Startups cater to a new Parisian passion: running

PARIS -- The French are embracing running as a new form of sightseeing and social congregation, and entrepreneurs are launching businesses to serve these athletes.
Written by Bryan Pirolli, Correspondent (Paris) on

PARIS -- Over the past few years, they've been darting along the banks of the Seine, through the courtyard of the Louvre, and under the legs of the Eiffel Tower. More of a staple and less of a curiosity, serious athletes have found their place on the Parisian landscape where formerly jean and polo-clad joggers were looked upon as, well, bizare.

Parisians are congregating more than ever for an increasing number of organized races. The 2013 Paris marathon, for example, hosted a record 50,000 runners. The ever popular Color Run even announced their first French run in Paris next spring. Charity runs for breast and prostate cancer are even making headlines with growing participation. The French are creating reasons to run together.

But as Parisians turn increasingly to hitting the parks and pavement, few resources are available to find others to run with easily or last minute. In The New York Times, one journalist reported on various running associations, including the Nike runs and Hashers, which organize events. Specialized groups, including the LGBT Front Runners and those who are quitting smoking are also popular among their communities. For those who simply want to run, only the website Meetup offers consistent events, though rarely more than once or twice weekly.

But for sporty types just looking to run occasionally with someone new, like travelers, new businesses are beginning to cater to this niche market, including personal concierges and tour guides who skip the museums for exploring history at a faster speed. One innovative startup, Jogg.in is a new way to connect runners, creating for them a unique social network. We use networking sites for dating, dining, and traveling, so why not for exercising?

The site, launched by three French entrepreneurs this October, is similar to other sites like Airbnb and Vayable both of these that bring people together for a specific service. Instead of housing or local advice, however, Jogg.in is focused on running in all of its various forms from marathon training to convivial jogs that end with a drink in a café.

Similar to the aforementioned websites, Jogg.in's homepage asks simply, "Where do you want to run?" allowing users to search by geographical region. While starting in France, Thomas Didier, one of the founders along with Théo Bayssat and Laurent Lingelser, said the team hopes to Jogg.in available worldwide. "International development, on a larger scope, is in the works because the running boom is worldwide," Didier said.

Like a Facebook event, a Jogg.in session can be free and users need only click to join, or create their own event allowing others to register. Profiles forgo highlighting favorite movies or cuisine, with users showcasing instead their completed races and times -- things important to the target community. "For the profile, we're considering putting up running goals for people, be it just to run for well-being or for a marathon, as well as GPS trackers like Nike+, Runkeeper, or Garmin," Didier said.

He said that early versions of the site will focus on offering the best possible free services for runners to find where, when, and with whom to run. But the business model also includes several paid events. Private coaches, for example, will be able to offer their services by organizing an event, remunerating a percentage to the site. Runners can pay directly through the website and join the event, leaving their cash at home.

Didier imagines that users can easily organize smaller charity runs through the site as well, with 100% of payments going through the site to the selected cause. To put charitable contributions in perspective, Paris's marathon earned about $70,000 this year while London raised around $84.5 million a sign that the City of Light is lagging in charitable contributions linked to racing. But the annual women's run, La Parisienne, has grown immensely from its 1,500 participants in 1997. The 2013 edition welcomed over 29,000 runners and raised some 123,000 euros ($166,000) for breast cancer research. Didier said that Jogg.in hopes to have such paid events ready by 2014 to contribute in a similar way.

Tourism, however, is also on Didier's radar. France is also consistently the world's top tourist destination, with some 83 million visitors in 2012, far above the 67 million that visited the U.S. Some companies offer guided runs in English through the city's iconic streets. Avid runner Géraldine Gravier-Richer even proposes specific concierge services for those in town for a run, including massages and coaching for serious athletes.

Jean-Charles Sarfati, of Paris Running Tour, said that requests for his tours have been going up since 2010. "The running tours are now more known, probably because it is an interesting and original way to discover the city," he wrote in an email.

Likewise, expat Nick Lamb gives running tours through his own company while also heading up the Paris triathlon club. He also took over the Paris Running Meetup group three years ago, leaving his full-time job to pursue these running-related activities. "Fundamentally, more and more people are realizing that exercise in general is important and the friendly 'no strings attached' environment which Meetup provides is a great starting point," he told SmartPlanet.

Lamb said that Jogg.in has huge potential, though worries about its profitability. "As with all beta versions, it needs more functionality to find its selling point," he said.

The site, in English and French, is already attracting runners organizing dozens of sessions. While enjoying it's first runner's high, it will take time to see if Jogg.in can keep a steady pace in France and beyond.

Photos: Top: Vivian Song; Bottom: Lindsey Kent

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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