September 1, 2014

Interview with Benzi Ronen, Co-Founder of Buddy Runner

Benzi Ronen is currently on a quest for his next start-up. He and his partner Yossi Pik recently launched Buddy Runner (www.buddyrunner.com ), a personal virtual fitness trainer for your mobile phone.  Israel Newsletter recently had the opportunity to sit with Benzi to learn about his newest venture.

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Most recently Benzi was Vice President of Product Management and User Experience at SAP. Prior to SAP, he co-founded and was CEO of Octago Inc. based in San Francisco. He was a product manager at both Microsoft (Redmond) and Netscape (Mountain View) and completed an MBA at the University of Michigan and a BA in Sociology and Anthropology at Tel-Aviv University. He met his business partner, Yossi Pik, at SAP where they had a chance to work together and realize that their skills and passions were complementary.  Yossi was VP of Research and Development where he led a team of 70 people.  You can read more about Benzi’s “Journey of an Entrepreneur” via his blog at http://benzironen.wordpress.com

Give us the elevator pitch about BuddyRunner
Benzi Ronen, co-founder, Buddy Runner: Buddy Runner provides the capabilities of an expensive GPS enabled personal trainer on your Android phone. Buddy Runner allows you to monitor each run by recording your distance, pace, time, elevation, and route. A personal dashboard is created for viewing, analyzing and sharing your progress. With over 10,000 downloads during the first 4 weeks of our launch as well as  being one of the highest ranked applications within the Android Market, we are much better positioned to place our next big bet.

Our premise for Buddy Runner is that smart phones will become our personal assistants for different aspects of our lives. Examples include; help with administration, managing our social lives, shopping assistance, and the area we are focused on which is a person trainer to get you fit and live a healthier life.

The convergence between a cellphone in everyone’s pocket , computing power on small devices, and mobile high speed Internet access created the perfect storm for the next technological gold rush.   Smart phones are in their infancy but became top of mind when Apple released the iPhone.  Why was this a significant transitional event and what makes a smart phone different from the phones we have seen to date?

  • Smart phones provide a technology platform that enable developers to easily develop applications and make use of the different functionality of the phone.
  • Smart Phone providers succeeded in circumventing the telecommunication companies that had a lock on what could run on the phone by delivering a market place where developers could freely upload their applications and consumers could easily download them.  In addition, there is a payment scheme on the store which provides incentives for developers to let their imaginations lose.
  • iPhone’s slick user experience and savvy marketing quickly turned a geeky concept into a must have consumer electronics device for everyone.

Given the openness of Google Android, is there a technical barrier to entry?  How will you differentiate?
BR: Yossi and I selected the Google Android platform as our beachhead before broadening to other smart phone platforms. Our rationale was driven by Google’s open platform approach which provided us with the ability to rapidly build, experiment, and iterate our technology development. This approach worked well since today we are able to leverage most of our technology investment (server side) as we traverse to additional smart phone devices.

The tsunami of smart phone applications (already over 25,000 for the iPhone) make it difficult to gain market attention. Most of the applications being offered involve relatively little development (less than 30 days of development), don’t have any technological patents and have a short shelf life since their cache wears off quickly. As a result, the application demand behaves similar to movie box office hits. There is a short window of opportunity to materialize a big hit and the general public’s attention quickly moves on to the next new thing.

With Buddy Runner we have focused on a lifestyle category. We don’t expect to appeal to the masses but are rather focused on gaining the attention of a homogeneous segment of users that run at least once a week outdoors, are interested in tracking their results, and are willing to run with their cellphone which they often also use as their music player. This group becomes a diehard segment since the application becomes more meaningful as it contains more of your personal workout data.

What is the next step for BuddyRunner?  Risks?
BR: Since we are bootstrapping the company, we need to quickly determine the best way to monetize our success without challenging our popularity among users. We are constantly debating our long term vision with the need to generate revenue in the short term.

The fitness category has a many large gorillas which have a big interest in securing their positions. Nike and Apple released a joint offering (Nike Plus) which includes a pedometer within the shoe that communicates with the iPod.  Garmin, Polar, Suunto each have their version of high end fitness watches. Each company is trying to leverage their strength (brand, market traction, technology) in order to become the leader in this category.
It is clear to us that we will not be able to become a significant contender by playing by the same rules. Our product roadmap depends on utilizing the unique benefits of a smart phone and incorporating them into your workout in a way that none of our competitors are capable of doing. In addition, we need to ensure we differentiate ourselves among other fitness application running on smart phones so that we can justify charging a fee that will provide us the gas to bootstrap our way to the future.

Enjoy your Run!

About Zack Miller

Zack Miller is the Managing Director of Israel Newsletter, Lighthouse Capital and the author of acclaimed, Tradestream your Way to Profits: Building a Killer Portfolio in the Age of Social Media (Wiley, 2010).

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