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Q&A: Strava founder Mark Gainey

The CEO and co-founder of Strava on the history of segments, Strava marriage proposals and the pain of losing his records to a teenager

Mark Bailey
10 Oct 2018

Cyclist: You first had the idea for Strava in the 1990s but only launched it in 2009. Did you have to wait for the technology to catch up?

Mark Gainey: Yeah, Michael [Horvath, the other Strava co-founder] and I had families, we were on opposite coasts of America – he was on the east coast and I was in California.

We were these two guys in our early forties who were still passionate about sport and camaraderie but life, obligations, kids and work got in the way. 

We had this old idea about a ‘virtual locker room’ after we rowed together at Harvard, but by 2009 two things had changed.

One was technology with the wearable marketplace and GPS devices. The other was the concept of sharing information with the advent of Twitter and Facebook.

Strava is old enough to have started as a web company supporting GPS devices such as Garmin, then in about 2011 Apple and Android devices came to have a strong enough battery life and a strong enough GPS chipset to be viable tools to use.

That changed the game for us, enabling us to grow the network more effectively.

Cyc: What was the idea behind segments?

MG: The whole history behind segments is fascinating. It wasn’t as though we had this masterplan about how this was going to cover the entire world.

It was really simple. Cyclists love climbs. Let’s see if we can identify climbs and we’ll show them how they are doing, just by themselves. Hey, you did a hard climb – you should know about it.

Then we thought perhaps if another member rides that same climb, maybe we can show how they compare against each other.

That ability to put people together and allow them to compare came in and all of a sudden we saw the trash-talking, the camaraderie, the gamesmanship and those little things added up to the fervour behind the experience.

Cyc: Did the competitive element happen automatically?

MG: In our very earliest days when we were still alpha testing we took 10 people on the west coast and 10 on the east coast and asked them to participate on this website for a month during the Tour de France.

What shocked us was the level of banter that was going on between people who didn’t know each other at all.

From day one we could see there was this interaction between athletes – which was always taking place afterwards over beers or a cup of coffee anyway – that we could now translate digitally.

That’s where the kudos and comments came in. 

Cyc: The name Strava is Swedish for ‘to strive’. Do Strava users see themselves as athletes?

MG: From day one we always said we’re about motivation and entertainment.

Let’s keep it fun. We knew if we could keep it fun and inspirational you would get the fitness, the strength and the speed too, but it should be secondary to: can we keep this entertaining?

That has held true for our seven years of existence. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we don’t want our athletes to take us too seriously either.

Cyc: Is the Strava office in California full of very active employees?

MG: Oh yeah. There are certain days when the smell in the office is not from the servers and computers.

There is an active lifestyle – in a good way. Our ethos is pretty simple and one of our core values is authenticity. You have got to live the lifestyle.

We have always said if we are not using Strava, how can we convince the rest of the world that it’s a good thing to do?

Come to Strava and you will find yoga once or twice a week and ‘Workout Wednesday’ when everybody takes off at noon and goes for a run.

Cyc: What has all the Strava data taught you about cyclists?

MG: I was surprised at how social cycling is as a sport. That really surfaces. You see how many people are riding together all the time.

My own experience wasn’t like that, just because of my lifestyle. I would put in an hour on my mountain bike but cycling is actually really social.

We also find cyclists are always exploring – they like finding different routes and places.

CYC: How might the data from Strava Metro help to influence city infrastructure?

MG: Metro has been a great investment. The mission there was to go back to asking: how can we make the world a more active place with environments that are more inviting for people to ride, run or walk to work?

It’s early days but we are working with dozens of cities around the world looking at how we can improve ‘bike-ped’ infrastructure with bicycle pathways and pedestrian causeways.

There could even be a temporal basis, so maybe what London needs on Monday to Friday is different to what it needs at weekends.  

Cyc: Might Strava add coaching tips and product advice in the future?

MG: We know we’re not the experts when it comes to training for a first century ride but we know there are experts out there, so how do we allow them the opportunity to have a voice on Strava and how can members find that information?

We look at it as: how can we serve you morning, noon and night? Part of this is to make sure folks can access information.

For example, if they are thinking of a new bike purchase, my bet is that there is expertise out there, not just from bike shops but from other members who are using that bike.

What are the pros and cons? How can we develop Strava so members have more of a voice? 

Cyc: What about helping people find new routes?

MG: We get really excited about the future there. We’d like to help people discover new opportunities, new friends, new routes, new places to travel and their next bucket list thing to go and do.

It’s kind of there now but you have to dig around, so we’re thinking about how to evolve the experience to better serve athletes.

Let me go plan my weekend, and how can Strava be a part of it?


Cyc: What is your favourite piece of Strava art [where a user’s route draws a picture on a map]?

MG: I’ve seen some amazing art but for me it is more about messaging.

If someone told me people would be making marriage proposals on Strava when we started I’d have said, ‘What are you smoking?’ And people are saying yes!

We have seen everything from political statements to people rooting for their favourite World Series team. Those messages capture my heart and are fun to see.

Cyc: Do Strava users deliberately try to beat you?

MG: A funny story – there was a time when I had lots of CRs [course records] throughout my neighbourhood.

Then I had a ski accident three years ago and I started living my exercise vicariously through other people. I saw one person was targeting my CRs.

Every day I was losing another CR and I was thinking, ‘Who is this guy? Why is he doing this to me?’ 

Fast forward a bit and I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant with my two boys and I was wearing a Strava T-shirt.

A nice woman comes over and says, ‘Do you mind me asking where you got that shirt?’ I told her I happen to work at the company.

So she went outside and dragged in this skinny 16-year-old kid and she said he was in love with Strava. He introduced himself and I realised… it’s you! You’re the one! 

Of course, he wasn’t targeting me, he was just younger so he was naturally destroying me, but we developed a friendship and we still banter back and forth every few weeks. He sometimes gives me kudos. 

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