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Product Leader Spotlight: Jason Van Der Merwe

Designed by athletes, for athletes, Strava now has over 7 billion uploaded activities. Kraftful Solutions Engineer Heather Perkins chatted with Strava’s Director of Engineering for Growth Jason Van Der Merwe to learn more about his role in helping people play out their athletic journey.

Heather: Tell me about your role at Strava

Jason: I'm the Director of Engineering for our growth organization, as well as Director of Engineering for our Europe office. 

Heather: What’s your current challenge?

Jason: One big pillar we're working on right now is storytelling and helping athletes represent their journey. We recently released video as another way of being able to add info to your activities, which is really cool. There's a lot more in the pipeline in that regard. 

We're also trying to help athletes explore the world more. We're doing a lot of map recommendations and places to go and explore the world around you from hikes and walks, as well as sports. People see Strava as a cycling and running app, but we have so many people just hiking and walking and providing a lot of data on the best places to go around you. So we're helping you explore the world. We recommend what time of the year and the day you should go. On a trail, we can tell you if it's going to be dirt versus pavement. And there's a lot more there in terms of helping you understand the difficulty. What are others saying about that area? We have over 7 billion activities uploaded. So we really understand where people are going and exploring the world and we can kind of give suggestions.

Heather: If you’re successful in your mission, how will the world look different?

Jason: The goal is for Strava to be the record of the world's athletic activities. That means a lot of professional sporting records will be on Strava. We already see that we had numerous gold medals from past Olympics, Tour de France winners, etc. 

If you're in the running world, you'll know about these things called FKT's, which are the fastest known times. People will go and record those. They show up on segments like the Grand Canyon and other famous routes around the world. We want to expand more and more sports and have more coverage.

But also the record of your own journey. People's lives change as they go through different experiences. It's about allowing people to have a full understanding of their athletic journey and be inspired by other people's athletic journey. 

The more people on Strava, the better the storytelling, and the more motivation and inspiration there is out there. Whether it's coming back to running after having a baby and how that has changed them to someone who's doing a 5K for the first time. You see all those different stories on Strava, and then you can get inspiration from them. 

It's also a great way for me to connect with my family members and just to see what they're up to on a given day.

Heather: What core values drive your product development process?

Jason: Strava’s ABCs are company values that tend to seep into everything we do. A is authenticity and anti racism. The B is for balance. And then we have three C's, which are craftsmanship, commitment, and camaraderie. We apply our values to all parts of our work, including development. 

Heather: What advice do you have for aspiring product leaders?

Jason: It's extremely important to build a product to help people do what they want to accomplish. That's what's so great about Strava. We are conduits of inspiration and motivation. We're helping you in the journey that you want to have. It's very hard to make people do something they've never wanted to do. 

It’s important for leaders to figure out: what problem are you solving for people? What are they trying to do? What's stopping them from doing more of that? And how to be part of that journey versus trying to completely change someone's behavior in a new way. 

A lot of products are cool for the sake of being cool versus actually facilitating a solution. 

Heather: What’s your greatest product achievement?

Jason: About a year and a half ago, we redesigned our mobile navigation. It was a company endeavor, but my team led the charge. I was really nervous because typically users hate it, even if long term it's better. 

We really stuck to our principles of product development, where we did so much research, talking to athletes, analytic deep dives, competitive analysis. We focused not just on the changes, but on communicating to users what has changed, where things are, how to use the different parts, without relying too heavily on pop ups that everyone tries to dismiss. And when we released it, there was a very positive reaction. 

We saw increases in engagement, subscriptions, and feature usage across the product. We could scale more and we had so few support tickets. It really showed how much preparation and user research can help something go well.

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