Fitness and exercise tracking app RunKeeper was built around the idea of motivation, pushing its users to their personal bests and, hopefully, beyond toward new goals that were once inconceivable. It’s a strategy that Jason Jacobs, founder and CEO of RunKeeper, says is worth applying to management.
“There’s a quote, ‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.’ That’s how I try to lead,” Jacobs says. “While we do have a results-oriented culture, I try to lead more by inspiration by getting people to see what’s possible.”
And for Jacobs, that kind of motivation starts with assembling the right team.
Jacobs says he’s interviewed every single person who’s been hired at RunKeeper to assess not what skills they have, but why they want to join the team, which gives him a clearer sense of whether he’s hiring a missionary or mercenary.
“It isn’t just what people know or how smart they are, but finding the whys behind people’s motivation–why this company, why this time, why this problem space?–and that pays huge dividends,” Jacobs says. “If you hit turbulence along the way, which you inevitably do when you’re building a company, the mercenaries run for the hills and go to the next shiny thing where the missionaries are going to dig in even harder during times of adversity.”
“I’ve gotten lots of counsel along the way saying you have a select group of confidantes and manage information so you don’t spook the company. I don’t buy that,” Jacobs says. “We treat everybody like an owner in the company where information flows freely. I’m a believer that if people aren’t informed, they’re not going to be the most productive. Building startups are hard, so if having the real information does spook people, it’s better to scare them out of the company early rather than to run into issues along the way.
When it comes to taking on opportunities that could better the company, Jacobs points out there are no mandates from the top nor are there incentives in the form of bribes–he puts the responsibility entirely on his team.
“It’s more of a culture where we say, ‘Wow, that’s a phenomenal opportunity, but it’ll involve a sacrifice like working through the weekend or pulling an all nighter. I’ll leave it up to you guys. It’d be freakin’ awesome if we rallied and pulled this together but I totally understand you have a life outside of this.’ As a result, I feel we have a culture where more often than not, people rise to the occasion and make those sacrifices. It goes back to the hiring process. There’s a little gene that some people have of not wanting to be the one who lets their team members down and thinking about the team first rather than the individual–we have a team full of those people.
Since its start in 2007, RunKeeper has gone head-to-head with titans like Nike and its Nike+ app, and Jacobs has managed to fight through the competition so far: RunKeeper users will soon be able to earn Nike Fuel Points as running rewards. “It seems like every week something of consequence is happening with my inbox flooding with, ‘what does this mean for you guys? Are you toast?’” Jacobs says. “If you believed the cynics along the way, Nike would’ve killed us by now.”
But now with Apple wanting a slice of the health and fitness tracking industry, even Jacobs admits his upward course may get steeper. The Apple Watch, slated to hit shelves in early 2015, has built-in sensors tracking heart rate and body movement, as well as apps like “Activity” and “Workout” that are directly in line with RunKeeper. However, Jacobs sees it as a time not to hit the panic button, but to boost his employees.
“I remind people that if big companies weren’t deeming our category a key core strategic initiative then our market wouldn’t be big and interesting,” Jacobs says. “When someone like Apple makes health and fitness and a core strategic category for them, of course it’s something we’re watching closely and in some regards it’s a threat because the innovation bar is higher, but it’s also a huge opportunity. Apple has their hand in a lot of different kinds of things, so we believe, in most cases, it’s the dedicated, laser-focused company that wins by going deeper and innovating further to build the authentic brand.”
“A lot of the things we’re building into the products–personalized guidance, helping people set and achieve goals–we apply that to our internal operating system as well,” Jacobs says. To boost his team’s personal motivations, which, in turn, could boost work motivation, Jacobs has adopted RunKeeper’s rewards system, where users can receive discounts on relevant products, to an in-office program called “Earn Your Kicks.” Employees are encouraged to set fitness-related goals for themselves–walking 2,000 miles this year, running a half marathon, etc.–and share those goals with the team to possibly earn prizes such as customized sneakers.