When ZOGOtennis cofounders David Berman and Eliot Jenkins were undergraduates at the University of Chicago, they met twice a week on the campus tennis courts to play a match. Both avid tennis players, the structure of the tennis community at their school kept them connected to the sport and actively playing. But when they graduated and eventually accepted jobs in New York City it didn’t come as easily.

“It takes longer to set up a game than to actually play it,” said David. Even in one of the most bustling cities in the world, he struggled to find a network of people he could call on to play with regularly. And beyond that, it was nearly impossible to find a time that worked for both players.

“It just didn’t need to be that hard,” he said. So they made a decision. They’d build an app that solves these problems for tennis players, and they set to work creating ZOGOtennis.

Why tennis needs technology

As the men dug in to the problem further to validate the idea, the numbers they uncovered were staggering. According to a Tennis Industry Association poll, there are 13 million people in the U.S. alone who consider themselves tennis players but haven’t played in the past year. And of those 13 million, more than 4 million said they haven’t played for the sole reason that they have no one to play with.

ZOGOtennis removes this hurdle. A mobile app that connects tennis players and facilitates the scheduling of tennis matches, ZOGOtennis frees athletes from the burden of having to manually find a tennis partner. It smartly matches athletes with similarly-skilled partners and handles all of the details around identifying a mutually workable time and calendaring the match. The app even fosters community by letting people associate with a home court.

“If the tens of thousands of people who play in every city across the country could quickly and easily organize games, then tennis players could start worrying more about their backhand instead of worrying about their next partner,” said Eliot. “Simply put, ZOGOtennis enables people to play tennis. And that’s huge for people who love the sport.”

The challenges of building chat, and how they were led to Layer

From the start Eliot and David believed firmly that ZOGOtennis was, at its core, a communications service. It provides a way to connect people around a shared interest. So they designed chat into their earliest version of the app as a core feature. But after beginning development of the app and learning firsthand how difficult it is to build a communications stack and solve all of the complexities required to create a great communications experience for their users, they made the difficult call to leave it out in their first version.

“Of every part of the app’s development, the chat component was by far the most technologically complex and time-intensive,” said Eliot. “The communications piece delayed our development substantially, so despite knowing how important it was, we left it out and explored other options in an effort to ship an MVP. But all the while I had this digging feeling that ZOGOtennis wasn’t complete without chat.”

They tried a few different ways to solve the problem of letting people connect. The first version of ZOGOtennis used phone numbers to connect people. In the onboarding flow the app required users add their phone number as a means of allowing people to connect directly should they need to discuss a tennis match after it was scheduled in the app.

“There are always things that need to be discussed leading up to and after the match,” said Eliot. “I’m running late, I switched courts because the one we were going to use is occupied, I need to cancel, let’s play again, these sorts of things.”

Despite the first version of the app being a success and quickly spreading to thousands of players and enabling lots of matches, the request for phone numbers triggered a dramatic dropoff in signups. The data was clear: people felt trepidation about sharing their phone numbers with strangers.

Next they added a comments section to help people be a bit more descriptive in scheduling a match, but matched partners couldn’t respond to the comment, so they saw discomfort among their users.

“We sort of went back to the drawing board at the point,” said Eliot. “And rather than think about alternate ways to address the need of letting people connect in the context of their games, we thought about the single best way to do it. Building the best in-app chat experience we could became our priority. At this point we had all of the data we needed to see this was the best path forward.”

Native, contextual communications as a core component

The team went to work seeking a service to power its communications. After months of testing, they now had a clear checklist. The service must be powerful out of the box, easy to set up and use and both scalable and reliable. But most important was something only Layer could offer: it must give them native, in-app, IP-based communications that would allow ZOGOtennis users to communicate within the context of a match.

“We looked at everything, and Layer was the only service that would meet our needs,” said Eliot. “Layer gives us chat that’s centered around our content. Tennis and games. Lots of other services give you person-to-person chat, but we knew how much better the experience of ZOGOtennis could be with Layer. You get an invite to play on Saturday in Central Park, and you can start chatting directly in the invite.”

“Communications is Layer’s core competency,” said Eliot. “We went with Layer because there’s nothing else like it and it just works. Layer’s been one of our most important partners.”

Download ZOGOtennis in the iOS App Store now.