Q&A: Instagram Exec James Quarles Plans to Turn Strava Into a Social Publisher for Athletes

The app is moving into original content

Strava wants to be a go-to app like Instagram for sports. Strava
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

Are athletes the next big influencers? Strava, an 8-year-old social network for athletes that claims to add 1 million new users every 45 days, raised a few eyebrows a week ago when it announced it had hired Instagram Business’ vp James Quarles as CEO.

According to Strava, the team searched for 15 months before landing on Quarles. The app lets athletes log their workouts and connect with other athletes to share tips and tricks, but it also has big goals, including allowing those athletes to crank out original content. Last week, Strava launched a program called Athlete Posts in which 36 athletes will try to build a following and community by publishing posts that pop up in news feeds—something Quarles has spent six years doing at Facebook and Instagram.

“Community first is a principal of Instagram, and I think it’s how the whole Strava team have operated in that you look for experiences where content and production from the community increases the value of it,” said Quarles.

Adweek spoke with Quarles about joining Strava and how he plans to build a network of news feed-like original content and partnerships. 

(L. to r.) Mark Gainey (co-founder and current CEO), James Quarles, Michael Horvath (co-founder and board member)

Adweek: Why leave Instagram for this role?
James Quarles: A question my mom asked as well [laughs]. I’ve had a great time at Instagram and Facebook—it’s been six years. I’m very proud of the community we’ve built, the company and the state it’s in.

But the thing that attracted me to Strava was the strength of the product. There are super passionate people using it, and that’s a very good sign.

The [founders and board] have a very big vision and mission for the company. Their ambition is much more than some people’s perceptions about just being a tracking app. They want to be one of the next great sports brands of the 21st century, and that’s pretty exciting to me.

I think the strategy to get there involves a lot of things that I have some familiarity with, particularly around building a really engaged community—in this case, it’s an athlete community.

What did you learn about building a community at Instagram that can apply to Strava?
In Instagram, we use channels like editorial and partnerships with amazing accounts you can find all over the world. I think the same is true here. Sports is such a huge passion, whether it’s cycling, running, triathletes, swimmers or people who are just training for their first 10K—can you help the content that people share inspire others?

The offline impact that this thing creates is similar to Instagram. Can you help people find a new place when they’re traveling to go for a run? Can you help them find a group of people who on Sunday mornings are also going out to cycle? Can you give them tips for managing two careers and where in the workweek do you find the time to integrate fitness with your job? Those are all the things that I think are direct parallels.

How big of a global audience is Strava, and what types of athletes are most active?
The community is tens of millions—we add about a million every 45 days—and it’s 80 percent outside of the United States, so it’s very much an international community, which I love.

There are 17,000 partners who also have devices and interface with our API. So you think of the watch companies and any of the heart-rate tracking—all of that content feeds into Strava. As more and more of the device price points come down, people are taking them with them on their activities like skiing or CrossFit. I think over time you’ll see the company expand and be much more multisport.

@laurenjohnson lauren.johnson@adweek.com Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.