Q&A: Mark Gainey, CEO of Strava

On building a community of athletes, the future of tracking, and what doesn’t work.

As technology continues to inform how we stay fit, those in the business of fitness have to stay on their toes—adapting to not only how we monitor our movement but why. And data crunching is just the beginning.

No one knows this better than executives of companies themselves, like Mark Gainey, CEO of Strava a social network of athletes.

Recently, Furthermore caught up with Gainey. Below, his thoughts on where tracking technology is headed, how it could improve your favorite running routes, and more.

Tell us how Strava came to be.
After successfully building an enterprise software company in the late 1990s, Michael Horvath and I came back together to start a new business anchored in our passion for athletics. We started Strava in 2009. We wanted to recreate the camaraderie and competition we experienced as teammates on the Harvard crew team.

Who was your original user?
We started with cycling because that’s where GPS technology was most widely adopted, but we always had a larger vision in mind.

How is today’s Strava user different?
Strava segments—member-created and edited portions of road or trail where athletes can attempt to beat the top time—introduced athletes to social competition. While that's still a core part of the product, people now use Strava for self-improvement and monitoring progress.

Today, it’s a diverse global community of athletes who come in all shapes, sizes, and athletic ability. We support over 28 different types of activities and have members who range from Olympic gold medalists to people signing up for their first 5K. Anyone brave enough to lace up their shoes and break a sweat has a place on Strava.

How has the ‘tracking’ landscape changed since its inception?
Pedometers and basic step trackers played an important role seeding the market, but we now see tremendous innovation tracking everything from sleep patterns to deep physiological data. We're also seeing more uses for the data—it's not just tracking for tracking sake.

With Strava Metro, for example, we’re able to anonymize and aggregate Strava data, then partner with departments of transportation and city planning groups all over the world to improve infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians. Our members are literally making their cities better by simply uploading their daily rides and runs. Pretty cool.

What will this space look like in five years?
Innovation will only accelerate. We’re excited by the advances in wearables technology, with sensors woven directly into clothing or integrated into gear like bike frames and shoes. And we’re excited about the ways in which we can leverage data to provide far greater insight, coaching, and entertainment.

This business is all about staying ahead of the curve. How do you do that?
Our athletes are passionate and vocal. They live and breathe sport and are constantly providing feedback on how we can evolve. We recently announced Beacon, which allows Strava premium athletes to share their real-time location information with select safety contacts, offering peace of mind for them as well as their friends and family. It’s a feature our community asked for and we delivered.

We also have this program called Strava Jams. It’s a company-wide session we hold once a quarter where we go heads down for three days and work in unique teams on passion projects and big ideas. Some jams lead to product features; some result in a cool story.

Any setbacks along the way?
There was a time when we were offering everything from Strava t-shirts to heart rate monitors and GPS watches. But with 75 percent of our members living outside of the United States, the logistics were extremely challenging. Costs were often prohibitive, given shipping fees and duty taxes; and delivery times were highly unpredictable. We opted to pull away from this business for now until we can better develop partnerships and infrastructure to ensure a world-class experience.

Is there such a thing as ‘over-sharing’?

The key is flexibility—providing members with the option to share as much or as little as they want. We have athletes in who simply upload their activities for themselves, keeping everything private. Others upload their activities and immediately share everything across their social media platforms. Athletes are motivated by very different things—some by competition, others by social interaction, some simply love the solitary routine of a daily activity. On Strava, it’s up to you what you want to share and how often you want to share.