn, and be ready to jump in and be a part of the action.”

When asked if he had any advice for other small and growing companies, Merrigan was quick to say, “Listen to your customers and those who know your customers best, and they will guide you. Your idea is brilliant, but it’s probably only 70 percent right. Work hard, be flexible, and be humble. With a little luck, you’ll find your way.”

Find out how you can join GRAYL and the ATTA in eliminating single-use plastics.