23 minutes and 3.6 miles into my ride, I’m lying in the dirt. My left side from ankle to rib cage bloody and scratched after wiping out on a downhill I’ve ridden 1,000 times before without incident. The frame of my mountain bike is no longer pristine and my handlebars are twisted in an evil way. My front tire is quickly going flat, and without a spare tube on me, it’s going to be at least an hour walk back to the car. So, what’s the first thing I do?
Do I assess my injuries? Get off the trail so the next rider doesn’t run me over? Nope. I pull out my smashed iPhone, cutting my finger on the broken screen to hit “pause” on Strava. No way will I have my time bloated by this idleness. How can I possibly break into the top 10 on the leader board for this segment that way? And once I make top 10—well, King of the Mountain (KoM) is just around the corner…
Strava—for those of you who don’t know—is a social fitness application that allows bikers and runners to share, compare, and compete with each other’s personal fitness data. The application lets you track your rides and runs via your iPhone, Android, or GPS device to analyze and quantify your performance and match it against people inside and outside your social circle. I got hooked because Bruce (our director of PM) is hooked. And he’s hooked because Ryan, Tim, and Chris (our developer, QA manager, and lead engineer respectively) are hooked.
I’ve been riding the trails at Valley Green for years. Previously, I’ve always seen it as a 17-mile loop with a that you can ride clockwise or counterclockwise. I kept track of my time, focusing on how quickly I could complete the entire loop and how well I was handling the technical challenges. But with Strava, I now see the trails as a series of over 35 discreet “segments” that range from 1/10th of a mile to 2.2 miles each with such names as Ouch, Monster TT, and Twisty-Turney to Summit.
Instead of just focusing on my overall loop time, I’m now focused on my time for each and every segment. And because my time is incorporated into a pool of rider data, I can see how fast I am compared to everyone else registered with Strava who rides the park. That’s 35 chances to break into the top 10. 35 chances to be KOM. Or 35 chances to show the world I’m slow, weak and pathetic.
The data recording and analysis capabilities of Strava are very similar to the BI and analytic tools businesses—especially digital businesses—have been using for years. My Strava dashboard doesn’t look so dissimilar to our client’s Omniture, Coremetrics, and Utica dashes. It’s deconstruction of Valley Green into 35 segments and its ability to measure my speed, time, elevation gains, and approximate power output (in watts no less) reminds me of time on site, pages per view, AOV, and conversion metrics I’ve studied throughout my career.
Strava’s advantage, in my opinion, is the ability to instantly compare my performance data not just against my past rides—but against my peers. It lets me know exactly how far off I am from the leaders. Online retailers and publishers would kill such competitive intelligence. Imagine how much J. Crew would pay to see exactly how its digital efforts—down to the button and banner—down to sales of a size medium red gingham shirt—were performing real time against Banana Republic’s?
Data is wonderful. And like online business throughout the world, the insights Strava has given me into my riding has transformed the way I approach the sport. Once I tap “start ride”every pedal spin has more purpose, every climb is taken with more gusto and every line is chosen with more care. And believe me, there are no more impromptu breaks in the middle of the ride. I go until I am done. The added focus and effort is paying off. I am getting stronger and faster (verified and celebrated by the badges of achievement Strava awards to me when I beat a previous segment time). But in the back of my mind, I know there is a downside.
My goals as a mountain biker include getting stronger and faster. hey also include building long-distance endurance, gaining technical proficiency, continuing to fit into my jeans, enjoying camaraderie of other riders, relieving stress and just being out in the woods. Strava provides me with ability to measure my progress against some of these goals, enabling me to enhance and optimize my behaviors and thus improve my performance.
However, it’s a downright distraction to making new friends (you can’t really be friendly when you are hauling ass and refusing to stop) and getting better technically (when you’re being timed, you don’t turn around to redo a log hop or rock step that you messed up first time around). As for the stress relief, actually, I find it quite nerve-racking to know any slip-up could cost me rungs on the leaderboard. And enjoying nature? Let’s just say I haven’t been feeling very Thoreau lately.
The Stravafication of my riding has been a blessing and curse. The data has empowered me to hone my performance but it has also distracted me from my purpose. This too can happen in business. Our ability to measure nearly every aspect of our digital programs provides us with a wealth of information. But we cannot forget that information is not knowledge, just the building blocks for it. And a wealth of data can lead to very poor decisions if you’re not clear on your objectives.
I crashed that day on the trail because I was segment hunting—trying to score a top 10 time on a meaningless stretch of downhill because it was being measured—not because it actually held value to me.
How many of us do the same in our professions?
And how often does it leave us needlessly bloody?
Kevin Labick is CEO of Empathy Lab.