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.

In the future, Jacobs also sees an opportunity to connect with advanced sensors on all kinds of physical objects, including gym equipment, sports gear, and network-connected scales. Those sensors aren’t quite hitting the mainstream yet, but Jacobs says they will soon become much more commonplace.

“I think it’s both further away than people think, but it’s also sooner than people think,” Jacobs says. “There’s almost not a week that goes by without another eight-digit venture round for another kind of health sensor that’s smaller and lighter and cheaper and tracking more interesting data.”

However, Jacobs says RunKeeper isn’t in a huge rush to get to where it’s going—something you don’t typically hear from a lot of today’s go-go consumer tech entrepreneurs.

That’s telling, because Jacobs has years of experience working inside high-growth companies—and some recent brushes with the downside of losing focus. This spring, in a remarkable posting on its company blog, RunKeeper apologized to its users for not focusing enough on improving the app itself while working to broaden its horizons with initiatives like the API.

“We spread ourselves too thin. We had too many initiatives going on at once. And most importantly, we stopped listening to our users as much as we should be. As a result, improvement to our core product (i.e. the reason you are all here), began to suffer,” the company said.

“It wasn’t like we wronged our users. We didn’t do some big mistake,” Jacobs recalls. “We just slowly got distracted … and we took a step back, and we doubled down on focusing on making our core experience great of our users.” Those changes are reflected in the latest version of the RunKeeper app, which includes leaderboards to compete against friends and a new way of scheduling workouts ahead of time.

Through it all, RunKeeper’s ambition to expand beyond the fitness fanatics and quantified self enthusiasts—to reach those people who just want to stay off the couch—looks like it may be paying off.

Where the early user base was far more likely to be runners training for a particular distance event, the current RunKeeper crowd is more attuned to running as a piece of their overall fitness routine, Jacobs says.

“You can set a goal in RunKeeper, so it’s like, ‘What are you here to do? Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to train for a marathon?’ And 50 percent of the goals that have been created since we launched that feature a few months ago are weight loss goals,” he says.

The demographics have also shifted in a positive way: “Early on, it was like 80 percent to 20 percent, men versus women,” Jacobs says. “And right now, it’s evened out significantly—so it’s more like 55-45.”

So, world domination, right around the corner? Maybe not just yet.

RunKeeper still isn’t focused on developing its business model—the startup has toyed with various free and paid options, currently opting for a free app with a premium subscription service—and has just over 30 people, more than double its size from a year ago.

Like a good distance runner, Jacobs has a couple of things in mind: A clear goal, and patience.

“Right now, luckily, we are well-capitalized. We have investors with long time horizons, who are savvy consumer investors and understand that there’s going to be a breakout consumer health platform in this category,” he says. “And this category is not running—this category is health.”

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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!