Startup from Idea to Success: Plei Story
Sebastian Duque, Co-founder & CEO at Plei, Inc
In this story, Sebastian Duque tells about his amazing seven-years-long journey from mobile app idea to business that dominates its niche in the US market. The Cyfrania team has been lucky to be a part of this journey from the beginning till now as a software development partner, and we are happy to take this moment to celebrate his success and our partnership.
Plei is a mobile app that enables amateur soccer players to find partners, book a nearby soccer field and join a pick-up game in just 2 clicks.
Plei users can invite friends, chat with other players, find nearby soccer facilities, view open pick-up games with all the details (like game instructions, facility address, where to park, where to find the other players, etc.), and pay for a field booking.
Plei shares the same backend with Plei System, which is a web-based app for soccer field managers that allows them to manage reservations and process payments.
Now Plei has 100k+ users and nearly 100+ partner soccer facilities in 14 US cities (in 11 states).
Ideas Inspired by Difficulties of People
Please describe what Plei is today, just in a couple of words.
Plei today is just so many things! To put it simply, our mission is to enable anyone to play soccer anytime they want as easy as ordering an Uber drive. We accomplished that through a mobile app, that’s Plei. And we also have a management system for soccer facilities that makes their life easier, that’s the Plei System.
The idea you initially came to us with was a bit different. It didn’t include the Plei System, only the app for soccer players. How have you seen this opportunity of serving soccer field facilities too?
I think that in any business it’s good to talk to potential customers. Because sometimes we may think we have a really good idea, but the customers and the market hold a different view. And at the end of the day, the market is what’s going to tell you if your idea is good or not.
I talked to a lot of different customers and realized that soccer field managers needed a better way to manage their business. They were doing things in pen and paper and using solutions that were not specific to their industry. So, we decided to build a system that will make their life easier. Moreover, it was going to give us access to field inventory, so that we know in real time which soccer fields are booked and which ones are available. Based on that, we know where to put pick-up games on the Plei app to help managers fill up fields that are going to be unused.
So, the idea just came through talking to a lot of different customers.
Do you remember your first client among soccer field facilities? Are they still your client?
Yes, they are. Actually, the whole story is that the first business we approached became our client, then we lost them, but they came back eventually. When we were just starting, the app wasn’t perfect technically, so they decided not to work with us anymore. But once we improved the technology and gained more users, they changed their mind.
Customer Experience as an Obsession
You are the person in your team who communicates with clients. How do you understand what they want?
That’s a good question. I talk a lot with soccer facility managers, and I just try to understand what their needs are, and how we can make their life easier while generating more revenue for them.
As for soccer players, we communicate with them a lot too. The first step was to enable them to play soccer any time they want and to connect them with others. Now, the next step is to make their experience better. How can we connect people with similar skill levels? How can we make sure that people are always showing up on time? Sometimes players get late to the game, and it’s not nice. Players only have one hour to play, and if two or three people show up late, that experience isn’t so good. So, we have to solve this problem as the next step.
You’re so focused on your clients. You said you seek to increase the revenue of your facility manager clients. It’s really striking.
Yes, we’re very obsessed with the customer experience and customer satisfaction. I think that in any business you should always put the customer first. And we want anybody that interacts with Plei to feel good about it, and their experience to be a joy.
Aggressive Expansion That’s Really Thoughtful
How do you promote Plei?
There are different ways. We do advertising on Facebook and Instagram. We have a referral program where players receive some credits if they refer their friends. We also create a lot of content. For example, we film our games, make videos of them, and promote those videos. And we do a lot of marketing and branding, all those things.
Does this approach work with facility managers?
No. Well, sometimes. Before I used to reach out to lots of facilities, and I still do it. But now a lot of facilities reach out to us, which I think is pretty cool. But mostly, as for facilities, it’s an outreach approach, like calling managers, setting up Zoom calls, or visiting them. Sometimes we fly to other cities to meet with them.
As we know, your mission now is to spread Plei all around the world. Can you share your plans for achieving this? Have you encountered any unexpected challenges so far?
Yes, for sure. Right now we are still only in the United States, but it’s such a big country, there is so much to do. Right now we’re preparing to launch in New York. That’s a really big market, and it’s exciting to go there.
In each city we go into, it’s a little different because they have their own culture, and the way they do things is a little different. So, it’s always interesting to go into a new city, we always learn a lot. Once we launch internationally, there’s going to be some things that we need to adjust like the currency and the language, just little things. But overall, we found a model that really works, across every city. So, now it’s just about replicating it over and over again, while keeping the same customer satisfaction. We want to make sure that players always have the best experience, whether we’re having one game a day or a thousand games a day.
Sometimes companies make the mistake of growing too fast. It’s like they’re saying “Hey, look at me, I’m growing so fast, I’m here, I’m here”. They do it to show off and don’t really care too much about the customer experience. I think we should do the opposite. Our goal for Plei is to be around for 100, 200, 300 years. We want it to be around forever, so there is no rush. We’re going to get there for sure, and we’re growing really fast right now. But we should only grow relative to how much we can handle it.
I think in this way we build a business that is more sustainable. And that’s good because we never really got an investment in the company. We invested our own money. We wanted to build a business first and then to grow without depending on investments to survive like a lot of other tech startups.
You mentioned in your other interview that you plan to step overseas in 2022. What prevented you from doing that?
I think there was still so much to grow in the United States that we said “Let’s just keep dominating in the United States”. But I think maybe at the end of this year we will be ready to go to Europe, which is where we want to go first. Well, maybe first we’re going to go to Canada because it’s right there. But as for stepping overseas, yes, we want to go to Europe probably by the end of 2023.
Are you satisfied with the way your business is growing?
Yes, definitely I feel very happy and very grateful. Sometimes I am walking in the street with a Plei shirt on, and somebody comes up to me and says something like “Oh my God, I use the Plei app”. It’s so cool, and that’s happening more and more often. It’s pretty crazy. But at the same time, that’s always a very humbling experience. Because the company’s gotten pretty big, but I still remember when there were zero users. Those were fun times, though.
So, I feel very grateful, for sure, but I’m not fully satisfied, just yet. We still have so much to grow. I feel like we’re just getting started. We still have to go to Europe, take over Berlin, and London, and Paris, and Stockholm and all other places. We are just getting started.
How do you find and pick ideas for your business? Which ideas do you consider and which ones do you reject?
That’s a good question. I have the best partner in the world, it’s my brother. It makes things so much easier. When I or he has an idea, we talk about it and try to decide what the best strategy is. But our ideas are always about the same, they are all about how we can grow further. How can we keep growing, and growing, and growing, while maintaining, again, the same level of customer service and also not overloading the company? We don’t want players to feel any stress. We want their life to be easy.
So, the decisions we make are for growth, but conservative growth. At the same time, it’s like conservative, but aggressive growth, if that makes sense. Because we’re growing very, very fast. In the last five months, the company has doubled in size. So, everything I did in six years happened in five months — it’s kind of crazy.
What about ideas you reject? How do you understand that this idea we’re going to implement, and this idea isn’t good, let’s put it off?
In our business, we have so many things we could work on. For example, recently somebody came to us with an idea to build a Plei for another sport. Like “Oh, why don’t you do basketball or tennis?” But it’s just not really in line with our mission. It always just comes back to the mission. We focus on how we grow, and what’s working really well for as many people as possible.
If we tried to do a bunch of sports when we were in one city, we would just stay distracted. And we would always stay in that one city, or maybe two, or three. Instead, I want to go into fifty, sixty, or seventy cities and only then think about other sports and different things like that. In this way, when we launch that new sport, we can launch it in sixty cities across many, many people. So, it’s all about how we can impact as many lives as possible.
Entrepreneur Role in Mature App Maintenance
How do you know if the application has technical issues such as performance issues?
The main way is user feedback. If somebody experiences a bug on Plei, they let us know. We created a customer service team that consists of ten of us. And we have a group chat that is only for bugs. Anytime somebody reports a bug, we put it there, that’s how we keep track of it. Then I hand this information over to the development team.
How often do you have to make adjustments into the app development process?
Yes, that’s another thing I do, I manage the app development project. Together with the team, we work on things that will make our life easier when it comes to managing so many games, like more automation. Besides, there’s customer feedback. If there’s a bug, that’s what we will work on. Sometimes there is a critical bug, like yesterday. When that happens, we stop what we’re working on to fix it because if it’s critical, it means it’s affecting user experience. That’s how we have to adjust.
When you talk to developers, do you understand what they are talking about, all that technical stuff?
At the beginning I didn’t. But now I understand much, much more since I’ve been doing this for seven years. And also I think that the team does a really good job in communicating in a way that I can understand. So yes, I understand for the most part now.
Do you think that an entrepreneur should understand these technical details and how does an application work? Or is it not necessary?
For sure, if you’re building a technology company, you should know your technology. That doesn’t mean you need to know how to program like a senior engineer. But you should know what the engineers are talking about, how they’re building things, why they are building it this way vs that way. You should know it because the app is like your baby. Shouldn’t you know everything about your baby?
For example, if you’re going to build a coffee shop, you have to know everything about coffee. Where does the coffee come from, why is it at this price, can we get it somewhere else of better quality and cheaper? Furthermore, you should know everything about your industry as well. That’s necessary if you want to be very, very successful, in my opinion. You just should know as much as possible.
Our developers told me that you check tasks in the project tracker and not just view them, but really understand and keep under control what’s going on.
Yes, for sure. I like to know what is going on, I like to be in control of the project. I’m not just going to say “Okay, work on this, bye-bye”. I want to understand how you are working on it, what is going on, how we can make it better. I probably need to hire a project manager, to be honest. My work is getting a little too much. But it’s okay.
Another thing I took away from the talk with our developers is that they really appreciate and respect you as a customer that they can really dream of.
I appreciate them a lot too. I consider you, guys, a family at this point. We’ve been working together for six years in total. And it’s been amazing, honestly. The company’s grown with our partnership. You, guys, saw everything from the beginning, and now the company is just really, really big. And it’s going to keep growing. It’s only started.
And I’m pretty happy about the work we do with the development team. There are things that come up, we talk about it, and we solve it. The team and I do a good job of communicating, whenever there are issues on either side. I think any relationship can be good just by having good communication. Because then there is full transparency of what we are talking about.
The Passion Behind It
You have a lot of achievements. Do you have some rituals for celebrating?
Yes. In December we had a little party as a celebration for the end of the year. And then, every month is always like the best month ever. And we always do a little celebration just to reflect on that, but it’s not like a huge party.
What would you do if Plei wasn’t on the page?
I’m not sure. Maybe I would love to invest in startups and be an adviser to help companies that are starting off. Because I’m getting a lot of experience now, I think I can help them. And also I’m very, very passionate about working in professional soccer. I would love to move to England and try to work in the Premier League somehow, as a coach or maybe as a team owner. I want to be involved in professional soccer because it just gives me a lot of passion. I also would like to improve football in the United States. This country has so much potential. We can be the best country in the world in football if we just change a few things.
So, I definitely would love to do something in football. But I also want to invest in startups because I really love technology and so many things that are going to happen in the future, like artificial intelligence and virtual reality. I really, really love technology, so those are like my two babies, technology and soccer. That’s why I created Plei.
We know that you’re a soccer player yourself, how often do you play now?
I used to play two or three times a week, but then I got injured, about a year and a half ago. I tore my knee ligament and got surgery. And only recently I started to play again. Now I play on Mondays.
Read more details about Plei project in our portfolio.