RunKeeper’s Marathon Plan for Startup Success: “We’re Not in a Rush”

You’d expect the founder of a successful fitness-tracking startup to be a pretty healthy guy. So when RunKeeper boss Jason Jacobs reports that he rode his bike to work despite the first few days of wintry Boston temperatures creeping in, it’s not a big surprise.

But it wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that Jacobs would be running a fitness company. A few years ago, before RunKeeper’s parent company got its start, Jacobs was feeling a little adrift.

After years working in high-growth technology startups, he wanted deeply to start his own company. Trouble was, he couldn’t find anything he was passionate enough about to take the plunge.

All the while, he was—no kidding—training for a marathon.

“I was going on my 20-mile run and thinking to myself along the way, ‘Is it enterprise software?’” Jacobs recalls with a laugh. “And it was staring me right in the face.”

Some 12 million users later, RunKeeper is well-established as one of the early success stories of the smartphone revolution. And fueled up with venture backing to bankroll its growing workforce, Jacobs’s company, FitnessKeeper, is hoping to become the glue that ties together a whole universe of smarter devices and software applications that help people live healthier.

If the startup pulls off its goals for broad mainstream adoption, it has a chance to become a signal success story for the Boston area—an entrepreneurial ecosystem that has long been known for its prowess in behind-the-scenes technology sectors like networking infrastructure and data storage.

“We have people that run marathons, we have people that are hardcore bikers—we have lots of different kinds of people. But the sweet spot for us is people just trying to get off the couch and stay off the couch,” Jacobs says of RunKeeper’s users. “That’s both the bigger societal problem to solve, but also just the bigger addressable market from a capitalist standpoint.”

At its most basic, RunKeeper is pretty much what it sounds like—an app that tracks your runs (or walks or rides on a bike), taking advantage of the location-sensing abilities of smartphones to help users stay on top of their fitness routines over time. There are lots of additional features, including social sharing functions and fitness plans to help spur users on—part of its mission to be “a personal trainer in your pocket.”

RunKeeper got an early start, and was among the first wave of apps to find an audience in the iPhone App Store. So early, in fact, that it has avoided all of the hassles of getting seen in a crowded marketplace that so many app makers now find as critical to their companies’ survival.

But that doesn’t mean it’s alone. There are a wide variety of other fitness-related apps that help users track their performance. One of the biggest names is Nike+, which was actually Jacobs’s inspiration for building an independent fitness app.

So it’s a little surprising to hear Jacobs say RunKeeper isn’t extremely worried about beating out all of those other apps.

While there are many companies building apps around running, cycling, nutrition, strength training, and more, he says, “Our aspiration is to not just be a personal trainer across your runs and walks and bike rides, but to be a personal trainer across all this stuff. And we don’t necessarily need to be the best tracker in each area.”

Instead, RunKeeper takes a bit of inspiration from Facebook, the defining consumer technology success story for this generation of entrepreneurs: Jacobs is aiming to broaden his startup into a platform, a software system that others application and hardware providers can tie into.

The foundations for that expansion are already happening with the development of Health Graph, the company’s application programming interface (or API). Fitness apps like GymPact and Fitocracy are plugged into the system, along with corporate health programs, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Healthmiles.

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One response to “RunKeeper’s Marathon Plan for Startup Success: “We’re Not in a Rush””

  1. Personal Trainer Chicago says:

    I’m a personal trainer and my clients love runkeeper. Seeing how much they’ve run, how much progress they have made helps motivate them. And they can show of their progress with their friends via Facebook. So, overall this is a great app!