Strava is the largest sports community in the world . Founded in 2009, it now has over 100M members . Its roots are in cycling, but it now supports over 40 different activities  with athletes of all kinds, from road runners, to track and trail runners, as well as swimmers, hikers, kayakers, surfers, and skiers all uploading activities to the platform . Members have added activities from every country in the world, and 70% of its members are outside the US . It’s used by everyone from casual sports enthusiasts, to 2,500+ serious, professional athletes - including over 2/3 of Tour de France cyclists  and multiple Olympic medal winners .
Its growth rocketed during the pandemic, becoming the top Health and Fitness app across stores and adding 3M users each month at its peak. But emerged stronger than ever, and they’re still adding 2M users a month . Its members have collectively uploaded more than 7B activities and share on average 4M+ photos a week, too . It has been profitable since 2020 , and last year generated revenues of $220M .
For many sports enthusiasts, the app and its community have become a core part of their lives. In this deep dive, we take a look at the mechanics that make it work and understand the role of community in its growth.
✔️ Origin Story: How Strava and its community got started.
✔️ Growth Strategy: How they've grown the community through network development and gamification.
✔️ Connecting Communities: The approaches they've used to connect existing communities to fuel its growth.
Let's get going 🚴.
Co-founders Michael Horvath and Mark Gainey met at University. They were both on the Harvard crew team . It was here in the '90s that they came up with the original vision for what would become Strava . It didn’t materialize at the time as the tech to pull it off wasn’t mature enough. Instead, the pair went on to found another successful business together - Kana Communications, which went public in 1999 .
It was in 2008 that the idea for Strava began to take shape. What they missed from their Harvard crew days was the camaraderie, friendly competition, and support from teammates. They set out to create a virtual locker room  by combining fitness tracking with community in a single app .
“You first compete with your teammates to try to get in the best boat, and then you compete alongside them to try and beat the other team. That camaraderie, the friendly competition, accelerates the performance. It becomes so much stronger because you have this feeling of competing with your friends. It was really born out of this” 
It would prove to be a sticky combination: a transactional layer based around data, and an emotional one, delivered through community. Together, they created “the esprit de corps, the trash-talking, the competition, the grind” that folks were missing from the experience when working out alone .
By then GPS had become mainstream but it wasn’t yet being widely used to deliver insights on athlete performance . Horvath and Gainey saw this opportunity, but there was already competition in the form of social fitness apps like Runkeeper, MyFitnessPal, and MapMyFitness . So they decided to initially focus entirely on cyclists. They always intended for this to be a multi-sport thing, but that’s where they started .
Its strategy was a simple one: inch wide, mile deep . They were building out an incredible experience for a very specific type of user. Cycling was a great area to start. They were underserved by current solutions and it’s an inherently social sport - cyclists often spend a lot of training time in group rides, which gave them the potential for word-of-mouth . But they didn’t focus on all cyclists. They went after MAMILs: that’s Middle-Aged Men In Lycra . Mark explains why:
“These were the guys spending $300 on that Garmin device. These were the guys obsessing over their data.”
Not only were they into cycling, but they also had the disposable income to drop on cycling gadgets. Fitness trackers didn’t have the ubiquity they now do. They needed the reach the nerdy riders who would revel in access to this data.
So they had the idea and knew who they were building it for, now they had to prove it out. In the summer of 2008, during the Tour de France, they built and tested a prototype with co-founder, Davis Kitchel. It was raw and only worked with this one specific Garmin device, but it would help them validate their idea :
“We built this website that had a bunch of features in it… We invited 10 riders on the West Coast and 10 riders on the East Coast… that were buddies of ours”
They loved it. “The cyclists who were using it were infatuated by the information,” says Mark. “There was a high level of engagement with this data and the storytelling.” It achieved exactly what they wanted: “The level of trash talking and gamesmanship and comradery and the competition back and forth between East and West. It was fervent” . We “came out of that with frankly strong conviction that we'd found something. The feedback we were getting from them was that they were all saying, you're making my cycling life better. I want to keep uploading” .
They went all in. They reached out to a bunch of engineers from their days at Kana, and by January 2009 had founded the company and hired a team to build the thing. In May they opened up a beta aimed at Garmin users and by December had 1,000 beta members .
They’d proven that the combination of ride analytics and a social experience could be powerful. But building a community wasn’t something they felt they could dive straight into :
“A couple years in, we got very excited about the community features. But we had to grow into that.”
They adopted the “come for the tool, stay for the network” ethos, popularized by Chris Dixon, which meant even if “you were the only person on Strava, you would get value” . They set out to make the tool as useful as possible - an approach they called ‘single-player mode’ : “We had to assume we had one customer, one cyclist who was uploading one ride on Strava. How do we make that experience valuable so they'll want to come back again?” Their answer, as Mark explains, was to make Strava for cyclists “as important as a runner's running shoes” .
So they built out a robust product that uses a user’s GPS data to log and track their performance metrics and see trends in that data . It also gives users access to a vast road and trail network that helps with planning and finding new cycle routes . Users can set goals for distance, time, and elevation gain, and Strava will create a custom route tailored to a user’s fitness level .
This bet ended up being the right one, as Mark reflects: People “often don't join because they're trying to join the community. They join because they're looking for a way to track their own personal activities” .
Initially, though, this was still desktop-only and needed a standalone hardware device . It wasn’t until 2011, when they released their first mobile app that the product experience came into its own and growth became a lot easier . They went from 10,000 users in February 2011 to 100,000 in June. During that time, and armed with an inflow of fresh capital off the back of its Series A , the founders decided to begin adding social features .
As is often the way, the initial stages of building the Strava community were incredibly manual. First, they went to their local Costco and negotiated to buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of Garmin devices “just so we could give those away to our friends so that they would participate on Strava” .
Then, as Jason Van Der Merwe, Director of Growth Engineering, recalls, the founders “would take a van and they'd go to local cycling races. And then they would get all the cyclists to come over and upload, literally plug in their Garmin devices and they would upload it to Strava for them” .
“Going grassroots, trying to find those early customers… we were begging and borrowing and stealing from cyclists anywhere we could,” says Mark. But then “sitting down and really listening to what their needs were as a cyclist. Forging this relationship” .
Adding in those social features really changed the game for Strava, not just for the product but for its users, too: “People keep people active” . Strava found that athletes in pairs went longer in both time and distance than when they were solo, and longer still in a group of three or more . The power of the community keeps people active longer and motivates athletes to be their best . For example, a study found that 83% of respondents were more motivated to exercise because of Strava and its community. While another found that social interactions on Strava spurred users to post more activities - as in, people would do more to give themselves the ability to post more . Activities posted on Strava are 8 times more likely to get some form of social feedback than a post on Twitter, and 44% of respondents in a study said that Strava improves their social lives through positive encouragement of other users’ activities .
There’s a lot of value to individuals that the community on Strava unlocks. Firstly, it magnifies your activity. What would have been a quick solo ride in the morning before work becomes more valuable - it’s an event you can talk about. You can dig into the data and remark on a particularly difficult climb or snap a photo and capture something unrelated to the ride itself .
“The magic happens when you begin following just a few people,” though, says Mark . It turns it into a place where athletes can connect and inspire one another with their activities and milestones - connecting not just people with a shared interest in a particular region, but globally to those with the same skill, goals, or levels of passion . While friends and family connect so they can see each other’s workouts  and as more new users join, the power of the network effect increases: more users means more activities, more encouragement, and more engagement . That also creates a FOMO effect, pulling users onto Strava who want to be in the club, and not miss out . Jimmie Johnson, the 7-time NASCAR champion and avid Strava user, explains why he uses the platform :
”Strava is a great way to connect with the fitness community. I use it to track my runs, my rides, the bio feedback is really useful... It honestly makes you feel good, and people need that. I use Strava for many reasons: motivation, networking, trash-talking, community... and just fun.”
What they’ve created is a holistic experience built around all aspects of an athlete’s activities, before, during, and after :
And this is all pulled together by the social component. As former CEO, James Quarles, explains :
"Training is hard, it's intimidating, it's lonely... People love how our product connects them with other people, lifts them up, challenges them... and helps them go further. That's where the social aspect of our community plays such a huge role.”
Clearly they were on to something, so let’s take a look at how they grew the community, going from 100,000 users in June 2011 to passing 100M users in May 2022 .
Strava has always had a freemium model - one that allows for free use of its app, albeit with limited capabilities that can be unlocked by subscribing to its premium offering. Around 95% of its user base opt for the free version .
It has tried to monetize in multiple ways over the years, from selling apparel  to selling data (strictly to government agencies) . Unlike most social platforms, Strava is almost entirely ad-free. It has dabbled with native advertising but Mark says “It didn't feel like it was in the best interest of the actual experience of the customer” . So that got dropped in favor of sponsored challenges, popular with brands like Red Bull, Adidas, and Le Col . Recently though, it re-committed to monetizing through its premium offering , although it has upset users over the years by moving popular features, like its segment leaderboards, into its paid offering . Nevertheless, having a free offering reduces the friction to adoption, kickstarting its growth. It has further fuelled this growth, through a combination of network development, community building, and gamification.
Key sports categories expansion
In 2012, Strava finally expanded beyond its cycling roots. The next category it went after was running, initially launching a separate running-focused app .
Adding support for more sports led to “a really fascinating viral effect”, says Mark. What they found is that “our existing athletes were expanding with us and they were bringing more and more of their friends along”. Most of its users weren’t die-hard cycling fans, but multi-sport athletes with friends and connections across many different ones .
This change didn’t happen without pushback from some users within the community, who were angered by the move and felt betrayed. “They were jealous that we were spending any time devoted to a sport that they didn't love,” says Mark. But they were able to win most of these users back in time: “I think what changed was the minute they understood that these are their friends who run, and they can celebrate them and build community with them,” then their mindset began to change .
The platform now supports 40+ different activities, with each extending its Total Addressable Market (TAM) to millions more users.
Another key part of Strava’s growth strategy has been to keep improving its device support.
Strava athletes initially needed a dedicated GPS device and a laptop to upload data, by adding mobile support they made the data syncing experience seamless. Mark says, “the phone is really a great entry point for getting more people into the community,” because it lowers the barrier to participation . They’ve also focused on adding multi-device support, too. Going from one device to now over 400 . It supports devices from 34 different manufacturers and they have gone beyond phones by adding support for smartwatches, wearables, and syncing with other fitness sites, including Garmin Connect, MapMyRun, MapMyRide, and Runkeeper .
The addition of each device can potentially increase its TAM by millions of users. For example, over 50 million Peloton activities were uploaded to the app in 2021, with similar figures coming from Zwift users as well .
Its platform-agnostic approach increases its growth potential significantly. Most of its competitors are either hardware-specific, e.g. Garmin, Apple, Fitbit, etc. Or they’re attached to a particular brand e.g. Under Armor’s Connected Fitness, Asics’ Runkeeper, or Nike’s Run Club . Strava has no such constraints. Its user experience isn’t limited by a piece of hardware or a specific brand, which means it can focus entirely on the athletes' needs . Plus, they’ve leaned into this strategy by encouraging the use of its open API, which has integrated Strava into 44,000+ apps .
The result is a potential network that is much larger than any of its competitors.
A third growth lever that expands its network potential is internationalization. International expansion is something that they’ve often played catch-up with. “We realized that our community was driving us out internationally,” says Mark. “We couldn't control it. It wasn't like we chose to go to the UK or to Brazil, which are two of our largest countries after the US. Our athletes immediately took us there” . However, they’ve since emphasized expanding internationally. In September 2013, they localized the app into French. They added a further 13 languages in April 2014, and have continued to add additional languages over the years since . The goal here was to build “an authentic, localized experience for Strava,” says Mark. Now they employ several country managers in key regions, such as the UK, France, Spain, Brazil, and Japan. These people “are there to make sure that we're understanding the needs of that audience and that community… to even evolve the experience to meet their needs” .
Besides adding support for different sports, locales, and devices, another way they’ve built the community is by embracing different motivations for doing sports. Initially, Strava was focused on ‘serious’ athletes, those with a competitive focus for taking part in sports . This gave the brand some star power, and celebrity athletes like Lance Armstrong , Chris Froome, and Molly Seidal were all early adopters of the platform . As well as Reggie Miller, Barry Bonds, and Jensen Button, to more surprising figures like Snooker legend Ronnie O’Sullivan, who is an avid runner. Strava doesn’t do paid endorsements , they’ve achieved this mostly by creating a product with the features such competitive athletes want :
“We build it for the best in the world and meet their needs because if we do, they're the ones who inspire so many others to then join the platform.”
However, such a focus on elite athletes can be off-putting to some. “A lot of people were actually intimidated and unwilling to join Strava,” says Mark. They had this idea that “I'm not good enough. I'm not fast enough. I'm not an athlete” . They’ve since changed their messaging to a more inclusive one, one that includes everyone from those aiming for a gold medal to those running their first 5k: “If you sweat, you’re an athlete” and should be on Strava .
Something Mark is always quick to point out when asked about building community is that “the community was already there”. He explains that in cycling, for example, “there's just this wonderful community that exists, whether it's a bunch of guys who get together on the weekend and do a weekend warrior ride, or it's a dedicated racing team, but the communities were there and we just gave them a new way in which they could interact and play and have fun and communicate effectively” .
This point has underpinned how Strava approached growing the community around the platform. Its focus has been on connecting the micro-communities that already exist around sports, with clubs playing a big role and Strava becoming a hub for real-life fitness communities . For Mark, this means :
“We're not necessarily in the business of building community as much as we're in the business of supporting the community that already exists… there's this global community that is Strava, but what we really see on Strava are all of these micro-communities.”
To connect these disparate communities, they sought out local ambassadors who were motivated to spread the word. They provided marketing tools like discounts to encourage groups of cyclists to join via retailers, clubs, and teams. It also ran targeted marketing campaigns aimed at local cycling blogs and regional event sponsorships .
An early example of one such campaign that Mark describes involved sending “out an email to these guys and say, hey, whoever posts the fastest 5K on their bike sometime in the next 24 hours, a free set of race wheels… we realized, boy, you put a set of race wheels in front of a bunch of cyclists. And all of a sudden they weren't just recruiting the 10 guys that we had asked to be on Strava. They were recruiting their entire cycling club to go out and create like this peloton so that they could absolutely knock out the 5K faster than anybody” .
It has partnered with social media influencers, fitness bloggers, and professional athletes to help spread the word about its platform. It has formed collaborations with various fitness brands to offer exclusive challenges and promotions to its users. For instance, Lululemon, a popular athletic apparel brand. Lululemon partnered with Strava to create virtual run clubs, which allow users to connect with other runners in their area .
They also added the ability to create virtual clubs on the Strava platform itself. These took the idea of a physical sports club and put it online. They enable in-person clubs, businesses, and brands to engage athletes on the platform, complete with statistical features, scheduled club runs, competitions, and challenges. By providing an easy way for such groups to establish an online presence, Strava adds many new users who simply want to join a local club and see all scheduled group meet-ups or challenges .
Content posting is a key activity for club owners - members get notified when new content is posted, so it’s a way to flag new events and competitions and keep discussions on the page going. Of course that brings users back to the Strava platform.
One of the things I love most about communities is when they begin to create their own in-jokes, phrases, and other forms of expression. They can often be some of its greatest awareness-raising activities, too. We saw this with Duolingo, for example, when its community-created memes went viral. We see it within the Strava community with GPS art. There’s now a sub-community of athletes who use the platform’s route tracking functionality to turn the world into a real-life canvas, creating art based on your recorded movements like a ‘human etch-a sketch’ . Examples include a portrait of Santa that covers most of Birmingham, and a Snowman the size of central London.
Michael Wallace, or WallyGPX, is a prolific Strava artist. A high school teacher based in Baltimore, Maryland, he has created over 700 works across the city, including a map of the world, a scene from Donkey Kong, and tributes to the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia .
These are not only a fun form of self-expression, with the bonus of boosting their artist’s fitness, but the PR coverage they’ve gained has given Strava a huge boost in awareness, too.
GPS art isn’t the only such activity to emerge from the Strava community. “Burbing” is another - that also uses GPS tracking, but here athletes try and cover every single street within a particular area - that could be a few streets, or a multi-hour ride covering hundreds of kilometers . Another such community-created activity is Everisting, where you “pick any hill, anywhere in the world, and complete repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mt. Everest” . Mark flags another one: “555… 5k for five days in a row and invite five of your friends to do it” . There’s also a bunch of fan-created tees for sale online with phrases like “If I collapse can someone pause my Strava?”  or the now classic “Strava, or it didn’t happen” . Remarking on all this, Mark says :
“We don't own Strava… we're somewhere between a curator and just sort of a park attendant. It is truly owned by the community.”
A big factor in Strava’s growth is its use of gamification. Yu-kai Chou, who coined the term gamification, described Strava as a ‘Masterclass in gamification’ . Its focus is on building motivation and stickiness around an activity by giving participants a sense of progress and accomplishment .
The basic app functionality allows users to post, share, follow, join clubs, and workout with others. Strava also provides users with data on their weekly progress, best efforts, suffer score, heart rate zones, and more . Workouts can be shared beyond Strava to other social platforms. Strava regularly shares user-generated content on its social media channels, helping to highlight members within the community .
Segments are one of the most popular gamification features. Strava’s own site says “There are two eras of endurance sport history: before segments, and after segments” . Segments are popular stretches of a road or trail, which are linked to a leaderboard of times set by Strava users who have completed that segment. It enables users to compete with others on specific routes, creating a virtual race between athletes and giving folks the ability to see how their performance compares to others . It’s a hugely powerful hook, made all the more addictive by those who take the top spot as the fastest person on a segment being dubbed King or Queen of the Mountain (KOM/QOM) . Reminiscent of Foursquare’s mayorships, some people spend hours trying to become and maintain their KOM status. It’s a simple but hugely effective bit of functionality, that even professional Tour de France riders get pulled into. As Mark highlights, “There are internal competitions that are going on, not just for the stage victory, but who had the KOM on that climb or who was who pulled off something else” .
Beyond segments, Strava also has an achievement and badge system, where you can get a badge for completing a challenge or achieving a personal best, that can of course be shared on your timeline and elsewhere . Meanwhile, Club challenges encourage users to keep coming back to the app to see how their efforts to win the challenge are doing over time, while awareness of Strava is raised as participants discuss the challenge and share it with others . And challenges aren’t limited to clubs, you can also create your own individual or group challenges, too, complete with badges that get displayed in your public trophy cabinet .
Kudos are another important part of the Strava experience. Athletes can give “Kudos” to each other to acknowledge and celebrate each other’s accomplishments, whether it is an activity, a post, a badge, or a challenge milestone. To make for an encouraging space, Strava only allows you to react with its positive Kudos. 7.1 billion kudos were given out in 2020, for example . For the most part, it seems to be working - users report that Strava sees much less negativity than on other social platforms . The snark and trolls common on sites like Instagram and Twitter are less prevalent on Strava .
All of this focus on records and stats boosts engagement, but it can come at the expense of enjoyment of the activity. It was in response to such feedback, that they introduced Athlete Posts, which expanded the options for user contributions to include photos, stories, race reports, and questions . The ability to upload a photo with your activity was particularly transformative - the goal says Mark was to get people to “slow down a little bit” :
“They need to go and enjoy the ride. They need to actually stop once in a while and capture that sunset or that sunrise or that mud that they just went through.”
Strava now holds photo competitions to encourage users to get involved. For example, there’s an annual Year in Sport Photo Contest, which had over 11,000 submissions in 2021 . They also produce their own podcast, which features the best community member stories that get shared on the platform .
It has also used gamification to bolster premium signups. For example, a premium feature called Local Legends crowns the person with the most “efforts” in a 90-day period for a specific route. However, since its free trial of premium is only 30 days, it means many folks sign up to ensure they get the digital laurel crown. This move netted 39% of its annual revenue in just 47 days .
The main result of all this gamification, though, is most users now check their feed multiple times a day, much like folks do on Twitter or Instagram . However, making use of location data brings with it privacy concerns. In 2018, for example, Strava became headline news when outlets started reporting that Strava was giving away the locations of secret US army bases resulting from soldiers’ use of the app’s heatmap feature . Mark describes that as a “Fascinating sort of explosion of press” but stresses they weren’t revealing anything secret . It’s an area they’ve spent a long time thinking through to ensure users are safe and that its default settings are set up well, and people understand what they’re doing when they change them .
One last note about Strava’s growth is the impact the global pandemic had on it. They saw record numbers of signups during the outbreak, peaking at 3M new members a month. The number of Strava downloads in Q2 2020 more than doubled from the previous quarter and marked a significant spike in the app’s all-time downloads. While those figures have dropped back, the network effects mean they’ve left a lasting impact - they jumped from 1M new members a month before the pandemic  to 2M a month now . It wasn’t just new member numbers that spiked though, usage was up across the board - In 2021 for example, Strava reported a 4x increase in challenge participation on the platform, alongside the creation of 189,000 new clubs . Strava provided an important outlet for people to still feel together, even when they physically couldn’t be.
One of the things I haven’t touched on yet is Strava’s own community team. They play quite a specific role within the organization, one that focuses on “technical documentation and 1:1 support” and noting that “community building was unfamiliar territory” .
Mark describes the team as being “immersed in the nuances of trying to keep the community happy” . The role stretches to include coordination of feedback from end-users, ensuring it gets back to the product team. They also advocate internally for the voice of the customer and leverage their insights to create and maintain support resources for users. The team works directly with product, marketing, and content teams to develop strategies that align with the rest of the business .
They did have a forum within its support site but it wasn’t well used - Lou Branscomb, then Senior Community Manager, says “The word ‘Graveyard’ best describes the rock bottom it had reached.” Users reported a sense of not feeling listened to, while the community team struggled to collate feedback without a centralized place to gather user feedback . Plus, its growth had put a strain on the system. As the Strava community has grown, so has the number of support requests. So they wanted to “revitalize and scale how we provide support and resources for our community,” says Lou .
So they set about creating a new community platform, with two main goals:
The new Strava Community Hub launched in July 2022. Built using Khoros, it incorporates a forum, ideas exchange, and sections of resources to help users get the most out of Strava .
The team went into its launch with a variety of content pre-populated, including conversational, inspirational, and educational topics - the hope was to encourage discussions to go beyond small product friction points and transactional discussions. Familiar to Strava users, is its use of gamification for reward and recognition, which Lou says “We knew would incentivize members to participate and help each other which would allow the Support team to scale without additional headcount”.
The new hub also includes a Developer category for the first time, which has enabled them to lead and participate in discussions as well as share relevant content about its Developer Program .
Overall, it seems to have been a successful transition - a little over a year from launch, it now has 17,000+ members who have created more than 12,000 posts .
The Ideas board has been the most popular area. Mark says it’s “fully acknowledged that there is rarely a piece of feedback that comes in where I don't say that's a great idea. So how do we do it? There is some really ugly sausage making that goes on inside Strava” . But those ugly processes are now changing and the community hub is providing product teams at Strava with a new way to learn about and consider community-generated ideas. The team puts a lot of effort into sharing community feedback, creating ‘The Mixtape’ - a quarterly internal series in which they share idea trends with other teams. This includes a ‘Track List’ featuring Top Hits, Fresh Finds, and a Bonus Track, putting a cool spin on reporting product feedback.
It seems to be helping with its support load, too. Only 2% of community-submitted posts could not be answered in the community, and analytics shows that 80% of traffic to the site comes from external referrals. Both of these are positive early indications that this resource will help scale support longer-term.
Strava’s growth has required patience . It took 8 years for them to record the first billion activities on the platform . While the last billion took just 6 months . Through a combination of clever technology and the magic of human connection, Strava has built a growing community that keeps people moving.
There you go - that’s how the Strava community grows. For more details, check out the sources below. If you found this newsletter useful, please share it with friends and colleagues. And if you haven’t already, subscribe below. ✌️