Pitchbooking enters the Premier League of sports apps

4 Mar 2019

From left: Founders Chris McCann, Shea O’Hagan and Fearghal Campbell. Image: Pitchbooking

Our Start-up of the Week is Belfast- and Edinburgh-based Pitchbooking, which has developed a platform that provides greater access to sports facilities for the public.

“Pitchbooking is a game of two halves: an online platform that gives the public greater access to sports facilities while streamlining the facility owner’s internal processes,” explained Pitchbooking CEO Shea O’Hagan.

“It sounds simple, but we’ve found that it has a huge impact on increasing participation in sport and leading to more active communities.”

‘We want Pitchbooking to be the go-to place for booking all sports facilities’

In recent weeks we reported how Pitchbooking secured £250,000 in a funding round that will boot it into the Premier League of sports facility management. The investment round was led by local investment firm Aurient Ltd and backed by Techstart Ventures and Co-Fund NI, managed by Clarendon Fund Managers.

Based in the Ormeau Baths in Belfast as well as CodeBase in Edinburgh, Pitchbooking launched last year with Oxford City Council as its first major customer. A recent partnership with Goals Soccer Centres has resulted in Pitchbooking offering services in more than 50 locations across the UK.

The market

“We’re primarily looking to work with local council facilities and private facility owners,” O’Hagan explained.

“Whether that be cricket pitches, your local 4G soccer pitch, basketball courts or bowling greens, we are able to cover a multitude of sports facilities and want to help them streamline their processes.

“We estimate the market available to us in the UK to total over £620m, with a further £4bn in western Europe alone.”

The team

Before Pitchbooking, O’Hagan completed a doctorate in physics at the University of Oxford. He has experience working as product manager with energy firm Habitat. While at university he was captain of his college team, describing himself as a tenacious winger both on the field and off it – and that’s when he experienced the problem of trying to book a pitch. It turns out there was one about 250 metres away from where he was living but nobody knew about it.

Fearghal Campbell is the chief commercial officer. He has an undergraduate degree in law and a master’s in software development from Queen’s University Belfast. He has worked at a number of start-ups in the sports tech sector previously. He’s been around the five-a-side circuit in Belfast and used to have to call around all venues on a weekly basis until he got a free slot. He describes himself as a Jack of all sports, master of none.

Chris McCann is the chief technology offficer and has a master’s in software development. He has a range of experience working with small start-ups and large companies such as Microsoft and IBM. He has also toured the Belfast five-a-side scene, and plays (turns up) as a “no-nonsense centre-back” for the Queens Grads FC. He’s still waiting on the scouts to call him up.

Rory McMeekin is the lead developer at Pitchbooking. He gained entrepreneurial experience before joining Pitchbooking, having co-founded a multi-client digital agency out of university. He has received the WWDC scholarship (Apple software) on two separate occasions.

“We like to think of Rory as our ‘trequartista’ – flair, vision and creativity by the bucketful,” said O’Hagan.

The technology

Previously, the process for booking a suitable sports venue meant unanswered phone calls, paper forms to complete and outdated payment methods.

“Meanwhile, the facility managers were often caught in a headache of enquiries, invoices, double-bookings and cancellations,” said O’Hagan.

These problems were experienced first-hand by the founding team – O’Hagan, Campbell and McCann – through their lifelong involvement in local and community sport.

“With Pitchbooking, players can search from hundreds of local facilities across the UK and complete their booking and payment in under 60 seconds,” O’Hagan explained. “Facility managers gain instant exposure to a wide sporting public and the use of the simple, fully automated booking platform.”

The ultimate goal

O’Hagan continued: “We want Pitchbooking to be the go-to place for booking all sports facilities. We believe that by making it easier to access sports facilities, it will lead to increased participation, higher utilisation and revenues for facility owners, and ultimately more people being active across the UK.

“We’ve already seen compelling demonstrations of this with some facilities seeing an increase in bookings of over 50pc. It just shows how transformative and simple and effective [a] booking system can be.”

The platform has already facilitated more than 15,000 sport sessions for members of the public.

In terms of the £250,000 funding round, O’Hagan said that the new capital raised will be used to support Pitchbooking’s growth ambitions in the UK and further afield.

Challenges to tackle

“For us, the biggest problem was dealing with the myriad of facility configurations requested by the venue owners we spoke to,” O’Hagan said. “We had to ensure that we cater to all needs, whilst also keeping the product as simple as possible. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved so far and the increased bookings we’ve seen. But we understand it’s a constant work in progress so we’re continuing to improve and evolve what we offer.”

O’Hagan said that the company has received incredible support from the start-up scenes in Northern Ireland and Scotland. “We’ve been on the Propel programme and are about to start the Ignite programme, and we’re also residents in the co-working space, CodeBase, in Edinburgh.

“We’ve received tons of incredible advice from a whole bunch of people, and we try to give back where we can. It’s a really exciting space to be in; everybody’s up for pitching in and people are enthusiastic about each other’s ideas.”

His advice for fellow founders is succinct and to the point: “If you have a product, get it out there sooner rather than later. Don’t worry about your competition; if you think you have a better way of doing something, then it will show.

“Get involved in an incubator/accelerator or co-working space. There’s a bunch of helpful people out there; be a part of the community.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years