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How Strava is building a niche social network for athletes — without ads

Strava is big with cyclists. It wants to be big with everyone else, too.

A man bikes down the road with the Austrian mountains in the background. Jan Hetfleisch / Getty Images for Ironman

Strava may very well have the most active employees in San Francisco.

Walk into the San Francisco headquarters of the 140-person startup, which bills itself as the “social network for athletes,” and you’ll find a bike room with well over 50 road bikes stashed by commuting employees. One wall is covered with dozens of race bibs, from 5Ks to Iron Mans, and many on staff will spend Wednesday afternoons running together near the ballpark, or spend Thursday mornings on a company bike ride.

“It feels like being on a sports team,” says CEO James Quarles, a big runner and swimmer. “There’s always an activity.”

That makes sense: Strava is trying to build a social network for the world’s most active athletes, so active employees are almost a necessity. The company, which was founded in 2009 and has raised around $70 million, has gained popularity with cyclists because it lets them track and then share data about their rides with other cyclists through Strava’s app. Strava has “tens of millions” of registered users, Quarles said, though it doesn’t share a monthly active users metric like larger social networks.

In May, Quarles came in from running business operations at Instagram to be the company’s new CEO — and to help Strava expand into more sports, classes and business models. (Instagram exec Kevin Weil is also on Strava’s board.) Users can post their activity data to the app today, but Strava is preparing to open it up so that users can post other things, too, like links or questions.

With more than six years combined at Facebook and Instagram, Quarles is ready to build a social network of his own. We sat down with him to talk about what he learned at Facebook, why he isn’t interested in advertising and why Strava and Switzerland might have more in common than you’d think.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Strava logo is painted across the wall at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Kurt Wagner / Recode

Recode: It feels like people are shying away from the “social network” label these days because it leads to a lot of Facebook comparisons. Why do you want to be a social network?

James Quarles, Strava CEO: I’m not bothered by the comparison, because I think there’s clearly room for, and a movement toward, narrower communities of interest. You see that in groups products, you see that in messaging products. I open Facebook to share pictures of my kids with family members who are distant. I open Instagram when I’m traveling to document my photos. I open Twitter to try and beat CNN for breaking news. When I’m running, when I’m swimming, when I’m looking for advice to stay active, I open Strava. It’s very specialist in that way.

What did you learn from your time at Facebook and Instagram that you’ve taken with you?

How to scale globally [was one]. Strava’s lucky — 80 percent of our audience is outside of the United States. People think we’re just a Silicon Valley phenomenon. It’s just the opposite. What I learned at Instagram, we took a trip to Japan — and I think this is so true — everyone in these countries, they don’t want a global or international product. Instagram Japan, the Top 100 accounts, they’re all wonderfully Japanese. So how do we at Strava make sure that our domestic experience really feels like Strava is a French phenomena, it’s a German phenomenon, it’s a Japanese or it’s a Brazilian phenomenon.

What’s something that you saw at Facebook or Instagram that you want to do differently at Strava?

I think the first thing is just avoid surprises. So you remember [Facebook’s] social reader? Social reader was when you’d read an article and then it would post back to your feed. I had one where my wife had read a Cosmopolitan article that was very badly titled ... [it] posted to her friends. That was a surprise. People don’t like surprises.

The second one: The quality of connections is as important as the quantity of connections, and maybe more so. This intimate view into peoples’ lives is more valuable to you when it’s people you know. So, as we’re growing peoples’ networks, as we’re helping them discover content that’s motivating ... It’s really important for us to stay balanced on both [friends and influencers].

Strava is mostly known for cycling, but you want to get into other areas, especially indoor activities like aerobics classes. Why not stay super-narrow?

The personal data shows that about a third of what [athletes] do is outdoor and has a GPS track. [Roughly] 56 percent are indoor. So it’s in a gym, in a studio or it’s in their home. In order to have more appeal to passion athletes, we have to represent more of her active life. So a big part of our strategy of broadening our appeal is to say that we have to be outdoor and indoor.

You let people upload data from a lot of devices directly to Strava. Do device manufacturers like you?

We have very strong relationships. If I just take Garmin, Apple and Fitbit specifically, all three of them have great products and they have apps to make sure you’re getting the most [data]. But what they definitely recognize is that, it would be a big bummer if ... we were really great training partners, and I’m in the Garmin network and you’re in the Fitbit one, so sorry, we can’t have any of this interaction. You need a network that abstracts from devices.

So you’re like Switzerland?

We do use that flag.

Do you have any desire to build your own hardware?

No. It’s not our strength. And I think our partners are years ahead of us in experience. Hardware’s hard. That’s a very different cycle than ours. You never say never, but I don’t think we’re best as a hardware company.

Do you make any money?

We have a premium subscription business. We also have a metro business, which is aggregating and anonymizing commute data to sell that back to departments of transportation so they can better plan pedestrian bicycle routes in cities. So we’re not profitable, but I think those are all indications of the types of businesses we will grow as the network grows.

No advertising?

It’s not what we’re working on right now as a business line. Obviously with my background, I know what kind of scale is required, and also user experience — I don’t think it would fit well today in Strava. So we’re exploring other business lines from the ones we’ve talked about, and advertising isn’t one of them.

I’m surprised. Most social companies make all their money from advertising. Why isn’t it a fit?

Today, the way that the product works, it’s like Nascar stickers. Trying to do banner ads and things like that, it just doesn’t feel like it dovetails with what people are opening the app for.

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