In the words of Dan Kiely, Voxpro Co-Founder and CEO, we’re on the verge of the next paradigm shift in customer experience: it’s called The Internet of Things (IoT).
With IoT, things are getting personal. Connected devices, wearable tech, Radio frequency (RF) enabled technology – all of these innovations allow companies to build incredibly detailed profiles not just of customer segments, but of individuals. And in return, customers are getting a far more personalized experience than before. All of this means that IoT is helping to forge far stronger relationships between companies and customers.
Strava is a perfect example of this new CX dynamic at work. This company describes itself as the ‘World Social Network for Athletes’. By bringing together all of its members’ performance data into one hub, Strava has managed to place itself at the centre of a vast community of millions of passionate sportspeople. And that’s a very powerful place for a brand to be.
Mark Gainey, Strava’s co-founder and Chairman, recently dropped into Voxpro Studios for a chat about how Big Data is rocket fuel for customer experience. He covers:
- Collecting the performance data of tens of millions of sportspeople
- How Strava recreates team camaraderie on a global level
- Why the ‘get big fast’ attitude isn’t always the right attitude
- The power of forming an emotional connection with your customers
- How big data builds better cities
- Will humans get tired of being tracked by every device?
- Why he is a fan of Richard Branson
Otherwise, just read on for some of Mark’s key insights in to how IoT is bringing a whole new dimension to CX.
Collecting the performance data of tens of millions of sportspeople
Mark: The easiest way to describe Strava is ‘the world’s social network for athletes’. We’re a technology company, headquartered in San Francisco, where we develop products and services largely on mobile apps, but also working with lots of partners with wearables and web services, to create a service for athletes, where they can gather, they can track their rides, their runs, their ski sessions and surf sessions. They can analyze that information but really most importantly they can gather together, they can trash talk, they can give each other kudos and high fives and hopefully just keep people little more active in the world today.
We have tens of millions of folks around the globe, we add a million new members about every month.
Patrick: That is incredible, so that is a million new ‘bunches’ of data, so to speak, that you are collecting about your users and are then able to compile into this fantastically rich profile of who is using your service.
Mark: That’s correct. We think about them very much as our members, as part of this community that we’re building around the globe. And because they are sharing where they are being active and what they are doing, we have a fascinating data set to work from, to hopefully continue to offer great products down the road.
Patrick: Okay so we’re going to get into customer experience element of this in a couple of moments, and how this data really put companies like yours at a distinct advantage over those who maybe have to spend much longer trying to collect any kind of data they can, but first of all: is Strava a company of product designers, or is it a company of athletes?
Mark: Fascinating question. I am going to say, it’s more the former and less the latter it’s important for us to have people who can be objective and ultimately build and support products for our athletes. So I always caution someone, you don’t have to be an athlete to come and work at Strava, we want as diverse team as possible because that shared perspective and that diversity really helps us think about the needs of our customers in as clear a way as possible. That being said, Patrick, I will admit there are an awful lot of passionate athletes who work at Strava – you are going to enjoy what we build here if you enjoy yourself.
How Strava recreates team camaraderie on a global level
Patrick: Sure and the whole idea from the company came from a sort of athletic germ so to speak – yourself and your co-founder were part of Harvard’s rowing team, is that right?
Mark: That’s correct. Yeah Michael [Horvath] and I, co-founders here at Strava, met almost 30 years ago as members of the crew team at Harvard. We had an amazing experience on that team and frankly we wanted to recreate the experience, not only for our friends but ultimately for this global audience.
Patrick: And what was that experience?
Mark: It’s hard to describe until you are there but I think that the idea was this notion of ‘Esprit de Corps’, this camaraderie that comes from a shared effort towards working towards the goal. We were so fortunate to be in a boathouse where you have everything built in: the coaching, the teamwork, the competition, the sweat and training that goes into the effort, and the successes and failures. Because you have teammates it’s shared. At times you are competing with them, at times you are training with him, but at the end of the day everybody’s game was elevated. Our only problem was we graduated! So we needed to recreate it and that was where Strava came from.
Patrick: So technically what you have done is take something that was kind of microcosmic – one team in one specific place, in one specific country – and recreate that experience for people all around the world, who come together on your platform.
Mark: That’s correct. When we first started Strava we had no idea whether it would support the kinds of people we have today and the size and scope. If we had supported 20 of our closest friends and kept us a little more active, we probably would have been happy. It really was a very much a personal endeavour. We were now in our early forties and had a passion for being active but as most of us know, life has a funny way of getting in the way. And so Strava was very much this concept of ‘boy we need something personally that can keep us going’ and as luck would have it turned out that that was true for a whole lot more folks than we ever anticipated.
Why the ‘get big fast’ attitude isn’t always the right attitude
Patrick: I know you started Strava aimed at a customer base of cyclists – did it seem at some point in the early days that this thing was not going to take off because investors maybe thought that this was a little too niche an audience to build a scaling company on?
Mark: I think that there was always scepticism about the size of the opportunity, you are correct. Many investors would have looked at Strava and said ‘Oh it’s a clever product but that’s awfully niche’. I think we tried to remind people that there is a difference between a go-to-market strategy and a long-term vision. Mike and I always envision this opportunity of supporting a global community of athletes across a broad spectrum of sports, and frankly even motivations. Not all athletes participate in sports for the same reasons and so we were really interested to support this very diverse community of athletes over time – and for us, it’s a long journey.
But to go to market? For us it was really important to be very focused, and despite the fact that neither Michael or I are really cyclists by background – we’re rowers and runners – what we found was by being very focused on that first audience we could be authentic with them, we could really understand their needs at a deep level and create products that really spoke to them and that resonated with the cycling community. And our theory was if we could do that with that first group, over time we could then evolve the experience to be just as authentic across a broad range of sports.
Patrick: It reminds me of the phrase that Paul Graham from Y Combinator coined: ‘do things that don’t scale’.
Mark: That’s exactly right, it’s counter-intuitive, particularly here in silicon valley where there is always this ‘get big fast’ mentality but the reality was if you don’t have that initial product-market fit that so many people describe, it’s very hard to ever think about scale.
Becoming the ‘Switzerland’ of the wearables market
Patrick: So fast forward to today and millions of people are joining Strava all the time. What are the data points, what are the devices that your members are wearing and connecting with that bring all this data into your centralized hub?
Mark: So one of the strategies that we decided early on was that we would be, in essence, Switzerland when it came to the wearables market and the athlete’s desire to capture information. What I mean by that is rather than coming out with our own proprietary solution, we started partnering with everybody in the world who was offering a way to capture your athletic activity. Whether that’s a watch, whether that’s a bicycle computer, whether that’s a heart rate monitor – today we probably support I would guess somewhere between two and three hundred different devices. And its everybody from a Garmin or an Apple watch or a Fitbit or a Suunto, it doesn’t matter: if it’s something that an athlete is using to capture their activity while they are out doing their sport, we want to make sure that that information can come in easily into Strava, and so we work very hard to make sure that our API and other technologies make that seamless. That allows us a great opportunity then to be agnostic, basically.
Patrick: The interesting thing there is how quickly your data points are scaling, because you are finding these trackers in everything now: in clothing, in bicycles frames and running shoes, they are not just something in a watch or in your phone anymore.
Mark: That’s correct, the innovation is mind-blowing, and I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. We keep seeing great innovation, whether it’s a kick starter project or it’s a major multinational organization, they are all realizing that the easier you make it to collect the data, the more fun we can have with the information afterwards.
Forming an emotional connection with your customers
Patrick: You are taking this crazy large amount of data and collating it for people: how crucial is it to present the information you are collecting in a beautiful, clean, well-designed way?
Mark: Yeah, it’s a great question. When it comes to customer experience, we would start our argument at that product design level that you are describing. There are so many data points coming in, there are so many pieces of information that we could share, that lot of time is actually spent simplifying the user experience and trying to understand what are those base elements they really want to share. Frankly the phrase we use a lot in Strava is ‘how do we help a Strava member tell their story?’ ‘What’s the story they are telling with each and every upload that they do?’ And by doing that you pretty quickly come down to those base elements. There is a map, there are photos, there are comments and kudos, there are things that just allow people to really interact with each other in a fun way.
Patrick: You mention the word ‘story’ and this is something that I think really sets Strava apart from many other companies. You’re part of your members’ lives, I don’t know if emotional is the right word, but you are tapping into their goals, their performance, the fact that they want to be part of the community, so I suppose it’s more emotional than intellectual you might argue. How important is that and how powerful is that?
Mark: I think it’s at the core of the Strava experience. It’s funny, Patrick, we have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the phrase ‘social network for athletes’; it’s the way I used to describe the company at the outset yet it doesn’t quite convey what it is we’re trying to do for our members, and what our members tell us they have. There is a core component of their lives that really does revolve around their athletic endeavors and the people that they connect with on those, and if we can make that just a little bit easier and give them that digital connection, we find statistically they are more active, they stay healthier, and there are all these wonderful outcomes that come from that.
How Big Data builds better cities
Patrick: And I was also interested to read about some of the different ways that you use the huge amount of information that you are collecting: tell us about Strava Metro.
Mark: Strava Metro was a business unit that we launched about three years ago in conjunction with a partner. The State of Oregon here in the States came to us about an interesting challenge where they were trying to better understand the traffic patterns that existed within their cycling and pedestrian communities in their major cities. As we began to look into our data we realized that we actually now had so many members who were uploading not only their workouts but even their daily commutes on Strava, that we were able to pull up a statistically significant set of data. This data was able to help the city planners begin to better understand their infrastructure in the ways in which they could modify their routes and their bike lanes and pedestrian thoroughfares to accommodate that relationship between auto traffic and pedestrian traffic.
So three years later we now work with hundreds of cities around the world, everywhere from Oregon and Florida in United States, to places like London and Melbourne Australia. We really help these city planners and local departments of transportation rethink their infrastructure and upgrade to create better thoroughfares.
Patrick: That’s really interesting and it’s great to see how, beyond the sporting endeavours, this sort of mass information can help societies and communities and cities. I think that’s such a forward-thinking way to go about it.
Mark: We sat down a number of years ago and really painted a vision for the company and it was a pretty simple line, it was just simply “we would love to have a world of inspired athletes where every activity can have an impact”. And we have been pleasantly surprised this ability to aggregate this information where we can have an impact across these community barriers.
Will humans get tired of being tracked by every device?
Patrick: Okay, so I am going to throw an awkward question at you: we have been talking about all the fantastic ways that peoples data can be used, data about their movements, what they are doing, where they are going. Do you ever worry that there may come a time where people maybe don’t want to be tracked so much, maybe where they are just not so comfortable with the level of trackers within their clothing and their devices and their bicycle frames and their cars?
Mark: We think about it a lot. We think about what the experience is, and the way I would phrase it is: how do we give our members option? How do we give them choice? We often refer to the fact that Strava started as very much as single player experience; our thesis was, if there were only one member at Strava, what would they get value from? It tries to solve the problem you are describing, which is how can we allow someone have very private yet rich experience with their information, if they decided to capture in the first place? How can we keep that as single player and private, and then over time if they see the value in sharing their information with others, so be it. I think at Strava we always have this mindset that there are wonderful things you can do in terms of connecting with your fellow athletes, but it’s just as valuable to keep things very private (and we give that option to every member) so I think in doing that at least we dissipate that tension a bit.
Patrick: Yeah just bring it down to personal choice, maybe people don’t want to be tracked without their consent but with their consent and with mutual benefit than it all makes sense.
Mark: Selling that ‘cost versus benefit’ I think is the critical thing. If we can demonstrate the benefits and give them the option of how they want to interact with Strava, we found that seems to be a good line to draw in the sand.
Why he is a fan of Richard Branson
Patrick: Okay, I am going to turn the tables as I do in every episode, Mark, and ask you if is there a company out there that you really rate as best-in-class for customer experience?
Mark: Good question. You know I think the first one that comes to mind – and it’s probably someone that everybody says, but I got to give credit where its due – is Virgin. Here in the States I happen to be a frequent flyer on Virgin America and I just think that Richard Branson figured out the recipe decades ago, but I have been impressed with the way in which he maintains that ethos. There is a certain humility to their customer experience, there is a certain humour to what they do, they seem to keep things in perspective, yet they also pay amazing attention to the details, and yeah I give them a lot of credit.
Patrick: The Voxpro CEO Dan Kiely is going to be very happy with your answer, he is a major-major fan of Richard Branson and in fact, he got to spend a few days on Necker Island with him at a leadership think-in a few months ago so he is going to like your answer, Mark.
Mark: Oh that’s great to hear, well that wasn’t a setup! I am honest in my appraisal, I really do appreciate what they have done.
What does the future hold for IoT?
Patrick: Finally, things are changing so fast everyday – and we have talked about some of the changes in the course of this great interview – fast-forwarding five or ten years, where do you see wearables, IOTs and where it’s fitting into our lives?
Mark: You touched on it earlier, I think that what’s fascinating for us in the athletic world and what’s going on within sports and sort of digital technologies, is just the seamless integration. It used to be that you had to sit down with a pad of paper and pencil after a workout and try to record everything, and then it was put it on to a spreadsheet. And then a number of years ago we began seeing heart rate monitors and things you can put on your wrists. But now we’re beginning to see the integration into the clothing, into the shoes, into the bicycle components, into the skis — the beauty of that is the athletes themselves can simply go and enjoy their experience, with us capturing [the data] afterwards. It’s that seamlessness from being active to then being able to discover information before they go out on their next ride or their next run – we’re just very excited about the way in which that sort of streamlines together. One melds into the other without you having to take serious steps to merge the two, if that makes sense.
Patrick: It absolutely makes sense, and finally, finally: I can only imagine that the amount of data that is going to become available is only going to grow exponentially by the day and by the week and by the year. Are our systems and our technology setup to capture all of this data?
Mark: I think the solution in Strava is to always be cognizant of which data is relevant, and that we can bring content to. So we get excited when there is enough similar data coming in from the various athletes around the world that we can actually do the ‘compare and contrast’ and begin to bring relevance to it. For example, one of the interesting things we’re now tracking quite a bit in Strava is the various types of equipment that someone uses in the field – it doesn’t do much good if only one person tells us what bicycle they are on but if we have tens of millions of people telling us which bike they are riding, we can really begin to understand and help even other companies think about their product evolution.
So from our perspective it’s a notion of context and not worrying so much about how much data we bring in, but whether we are bringing in the relevant data, the data that’s of high value to our particular customer.
Want to strengthen your customer relationships with IoT? Dan Kiely, Voxpro CEO and Co-Founder, has a lot to say about this.