Michael And Mark: The Harvard Duo That Built Strava
Do you know the saying - 'good things come to those who sweat'?
And you know what's even better than exercising?
Having someone to compete against!
It gives us a sense of purposefulness and connection with fellow teammates, and above all, excitement! At least that's how Mark Gainey explains it when he shares the story about the beginning of Strava, an app that every cyclist or runner has on their phone.
Strava is so much more than just a regular tracking app. For the founders, Mark and Michael, the idea behind meant much more than just numbers - it meant just that, a sense of not being alone during every physical achievement.
They managed to transform that feeling into an app and voila, Strava was born!
Read this interesting story here:
Mark has always loved to talk about anything related to him and his business, whereas Michel shies away from revealing details about his personal life. It may have to do with the different environments these two grew up in.
Mark was born in Denver, but his parents decided to raise him and his two siblings in Reno, Nevada. Not really by choice - Mark's dad was a general surgeon and he got an offer he couldn't refuse.
Nevertheless, Mark was one of those kids who couldn't stay indoors for more than a few hours, so Reno was a dream come true. With all the opportunities for outside activities this place offered, he felt like he'd won the jackpot! His parents were very supportive of their son's passion for sport, buying him his first mountain bike for his 1986 high-school graduation!
Michael was also born in the States but had a chance to live in Sweden as a child. Guessing he learned to keep to himself in the northern cold, Michael's childhood remains unknown.
It might seem a bit strange how one kid raised in Rino and one with a Swedish cultural influence can come together and start not one, but two companies, but fate has its own way of doing things.
Building The Foundation at Harvard
For Michael, attending Harvard seemed like a reasonable step - he was ambitious, fierce, and determined to succeed.
But Mark's story of how he ended up at Harvard is more interesting. Mark was an active teenager - he played soccer which later on transformed into running, but either way, he loved the trill he got from competing with his teammates or against his previous results. So, in the fall of 1985, a year before his graduation, he received a letter from one of his coaches asking him to consider attending Harvard. With his sports successes and high SAT scores, he had a pretty good chance - but Mark didn't think so!
He even laughed it off the first time he read the letter, so his dad had to put some sense into him. Thanks to the big-boy talk, Mark listened to his coach's advice and did the unexpected - he applied to Harvard!
In 1986, Mark received his long-awaited acceptance letter from Harvard and proceeded to study art history, but his participation in the rowing team made Harvard easier to bear. Know who was already on the rowing team? Michael.
So, Mark took him under his wing and never they became not only best teammates but also really good friends, sharing the same love for the sport and teamwork.
Little did they know, they were preparing themselves for their future - building companies together.
The Entrepreneurial Duo
After college, everyone is busy finding their way in the chaotic world, and the same happened to Mark and Michael. After graduating in 1988, Michael continued to work on his education by getting a Ph.D. in Economics from Northwestern. It wasn't hard for him to find a job with such an educational background, so he quickly took up teaching macroeconomics at Stanford.
In addition, he taught entrepreneurship at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire for a few years. Teaching about starting businesses is one thing, but going out there and living the life of an entrepreneur is another. Michael was becoming bored with constantly telling other founders stories - he wanted to go out there and live the stories himself!
Around the same time, a similar epiphany was happening to Mark too. He didn't want to work and was instead considering a career in rowing. However, he ended up with a broken back, which glued him to the bed for the next nine months. Aware that he would probably never row again, he decided to take measures into his own hands and start applying for jobs. He was hired at TA Associates, a private equity firm, to interview entrepreneurs on their businesses - talk about being paid to go to business school!
During the many interviews that followed after Strava's success, Mark would reminisce of this time as the one where he learned almost everything he knew about being an entrepreneur, as three things were constantly repeated by everyone: stay focused on the customer, pay attention to details, and have a great team.
He worked there for five years until 1995, just before the Internet made an appearance on the world stage.
Now ready to dip his toes into the entrepreneurial world, Mark was on the search for a partner.
Doing What You Love Is The Key To Success!
Like today, starting an Internet business required a stable internet connection in 1995 too. Luckily, Mark had Michael as his partner, and Michael had an office at Stanford - one of the perks of teaching at such a prestigious university.
The two of them launched Kana Software, which shifted CRM support from being conducted via phone, to online. They launched the company in 1996 and were making millions by the turn of the millennium!
In 2000, they took the company public, as it was a fast success for both of them. Plus, they were able to manage around 1200 employees, and by 2005, both of them were out of the company.
In the next few years, both of them wanted to lay low and not launch anything.
Thankfully, that didn't last long - otherwise, we wouldn't have Strava!
Because both of them were passionate about sport and wanted to solve some of the common problems athletes faced. Cyclists seemed to be the dark spot in the marketing data, so Mark and Michael decided to start with them. The initial idea was to build a platform that would enable a cyclist to share their cycling time, interact with other cyclists, find out other tours - essentially, compete with each other.
As they weren't developers, they hired a small team of six people to make this happen for them. They combined GPS properties with Garmin devices and the beta version was done.
It's a Swedish word, as Mark's roots are Swedish and it means just that, to strive, to motivate. The beta version of their site was pretty simple, but it was functional.
They were ready to launch by 2009, setting their headquarters in San Francisco - the cradle of thousands of modern and successful businesses.
So, how did Strava approach the road ahead?
One Mile At A Time
The very first guy who used Strava was David Belden. The app was very easy to explain to people passionate about physical activity, so Michael and Mark had plenty to talk about. They went with the good old 'word-of-mouth' tactic and spread the idea behind their business to a lot of cycling enthusiasts in the venture community.
That's how it all started.
Michael and Mark stayed very humble though. Until their first investment money, they self-funded Strava. They were certain that they couldn't afford to spend other people's money.
However, they really wanted to cover the cycling community and gain their trust so they could go into other sports once that had been achieved.
In 2010, they successfully closed their first venture round. Over the years, they received in total $41.9 million investment money, more than enough to stabilize the company.
One of the key things that differentiate Strava from the rest of the athlete apps is that they don't expose their number of subscribers. It's around 55 million and it's assumed that every 3 to 4 months another million subscribers come in.
Today, Strava offers both free and premium subscriptions and it has all sorts of sports activity included in their app. The most important thing is that Mark and Michael succeeded in creating a virtual community for any athlete because as they say - if you sweat, you're an athlete!