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Zwift: A case study in product management.

It’s only 6AM on a Wednesday, but I’ve already gotten my butt kicked by over a hundred cyclists from around the world. We rode through the rolling hills outside London and sprinted to the finish line under Big Ben’s shadow. Most of us rode “unattached,” others as a team and shouted orders back and forth. I just sat in the back and drafted – loving every minute of it. The best part? No jet lag – all this fun and fitness from the comfort of my living room.

Not since discovering in-car Bluetooth music streaming or perhaps even getting my first iPhone in 2008 have I been so absolutely enthralled by a product. As a life-long athlete and bike-lover, I thought I’d seen and purchased everything I’d ever need (I currently own 7 bikes and a set of rollers)! I’m hooked on Zwift, or “Zwifting” (as the community calls it)!

For me, it’s the perfect combination of two of my core passions: cycling and technology products. These days my cycling goals are modest and are essentially to fight the creeping onslaught of dad-bod. Zwift is fine for that, but it’s so much more. As a product manager, I’m blown away by the “so much more” aspect of Zwift.

This isn’t a story about my sweaty morning routine, it’s about how the seamless merging of hardware and software combined with impeccable product management can result in something that will change the world. Yes, Zwift is in the process of changing the world.

Seamless Hardware & Software
In the past, my experience with setup of hardware and software for consumer products has generally been frustrating. Even backing up an iPhone to a laptop can be a task. While Zwift doesn’t make the hardware, they have flawlessly adapted their software to interface with PCs and peripherals via the ANT+ wireless standard. Out-of-the-box, I had the system synced and running within minutes. Impressive, especially compared to my CompuTrainer circa 2002. That company, by the way, COMPLETELY missed the market opportunity here, and that certainly speaks to a product management miss.

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UI
Since Zwift is essentially an online multi-player game, it makes sense that they have borrowed from game menu design and created a UI that quickly gets users into the playing environment. To me, this very much reflects the Zwift product team’s understanding of the primary use case: the rider has put on their cycling kit, filled up their water bottles and wants to quickly begin a ride without fussing with menus and technology.

Customer Engagement
Zwift has created a deeply committed user base of over 200,000 users who on-average ride for more than 1 hour at a time. For even the most committed cyclist, an hour or longer on a stationary trainer is pretty miserable – but Zwift. The product team has created a platform for engagement and community-building among its users that’s so powerful that it encourages us to ride significantly harder, longer and more frequently than we otherwise might. Just like in ‘real world’ cycling, the community aspect of Zwifting is something to be a part of and encouraged by. It’s fun.

Pricing
Cycling gear isn’t cheap. The requisite hardware for the full online cycling experience approaches $1000 – a very big ask for those of us who aren’t deeply geeky for cycling. Recognizing this significant financial bar to entry, Zwift has provided users with ‘starter’ options. Although it amounts to a much less immersive experience, Zwifters can use their existing ‘dumb’ trainers which can be had for much cheaper. The team was also brilliant to use subscription-based pricing so that users aren’t faced with the old-school software purchasing decision. Try it free for 30 days, $10 monthly thereafter. I really like this model because it’s easy to draw trial users. More importantly, it puts the onus on the product team to continually deliver new features and evolve the product – which they do. If not, users are free to unsubscribe immediately.

Testing
Zwift is a great example of a product team that’s living the concept of Continuous Delivery. Every time I log on I notice at least a few new small features and tweaks. For the most part, they are spot-on and immediately enhance the user experience. Could the team’s instincts be this good? No, probably not, but they certainly have a fantastic testing protocol in place. My assessment is that they gather feedback from the general Zwift community as well as a smaller group of beta testers. The feedback is then converted to features, prioritized, developed and tested. They likely roll the feature out to beta testers before promoting to production. In any case, they are clearly testing and doing it right because they are listening to the voice of the customer and are delivering an experience that reflects it.

Despite the hip-hop booming in my headphones while I Zwift before the sun comes up, these are the types of things I have been thinking about lately. While I certainly expected indoor cycling to help improve my physical fitness, I didn’t expect it to improve my fitness as a product manager. These days it’s hard to not talk product development without the inevitable Steve Jobs – iPhone commentary. I’m relieved that, for me, Zwift is a fresh story that continues to evolve.

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