We live in a fitness-oriented town. There are restaurants all across the city specializing in healthy food, catering to the tens of thousands of residents who live an active lifestyle. At one point not too long ago, there were six running specialty stores within a two-mile radius.
Perfect evidence of Austin’s robust health and wellness market is the 2013 “Best of” poll for Austin Fit Magazine that has 51 categories. National sporting events, such as ESPN’s X Games (June 2014) and the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships (2015), are increasingly looking to the Texas capital city as a supportive host; publications such as Bicycling tout the fitness scene, labeling Austin as “one of the most bike friendly cities in America.” New ideas and businesses focused on a healthy lifestyle continue to thrive, and there appears to be no slowdown in sight. One could easily make the case that Austin is America’s fittest city.
With such strong credentials it only makes sense that one of the top online fitness platforms calls Austin home. Since 2006, MapMyFitness—originally born out of the union of two distinct applications, MapMyRun and MapMyRide—has provided runners, walkers, and cyclists an online community to map, record, and, ultimately, change their lives.
The story of MapMyFitness and its two co-founders, Kevin Callahan and Robin Thurston, is any entrepreneur’s dream: An idea, born out of necessity and created for personal use, grows into a company with more than $22 million in investment money, 100 employees, and some 20 million active users. And is sold to a fitness industry titan for $150 million. All in less than seven years.
Before their paths eventually crossed, Callahan and Thurston came from very unique and diverse backgrounds. As a kid, Callahan lived in more than a dozen countries due to his father’s job with the State Department. By the time he graduated college at Johns Hopkins University, he had already worked at NASA and was looking to become a rocket scientist. But during his final year in school, the dot-com bug bit and Callahan ventured out on his own to start ExMeals.com, an online goods delivery system geared towards college campuses.
Over the following years, Callahan took the route most entrepreneurs follow, bouncing around from one company to the next while gathering a world of experience. Callahan notched his employment belt by working with a political news and information website, online travel insurance products, mobile software for the talent industry, and a marketing agency that built ads for tech companies. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, he liquidated what he owned, went to a friend’s wedding in Omaha, Nebraska, and then took a train to San Diego. "If I was going to be poor," Callahan reasoned, "I wanted to at least be poor and living on the beach." Despite hard circumstances, it’s difficult to keep an innovator down, and so perhaps it comes as no surprise that Callahan popped up with yet another invention just a few years after his move to California. This product, however, touched on an entirely new field for the one-time rocket scientist; he’d created an online mapping tool to track his runs while training for a marathon.
“I started the concept because I was too cheap to buy a GPS watch and I didn’t like the options that were out there at the time,” Callahan recalled. ”I was running with Team in Training and had the opportunity to use many of [my fellow runners] in the group as the first test bed. [They had] a variety of ages and abilities and it really helped the product evolve.” Callahan settled on naming his new site MapMyRun.com (his first choice of names, PoorMansGPS.com, was—fortuitously—already taken).
Meanwhile, just a few states to the east, Thurston was building his own cycling site in Denver.
Thurston had spent the majority of his post-collegiate life in the investment management industry. During nearly 15 years in the business, he helped develop a number of technology platforms that are still used today in the field. An avid cyclist, Thurston had competed professionally (in fact, he still races in United States Cycling Federation-sanctioned Masters events); at the peak of his career, he was a member of the Swiss Helvetica-Lugano team for four years.
While on a trip to Europe in 2006, Thurston was pedaling around Switzerland with a number of friends, using an old guidebook to make his way across Europe. ”Area residents would always ask why I was taking various roads,” he said. ”It gave me the idea of creating a site [where] locals could post their routes and rides for all to use.”
The idea blossomed, and Thurston snapped up the domain name—you guessed it—MapMyRide.com before building out the new site. His initial vision for MapMyRide was that the site would have more of a storybook function so that users could maintain a log.
It wasn’t too long before the paths of MapMyRun and MapMyRide intersected. While at lunch with a friend, Thurston shared his new business idea only to be told that there was a very similar model for runners already developed by a guy on the West Coast. While Thurston had conceived of MapMyRide, Callahan had been actively building up his site—a very basic mapping tool for moving from Point A to B on runs—to host more than 14,000 users.
"Robin reached out to me and Jeff Kalikstein, my business partner at the time, because he was trying to build MapMyRide," recalled Callahan. "He had heard of MapMyRun through a friend and wanted to contract the work to us since we had already developed the platform. After several meetings and discussions, we knew it was the perfect fit. The technology foundation was there and Robin's experience in wealth management would be a huge asset."
The two men met, each bringing a different—and valuable—orientation to the venture. Thurston, with more than a decade in investment management, had created a 400-page document on MapMyRide that could be used to both gather funding and serve as a general business plan. Though he didn’t have an LLC or established business for MapMyRun, Callahan—the rocket scientist who had bounced around from start-up to start-up for years—had put a product out for public use for more than 12 months. The two became business partners and friends, and they officially launched their joint venture in May 2007 after raising an angel round of funding that would provide them the means for two years to build the business. Splitting time between California and Colorado wasn't an option, so the partners decided on Denver because of cost of living, the budding cycling community in the Boulder area, and the USA Cycling and Triathlon training headquarters located in Colorado Springs.
“MapMyFitness was the first business on my own that I asked friends and family to support me,” Thurston said. “It brings a huge level of responsibility. I personally have invested in companies that sent the letter out saying ‘we’re going out of business’ and it’s never something I want to ever have to write.”
When it came time to secure greater funding, the two entrepreneurs found an investor in the private equity firm Austin Ventures. With a $5 million infusion, MapMyFitness was able to pick up almost everything from Denver and relocate to a new home in Austin. According to Thurston, “There was a real sense that [Austin Ventures] were not just trying to find a company where they put in money without much involvement. They were interested in the category, and [they] have cyclists and runners, and it was a true partnership.” MapMyFitness had also been having difficulty finding engineers who had certain mobile application specialties. Their new financial partners suggested moving to Austin to take advantage of the booming technology sector. “Coming out of the gaming world, we saw a great opportunity for Austin to become our mobile development center," Callahan recalled. "The city has so much to offer in talent, fitness vibrancy, and a highly competitive field.” Three years after relocating from Denver, the MapMyFitness office is situated in a high rise off of 5th Street and boasts more than 50 employees.
Both Callahan and Thurston refer to their employees as family, taking the approach that everyone—owners, employees, investors—is in this venture together. As a result, they try to take care of their staff. Inside the downtown office, there is a separate room just for gaming, a common perk among many tech companies in the area. The average employee doesn’t just work 9 to 5, so MapMyFitness provides an opportunity during the day for them to pause and play Ping-Pong, foosball, and other stress-relieving games. The love is returned. On a top job review site with information on more than 20,000 companies across the United States, former and current MapMyFitness employees give their company four out of five stars in reviews. The most common praise is in regard to benefits that include additional money for fitness gear, flexible hours, and inter-office activities.
Although employment at MapMyFitness has no fitness requirment (nor do workers even need to be interested in fitness, for that matter), it would be hard to keep up and understand the culture if one weren’t. The company hosts weekly rides, runs, and Xbox Connect competitions. And the bosses lead by example.
Since 2009, Thurston has logged nearly 31,000 cycling miles on his MapMyFitness profile, including a peak of more than 10,000 miles in 2012. Callahan, ever the runner, has tallied just shy of 5,000 miles dating back to 2009. Both said they log the miles for a number of reasons: to stay fit, because they love it, and to test the product. These co-founders want to know their product inside and out, and the best way to go about doing that is by using the tool on a regular basis.
While MapMyFitness’s history of booming success and marketplace domination is a great read, the real story lies in just where today’s journey will lead the company. In an ever-evolving technology industry, businesses that thrive are those that stay ahead, always creating, innovating, and adapting.
According to Thurston, the access point has expanded tremendously in recent years with the tens of millions of people possessing a smartphone or similar device. (A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center bolsters this comment; some 56 percent of Americans own a smartphone—up from 35 percent in 2011—and only nine percent of adults in the U.S. have no cell phone at all). With health at the forefront of so many discussions about American lifestyle and fitness these days, MapMyFitness is primed to become a tool for real change. Thurston thinks that 2014 will be a year full of changes—and one of those changes involves affordable watches that will alter the personal fitness landscape.
“It’s not far,” he claimed. “There will be devices that automatically connect to your computer and send data to a coach. The friction and the barriers continue to lessen and soon these types of devices won’t be more than $50 to $100.”
Thurston told of being at a friend’s house and helping with a GPS watch that wouldn’t connect to a computer. “After 45 minutes (which, for me, who works with the devices every day, should not happen), I gave up. It was probably something with his work computer and administration settings, but for the majority [45 minutes] is too long. Soon, the devices will be much more integrated and not have so many barriers. Our part is connecting the user to the technology to have an experience they’ve never had before—make it social, make it fun.”
In order to provide that experience, it’s important to know just exactly who your user is. In early 2013, MapMyFitness went through an extensive research of their user database that amounted to more than ten terabytes of information. In an attempt to better understand users’ exercise and lifestyle patterns, the results included six years of data on mileage, steps, calories, distance, and weight. The co-founders, again, used their own experience to learn as well. “I went through the data of my history and found certain peaks where I always gained weight,” explained Callahan. “Usually that was around the holidays and having that information helped me make a change.”
The information possibilities that each user provides through his or her logged data are endless, and the ability to put it all together in a comprehensive tool that can be easily accessed and utilized is where MapMyFitness will find its future and continue to thrive. “There’s a lot of case studies where, if developed in the right way, those types of triggers can have a really big impact on people’s success rate in keeping their fitness going, and I think that’s really where the data is leading,” Thurston said. “You can help users find time in their schedules to push them or to possibly do new things that realistically will allow technology to change outcomes.”
One of those triggers might be a personalized encouragement or improvement system where the previous data collected lends to more detailed advice on the type of training needed to achieve certain fitness goals. Or, if users log the time they slept before various workouts, for example, they can use their own data to make correlations, such as getting an extra 30-60 minutes of rest can improve their ability to train harder by 20 percent and prevent illness 30 percent more of the time.
The need for ever-increasing innovation and staying ahead of the competitors is a big part of what drives both Callahan and Thurston. The field of fitness apps and technology doesn’t allow anyone to rest on current or previous laurels because there’s always something new on the horizon. Both men exude confidence that they have what it takes to remain in the top tier.
“It’s a constant game of staying ahead, but what I would say is happening in the app store is the big are getting bigger,” Thurston explained. “Our view is that by continually improving our tools and features, providing a great user experience and maintaining as well as building partnerships is what will help us continue to grow. “A big part of the future for MapMyFitness will be leveraging its partnerships with companies like Competitor Group (the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series) and The Finish Line (a running specialty store). In 2012, those two companies (along with two private equity firms) were part of a $9 million investment that opened the door to countless possibilities on how data could be used to create an even more functional, life-impacting user experience.
Callahan frequently hits Lady Bird Lake Trail for a mid-day run; it's convenient to the MapMyFitness headquarters in Austin. Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons.
On Nov. 14, 2013, Thurston and Callahan announced the sale of MapMyFitness to athletic apparel giant Under Armour for $150 million. The company will operate as a wholly owned subsidiary, and the two founders will continue in their respective roles. The company headquarters will remain in Austin. In a press release, Thurston explained the benefit to MapMyFitness' users. “The combination of Under Armour's powerful commitment to athletes and innovation and our connected fitness technology allows us to better serve the needs of athletes around the world,” he said.
In addition to benefitting clients, the sale will bring new resources and vision, which will provide funding and support to take MapMyFitness to new heights. The company anticipates growing beyond the 20 million registered users they boasted in October 2013. That number represents a lot of lives touched.
MapMyFitness knows first hand just how their product is changing lives. Thurston pointed out that the company “has engaged and built a global community.” Callahan explained further: “Every few weeks, we send out an internal email with some of the user success stories. One of the most recent ones included a story of a husband and wife who had started working out ten weeks prior to their wedding. They sent us [a note with] before and after pictures—dropping a combined forty pounds—and thanking us for how we had changed their life.”
Callahan is clearly moved by the impact on health that MapMyFitness has already made. “It’s those stories of men and women who write us, sharing their journey, using MapMyFitness, losing 50, 100, or 150 pounds, the transformation they have gone through and how thankful they are for helping,” Callahan continued. “What we do on a minute-to-minute, day-to-day basis is work. But, at the end of the day, we’re making and building a product that is changing lives.
“We have a unique ability to make a difference for people, and, if that’s not motivation enough, then we’re in the wrong business. “That is what drives me every day.”