Michael Horvath took up hiking and yoga during the pandemic when his usual work cycle was off limits. Like nearly 100 million other people in nearly 300 countries, he was able to track his chosen activities on Strava, the fitness app he co-founded 13 years ago.
Designed as a “virtual locker room” through which cyclists could compete with their friends, the app exploded during the pandemic as millions sought ways to get active and join online clubs that would inspire them to keep going. .
At its peak in April and May 2020, the app saw 3 million people join each month, triple its previous level. That figure has since fallen to 2 million per month, but Horvath believes the app could hit 1 billion users within a decade.
On the horizon, there is now a move to place the company in stock market rankings as the pandemic, and now a fuel crisis, drives a permanent shift towards physically active travel.
In the UK, already 17% of the adult population is on the platform, or more than 9 million people. “What the pandemic has done in many ways accelerated what would have already happened, but forced it to happen sooner and gave us the space to think about it. It will happen in the next two years instead of 10 years from now,” says Horvath.
It wants Strava to be a tool to help continue driving this change, with data on the activities of its cyclists and walkers used to help design and validate city center redevelopments.
Since 2020, the app has made its data freely available to local authorities and public bodies, including Transport for London, Transport for Greater Manchester and Active Travel England; today, more than 1,500 of these organizations use it, compared to only 50 before the pandemic.
Horvath says Strava decided offering free data was better for the company in the long run because it would help more people get active and become potential users of the app.
For example, the number of female cyclists joining Strava more than doubled in the first year of the pandemic, as women reportedly felt safer on the streets as protected bike lanes appeared in the whole country and the cars stayed at home.
“For the record, look at San Francisco, Paris, London and Stockholm, where I have spent time recently since the pandemic. The pandemic has not only created more sense of demand from people who live in these cities, but also the supply has increased as well. We immediately saw how the city authorities responded by creating quieter streets and redesigning streets to serve people,” says Horvath.
He says there has been a return to car use, but believes local authorities will nonetheless continue to invest in “enabling people to get around towns on their own”.
Horvath thinks getting involved in improving towns and cities is “incredibly important” to motivating the group’s 350 employees, and also gives Strava customers another reason to sign up, map and share their experiences. routes.
He says finding new ways to create a sense of camaraderie and fun – and offering more services, such as advice on where to move on vacation or ways to monitor non-active health issues such as sleep and nutrition – will help guide the future of the business. growth.
The app has already expanded from simple cycling to 33 activities, including climbing, surfing and wheelchair use, and links to over 30 devices that measure performance, fitness trackers Garmin and Fitbit activity to Peloton exercise bikes.
“We’re focused on building things that athletes love to use – and we hope to find things they’ll pay for so the business thrives,” says Horvath.
This format – offering a certain amount for free with premium services accessible via a subscription (from £4 per month in the UK) – was a key part of Horvath’s reinvention of Strava. He returned as chief executive of the then-loss-making company in 2019, after five years away to care for his four children and terminally ill wife.
“It was pretty clear [the business] was not financially strong and needed to make changes and I backtracked,” he says.
The reinvention also included additional safety measures, which he said focus on better education around app controls and automatic privacy zones around the start and end of rides amid concerns over safety. , especially for women. The app gained notoriety in 2018 for revealing sensitive information about military bases thanks to personnel logging their exercise routines on the Strava app.
Horvath says he was partly motivated to return to the business by a desire to realize a vision partly influenced by his wife Anna, whom he married when they were both in their early twenties and who passed away in 2017. The business was practically part of the family. , first proposed with co-founder Mark Gainey as a way to virtually recreate the camaraderie and competition of the Harvard rowing club where they met in the 1980s.
Horvath and Gainey first floated the idea of a “virtual locker room” in the mid-1990s, but it generally received a negative response. Instead, the couple made their fortunes developing the consumer services software company Kana, which they launched in 1999. Horvath tried to return to teaching, but yearned for life as an entrepreneur. In 2008, he and Gainey met for brainstorming sessions that would lead to the birth of Strava. The arrival of phones with GPS and activity tracking technology such as Garmin has reinforced an idea that had been rejected more than a decade ago.
However, it was the sporting revolution seen during the pandemic that gave Strava the boost, with revenue soaring 70% last year to around £170m, 90% of which came from subscriptions and the rest mainly from sponsorship agreements with brands. It was the second year of growth at this rate, resulting in Strava’s first profit of 2020.
Horvath says he wants to get a public listing for the group, which was valued at $1.5 billion when it raised $100 million in November 2020 from investors including Sequoia Capital, which has backed PayPal and Zoom. But he doesn’t seem to be in a rush to follow tech companies, including DoorDash, Roblox and Deliveroo, which have profited from their own pandemic booms.
“I see this as something we will do in the future,” he says of the public listing, “as a way to ensure longevity, [protect the] foundation we’ve built and doing some things that we can’t do as a private company. But it has to be done at the right time. It is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end.
“We are trying to build the #1 sports brand of the 21st century with technology and digital experience. Not with shirts, shoes and gear, but with something that fits the way people are active in the 21st century. By enabling people to build community, they stay engaged for life. We want to be the registry of global activities.