Early Days—Episode 1: Strava with Mark Gainey
Mark Gainey, co-founder and chairman of Strava, shares the story of how he built the world's largest online athlete community.
Highlights From Transcript
Tyler Norwood 00:00
Real lessons from real founders, the Early Days podcast. Co-founder and chairman of Strava, Mark Gainey talks about how he started Strava and grew it into one of the largest sports communities in the world.
Awesome. So Mark, super great to have you here. Really excited to talk today. And we've got a bunch of people listening in. Yeah, so just wanted to start off, you know, introducing yourself a little bit. You're the co-founder of Strava. And then, like we talked about right before we started this session, I'm a huge user of Strava. I've been a two time marathoner, and triathlete. And I was just kind of joking around, the two things that you need to have to be a triathlete are a Garmin 945, and a Strava account. And yeah, I think Strava has been incredibly successful. So you guys have 10s of millions of users across the world. I read a stat somewhere that you guys add a million people every 30 to 40 days to the platform, which is absolutely insane for what seems like a really niche category in terms of fitness, or whatever. But yeah, I would love to just have you quickly introduce yourself and talk a little bit about what Strava is today. And then we can dive in.
Mark Gainey 01:17
You got it. Yeah. Tyler, thanks for having me. It's fun. I get to talk about the early days. Don't do that as often. So yeah, just my quick background. So Mark Gainey co-founder, currently chairman at Strava. I've served in various capacities over our 12 years. I've been CEO twice as well as, you name it, janitor, marketing, whatever is required. But we've been at this 12 years. My prior life to Strava. I've been an entrepreneur for the better part of 20 something years. My co-founder, Michael Horvath, he and I had actually built another company starting in the last century. So we're also going to date myself here very quickly. So we built an enterprise software company back in the late 90s, early 2000s. So two companies under my belt, we've had a lot of fun. I grew up in a little place called Reno, Nevada, you know, I was fortunate enough to go to Harvard as an undergrad where I met Michael. That's where the two of us connected. And really, frankly, that's where a lot of the DNA of Strava came from. Because we were on the crew team together back then. Then I had a brief stint when I graduated working for a venture firm, working for a private equity firm, and it was good. It was great way to kind of learn the language and so forth. But I realized I'm probably not a very good investor. So I'd rather be an entrepreneur. And that's where we are today.
Tyler Norwood 02:42
That's awesome. So yeah, I think diving in a little bit to your background, I want to use this to segue into talking about how you and Michael met and sort of the formation of the team for Strava. So obviously, you guys built a company prior to that, Kana, which you talked about, which I think is probably a whole different episode, and really want to focus on Strava today. So I'm really curious, throughout your formative years, right. So I think you have, at least a story I read, like a pretty unique entry into Harvard, right? Harvard reached out to you and asked you to come and run cross country. You had an injury and that sort of transitioned you into joining the crew team. And I know you've talked a lot about crew being like really, really formative to you and that if you could have majored in crew at Harvard, that's really what you would have majored in. And obviously, that's where you met, Michael. And I think it seems like you guys shared a lot of values and principles together that you really got to develop on the crew team together. So I'm really curious, like, starting with the team that builds Strava. And so for you specifically, and I guess, conversations that you and Michael had, what are some of the, like formative lessons and sort of character traits that you feel like you built in your journey through growing up? You know, going to Harvard working in venture capital, in Silicon Valley, etc? What are some of the big takeaways that you feel like you really attribute your success as an entrepreneur to?
Mark Gainey 04:10
Okay, so yeah, a lot in there. And you're right. So Michael, and I we go back, again having met in the late 80s, you know, and having put our first company together in the late 90s. We've been at this a while. So we have been business partners and close friends for literally decades. I think along the way, I mean, you're right, there are a couple of things. One, even though Strava's starting date was 2009, it's important to recognize that the initial concept goes all the way back to actually 1995. He and I had met on that team together and had this amazing experience rowing out of the Harvard boathouse. The problem was we graduated and poof that whole experience disappeared. So just a few years later, in fact, I still have it in a shelf right behind me here, I have a business plan that was written in 1995. It was supposed to be the virtual locker room for athletes, this internet thing. And what we really wanted to do was recreate the experience that we had while rowing together. And what was that experience? That experience was a couple things. One was just, we love being on a team together supporting each other. And you know, everything that comes with that, the camaraderie, the esprit de corps, the trash talking. We love the coaching. We love the competition. And it was hard to find once we were out of college. So, you know, lesson number one, I think just understanding kind of what makes me tick. I thought everybody in the world would love sports, and that's what they'll do. No, it turns out that, you know, people love, you know, they love cooking, or they love computer science. I'm a sports addict. I mean, you name it, I will literally, I'll be watching a Formula One race on the weekend, I'll be watching NFL on Sunday night, I'll be out running and riding. I've dabbled in Iron Man, and so forth. So sports was always key. Really simple thesis, which was when I'm active, I'm a better person. And Michael was very much the same mindset. And so that camaraderie that he and I had developed first as a friendship. And that's, that's key. You know, we've always said our friendship surpasses any business problems we might have. We do switch hats. Sometimes I have my chairman hat on, and I'm talking to him, and he's currently the CEO. And other times, we're talking as friends, and we kind of know the difference. But I would say that that was key. Then the last quick thing that I'll just mention, I also was very fortunate because I became an entrepreneur early in my career. You know, I learned a really valuable lesson, which is, I don't know anything. I am not an expert. I'm not an expert in marketing, sales. I graduated with a degree in art history. So you don't want me touching any code. But once I recognized that and could kind of check my ego at the door, it turns out, I could go find amazing talent and bring them together. And I think that proved well at Kana in the early days, when we were building our first company. And it's definitely proven to be the case, again, at Strava. You know, we have an idea, we have a Northstar. We know where we want to go. But it's really about bringing great people together, and just letting them thrive.
Tyler Norwood 07:17
Yeah. Yeah. So I think that's really fascinating. So, you know, we work with entrepreneurs all the time that don't have a technical background, right? They're not an engineer. They're not a sales expert. They may have very sort of disparate backgrounds like you. Like you were an athlete, you studied art history. It didn't really all make sense on paper that hey, this guy's an amazing entrepreneur. So you mentioned one thing, which I think is really valuable, which is checking your ego at the door. Right? And being very humble and focusing on bringing in other people. What are some other things that you feel like you were really great at that enabled you to be a successful entrepreneur?
Mark Gainey 07:18
Yeah. So I've always joked that as the founder, I got three primary jobs. I gotta have the Northstar. Can I articulate and just keep it really clear and simple. Here's where we're going. Here's where we want to go. And here's why. Yeah, second is what we just talked about, which is, can I recruit? Can I build the team around me since I can't do it? So can I bring people around? Can they understand? And then the third part of it is once I got the team, how do I support them? And you know, you think I was joking earlier, when I said I've played all these different roles janitor, you know, a pizza delivery guy. Those are not jokes, that's, at the end of the day, whatever it takes to help the team be successful. That's how I think about it. So I think those are the three primary things that I always come back to as a founder, and frankly, as CEO. It's not rocket science. Do we know where we're going? Do I have a great team? And are they well supported? And what do they need? Sometimes they need a pat on the back. Sometimes they need capital, sometimes they just need me to get out of the way. Sometimes they need another hire. I mean, whatever it is, that's what we're kind of working towards.
Tyler Norwood 08:58
Yeah. So just one last piece on team. Obviously, you and Michael have, you know, a really deep relationship. Started off in the boat, and, you know, transitioned into lifelong friends and, you know, co-founders twice over. When you guys started Strava, you had already built a company before. So the first time you guys decided hey, we're gonna build Kana, like, let's do this. Was there a sort of seminal formative conversation where you sat down and you said: hey, look like we're really good friends, we're great teammates, right? We rowed together, we sat in the boat. Was there sort of a sit down to lay out expectations or to kind of talk through like, hey. I always kind of joke around about co-founder relationship being very much like a marriage. Did you guys sit down and kind of talk through the practicalities of like, hey, how do we do this? How do we preserve our friendship? How do we start a company like what's our culture on giving each other feedback or like kicking each other in the ass when we need etcetera? Was there a conversation or did that happened over a period of time? But I'm really curious about when you guys sat down and ironed that out, and what were the important things that you guys put on the agenda to say like: hey, we need to be on the same page on this before we move forward.
Mark Gainey 10:08
Yeah. Yeah, you know Tyler, it's funny. There's two separate stories here, because there's when we founded Kana and how we came together. And then there's, frankly, how we approached Strava. And I think the lessons we learned from Kana, we then applied. And so if I'm fully honest, when we did Kana all those things you were just asking, we were flying by the seat of our pants. Back story was, I had decided that I wanted to go start something. So I had left the private equity firm. And I mean, I literally went from working at a private equity firm to working in a running store. I was selling running shoes, eight bucks an hour because I wanted to have dedicated time to start something. And there were three or four good friends of mine in the bay area at the time that I was trying to recruit as my co-founder, largely because it's just lonely. It's, you know, entrepreneurship can be really lonely. So I wanted a partner in crime. Most of the guys, you know, are like, yeah, no, we're not interested. Michael was on a very different path. Michael had gone off, he got his PhD in economics, and was teaching at Stanford, he was a professor at Stanford. And so I would go over to his office frequently, again, this is remember, this is the mid to late 90s, when the Internet is just getting going. And so to go to a place like Stanford that has a strong internet connection, that was gold. So not only would I go over to hang out in his office to spend time with him, but more importantly, he's got internet and we can figure out how we want to build this business. So it was really very organic. He wasn't looking to be an entrepreneur, he was teaching, he was starting a family. But I think that he saw the fun that both of us could have, and we just sort of rolled with it. In the case of Kana, while we were co-founders it was not 50/50. He did have obligations academically. He was starting a family. And so while we co-founded Kana, I kind of ran with it, and was the person who ran that company. But it was seminal, because it then taught us when we approached Strava, how to think about the relationship. And we did a couple things, for instance, 50/50 equal partners in it. And we've maintained that in terms of ownership. Even today, with all the things that have happened to Strava he and I have the exact same number of shares, we just like that. We've made a commitment to each other that the friendship comes first, doesn't mean that we haven't had some really difficult conversations over the last 12 years. We've been through all kinds of both personal things. I've had health issues, there's been things that have come along the way that distract us. But we put the friendship first. It goes back to the three P's you mentioned. You know, patience, persistence, and perspective is something I talk about all the time. You gotta maintain perspective. And last thing is just trust. You know, I got it because I was on the crew team with him. There's nothing like being in a boat with eight other people. A coxswain and the other rowers, if you don't develop trust there and know that everybody's got their back, it doesn't work. And so I was really lucky, because I had developed that trust with him going back years ago. So for us, it was a pretty easy decision.
Tyler Norwood 13:10
Yeah, and, you know, crew boat seems like a pretty powerful place to build trust, because like, if you mess up, like you're gonna throw people out of that boat, or like, seriously injure other people. So it's like physical trust, or like, there's real downside if you mess up. So great. So, I think like we mentioned in the warm up call here, so wanted to talk about team, I think those are some great takeaways and lessons. So I want to move on now to the second piece, which is the idea. So I will caveat this, you know, as an investor, I don't think ideas are that valuable. I don't think ideas are really that important. I think it's that little grain of sand that you have to start somewhere, right. And you have to build the pearl around that. But the pearl is really the execution and I want to get to the product and go to market. But you had mentioned that the idea was sort of: you wrote a business plan in the boathouse and you said, hey, like, this camaraderie that we have here, right, and the type of relationship that we're building in this boat together, that's something we want to bring to other people. So that was sort of the formation of the idea. So you guys, you left Harvard went into venture capital or private equity, you started Kana, you came back to this idea. Can you talk me through so... you pulled it off the shelf? You dusted it off? I think what's really useful for founders is to kind of hear the story of a couple of things. So how did you refine that idea into a specific problem for a specific group of people? So one of the things that I think is so awesome about Strava, and, you know, this is not pre planned or anything, but I actually use Strava as an example all the time when I'm talking to founders of sort of a razor's edge focus on who you're solving problems for. And if you can solve a really, really specific type of person's problem better than anybody else, especially with the internet and the globalization world, that market can be a lot bigger than you think. And your competitive mode is that you're so hyper focused on pleasing just one very specific group of people. So I'm really interested in how you guys took that idea and said, you know, vaguely, like: hey, I'd love to recreate this experience of camaraderie in the boathouse with other people. And how did you guys refine that into: okay, who are we going to solve a problem for and what problem specifically are we going to solve?
Mark Gainey 15:34
Yep. Yeah, I love this entirely. You're one of the few investors I've heard talk that way. Usually, I've got investors, like, show me the addressable market and show me the vision.
Tyler Norwood 15:48
Work backwards from $10 billion, and solve that problem.
Mark Gainey 15:52
Exactly. And I understand sort of where that vision comes. But then you're right, there's a go to market, there's sort of how we're going to execute and do it. And so you're right. So first thing is just identifying problem. Problem for us in the case of Strava - that existed from the time that we graduated, but was just as paramount in 2009 - is really simple. Which is, we might enjoy being active, but it's amazing how life gets in the way. So it's just how do we reduce those barriers so that I can find the time and stay motivated to remain active on a consistent basis. That's what we want. And again, because the thesis I said earlier: when people are active, really good things happen, both for themselves and for those around them. So that was the problem we were trying to solve for. The beauty that happened in 2008, 2009 timeframe that was very different from 1995 was that, frankly, technology had unlocked opportunity that we didn't have, you know, 10-15 years earlier, on two fronts. One: just the fact that we could capture activity data in a way that wasn't possible earlier, either through wearables, through smartphones, and so forth, that was new to the game. And we could see it. We had all these friends who had these Garmin cycling computers on their handlebars. They were treating them like circa 1985 Timex watches. They basically hit start, hit stop, maybe got distance and speed. But they had all this great data that was residing on that little computer. And if we unlock what was going on there, we thought there was something really interesting. The second thing that we saw was that the advent of the Facebook's and the Twitter's and so forth, they really changed the way in which people related to each other online. In 1995, the idea that you would share your workouts with other people, that was pretty foreign. But you just fast forward through those early aughts, all of a sudden people were sharing what they were having for breakfast. And then all of a sudden, the social connections became pretty powerful. So the thesis was: could we do something unique with the data that was being collected by these devices. And in turn, we knew that people keep people active. So by allowing people to sort of share their activities, is there some magic there that we can unlock? And that was why we were willing to invest. We were, by the way, looking at at least two other types of business opportunities. It wasn't clear that Strava was the thing. And that's to your point, it's like, we had a number of ideas that we were exploring, but we were pretty passionate about this one.
Tyler Norwood 18:28
Yep. Yeah. I mean, as a, you know, avid Strava user, I think the social aspect of it is so fascinating to me, right? And how powerful competition is. Even casual competition. But, you know, for anyone who's listening, if you're a Strava user, you know what segments are. You know, especially for cyclists like Koh... I mean, Phil Gaimon retired and made an entire YouTube video about King of the Hills, you know, traveled around the world trying to steal King of the Hills from people. And to your point, it's like, the device you have on your bike is already tracking that, adding the element of being able to see everybody else who's ridden this hill - and where do I stack up against other people - I think creates this incredible... like, I would get out of bed in the morning when I was training and a lot of times, it was that at the end of the week when I catch up and have beers with my friends who are also training, I don't want to be in last place on miles put in this week. And that was it. It was like purely just ego competition of like, I don't want to be last place. I don't want to put in 25 miles this week and get blown by everybody else. And so that, I think is incredibly fascinating aspect of what Strava unlocked.
Mark Gainey 19:47
I think it goes back to something you asked earlier because this concept of razor focus. So two things that we were really fortunate about that I think allowed exactly what you're describing that experience has sort of emerged inside Strava. The first was our go to market was to pick one subset of the athletic community, we've always had this vision of how we could support a global community of athletes across a broad range of activities. And today, we do that. I mean, people can upload everything from their yoga workout to their peloton workout to, you know, climbing Mount Everest, you name it. But early on, that wasn't the case. Early on, we dedicated ourselves to one subset. It was the passionate road cyclist. Michael and I were not actually road cyclists. He is he's pretty good. I'm not I end up in the hospital if I ride my road bike. But we called it inch wide mile deep. It's like, we're gonna go an inch wide with this one group, we're gonna go mile deep with them. We affectionately called them mammals, middle aged men and lycra that was our target audience. It wasn't diverse by any stretch of the imagination, but it was intentional. Can we find that one group, because in doing so you can then start to have a really interesting conversation with that targeted audience, whether it's online or in person. And so something like the social that you described, we actually didn't set out to create, you know, a sort of a sports social network by any stretch. What happened was, we started talking to cyclists around what was important during the ride, and two things came up. Number one, didn't matter how long the ride was, five miles, 100 miles, there was some iconic climb in the middle of that ride that they cared about. It was always some little climb in their neighborhood, they wanted to know how they were doing on that climb. And so oh, you know what, we can probably auto identify that climb, and we can show you how you're trending and so forth. As soon as we build that feature, the next request was, I want to know how my buddy's doing on the same hill. Here's the thing it's like, competition, I want to know how I stack up. I want to know, how am I doing relative to my peers, my age group, and so forth. So in a weird way, social inside Strava was not driven by some need to create Facebook like features by any stretch. It was much more oh, okay, we see what motivates the cycling community, we see that there's actually a way in which we can do some, we call it context. Provide context around how they're competing, or how they're comparing to others. And there was value in that and from that then came following, because there were certain friends you didn't want to follow and watch their activities. And so it was a very organic process. I remind entrepreneurs all day long, we had to figure out at Strava, we had one customer, his name is David, he's still with us now 12-13 years later. We had to figure out every time he uploaded to Strava, how did he have fun? Because he didn't have 15 other friends and he was following on Strava. He was by himself using Strava and we had to kind of create this experience that was good. So we call that single player mode, like we had to be really good at single player. And then over time, grew into this opportunity where we can create what we call multiplayer experience. So that community experience that now Strava is known for. Yeah, exactly. And that single player mode, I think, is really powerful, too, right? So I trained for a year in Denver, right? So there are specific segments of the Cherry Creek Trail that I still lay in bed and think about. Exactly to your point where it's like: I don't care about the whole ride, I care about that one hill. And when I finish my Strava ride and I get a little notification that says, hey you, best time on a segment, right. Or longest ride or fastest split, or whatever it is, that single player mode was really powerful. It kept me motivated. It kept feeding me proof that I was progressing, right. And that's kind of how you started and got it into Strava. So that's why I started to record workouts, and then you start to slowly add training friends, partners, etc. I love the feature where it started to show me people I passed on the trail or passed me going the other way on the trail. And it was like: I see that guy all the time, I add him on Strava. And it's like I had people on Strava that I would compete with, you know, give them fist bumps on workouts, etc., and never actually met them. And ithat was my Strava friend. I just knew that guy, waved to him on the trail. And super powerful. So that's all really clear and I think super useful. So going on to the next, I think, big caveat, right? So I think this is particularly relevant with your background. So you're not an engineer, right? I meet founders all the time and they're kind of a that phase, right? So they're like: hey, I had this idea forever. We want to solve this problem for this particular person. And talking about your first customer, obviously, you had to build something to bring on your first customer. So can you talk us through the process of like building the first version of Strava? So I think we can go in either order. There's two really interesting things to parse out here. Number one is like how did you actually build it? Right? So you're not an engineer. So, talk us through the process of building it? And maybe before you answer that question, one of the really hard things I think is alright: we have this idea, we have this amazing vision. We want to be the sports locker room for every sport in the whole world. How did you guys go through and sort of scope hammer down? Like, what features should we build right now and get it into customers' hands. I think a lot of people get caught in this loop of they're like: alright, step one is I'm gonna work for two years to build every single feature I've thought about, and then I'm going to put it in customers hands. And it's like the fastest way to kill a company from the first step. So talk us through how you guys figured out: what features should we build? And then put it in people's hands? Yeah, I'll preface it by saying part of why I love being a software entrepreneur: software allows that unique opportunity to actually test and iterate. So rather than trying to build the whole thing out two years in advance, and then hope that it works like, you're right, we have this mindset, it's like, let's get it out. And half the time it probably doesn't work, we can always roll it back. People ask all the time, is Strava getting in the hardware business? No, it's like, there's a reason they call it hardware, it's really hard to do. And we love all our global partners on the hardware side. You know, number one, like stick to software, because I think it allows for exactly what you're describing, which is it allows for a really entrepreneurial exploration that we can iterate quickly, and we can add and change in the week. So how do we do it at Strava? I got to give a huge shout out to a gentleman named Davis Kitchel, Davy Kitchel, at Strava. And Michael and I had found him. Michael found him back in Hanover, New Hampshire. And this is again, the 2008 timeframe. A little bit of a self taught engineer. It's not like he had formal training, but he had also been a rower. And he was fascinated by a lot of the data things that you and I were just talking about, sort of how we can take data from physical activities. And he was just enough of an engineer that he could play and iterate the thing. So we pretty quickly built what was called the Green Machine, we built a green website, this is all pre mobile. And we just started taking devices that we had in our possession, plugging them in and looking at the raw data. And to Davy's credit, his fingerprints are all over the Strava experience, even today, 12 years later. It's a lot of the initial ideas that we had around trends and tracking. And again, just how to take this raw data and build insight. We kept thinking to ourselves, it's like, it's got to be two things, it's got to be insightful, and it's got to be fun. It's gotta be entertaining, you're gonna come back if you're somehow entertained. And so Davy did a lot of experimentation. We built this green machine website, and the critical moment was July of 2008 during the Tour de France. We asked basically 20 guys, 20 of our buddies who we knew were all passionate cyclists, hey we'll give you Garmins. Would you basically spend the next 20-30 days and ride and upload to Strava. And again, this is talking about like doing things that don't scale, right? First, we're giving them all the Garmins, second like this is back in the day when you had to plug Garmin into the back of a computer to even get the data onto the website. But in exchange, what we started doing was, we would throw out these funny little competitions. We had 10 on the west coast, 10 on the East Coast, we started creating competitions between the two. And we just wanted to see what would happen in terms of motivation. So we might throw out and say: hey, whoever posts the fastest 5k segment on Strava in the next 24 hours, we'll give you a free set of race wheels or something like that. We were just sort of, you know, begging and borrowing. But what was amazing Tyler was the reaction to it. Like as soon as we post that, you would see again, you'd see the trash talking.
Tyler Norwood 28:39
Yeah. Off The Charts, right?
Mark Gainey 28:42
Yeah and you'd watch guys go and collect all their other cycling buddies to go out and try to set a 5k pace line so they can win it. So by the end of that thirty days, what we recognized was we're tapping a nerve, like there's something here, we're not sure about the business model, we're not sure exactly what the product needs to look like. But we should start recruiting some world class developers who can help us do what you then said, which was take this green machine with lots of different pieces, and so forth, and begin to think about how we refine it down to a couple of core features that we can launch with. And we got lucky. We hired two guys that we knew from Kana, that were passionate cyclists that we trusted. Mark Shaw and Chris Donahue. And they were fantastic and with us for many, many years. And they helped us get it to a place where we can then launch in early 2009.
Tyler Norwood 29:33
Yeah, that's awesome. And so one thing that I've heard you mention... so a through line through all that - and I think it goes back to like the razor thin an inch wide mile deep - is you mentioned that all of your first users, a lot of your first employees, a lot of the critical mass that you built around Strava in the beginning, because you keep referring to it, it seems like the reason you were able to get them on board was because they were passionate cyclists. So like, you didn't really have that much to offer, there wasn't really a product or company, it was still very ephemeral. But you tapped into like: hey, you're a passionate cyclist, you want to come hang out with cyclists and figure out how to create insights for cyclists. And they're like: yeah, definitely 100% I want to do that. And I think that's a great lesson for founders in terms of defining who you want to solve problems for is it ends up being a really powerful way to recruit super talented people. Because to your point, you tap a nerve with them. I think founders struggle a lot of times where you're looking for a co-founder, you're looking for an engineer, etc. It's like: hey, do you want to come and build this app for me that I have this idea for? And that's a really hard value proposition. And it's especially hard to get really high quality people to walk away from everything they're doing, to build your app for you, or to sell your app for you or whatever. Versus like, if you tap into something they're really interested or passionate about - like a hobby, or a particular technology or whatever - it's like: oh, wait, you want me to come and hang out with cyclists and race my bike and win free wheels, etc? Like, yeah, 100%, I'll do that.
Mark Gainey 31:03
No Tyler, you're hitting the nail on the head. And it's funny, because it's easy when you sit there and say, you know, finding passionate cyclists and so forth. And you're absolutely right, we did that to a point where it actually becomes somewhat problematic, and that we had to kind of at times remind our team, hey, we're not just building for ourselves. We need to be thinking about how we're building out there. When we decided to launch running, it turned out we had a problem, which we had a bunch of cyclists who thought they knew what they should be doing for runners. Not good. It took us an extra year to get running refined in a way. But I'll go back to the Kana days, so Kana was a very different business, customer email management, enterprise software. Again, early 90s or late 90s, companies were getting deluge with customer email, and they had no systems to respond to them. Pretty esoteric, kind of boring, but really important. But it turned out that I could identify developers who were really frustrated by the fact that they couldn't get an answer from a company. And that's how they wanted to communicate was by email. So to your exact point, I remember some of the first guys that we hired at Kana who turned out to be fantastic developers. It wasn't because I paid them well, I was paying them in you know, pizza and stock options. There wasn't any cash to go around. But we tapped the nerve, which was this problem's gotta get solved. Like, this is crazy. You can't go launch dot coms all over the place and think that you have to ignore your customer and answer emails. So I think you're spot on. And that's absolutely what served us well, at Strava. It's culturally part of it, like when offices were open, you know, our place looked more like a locker room than it did a software company at the time. It works.
Tyler Norwood 32:47
So I think one other lesson I want to kind of pull out of what you talked about kind of the early days of building the product of Strava, is I think that entrepreneurship and building startups is sort of having its renaissance right now, it's a cool thing to do. Everyone coming out of a MBA wants to be a VC or start a company, etc. And I think it's created a lot of very prescriptive startup advice. And I think when you try to create prescriptive startup advice, it ends up being like very linear, sort of pedantic, right. And so sort of building a product is: identify a customer, talk to them a lot, build a first version product go to market. And I think what it misses is that kind of magic we talked about, where that first 30 days where you're like: alright, the Green Machine, let's put all this data in here, let's see what's interesting, let's play around with it, let's get obsessed with understanding all this different data, and then let's just go start interacting in really funny ways with our target customers. Let's just go interact and hang out with cyclists. Let's, you know, learn how they talk, learn what they care about, learn how they interact with each other, like all of these things that weren't necessarily intentional, but they sort of form as you're doing that 30 Day sprint. I think what a lot of people struggle with is it's a very anti-MBA approach to launching a company. It's not sitting in a room and typing out the perfect plan, etc. It's sort of, like you said, kind of sitting in a locker room and at the time, or especially externally, it kind of looks and feels a little bit unguided, a little bit childish. It's kind of like, are you guys building a company or just hanging out doing cool things with cyclists? And it's like, well, both. We have to really understand this target market before we know how to add value to them.
Mark Gainey 34:30
Oh, yeah. So, specific to Strava you're touching a nerve, because I remember early on, the number of investors who looked at us and said, is it really a real company? Or the classic one I got all the time was like: you're building a nice little lifestyle business, but hard to see that this is something that can create real value. And, you know, the honest answer was, maybe they're right. Maybe at the end of the day this will be a business that supports 10 employees, we support a few 1000 cyclists. But I don't know, we were kind of like that would be okay. If we're profitable and growing, then we're sort of fulfilling a lot of what we wanted out of this experience. Now, Michael and I, you know, also had a sense that no they're missing sort of what's actually happening here. That, to your point, there's a bunch of global trends and the way in which this concept of health and wellness is being adopted worldwide. So we were, you know, we were confident that we were in the middle of something. I often refer to it as you gotta get the right sandbox. And what I mean by that is, if you can just have kind of the area where you know that there's enough going on, there's problems to be solved. Within the sandbox, we might build up and tear down that castle half a dozen times. But as we test and iterate, you said something earlier, ideas really aren't worth that much. That's exactly right. I say to entrepreneurs all the time, it's like, don't sweat your first idea, because it ain't gonna be the one you end with. It's not. The first one is kind of what gets you into conversations with people. Go have conversations, go start doing and then iterate. The other thing I say all the time is I would rather be decisive and wrong, than to sit around debating, debating, debating. And that's the beauty again, of software. If I'm decisive and wrong, I can cut left I can roll it back.
Tyler Norwood 36:30
You don't have a global supply chain to steer?
Mark Gainey 36:34
Exactly, exactly. It might be very different if I was trying to build like the next generation bicycle or something. But we're not. We're in a software business where we can keep coming back to just test and iterate. And so try to sort of get people excited about that process. That's always been key at Strava.
Tyler Norwood 36:51
Awesome. And so I think this is a great segue. So what you just talked about, I read a story about, originally you had as your three P's was perfection. And you actually took that out and pivoted away from that and said: hey, that's actually creating behavior that we don't want. Exactly to your point, which is like, be decisive and wrong, and iterate and test. And that kind of goes in the face of perfection, especially as your team grows. And people think like, well, I can't put anything out into the world until it's perfect... I think that really stagnates innovation. So the last thing I'd love to discuss, because I think it's really valuable and I'm very familiar with Strava; I think probably one of the points... so I think you can tell in the Strava app that you guys have a different culture than other tech companies. The point where, for me, as a customer, didn't know you, never thought I would talk to the founder of Strava. When you guys, must have been 2017 or 18, when you guys started to tinker around with monetization, I remember the way you interacted with customers. The emails that you sent, the notes you sent, the sort of white glove process that you took to helping transition people through like: hey, we're going to start to add paid offerings to this platform that you've been very used to being free. And here's what that means. Here's what it means for you. Here's the decisions that you have, here's the new options that you have. I remember that whole experience as like, wow, this company really cares about the people who use their app. And so my final question is: what are the sort of cultural cornerstones of Strava that you focus on that has one enabled you to build a very, very successful technology company, but two enabled you to be such a beloved member of these communities that you're a part of? Like, I think if Facebook went down tomorrow, I don't know how many people would actually suffer, I think we'd actually all probably benefit. If Strava went down tomorrow, there are massive communities around the world that would really suffer and it would be really painful for them to not have Strava. So just really curious to share with founders, like what are those cultural touch points that you very specifically built into the company that's enabled the success?
Mark Gainey 39:11
Yeah, no, Tyler, I appreciate the kind words, it's sort of from the outside, you're sensing the right thing about the culture. I think you are correct in what you're sensing, which makes me happy because we do try to be transparent. And you know, it's a word that gets used a lot, but we really try hard at that. We try to remain humble, we try to understand we're going to make mistakes, and how do we do it? You talked about the monetization process. You're exactly right. We explored a lot of different monetization over the years. And then we've come back to a really simple principle, which is that we have one customer. That is the athlete and we want to build something for them that is of value enough that they see the desire to pay us and it's kind of nice, it just works well. So we've done that and still have the free version, and we welcome all of our free members. But our business model is largely predicated around a simple idea, which is, let's build something that's so important to their experience that they're willing to pay us the $6 a month. I think culturally it's pretty simple. Back about six, seven years ago, and we were probably four or five years into the company's existence, we sat down as a team and we just tried to actually document what our culture was about. We didn't sit down day one and say: hey, this is the kind of culture we're gonna have. It grew organically. There was just a certain DNA. But we realized that we should hard code some things. And those are now called the ABCs at Strava. There's two A's, there's a B, and there's three C's. They're hard coded. I carry a coin, they laugh, it's hashtag carry the coin, because I do all the time. It's got a strap on the front, it's got all of our ABCs on the back. And it's just, it's how we try to make decisions. The two A's are anti racism and authenticity. But we believe deeply in both of those, we need to be authentic with our community, we need to be genuine. We need to build for the people that we care about. Anti racism, it's like we are eons away from being the kind of anti racist company that we aspire to be, but let's be intentional about it, let's go. There's things that I've learned just in the last two years around the way in which we can support athletes that are people of color, that we've done them a disservice. So we've put that right into our values. Our B is balance. There's always time for a ride or run at Strava. And at times, that has been problematic, right? We're trying to sell an active lifestyle, so there's gonna be balance. And then the three C's are craftsmanship, commitment, and camaraderie. And we live that every day. Craftsmanship is a good alternative to perfection. You cannot achieve perfection, you're right, I had to throw it out years ago. But craftsmanship, the idea that: hey, let's work to continue to craft the experience, let's continue to try to iterate and make it better and better, that I think is something that works well. And then the two are kind of obvious commitment and camaraderie. It goes with being on a team and having set goals and going after it together.
Tyler Norwood 42:12
That's awesome. And craftsmanship to me, like brings up this sort of image of like building things with care, right. That like kind of accepting that I always think of a carpenter with the word craftsmanship. And it's like, can you build the perfect table or chair is sort of an existential question that you can't. Like perfection is actually very existential, in my mind, whereas craftsmanship is like, can I put the utmost and all of my ability towards this table that I'm building for my customer, and I think that's awesome. I'm gonna steal that. So, Mark this has been awesome. I think we've gotten a ton of really great insights for founders, you know, I love being able to speak with successful entrepreneurs like yourself that have built great things and really peel back, like how it started and how it began. I think there's tons of great content out there about companies once they're successful navigating that world, which is, you know, a totally different set of challenges. Just getting started, I think is an area that so many people across the world are really interested in. And, you know, one of the things that inspires me to wake up every day is I always think about this function of like: if you could create access to infrastructure and education so that 1% more of the world's population could become entrepreneurs, the impact on the world would be a net, right. The impact on GDP, the impact on job creation, impact on happiness, right, like, I think that a lot of people are not happy working their nine to five, and rightly so. And it's like, great, well, if we can give you the infrastructure to go out and build something that you really care about, and get excited about, you're gonna bring your best to the world, to the people around you, to your family, to everything and so it's great to see people who live that like yourself and to share those lessons. And so I have a few questions from the community. So one that I think is really interesting and you know, we deal with this a lot is, you know, managing mental health through the founder journey. So, after my little sort of inspirational plug, I think one thing to note is that like being an entrepreneur is no easy road. It comes with incredible amount of stress. And I always call it dealing with no gravity, like, especially when you first started out with a company. It's like, when you first started working, selling shoes and saying like: hey, I'm gonna build a company. That's oftentimes the first people ever experience having no external expectations or structure around what you're doing. Right? That's when you realize that like, school, helped keep me on track. My job helped me keep me on track. And when you quit and say, like, I'm going to build a company immediately, like, nobody cares what you do, right? There's nobody who's sitting around waiting for you to deliver a report. There's no grades, there's nothing. It's like this antigravity. I think a lot of people particularly deal with that when they're starting a company. So interested to just hear your quick thoughts on sort of, how do you manage mental health through the journey? Like what are some strategies that you've used through the good times and the bad times that have helped you persist, right? Like I think being consistent as an entrepreneur is really about doing it for a long enough period of time. And that's really about coming up with strategies to help like, keep getting up and making steps.
Mark Gainey 45:18
Yeah. So Tyler, I'm reminded of a conversation, this is gonna go back now, many, many years ago that Michael and I had around this exact thing. We were in a period of time, and this is during Kana so the first company, where we found that our emotions would ride not just in a given day, week or month, but literally by the hour, depending on like, the last call that had come to me, or maybe the call was that we did get a customer who was willing to sort of sign up for the beta and do it like, we're on cloud nine. And then the next call would come in from a prospective investor like, you know, guys, we're gonna pass right now, but we really want to stay in touch. So Michael and I, we had a whiteboard at the time we drew this sine wave, we were kind of laughing like man, you know, our emotions are like this. And then we realized, we're the ones reacting to this, it's like, we just decided we gotta flatten the sine wave. And it's never going to be dead flat, but the way in which we decide to respond to these challenges, it's totally up to us. And so we just made a commitment to each other. One of the things, and I think we've done a good job of this now for last 20 years is, let's not get too high, but also, let's also not get too low. And I can tell you, like at Strava, we've had everything from wrongful death lawsuits to FTC investigation, like we've had plenty of stuff that can rattle folks, but it's why that third P is so important when I talk about the three P's, and its perspective. So I personally wish that at Strava we were, not wish I shouldn't say this. It'd be great if we were curing cancer. We're not, we are in the business of keeping people active. We actually think it is important, we do really believe that the more the world is active, kind of what you just described, the more entrepreneurs we have, the better this world would be. I also believe that the more that people are active, the better this world will be. But let's be clear. We're trying to keep people active. We're trying to keep them running. So let's maintain that perspective, and then let that sine wave kind of flatten. And it's worked well, it's worked well. It's not perfect all the time. But in terms of that mental health, I kind of know it's important. I've got two boys that are twins. The whole company knows they come first. I told you earlier, my friendship with Michael comes before any kind of professional thing. We just made some key choices around how we're going to live our life. And I think it comes through in the Strava culture. We're gonna keep our priorities straight.
Tyler Norwood 47:39
Yeah. Yeah. I work with tons of founders, and I think we built this culture, I call it like the Gary Vee culture, right? Which is like, your job is your life. It's the only thing that matters, hustle, hustle, hustle, hustle, hustle. And I think a lot of people get lost in the sauce where, the other things in your life I think make you better as an entrepreneur, and to let those atrophy is really harmful, right? Like you just get lost in this feedback loop where it's like you kind of lose perspective on like, why am I even doing this? What am I doing? It's those other things I think that add touch points that remind you like, well, this is why I'm doing it, right. Like we want to keep people more active. And why is that important? Well, I'm sure you're reminded of that when you're out, you know, running around playing with your sons, right? Or you're out on a run, or you're doing this and that those are the experiences that remind you like, hey, this is important what we're doing. We're not curing cancer, but this is still important.
Mark Gainey 48:31
It's important and I'm always surprised where the best ideas come from. They might come from going out and deciding to run 45 minutes over lunch, just to clear my head. And next thing you know, I've solved a problem. My boys are now 20 years old, you know, been hanging out with them a long time. But trust me when it came to sort of thinking about how do we address the needs of a younger population on Strava? Yeah, go spend time with the kids. And all of a sudden you realize, okay, yeah, they are the future, they understand where Strava needs to go and talking to teenagers and sort of the way in which they're interacting with their other apps, incredibly valuable. I've been accused for many years of having sob disease in my house, which is Strava on the brain. With an entrepreneur it never turns off like it's always there. And you can either make that be a real detriment, and it's been a detriment. Like, I've had times sitting at the dinner table where my boys had called me on it and said, Dad, you didn't hear what we just said. And they're right I was totally focused on something that maybe had happened at the company earlier in the day. But if channeled the right way what happens is, instead of it consuming me, it just is part of the vernacular all the time. And so now I'm able to go off on a ride and I don't feel guilty because I'm gonna learn something really valuable that I can bring back to the company, or I'm going to have a conversation with friends or kids or family members and I'm gonna bring it back.
Tyler Norwood 49:51
Yeah, yeah, no, I think that's great. And I mean, we can close the loop there. You go all the way back to how you and Michael met and how the original idea for Strava came about right? It was unexpected letter from cross country coach at Harvard. And then you know, at the time, probably what felt like monumental injury, right, that pushed you onto the crew team. Right, and then having an upperclassman sort of take you under his wing. So, to your point, like the inception of Strava was really just life happening. And, yeah, I think that's a great place for us to end. We're six minutes short of time but Mark, this has been incredible. I think you may have seen the polling option, or the polling results here, but I think Strava got a couple new users today, and super excited to have more people jump on and keep being active. And yeah, this was great. I mean, really appreciate your time, Mark, I think these are awesome lessons. Really excited to put this into a format that we can share, you know, across the Antler network and, you know, share your story with founders. And again, one, I think, help more people be active, like you mentioned, and, you know, for us at Antler like, help move that 1% shift in the world's population to become founders and to build things like you've built. So, again, Mark, thank you so much for the time. It was great speaking with you,
Mark Gainey 51:10
Anytime Tyler. This is great, really appreciate it.
Tyler Norwood 51:13
Yeah. Thanks, Mark. We'll speak soon.
Mark Gainey 51:15
Take care. Ready to change the world. Come join us at www.antler.co Find your co-founder. Test your idea. Launch your company with Antler
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