RaceMob 1.0 - A Case Study
RaceMob started almost 10 years ago, in 2010. Over the initial years there have been a lot of ups and downs. But - as they say - you often learn more from the failures than you do the triumphs. As we look to launch a slew of new initiatives in 2020 - I wanted to dive deeper into the 1.0 RaceMob iteration. Here's my open and honest assessment of both the successes and failures - and more importantly - the lessons learned.
If you have any questions - please feel free to reach out to me - as always - my email is [email protected].
The Cliff Notes Version:
- The market and the people!
- In its heyday - RaceMob provided a valuable service that people loved!
- We were able to provide innovative solutions to the endurance racing market
- Even neglected, ad revenue alone can pay for RaceMob's server costs. So imagine what we can accomplish with other sources of income.
- It has been an AMAZING learning experience - and truly was an “Entrepreneurship MBA”
The Bad (which we'll fixed)
- Don’t run a business by yourself
- I needed to build systems that could still run if/when I became sick or injured
- I should have paid more attention to the details - especially with gear
- There were opportunities to build more meaningful services to help users overcome struggles and achieve goals
- Successful businesses keep a sharp eye on the metrics
- I lacked consistency (especially when on vacation or injured) - and needed to be more dependable
- I created too many tools, but not enough content
- It needs to be fun, and enjoyable
- We’ll need to be patient with monetization, have a long term strategy in place - But focus on building trust within our community
The Long Version:
In 2010, one of my best friends - Robert - asked me if I would ever consider doing a race. I had just gotten into running (a side-effect of having an over-eager puppy that turned our walks into jogs), and was so elated by my new found ability to actually run a mile consistently - that I was actually considering it. We found an obstacle course race - the Warrior Dash - down in SoCal, and the thought of jumping over fire in viking helmets, and finishing with an ice cold beer was appealing.
We called up my friend Jason, who lived in San Diego - and found a couch to crash on (and another semi-willing participant). It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life - and I was so excited for the photos. Well, 2 weeks later, the photos were emailed - and I was shocked to find the price tag. I believe that it was close to $30 for a single digital download 😲.
Robert and I had always talked about starting a business together, and from here an idea was born. We started to dive into different aspects of the race day experience. From finding races, to registration, to race results, finding photos, and sharing the memories. We wanted to see if technology could enhance aspects of the experience.
We made a few prototypes, and got a surprising amount of interest from race directors, photographers, and race series coordinators. But at the end of the day, we didn’t know if advertising and the network effect could supplant our well paying tech jobs. Robert eventually lost interest in the idea, and it stayed on the backburner.
Taking the plunge
In 2011, I applied to (and was accepted or waitlisted) at some of the top MBAs in the country - Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. I was getting ready to pack my bags, when I learned that the company I was working for was being acquired. After doing some back of the envelope calculation, I thought that it would be prudent to stick around for another year. Besides, I’m not sure if my wife (we were newlywed in the summer of 2011), was thrilled about the prospects of moving to Boston.
At the same time, I had been reading more from some of my favorite entrepreneurs. Many of them were coining the idea of a “Entrepreneurial MBA” - whereby one takes the money that they would have spent on an MBA - and instead invests it in the "real life experience of building a company."
In 2012, I decided to take an evening entrepreneurship course at Stanford. The course culminated in a “pitch contest”. Thinking about the ideas that I was the most passionate about - I decided to pitch RaceMob. Pitted against these other budding entrepreneurs, RaceMob actually won the entire contest. Even though the VCs judging the contest gave the same feedback - “We think that it’ll gain traction, but we’re just not sure how you’ll make money”.
At this point, armed with little more than a hope and a dream, a blurry vision of the future, I decided to quit my day job and take a plunge. I was all in on RaceMob.
Research and Development
The first thing that I did as a “full time” entrepreneur - was go find target customers. I went to race directors conferences in Hollywood, Florida and later in Savannah, Georgia. In 2012, the racing industry was starting to take off, and I met a lot of great professionals from across the country. Many of whom were impressed by my “gumption”.
I got to meet the big players in the racing game. From registration companies, schwag suppliers, photography companies, timing companies, sponsorship platforms, and so many others. I used my limited resources to help companies build prototypes (text messaging services, individual results pages, social media photo sharing), and I made a lot of friends. I even had a few job offers and an “acquisition” offer for my prototype during this time.
All the while, I was building the RaceMob website in the background. I had hired a few overseas developers (as I didn’t have any programming skills) - and we were building the initial prototype. The problem was, at this point, I had poured about $20k into the development of a website, and I still didn’t know how I was going to make any money…
Man, the launch was so much fun! If I look back at 1.0 - the launch was one of the things that I’m the most proud of. Thanks to JT Service and Scott Anderson or Represent Running / Run Local. They graciously allowed me to trade a few hours of Google Analytics consulting for the chance to have a booth at their inaugural Marin 415 and Miracle Mile in Corta Madera.
Armed with headbands, and a clipboard - my friends helped us launch RaceMob with a bang. Even though some runners were skeptical, our enthusiasm eventually won them over. The idea of an inclusive and unified community to chat with really resonated with the runners. We had hundreds of email signups during the launch - and people were interested!
Unfortunately, we had launched RaceMob - without a business model. I was struggling to figure out a way to make money and sustain the business. Ideas ran the gamut between online advertising, membership site, affiliate commissions, registration service, merchandise sales, and many (many) more… Unfortunately - I was inexperienced at all of the above, and couldn’t find a sustainable way to make headway.
At this same time, I decided to reduce my costs, and picked up the programming myself (what a steep learning curve). There were so many late night hours and tons of software bugs! While I’m proud to say that I implemented a lot of new features - such as “about me” pages, race importing through APIs, screen scrapers, race result importing, suggested results matching, and many more - I fell victim to the dreaded “feature creep”.
Instead of doing a few things really well - we went off the deep end with a lot of things that would break frequently. In addition, our reliance on external APIs meant constant tinkering as those specs were updated. Also, I wasn't very metrics focused at the time. So I didn't know how updates impacted the user base, nor if I was spending my time wisely. After one, particularly devastating Google algorithm change, website traffic dropped considerably - and months of work went out the window.
To add to it, my wife - Christina - who was unhappy with her job, decided that she wanted to join me in the venture. So, strapped for cash, and bleeding money - we entered 2014 wide eyed and hopeful.
The RaceMob Series
We worked on the concept of a RaceMob Series - a joint marketing effort for smaller races. The concept was fairly simple - we would promote upcoming races that we had partnered with. In exchange, they allowed us to have a booth (to promote more upcoming races), free entries to raffle to our growing email list, and a discount code for those that didn’t win the raffle. At the time, most race directors were unwilling to pay us.
Even so, we had so much fun over the next several months! This was truly when I was receiving my “Entrepreneurial MBA”.
Over the next several months - with the help of gracious run organizations including: Run Local, the Brazen Racing Team, Double Road Race, Hot Chocolate Run, Color Me Rad, Chinese New Years Race, San Jose Sharks Race, and others - RaceMob was able to support a community on race day, and to help cheer you all on! We even began finding partners of all types, from Kind bars, Hint Water, and even Fit Bit.
Unfortunately - at this point I had very little experience in sending marketing emails. My picture laden emails were being flagged as spam - even though the community’s open rates remained sky high. I also wasn’t providing meaningful content (beyond just upcoming races). I wasn’t helping the community to connect, grow, and thrive. And I wasn’t branching out to other forms of media (such as Facebook groups, instagram, or twitter), where online conversations could happen. This was something that I’ve seen other running communities excel at since 2014.
Injury / Depression
In the summer of 2014, Christina was forced to go back to work to help with our finances. Watching her return to a job that she felt stuck in was an extremely disheartening experience for me.
In the fall of 2014, a ladder slipped out from under me, and I tumbled 10 feet landing directly on my shins and wrist. Christina rushed home, and took me to urgent care where the diagnosis was a broken wrist bone and several stitches in my shins (although it could have been much worse). Even though I managed to set up our booth, and attend a race the next morning - it was a definite struggle.
At this point, I was definitely struggling with a bit of depression (which is completely unusual for anyone who knows me). The passion that I had for running started to turn into a chore. I was waking up at 4:00 am, but instead of heading to a starting line, I was heading to my booth. I still enjoyed seeing the smiling faces at the finish line (many of whom I now knew by name), but I was also thinking about the struggles my wife was going through at work. It was at this point that I thought a return to corporate life might be for me.
One last go?
In the winter of 2014-2015 - JT Service from Run Local threw me a lifeline. He was working on putting together an ecommerce store for their budding Run Local brand. Over the next couple of months, we worked together on a number of fun projects - as I dove into the intricacies of ecommerce fulfillment.
I helped them set up a Shopify site, schedule photography sessions with a friend I knew, build out a shipment and fulfillment workflow in their warehouse, and go to events selling Run Local and Beer Mile gear. While we weren’t really able to cover the costs in the early going - the experience was invaluable - and I realized how much I just enjoy working with other people. Way back then, we even briefly discussed building a virtual challenge to run across California (an initiative that they recently launched - and which I'm thoroughly enjoying!), and asked me if I wanted to work on it with them. But I was set on going back to corporate at that point.
Originally, my goal in going back to corporate was to set aside a portion of the money to keep RaceMob’s website development going. But I wasn’t expecting to find a company with a culture and team that I could truly get behind - which made me forget some of those initial goals. Kiwi Crate (now known as KiwiCo Inc) - provides subscription STEAM crates for kids of all ages.
It was during the interview process, when I realized how much the RaceMob experience really provided me with that “Entrepreneurship MBA”. Not only was I able to more efficiently communicate with developers - after so many of my own programming sessions that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. But I was an extremely knowledgeable (and creative) digital marketing expert, and a much more ruthlessly efficient product manager.
Eventually I helped us get to profitability, grew conversion rates by over 3x, reduced cost per acquisition, improved fulfillment efficiency, drastically improved retention rates, and helped the company grow considerably. I stepped into management, and eventually led the entire technology team - an amazing group of developers, QA, and product managers.
Even though I was dedicating so much time towards KiwiCo, there was still a yearning to go back and improve RaceMob. During this time (thanks to Class Pass) I also joined a couple of amazing fitness communities in gyms throughout the Bay Area. Many of which also love to compete at races.
In 2017, I finally ran another marathon - the San Francisco Marathon - and thanks to my strength training, it was the first marathon that I ran without cramping (and with only 6 weeks of training). I was so fortunate to have found some familiar faces throughout the course - including the Too Legit Fitness crew. Unfortunately - with such little training - even though my fitness was fine, I actually broke a bone in my foot.
Fortunately, over the last few years, we’ve been able to keep the RaceMob lights on. The modest revenue made from ads covers the server costs.
It all started with a friendly birthday text. Coach Bertrand Newson - of Too Legit Fitness - sent me a quick birthday text. And I asked him if he had time to jump on a call. My latest startup, Uptain - a home maintenance app - recently had to pivot because of the pandemic (it's launching soon). I knew that Coach B was in the hospitality industry, and I want to see how he was doing.
For anyone that knows Coach B - you’ll know that a five minute conversation with him will immediately lift your spirits. Even though he was going through a rough patch, he was so optimistic and giving. It was at this point that Bertrand and I began discussing the shared vision we had for the running community, and wanted to find ways where we could better serve runners. For the past 2 months, we’ve been toiling away at the RaceMob relaunch. And we’ve got some really exciting developments in the works (which I'll share in the next blog post).
But for now - I'll leave you this story on the history of RaceMob 1.0 - as well as the biggest lessons that I’ve learned.
What went right
- This is such an amazing market to build a business - the runners are welcoming, race directors have needs that technology can solve, and sponsors are looking for enthusiastic communities
- In its heyday, RaceMob provided a valuable service. We provided a central meeting point on race day, cheered each other to the finish line, encouraged more race sign ups through discounts and promotions, and started to create that feeling of community.
- I was able to learn about the whole race ecosystem, and connect with so many race directors, service providers, coaches, sponsors, and more... Many of whom I still keep in contact with.
- The fundamental website tools are useful, and it can “pay for itself” even with nearly 5 years of neglect...
- I learned (A LOT!), and it truly has acted as my “Entrepreneurship MBA”
What didn’t go well, and how we’ll fix it in RaceMob 2.0
- Running a business by yourself is nearly impossible!!! Especially for me, (someone who thrives on team), finding a partners, teammates, and coworkers like Bertrand will be critical to success. Having the experience to lead a team will be invaluable as we grow.
- Don’t allow the core service of the business to be completely reliant on one person. If an emergency or injury happens (or you go on extended vacation), make sure you’ve built a system or backup plan to allow for a seamless experience.
- Details and research are extremely important - especially when it comes to gear. I didn’t realize that Tough Mudder gave out similar headbands to their finishers, and I didn’t realize that cotton shirts would be so heavy to run in. Lessons learned for the next round of merch.
- Focus on helping your community to achieve their goals and to overcome their struggles. Listen more, and get qualitative feedback. Find out what people are having a hard time with, and find a solution to their actual issues.
- Keep an eye on the metrics. After KiwiCo - I now feel like I have a PhD in all forms of analytics - website engagement metrics, advanced segmentation, email opens and clicks, A/B testing, and more... We’ll be set up for success.
- Refine the online tools and features until they’re being used and useful before moving on. Build positive feedback loops in the system. Keep the system clean and make it easy to use. Build tutorials, and be present of questions. Build for mobile devices.
- Be consistent! Be reliable and dependable to your community. Put out regular communication, show up at races, post in a Facebook group, consistently improve the website. Do it consistently over time to build trust.
- Content is more important than I realized - especially for connecting. Rather than being so focused on online tools, I should have focused more on content. Writing blogs on my own progress or pulling together articles to help you accomplish your goals. I think that this would be a more compelling reason to continue to connect with RaceMob, and check in with what we’re doing.
- Make it fun (again)! Instead of setting up booths everywhere - actually go and run again. Use all of the tools that we’re building myself - so that we can set goals together, be held accountable by the community, and achieve victory together!
- Be (even more) patient with monetization, but have a strategy. I know that RaceMob won’t supplant my income from day one. We have a plan to build RaceMob into a sustainable long-term business. The plan relies on building your trust, and providing an amazing service that helps you see results. We’re building something that you’ll ecstatically recommend to your friends. That takes time, and we’re ready for the challenge.
Thanks for making it through my long-winded rant. The truth is, writing all of this down has been a cathartic experience to me. While I know that many of you might have been disappointed that I decided to give up on RaceMob 1.0 - please understand that I gave it my all. The truth is, I never worked so hard, for so long, for so little money. But I was excited to do it because of the smiles that I saw on people’s faces. When I look back on the photos, I see some amazing memories and some awesome bonds that will last a lifetime. I’m excited for RaceMob 2.0 - because I know that this time we’ll do it right, and continue to have a blast!