How Zwift became a unicorn

In September 2020, online fitness platform Zwift raised $450 million in series C funding, valuing it at over $1 billion.

Background

Zwift started in 2015, offering a virtual environment to cycle and run within. Cycling is currently the main focus with training plans, casual group rides and competitive racing. 

If Peloton is the Apple of the home fitness space, Zwift is the Google Android, offering a software platform that has huge support from hardware manufacturers. To use the Zwift platform you need a form of turbo trainer for the input. Budget systems that combine an existing road bike and turbo trainer are available from as little as $300. A compatible smartphone, tablet or computer is also required.

Subscription costs $15 per month and Zwift has attracted over a million paying subscribers.

Zwift has benefitted from the pandemic with lockdowns in many countries restricting exercise to indoor only. 

Appeal 

Where Peloton appeals to non-cyclists and gym goers, Zwift is firmly aimed at cycling enthusiasts. Training plans aren’t instructor based, but delivered in a more functional format. Training zones are provided after a fitness test called function threshold power (FTP). Plans then provide workouts on a scheduled basis tailored specifically to the riders objective.

Cyclists use Zwift as a means to reduce the monotony of training indoors. Riding virtually around a world with thousands of other riders to cheer you on, providing virtual kudos in the form of “ride ons”. 

Zwift uses gamification to offer rewards for virtual achievements, incentivising riders to continue using the platform. 

Racing and eSports

One of the most successful parts of Zwift is the competitive races available. Due to the sheer volume of riders, a competitive race is often minutes away and highly competitive. Power output and weight are used to estimate speed, propelling your in-game avatar around the pre-defined course. 

Zwift partnered with professional racers to offer an alternative race format whilst outdoor racing wasn’t available during the pandemic. The biggest races received significant attention; watched live by hundreds of thousands or sport deprived viewers. This had sponsors excited with Zwift providing a platform for their brand, offering an impressive bang for the buck versus the real-life equivalent.

Zwift eSports platform provides a fantastic opportunity to market to new members. It also offers a glimpse at the impressive power numbers possessed by the professional and gives an opportunity for the keen enthusiast to race virtually against the riders they admire.

Key statistics 

  • Over 3 million Zwift accounts have been created

  • 0.7% of Zwifters are at level 50 (the highest achievement level)

  • 25% of Zwifters are participating in group events

  • 75% of Zwifters are doing workouts

Quotes from Eric Min, CEO Zwift 

“This is really early days in terms of connected fitness devices in every home.”

I couldn’t agree more!

“If you want to combine fitness and gaming, where you can exercise with a community, which is global, that’s what Zwift is.”

Love this elevator pitch. Hits every note.

Software only 

Zwift’s approach is to offer the most accessible platform available with as few barriers to adoption as possible. This has accelerated its growth and provided it with focus on the software development. Zwift supports even the most basic of turbo trainers and even fixed rollers. In focusing on software, it does present something of a barrier to customers that aren’t perhaps as tech savvy. There’s a friction that exists when adopting the platform that you don’t have within Peloton.

Hardware expansion 

Zwift has made tentative steps into the hardware space. Its initial focus was allowing hardware manufacturers such as Wahoo and Tacx to dominate the market with compatible equipment and the high margins available. Zwift has stated its intent to build hardware itself. In March 2020 it restructured the business in order to focus on hardware development. So far, it hasn’t launched any hardware products but it remains the focus according to CEO, Eric Min.

In 2018, Zwift purchased running sensor company, Milestone and rebranded its product to the RunPod, costing $20. This is essentially a cadence sensor that attaches to your foot and provides an input whilst on a treadmill. Zwift running hasn’t taken off in the same way as its cycling but it remains committed to bringing a strong Zwift experience to runners.

Lack of instructors

One of the most appealing aspects of Peloton is the vast array of instructors available, that matches the diverse needs of its membership base. Zwift doesn’t offer any instructors within its workouts, instead relying on hitting arbitrary power outputs and little else. It has no music to distract you from the indoor torture. This feels like a missed opportunity to build loyalty and affinity with its membership.

Within the racing environment, members rely on third-party audio channels such as Discord to communicate with each other. Zwift offers a basic chat facility that makes interaction with other members difficult. It also feels like a missed opportunity to further cement members within the Zwift community by creating relationships within the platform and its sphere of influence.

Competition

Zwift competes against other similar dedicated cycling platforms such as Bkool, Trainer Road, The Sufferfest, FulGaz etc. There are countless applications available that offer some of the functionality of Zwift. However, few offer the full immersion experienced combined with the rich feature set. Those that enjoy racing are going to love the sheer number of competitors and races on offer. Zwift doesn’t compete directly with Peloton - it appeals to a very different audience and demographic. It’s be no means cornered the market but it’s certainly the biggest within its market niche.

Initial public offering

Zwift has hinted at publicly listing the company and I’m sure investors are weighing up the timing and market. Peloton has seen its stock price fluctuated significantly in recent months from historic highs. Now that the end of the pandemic is beginning to end investors will be keen to see healthy returns.

Summary

  • Zwift appeals to cyclists looking to reduce the monotony of indoor training whilst enjoying the added competition of racing

  • Zwift has positioned itself as an eSports platform, partnering with professional teams to offer a real alternative to outdoor cycle racing

  • Zwift has 3 million registered accounts

  • Zwift is planning to double down and marry its own hardware with its software

  • Zwift will likely IPO in the next few years