Where Sports & Tech Meet. How a Social Sports App Just Play Expanded to 150 Venues Around Australia

Social Sports

Just Play app is the pioneer in the niche of social sports in Australia, partnering with 150+ venues across the country and helping adults socialize by finding teammates to play team sports with. This story on specifics of social sports in Australia, starting a sports app, and approaching software companies are told by the project founder, David Argyle himself.

Want to play? Bring a team

Australia has a culture of social sports that is different from anywhere else in the world. In Australia, it’s very common for adults to play sports as a social activity after work. It works in other countries too, but here, it’s on a whole different level. Nearly 6 million out of 20 million Australians play social sports, so there are roughly a million teams playing sports each week.

The issue is, to play a game in a venue, people need to organize a team. At that time I was managing some sports competitions and had people come in wanting to play, but they weren’t able to organize a team because they were new to the city or just didn’t know enough people wanting to play the same sport at the same location. I originally tried solving this issue using Microsoft Excel, recording people’s names, and trying to put the teams together. It didn’t work that well, but at least gave me the idea of starting a business doing this and some insight into the challenges that would need to be overcome. 

Excel didn’t make it, but we did

We spent about two years fumbling around with third-party products like team organization apps from the App Store, using Shopify for registrations and Zapier to move data around, but it soon became clear that we needed something more advanced. We started in 2013 and I think it was 2015 when we first started inquiring about custom sports app development. That’s also when we could afford it since in the beginning, the business had no financing and we had to pay for the development from the revenue of the business, so it took a little while to get into the position to be able to make an app.

Fortunately, no one else was doing what we were doing on this multi-venue multi-sport scale. No one had built a custom application for this purpose.

Speaking of venues and partnering with them, I need to elaborate on a business model. Venues want to monetize individuals’ interest in playing but aren’t able to do that in a time-efficient or scaled way without a technology solution or partner.

Organizing a whole team to be able to play is how it had always been. So the appealing part about Just Play is that we managed to turn coming to these venues into a good experience for people. Venues would send people who needed a team to us since part of our agreement is that they refer individuals looking to play to us. Around 40% of our customers still come from that venue referral channel. Over time we’ve expanded to acquire more of our customers from SEO, word of mouth, organic, and paid social, but initially, the referral traffic was a huge part of getting started.

Needs over wants

The app has been changing all the time. I mean, there were always things we wanted, but to start, we needed to know what we could build instead of what we wanted to build. Then, users always requested us to add some features, so changes have always been there. Now the app has a subscription component where users get charged for the following season, but we didn’t have that in the first version. And the nature of our agreements with the venues is they have cut-off dates for when we can register teams, which is a few weeks into the season. 

So in the first year or two, before we had the subscription functionality, we would just email our users and say, “Hey, you need to sign up again.” And people wouldn’t get around to it because life is busy. They assumed they could go back and sign up at any moment, but in fact, it could be too late. As a result, we were losing revenue and customers. That’s why we decided to improve this really bad user experience. We already had the users’ credit card details and they only needed to opt-in or opt out. That’s an example of a feature that we introduced by analyzing user behavior, which also solved a customer and business need.

Who’s in charge of programming?

I’m not a programmer, so obviously it’s not me behind coding Just Play—we outsourced it to professionals. The question was, what company it would be? At that moment, we settled on Eastern Europe because we found several companies from that region that had built apps that we liked. And the price point seemed good—not the cheapest that you could find, but good value for the quality you could get.

Then, I think, Clutch is great for browsing companies. Their approach to reviews is pretty thorough; they’re hard to fudge which is often an issue with online reviews. So we filtered by reviews, selected a bunch of different companies, and then engaged in a dialogue. It gave a feel for how people were going to interact with us and how responsive they were because we didn’t have any predetermined technology stack or anything. 

I know it’s hard for people starting but there’s always a way to get your first project to a decent level. You could download a few apps the company has built and use them. And if you aren’t convinced or sure at this point, I suggest asking to speak to some of their previous and current clients.

We chose Anadea out of many others. There’s been a good understanding of what we’re trying to do and technical competence was impressive, and it was comfortable interacting with them during all this time.

Technology choice for custom projects

I know for sure that Ruby on Rails works great for us, and we love Twilio for SMS and Intercom as our CRM, so we think we got the most choices right. Watching the products we chose to integrate evolve and get better over time is always exciting as our customers get the benefit of this. Occasionally you make the wrong choice, for example, we chose Braintree payments and if we had our time again we would have chosen Stripe. Stripe Connect has a Marketplace feature that Braintree has no real equivalent of, but it’s hard to switch between services when you have a significant number of stored payment methods in Braintree.

Developers from Anadea made suggestions and we made decisions based on these suggestions. But we’ve come out of sports, not tech, and this was our first time building an application, so we were just relying on what we could hear or find on the Internet. People we knew that had worked in technology helped us too, but in the end, it was all based on some research and a gut feeling for what’s best.

Anadea played a massive part in terms of the platform’s success. I think there are plenty of developers that we could have chosen where it wouldn’t have worked out this well. Now that I’ve seen other people embark on projects, I think the outcome is partly the developer’s responsibility, but when something doesn’t work, it can also be on a client who hasn’t given a clear enough vision of what they want.

It only works if you feel that the developers have a really good understanding of what you need. However, most developers have a preference for some language and they’re going to do better work in that one. So if you’re not happy with your developer’s suggestion, then I’d probably choose different developers before I tried to tell them to use a language that they don’t want to work with. Just put yourself in the place of a developer: you work with some language for years and then the client asks you to go with something different. Of course, it can be problematic and end up with lower quality. 

Challenges, past and present

Covid did bad to social sports, and I think we’re not alone at this point. Our business is still recovering; we’re not quite back at pre-Covid revenue yet, although it’s been two years and a half. For five years before Covid, we were growing roughly 25–30% each year and were on track to do close to 2 million dollars in revenue in the COVID-impacted year—our financial year runs from July to June. We’re back to approximately 85% of that number now and hope to return to some positive growth in the years ahead.

As far as where we could go next, we’re exploring the opportunity of providing more sporting-related activities, lessons, and options on Just Play so that people can book find, and do more via the app. Another idea is getting in touch with small businesses, like tennis teachers, and offering them to promote themselves through the platform for a commission so that we send people to them.

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