Jon Halpern and Brian Gross met at Shady Side Elementary School when they were 6 years old, brought together by the common interest of tossing around a baseball at recess.
Fifteen years later that love of the game has morphed into a thriving Internet business facilitating the management of athletic teams and leagues across the country.
AthleteTrax, headquartered on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill and founded by Halpern and Gross, provides a platform for players, parents, coaches and administrators to effectively communicate and manage all aspects of their teams and leagues.
The business began as a class project for Halpern when he was a sophomore at George Washington University in 2012. While home on winter break, Halpern enlisted the help of his buddy Gross, who was taking some time off from his studies.
“I said to Brian, ‘I think you can learn how to code,’ ” Halpern recalled. “‘I think you should be our technical person.’ At the time, he didn’t have a technical background.”
Although he wasn’t sure he was interested at first, Gross was intrigued by the proposition and ultimately proved to be up to the challenge.
“Jon sent me the project, and I ended up reading his entire business plan,” Gross said. “It was a natural fit from day one.”
For a year and a half, Gross dedicated himself to learning code, according to Halpern.
“He found his passion,” Halpern said.
AthleteTrax was launched over a year ago, with Halpern as its CEO and Gross serving as its chief information officer. Soon after, recent University of Pittsburgh grad Bryan Greene came on board as the company’s director of customer experience.
The atmosphere of the AthleteTrax business calls to mind scenes from “The Social Network,” the 2010 film depicting Facebook in its infancy: three guys in their early 20s, dressed comfortably, hanging out in an office decorated solely with a fraternity banner. They throw around high-tech terms and business strategies with the ease of a Silicon Valley insider.
“It’s been a really fun process,” said Gross. “I think there’s a ton of potential.”
The growth, so far, has been noteworthy, said Halpern, pointing out that more than 1,000 groups are using the platform, from California to Florida.
Primarily used to manage teams and leagues for children and teens, the platform facilitates the scheduling of games; communication between players, coaches and families; payment and collection of fees; fundraising; access to team discounts on uniforms and equipment; and performance tracking.
While AthleteTrax is a new venture, Halpern and Gross have been entrepreneurs for years.
“Brian and I ran a car-wash venture for two summers at Green Oaks Country Club,” Halpern said. “We detailed members’ cars on weekends. It was a fun and lucrative business for the summer.”
Once they decided to move forward with AthleteTrax, Halpern and Gross got a push in 2013 from AlphaLab, a local Pittsburgh startup accelerator. AlphaLab chose AthleteTrax as one of nine companies out of a pool of 110 applicants and provided it with a small investment to help get the company going, allowing it to share space with the eight other winning companies.
Now, just one year later, AthleteTrax has more than 13,000 individual users and serves a range of sports teams from baseball and basketball to badminton and paintball.
The company focuses on “guerilla marketing,” Halpern said, finding ways to plug itself on social media and blogging and through email outreach.
Also on staff — but part time — are Darnell Dinkins, who played football for Pitt and for the New Orleans Saints for nine years, and Anthony Griggs, who played for the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles and worked for 15 years for the Steelers.
“They help us spread the word,” Halpern said of the two athletes.
While there are other companies providing similar services, Halpern said the market is so large, they really don’t run into their competitors.
“The market is enormous in the United States, and we haven’t even tapped into the international market,” he said.
He sees an unlimited potential for growth.
“Parents are willing to pay for their kids to be involved in sports, and it replenishes every single year,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.