Get to know a Toronto startup: Huddlers

Are you tired of wandering the city, trying to find a good pickup game of dodgeball? Are you becoming an athletic pariah because you keep double booking your recreational sports commitments?

If so, Huddlers - an online platform to help recreational athletes discover where to play sports, manage their sports schedules, and find the right products and equipment - may be just what you need.

"We focus on the who, what and where of recreational athletics," says 26-year-old founder and CEO, Adam Epstein. Huddlers, which is currently a web app, is in private beta, and plans to publicly launch at the beginning of August. The company is also in the process of prototyping the mobile app.

I recently met up with Epstein, who briefed me on his game plan for the company.

What was your inspiration for Huddlers?

When I graduated law school in September 2010, I was traveling in Europe alone, and I wanted to play pickup basketball in every city I visited. Through word of mouth, I found and played at a court in Amsterdam, at the Eiffel Tower ball courts in Paris, and at awesome courts near the train station in Barcelona. But when I got to Rome, I was jogging around trying to find a basketball court, but I couldn't find anything. I realized then that there is a need for a mechanism for athletes to exchange this type of information.

What does Huddlers do?

The main feature is social athletic event scheduling, which allows you to schedule an event, invite people in your athletic network, and tag the venue for the sports you play. Every venue has its own page where you can see all the events scheduled at that location, and there is a common message board for everyone interacting with that venue.

How do you develop an athletic network - is it similar to adding friends on Facebook?

Yes, though our vernacular is teammates rather than friends. When you add someone as a teammate, you can see their upcoming activities. For example, a buddy of mine saw I was going to play tennis with a friend, and emailed me to ask if we could play doubles. Previous activities are also documented in a feed. If you have an event coming up, Huddlers will suggest teammates and find new teammates as well.

What kind of information is part of an athlete's Huddlers profile?

The main focus of the profile, or card, is a description of your skills. Right now we cater to 22 different sports and about 300 skills. Each skill is represented by playful icons and descriptions for each sport. For example, I'm a basketball player and my skills are listed as marksman, distributor and janitor: marksman for 3-pointer, distributor for point guard, and janitor for doing the dirty work to help my team win.

People can fan my skills, thereby endorsing me in the skills I've listed. As you get more endorsements, you move up in levels in those specific skills. Five endorsements is basic, 20 is bronze, 50 is silver, and a hundred is gold. This system gives social proof of your skills.

How have you been financing this project?

I've been bootstrapping this on my own. I've used my own personal savings, money saved from being a lawyer, and my line of credit. I took a couple of odd law jobs to make money to feed into the company, and some of my friends and family are helping with financing as well. I've been actively conversing with angels and VCs in Toronto and New York. They love the concept, but the consistent feedback is that investors invest in a team and in traction - so I'm currently working towards building a team and developing a user base.

How did your background help prepare you to found Huddlers?

I got my B.A. at McGill in Northern American studies, and then got my JD at Queen's for law. I articled at a midsize Toronto firm, mainly in mergers and acquisitions and corporate governance. On being called to the bar around June 2011, I immediately began working on Huddlers. If the company grows to what I think it will be, my knowledge of deals, corporate governance and business strategy, and my ability to articulate my views will be important aspects of my role.

But I'm currently a Jack of all trades. My biggest challenge right now is developing an internal technical team. We need some risk savvy, ambitious software engineers and I'd ask anyone interested to contact me to chat about opportunities.

How will Huddlers make money?

There are a number of different revenue streams. The first is through products. Users select the products and equipment they use. Each product has its own product page. We're in the process of staring to broker a deal with an online retailer where we'll get a percentage of each lead we generate off those product pages.

As well, we plan to get athletic organizations to come on board - first to use Huddlers as a mechanism for their online marketing and interactive scheduling, and eventually to provide their whole software infrastructure for online registration, team standings, and personal statistics. Also, we want to start using location-based marketing to suggest bars and restaurants you can visit before or after your game. Finally, our platform will provide data that can be sold to athletic brands at a later stage.

How would you describe the Toronto startup scene?

I've been spending a lot of time in New York and it has made me realize that there are not enough risk takers in Toronto. I've been working on Hudders for almost a year and in Toronto, Huddlers has been received with some trepidation and doubt about what I'm trying to accomplish.

In New York, in contrast, there seems to be more appreciation of risk, ambition and hustle. I think Toronto is an excellent place for us to start, but I think that the States is where Huddlers is ultimately going to thrive. If I could find talented developers in New York, I'd move there. The only issue is that that New York is substantially more expensive to start a company in than Toronto.

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