In 1997, magazine publisher and former race director Jim Woodman had an idea. Woodman had experienced first-hand the inefficiencies of event registration and realized the Internet could make the process easier. “I knew how difficult it was for event directors to manage their registrations. The Internet was the ideal solution to encourage athletes to enter their own data while doing away with paper, pencils, checks and postage."
So he attended a national sporting goods conference and presented the concept of online registration to a wide range of publishers of sports magazines, asking them each for $10,000 to start The Active Network.
Their response? “Internet?! Are you crazy?” Woodman described. “How are we going to make any money on the Internet?”
“None of them wanted to give me any money for Active,” said Woodman. “So Lance Armstrong gave me the seed money—$100,000—to get started. Then I went out on my own and raised another 5 million between angel investors and venture capital.”
Woodman was publisher of Florida Sports magazine at the time. He took 11 of his employees from the magazine to California and merged with Race Gate, a direct competitor.
“It put fear in our competitors when the two leading companies in the event registration industry merged,” said Scott Kyle, co-founder, board of directors and CFO of Race Gate. By December 1999, the two companies were working together in one office in La Jolla, Calif.
“The vibe was really great,” said Woodman. “We were all focused on being the biggest and fastest in the industry. It was exciting to be on the same team after aggressively beating each other up for some time.”
“But there was a big disconnect between the excitement of having just merged in one office and the true financial position of the business. These were very unique times—it was an exciting business in an exciting place,” said Kyle. “People were making hundreds of millions of dollars overnight. It was hard for many people to disassociate the excitement from economic reality.”
Some employees sensed the uncertainty through the excitement. One of Race Gate’s first employees, Mike Reilly (also known as the Voice of Ironman) enjoyed the new partnership but didn’t want to get too comfortable. He wasn’t sure how long the business was going to be around.
“The first two or three years here, I still maintained another office, thinking, ‘I’ve gotta have some place to go, just in case,’” Reilly noted of Active’s early days. “Then we passed the point of three or four years, and I go ‘this is gonna work.’”
In the late 90s, The Active Network was predominantly a place for people to go online to register for endurance races, and the majority of athletes were still registering with an old-fashioned pencil and paper. “We were happy to get 20 or 30 people to register for an event online,” said Reilly. “When Rock ‘n’ Roll came on board in 2000, that was our biggest breakthrough for online registration. We started out with maybe 8,000 or 9,000 online registrants, which was unheard of back then.”
Not only were Active’s customers endurance athletes, Active employees echoed the lifestyle as well, joining in group rides on the weekends, running in marathon training groups, commuting to work on their bikes and swimming in the La Jolla cove before and after (and sometimes during) work.
“We would even meet on the weekends for some kind of workout. Seven days a week, which wasn’t too much time to spend with these folks,” Reilly recalled. “We were all in it together. It’s almost like we could never spend enough time together.”
Employees today still note that it’s the people and the culture that make the company what it is. It’s what brought CEO Dave Alberga to the company in 1999.
“When I realized that I could combine the things that I love doing on the weekend with the stuff I do during the week as a job, that was an opportunity too tough to pass up,” said Alberga.