The following story originally appeared on the W&M Alumni Magazine website. – Ed.
If you can schedule rides using an app, why not tennis games? That was the thinking behind creation of a platform launched in 2017 by Paul Stratta ’85 and his then-teenage daughter, Manuka, with assistance from tennis-loving fellow William & Mary alumni Ann Searle Horowitz ’85 and Robert Weissman ’86.
The idea for the iPlayMe2 app arose from Stratta’s frustration about trying to find tennis partners and set up games. The app allows players to schedule singles or doubles games with similarly skilled opponents, according to their availability and in their chosen location. They can also keep score and share rankings. As of early January, 6,000 people in 28 countries were using iPlayMe2, with the most players concentrated in the United States, Belgium, France and Germany.
“I was living in Brussels and working in London,” says Stratta, a sporting goods executive who traveled back and forth by the Eurostar high-speed rail in the early 2010s. “I had two sets of friends in two worlds. I found it impossible to manage my tennis activity. I said there’s got to be an easy solution out there, but little did I know there was nothing that was really helpful.”
That got him thinking: How hard could it be to build his own solution? After casually mulling the concept for a few years, Stratta began giving it serious consideration in 2015, when he was in between jobs.
“I had broken my leg while playing tennis — that can happen if you step on a ball and your ankle buckles — and I was counting the days until I could get back on the courts,” he says. “That was the kind of downtime that we all need sometimes to pause and smell the roses, and I started fleshing this idea out in my head.”
He brought in longtime W&M friends Horowitz and Weissman as advisors, along with other friends and business acquaintances. A New York City native, Stratta is based in Belgium and divides his time between Brussels and New York; Horowitz and Weissman both live just outside New York City.
All three were involved in athletics as students at William & Mary. Horowitz was a member of the Women’s Swimming team and of Chi Omega sorority, and she is now a YMCA swim coach. Stratta and Weissman played intramural sports and were members of Pi Kappa Alpha. Weissman also participated in the W&M Swim Club.
“The vision that Ann and Rob really understood well when we started talking was it should be as easy to schedule one’s tennis as it is to call an Uber or to order a pizza online,” says Stratta, who has a bachelor of business administration degree from William & Mary and an M.B.A. from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It should be just a tap, swipe and a click.”
The alumni trio realized other people felt the same way about wanting to practice and play their favorite sport more easily and more often, and they believed this could be done using technology.
“We started to imagine what this could be, and we set about trying to build it,” Stratta says.
Horowitz, who majored in French and minored in sociology at William & Mary, had 18 years of experience working in advertising agencies in New York and Paris.
“I’m a copywriter, but I write all kinds of other things as well, so Paul got me involved in the marketing and writing,” says Horowitz, who is also author of the middle-grade fantasy novel “Trident,” which was named one of the quarterfinalists in the 2021 Publishers Weekly BookLife Prize Fiction Contest. She is fluent in French, which helped the startup gain an international foothold.
“The French love their tennis,” Stratta says. “In the South of France, you can play outside all year, so we wanted to make sure we had great French language copywriting as well.”
Like Stratta, Weissman has a bachelor of business administration degree from William & Mary, but his career has been in banking and investments. In addition to his role as a commercial advisor for iPlayMe2, he is head of foreign exchange for Chicago-based RCM Alternatives, a company that pairs investors with commodities-based alternative investments through mutual funds, managed accounts and private funds. He is also the father of Avery Weissman ’22, a senior studying marketing at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business.
“Rob’s involvement is more on the commercial side,” Stratta says. “He also plays tennis and is quite passionate about it. He belongs to a club on Long Island and he plays paddle and platform tennis, other racquet sports that I didn’t really know much about.”
Manuka Stratta, also an avid tennis player, brought a young person’s perspective to the startup, her father says. “She was part of a generation that grew up with a smartphone in their hands.”
Developing an app that makes it easy for people to play sports turned out to be harder than Stratta expected, an experience he likened to buying a car without knowing how to drive.
“Most of these types of apps and IT solutions are started by people already in the technical field,” he says. “It’s easier to get started if you can program something yourself. I didn’t have the background to know if what we were building was sustainably built.”
On the other hand, someone with technical expertise might not understand how to build a business that’s customer friendly.
“Since earning my degrees, I’ve worked mostly across the sporting goods business,” Stratta says. “I understand the business of selling and marketing sports products.”
Aside from the technical challenges, Stratta struggled to keep a team together with limited resources to pay people while getting iPlayMe2 off the ground.
“And then we threw in COVID-19, too,” Horowitz adds.
“In some ways, it froze us,” Stratta says. “We were locked down all over the world for three or four months in the spring of 2020.”
There was a silver lining, however: The pandemic caused people to seek out activities that could be done outdoors or at a distance from others.
“Tennis around the world has boomed in the last 18 months — you can talk to any club in practically every country that I’ve connected with and they’ll agree,” Stratta says. “More people are working from home, so they can play in the morning or on their lunch hour.”
Stratta estimates that within five years, there could be millions of people using the app for a variety of sports.
“It’s racquet sports for now,” Stratta says, “but the technology is built to accommodate any sport we want to integrate.”
While the app is free to individual players, clubs pay a fee to use the service for organizing tournaments and clinics. As an incentive, the clubs receive credits when they sign on. Players earn credits — or “balls” — by inviting friends and acquaintances to try iPlayMe2. They can then use these balls to book lessons and tournaments and upgrade to higher levels of membership.
As the app adds new players and clubs, the startup is focused on raising additional capital to fuel the growth and expand its team, which currently comprises a dozen contractors in various countries who help navigate the tennis environment in each location.
“That’s the catch 22 that every startup has — it’s expensive to grow, but if you don’t grow, you sink to the bottom of the ocean,” Stratta says. “You’re creating a better, bigger boat as you sail, but to do it sustainably, you need to build a proper sailboat.”
Stratta’s determination, perseverance and positive attitude have been crucial to the app’s success thus far, Horowitz says.
“From the perspective of someone working on the product with and for Paul, he has been 100% in on this journey and no one ever doubted his passion or that he was going to see this through to the end,” she says. “That’s a great feeling when you come into something like this. He will often end an email report with ‘onwards and upwards.’ That’s the way he lives his life and that’s the way he leads the team.”
Stratta has also resolved for himself the problem of scheduling time on the courts.
“I’ve played with more than 100 ‘new to me’ individuals over these last 15 months, all through the app,” he says, “which is quite a good way to make friends and acquaintances.”
Editor’s note: Paul Stratta says he would love to hear from fellow Tribe tennis players, “whether they’re good or still trying to be.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.