Like a lot of good start-up stories, Grayl’s begins with a big risk and a comfortable place to sleep on the floor.
It all happened about the same time. In 2012 at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City, Nancie Weston was staying with a friend, who had kindly donated space on her floor during the trade show. During the day, you could find Weston walking around the show, holding something that looked like plumbing — galvanized and PVC pipes — and promising it to be a better, more efficient water filtration system.
It got some attention. For one, a representative for REI — a company that was in the process of removing BPA-laden plastic bottles from its inventory — met her as she wandered and said, if she could clean it up, they’d be interested.
“That just doesn’t happen,” Weston said.
Secondly, another person sleeping on the same floor as Weston happened to be an engineer and designer. Weston shared with him that she wanted to find a way to make a plastic and stainless steel version, despite being told by three engineers that it couldn’t be done. Other companies told her it was possible, but that it would cost more than $130,000, with no guarantees. The engineer, who worked with another company, said it could be done for $30,000, and that NASA had the designs.
“I had invented a few other things for a company I worked for, and I ended up leaving there and working for metals company … and then I thought, I just want to start my own company,” Weston said.
Dots were connecting. Just before the show, she had met Travis Merrigan, a web-savvy entrepreneur who bought into her idea and offered his support. Soon enough, Weston, a single mother of two, had mortgaged her home, Merrigan was pitching in his life savings, and after lining up a few other investors, Grayl came to life. (The name, in case you are wondering, is a play on “grail,” as in, “holy grail.” But they dropped the “holy,” saying they didn’t want to seem too pretentious, not to mention, it kept reminding them of Monty Python.)
To get the brand off the ground, Merrigan, with some consulting help from Stickeen, repackaged the product, finalized the high-end design, and brought it to several Seattle-area retailers for input.
“We were able to work with their customers, and it had a real influence on the product that came out,” Merrigan said. “With support like that, you can be flexible. You can take some risks. I can’t thank them enough.”
After “42 evolutions,” Weston half-joked, and a long round of testing with an independent company, what they developed looks like a thermos but with more moving parts, and can be operated like a French press. When one chamber is filled with water, it can be compressed through a filter into another chamber from which you can drink. Flow rates through the filters range from 1 liter per second, about average among water filtration devices, to 4 liters per second, at the very high end if not beyond what most competitors advertise.
An interchangeable filter system allows consumers to choose between high-flow, low-filtration systems like the Tap filter, or the low-flow, high-filtration system called the Travel tap. A middle-of-the-road Trail filter, one of the more popular options according to Merrigan, allows for a decent flow and will clean stream water to make it drinkable, but will not catch viruses like the Travel system’s filter.
Prices range from $50 to $70 for the whole systems, and $20 to $40 for the individual filters.
Consumers, so far, seem to be attracted to it. With REI and a few local retailers stocking Grayl filters early, the company also received a break after starting a Facebook page. They got a note from Nordstrom, the large retailer also based in Seattle, who said they were interested in carrying the product in their outdoors section.
And soon enough, a group of Boy Scouts found them and told them their tale.
“They were at the Borderlands,” Weston began the story, “and they had a Grayl.”
“They had one pump filter, one UV filter and three or four Grayls,” Merrigan corrected. “They dropped the UV in the water, the pump broke on the other, and they went six to eight days with three Grayls and 15 kids. They were constantly pumping, but it worked for them.”
The growth, so far, has been reliable. Weston and Merrigan said they just hired a sales person and customer service position, and after a year and a half of being broke and unpaid, they are have now seen their startup spread, literally, from the ground in Salt Lake City to more than 300 retail outlets around the world.
“We haven’t made it yet,” Merrigan said. “But we’ve come a long, long ways.”
Does Grayl have what it takes to make it in your specialty outdoor retail store? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page. Or, email us about another newcomer to the outdoors we should feature here.