“We were told that the technology needed to create Strava would never exist” | Technology


Michael Horvath, co-founder of Strava.
Michael Horvath, co-founder of Strava.Alan Hale

On the computer screen, Michael Horvath (55 years old) offers the archetypal image of the Californian entrepreneur: fit, casual clothes, graying curls above his forehead, relatively tanned complexion… He is going through his second stage at the head of Strava, a of the most popular applications to measure sports progress. Five years after founding it, he left the front line to take care of his wife and spend time with his four children. Two years after his death, Horvath, a Harvard alum (whose rowing team he captained), a former Stanford economics professor, has returned as CEO to reinvigorate the company.

He concentrated the business on subscription, and by the end of 2020, the company’s turnover increased by 70% to $100 million. Strava was profitable for the first time. Among its shareholders is the venture capital fund Sequoia Capital, whose previous investments include Google, PayPal or Zoom.

Michael Horvath and Mark Gainey, founders of Strava.
Michael Horvath and Mark Gainey, founders of Strava.Alan Hale

Ask. Strava is not exactly new. What moved you to found the company in 2009?

Answer. We founded Strava in 2009, right. But in reality the project dates back to the last century. We had the first idea in 1995, after graduating from the University [de Harvard]. There we agree Mark [Gainey, actual presidente ejecutivo de la empresa] and me competing on the rowing team. When we left the University, however, we lost the team, we lost the motivation to train, to stay active. And so we wonder if we could get it back with technology, with the internet. Can we build a virtual team, the virtual locker room? The answer was yes. But we couldn’t get the company up and running. The technology back then wasn’t really compatible with a GPS, it was really expensive and it wasn’t very accurate. No one shared personal information with strangers. For this we had to wait a few more decades.

P. Did you already have the idea in 1995?

R. Yes Yes. We even draw up a business plan. We talked to some web developers for help. We asked them if they could develop a website where people could upload their training and interact with people around that activity. They told us that this was not possible and that it would never be. That it was never going to work.

P. They had to wait…

R. Exactly. Twenty years later things suddenly became possible and we launched into cycling first. But although there were already smartphones (smartphones) back then in 2009 we did it only on the web. We didn’t develop a mobile app until 2012. To interact with our app you had to have a Garmin watch or some other GPS device.

So the growth of the company is somewhat dependent on the growth of the technology that enables the experience, and that includes mobile devices, GPS devices. Today, 13 years later, it is possible to connect more than 400 different devices. I think our differentiator is that we’ve built an open platform, which allows many app developers and device manufacturers to release products compatible with Strava. For this reason, we are currently growing at a rate of two million new subscribers per month.

P. This month, Google formalized the purchase of watchmaker Fitbit. This operation has raised a lot of concern about health data. This is a sensitive issue in Europe. And in the United States, too.

R. Yes, everywhere.

P. How do they treat them? Why should we trust them with our data? Would they sell this data to other companies?

R. We do not sell data. That’s why we have a team dedicated to thinking about everything related to privacy and trust. We want our athletes to exercise a lot of control over how their data appears in the experience. They have, for this, some precise privacy settings in detail that we try to make easy to understand. Privacy is part of the experience. We believe that the relationship we have with the 95 million people who have signed up to Strava is built on trust. If they cannot trust us, they will not contribute by contributing their activities. And that requires them to trust that we do good things. We treat data with confidentiality and privacy in mind.

P. They also do not cross them with medical data obtained by other applications to take advantage of them?

R. No. The user can choose to connect their account with other experiences. But that’s his choice: we don’t do it for him. Data is safe with Strava. We do not sell them to anyone. We are building a brand that will be here for the next century and beyond. And we need to build a business that supports it, and it’s based on our subscription model. We offer an experience worth paying for. We do not sell to the customer.

Harvard rowing team in 1988. Strava co-founder Michael Horvath is fourth from left.
Harvard rowing team in 1988. Strava co-founder Michael Horvath is fourth from left.

P. How has the business model evolved? It wasn’t always subscription based, was it?

R. No. We have worked with subscriptions from the beginning. What is true is that we have changed what we offer with the season ticket. Since 2020 we have added a lot of new features, about 80 or so. In fact, we have concentrated on subscription and stopped doing a lot of other things.

P. Spain is its third market in Europe and the fifth worldwide. According to their data, there are 3.5 million registered users here. What are your goals in this country? Do you see any special potential?

R. We are very excited about Spain. I think it’s already a very big community for Strava and it can grow a lot. We are going to invest in our European team this year, around 200 people, and many of them will be focused on European markets, including Spain, France, the Netherlands region, as well as the UK. In Spain, cycling had traditionally predominated among our athletes, but walking and hiking are the activities that have grown the most in 2021.

P. They insist a lot on the fact that they are profitable. Do you plan to go public?

P. Currently we are focused on building a community. The business results will take care of themselves. We do not have a calendar to go public. For us, success is serving the customer. If we do that right, the business will continue to grow and we don’t get distracted by the crazy environment surrounding the Stock Market.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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