A Tale of two services

David Tran
5 min readMay 19, 2020


Originally wrote up a couple quick reactions in notes section of my blog, but I realized I had a lot more to say about this topic, so it became a post.

Strava announced yesterday that they’re trying to become a profitable business by focusing on paying subscribers. To that end, they’re making a lot of features that were previously accessible to free users now paid-only. Specifically:

David Tran’s Strava Heat Map
Couldn’t think of a good image, so here’s my Strava heatmap
  • Overall segment leaderboards (Top 10 view is still free)
  • Comparing, filtering and analyzing segment efforts
  • Route planning on strava.com, with a huge redesign launching soon!
  • Matched Runs: Analyze performance on identical runs over time
  • Training Log on Android and strava.com
  • Monthly activity trends and comparisons

Obviously that upset a lot of people and I totally get it. I’ve been a VERY VERY Daily Active User (VVDAU 😃) of Strava for many years now and very happy paying subscriber since 2016. Strava has been a wonderful way to feel connected to friends and fellow runners during shelter-in-place. People have previously asked why I paid for premium and honestly I never had a good answer. The previous paid-only features were underwhelming, but I got a lot of value from the service and wanted to support them knowing how hard it is to run a startup.

I understand that it’s a tough pill to swallow to pay for something that was previously free. Moreover, to take something that was previously free and ask people to pay for it feels like a bait-and-switch, especially for things like routes and segments-data and content that the users themselves generated that they feel like are now being taken away from them. So users have a right to feel upset.

Nevertheless, if you use and love Strava, this change gives them a better chance of becoming a sustainable and profitable company. Just like in our training-focus on that long-term growth! The facts are that Strava hasn’t raised any venture capital since 2017 and it takes a big team to operate Strava to the level that we expect from it. Moreover, as an engineer, I can only imagine the non-trivial compute resources needed to process all the activities uploaded, load all the activities as we all scroll through and kudos everything in sight, not to mention processing all those segments with every run and having support respond to all the bugs and support requests! You may have noticed leaderboards being slow to update for events after you uploaded them the last few weeks. Or if you’ve ever created a new segment, you may have noticed how long it might take to populate the leaderboard. I’m sure Strava does something much more clever here with hashing geopoints or <insert something handwavy about bloom filters>, but imagine looking through every. single. activity. ever uploaded in that vicinity in the history of Strava to find the ones that may have run or biked that segment? Def not easy. So by focusing on paying subscribers, they might be able to make features like these work better for a smaller number of users, and add even more awesome features. It’s always a tough balance between trying to provide deeper value for a subset of really dedicated or power users vs. providing broader value for all your users. I know from personal experience from my first startup.

In 2013, the tremendous Wade Roush wrote an article about my first company in Xconomy on our growing pains trying to make freemium work:

The startup’s product roadmap called for the addition of a premium version with features like deeper analytics tools and team collaboration features for enterprise users. But the zero-price strategy worked almost too well, and soon the company had such an influx of users that it had its hands full just keeping the service running. “We had to continue to work on things that the free users were asking for, so we were never able to focus on the more advanced versions,” [CEO Ricky] Yean says.

Having stayed up til 2am, 3am, 4am replying to support emails and trying to reproduce and fix bugs from very vocal users who basically told us they’d never pay us a dime while things weren’t working well for users that were asking us to take their money, I can tell you firsthand about how hard it is to make the balancing act I described above work. I definitely hope Strava can figure out how to make it work. Hopefully this doesn’t turn too many users away from the app or limit their potential growth- it’s been fun to see lots of new friends join Strava given new running/cycling hobbies during shelter in place. Obviously Strava goes as the activity on their network goes. I still think there’s actually a lot of untapped potential in the brand ad/partnership model that they’re only starting to explore with the branded challenges, but maybe focusing on the subscription training for their triathlon of Metro Data + subscription + brand partnerships/ads will land them atop the podium at Kona. But in the meantime, I’m more than happy to continue supporting and cheering on the incredible Strava team as they figure it out.

On the other side of town, Notion ran the course backwards and just announced today that all personal plans are completely free. At first glance, it would appear that while Strava is emphasizing the “-mium” in “Freemium”, Notion is emphasizing the “Free-”. But in a way, Notion is also running away from Freemium.

Rather than trying to get individual users to upgrade to paid plans once they hit 1,000 blocks, they’re hoping to build up a huge user base for the even more premium upgrade to the enterprise market. This is the second phase of the “consumerization of enterprise” trend— selling to an enterprise is much easier if most of the users are already familiar and comfortable with your product because they use it outside of work (See Microsoft Word -> Office 365/Microsoft Teams). Here, the balancing act that’s so difficult for freemium may work well because the enterprise market is large and lucrative enough to support the big base of free users. Essentially they’re moving away from Freemium as well—it’s effectively not freemium- just Free + Enterprise. Frenterprise.

Originally published at https://www.davidtran.me.

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David Tran

Building the best place to get work done at flow.club. I write about software, startups & running at davidtran.me and occasionally publish here.