I recently spoke with Miles Bowles, founder and chief product officer, and Founder Jock Thompson of PÜL. PÜL’s first commercial product is the SmartCap, a smart water bottle cap and its associated app. The cap doesn’t appear to be particularly special until you take a swig of water and the top illuminates, with a blue light indicating that the drinker is adequately hydrated and a red light indicating that the user needs to drink more water.
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We’ve all likely heard the admonishment to drink eight glasses of water each day, and the older generation has observed a simple swig from the tap or a hose evolve into hydration and expensive bottled water. PÜL sought to bring a more scientific foundation to this advice after the founders discovered that 75% of the U.S. population is chronically dehydrated.
The SmartCap itself is the foundation of the goal to simplify the science behind hydration. “All you have to think about is looking for the blue light on your bottle,” Miles told me, and in practice, that’s the primary interaction with the SmartCap. The app, which connects to the cap, not only monitors how much water you’ve consumed via a flow meter in the SmartCap, but adjusts your hydration requirements based on everything from your activity to the weather, humidity and alcohol consumption.
A significant challenge in the fitness gadget space is the proliferation of apps and cloud services that generally don’t communicate with each other, and PÜL takes the typical path of using Apple Heath as a middleman of sorts. After logging a run on my Garmin fitness watch, the data from the run eventually found its way into the PÜL app, and my hydration requirements were adjusted accordingly. Any of the myriad fitness tools that exchange data with Apple Health will ultimately work with PÜL, although the various hops your data must take are a bit clunky.
PÜL’s founders mentioned that devices like the Whoop Band, Apple Watch and FitBit had made digital health and wellness tracking more acceptable to the broad consumer market. Despite most of these services offering a rudimentary way to track hydration requirements, they wanted to combine a scientific basis for hydration with a simplified user experience. Intriguingly, they didn’t start with the SmartCap when founded in 2016 through a tech incubator, providing a lesson for tech leaders pursuing innovative services or digital products.
From surfing to SmartCap
PÜL started with a hydration product aimed at surfers based on a passion for the sport, but found that the market wasn’t overly receptive. Based on instinct, they made their first pivot to the running market, creating a wearable system that monitored water consumption.
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Based on testing and customer interviews, the team discovered that initial versions of the product were difficult to use, since it required significant “sucking force” to get water while running. This necessitated another course correction, and they added a cap with a pump to make drinking easier. The cap also included a light, and during user surveys, the team found that runners were more excited about the real-time feedback from the light than the pumps and active delivery technology.
Based on our conversation, this seemed to be the Eureka moment where PÜL shifted from focusing on a hydration product to making hydration science more accessible. Jock summed up this sentiment when asked about this pivot: “We had to stay true to our values and build a product based on the science.”
When asked what the most challenging part of this pivot to hydration science was, the team said that it was “getting that last 5% right,” and shared stories of the challenges of everything from getting the physical SmartCap to feel like a high-quality product, to debates around the color scheme for the light atop the SmartCap.
This rigorous focus did allow the broader team to stay focused and motivated. Any features or requirements that didn’t solve the core problem of making hydration science accessible fell by the wayside: “Sticking to our guns actually kept everyone motivated.”
The product seems to have met their expectations, and it’s one of those rare devices that simply works. After a day or two of obsessively checking the app, I began to drink from the bottle normally and trust that the blue or red light was well-informed by my activities and hydration science. A conceptually simple idea of making complex hydration science accessible took Bowles and Thompson from the surfboard to the SmartCap, with market feedback, customer research and a bit of instinct driving pivots along the way.