How We Started Hoopmaps, Went Viral, And Got On Shark Tank

Published: March 27th, 2019
Dominic Morris
Founder, Curated Runs
Curated Runs
from Sacramento, California, USA
started June 2016
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Note: This business is no longer running. It was started in 2016 and ended in 2024. Reason for closure: Now this business known as Curated Runs.

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hello, my name is Dominic and I am the co-founder of HoopMaps.

HoopMaps is a mobile app that allows users to find pickup games in their area. We offer our app for IOS and android play stores. HoopMaps is a platform where users can discover, join and create games.

Our primary focus at this stage is to grow our user base, then we will focus in on revenue, but in the meantime, we’re all about educating users on pickup basketball. With that being said we are a pre-revenue company.

Since we launched, we have amassed over 90,000 users across 11 countries outside the United States an have appeared on international media outlets such as SportsCenter and Shark Tank and partnered with The Big 3 professional basketball league.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I grew up in Oakland California where all my life I dreamt of playing professional baseball, I played other pickup sports with my friends but baseball was definitely the sport that I gravitated to. Every summer I played on a baseball team and my number one goal in high school was to play college baseball.

I thought to myself... there must be a better solution than driving around town hoping to get lucky and find a pickup basketball game.

I gained a partial scholarship to Texas Southern in Houston and before heading out for my first semester Hurricane Katrina hit the southern gulf and Texas Southern took in many college students from the New Orleans colleges to continue their education. Resulting in taking away my scholarship.

I attended California State University in Sacramento and that's where I started my first business The Morris League, an adult baseball league. My brother Donte and I wanted to continue playing baseball and we both was majoring in business so creating a league was perfect for us. We ran that league throughout our time in college.

I came up with the idea of HoopMaps when I was playing at gym that my brother and I attend. One week the gym was closed and I was looking to get my run in, so I drove from court to court to discover empty courts or just missing people as they finished there game.

And I remember vividly that day being frustrated that I wasted my gas and my time searching for people to play with. I thought to myself... there must be a better solution than driving around town hoping to get lucky and find a pickup basketball game. On that ride home my brother and I thought of HoopMaps. An map that will tell you in real time who is playing basketball.

Before we started diving into solving this problem, I wanted to get validation. So I went around park to park asking hoopers would they use an app to find pickup games and 9/10 people said they would use it daily.

It was a simple yet tedious task of speaking to strangers at random gyms and parks and asking them about my app idea. Every Thursday through Sunday I would drive to cities such as San Francisco, San Jose, Reno, Santa Cruz and more northern California cities to collect a wide sample size of users.

I would record answers on paper and input it in an Excel spreadsheet. I would take a look at the responses and couldn't help but see the overwhelming yesses. I build up those responses as my mailing list for launch.

Take us through the process of building the product.

I felt confident that once we created this app it had the potential to be great for the adult recreational sports community, an underrated sector.

So Donte decided to take some courses on coding and learned objective C and he gained enough knowledge to build out a condensed version of our HoopMaps aka our MVP.

We started building sketches of what we wanted the app to look like, literally from the settings button to the type of features we would like to have.

Once we illustrated what we wanted it was time to build out the app, neither of us are technical so we had to search for a co-founder who could come on board and build it out. I went to several meetups in the valley and in SF in search of a CTO and I quickly realized that developers are not interested in partnering without some type of payment for there services.

Most of the developers I met were moonlighting picking up contract gigs projects. At the time I was working an entry level job and I could not afford to pay a developer to build out our app.

We ran out of options of building out the app, so we had to look inward. We figured if we want to see this done we would have to do it ourselves.

So Donte decided to take some courses on coding and learned objective C and he gained enough knowledge to build out a condensed version of our HoopMaps aka our MVP.

This was no easy task it took Donte 3 months to learn the basics of writing an app. Our initial designs of the app we had for the app had 3 main core features:

  • Maps
  • Schedule
  • Social feed

Donte knowledge was limited on building out a schedule and social component so our initial app just had a map and icon feature.

This happened to be a blessing in disguise because having one core feature allowed us to see user behavior and see how users interacted with one function.

This gave us data to iterate and create more features that users wanted to see instead of relying on our assumptions of what we thought people want to see.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We launched the app in the summer of 2016 only on iOS. We didn't expect a huge number because we knew that HoopMaps is a new concept. I collected a list of about 500 emails from friends and people I spoke with at the courts. We had just under 80 downloads in our first month.

I majored in marketing so it was my task to get people to know about us. We had a nonexistent ad budget to work with so thought press was the best cost-effective solution to get people to know about the app.

I reached out to a college friend who was a producer at CBS 13. For weeks I would send her updates on the progress of the app and how it can be a great added value to the community. I reached out to her, and after 4 months, she responded back to me and agreed to do a feature on HoopMaps.

Once we shot the feature I posted it on Facebook and tagged some of the basketball groups. Just like I was emailing the producer, I kept consistent communications with these group moderators as well as posting updates on my personal profile.

The majority of my friend group shared the news clip that it went viral.

We ended up in Techcrunch, NPRand receiving a feature-primetime ESPN SportsCenter.

All of this PR boosted our downloads. We jumped from 500 downloads to 25k through a 2-month span

The biggest lessons I learned from starting this process is how to leverage offers. Most people would think if you have no budget to buy ads then there is no way to scale your growth.

And I discovered that there are tons of outlets that will endorse your product if it can genuinely bring value to there community. It's all about articulating your story to that influencer who can then adapt your work and distribute it your target user base.

Shark Tank

The road to pitching on Shark Tank was an interesting one.

The producers of the show reached out to us back in March of 2017 responding to all the press that we were covered in and thought that we would be a good fit for the show. So we sent in a tape audition, no different than a Y Combinator video introduction.

A short 1 min video explaining who we are and what our product is all about. After we sent in the video we did no hear anything from them for months so we forgot about it. In late May, they contacted us and told us that we would get a chance to go to LA and possibly pitch our app in front of the sharks.

They flew us down to LA, and at this point, we really did not know what to expect, we have really only been operating our company with a substantial user base for only 3 months and I know from watching the show the sharks really value entrepreneurs that have companies that are generating sales. Our focus at that time was to iterate our app and continue to grow our user base, our revenue model at the time was on theoretical and has not been put into play.

But I felt that our rev model was (and still think it is) simple and very useful. Instead of running interstitials and banner ads on top of our app disrupting the flow for our users and possibly annoying them, we thought we would have ads be integrated into the flow of our app in the vantage point of rewards.

And to do that we would gamify our platform, for every growth metric we have within the app, sharing games with friends, posting screenshots on social media, checking in to so many courts a week would all lead to points that can be cashed into rewards from companies, we could see the local sandwich spot could run a promotion and get our users to stop in to Footlocker launching a new shoe and having an exclusive discount. We even talked about this in our NowThis video.

So we knew that we were in a pickle but our strategy was to prove to Mark Cuban and Alex Rodriguez that this can be the next big thing in an underserved category. We really wanted to sell them on the potential of this app if it was in the hands of people that can move the needle much faster than Donte and I could.

So the night before our pitch, Donte and I practiced answering questions we thought they were going to ask us, making sure we sharp on the obvious questions and insightful on the areas that there not informed in. For example, we know that there are 26 million Americans that actively play pickup basketball. We know that it’s close to 60 million that play worldwide, and we know the trends of the health club industry is moving towards an “ala cart” model similar to the TV content business.

When we walked through those doors and said our pitch, we felt confident but when the questions started rolling in we was like damn! they all constantly asked many questions at the same time like a high profile athlete doing a press conference. And we had to adjust and answer what we could. All the prep work didn’t suit us that well because Ifelt like we did not convey in the best way our mission with HoopMaps. Which was to establish critical mass of users and partner up with brands that would like to advertise in front of this user base.

And that was our very first investor meeting, so going to meet with angels, and VCs the format is night and day different.


Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

I recommend startups going after low hanging fruit, for us that is community centers, parks, and rec departments, it's huge morale boost once you successfully hit a growth milestone metric.

For us, at HoopMaps we are a the local-centric company. Our app is a platform meaning if we get 8 new downloads in Toronto that wouldn't be relevant to our users in New York City. The more people who download it in groups is better for us.

Our growth strategy has been through partnerships. Mutually beneficial partnerships like the ones named earlier but also businesses in other industries that share similar target market. We did a partnership with the BIG3 the professional 3 on 3 basketball upstart founded by rapper Ice Cube. Their fans could be HoopMaps users and our users could be BIG 3 fans. Through our partnership they exposed our brand at there games and in return, we told our users about there games whenever they were in there town.

I also did a partnership with US Cryotherapy the muscle recovery company. We created online content incorporating HoopMaps users using the product as well as having signage for downloads in their locations. We worked out a rev share.

We partner up with college wellness centers, and all facets of rec basketball communities to funnel them all on our platform.

One metric we measure whenever we do partnerships is incremental growth. Whether that comes from physical downloads or more companies wanting to work with us.

We choose our partnerships carefully because we always want to align our name with brands that have a similar demographic to ours, we've been approached by many companies that do not have the same demo as ours so we had to pass on those partnerships.

We have done many partnerships all had different terms. When we teamed up with The Big 3 it was an advertising trade. They were going across the country for there games and we had members in every market they visited, so we would host “Big3” pickup games and randomly select people who play in those games to win tickets to the game, merchandise and they would also bring out players to some of our pickups.

In return, they would advertise on social media and in the arena our app. We both save money, it would cost The Big 3 thousands of dollars in AdWords or targeted social media campaigns to get this specific demographic to be aware of their games. And it would cost us about the same to place banner ads inside the arena to receive more downloads.

Other partnerships are more direct. For example, when we team up with gyms, instead of buying permits on some gyms we look at there underutilized hours and offer to occupy them with users. So we would direct groups of players to these sessions and we would split the cover fee with the gym. In our case, we lose the sunk cost effect, and just have to focus on targeting groups who are available and in the gym’s case, it's money that they never had before.

For all other prospective users, we reach out via social media. I create different copy for each social media platform I'm with and a/b test my results. I also create email campaigns with content focusing on use cases of the app.


How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today our strategy is to get dense in our highest populated cities so we could build critical mass.

We recognized that adding a new user in Oakland doesn't do anything for our users in Phoenix. So our strategy is to move hyperlocal.

To accomplish this task we have to collaborate our product to people who are leaders of basketball organizations. From managers of Facebook groups, to open gym organizers all the way down to leaders of text groups we had to show them how our product would benefit the flow of their organizations.

That led us to implement a group messaging platform that would help them keep track of who is attending games, track payments and able to send mass messages across the groups. We’re in the starting blocks of this strategy now and we’re starting to see favorable results.

The good thing is we have a lead sheet of over 90,000 users so we are really looking to activate existing users and introduce them to our upgraded features. Another aspect that's helping out the growth of our app is our HoopPass open gym product.

By hosting open gyms we allow our users to come to play on our behalf and really see the essence of our platform live in the flesh. So far we have test runs in Sacramento, Trenton, Oklahoma City, and Greensboro.

We have over 90 thousand users across the United States and in 11 countries overseas.

We are looking to launch HoopPass which is curated pickup games. These basketball sessions will be based on our users playing ability, age and more. We will make it the experience very easy for our users where all they will have to do is pick from a schedule of sessions that meets their convenience. I also want to add more features to the app to have our users discover more interests about themselves and meet the other community members.

In the short long term, I see HoopMaps as a company that can optimize facilities. I see a huge opportunity for gym facilities to partner up with us for fulfilling unused inventory hours to brand awareness and operations management. With our network of users growing we would love to provide solutions to sports facilities.

In the long long term, I see HoopMaps becoming the go-to platform for all types of sports and activities. I see us helping everyone in the recreational sports vertical making their jobs easier. From a group friend to a league director this will be the common community where people discover each other.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I have learned that product market fit is vital. Every new feature we are implementing we base it off how this will enhance the end user experience. It's easy to get caught up in your own world and make assumptions I've done that before and got burned.

I would have to say a lot of our insights comes from our users, so I make it a habit to speak to a user of HoopMaps at least once a week so I can have a pulse of what they are experiencing. Sometimes I can get out of a touch of reality because I'm thinking a few versions ahead of the current one and I can lose touch of what’s important.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Trello and Slack for my team is really clutch. My team is remote so we can easily organize our weekly goals using those tools.

As far as marketing tools, I use Canva for my copy work, and spreadsheets, surveys, and voice when I run offline campaigns.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

For an off the cusp lesson on marketing and building a great product you must read these two books by Seth Godin: Tribes and Purple Cow. These books are great for conceptualizing making a product for a group of people that needs it, And I feel like that's what I've done with HoopMaps.

I also like Growth Hacking by Ryan Holliday, Shoe Dog the memoirs of Nike founder Phill Knight and The Hard Things about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. These books will relate to your journey and fill in the pieces to a lot of execution type questions.

My preferred medium of retaining information is through podcasts and some of my daily listens are Recode Decode, How I Built This, Blitz Scaling, Techish, Equity and Start-Up school by Seth Godin.

I get inspired by listening to founders speak on fireside chats and I constantly tune into Bloomberg Technology on YouTube.


Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I would have to say its an advantage to be naive. Not knowing will blind out all hesitations and you will have a faster route to reaching your goal. I also wouldn't put too much emphasis on launching, I think launch dates are overrated, I think through testing out different campaigns you can catch a solid funnel of growth and over time people will share your product to their friends.

I see a lot of startup founders chasing meetings with VCs and angels instead of focusing on validating product-market fit with their startup. A lot get caught up in scaling fast without setting foundations so you can build a sustainable company.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Yes, I'm looking for interns in the following categories:

  • HoopPass - Curated PickUp Sessions
  • City Manager - Responsible for sourcing local gyms. Point of contact for that market
  • Content Manager - Responsibilities include managing market signup list, creating content for sm group pages and more.
  • Facilitator - responsible for checking in players and ensuring the facility is clean

Social Media Manager- Responsible for posting HoopMaps and related content across our social media networks, Responsible for tracking engagement and growth within each platform.

Inquiries email: [email protected]

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

We are also looking to pilot with some gyms and basketball organizations on some beta products we have.