RunKeeper Not Spooked by New Apple, Google Health Push

3/21/14Follow @curtwoodward

If you’re an independent tech company based on mobile health and fitness data, this might have been a week that made you nervous.

With back-to-back leaks and announcements, the two most important companies in mobile confirmed that their sights were set squarely on digital health.

On Monday, there was the carefully revealed news that Apple is deep into building Healthbook, an application that could pull together a huge array of health information. Some of the leaked features hinted at the long-rumored iWatch, but the main point was that Apple is probably making health data a central part of its homegrown iOS applications. 

The next day, Google announced that it was releasing a version of its Android operating system specifically for wearable devices, such as smartwatches. Google said it will also be working with manufacturers to make an array of smartwatches reality in the coming months, and fitness was once again called out as a major focus. 

Jacobs

Jacobs

That one-two punch of news got the attention of RunKeeper CEO Jason Jacobs, whose fitness-tracking app has captured about 30 million users.

The venture-backed company, which has raised about $11 million from investors including Spark Capital, is used to competing with big names—just look at Nike, whose Nike+ fitness application and hardware business has always been an 800-pound gorilla in RunKeeper’s market. 

With Apple and Google’s interest, the stakes get a little higher. While both companies rely on independent developers to build consumer software for their platforms, there’s always the possibility that one or both could decide to make its own RunKeeper-style application, and cut the independents out of the picture.

Jacobs, however, thinks there’s plenty of reason to be excited about new health aggregators and broader support for wearable devices that tie into the smartphone. Besides, as he said in our chat at Xconomy’s Mobile Madness conference on Wednesday, “nobody’s killed us yet.”

Why does Jacobs think RunKeeper has a shot at thriving? It comes down to focus. While the handset and mobile OS suppliers are apparently trying to build broad health aggregation systems, RunKeeper sees its mission as finding new ways to help people become more active.

“Once, we may have found that competitive. I think now, we see that as adjacent and complementary. And if they’re successful in those efforts, that can help be the catalyst to jump-start our efforts to build this active living brand,” Jacobs told me in an interview at RunKeeper headquarters. “We’re not in the data integration business, we’re in the problem-solving business. And the problem we’re solving is helping people get off the couch and stay off the couch.”

In some ways, the headlines about Apple and Google digging into health tracking probably weren’t a surprise for RunKeeper. The company already is partnering with Samsung, the leading maker of Android smartphones, on that company’s smartwatch and related health-data application, called S Health.

There’s got to be some trepidation about Apple and Google moving into the neighborhood, of course. But RunKeeper seems to be in a solid position to survive the belated interest of the technology behemoths.

The company, which is officially called FitnessKeeper, was founded in 2008. Its rise has followed the growth of smartphones in general, giving Jacobs and company a front-row seat for one of the biggest computing revolutions in history.

The early start allowed RunKeeper to miss some of the worries that app developers face today, like the nearly impossible task of amassing users in a crowded app store. But it’s also meant pressure to keep growing the user base, and perhaps more importantly, keep them engaged.

Jacobs won’t discuss how many of his roughly 30 million users are active each month, which is a broadly accepted measurement of app performance. There’s a good reason for that: going for a jog takes a lot more effort than posting a photo to Facebook or playing a game of Candy Crush, so RunKeeper might seem poorly used if you compare it to all other apps.

But Jacobs says RunKeeper has a lot more longevity than apps in other categories, mostly due to the fact that people will start and stop fitness routines—but tend to keep the app on their phones.

“If you stop using Facebook for four months, then you probably are sick of Facebook,” Jacobs says. “We have a bunch of RunKeeper crazies who stop using us for months at a time, but if you ask them, they’ll say, `Oh, I swear by that application. I love RunKeeper. As soon as they put on their gym shorts and sweat again, they come running right back to RunKeeper.”

That means the next phase for RunKeeper is finding ways to get more involved in users’ lives throughout the day. Jacobs says the increased number and sophistication of sensors in mobile devices, along with the growth of RunKeeper’s software prowess, gives the company an opening to do some interesting things.

“If they run in the morning before work, it’s like, what about all the decisions they’re making the rest of the day?” Jacobs asks. “Do I take the steps versus taking the elevator? Do I take my bike versus take the train? Do I eat tuna fish and salad or a Big Mac? None of that is factored in, and to us that’s just a missed opportunity.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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