Stars aligning for Cedar Rapids sports web app RecBob in 2013

Next challenge is growing community, app's buzz

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Its been through some changes, but a Cedar Rapids tech startup hatched in 2011 is getting positive signals as it plans its first big marketing push this year.

On Monday RecBob was named one of 10 startup concepts to watch in 2013 by Social Driver, a Washington, D.C.-based digital agency. It's aggressively competing to be in the Nike+ Startup Accelerator, an intensive three-month program for startups in the sports technology field.

RecBob is a web app for recreational sports team communication and coordination that helps with finding substitute players to fill team vacancies, keeping track of equipment and getting team fees paid, among other tasks.

John Schnipkoweit, a kickballer and volleyballer, is the CEO and "quarterback" of RecBob. He introduced the idea at Startup Weekend Iowa City that evolved into RecBob, and now co-owns the company with three members of the original seven-member 2011 Startup Weekend Iowa City team Nick Silhacek, Chris Quartier and Alex Frazier.

The alpha version of the app was released at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, in March 2012, and the official launch was at the October 2012 DEMO tech show in Silicon Valley. RecBob has presented at a number of business pitch competitions, including the 2011 Innovation Expo in Coralville, where it won the "pitch-off."

The team has been through multiple iterations of the RecBob concept. By now, Schnipkoweit said, "I feel like I've launched 10 different things."

Getting enough members of individual teams to sign up on RecBob to maximize benefits to the team has been one of the challenges. The initial focus was on making it easy for team members to connect with RecBob on Facebook, as many Facebook members had become wary of unfamiliar apps.

"They would see that 'Facebook connect' button and just close the window because their trust had been violated so many times," Schnipkoweit said.

Most members of the RecBob community opt to use its automated email distribution service.

About 60 sports teams tested the app last summer. Today it's used by about 200 teams, ranging from 4-member volleyball teams to a 75-member hockey team.

The RecBob team has been rolling out new features at the pace of about 1 every 10 days in response to user feedback, Schnipkoweit said.

One feature, for example, will make it easy for team members to sign up just by responding to a text message. Another feature is a "discovery tool" that allows users to look for players in their area.

RecBob expects to add a packaged mobile app that will be offered through online app stores. Its features would help fans track team statistics and provide rewards to users.

Sports teams that have embraced RecBob early include volleyball, kickball, volleyball, bowling and Ultimate Frisbee teams. The kinds of sports teams that could use RecBob is broad, but the company is focused on the recreational player. That's partly because recreational leagues don't tend to have much administrative support.

"I look at rec sports as entertainment," Schnipkoweit said.

RecBob has been meeting with investors to secure a new round of seed financing. The company is still in a developmental pre-revenue stage, but has received good feedback for investors who like its "long game," Schnipkoweit said.

Potential investors seem to agree that RecBob provides a solution to a valid problem in the market, he said.

Even at this early stage, RecBob is trying to build a corporate culture that will mesh with its intended audience. Staffers have titles such as commissioner of code, social playmaker and color commentator.

The team redecorated its office in the Vault co-working at 222 Third St. SE to create a more sporting, active mood.

The founders have all made some sacrifices to pursue the startup life. One quit his job at Rockwell Collins and sold his car. Another lives with parents in an outlying town and does a long commute.

One of RecBob's next big challenges will be to attract a user community large enough to generate buzz, and eventually capture revenue streams such as advertising.

While most RecBob users aren't in the Corridor or Des Moines, Schnipkoweit said RecBob will pursue such Iowa markets, partly because it is interested in finding better ways to engage players who aren't early adopters of new web apps. He said the company will try to engage users through mainstream media as well as digital media. 

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