Conversation with Tricia Compas-Markman, Founder and CEO, DayOne Response
1. What is your business?
I’m the Founder and CEO of DayOne Response, a company that makes getting clean water after humanitarian crises fast, simple and easy. Our flagship product is the DayOne Waterbag, a 10-liter, family-sized water purification device that we designed and on which we have four patents. We designed it to help out during floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and even vulnerable events like an ongoing drought or cholera outbreaks. It also works for seasonal rain events or when backpacking and you need a larger volume water supply. The backpack provides all four elements of municipal water supply: collection, treatment, transport, and protected storage, which empowers people worldwide to easily and quickly purify contaminated waters. In addition to being durable and robust, the DayOne Waterbag also provides a 95% delivery costs savings compared to bottled water.
We were very involved in last year’s 2017 North America hurricane response (e.g., Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria), but we also get involved in disaster situations all over the world that don’t make the news. Examples include rain/drought events in Ethiopia and a program in Rwanda focused on children’s well-being.
DayOne Response is a C-corp and for-profit. We didn’t establish ourselves as a nonprofit because we didn’t want to compete for funding with groups we were trying to help. It’s interesting being for-profit in the humanitarian space because it’s very much driven by donations and support, and we’re collaborating with private and public entities to tackle logistics, distribution, and sales so it works with the relief organizations.
We sell directly to relief organizations and government agencies, and we offer our products on Amazon and other e-commerce sites. Our backpacks have been used in over 30 countries around the world.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
My motivation for working on clean drinking water solutions started with my undergraduate work, when I co-founded the Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo university chapter of Engineers without Borders. It was through this experience that I was exposed to what clean drinking water can mean to individuals, children, families, and overall communities.
During my graduate program at Cal Poly, I worked with Dr. Tryg Lundquist to design and develop what is now the DayOne Waterbag technology. The motivation of the work stemmed from the natural disasters that were all over the media at the time — the 2004/2005 SouthEast Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina — where portable, compact, and easily deployable household water treatment tools were desperately needed. Shortly after graduating, I founded DayOne Response to go beyond an idea and create a water treatment solution for vulnerable populations. The goal was to create technology that people and families can use and have confidence in.
3. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
I had been offered an engineering job before I started this business in 2009, but it ended up getting rescinded because of the downturn in the economy. That gave me the opportunity to really think about what I wanted to do next. To have the opportunity to take a pause and see what I wanted to do was helpful. It was a great foundation. I also had a lot of support from Dr. Lundquist and other individuals from the university who then became my core advisory team. And still 8 years later, it’s so important to have those relationships and that support because being an entrepreneur can be lonely, questioning, and challenging.
I definitely had support from my family. My boyfriend at the time, now my husband, just told me to take some time and think about what I wanted to do next. I kept coming back to the technology we had created during my thesis, and I became convinced there was a commercial possibility and it could help people. The support of my family and friends was crucial because money was a concern when “starting up.” My husband (he’s also an engineer) was an early supporter of the business. He traveled with me to Haiti, Ethiopia and other places to help support our work.
4. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
When I was a student, Dr. Lundquist, gave me a great piece of advice. He said, “Follow up and follow through.” We had just received some funding from an “Innovation Quest Competition” on campus which was put on by an alumni group of entrepreneurs and business owners who wanted to give back to the university. We received first place, had a bit of funding, and that really supported my thesis work. Dr. Lundquist encouraged me to keep going. His advice was, “You have that money. There’s a whole team here that wants to see you succeed. So, follow up and follow through.”
It may seem like common sense, but because of that I built relationships with these core people and that spurred into building an even greater network. We still have a lot of good engagement, they really helped with things like evaluating whether to be a for-profit or non-profit, getting the right lawyers, manufacturing and that sort of thing. And it all came from that initial “follow up and follow through.”
5. Who did you speak to for support as you were working on the idea/launch?
The group at Cal Poly was obviously the big one for me—and a really cool partnership that developed from that happened right after I started DayOne Response. We met some individuals who worked for the U.S. Navy in Southern California and were able to complete a field study with them. They were looking at a different size water purification system for individuals, to a team of four, to larger squad levels. We were one of 10 technologies tested in a demo with the U.S. Navy and Thai Marine. The Marines received our bag and the pictograph instructions and had to see if they could operate it without any training. And they could. We have since expanded in doing more work with the military for humanitarian assistance disaster relief, where when they go in for a mission, they can leave our tools behind with the local population.
The U.S. Navy then connected us to Cascade Designsin Seattle, Washington. They had been doing some work with Cal Poly and the Navy, and we ended up partnering with Cascade Designs to understand manufacturing and the supply chain. They helped us go from prototype to low-rate production. We have a strong partnership with them to this day focusing on the humanitarian and global health markets.
We also work closely with Procter and Gamble who makes the purification packet that we use, and we support the Children’s Safe Drinking Water program. We’re the exclusive North America distributor of the P&G packets and collaborate a lot internationally as well—it’s a great partnership. One cool thing we do together is we’ve created a four-pack demo kit of purification packets that are used by elementary and high school for STEM education. It shows them the impact of clean water and a treatment system in which you can visually see the water transforming from dirty flood-like water, almost like chocolate milk, to clear water. It’s a great educational tool.
6. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
I’m proud that we designed a prototype in a lab for two years, and then we created a product that works and has created genuine interest. I’m proud that our backpack is being used in 30 countries. I’m proud of the journey. From being intimately involved with the initial design, to seeing it being used and addressing a need, I’m proud of that. There’s a lot more work ahead but it’s motivating and humbling.
I’m also proud of the team we’ve built. My co-founder, Amy Cagle, the head of sales and business development has a great perspective on looking at different channels. She’s a go-getter. We have another individual, Yohannes Hagos, who is based in Ethiopia. He worked for the Red Cross and Oxfam for three years, so his involvement is crucial to understanding our customers and the needs the end-users face on a daily basis.
7. What are some of your current challenges?
In the time of a disaster, the DayOne Waterbag is needed within 24 to 48 hours. We always need to be ready. In order to get the backpacks to areas of crisis as quickly as possible, we need to solve three challenges simultaneously: keeping an appropriate inventory supply, where to warehouse the backpacks, and understanding the supply chain. That’s the real challenge: the challenge of scale, having things positioned in the right area, and knowing the quantity ahead of time. We’ve been sorting through all of that. The logistics are incredible.
This year we’ve looked at where we can establish strategic hubs around the world so we can stockpile our product. Right now, we’re focused on the U.S., East Africa, and Dubai, where there is an established Humanitarian City of stockpiled products. We picked these locations because of storage availability and buy-in from private corporations and relief organizations.
From these hubs, we can deploy products within 24 to 48 hours all over the world. And Yohannes has established great relationships in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda so it’s important for us to be locally available to relief organizations there. That’s why we decided to work with great partners in East Africa, so we could service multiple countries and provide local availability. The hubs and strategic partners are so important for the global work we are tackling.
8. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your business was off the ground?
There have been both. It’s been really positive from my whole family, they are all so supportive and interested in what I do. They always want to help so I always have that constant support and interest which makes me feel less isolated. I just took some time to be with my family to decompress, and that’s really important to have some balance. We don’t take a lot of time away, but it’s helped me to be sharper and better.
The negative is just how demanding the job can be. We always need to be on and meet the customer’s needs. Sometimes that happens on a Saturday night or a Sunday. I have to say “no” to a lot of things, events, and friends. But since my family and friends have similar values, and many are entrepreneurs, they really get it and understand. Having my daughter has also helped me establish even better priorities and given me some new-found motivation that I didn’t realize was possible. It’s helped me to delegate and it’s strengthened my team and what we are doing.
9. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
It’s been about ten years since I started to develop this technology so I’m thinking back to that place and I don’t know that I’d change my approach because I don’t always want to know the nitty-gritty details or how long something will take. For me, I would probably have hesitated to pursue this path if I knew how challenging it would have been ahead of time.
So, my advice is to be open to change and know that things may not go as you plan, but it’s okay and sometimes even better. Sometimes you need to just run with it and take advantage of the opportunities ahead. It’s been fun not knowing what will happen, where it will lead, or how it will evolve—the unknown is fun and exciting.
10. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
In five years, I’d like for us to have all eight strategic hubs around the world up and running so we can always be prepared to provide clean drinking water in 24-48 hours following a disaster event. Additionally, we see an opportunity to expand along the water value-chain for longer-term development work, with our industry knowledge, identified customer needs, strategic partners, and key industry experts to capture the opportunities we have identified. Everything we do is focused on addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (specifically Goal 6): “Ensuring universal access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030 requires we invest in adequate infrastructure, provide sanitation facilities, and encourage hygiene at every level.”