Runkeeper's Ability To Outrun Nike & Adidas Shows How Big Companies Don't Always Copy & Win

from the run,-baby,-run dept

Over and over again we hear this refrain from people that, without extra protection from things like patents, startups would get crushed when big companies decide to just copy them. And yet, over and over again, when we look at the situations in real life, you see that it’s a lot more difficult than people think. We discussed it recently when looking at how Netflix survived competition from Blockbuster, Amazon and Wal-Mart, but some people felt even that wasn’t a good example, because by the time those three players got into the market, Netflix really did have a huge head start (which is something of an exaggeration anyway).

However, here’s yet another fascinating example, sent over by my friend Tom, concerning the iPhone/Android app RunKeeper, and how it’s successfully fended off competition from a bunch of different giant sporting gear companies, including Nike. Now, it’s worth pointing out that RunKeeper (the little startup) initially got its idea for an iPhone app that tracks your exercise routine via a sensor, and then integrates that data into a web service, from Nike’s famous Nike+ attachment for the iPod. Rather than using a shoe sensor, the guy who started RunKeeper decided to build it ontop of the iPhone’s GPS, and make it so that it wasn’t shoe specific, as Nike’s was (though, to be fair, I know plenty of people who used Nike+ devices on non-Nike shoes).

RunKeeper definitely picked up a following among iPhone users. However, a year after it came out, Nike not only came out with their own version of Nike+ for the iPhone and iPod Touch… but it had done a deal with Apple to come pre-installed on every one of those Apple devices. A bunch of people predicted that Nike was going to “kill” RunKeeper this way, and all the folks who always insist that big companies will just come in and kill any innovative startup by copying them, would be proven wrong:

But quite the contrary, Nike’s arrival did nothing but help RunKeeper. Nike poured their huge marketing budget into educating people on why to run with their phone, and as a result, RunKeeper’s numbers more than doubled. My blog post from this time period is here.

And flourish RunKeeper did. We gained more than 2 million iPhone users, we were named by TIME Magazine as a top 10 iPhone app of 2009, and this big, passionate, global community of runners rallied around the RunKeeper system on the social web, and at We also ported our solution to Android (where we are currently a featured app), enabled manual map creation on the web, and integrated with a wi-fi scale, so users could send their weight data to as well.

Along the way, other footwear companies like New Balance tried to get in the game with the ‘NB TotalFit’ app, but didn’t make a dent (white labeled from our ‘big scary’ competitor).  Then, Nike’s arm got twisted even further when Adidas came out with their MiCoach system in August 2010, which is a GPS-based system.  Here was another running shoe company jumping into the mix with a reasonable attempt, this one without tethering users to a specific pair of shoes.  And Adidas came in with full guns blazing, running TV ads, sponsoring major races/events that featured MiCoach prominently, and investing heavily in trying to unseat RunKeeper as the go-to smartphone fitness tracking platform.  So, one month in, what are the results so far?  As of today, Adidas is ranked #18 in iPhone health/fitness and RunKeeper is ranked #14.  Not bad for this little startup from Boston with zero marketing budget :-) .  In fact, MiCoach was #61 until last week, when Walt Mossberg’s column gave them a big (and arguably misinformed) plug in the WSJ.

The point of the blog post was to discuss the fact that Nike was again copying RunKeeper, and going from a shoe-based sensor to a GPS application, but RunKeeper notes that it’s not that worried. Why? Because it recognizes some key and important differences:

All of you big guys jumping in with major marketing budgets, you are doing this as a brand play. We are not. You are doing this to try to ultimately sell more people your footwear/apparel. We are not. You are big and slow moving. We are not.

Fascinating stuff. In Oded Shenkar’s recent book, Copycats, there are many examples of this kind of thing. It talks about the importance of copying, but also how many companies really aren’t able to copy effectively. In many cases, it’s because of very different cost structures and incentives. In this case, Nike is focused on selling more apparel and the Nike offering has to work towards that end, while RunKeeper can focus on other features. Could Nike successfully overtake RunKeeper? Absolutely. But a lot of it depends on execution, and there’s certainly no guarantee. As for the others who entered the market, in at least some cases, it looks like they engaged in cargo cult copying, where they copied the superficial aspects of what they saw, but didn’t truly understand the market.

And, really, this is what competition is good for. Having more players in the market try different things is good for everyone. Not only does it force everyone to keep adjusting, it also pushes them all to keep experimenting with ways to better serve customers and to leapfrog over one another. Each one of these solutions may appear similar on the surface, but there are differences, as each company tries to tweak an idea to see what works. RunKeeper’s initial tweak on the Nike+ appears to have worked, but so far none of the “tweaks” on RunKeeper’s success have worked all that well. But, as those other (much larger) firms continue to tweak and tweak again, it’s also pushing RunKeeper to keep improving its app. That’s good for everyone.

What we’re seeing is, once again, plain old imitation by itself doesn’t appear to work very well, but imitation, plus some element of innovation to make it better does wonders. And yet, so many people don’t seem to recognize this and simply assume that the “big guys” will automatically copy and kill any new startup.

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Companies: adidas, nike, runkeeper

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Comments on “Runkeeper's Ability To Outrun Nike & Adidas Shows How Big Companies Don't Always Copy & Win”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Astroturfer’s are not on the clock yet.

Well, any sensible person already know that they don’t need protection in the market if their product is good, only when they found themselves dying they think it is a good idea, but that goes against the renew inside the market that is necessary to keep it vibrant, business need to die so others can come up, protections kill that, protections kill markets.

People get bored with the old and start doing their own thing, and since they cannot capitalize on it and they are not necessarily doing it for the money it creates a free pressure that wipe out the old anyways.

I love free, it is spontaneous, creative and vibrant, is all those things old players forgot to be.

Adam Wasserman (profile) says:

The American Way

*That* is the American way.

Ford comes up with a mass produced automobile, and so a couple of other companies try and do them one better. What do you get? Competition, better product, a healthy market, in fact one of the biggest markets in the world.

GE comes out with a television, and so a bunch of other companies try and do them one better. What do you get? Competition, better product, a healthy market, in fact one of the biggest markets in the world.

If the pinko communist “IP” supporters had their way, there would be one brand of car on the road today, because once someone patented the *idea* of an internal combustion engine powering a four-wheeled vehicle, and the *process* of driving a car down the road. and let me tell you: it would be a pretty shoddy car, because that is what monopoly does.

IP maximalists are un-American hippie pinko freaks who hate competition, hate working for a living, and just want a free ride for the rest of their lives. They want what English (and other) royalty have: guaranteed income from “lands”. No Yankee ethic at all.

If they love England so much they should get the heck out of the U.S. of A. where we work for a living, and free competition is way we get ahead.

jjray (profile) says:

nice anecdotes

But 9 times out of 10, Goliath slays David. Here is a counter anecdote, the story of San Francisco game maker Zynga. The subtitle of a recent article about this company: “Steal someone else’s game. Change its name. Make millions. Repeat.” According to the article, this is Zynga’s business philosophy. Their entire game plan is to copy innovative games from smaller competitors then crush them.

iPhone apps is not a good example because there is just one distribution channel for this product (the Apple app store) and every competitor has equal access to this channel. Agree that your netflix example is well taken and booyah to this David who slew the Goliaths.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: nice anecdotes

But 9 times out of 10, Goliath slays David.

[citation needed]

You’re correct that *sometimes* the big companies wins. No one said the small company always wins, but from what I’ve seen, it’s nowhere near 9 times out of 10. Not even close. And the times when it does happen — such as with Zynga — it’s because what they’re copying is pretty superficial and easy to copy (i.e., not particularly innovative). And, as others have noted (including in that article), there are serious questions about how sustainable Zynga’s business model can be.

I’ll have another post on this shortly, but it’s a lot harder to copy than you think.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: nice anecdotes

Amusingly, almost every game Zynga “steals” was developed…based on older games. Regardless, though, the reason Zynga tends to “win” is because the original developers are not offering anything that anyone else can’t easily duplicate (directly or indirectly).

Their games tend to be basic, simplistic, and shallow. Their communities tend to be loose, transient, or do not exist at all. Their customer service tends be equal or worse than Zynga’s (which is bad itself), or not superior enough to be a selling point.

There is a reason you don’t often see Zynga copying complex web strategy games or free MMO-type games or anything that involves much more than clicking the same few buttons over and over again to get that you can spend to unlock more buttons to click.

Overcast (profile) says:

“Steal someone else’s game. Change its name. Make millions. Repeat.” According to the article, this is Zynga’s business philosophy. Their entire game plan is to copy innovative games from smaller competitors then crush them.

But their games suck. I tried a few of them, they are mostly repetitive and lack any flavor, IMO.

I couldn’t really play them anymore than a day or two and was pretty well bored. But you can sense the ‘carrot on a stick’ concept behind them – maybe that’s why.

inc (profile) says:

I purchased the RunKeeper app on the iPhone and also have the Nike+ sensor. Even though the runkeeper app requires a GPS connection I find it a much better app all around. No need for calibration; Ability to have custom route; Custom audio queues. The stats are also amazing on their own right.
I know the Nike+ GPS seems to be copying runkeeper and not using the sensor anymore. I wonder why they would not use both to help maintain accurate information even when GPS reception flakes out.

Kevin C says:

RunKeeper Copied iMapMyRun before Nike

We have to remember that RunKeeper copied several business models itself. iMapMyRun had an android app out 6 months before even the iPhone launch (it competed in a pre-release android competition) and still has one of the most popular (albeit less rated because of some early hurdles) suite of apps in the iPhone and Android store now. Competition, imitation, and improvements help the entire industry moving foward — it’s our lifeblood. Imitation is flattery and the market rewards innovation so kudus to RunKeeper, iMapMyRun, NewBalance and Nike for making this all interesting for all of us! (I personally use iMapMyRun as I find their online tools and community a lot more supportive and helpful with my own training)

jon (profile) says:

First, there was Bones in Motion

Bones in Motion (BiM) pioneered mobile fitness apps leveraging GPS to calculate speed, distance and calories burned along with an associated website to follow your fitness activities and share routes with other athletes. The company was founded in 2003, had their first version up and running on the only GPS mobile phone shipping, the Motorola i730 running on Nextel, in 2004. BiM had to wait for the big carriers to support aGPS and formally launched their BiM Active app in February 2006 at the Demo conference with Sprint and Runner’s World with Verizon finally rolling out in November of that year. 75 supported feature phones later, BiM was acquired by adidas to update their first mobile product that featured heart rate and stride rate sensor along with real-time coaching shipped in 2007. In August of this year, the miCoach app for iPhone and Blackberry was launched leveraging 7 years of technology innovation in mobile fitness. With a major brand and great funding, it will be cool to watch this space unfold.

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

Howard Dean says:

Great iPhone running app

I personally like LogYourRun for the iPhone better than RunKeeper. I tried to run both in the background at the same time to see which one gets my route best and RunKeeper crashed while LogYourRun kept track for my full run. When I tried again with RunKeeper in the foreground for the full run I found that even in the background LogYourRun was more accurate.

TruthDefender says:


It simply amazes me how everyday, someone posts drivel, absolute drivel, on a site like TechDirt and many readers just take it as fact. It’s no secret that journalism is pretty much dead, just look at Fox News and how many people ACTUALLY think that’s news…come on people! Wake up! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to go on iTunes, to Health & Fitness and see that Nike+GPS is #1 in revenues, NOT RunKeeper for crying out loud. I’m not sure who paid this guy to write this post…but it is untrue, biased and downright silly. Nike is a huge brand, they’ve been around for years, their app is decent, but holy moly. TechDirt, please read the stuff you post. This total hogwash.

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