BiiB sprints ahead to connect more people through their running platform
By Tan Jee Yee February 23, 2021
- BiiB surpass 2019 revenue despite challenges in a pandemic 2020
- Starting 2021 with new collaborations, partners, and plans for communities
Running is often seen as a lonely sport. As an avid runner himself, Neupulse Sdn Bhd cofounder Sheyong Tan (pic left) is hoping to change that notion.
He had, after all, gotten into running through his close friends. They had motivated each other to run, and it soon became a routine – one friend even managed to complete an Ironman Triathlon race recently.
“We realised one thing: most people got into running because of their friends,” he tells Digital News Asia. This is the impetus for Neupulse, a sport technology startup launched in Jan 2017 that operates under the brand BiiB, with a focus to turn running and walking, from an individual activity into a digital team sport.
They do so through setting up challenges and running events via their BiiB platform, and in the process managed to create the largest community running league in Malaysia.
Its been a great run for the Malaysia-based startup so far – last year, they even managed to win the IAPS and Decathlon Choice Awards in Taiwan.
IAPS Taiwan is a university-affiliated and tech-focused startup accelerator in Taiwan. Decathlon is, of course, the global sports equipment retailer, serving as partner for the event. As Tan tells Digital News Asia, Decathlon’s innovation team handpicked BiiB to collaborate on incorporating BiiB’s systems into supporting the retailer’s global sports communities – a major milestone for the startup.
But BiiB’s ongoing marathon isn’t without some hurdles. The Covid-19 pandemic has essentially made the outdoors less palatable, if not outright inaccessible during lockdown periods. For BiiB, it would’ve been a death sentence. But marathons aren’t won without perseverance.
Pillars of the community
When asked about how BiiB was conceived, Tan cracked a guilty smile. “When we started off, we were a little ‘blur’ on our positioning. After a few years, it was our users who actually positioned us. They made our running challenges synonymous with running, like how people would refer to instant noodles as Maggi (in Malaysia). We’re quite amazed,” he admits.
BiiB, to Tan, is a ‘spirit.’ “It represents the spirit of sports, and how sports connects different people together. That is one of the things that set us apart from other sports apps.”
To classify BiiB as a running app is inaccurate. Tan says that apps like Runkeeper work as measurement tools, whose core function is to help runners time and track their progress. “Put in the context of a track and field competition, these apps serve as the timer and distance measurement,” he explains.
BiiB however, is not just the timer, but the track and the whole environment that sets the rules on how the runner can run. BiiB basically built a digital arena for people to run in, complete with rules and challenges. They track the runners’ progress, too, by partnering with popular running apps and brands such as Garmin, Coros and Under Armour’s Map my Run.
This ‘arena’ essentially forms one of BiiB’s three core pillars. The second pillar is BiiB’s game innovations. BiiB gamifies the running process – going back to how running is individualistic, BiiB’s games makes running a team sport.
This all leads to their third pillar: the creation of inclusive and connected running communities. “These people, they group together because of our challenges, and then they started to flourish. They go from five member teams into 200-member communities,” Tan says.
Before BiiB was a platform, they started off with one challenge – the 100 Days Challenge, whose goal is to get people to team up to complete a running journey together. It was an experiment which garnered more popularity than expected – gaining more than 600 participants, some from other countries like Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei.
“This is interesting to us: people are used to running in marathons, in races, on the roads. But when we do it in a different format, people actually got excited. That was how we started designing new running games,” Tan explains.
The Covid hurdle
The plan following that was to build BiiB into a platform. They started off with their own funds, and later tapped Cradle’s CIP300 grant in 2017 which got them US$74,200 (RM300,000) – that was when they built their platform and began seeing their community grow. They launched their first nationwide challenge in 2018.
BiiB’s business model, as Tan describes, is simple and straightforward. It works on a ticketing model – users who join their challenges pay to participate. They can either pay per challenge, or pay for a set of challenges to run with.
There’s also a B2B model at hand. BiiB have corporate and event organisers who host their challenges on their platform. For this, they take a management fee based on the size of the challenge.
It’s a model that works, until at least Covid-19 made running outdoors almost impossible. Tan admits that the early parts of the pandemic last year was a painful period. “It was an off season for us,” he says, glum at the recall.
Surprisingly, things began getting back on track during the RMCO (Recovery Movement Control Order) period from 10 June 2020, wherein outdoor sports and activities were allowed. With restrictions getting more relaxed, BiiB was able to secure more collaborations with big corporates and brands who were looking for new ways to engage their clients, employees and communities.
By the end of 2020, BiiB was able to sign some big brands such as Under Armour, Universal Music, Samsung and Media Prima, who serve as partners to some of their events. While Tan didn’t give any specifics, by the end of 2020, BiiB saw a 25% increase in revenue compared to 2019, and doubled their user base in that year. To date, BiiB has 41,000 of current users on the platform.
Tan notes that BiiB was lucky in some ways. They were present in Taiwan, which relaxed Covid-19 restrictions much earlier than Malaysia, allowing them to host one of the largest team challenges in the country.
Tan also feels that there’s a shift in trends during the pandemic. For one, personal health has become an even larger concern, which meant more people looking to get active. And since team and indoor sports are generally discouraged, if not disallowed, more people turned to running for exercise, with BiiB getting more involved.
It helps that BiiB didn’t hang up their running shoes the moment the pandemic hit in 2020. They were also fortunate that in April 2020 they got accepted into the inaugural cohort at Scaleup Malaysia, which gave them access to experienced coaching and mentors at a very difficult and uncertain time, not to mention US$61,800 (RM250,000) in funding. This brought total funding, including the Cradle Grant, to RM900,000.
[RM1 = US$0.247]
BiiB also began building contingency plans in mind 2020 in case running outdoors became less feasible. They began incorporating step tracking in their app, partnering with Apple Health and Google Fit for this. Users can then accumulate their steps even when walking in their house, with BiiB creating team-based challenges for that.
Still, 2021 is shaping up to be a tough run, what with rising Covid-19 cases in Malaysia, and with vaccines just arriving in Malaysia two days ago. Still, Tan says that they have big plans for their Malaysian communities. “We always consider Malaysia our home ground, and we have big plans which we can’t announce yet, but we want to bring our running communities to the next level,” he says excitedly.
In the near future, BiiB is hoping for expansions to other countries and communities. “Our pillar is to connect different communities, which means going beyond borders with our platform as the connector," Tan notes.
They have yet to proceed with direct expansions, such as setting up offices and promotions, but have begun planting the seeds via partnerships with overseas companies and coming up with local challenges in other countries.
The plan is also to incorporate more technology into their platform this year. BiiB will begin exploring using machine learning to learn from their three million datasets of activities. This is to improve their fraud detection system (to stop people from manipulating their running scores). “As we grow and have more runners, we want to make the games fairer for people,” Tan explains.
It is, ultimately, to help BiiB learn about how they can impact people’s lives with their activities. “By exploring that with artificial intelligence and analytics, we can get more insights from our runners, and how it can help us plan better activities," says Tan.
They may be running on rocky terrain now, but BiiB isn’t slowing down. “We are looking forward to 2021. Although this year is full of uncertainties, our community is still there, and health is also the number one concern for the whole market right now, so the whole situation favours us to grow,” Tan concludes.
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