Penn State

Finding a game by clicking in, app seeks to simplify pick-up sports

Dilanka Dharmasena, one of the founders of the app First Pick, checks the app at the West Soccer Fields on Penn State’s campus. The app streamlines the pick-up sports experience, and recently launched on the App Store and Google Play.
Dilanka Dharmasena, one of the founders of the app First Pick, checks the app at the West Soccer Fields on Penn State’s campus. The app streamlines the pick-up sports experience, and recently launched on the App Store and Google Play.

Mohammed Mohammed downloaded the app on Friday. When he woke up on Saturday morning, it’s as if it had read his mind.

“I got a notification that was like ‘Do you want to play soccer today?’ ” he said. “I had nothing planned for that day, so I’m like ‘why not?’ I pressed in and then went around the time it was scheduled and found a bunch of people there.”

Others, apparently, had “clicked in,” too. When he made it to the soccer fields on the west side of campus that afternoon, they were full.

“It was pretty nice how it all worked out,” he said.

The app, a brainchild of three of his peers, was the solution to a common college problem: finding a pick-up game to play with minimum hassle. Penn State, home to more than 25 intramural sports and 77 club sports organizations, had impromptu contests all over its sprawling campus, but finding one required some combination of luck and thumb-twiddling — whether from smartphones or a waiting game.

It wasn’t the game Farabi Sameer wanted to play. An avid soccer player, Sameer, 20, got the idea for First Pick last spring after looking for a game on a rainy day. The closest fields were about a mile away from his residence hall, and so like many other startups, necessity became the mother of invention.

“I didn’t want to go there and have no one show up,” he said.

But his team’s app would be different from Facebook or GroupMe, other social apps that either lacked specificity or savoir faire. Spam is a problem on both, Sameer said, and educed ennui from their pervasive use across campus.

His partners, Dilanka Dharmasena and Patrick O’Connor, agreed. While their game of choice differs — both are ultimate frisbee players — their feelings about data deluge are the same.

“It’s hard to find pick-up games when people are just trying to sell apartments,” Dharmasena, 19, said.

Their idea gained momentum during the past few months. The trio were accepted into Lion Launch Pad, a business accelerator program through the school, and earned funding through the Summer Founders Program to facilitate their startup’s growth. By the end of the summer, their app had been through multiple updates and successfully launched on both Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store.

The number of stories concerning young entrepreneurs continues to grow. The founders of Facebook and GroupMe, for instance, were in their 20s when they started their companies.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurship education has taken off. Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania have all seen upticks in MBA program offerings for entrepreneurship-related coursework. At Penn State, President Eric Barron launched a $1.5 million Fund for Innovation in 2014 to foster a growing startup culture on campus and in the surrounding community.

Mohammed, who met Sameer freshman year, said the pair had dreams of making an app, even though they had less than a semester of school in the books. A fan of Elon Musk, the impresario behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors, Mohammed, 20, said he’s keeping a company’s staying power in mind when he enters the job market. A sustainable business plan now may not stay so in five years, he added, and making a mark was even more important while one was still in school.

“We wanted to put something on our resumes,” he said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, found that the number of businesses less than a year old grew by more than 100,000 since 2010.

Yet fewer young Americans are willing to take risks, even as the economy continues to shake off the throes of the recession. Instead, spending their formative years during the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression has many millennials reticent about taking on credit card debt, let alone starting their own companies. According to an analysis of 2013 Federal Reserve data by the Wall Street Journal, less than 5 percent of households headed by adults younger than 30 were stakeholders in private enterprises. The number has fallen by more than half since 1989, when 10.6 percent of younger households assumed risk by being an owner.

Sameer’s team is looking to buck that trend. The trio has already had five launches on Apple’s App Store. Later this fall, they said, their newest update will give the user more control on where and when they want to play.

“The thing we’re trying to focus on the most is this auto-game function,” Sameer said. “As college students, since we’re busy, let’s say you’re only free Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and you want to play basketball, but no one you know is free. If you put the time and sport preference in, the app finds you people who are free at that time and sets one up for you.”

Instead, the app sends a push notification in the morning, asking if the user wants to play any pick-up sports that day. Should users opt in, they can see who else is coming to the day’s game. And if the timing doesn’t work, they can request a specific time.

The difference, Sameer said, lies in its simplicity. There’s no fear of intimidation, no posting and receiving zero comments in response as with other apps. Conversely, it nixes the constant buzzing when there’s too much interest, whether related to the game or not.

“With GroupMe, people don’t respond to it,” Sameer said. “It’s annoying getting 50 messages for a game you’re not showing up to.”

As for Mohammed, who is a user only, the app’s restraint makes it attractive. And for a pick-up game of soccer, why complicate things?

“I personally don’t even bother with Facebook; I just don’t like it,” he said. “One of the reasons I actually quit Facebook was because there’s too much going on at the same time, and a lot of it was irrelevant. And even though you can follow people and unfollow people, it’s just ‘why deal with that?’ ”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy