The race to create fitness app Endomondo
Many people with great jobs talk about giving it all up and starting up on their own, but often do not have the nerve to take the plunge.
Not Mette Lykke, chief executive of sports tracking app firm Endomondo.
Ms Lykke and her two co-founders had all worked for the prestigious US consultancy McKinsey.
But in 2007, they held their breath and jumped ship together to try to create something for themselves.
Luckily, the first idea they chose to pursue became a global winner. After seven years, the app they created has 25 million users.
And Endomondo has moved into profit - providing employment for 32 people in a historic canal-side warehouse in Copenhagen.
At last it is payback time for the founders, who lived on their savings and bank borrowings for the first 18 months, but were later assisted by local angel investors and Danish venture capital fund SEED Capital.
The Endomondo app is downloaded from Android, Apple and other app stores and enables fitness fans to track their progress, share statistics and compete with their friends.
It works with numerous sports including running, cycling, walking, rowing and swimming.
End Quote Mette Lykke
It was probably a good thing that we didn't know we would be without salaries for 18 months”
"Initially it was just going to be a website," recalls Ms Lykke. "But we quickly realised we needed to create something super-useful. Nokia were the first to include GPS on their phones, and we realised a downloadable app was the answer."
The team found a developer who produced a first version of the app in exchange for a share in the company.
"It was more of a brainstorm. We thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if it could do this?' We came up with features and somebody started hacking away."
New versions and features rapidly followed.
Denmark is a small country. So with an eye to export markets, the app was in English from the start. The first five years were all about trying to achieve scale and loyalty by promoting the free app and its features.
The team would turn up at running events, displaying Endomondo's capabilities on a big screen.
An initial goal was to get 100,000 users on board, but it was hard going. As Ms Lykke recalls, some days, nobody signed up at all.
Getting onto the BlackBerry app store was a definite breakthrough, though Ms Lykke is loath to identify any single tipping point.
It is only recently that the firm has started to focus on charging for premium services. For a monthly subscription you can get extra motivating features, such as a personal training plan, while employee fitness plans are available for businesses.
Now the firm is considering new innovations.
Talking to Ms Lykke, it is clear that the team's McKinsey training helped shape the rigour of Endomondo's development programme.
McKinsey graduates are steeped in time-honoured techniques to assess and monitor business decisions.
Yet what they did not know in the firm's formative years was that at least two other rival outfits in different parts of the world were also working on similar sports apps.
Each seemingly only found out about the other as they became successful and got Apple and Android listings.
So to remain a market leader, Endomondo is having to box clever.
It is trying to engender loyalty on two fronts. Firstly, it claims its feedback is more sensitive to an individual's performance and capability.
Secondly, Endomondo's app offers a strong social element by allowing users to race friends, compare performance and encourage their peers when they are flagging.
- HQ: Copenhagen, Denmark
- Year founded: 2007
- Number of employees: 32
- Ownership: Private
"Interaction with friends and spouse is very motivating, it shouldn't just be about bragging to your friends on Facebook. You are likely to be where your friends are, so once you are with us, you will stay with us," says Ms Lykke.
For Ms Lykke and her co-founders, the rewards to date are less than they could have earned had they all stayed with McKinsey. But the gradual realisation of their shared vision has driven them all on.
"We always had the feeling we were on the right track. Though it was probably a good thing that we didn't know we would be without salaries for 18 months."
Endomondo is certainly out of its start-up phase and Ms Lykke freely admits she is having to adapt as a manager and needs to hone her ability to motivate others.
But all of the team say that the best reward remains the constant feedback they get from users, some of whom say improving their fitness has helped them through illness or changed their whole lives for the better.