This, in essence, is why Strava exists. As the company’s co-founder and CEO, Michael Horvath, tells me at the company’s San Francisco offices, he found himself struggling to maintain the will to train. “I was a rower in college,” says Horvath, 45, tanned and trim, his floppy hair blown back from our Strava-logged ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. “When you leave a sport, you realize that so much of what made you excited about being an athlete was the motivation you got from your teammates. You can’t replicate that. It’s hard to find eight guys to row with every day.”
Horvath transitioned to marathons but still found it hard to motivate. What he was looking for, what he needed, was that mere presence. And so, in 1996, he and Mark Gainey, a friend and crew teammate from Harvard, started Kana Software. “We discussed building Kana into a kind of virtual locker room where you’d log your workouts and people could see them,” says Horvath. But as they spoke to developers, the limitations became clear: in those pre-Facebook days, social sharing was in the wilderness. “The technology wasn’t there,” says Horvath.
Fast-forward a decade. Facebook has made oversharing mandatory, Google has mapped the world, and GPS units and power meters are de rigeur for serious cyclists. Horvath, after teaching business classes at Dartmouth and Stanford for a decade, as well as serving as CFO for biotech startup GlycoFi, started talking to Gainey again. “In 2008, we saw what Garmin was doing with GPS, what Nike was doing with Nike+,” he says. In Horvath’s view, the fitness-app market was aimed at middle-tier athletes, not people who were obsessed with their data.
He springs from the table and draws a pyramid on a whiteboard. At the bottom are people with, he says, a “lot of problems. They probably need to lose weight and stop smoking.” Then there’s the recreational layer, “people doing maybe a 5K race once a year.” At the top is his audience, the “avids,” the “people who have defined their lives around their sport.”
Strava (the word means “strive” in Horvath’s native Swedish) was born in 2008, after Horvath and Gainey launched a small bicoastal trial: 10 riders uploaded data from their cycling GPS devices through their desktop computers. “The feedback we were getting from these 10 guys was that it had changed their life,” says Horvath. “Every time they saw someone else upload a ride, they wanted to go out and ride again.”
The idea of cyclists recording ride data is nothing new. In his 1978 book The Rider, Dutch writer and cyclist Tim Krabbé describes recording stopwatch times in a notebook: “Always the same route, just under 40 kilometers, so I could compare my times. At first I broke my own record by minutes at a shot, then I’d remain hanging against a ceiling for weeks, then suddenly pop through to a next level and nibble seconds off that, until I gradually started wondering whether I was getting good.” And as Horvath notes, on canonical climbs like the Tour de France’s Alpe d’Huez, “there were record-keeping methods that people were using, almost literally writing it into the stones—or a hotel nearby would record it into a book.”
What Strava did was turn those fevered scratchings and private notations into a rigorously measured, database-matched, global community with the sudden ability to turn the most banal ride into a race. “They can get that satisfaction without turning up at the starting line, in the rain, on a Saturday morning at 6 a.m.,” says Horvath.
From that small test bed in New Hampshire and San Francisco in 2008, Strava has grown by multiples—“15 to 20 times in the first year, eight to 10 times each year since,” says Horvath, while declining to divulge total users. Its biggest boost came from the release of a smartphone app that eliminated the need to have an expensive cycling GPS. The iPhone and Android apps can also upload riders’ data automatically once the device senses that it has stopped moving. While Strava is not yet profitable, the company says 20 percent of its users pay premium fees that let them drill down into their data—and compare it with others’. And while Strava doesn’t sell ads, it does run sponsored challenges that allow companies to reach riders much like they do when they underwrite a traditional race. “If you have engagement,” muses Horvath, “you can get a lot of other things: growth, monetization, revenue.”