At this point, if you train with a GPS unit, its more than likely that youve heard of Strava. The upstart company has quickly garnered a huge following for people looking to get something more from their GPS units. With the companys new smartphone apps, the companys ingenious concept continues to find its way into the hands of more and more users.
Simply put, in my humble opinion as a full-on Strava fan boy (Im more than slightly biased), Strava has taken GPS training to a whole new level. They did what I always wanted it to do, but I didnt even know thats what I wanted. The possibility to stack myself up against all the users that have done a particular segment or climb is amazing. Ive found a whole new level of motivation in 2011, and I find myself singing the praises of the small company that holds bases in Hanover, Boston, and San Francisco. It doesnt sound like much, but as someone who spends a fair bit of time on the bike, alone, competing against myself or against my virtual friends has become something I really look forward to, something that continually inspires me to do just a little bit more, go just a little bit harder.
I took a few minutes recently to talk to the guy behind Strava, Michael Horvath.
From my perspective at least, it looks like Strava is exploding.
We feel that way too! We are trying to hang on. We have just hired our 24th employee, [at the time of the interview, perhaps a month or so previous, the number was still only 17!] so we’re still really small. I don’t know if that sounds big or small to you, but I feel like we have work for 50 people, and we only have half that number. Everyone is putting in extra long days and really making sure we don’t let things fall through the cracks. There is a lot of interest in how this can be fun and motivating. If you are really focused on the sport, you are already out there, and Strava just fits in with that.
We just launched Strava for running as well. You are already doing the thing that you love. We are trying to make it that much more fun. We are trying to give them an experience online that is fitting for how much they love to do whatever sport it is. I think that’s what’s driving this explosion. It’s resonating with people. If any one of them sat down as said: “What would I want an experience with GPS data to be like?” They would probably dream up something like Strava. That’s what they would want it to be. That’s why it works. Most of us are cyclists or runners, so I think that’s what makes sense. We built something we wanted to use ourselves.
Before we get into Stravas history, tell me more about yourself – what came before Strava for you?
I’ve had a couple of different careers. I have a PhD in Economics, and I used to teach at Stanford. I started a software company with my co-founder, Mark Gainey, called Kana Software. It was an enterprise software that we made public in the late 90′s. I went back to teaching. I taught entrepreneurship for a number of years at the Tuck School of Business in Hanover, New Hampshire. That is where one of our offices is. Our support staff is up there. I sort of got distracted again when I was teaching and joined a group of scientists who started a biotech company. That was in 2001. I was on the management team there until we sold it to Merck in 2006.
Then I started Strava.
It’s been mostly entrepreneurship, starting companies and trying to do something that will solve a problem, help the world, or do something fun. This is definitely my first bit into consumer web. What I love about it is every day you have hundreds of thousands of people you are coming in contact with what you are doing. They are pretty vocal. They tell you what they like and what they don’t like. We get a lot of feedback all the time. You also can sense that if you are doing good things you can really tell right away with people.
With the biotech company, it still hasn’t created something that the whole world benefits from. It’s got a lot of promise, but it’s going to take such a long time to see it happen that it really won’t affect my lifetime. It may affect our kids.
We saw that with Strava though, within a couple of years, we were really able to build an experience that really makes a difference in people’s lives. You said that you are enjoying it and it’s making an impact on how you enjoy your sport. I love that aspect of what I’m doing now. We want Strava to be part of something that is important to avid athletes around the world with a number of different sports. If we are successful, I think people will let us serve them in other ways. Athletes have a lot of different interests. Whether it’s the beer they buy, what events they do, where they travel, how they find their friends – all aspects of what an athlete needs is what Strava is going to play a part in.
Where did the idea for Strava come from? How did this start?
My co-founder Mark Gainey and I were on the crew team in college – that was a long time ago. I’m in my mid-forties now. We always remember that feeling of going down to the boathouse every day for practice. You first compete with your teammates to try to get in the best boat, and then you compete alongside them to try and beat the other team. That camaraderie, the friendly competition accelerates the performance. It becomes so much stronger because you have this feeling of competing with your friends.
We wanted to try and bring that out, now that we are sort of time pressured with work and family, every hour I spend on my bike or running I would love for it to count for three hours. I want it to feel like it’s that much more powerful. It was really born out of this feeling that we missed the ability to have the motivation that comes from friendly competition. We didn’t see any of the other sites that use GPS data coming even close to this. We tried to build it so that you’d have a reason, you’d want to invite your friends to Strava so that you can compare your rides to theirs and start to challenge them. That was the starting point. Our own need. What we missed and what we wanted to see.
You saw this great possibility, but how did it go from the idea to this site?
If I am honest, it was just complete serendipity. We bumped into to a guy who now works for us. He was playing around with some GPS data, and said “I think we should be able to automatically identify climbs when you do a UCI categorized climb based on elevation gain and distance. If we can do that, we should be able to record people’s times on those climbs and then start comparing them.” We thought: that’s pretty good. We’ll start there. It was serendipity that we met this guy – he heads up support now and is a self-professed computer hacker, not really a software engineer. He was the starting point. It was the summer of 2008, three years ago now; we hired Davis (Davy) Kitchel to build a basic prototype. It was ugly and it wasn’t user friendly. We had half a dozen cyclists on the East Coast and half a dozen cyclists on the West Coast trying this very, very early version of Strava. They all said, “Wow, this is incredible. I am now riding 30 or 40 minutes more than I usually do. When I go out I am so excited about what I will learn when I upload.” That early trial convinced us that we were on to something big. We hired Davy full time, we hired two of those cyclist on the west coast, and Strava really kicked off in January of 2009. We spent 2009 in beta working on something you wouldn’t feel too terrible putting in front of your friends. It was a far cry from what it is today. It was definitely early, early days. We launched in January of 2010.
What has the growth been like since that time?
We spent most of 2010 just getting the product right. It was all referrals. We didn’t grow very much there. We ended last year with about 7,500 users. Now we are up close to 30x that now. It has exploded in the last six months because of a couple of things. We are starting to be a little more vocal out there. We did the Versus spots during the Giro d’Italia, Tour de Suisse, and the Spring Classics. We got some exposure there. The mobile app is really what is driving it though. We launched an iPhone app in early April, and we just launched our Android app in the beginning of June. People with smart phones are looking for apps to put on them. We are getting many more users that way than through the website now. It remains to be seems how engaged they are though. You can download an app, use it once, and never use it again, or if you buy a Gamin GPS device, maybe you’ll be really committed to using it. Having that many more people in our audience is great.
So whats next?
Some of the things we are now working on include route planning, live performance information via the mobile apps, and the ability to challenge your friends on specific routes.
What about paid versus free subscriptions?
We are really trying, in our dream of dreams, to have lots of folks who are using Strava, whether they are on the free version or the paid version. The paid version is really for folks who really value all the extra features and tools that give them views into their data and about themselves as athletes. We like that because right now we want to get the grid ridden. We want to have every possible stretch of rideable road or trail up on Strava. Having users, whether free or paid, is really valuable to us. Everyone makes Strava that much richer for the next person that comes along. If we limit that growth, it is to the detriment of everyone. It’s a focus of knowing what is important in the long run versus trying to generate a lot of revenue. We do have to pay our bills and running a software company is expensive. We are really seeing, we think we know what will happen when we make the switch. Could be disastrous, but I don’t think so. It’s going to be really fun to see how much faster we can take over this space for the avid athlete.
We are really focused on a type of person, a type of cyclist. We are trying to get someone who already loves cycling, who is already riding two, three, four times a week, and defines themselves as a cyclist. We really want to get that person hooked on Strava. We’re doing the same for running now. Maybe the person who is riding one or two times a week will see what is happening and they will want to come on too and become like that person. They aspire to do more, and Strava is going to help them do it.
We are going to be adding a lot of functionality around routes and ride planning coming this fall. It is definitely on our product road map. It is a much-requested area that we haven’t been able to focus on yet. Being able to see where you have ridden in an area and where you haven’t and how many climbs you’ve done versus how many climbs someone else has done. There are great data sets out there on a lot of different things, and you can use Strava more as a tool to explore your area or if you’re traveling to a new area. A lot of folks tell us that they would like to use Strava to find out where they should bike. That’s in the works.
At this point, I didnt really ask a question – I just gushed about how much I enjoy Strava…
We hear that a lot, people say they don’t go for rides anymore, they go for Stravas. There is definitely a sense that it is resonating with people. We are feeding into their passion. You already love cycling, and Strava makes you love it more. That’s what is really driving it. If we can keep doing that. I/We have choices every day on what we work on, and we are trying to find the right balance between social and performance. The balance of the two is what makes what Strava is doing really exciting. We are constantly trying to make sure we are focused on the right things.
To me Strava is a far more engaging social media outlet than Facebook. I love the chatter that goes on between friends after a posted ride. I love following what friends or acquaintances are doing in training. It feels like a new genre in social media.
You have identified something that we’ve noticed and really what we are building Strava for, which is giving you an online home where you can have that social fitness experience with people who really care about it. Even if you have hundreds of friends on Facebook and you told them about your great ride today, only a handful of them are going to care about it in the level you described. They are not going to be able to see the richness of what you did from that wall post and be excited about it. Strava gives you a way to really focus in on the friends in your life, the people that you are following, or the people that are following you, and to share this important part of your life with them. Definitely one aspect that is driving a lot of our growth right now is that people are realizing this concept of social fitness is something that they really like to do. It’s a great way to leverage the hours on the bike or on the trail. They can leverage it more by uploading it on Strava than by sharing it on Facebook.
Where is the name from?
It comes from the Swedish verb – ‘to strive’. My family comes from Sweden and it was my first language. When we were looking around for a good domain name, we knew what we were going to be creating, we thought it meshed pretty well with what we were helping people do. We are helping people strive for the best and motivating them and giving them fun and motivation to help them accomplish that.
What about your relationship with a company like Garmin? Is there one? Is it important?
We are a Garmin dealer. We worked hard to convince them that we would be a good partner for them. People come to our website who don’t have a device or who want to upgrade from an old device, and we sell a handful of Garmins. We are selling more all the time. We do that as a way to provide an easy pass for someone who wants to use both Strava and use a Garmin device. That’s not our core business. I think of Garmin Connect. Garmin has got lots and lots of users who use and upload to Garmin Connect. I would love to figure out a way to partner with them. There has to be 10-20% of the folks who upload to Garmin Connect would love to use Strava. They just don’t know about it yet. That would present a great opportunity for both Garmin and us. They are a big company and we are just a blip on their radar. It might take some time to get them to see that vision. I would love to entertain that with them.
Where do you see Strava in five years?
I am really focused on what is here and now and building the business we currently have, which is a great user experience. We are not trying to do this, so that we can do something else later. We are not building this up to millions of users and then start advertising. The core of the business is about serving the online needs of the avid athlete. Right now it is a great user experience. With time we will add components to the site that will serve the athlete.
One is taking a closer look at gear. We collect a lot of data on gear, and perhaps in the future, we can recommend things to users based on people like you and what kind of gear they are using. There are plenty of opportunities right here with this online business that we are building. If we are successful there, I think we will have some ways we can go.
One of the areas that I’m really intrigued by is that every day there are thousands of uploads on Strava. The top ten have got to be some amazing stories. There have got to be some remarkable stories every day. I would love to create a Strava channel. Something that you can think of as a media channel that is focused not on the pro athletes, they get a lot of attention already, but let’s look at the amateur athletes. Let’s showcase the top ten activities in each sport on Strava every day and bring out the stories. It’s a multimedia thing. This is just a vision I have. This is something that motivates people. Hearing about the great things that people are doing makes people excited to go out and do great things themselves. I think there is an opportunity to do a lot more once we have this core built.
For more info visit: strava.com