Every communications professional has seen it: a tweet from a journalist bemoaning the raft of irrelevant pitches they receive on a daily basis. How can companies cut through the noise to place stories that reflect well upon the business, and move the needle when it comes to brand perception and growth? That’s something Strava has navigated while building a purpose-driven narrative for over 90 million athletes across almost 200 countries.

In the latest episode of Growth Hacks, Katja and Kunal speak with Andrew Vontz, VP of Communications at TCV company Strava. Andrew also hosts his own podcast – Choose The Hard Way, where he talks with leaders in sports, tech, business, the military and more about peak performance and how to overcome obstacles to do great things. Andrew started his career as a journalist before moving into marketing and communications. He shares his insider perspective into what it takes to place a story that reporters are motivated to tell, and how to prepare internal stakeholders on what that story might look like when it runs. He also talks about how organizations can use earned media to drive growth, and how to conduct crisis communications prep before disaster strikes. Andrew also walks us through Strava’s playbook on establishing its purpose-driven narrative both internally and externally and what it takes to engage a global community. 

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • Being user-centric rather than you-centric when working with journalists
  • Why it’s important to educate stakeholders on how press coverage operates
  • Using earned media to drive growth
  • Preparing for a crisis before it happens
  • Effective ways to be known as a mission or purpose driven organization

To hear more on this, settle in and press play.

Please find the transcript below, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Katja Gagen: Hello everyone, we are excited to have Andrew Vontz today on the podcast. Andrew went from being a journalist for the LA times, Rolling Stone, and others, to joining Strava’s executive team and leading communications.

And for all fitness aficionados listening, Strava is a social platform for athletes and the largest sports community in the world, with over 95 million athletes in 195 countries on the platform. We are excited to hear from Andrew about how communications can help drive business success and how he keeps this incredible community engaged.

Welcome to Growth Hacks, Andrew.

Andrew Vontz: Hey, thanks, Katja. It’s great to be here with you and Kunal.

Kunal Mehta: Well, I know you’re going to bring the heat today, Andrew. I just want to know where does this podcast find you today?

Andrew Vontz: It finds me in rural Maine where the leaves are falling, and there are pumpkins everywhere. We actually have a pumpkin that we grew from throwing a pumpkin into the compost pile last year, it grew into like a three foot in diameter pumpkin, lo and behold.

Kunal Mehta: That’s amazing.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome. And Andrew, you have a pretty unique background that spans art to journalism, and now heading up comms at Strava. How did you end up where you are?

Andrew Vontz: I think I ended up where I am because I’ve always been a very curious person and I’ve always loved storytelling. And the red thread of my career has really been people, places, and things at the limits of human experience. Whether that was the work that I did as a freelance journalist for over a decade, the work that I did as the head of content at TRX, which is a human performance company that worked to democratize world-class human performance for everyone, or now at Strava. And over time, I eventually joined the executive team and I’m now the Vice President of Communications.

And outside of that, I also have my own podcast, it’s called “Choose the Hard Way”, and it’s about the obstacles people overcome to do great things. So that red thread is still running throughout my career.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. Well, Andrew, I know Strava is Swedish for strive, which epitomizes attitude and ambition. How do you bring that to life with the communication strategy at Strava?

Andrew Vontz: Yeah, Kunal. It’s really about always thinking bigger, always in all ways. So that’s, however well things are going, how can we think about what’s the next step? What’s the much bigger version of that? What’s the version of that that makes us feel a little bit anxious, a little bit uncomfortable because it seems so audacious? So that’s really what strive is about in the communications domain.

Kunal Mehta: Andrew, you’ve been a journalist for over a decade. What should companies know about the way journalists think about stories?

Andrew Vontz: When you’re working with media, it can provide the most valuable form of third-party validation that you can get. It’s like going to a party and having your best friend tell you how awesome something is versus you talking about yourself.

What you want to keep in mind when you’re working with press is: yeah, you would love to have other people telling your story on your behalf and singing your praises, but you really have to be user-centric versus you-centric. There are definitely things that you would ideally like to get out of press coverage, but you also need to think about what does that journalist need? What does their readership need? What does that outlet need? What’s going to help them sell this story internally and get it placed? And you really have to begin with the end in mind.

I think in addition to that, it’s really important to educate your teammates from across the organization and to really set realistic expectations about how press coverage might roll out.

All great stories are really high contrast. They’re high tension. They’re definitely going to contain opposing points of view, and you just need to prepare people for that, educate them, and bring them along so that they know what’s going to show up in a story, why it’s going to show up, and how it might show up.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome advice because we sometimes hear from our companies that they think of PR as paid marketing copy, and they just have to pick up the phone and speak to a reporter and out comes a piece that highlights everything you want to say about your company. We know that this is far from the truth.

How can press coverage or media coverage support growth in the business? Can you share some examples?

Andrew Vontz: For sure, Katja. I’ll give you an example that’s worked really well for us. We do an annual Year In Sport press report. And what it really does is aligns our proprietary data insights because Strava really is de facto the record of the world’s athletic activities.

It’s contained everything from people winning medals, to Tour de France stages to, hey, what are the trends that have happened during the pandemic as walking and hiking really took off and more people than ever before were riding bikes. Finding ways to align stories that only we can tell with moments in time when there’s a high degree of cultural curiosity around specific topics that can enable really large-scale brand awareness.

Going back to providing reporters with ingredients and stories that are useful for them to sell stories internally and also to service their readership. I think that’s just like a really great example of one way you can do it.

Kunal Mehta: Fantastic. Andrew, as I think about Strava, they’re adding 2 million athletes a month during the pandemic, and they’re still growing incredibly fast. I just read an article that says something like 20% of employees will continue to work remotely. How have you overcome the challenges of managing your team working remotely during this hyper-growth period?

Andrew Vontz: I think one of the advantages that we have is prior to the pandemic, and really, since our inception, Strava has been a highly global company. We have athletes in 195 countries, and we have teammates on the ground in seven key geographies around the world, seven different countries on four different continents.

It’s given us the opportunity to really grow and come together as a team and really working on making sure we’re calling all the voices on the team in, that we’re being as inclusive as possible in this remote work environment. And really thinking about what are the systems and processes that do foster that sense of inclusion, that make people able to provide their highest level of contribution? And really thinking through what are the channels that they need to do that?

Because the reality is just adding more meetings is just going to add up to a lot more meetings. You have a finite amount of time that you can get together, so it’s getting people into the right spaces at the right moment.

When you’re in those contexts, invite everybody into the conversation. Going back to what does strive mean within a context of our comms team? Part of what it means is always pushing ourselves to think bigger, to think about how can we do everything better?

Even if things are going really well, what does it look like beyond the horizon to do way, way, way better than we might imagine is possible at the moment? No one has a monopoly on great ideas, and you want everybody to feel included. I try to talk about decisions I’ve made or things that we’ve tried in the org that haven’t gone well, because I also have to model risk taking and that failure is okay, because I certainly am not making perfect decisions all the time.

Katja Gagen: I like, Andrew, how you’re creating an environment that’s both inclusive, but also pushing the team to try new things, even when everything is going well.

Shifting gears for a moment, every organization goes through a phase where there are challenges. What does it take to successfully manage those and how have you done that?

Andrew Vontz: Well, the best advice I can give is you want to plan for rainy days, because honestly, if you have any level of success, at some point you were definitely going to have a storm in your future. And before one happens, you want to be prepared. If you do find yourself managing a crisis, you want to try to find a way to turn that challenge into an opportunity.

Let me tell you about something that happened at Strava back in 2018. We have something called the heat map. It’s really a treasured community resource that our athletes use to discover new places to ride, to run, and really just to enjoy the sports they love. It only contains aggregate de-identified data and athletes can opt out of sharing their information into the heat map at any time.

Back in 2018, someone on Twitter said they had found secret military bases on the heat map. And this took off in the news and we ended up having 2000 media inquiries in about 48 hours. I would just say, first of all, when a crisis happens, you have to say calm. It’s important that you move at your own pace and that you work with stakeholders across the organization to understand what’s going on before you do anything.

That’s what we did. We take the privacy of our athletes very seriously. And we really used this incident as an opportunity to build more trust with our athletes and with our community and to educate the world about our simple privacy controls and settings.

At that moment in time, the story ended up on national broadcast and every major newspaper in the U S and around the world online. We managed the crisis to a resolution where the coverage was 90% positive or neutral.

Here’s what you can do if you want to get ready. I definitely recommend getting a steer from advisers or outside experts who can help you think through the full range of crises you might face, and to start preparing for them. A book I recommend is The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

It covers how professionals in high stress, high consequence environments, like medical doctors performing surgery, or how pilots flying commercial airlines use checklists for everything that they do. Use these checklists to boil down complex operations, to really the simplest, clearest set of decisions possible, trying to make everything binary and really make communication across the team as frictionless, simple, direct as possible.

Try to think through anything that might potentially pop up and then try to spell out exactly how you’re going to meet that moment. And if you do that, you’ll be as prepared as you possibly can be when your rainy day comes.

Katja Gagen: That’s super helpful. We talked a little bit earlier about Strava meaning to strive. A lot of companies today want to be known for a specific mission or purpose. What are the most effective ways you have made that happen at Strava?

Andrew Vontz: I think when it comes to thought leadership, some people think about thought leadership as, hey, we just need to like stick our leaders on the right stages at the right conferences. And then miraculously, we’re going to be known as the world’s leading authority on X.

Thought leadership starts with the intent to be the world’s best at something, and that’s a very worthy endeavor. Equally, you need to be really honest about where are you at today? Where do you want to be in the future? How credible are you on this topic? And what commitment do you have to action? And I’ll just give you an example.

At Strava, we serve athletes. And we say that what’s awesome for athletes is awesome for our business and in turn, that can be awesome for the world at large. We say that athlete awesome equals business awesome.

We are the platform at the center of connected fitness. We have over 400 partners whose apps, hardware, experiences, connect into Strava where they can be extended, and people can enjoy them. And we’re a place where every effort counts. We have something called Strava Metro. And Metro takes aggregate de-identified data, and we provide a really easy to use tool to vetted municipalities and urban planners, so that they can create better and safer pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in cities so that people can get around under their own power as safely and effectively as possible in cities. Because really humans are the original autonomous vehicle, and they are the future of cities.

What we aspire to, is to be a positive force to help create change in the space so that everyone has equal access to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and more broadly to create greater equity in sport. And that’s an area where we want to be an even bigger thought leader and a bigger force over time.

We know where we are at today. And we know the gap that we want to close, and we have to be really honest about where we’re at and what we want to do.

Kunal Mehta: I love that approach towards DEI, and I’m sure we could spend the entire podcast talking about that.

We typically end with some rapid-fire questions. I just wanted to start with, we have a wide range of listeners, Andrew, and many of them are younger as well. Perhaps you can tell us something you wish your younger self knew.

Andrew Vontz: I’d say, my podcast is called “Choose the Hard Way” for a reason, because for better or worse, that’s something I’ve done many times in my life. And it’s really about the idea that you are what you overcome. I think that’s what I’d tell my younger self that it’s about the power of marginal gains.

Every obstacle you might run into in your life is really an opportunity to move towards your next success. And all of the knowledge that you’ve accrued, that’s just insight that you can take into whatever you do next.

It goes back to this agile development mentality, that comes from software engineering and business development, but you can really apply it to anything. Keep what works, throw away what doesn’t and test new hypotheses and keep growing.

Kunal Mehta: Awesome. Keep growing for sure. I also want to ask you, what’s a convention that you wish did not hold true today?

Andrew Vontz: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot because of a guest I had on my podcast recently, his name’s Hector Guadalupe and he’s the founder of an organization called A Second U Foundation.

He works with formerly incarcerated individuals. And provides training and education for them to start their own fitness businesses. And it’s really foregrounded for me, the importance of second chances. I think that that’s something that I would like to see transformed in society.

Katja Gagen: That’s wonderful, thanks Andrew. One other question is who do you follow on social media?

Andrew Vontz: One of my favorite people to follow on social media is Rahsaan Bahati. He’s a multi-time national champion and one of my favorite cyclists of all time. I lived in LA for over 15 years, and he used to be out on a lot of group rides that I was on. I always looked up to him, his accomplishments as an athlete.

Rahsaan has something called the Bahati Foundation. Its mission is to support inner city youth and underserved communities through cycling outreach. I think the work that he’s doing to bridge the equity and access gap in cycling is incredibly powerful.

Katja Gagen: That’s awesome, and if I were to summarize our conversation – hard work and rapid learning are the ultimate Growth Hacks. One more question, how do you energize and instill rapid learning at Strava?

Andrew Vontz: I think one of the ways that I try to do that is by modeling vulnerability. And trying to float big, risky ideas and trying to push myself beyond what feels safe. Because when I’m starting to feel anxious about something that we’re trying to do, because it feels overly ambitious, anxiety metabolized a different way is excitement. And that’s when I know I’m in the right territory because we’re about to break through. And that’s really what I want the team to get to experience, because I want everybody to have that feeling of autonomy, of growth, of really operating at the edge of their ability, because I know that that’s where we can do our very best work.

Katja Gagen: That’s wonderful. Thanks so much, Andrew, for sharing your insights with us from being a journalist to an athlete, and also the head of communications. Thanks for being on the show today.

Andrew Vontz: Yeah, thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

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