Hucks & Hackers: Start-ups Love This Sport

Founders, engineers, and designers have wrested control of Ultimate Frisbee from jocks and made it their own. I got in the game to explore.

About 15 entrepreneurs, engineers, and interactive designers got together Thursday evening to network. This meeting was not held in a bar, cafe, or co-working space. It was a game of Ultimate Frisbee held in deep center field of a baseball diamond in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

The Meetup was the brainchild of Marc Plotkin, a co-founder of DecisionDesk, a Brooklyn-based digital services start-up. Plotkin says he started the group as an alternative type of networking event for start-up folks.

He wrote on the page of his Meetup group, titled "Geeks that won't get fat:"

I work in the start-up/tech world and no one will argue that networking is important. However, I realized that all of the startup meetups fall into one of three categories: 1 - So early in the morning that no one is awake enough to have a stimulating conversation 2 - At a dark bar with a loud DJ making it impossible to actually talk 3 - Being given junk to eat and drink at someone's office.

Within just two weeks and with no attempt at promotion, the group has amassed 83 members.

For the record, Plotkin is a personal friend of mine. And, having played ultimate throughout summer camp as a kid (often with Marc), briefly in college, and for two seasons in a scrappy New York City league (yes, I realize I'm officially coming out of the nerd closet here), I was invited to play Thursday. I happily agreed.

It was a casual game, to say the least. There were no jerseys, no official end zones, and players vacillated, confusingly at times, between teams. Score was not kept. Ultimate Frisbee is a fairly simple game: Like football, the objective is to catch the Frisbee inside an end zone. The main difference is that players cannot run with the Frisbee. If the Frisbee hits the ground or goes out of bounds, posession changes.

Ultimate Frisbee originated in the 1960s in the leafy suburbs of New Jersey, growing out of a summer camp hobby into a vaguely countercultural sport. Today, it's one of only four sports around the country that has experienced double-digit percentage increases in participation since 2009. Since "Frisbee," is trademarked, the official organization behind the sport is called, simply, USA Ultimate.

Thirteen men and two women showed up to play. Only two in the group wore cleats. Edward Talbot, an affable New Zealander who co-founded Snapr, a service that helps developers add social photo sharing to any existing or new app, showed up in flip-flops. Asked if his feet would be OK, he shrugged saying only "I grew up without shoes."


Disc jockeys: Meetup group "Geeks that won't get fat" hucks the frisbee at a weeknight networking session in McCarren Park in Brooklyn, New York.


Eric Neuman, the head of technology for DecisionDesk and a former NASA intern, said he was just happy to be outside.

"I'm a CTO," he said. "I'm in front of the computer all day." He then showed off his magnet-powered bicycle front-lamp to the group's envy.

If sports could be ascribed to industries, bankers would probably own basketball or football. Publishers clearly relish softball. There's even a dedicated league--New York Media Softball League--where literary players compete. (High Times is currently in the lead.)

And if start-ups could ever own a sport, it would no doubt be Ultimate Frisbee.

Nan Gao, an engineer at Facebook, says that many of the early employees at Facebook—including Will Chen, Ari Steinberg, Josh Wiseman, Charlie Cheever, and Carolyn Abram—played Ultimate in college. "A regular Facebook pickup game started as early as the summer of '07 and has continued ever since," he says. "New employees get indoctrinated every year and the virtuous cycle continues."

Last month, employees from Quora and Pinterest staged an Ultimate game in San Francisco. (Quora won.) And Sasha Laundy, the founder of Women Who Code, coached the first high school girl's varsity Ultimate Frisbee team in the state of Connecticut.

Investors, too, are weirdly enmeshed in the start-up Ultimate scene; some even benefit from the connections made on the field.

Steven Jurvetson, the revered venture capitalist and managing director of Silicon Valley-based firm Draper, Fisher, Jurvetson, plays Ultimate.

In 1999 Forbes article titled "Disc Drive," Jurvetson recounted playing Ultimate with the founders of Four11, a pre-bubble start-up. Later, Jurvetson signed the papers to invest nearly $900,000 in seed money for the start-up. Four years later, the deal was worth nearly $350 million for DFJ.

"If someone cheats or constantly criticizes, they may not be someone you want to hire," he told the magazine.

Jurvetson is not the only VC playing Ultimate: Greylock Capital's Hans Humes coaches a high school Ultimate Frisbee team, while Dave McClure, the angel investor behind 500 Startups and who recently made provocative statements about women investors, not only played Ultimate in college, but also founded the John's Hopkins team. ("We sucked pretty bad, but we had a fun time," he says.)

Recently, I sat down with Sam Blackman, CEO of Elemental Technologies, to talk about start-ups and ultimate. I asked him why he thought so many start-up people seeme to be attracted to the sport. Blackman, who played at Brown as an undergrad, offered one reason: it's a self-fulfilling prophecy: "The more start-up people who play," he conjectured, "the more other start-up people will want to play."

There are other reasons, too, that make start-up folk attracted to Ultimate, and the analogies--though admittedly maudlin--are clear. Unlike most sports, Ultimate games eschew any positions. All players on the field are running, throwing, and catching equally. (Advanced Ultimate players assign players to limited roles, such as "handlers" and "deeps," but for the more casual Ultimate game, chaos rules.)

In other words, it's a fast game with a flat management structure where players must perform all tasks as necessary.

And compared to more sedate sports like baseball or golf, there's a high amount of tumult in an average game--the clock literally does not stop, and players are constantly in motion, dithering back and forth from offense to defense. Nimbless is a key attribute of both a good Ultimate player and a start-up founder.

"Without sounding melodramatic, this is a game that mirrors a lot of the values of the Valley," Peter Nieh, a venture capitalist, told Forbes. "It's fast-paced, intense, very dynamic. You never have time to set up. Unlike football, it just goes and goes and goes."

Some offer a more fanciful explanation of why those inclined towards math and sciences revere Ultimate, which is often played co-ed.

"I will say that both pursuits appeal to a sense of aesthetics and elegance, and that the self-officiated nature of Ultimate conforms to philosophies of truth and honesty which I hold as a mathematician," writes Peter Behr, a designer who studied math, on Quora. "But crucially, how else are us math guys supposed to meet girls?"

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