How Strava continues to change cycling
Even if you’re not signed up to Strava you’ll be well aware of what it is and what an impact the San Francisco-based start-up has had on cycling culture in the short period it’s been around.
The phrases “Segment hunter” and “If it isn’t on Strava it never happened” are now regally heard on bunch rides, in coffee shops and bantered around social media sites. Strava has, for many people, changed the face of cycling. It’s become part and parcel of training and riding.
CyclingTips’ roving reporter Dave Everett headed to Strava’s San Francisco offices recently to learn more about the company’s growth since last time we spoke to them, and where the company is headed from here.
For a company that has only been in existence since 2009 Strava’s had a profound impact on the sport. For some it’s added to and aided their training routine, helping to easily track cycling performance and allow riders to compare themselves to one another. It’s carved out and created a new scene within cycling — for many, going out and claiming KOMs and QOMs is what a ride is all about.
You only need to look at the leaderboards on any of the challenges that Strava sets up — whether that’s the FebFifteen or a climbing challenge — to see that people now use it as a motivational tool. I’m sure in many cases the cyclists who sit atop these leaderboards wouldn’t have completed the crazy distances or elevation gain were it not for the online competition.
I’ve been using the site for four years and in that time I’ve seen the the site change from a platform that originally felt like it was predominately for reviewing personal performances and tracking training, to what it is now — a thriving social community that spills from the online world into our everyday cycling world (and back again).
Strava’s offices are just as you’d expect from a rapidly growing start up. Minimalist and open, a multitude of Apple computers sit on desks with staff busily analysing the data that fills the screens. Painted from floor to ceiling at the far end of the office space is the company logo in its bright orange and white lettering.
The one major surprise for me was the sheer number of staff that are currently working in the San Francisco office. Here alone it totals 75, with a small group of three in a London office. Over in East New Hampshire there are an extra three working on the new Strava Metro data, but more on that later.
From the number of bikes hanging up in the huge bike parking area and the racks of trainers sitting close to the showers it’s clear that a large majority of the 75 staff at Strava are keen athletes.
In the communal meeting area a wall is covered in race numbers and the large kitchen shows little signs of junk food, though coffee seems to be a high priority. Clearly this is yet another area where the coffee culture of the cycling world and the IT world come together.
Around the main office space sit smaller meeting rooms, each named after a country. Fittingly, the Australian meeting room was where I was to catch up with Michael Oldenburg, Strava’s senior communications manager.
The growth of Strava has been staggering. Even though Michael wouldn’t offer up exact subscriber numbers (according to our calculations it could be as high as 7 million), he did say that three million activities are uploaded on a weekly basis. This is growing, and a third of users access the site on a daily basis.
Interestingly, while the high-pitched beep of a Garmin computer turning on is as synonymous with a start of a ride now as the sound of the clicking of cleats into pedals, according to Strava most users actually track their activity via the smartphone apps rather than on their cycling computer.
Strava’s growth in recent years has helped the company secure vital funding from various sources with the latest $18.5 million injection taking the company’s funding total to $34.6 million in its short life. I asked Strava spokesperson Michael Oldenburg how this new funding would be used.
“The additional capital allows Strava to continue to develop its leadership in the world of digital sports”, he said. “The financing will be used to continue to expand Strava’s business, focusing on two areas – growing our global community of athletes and supporting new sports”.
Even up to this point Strava hasn’t turned a profit. The company’s revenue comes from several sources: the sale of their Metro data (read more below), subscription sales of the Strava premium service and the sale of items in the Strava store, including Garmin products and a new clothing line.
But obviously investment is needed to keep the ball rolling at this stage. For any start-up, going out and securing this funding can be a tough gig, even for a company like Strava. So how do they go about securing this funding?
“Our management team met with various venture capital firms and ultimately selected to partner with Sequoia, one of the most respected firms in Silicon Valley”, Michael Oldenburg said. “The Sequoia portfolio represents the ‘who’s who’ of Silicon Valley technology companies and we believe the opportunity to learn from other companies in their portfolio that have faced similar situations and challenges is an advantage for Strava”.
While many people see Strava as a training and activity-logging tool, its rapid growth and the amount of data that is generated from users uploading rides, means the company has been able to move in other directions. The company’s hope is that they will be able to benefit not just the people using the site, but communities around the globe.
You may have seen pictures of Strava’s Heat Maps (see below); maps of all the rides logged and layered together to show where it’s popular to ride and where it’s not quite so popular. It apparently took the data from 78 million rides to generate the images we can see on the Global Heat Map now.
Strava Metro is a project that uses the same rider and runner data as Heat Maps, but strips out all personal data, starting points and finishing points. This can then be used by departments of transportation, advocacy groups and city planners. The information allows these bodies to get real-world detail on where people actually ride and run, what roads they avoid and a whole host of other detail that would be of great help when planning future bike and pedestrian paths.
With nearly half the rides logged on Strava being commutes to work it’s a highly accurate and informative database that has, until now, never been available or possible to create.
Strava is already working with the US state of Oregon and the cities of Orlando, Glasgow, London and Melbourne, among others, to help the relevant authorities understand and crunch the data they need to help make cycling safer in these areas.
The growth of the site has been rapid and the Strava lifestyle has been taken up by athletes in pretty much every country worldwide. Indeed, 75% of Strava activities are now logged outside of the company’s native USA*.
Expanding and developing the user experience for a worldwide market is a job that’s taken several years. In 2012 the site existed only in English. Come 2013, eleven further languages were added to the site. In 2014 the app was localised into eleven languages and expanded to cover 23 sports.
Of course it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Strava. You may remember back in 2010 when a Strava user, William “Kim” Flint, died while trying to reclaim a KOM on a descent. His family attempted to sue Strava for encouraging dangerous behaviour and failing to take adequate measures to ensure user safety. The case was later dismissed by a San Francisco judge.
That particular incident created significant backlash against Strava at the time, so how does the company ensure situations like this don’t occur again?
For a start they rely on the users themselves to self-police the site and look out for one other. With the ability to flag dangerous or illegal segments people can now be part of a community that, hopefully, will stop future accidents. Strava’s user agreement is pretty extensive too. But will this be enough? Only time will tell.
So what’s next for Strava? With new gizmos such as Google Glass, the Apple Watch and mobile phones becoming more powerful, the technology is there for new and exciting developments. But focusing on localising and making the service more personal is one area where Strava is currently investing much of its time.
One interesting yet slightly niche development is a coffee shop feature for the app. The folks at Strava are using data to work out where people meet during rides by looking at the location and the length of time the app is stationary for.
With sports bodies like the UCI looking at the potential of on-bike footage and live data analysis this is also an area that, Michael Oldenburg tells me, Strava is already looking at. Will we one day be able to compare our efforts live on a home trainer to the efforts of a pro in a stage of a Grand Tour? In some sense we already can, thanks to pros like Lars Boom recording their rides on Strava (including Boom’s epic stage 5 win at this year’s Tour de France). But you get the feeling this is only the beginning.
Whether you’re a Strava user, or someone that feels Strava has corrupted cycling, it’s hard to ignore the way the company is changing the way people are coming together within cycling and how cycling stories are being shared. We look forward to seeing how things progress from here.