We’re Asking You To Sweat: An Interview with Jason Van Der Merwe, Europe Engineering Lead at Strava

By Business & Finance
21 September 2022

Sarah Freeman, Editor Business & Finance spoke with Jason Van Der Merwe, Europe Engineering Lead at Strava, about the online facility for tracking physical exercise and how it encourages the use of technology for a healthier lifestyle in the great outdoors. 

Note: This piece was originally published in Business & Finance magazine, vol. 59, no. 3, available to read, with compliments, here.

Van Der Merwe joined Strava seven years ago when he was just out of college aged 22. At that stage, the company had fewer than 100 employees. Now, there are nearly 400 employed there. He is based in Dublin to lead the Strava expansion into Ireland and help grow Dublin as their European headquarters. Strava is Swedish for Strive. 

What is Strava? 

Strava was started in 2009 by 2 friends who met on the same rowing team at college. The friends spoke over the years that followed about how much they missed the camaraderie and the spirit of being on a team together. For a lot of adults, health and fitness is very much a solitary experience but having had that amazing team experience, they wondered, “how could we recreate this?” So that was where it started, that recreation of a locker room, that digital team spirit. 

They were both cyclists at that stage and that was how Strava started out, as a way for cyclists from all across the US and all around the world to connect and compete with each other, connect with each other on a digital support network.

So the ethos was equally about camaraderie and connection rather than purely competitive? 

Yes, everyone is motivated in different ways. For some of us it is competition-based. On Strava, the intention is to build you up and to motivate you to be more active. Our goal is to help people all around the world to embrace their health and fitness journey — whatever that looks like for them. 

The world has become more and more global and everyone has friends all over. You might have your running club community here but you might have friends in a different country or a different city. Having that connection is huge. You wake up and you see someone else has gone running in rainy Seattle. Then it’s like “wow, I wasn’t going to run today but, hey, if they got up and they did that, I can get over this little mental hurdle.” 

What would you say about the addictive element of the technology? We know it’s bad for young people to be on screens all the time yet most apps are designed to be addictive. How do you weigh up the pros and cons? 

We have a statistic that looks at the ratio of number of minutes in-app to outside active that Strava athletes have and that’s something we care a lot about. At the end of the day, our goal is not to have you in our app scrolling mindlessly, it’s to keep you active and encourage you to be more active.

We are conduits of motivation and inspiration. We want to provide routes so you can go out and explore your world. We want to provide clubs which is a major thing on our platform so you can connect with other people.

At the end of the day, our goal is not to have you in our app scrolling mindlessly, it’s to keep you active and encourage you to be more active.

We want to show you really interesting stories from professional athletes or someone in your community. 

Sweat is our equity and our product. I lead growth engineering at Strava and for many products, your main metric for a new user is around how much time can you get them to spend in the app, how many times can we get them to open it in the first two weeks. 

Our main metric is, can we get you to upload your first seven days. That’s very different. In other apps it’s clicking a button, it’s going through several screens, it’s how much time can we see you back in the app. We’re asking you to sweat. We know if we don’t get you to sweat in your first seven days, we don’t have a product for you. I think that’s very different for Strava. Strava doesn’t have that 1%, 99% rule of many social networks where 1% are adding content and 99% are consuming content. Strava’s aim is for everyone to be adding to the network and producing through the medium of uploading. 

Can you talk a bit about the various threats and opportunities that exist to a business like Strava? 

What makes Strava very unique is we have an open API. What that means is we encourage partners to develop on our API and we accept activities from all different sources. We see a lot of the trends in the fitness space being very positive for us. When a company like Whoop gets very successful or Pellaton, we love that because it’s providing another set of data around someone’s activity that we can pull into our price and display and give our athletes a more holistic picture of their fitness. 

Is all this analysis and tracking of your activity going to result in a slightly myopic view? Are we becoming too introspective? 

Everyone’s different! Some people love the numbers, they are motivated and they want to beat that. There are times, like when I’m training for a race, I’m all about my numbers. If I’m not, I’ll switch that off. I didn’t use the heart rate monitor for a year because I couldn’t care. I just want to go out there and have fun. You could have very performance-driven athletes, you could have exploratory athletes and social athletes that are just doing it because they like to see their friends on Saturdays and go biking for hours and go have a beer. It’s providing the different motivations in different parts of our product. You won’t see anything on Strava that’s heavy, always pushing the statistics to you. We’re not going to send you a digest after every activity and say “ohh you burnt 300 calories, next time try burn 400” we’re never gonna do stuff like that. 

Strava is really trying to cater to many different types of athletes. That’s a really challenging piece internally. The “who” we’re building for is a very diverse group of people. We might be going after a different type of athlete at a given moment and sometimes that can be challenging to juggle those. Most people probably don’t consider themselves athletes but at Strava anyone who’s sweating, doing some level of fitness to try to make themselves healthier, try to make themselves happier, we consider anyone like that an athlete. 

So Strava is genuinely using tech for good then? 

I said since I joined, the second our main goal becomes time-in-app, I’m gone. I’m not gonna work there anymore. A lot of people feel this way. There’s all these pieces of engagement and user engagement and understanding retention and that’s all important. But at the end of the day we want our athletes to be inspired and motivated to be healthier versions of themselves. It’s a really fun place to work, it’s a very positive thing. 


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