Looking for Motivation? Strava Aims to Connect Athletes at All Levels

If there’s a misconception about Strava, it’s that the fitness app is only for super athletes, CEO Mark Gainey says. While Strava users do include elite athletes like Olympic road race champion Marianne Vos and racing cyclist Niki Terpstra, the data shows that the customer base is really just a bunch of folks committed to staying fit through cycling and running. “They’re not terribly fast,” he says. “Speaking for myself, I can tell you it’s not about being fast.”

Instead, for Strava, it’s about building a community of people who encourage themselves and others to stay fit and hit their goals, and now, sharing data on exercise patterns to help governments make infrastructure decisions with the safety of cyclists and runners in mind. “We took an existing community, and we’ve kind of given them a new home,” he says. “It’s about motivation and entertainment. How do we keep people active?”

It’s a question that Gainey and his college pal Michael Horvath asked themselves back in 2008. The two co-founders met while on the crew team at Harvard, but as they got older, they found working out wasn’t as easy without a team of support. “We were two guys in our early 40s, and we found we love the athletic lifestyle, but frankly it’s hard to stay motivated,” he says. “It went back to our days on the crew team. When you have that team, that esprit de corps, it’s amazing how it keeps you going. Strava was an outcome of that but in a digital way.”

The name itself comes from the Swedish word for strive. Horvath spent his childhood in Sweden before returning to the U.S.

Strava uses the GPS in phones and third party devices to help athletes map and measure their runs and rides and track their progress over time. At first, the company catered only to cyclists, but about a year and a half ago, it expanded to include runners. Though Gainey says “there is still plenty of work there,” the long-term strategy is to add a variety of sports. Triathletes are a natural fit for Strava, so swimming is likely next. But even though the company itself focuses on two sports, about ten percent of their user base tracks other athletic activities, like kiteboarding and alpine skiing, with the app.

Strava’s basic app is free for users, and allows athletes to map their rides and runs, track progress and join challenges. The premium version costs $6 per month or $59 per year, and adds a bunch of functions, from custom leaderboards that allow users to see how their performance rates against people in the same age or weight class to analysis of strengths and weaknesses, to training videos, and a list of active friends who are currently out running or riding. Gainey finds the latter function particularly motivating; if by the time he gets up, he sees all of the friends who have already worked out, it’s an extra push out the door.

Though there are plenty of fitness tracking apps and accompanying devices out there, Strava is one of the few to focus heavily on specific sports, with targeted features like power meter integration for bicyclists and training logs for runners. They are also very specific about which devices they support. Fitness trackers without GPS—Fitbit, for example— just don’t cut it. “There’s so much noise in the marketplace today around fitness tracking devices,” Gainey says. “We have a very high bar around the kind of data that truly helps the athlete. It needs to be accurate.”

The company is watching what some other players in the space are doing—UnderArmour (which owns MapMyFitness), RunKeeper and Runtastic, but Gainey says that they don’t create sports-specific experiences the same way that Strava does.

Community is also huge for Strava. Within the app, users can also join specific groups to help encourage and motivate each other. Though the app does appeal to serious athletes like Olympians and professionals, that’s only one end of the spectrum. One of the biggest groups inside Strava is called Another Mother Runner, catering to female runners, mothers or not, fast or slow. “We’ve embraced competition at Strava, but we want it under the right context,” Gainey says. “It’s about pushing yourself.”

Though the company wants users to develop their own goals and compete with themselves, watching other athletes creep up on the leaderboard can also be very motivating. Within the app, users can designate something called Strava segments, a defined stretch of road or trail that they train on. When you run or bike along your segment, you can measure your performance against your own past workouts, but you can also compare yourself to other people who work out on your segment. So cyclists doing the climb at Old La Honda in Portola Valley can see how they stack up against everyone else who’s done the same ride, or filter the results by age group, gender and weight. “We want to make it as motivational as possible,” Gainey says.

Premium members can also get audio cues as they train, telling them how they’re doing on their particular segment. So far, users have designated nearly six million segments throughout the globe.

In fact, two-thirds of Strava’s users are from outside of the U.S., and the app is available in 13 different languages. Over the past five years, the company has also opened an office in Hanover, N.H., where a team works on GPS mapping, and an international team based in London. The 90-person company has raised a total of $25 million from Madrone Capital Partners and Sigma Partners.

So far Strava has focused on building out its community through the app. All of that tracking also means that Strava has a significant amount of data about how people work out. That data helps inform the app itself, but it’s also helping the company create new applications. Yesterday, it launched a new service called Strava Metro, which will give government organizations and planning agencies data and analysis on bike routes and commute patterns to help them make smarter decisions about infrastructure, and keep cyclists and runners safe. “We track 2.5 million activities a week worldwide,” Gainey says. “It’s a fascinating set of data.” High-resolution heat maps are free, but organizations looking for a deeper analysis will have to license the company’s data sets. So far, users include the Oregon Department of Transportation and cities like Arlington, VA and London.

As Strava tracks fitness activity around the world, it also encourages its employees to stay active. The company has two internal slogans: There’s always time for a ride or a run, and, if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen. (The company’s locker room, where employees who ride to the office store their bikes, is pictured above.)  “It’s part of the culture,” Gainey says. “It’s a lifestyle we really feel is important. We’re better, better employees, team members, family members.”

 

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