Inside the Nike+ Accelerator: Fueling the quantified-self movement

Imagine setting aside three months of your life to pursue a dream. As romantic as the idea may seem, it requires a gut check somewhere along the way. Recently, a handful of entrepreneurs said goodbye to their families and loved ones, and in some cases, flew across the globe for an opportunity to do just that. Some put their budding companies on hold, while others came only with an unwavering belief in their idea. In all, 10 companies converged on the Nike+ Accelerator in Portland, Ore., this past March, each united with the goal of building products that integrate with Nike's line of fitness trackers.

 It's hard to underestimate the sacrifice, or the opportunity. With less than three weeks to relocate, many had to act quickly. But with a vote of confidence from Nike and its accelerator partner, TechStars, support from a vast network of mentors and industry contacts -- and just as importantly, early access to the Nike+ API -- it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get a head start over the competition in the burgeoning wearables industry.
From the moment these entrepreneurs touched ground at PDX, the clock was already running. In just 12 weeks, they'd pitch their products to potential investors at Demo Day -- first in Portland on June 10th, and again in San Francisco on the 20th. It's a lot to accomplish in three months, and certainly unfamiliar territory for Nike as well. But even amidst the breakneck speed, one must hit the pause button and ponder Nike's motivation behind the accelerator. Ten companies were certainly given an upper hand, but can the same be said for Nike itself?

It's no longer enough to motivate and inspire

It doesn't take a devout Nike fan to know its business strategy extends far beyond fitness gear and apparel. After all, Nike didn't establish itself as one of the world's most admired brands through quality footwear alone. Rather, it's the company's motivational ads that resonate with audiences -- a message that you can jump higher, run farther and achieve greatness, so long as you believe in yourself. Nike employees are particularly fond of one inspirational gem: if you have a body, you are an athlete. That's the message of Nike's late co-founder, Bill Bowerman, and it's clear that the University of Oregon's former track and field coach left an indelible fingerprint on the company.
The fitness landscape is shifting, however, thanks in large part to wearable computers and software that have spawned the quantified-self movement. By combining activity-tracking sensors with a little bit of journaling, users are able to see a more complete picture of their daily exercise, sleep habits, mood and nutrition -- and ultimately, set goals and chart their progress over time.
Of course, the quantified self is a familiar realm for Nike, but it's also bringing about a strategy shift in Beaverton. For insight, consider the words of Nike's VP of Digital Sport, Stefan Olander. Upon taking the stage at Demo Day in Portland, Olander was very clear about the company's ambitions, saying that it's no longer enough to motivate and inspire -- that Nike must now provide the tools to help individuals accomplish their fitness goals. At a fundamental level, it seems this is what the accelerator is all about -- a recognition of the possibilities and expectations surrounding quantified self, and a tacit admission that Nike can only do so much on its own.
When Nike introduced the FuelBand in early 2012, it ushered in a new way of thinking about activity that went beyond steps taken and calories burned. The concept is known as NikeFuel, which the company is seeking to establish as the de facto currency of physical activity -- something that's quantifiable, which can also be exchanged for things of value. All products with the Nike+ branding allow users to gain and amass NikeFuel, but up until this point, the "currency" has had little meaning beyond unlocking achievements and comparing one's performance to others. Naturally, a currency is only as good as the number of people that adopt it, and with this in mind, it seems that Nike had no choice but to open its API.
According to Olander, Nike wanted to open its platform from day one. Then again, the company's timing could've also been in response to market forces. Nike's primary competitors, Fitbit and Jawbone, have taken a more open approach with their APIs and already benefit from third-party apps such as MyFitnessPal, Endomondo, RunKeeper, Lose It!, EveryMove and MapMyFitness. Meanwhile, sources close to the situation state that Nike's developer portal remains closed to all but a handful; those with access include its accelerator participants, along with a few companies that signed one-off agreements such as Lose It! and Path. Naturally, the locked-down approach isn't the quickest way to establishing partners, but it's understandable. As the 10 accelerator companies quickly learned, the Nike+ API wasn't quite ready for prime time.

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