Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Interview with Strava Co-Founder Michael Horvath

In December on a trip back to the US I had to opportunity to visit the Strava headquarters, in downtown San Francisco.

Being from a digital agency, the office looked familiar to me - a big open space with lots of Macs, Ikea desks, and coffee mugs. A tech team, a business development team, a user experience team, and a kitchen in the back.

The Strava office looks ordinary...
...but does your office have a bike rack?

What was different was the big bike rack and loft area with training equipment. Oh, and also the signed poster of Greg LeMond at the entrance.

I caught up with Michael Horvath, co-founder and Fearless Leader.

Here's Michael on the right

What gave you the idea of Strava? Was the original concept more or less the same as it is now? How has it changed or evolved since that first idea?
I started Strava with Mark Gainey in 2009. We both rowed crew at Harvard and thrived on the camaraderie and motivation of training with teammates. The idea for Strava came simply from our need to recreate those positive forces in our lives when we no longer had the structure and support of a team around us. In its simplest form, we imagined a "virtual locker room" where we could share workouts among our athlete friends. With GPS technology and mobile apps things got interesting very quickly when we bumped into Davis Kitchel who had been working on some similar ideas. Together we created the ability for friends to compare times on rides and runs automatically. It's not just maps and stats at that point, but a motivational experience that makes all the time we spend training and racing, much of it alone, more fun and more social.

How did you get the first prototype running? Who built it? Was that a very rudimentary project that grew on its own or did you have a formal business plan and fund it from the beginning?
Once we created the prototype with Davis Kitchel, we convinced two friends and Strava users, Mark Shaw and Chris Donahue, to join the team and upgrade the prototype into a publicly available website.  Things were pretty informal back then and a lot of that early engineering work was done in Mark’s living room.  In 2010, we took our first round of outside financing, began hiring more aggressively and by 2011 we started to see rapid growth in our user base.

I once searched Strava for the names of every 2012 Olympic cycling athlete in Strava and found quite a few there. Who are some of the most famous cyclists that use Strava?
There are quite a few pros on Strava like Tim Johnson, Ted King, Lea Davison and Taylor Phinney to name just a few.  You can see a longer list here:  It’s important to note that elite athletes enjoy Strava because the product is useful to them - it’s fun and motivating and also provides a way to connect with fans.  We’ve never approached an athlete and offered a bucket of cash in exchange for using Strava.

I work in a digital agency in Singapore and am very aware of user experience and the processes needed to create a good one. The Strava UX and interface is excellent, especially considering its complexity. Was it hard to put together a team that could do this so well?
We realized early on that one of the ways we could distinguish Strava from the competition was through stellar design.  I think with any function, the first hire is the most difficult.  If you can hire someone truly talented, he or she can attract a like-minded team.  I believe that we have one of the strongest design teams in the world and they are truly passionate about delivering a world-class experience to our users.

Where do you see Strava going in the future? It's very clear that you have passed your tipping point in getting new registrations, segments set up, and the daily usage of Strava, as I see it growing organically here in SE Asia. So that will continue. But where else can you see Strava going? 
We remain focused on the same objectives as when we started: Serve the athlete with a fun and motivating user experience built on really great software that works and is simple to use.  In the short term, that means adding more functionality for runners and we have plans for adding triathlon in the near future.  We take each sport seriously and try to build the functionality that someone dedicated to that sport would value and say “this is built just for me!”

I'm sure your analytics and the sheer amount of data you collect are fascinating. Do you have any thoughts on this? Maybe data visualization, or even just the ability for a user to compare his performance (segment-independent) with others of his age, weight, sex on a chart?
We have no shortage of data so the challenge for us is finding that perfect balance between performance features and social features.  We think that balance is critical and part of what makes Strava unique.

I know you have built an API. What are some of the most interesting uses of the API others have implemented?
Paul Mach built the site using our API.  We thought it was so interesting that we offered him a job and were happy to get him onto our Engineering team last year.  We’ve been incorporating some of the features he built for raceshape (like additional performance analysis) into Strava.

Does it surprise you to see segments in places like Easter Island, Antarctica, and Siberia? (There's one in N. Korea but I think it's erroneous!)
Our mission is to serve and motivate the global community of athletes so we’re ecstatic to see Strava being used all over the world.

Finally, I'd like to add that I didn't think I was a very competitive person, but now with Strava I am far more competitive than I thought. Also, by using Strava, I feel I am making a kind of social commitment or promise, and feel obliged and motivated to ride and run. Would it be a stretch to say that Strava has made the world a better (healthier) place?
There are a lot of different ways to describe Strava and what the product does but one thing we hear over and over is “Strava helps me get out of bed in the mornings.”  Whether it’s performance related (competing on segments, going for PRs, scrutinizing your Suffer Score) or social (receiving kudos and comments, knowing your friends will see your rides and runs), Strava provides motivation and an extra layer of enjoyment for athletes.  We’re really proud of that and hope that we are improving people’s lives in some small way.


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