Since April, 100 Duke University nursing students, professors and staff have competed in a 9,000-mile road race to their sister campus in Wuhan, China.
But while they’re physically running or walking those miles during their time off work and school, they won’t actually end up in China. The winner might just complete the last mile somewhere in Durham.
Host of the race is a stealthy Durham startup called Racery, incubated by the team at Blogads. Their vision is to host hundreds or thousands of free races at any given time, anywhere in the world using a web application that syncs with email and Google Maps. It’s all part of a plan to dream up the next big idea for Blogads, a 13-year-old ad network matching up advertisers with blogs like Perez Hilton, Dlisted and Drudge Report. The Triangle tech community is invited to the most recent team race, but more on that below.
The team at Blogads—40 people split between offices in downtown Durham and Budapest—has spent a portion of its development time on new startup ideas since 2008 when the online advertising world began to change and founder and CEO Henry Copeland wanted to ensure his company’s future. Though Blogads has continued to have success and profit, he’s freed the team to create sites like Twiangulate, a platform for organizing and understanding connections between people, Pullquote, a way to save text to use later in a tweet or blog post, and AdBiblio, an online advertising platform for authors and publishers.
But Copeland is pretty convinced Racery has the most potential of all the new ideas, and he’s putting significant resources into proving it.
“It has a network effect and is truly disruptive,” he says. “We can touch people that FitBit, Jawbone and Strava can never touch—we can serve people in a nursing home or ultramarathoners. That’s why I’m excited.”
When you decide to participate in a Racery race, you sign up online, then respond to an email each morning with the miles you ran, walked or biked (depending on the type of race) the previous day. When you login to Racery, you’ll see where you rank on a leaderboard and visualize your spot in the race plotted on a Google Map. It’s a lot like the gaming/competition aspect of FitBit, Garmin or iWatch, but transcends the boundaries of fitness tracking devices because you don’t have to wear a particular device to compete. It doesn’t require a physical 5k or marathon race to happen either. Copeland explains it as rudimentary technology that creates a radically new experience for athletes, coworkers or really anyone interested in exercise and healthy living.
“It’s universal UX,” Copeland says. “If you can hit reply on email, you can do it.”
The idea came after a former Blogads employee started to use the Zombies, Run! app, which plays music during a run until a voice breaks in to inform you that zombies are chasing you. For a period of time, you must speed up to outrun the zombies. The employee wanted to play against his brother who lives in Sweden, but there wasn’t a way to do it at the time. Two years later, Copeland’s team began using a software tool called IDoneThis to keep track of everyone’s daily accomplishments. At the end of each day, the app sends employees an email asking for a bulleted list of the things they did that day. The app aggregates all the responses and sends them to the entire team. It gives the team a sense of cohesiveness, Copeland says.
That same employee eventually dreamt up a way to combine the competition aspect of the running app with the email functionality of IDoneThis and the mapping capability of Google Maps. The site, originally called Runwme.com launched early in 2014, and hundreds of one-on-one races have happened since that time. Copeland calls it “bizarrely addictive.” It turns every day into a race.
“You find yourself running two miles further because you know your buddy might run three, so you run five,” Copeland says.
Only recently was the site rebranded to Racery and targeted to teams. That’s a key potential revenue opportunity—if the team approach works, it inspires competition between people, within teams and between teams. Think sponsored races, corporate wellness, nursing homes, universities or educational institutions, fundraising nonprofits or really any organization that wants to encourage healthy living and friendly competition.
This month, Copeland and team are targeting local techies with its second team race (behind the nurses), the Triangle Tech Challenge, a 1,077-mile trek around the state of North Carolina. Once Copeland gets 20 or 25 teams of four people on board, the race begins. As of Thursday, 17 teams had signed up from companies like Adwerx, Windsor Circle, RocketBolt, Atlantic BT, IBM, Bandwidth and Adzerk.
Copeland explains it as a race for “people who are competitive and kind of know each other” and to “celebrate Triangleness.” He blogs about it here.
Copeland’s two favorite parts of entrepreneurship—those he often spends time explaining to The Startup Factory companies he mentors each cycle—are today his biggest challenges—pricing the product and pitching it. Even after 18 months of hosting and participating in Racery races, it’s hard to explain the concept. People are hesitant to get involved because 1,000 or 9,000 miles seems like too many—physically or digitally. Some are nervous about competing against friends or colleagues. Others worry they have to travel.
But once people participate in a race, they get it. And most love it and want to do more, Copeland says. His title at the new company is Blogger-in-Chief—a former journalist, he spends time talking to racers about their experiences here. Their responses, he calls “fascinating.”
Though simple, he believes his team is creating a truly disruptive startup—one that not only makes fitness easier, faster and cheaper but which provides an opportunity to people who weren’t being served previously by other technology or the sometimes intimidating and often costly in-person races.
“We stumbled into this,” Copeland says. “But it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”