Ski bum 2.0: How social apps like Gociety make adventure easy | SummitDaily.com

Ski bum 2.0: How social apps like Gociety make adventure easy

One of the most popular apps to come from Colorado wouldn't exist without the slow decline of the print industry.

About four years ago, Anna Thielke and Alex Witkowicz were working for Skiing magazine in Boulder. She was a designer and he was a photographer, two highly skilled positions that required a mix of creativity, unorthodox thinking and a feverish love of the outdoors. Like all ski magazines, theirs thrived on a gorgeous (and expensive) product that cost about $5.99 on newsstands and was inevitably losing to an endless sea of timely, user-generated content found online — and for free.

Then, the layoffs came. Thiele and Witkowicz were suddenly without jobs, but neither one was ready to give up, and so they started brainstorming ways to showcase the ski industry without the support of an established publication.

It was no easy feat, even for pros. For a while they toyed with the idea of a digital magazine, but Thielke kept getting caught up on one of the features: An interactive message board for folks in the Colorado ski community. Before long the two were more excited to build something new than stick with something they knew.

"We started thinking, 'What do we love to do?'" Thielke said. "Then it was, 'How can we keep doing it, and how can we get people out of the singles line?'"

In 2012, the former print veterans founded Gociety, a mobile app built around the bones of their digital magazine message board. By 2014, the two launched the first working version of the app with profiles, message boards, trip planners and other social features, all tied to the concept of playing outdoors with other adrenaline junkies.

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Gociety was a gamble for Thielke and Witkowicz. Would it work? Would it make money? Would anyone give a damn? The numbers speak for themselves: After less than two years of grassroots marketing and word-of-mouth endorsements, the Denver-based app now boasts 23,000 users, including longtime Summit County local and endurance athlete Joe Howdyshell.

"Any app or social media experience is as good as the network, and Gociety has done a phenomenal job of attracting the right people," said Howdyshell, who found the app not long after it launched and has used it ever since. He's a social adventurer, the sort of person who doesn't mind meeting a group of strangers for an overnight hut trip or moonlight skin up Arapahoe Basin. In other words, he's the Gociety audience in a nutshell.

"Gociety is all about the meet-ups," said Howdyshell, "One of the coolest things about Gociety is you can enter the gear you have, how long you'll be out there, how intense things will be, and you'll find people who are willing to do the same thing. If it's a stud hammer ride, people expect a stud hammer ride. If it's people getting together for a social run with a beer afterwards, everyone expects that."

A GPS world

Gociety is hardly alone. Thanks in large part to geo-fencing — a mobile feature that pinpoints people and activities based on your GPS location — the app market has evolved to become even more personalized than ever before. As apps got smarter, app developers started breaking into new and unproven niches with concepts like MassRoots, the Instagram for cannabis users. It's now the only cannabis-related business to earn an IPO.

The most glaring example — and one that's influenced more than a few niche apps — is Tinder. The ethically troubling dating app is genius in its simplicity, but it's also hampered by its reputation as a shallow hookup app, with no real community aside from flattering pictures of potential hookups within a 20-mile radius.

Bring this dynamic to the odd social ecosystem of a ski town. It takes a particular person to enjoy skiing alone, and Catherine Marston isn't one of those people. Last season, when the Philadelphia native made her first solo snowboard trip to Colorado, she was giddy with excitement. But she had no idea how to find people, especially locals, so she turned to the obvious choice: Tinder.

"A solo vacation is not as fun as people say," laughed Marston, a 23-year-old who teaches snowboarding on the East Coast and travels for USASA boardercross races. "The only thing I could think to use then was Tinder, which isn't the best way to find a fellow skier or snowboarder who actually cared about the sport."

It was all Marston needed to pull the trigger on Snowflake, the social app she'd been toying with for about two years — and her first foray into the app development world. Like Tinder, the app syncs with Facebook and uses geo-fencing to browse through profiles. Like Gociety, Snowflake is purpose-built for outdoor junkies who care about more than a quick hookup. Users can swipe through profile photos and say "yea" or "nay," a la Tinder, but the profiles also include info like your sport of choice and skill level.

"We want this to be about skiing and snowboarding," Marston said. "There's an implication of dating there, but that's not what it's all about. If you want to meet up with someone who's in a committed relationship, this makes it comfortable and just fun."

For better or worse, that implication comes with just about all social media, especially apps built for matchmaking. But, again, a social network will fall flat without the right culture, and app founders like Thielke and Marston are among the first to tap the outdoors scene.

"Our app is all about going out and meeting people, and that continues to be our goal," Thielke said. "It's all about bringing people together in real life, even though it's a digital tool."

Rise of the first-time entrepreneur

Gociety and Snowflake, which launches for iOS in December, share more than an audience. Both founders had zero experience in the app world before taking a chance on their "aha!" moments. Like most entrepreneurs, they followed their gut (and a good concept) through to reality.

It's a common thread for niche app developers, including Mike Keshian, the CEO of LuvByrd. The 31-year-old lived and skied in Crested Butte for several years between trips to Alaska as a commercial fisherman. He was familiar with the frustrating world of resort-town dating, and so, he watched plenty of TV.

"I laughed at the Farmers Only commercial plenty of times, but then I started thinking that there isn't something like this for ski bums and river rats and everyone else," Keshian said, referring to an online dating service for rural farmers. "That's when I realized you couldn't have a niche site just for skiers. It had to be for people who just love the outdoors."

In late 2014, Keshian brought his idea to a developer friend and built a rough framework for the LuvByrd website. This October, after a write-up from Denver's Westword, the site garnered several thousand sign-ups and is ready to launch a mobile app in January 2016. It's more of a traditional dating site than Tinder, at least in website form, but potential partners are paired by, say, their interest in multi-day mountain bike trips, as opposed to their favorite late-night movie.

"If you go skiing with someone who can't keep up, it won't last, no matter how hard you try," Keshian said. "Building that common ground in the outdoors is a huge foundation."

Despite a steep learning curve, the ski app founders have built strong foundations in the rapidly evolving tech industry. Gociety continues to host meet-ups throughout the year — Thielke's goal is to hit 100,000 users between several major metros by the end of 2016 — and Keshian is busy learning the ins and outs of app development, all while funding the company on his own.

"It's all been grassroots and bootstraps for me," Keshian said. "This is 100-percent new to me. I never even knew what the backend of a website looked like before, or what SEO (search engine optimization) was all about."

Marston with Snowflake is already looking ahead to other sport-specific apps, similar to the Map My Ride suite from Under Armour. She'll even move to Breckenridge this December in time to promote the launch. When she isn't gathering feedback and competing, she'll have a desk at Evo 3 Workspace in Frisco to collaborate with her team of about 10 investors and developers.

But funding is always tricky in the startup world — no different than the rapidly shirking print world — and all three founders are working on ways to remain sustainable while building an organic following. Again, geo-fencing comes in handy: Both Gociety and LuvByrd will feature targeted ads for drink or food specials, presented as the best way to cap off a (hopefully) stellar day on the hill with a stranger. Or, you could just stay in the woods.

"It's one of the best things ever when you can do something like have a potluck with new people above treeline," Thielke said. "It's a unique experience, and I think that's what people are looking for. It's about finding buddies to go play outside."

The other apps

Before social media came to the slopes, resorts and entrepreneurs across the nation had already tapped into the potential of mobile apps made just for skiers. Here are a few.

Epic Mix — The Vail Resorts app was a game changer as soon as it launched in 2010, and not exactly because it worked well. It was prone to crashing and freezing, but when paired with vertical-feet trackers at every lift, it changed how people skied. Suddenly, vert was the name of the game, and anyone who skied at one of VR’s 10 stateside resorts could brag about it via Facebook or Twitter. These days, the app also includes photos, race standings and ski lesson updates.

Sherpa — Copper Mountain’s version of the Epic Mix app took the basics (vertical feet, trail and lift tracking) and added a hands-free feature. Dubbed “audible,” the feature acts like a live mountain guide, with updates on conditions, lift lines, location and more. It even tells you where to find the best lines in Union Bowl on a powder day, like a miniature local living in your smartphone.

Open Snow — The brainchild of powder seer Joel Gratz is now one of the most popular (and trusted) forecasting apps for powder hounds. Here’s the trick: Open Snow only uses local meteorologists, not remote weather stations, to build finely tuned forecasts. During the ski season, it has daily forecasts for 30-plus states and 11 Canadian provinces.

Adrenaline Escapes — Founded by Summit local Shawna Henderson, Adrenaline Escapes gives adventure seekers a way to actually find adventure, not just a tired tourist attraction. It pairs traveling bikers, anglers, skiers and more with local guides with insider knowledge of the area. Looking for the best backcountry access on your first trip to Breck? This app is for you. It will launch for iOS this holiday.

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