How Strava attracted 40 million athletes with a niche go-to-market strategy.

Strava — strive in Swedish — started out catering to one audience and one audience only: cyclists.

Today, more than 40 million athletes spread over 195 countries — doing just about any kind of workout — are logging 15 million activities a week on Strava. 

Of course, the jump from spandex-clad bikers to a legion of worldly athletes wasn’t easy – especially when neither founder was a die-hard cyclist.

So, how and why did they do it?

The road to owning social fitness

Co-founder Mark Gainey, a speaker at this year’s Hustle Con, first dreamed up Strava back in the 90s with his Harvard crew buddy, co-founder Michael Horvath.

It wasn’t until 2009, though, that the timing was finally right to launch their MVP: A simple website.

You may remember that 2009 was the year wearable GPS devices were taking off, and Twitter and Facebook were no longer dorm room fantasies. For Gainey and Horvath it was perfect timing.

By 2011, Strava had gone mobile and users were busy racking up the miles.

“Apple and Android devices came to have a strong enough battery life and a strong enough GPS chipset to be viable tools to use,” Gainey tells Cyclist.co.uk. “That changed the game for us, enabling us to grow the network more effectively.”

Niche as a go-to-market strategy

While Gainey never considered himself a hardcore cyclist, he and Horvath instinctively understood the advantages of going niche.

“We did see an opportunity in the market where there was a group that really wasn’t being served well by any of the other products that were out there, and a chance for us to work with the devices that the cyclists were using,” tells Men’s Journal.

Focusing on the needs of serious cyclists, Strava built momentum by reaching out to cycling groups, teams and clubs, getting the word out through local ambassadors and developing targeted marketing campaigns.

Word of mouth began to spread, with cyclists touting how the authentic brand not only gave them a way to share routes and rides with each other, it opened up a world of camaraderie and connection.

Taking the app to the next level

It wasn’t long before the company added runners — a natural fit for its tech — to the mix. And began laying out plans to expand beyond endurance sports. Today, the app is used by swimmers, rock climbers, windsurfers, yoga practitioners, Peloton fanatics, you name it.

“We saw the power of being focused on something niche,” founder Mark Gainey tells Outside Magazine of his company, now valued at $350 million. “But in doing so, you develop leadership and the credibility to build it into a broader market.”

Outside Magazine chalks up Strava’s popularity to its ability “to combine the best aspects of other fitness apps—plus some distinctive features of its own—in a sleeker, more satisfying user experience.”

Those distinctive features are a combination of cool performance metrics and positive social motivation not found on other social sharing sites. Last year, athletes shared 3.6 billion kudos on Strava.

And thanks to its users sharing their route heat maps as works of art and marriage proposals, even less athletically inclined people are familiar with the brand.

Staying focused on an athlete’s needs

With 42 million accounts — and about a million new ones being added every month — Strava is poised to achieve its goal to become the defacto social fitness platform for all athletes, not just runners and cyclists.

But unlike its competitors, the company doesn’t plan to grow through acquisitions. (At least, not yet.) Instead, Strava will continue to focus on individual athlete’s needs, just as it did when the company launched 10 years ago.

Looking for more inspiration for your startup journey? Join us at Hustle Con.

Gainey will be there with 30+ other speakers to share more of Strava’s journey at Hustle Con, December 2-3, 2019. 

Get your tickets here