Strava Accelerates Its Path to Profit

Popular fitness-tracking app launches paid subscriptions

During the ongoing health crisis, several companies in the tech landscape have noted a rise in demand for health- and fitness-tracking products. Garmin, one of the most well-known makers of running watches, noted in its latest financial results that it had seen strong demand for its wearables, in addition to its line of Tacx “turbo trainers”, which allow users to turn a bicycle into a static trainer. This is something I’ve noticed in my personal life too, as I’ve received many requests from friends and family asking about what sort of running watch I’d recommend to people who are new to the sport.

Alongside the demand for sports-tracking equipment, the world of sports tracking and social networking has also boomed. This is particularly true for Strava, which bills itself as the number-one social network for athletes. The app allows users to record sports activity such as running and cycling, upload GPS data from devices like smartwatches, and then share this with friends, along with other information and photos. In February 2020, Strava’s user total climbed above 50 million, and it’s reported that 1 million new users join the service each month.

This figure may well have grown during lockdown, with one consequence of the restrictions appearing to be a stronger appreciation for time spent outdoors. A couple of weeks ago, this idea was strengthened by operator EE, which shared statistics showing that Strava data usage on its network had more than tripled from before lockdown started in the UK.

However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the social network. Strava has always offered a free version and a paid subscription for more-dedicated athletes, although it often appeared to struggle to encourage users to make the jump to its paid membership. As a result, it recently made a radical decision to move some of the most popular features in its free version behind a paywall, such as leader boards, which let users measure their performance against those of their friends, through user-created segments. This has resulted in a greatly reduced free offering.

The move received a mixed reaction from the athletic community. Some people feel that the changes take away the core appeal of Strava, and that it’s an ill-judged move to use a stick instead of a carrot to encourage subscriptions. Others argue that the subscription price of $5 or £4 a month isn’t too much to ask for such a popular app that generally offers a very good user experience. Many of these people have also commented that Strava has been giving away too much in the free version for some time, and that its decision to add a paywall to many features has been a long time coming.

So far, I haven’t noticed a massive drop in use among my network of runners, suggesting Strava remains the platform of choice for people to share their activities. I can also appreciate Strava’s thinking. I write this as someone who runs and cycles a lot, and uploads all the data to Strava. But I’d never felt the need to pay. Given the amount I regularly spend on coffee stops during cycles, £4 a month seems reasonable for a service I use almost daily. More-casual users can still record and share their activities and enjoy social interactions in the app, meaning its core value remains.

The timing of the decision is arguably the most interesting aspect. During the lockdown, many in the athletic community have been creating virtual challenges using Strava leader boards. For example, some of my running friends have been competing on a segment around Richmond Park in the UK, vying for the top spot. Taking this feature away from the free service at a time when its value has arguably never been greater is an incredibly bold decision, but clearly Strava believes that it’s the right one to pump up its revenue. At a time when other paid sports services, such as virtual cycling platform Zwift, are monetizing their services effectively, Strava’s investors may have decided that a failure to change its model would have resulted in the company being left behind.

All things considered, this could be a lucrative move for Strava in the long run. However, it opens the door for other platforms to try and poach some of its users, especially if they can offer Strava-style leader boards without charge. Personally, I hope that doesn’t happen, as nearly everyone I run or cycle with uses Strava, and a fragmented set of users would weaken the experience. But in a time when the value we place on physical activity seems to be greater than ever, it’s equally important to provide value for money.

Strava will certainly be hoping that its users decide a subscription is worthwhile, but the race for success in this space is certainly a competitive one.