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Francis Manapul competes in a Toronto Sport and Social Club dodgeball game at St. Luke Catholic School's gymnasium on May 29, 2011. (MATTHEW SHERWOOD FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Francis Manapul competes in a Toronto Sport and Social Club dodgeball game at St. Luke Catholic School's gymnasium on May 29, 2011. (MATTHEW SHERWOOD FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

PART TWO: DIGITAL OVERHAUL

TSSC scores with high-tech revamp Add to ...

There was a time when it seemed like the Toronto Sport and Social Club's plan to go high-tech wasn't that great an idea.

What started out in the late nineties as a plan to purchase some custom software to make basic sport league functions, such as team registration, easier to do, quickly ballooned into a high-cost endeavour. The company soon found itself spending upwards of $1,000 a month for server space, when it used to do just fine on a $60-a-month basic website plan.

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"Our original quote to build version 1.0 of [the custom software]was $20,000," says Rolston Miller, TSSC's co-founder and IT systems director (his wife Kristi Herold is the other co-founder and entrepreneurial brains behind the project).

"By the time it was all said and done, we probably spent twice that. There was a lot of stress in the office then."

But today, the custom software that seemed so expensive more than 10 years ago has become a vital part of everything the Toronto-area business does.

In the past few years, TSSC's staff have built a massive digital infrastructure that includes everything from automated score-keeping and league standings to a widget that lets players know where the closest affiliate bar is. Indeed, the technology investment has greatly increased what the 12-person company is able to do.

"If we didn't have the software, we'd need to have 40 or 50 people working for us," Mr. Miller says.

In this series, we profile non-tech small businesses that have made major investments in new technology as a means to grow. Among those kinds of companies, the TSSC has taken a huge leap, paying to design software from scratch specifically for its own needs - an expensive proposition.

Even though sports and social clubs aren't inherently technical businesses, they do make a good fit for software solutions because they tend to generate large quantities of data.

As far back as 2002, Mr. Miller says, a TSSC staff member would typically spend 30 hours a week just monitoring and entering scores into databases. (TSSC has since expanded into several nearby regions, such as Durham). The idea of building custom software to automate such tasks was the impetus for the TSSC's digital overhaul.

When it comes to custom-built software, the chief barrier for most small businesses is cost. Not only do programmers cost money, but it's difficult to predict accurately just how long - and, in turn, how expensive - a project will turn out to be.

However, for TSSC, there were plenty of advantages. Although there exists some off-the-shelf software for sports clubs, it's difficult to build a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, not all sports offered by the club have the same scoring style.

Custom software also allows a company to add features as it goes along.

In one case, Mr. Miller said, one of his staff members asked if the members' on-line profile pages could be modified to include a note saying when their leagues would start.

"That one little idea saves about a thousand e-mails and phone calls a year."

The cost of building custom solutions has dropped somewhat in recent years. The server space that the TSSC paid so much for a decade ago has gone down, in large part thanks to the rise of cloud computing, and the ability to rent server space as needed.

Since first building its new software system, the TSSC has hired an in-house developer. The business's next focus is on making all of its on-line member services available on mobile devices, which now account for as much as 30 per cent of the TSSC's website traffic.

In an example of how the club is leveraging such mobile devices, when TSSC members go to a club-affiliated bar after the game, they no longer have to show a laminated card at the door to prove they're TSSC members. They simply show an image on their smart phones.

The series continues next Thursday. Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website.

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