How Strava formed the world’s biggest team: A community case study

If you sweat, you're an athlete. That line is brazenly splashed across the Strava landing page, inspiring weekend warriors, professional athletes, and everyone in between to get out and move. A five-minute walk to the coffee shop or a grueling battle through the Col du Tourmalet has equal standing on Strava.

Strava's meteoric rise has been driven by its ability to create a thriving social community of athletes who engage, motivate and inspire each other. 

But how did the brand do it? What strategies does it use to keep users coming back for more? Let's look closer at Strava's community-building tactics and see what can be learned from this success story. 

Quick history

While the Strava you're familiar with wasn't launched until 2009, its story goes back much further. The first business plan was developed by Mark Gainey and Michael Horvath in 1995, after meeting at competing together as part of Harvard's famous rowing team. 

If your mind immediately goes to the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, you wouldn't be far off. Gainey and Horvath were both accomplished athletes hoping to recreate the feeling of competition and camaraderie they missed after leaving school. 

Their idea was to “create the world’s biggest team,” capturing the locker room feeling that they were missing. But because the internet was still in its fledgling form and their business model was still less than ideal, they shelved the idea for over a decade.

Years later, after starting and selling a different business, Gainey and Horvath would finally launch their product – first as a browser-based client, then later as a mobile app. Strava initially served just cyclists but eventually added running, swimming, and other sports features. 

By 2021, they saw more than 37 million activities uploaded in a week and hit 1.8 billion for the entire year. They have offices in San Francisco, Denver, Bristol, and Dublin and a thriving, active community of over 100 million users in 195 countries. 

It is an impressive growth story, but what made Strava so appealing? 

Product and values

On the "How I Built This" podcast with Guy Raz, Gainey, and Horvath explain some of the values and ideas that drove Strava's growth from the beginning.

The virtual locker room

A place for athletes to connect, motivate, and ultimately challenge each other. 

Gainey and Horvath saw Strava as a way to recreate the feeling of being in a locker room with teammates. They wanted to allow athletes to compete, support, and challenge each other regardless of location, age, or preferred sport.

The company has achieved this by creating an incredibly diverse set of features that allow users to upload their activities, compare their results against friends or everyone else, join clubs, find routes nearby or far away, and even receive virtual awards for completing certain challenges or milestones.  

People are not the product

It would have been easy to use all that personal data to target ads and drive revenue. But Gainey and Horvath had a different idea: they wanted Strava to be about the athletes, not just the data. 

They decided that they wouldn't sell user data or use targeted advertising. Instead, Strava makes money by offering premium features like a detailed analysis of workouts or live tracking for an annual fee.

Their model follows the "freemium" approach, with most features remaining free and optional upgrades available for those who want more.

This decision has been vital to Strava's success as it allows users to trust the platform and not worry about their data being sold or used in a way that would feel intrusive or uncomfortable. 

Continued competition

Friendly rivalry. 

Anyone who has played sports at a high level knows the feeling of yelling at an opponent in the heat of battle, only to share a drink after the game ends. It's an integral part of competition, and Strava understands that.

They've harnessed in-app challenges allowing users to compare their performance against others, join virtual races and groups, or simply comment on each other's activities. 

Community-led growth

There are lots of companies that throw around words like "community" and "engagement," but few have been able to actually create a thriving ecosystem of users. How did Strava do it? 

Pursue the passionate leaders

From the beginning, Gainey and Horvath understood that you couldn't appeal broadly to everyone. The only way something like that works is if it gets immediate, simultaneous (and often spontaneous) adoption, something that is based more on luck than any strategy.

Instead, they focused on the passionate athletes and worried about scale later. They picked cycling and niched down to those already spending a lot of time and money on the sport. 

This strategy allowed them to quickly build a core group of power users who would spread the word about Strava and inspire and motivate others to join through their incredible accomplishments. 

The key lies in cultivating leaders. By enlisting their support, your community will have a more significant impact and endure longer than if you managed it alone. The long-term influence will directly result from your ability to empower the core user base.

Build a rich experience

The idea only worked because one engineer could turn raw GPS data from Garmin devices into a story.

Strava has invested heavily in the user experience, ensuring athletes always get a compelling performance narrative. Speed, elevation gain, and heart rate data don't mean anything without context, so Strava places your performance in the context of others and allows you to compare yourself against them. 

Capitalizing on the addictive nature of that narrative – as evidenced by the oft-used "Strava or it didn't happen" – the company continues to introduce social features to engage and retain users.

Encourage innovation

If your users are passionate, they will come up with ideas you never thought of. Strava has done a great job of listening to its users and encouraging them to innovate. 

The company launched the segments feature, allowing athletes to turn any stretch of road into a race course and compete against each other for the fastest time. This quickly became popular among cyclists who wanted an extra challenge and runners looking for motivation from others on their route. 

Source: Strava IG

Route tracking even led some creative users to turn their rides into art, a brilliant marketing tool that Gainey and Horvath could have never imagined in 1995 and one that took off as a trend that brought new users to the app.

This is user-generated content that drives engagement and motivates others to get out and move. If it's your best friend showing you a new route or a celebrity athlete challenging you to beat their time, Strava provides the platform. 

Embrace your base

Remember those power users we mentioned? Strava always remembered that it is the passionate few who can sway the masses. 

The term "influencer" is now ubiquitous in marketing, but it often just refers to people with an extensive social media reach. When building a community, you must find culture-setters that are more invested than just a paid sponsorship.

Former professional cyclist Jens Voigt may have only 85,000 followers on Instagram, but he can be a powerful weapon for Strava because of his on-app results. To this day, he's still setting personal bests on various segments and races, inspiring others to push themselves further. 

"As important as a runner's shoes," says Gainey, when speaking of how Strava can be a valuable piece of equipment for athletes, even if they aren't directly being paid for it.

Like how Titleist golfers are proud to be associated with the brand because of its class-leading performance, Strava athletes are happy to show off their accomplishments. 

Make a single-player mode

A common pitfall of companies that try to build social networks or communities is that they don't understand the importance of single-player mode. 

The chances of success are slim if a platform is only engaging when everyone you know is on it.

Strava's features don't necessarily need input from other users. You can enjoy the app just as much without any social interaction, but it takes off once you start following just a few people. 

This gradual onboarding process has kept users coming back repeatedly, even when their friends have stopped using the app.

What we can learn

So what can we learn from Strava? There are plenty of lessons to be had.

Grow sustainably

Even if you aren’t an instant hit, it's crucial to prioritize sustainable growth. Focus on being a powerful tool for a select user group and allowing them to gradually drive the community. By deeply understanding one segment of users and fostering highly engaged leaders, you create a solid foundation for future growth.

Once you've established a passionate core, you can expand more rapidly, adding features that will attract a broader audience of casual users. This sustainable approach to growth ensures your platform's stability and longevity while paving the way for its expansion.

Do things that don’t scale

Not every feature you add needs to be valuable to 40 million people.

Focus on creating an engaging experience for the base users who will be your evangelists, and you'll find more success in the long run. Add a handful of features tailored to their needs, eventually becoming their selling points when they go and tell their friends. 

Start an avalanche

If you want to build a community, make it easy for people to share what they're doing.

Strava has made sharing and comparing performance incredibly easy, which leads to more participation and engagement. 

When others see what their friends are doing, they get inspired to join in, and the cycle continues. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, it will just keep growing bigger and bigger. 

At the end of the day, Strava is a great example of how to create a community in the world of sports and fitness. It's not enough to just have a great product - you need people who care, are passionate, and are willing to spread their enthusiasm for your brand. 

That's what Strava did, and that's why they've been so successful in building an active community of athletes worldwide.


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