Chapter 1: Before Matt and I met

10 years ago, in the Fall of 2019, my whole world was literally changed. At 19 years old, I woke up on the campus of a college that is thousands of miles away, across the ocean, from my home in Rwanda. Imagine growing up in a place your whole life. Having family and a lot of friends in that place. Then one day, life happens and you find yourself in a foreign country. Imagine that in this new foreign country, on top of not having any family, friends, and not knowing any other person there, you also barely speak their language. How would you make friends?

If you are like most people, you are wondering why one would choose to uproot their whole life in the first place. I left the place I grew up my whole life to go to college in southern California where I had a full scholarship to study Electrical and Computer Engineering. I knew it was blessing and was grateful for the opportunity. What I did not know, however, was that culture-shock was not the only hard thing this new chapter of my life had in store for me. I had no idea how hard it was going to be to make new friends on the basketball court as I had always done back home in Rwanda.

Before I moved to the U.S, I had met most of my greatest friends playing basketball at local outdoor courts. I fell in love with the game of basketball at age 12 in high school back home in Rwanda. I went to a strict boarding high school for 6 years and the school’s basketballs would get put away after 5 pm until the next day at 3 pm for us to study. I was so in love with the game that, any day of the week, I would have an orange I would have picked off the school’s trees, for which I got in so much trouble multiple times, and would shoot it in the hoop any time I passed by one or in anything that resembled a hoop (trash cans being my favorites) to practice my shot. When school was out, every day at 9 am and then again at 5 pm, unless it was raining, my friends would religiously show up at my house with a basketball and ask me if I was ready to go play (we did not have cell phones to text each other).

Making friends at the basketball court in college was way harder than I anticipated because it was almost impossible to be find anyone else at the court. Some students lived on campus and some lived off campus. Some students had part time jobs or labs they would go to after their regular classes. To make matters worse, not only did I have my plate full with my school work as a full-time Engineering student, but I also worked part-time, 20 hours every week, washing dishes in the school cafeteria to make ends meet. It also turned out that most of the other students who went to my school either lived locally or had cars. So, on weekends, the majority of them would go visit their friends and family or go enjoy the beautiful beaches of Los Angeles and San Diego. Even though it hurt, I wasn’t surprised that no other students would be at the basketball court during the few hours in the middle of the day I wouldn’t have class or after 10pm when I would be getting off my cafeteria job or even on the weekends. Needless to say, I had a lot of lonely nights lit by court-side lights and sunny days when I would be shooting around on the basketball court hoping that those days would be the days I would make some new friends on the basketball court as I had always done growing up in Rwanda.

As an international student graduating from college, therefore needing visa sponsorship to be hirable, I could not afford the luxury of being picky with what city or state I was going to accept job offers from. My mindset was that I was going to take the first job offer regardless of where it was, if by grace I was offered a job. Having spent 4 years going to school in California, I had managed to make a few friends. As if fate is a comedian, the first and only job offer I received after graduating from college was in Nashua, New Hampshire. I didn’t even know where that was until I looked it up on the map. When I moved to Nashua, I found out that it was a pretty small town with a tight community where the majority of people there went to high school together at either of the only 2 high schools in the city. Consequently, I had to relieve the same pain of trying to meet people on a basketball court in a place where I knew no other person. On sunny days, I would go to work from 9 to 5, rush home, get changed up, pick up my basketball and show up to one of courts nearby hoping to find other people playing. Unfortunately, most of the time I would be a those courts alone shooting around by myself.

Chapter 2: After Matt and I met

One summer day, the company I worked for had an outdoor summer function. One of my favorite activities that day, apart from the barbecue and music, was the 3-on-3 pickup basketball games that were going on on the half-court basketball court by the parking lot where the party was. That’s where Matt and I met. Little did I know that there was another person who not only understood and sympathized with my struggle to meet people on a basketball court, but also could relate to my story in his own way. Matt and I found that we shared a deep love for pickup basketball. We both always had a dream to play in the NBA. And, like many, though we both realized that playing in the NBA isn’t for everyone, we both still love playing the game of basketball. As proof of our love for the game of basketball, Matt coaches basketball after work and I had a huge basketball tattooed on my back when I first moved to Nashua.

Matt and I both wished we could just travel playing basketball against other players all over the world. More than anything though, Matt and I both strongly believe that it should be simple and easy to meet other people to play pickup basketball with. We believe that, basketball being one of most popular sports in the world, regardless of where one pickup basketball enthusiasts finds themselves on the globe, there is a high chance that they are surrounded by other people who would also love to play basketball with them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any solution that easily and simply connected the pickup basketball community. Matt and I looked for and downloaded multiple apps that claimed to allow users to find basketball courts near them and link them up with other basketball enthusiasts. But after creating multiple accounts, entering every detail of our lives, from birthday to shoe size, we still couldn’t find something that was simple, easy to use, and just worked.

On the bright side, we understood, first hand, how disappointing it is to a user to wait for an app to download to find out that the only way to be able to know what courts are near them or whether there is any another person they can play with is to give out all of their personal information by creating an account they don’t even really need for the app to work. We also learned, the hard way, how frustrating it is to a user to not know what to do with with a complicated user interface. Eventually, frustration drove us to stop expecting someone else to create the solution we were looking for. Our combined knowledge in business and engineering gave us the confidence to raise up to the challenge ourselves and solve our own problem. After finding out that other people had the same problem through user interviews and surveys, we set out to build a simple and easy to use app that lets our users find outdoor basketball courts near them and makes it straightforward to connect with other pickup basketball players near them.

What it does

The BRIM Basketball mobile app revolutionizes how basketball enthusiasts connect and interact with the basketball world around them. It is built with the end user in mind and a strong belief that finding basketball courts near you and connecting with other people to play with ought to be simple, easy, and straightforward.

Imagine: it is a beautiful sunny day, you want to go out and play, but…

  • Your friends are busy or not around.
  • You are in an unfamiliar area.
  • You have never played before.

No more frustration

  • Open the BRIM Basketball mobile app, find a court near you and go out to play
    • The app features over 1.6K outdoor courts across the U.S and Canada
    • Courts are ordered by how far they are from the user for their convenience
    • At a glance, the user knows how far the court is from them and if there is anyone else playing there
    • Directions to the court are just one click away
  • No long prompts, challenges or a gazillion buttons to click through. BRIM Basketball mobile app home page

Meet people ready to play: Alert local players around you with the push of a button and plan on meeting up at a court BRIM Basketball mobile app chat room

People are just a notification away: Get on-demand notifications when there are people playing or organizing a game near you BRIM Basketball mobile app push notification

How we built it

The BRIM Basketball mobile app is built with ♥ in react-native, Node/Express and MongoDB. We used react-native on the front-end for faster development for both iOS and Android. The 1.6K+ basketball courts across 100 cities in the U.S and Canada are stored by their geolocation attributes in a MongoDB database hosted in mLab (soon to be migrated into MongoDB Atlas). The courts make it to the front-end through our Node and Express API that uses the mongojs npm package to query our database. We use for real-time time communication between the front and the back ends.

Challenges we ran into

One of our biggest challenges was to come up with a simple and easy to use user interface. Our goal was to give our users all the information they needed as soon as the app loaded without requiring them to click anything or do anything else. Through user surveys and from first hand experience, we learned from that users don’t enjoy learning how to use an application. Users just want something they already know how to use. Then we asked myself: "What's the one app that almost every one of our target audience uses today?" The answer was Instagram. So, we set out to create a similar user interface with all the necessary information available at our users’ fingertips.

Another big challenge we ran into was to get basketball courts information. Since we wanted our users to always know what courts were around them, no matter where they were, we realized that we were going to have to make multiple calls to whatever API we were going to use. Every time a user’s location changed, we were going to have to make an API call to get new courts near them. We first tried the Foursquare API which turned out to have a low free quota. We then tried the Google Places API whose free quota is a bit more generous. However, we noticed that we’d go over the Google Places API free quota anyway, if we kept making a new API call every time a user moved. Then, we started asking if we really needed to have all the courts around the world for our app to be useful. Relying on other APIs would have been nice because it would have meant less complex infrastructure for us. On the flip side, however, it also meant being at the mercy of these third party APIs and not having control of our own data. As a result, we started looking for a more efficient way. Through research, we made a list of the top 100 North American cities with the most outdoor basketball courts and seeded our MongoDB database with information about 20 courts in each city. To reduce the frequency of the calls we make to our API for new courts, we make new calls to our API only when the user has moved passed the mile radius perimeter around the initial request for courts near them. As long as the user is still in the same mile radius perimeter, when they move from one location to another, to keep showing them courts near them and ordered by how far they are from them, we just update the state of our app with the same courts re-ordered by how far they are to the user's new location without having to make any more API calls.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

  • Starting a BRIM Basketball clothing brand
  • The excitement we get from random potential users we share our app with

What we learned

  • Putting users first pays off. It is rewarding to have users comment on how easy and straightforward the app is to use. It validates the design decision we made at the beginning of focusing on a simple and easy to use interface.

What's next for BRIM Basketball Mobile App

  • Test our value proposition in the Boston area (where Matt and I live)
    • Add more courts in the Boston area
    • Replace stock images of courts in the Boston area by real court images
    • Public release of the app by 06/20
    • Add personalized advanced features
    • Gamifying the experience for our users
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