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Enjoying the great outdoors, only a little smarter

Jeff Courter

With a recent round of venture capital funding and a carefully researched wildlife prediction model, Grand Rapids-based Sportsman Tracker has positioned itself at the forefront in the emerging market of hunting and fishing software. Steven Thomas Kent talks technology and turkey hunting with the fast-growing local company.
As spring slowly pushes winter to the fringes of memory, outdoor sports enthusiasts everywhere will start to dust off their bows and rifles, channeling their dreams of spring turkey season into scouting sessions and pinpoints on maps.

But before that, they may want to spend the waning few weeks of winter getting acquainted with Grand Rapids-based Sportsman Tracker, which promises hunting and fishing enthusiasts more return on the time they spend outdoors with a web-based software service and an upcoming app designed to help users crunch more data and increase their odds of success in the field.

“We wanna have people get out in the woods more, out in the rivers and lakes more, and have more luck when they’re doing it, cause everybody can’t do it all day long,” says Sportsman Tracker CEO and co-founder Jeff Courter. “You’ve got one or two days a week, you wanna hit it when the fishing’s going to be good, or the deer are moving. And that’s the whole premise of what our software’s doing.”

Although Courter founded the company and began working on its software several years ago, he marks the 2013 release of Sportsman Tracker’s dual apps, Hunt Predictor and Fish Predictor, as the company’s formal “debut.” And it’s been a fast ride for Sportsman Tracker since then: In January, the company announced they had raised almost a million dollars of funding through Start Garden and several Michigan venture capital firms. And newly released versions of the company’s apps have enhanced the social aspects of the software and will soon add refined prediction abilities and other new features, Courter says.

Courter, a computer science graduate who worked for a Grand Rapids film and video company and a lifelong hunter and fisherman (“from the age of zero,” as he puts it), came up with the idea for Sportsman Tracker a few years ago, during an early-morning goose-hunting trip with a friend. Courter and his friend had trouble deciding the best location for the day, and Courter began thinking about how often he and other hunters he knew felt that way.

“It was 4:30 a.m.,” Courter says. “We were going to this place where there’s a bunch of stands, and you can pick a stand. I was like, ‘Man, I wish there was a program, something, that could take all the weather into account and determine where I should go.’”

“That day, I came back and started drawing things, because I knew I could program it,” he adds. “Drawing what I wanted to see, what I wanted to know. If you put in these spots and you got the weather, how could you get a rating, saying what’s the best place to go?”

Courter co-founded Sportsman Tracker as a pitch to Start Garden with current CFO Jon Schwander, who Courter describes as a data-minded empiricist. Schwander and others at Sportsman Tracker sifted through dozens of articles and detailed studies to develop a software model that could predict patterns of wildlife movement, based on location, season and weather. At first, their software focused solely on whitetail deer, but the company gradually expanded the platform’s capabilities to predict the patterns of turkey, waterfowl and freshwater fish. As Courter describes it, the process took painstaking work.

“Down South, a lot of guys have kept logs; one study we found like 12,000 instances of logs [incorporated],” Courter says. “And people do their Ph.D studies on deer and barometric pressure, or the study of bass and water temperature. So a lot of these independent articles, we’ll take and add the concepts of what they’re doing into our formula. and then we’ll verify it with personal cases and other studies — and that’s just for one variable of one species of animal.”

Today, Sportsman Tracker has turned their prediction models into a suite of software solutions for the outdoor sporting enthusiast: They offer a web-based experience through their site that can help users map out locations and plan out an expedition; meanwhile, their upcoming Sportsman Tracker app, which combines the earlier Hunt Predictor and Fish Predictor apps into one program, provides live weather-based updates in the field, and also lets users share photos and updates with one another in social media-type fashion.

The Sportsman Tracker app is currently available in a beta version for interested users, who can sign up to try the beta at the Sportsman Tracker website. The company plans to release the app to app stores next month, Courter says.

Currently based out of the downtown Grand Rapids Start Garden space, Sportsman Tracker plans to seek another round of funding late this year to add to the $950,000 they’ve accumulated so far, Courter says. They plan to add one full-time employee to their team of five during 2015, and then further expand their staff and look for a larger space once they solidify their next funding round.

“I’m a big believer in lean and mean,” Courter says of the company’s growth. “So we’ve hand-selected each of [our] people to make big strides, and I’d rather have our resources spent on hounding the product than becoming fat on staff. We have the people we need to make this extremely successful.”

Sportsman Tracker’s prediction model for whitetail deer illustrates the complicated symphony of variables that come into play: the software takes into account moon phase, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, time of day and of year; latitude and longitude, to account for rut season. The user can put in a variety of pinpointed locations into a map — spots where they have stands or perhaps just areas they’re curious about — and the Sportsman Tracker software will use those variables to return a calendar with a one-through-five star rating for each upcoming day for that location. One star means low odds of success — five stars means drop everything, grab your rifle and head for the woods.

Courter says that he’s never seen competing software that incorporates the range of data that Sportsman Tracker does; based on his own years of attempting to hunt recreationally with smartphone support, most existing apps simply use a solunar calendar to guess where deer might be based on the moon phase.

“When you have a front approaching, the deer are going to be moving and feeding, but the moon phase isn’t going to tell you that,” Courter says. “And that’s where we shine, is that we’re gonna tell you at 4 p.m. on Thursday, conditions are lining up, even if the moon phase isn’t perfect; the front is approaching, the barometer’s doing the right thing, you shouldn’t be anywhere other than out in the woods.”

Sportsman Tracker offers all of their software free of charge; “extremely free,” as Courter puts it, with no trial periods, in-app purchases or paid upgrades. Instead, the company generates revenue through targeted advertising, which suggests products and retailers to users based on their location and upcoming outings that they have planned.

Travis Bailey, who works in digital marketing for Sportsman Tracker, says the company has been careful to keep the ads relevant to users; they don’t want people trying to block out ads for car insurance as they try to use the site, he says. Instead, he says, the site may suggest retailers for rifle ammunition in nearby zip codes in the days before a hunt: content that they hope will connect their users with needed products at a high success rate for their advertisers.

“The good thing about our market is they want that stuff; they need it,” Bailey says. “It’s like, if there’s a better bullet, they’re gonna get the better bullet. So I think we’re designing an experience, in terms of advertising, that doesn’t shoot up and block the experience. It doesn’t do a big pop-up and then I have to figure out how to exit out.”

So far, Courter says, the data the company collects from follow-up interviews, logs and shared anecdotes continue to bear out the success of what they’ve come up with. He personally remembers a recent trip when the software told him it was a four-star turkey-hunting day at one of his spots, so he met up with a friend and headed to the field -- then met with success.

“It’s not like it’s going to guarantee you’re going to have a great day,” he goes on. “Fish are fish and deer are deer, and they’re gonna do things you don’t understand. But as far as really increasing your chances, based on all the studies we can do, it’s gonna help you. We’re about improving your odds. And I think what we’ve come up with will significantly improve your odds.”

West Virginia-based hunter Artom Rank says he’s become an avid user of Sportsman Tracker since he heard about it from his father, who met some of the Sportsman Tracker team at an outdoor expo. Rank, a Saugatuck-area Michigan native who plays college baseball at Glenville State College, says he uses the desktop experience to formulate an attack plan the night before a hunt, then checks the app to stay up-to-date while he’s out in the field.

“When I first tried it I was a little skeptical, ‘cause i’ve tried a lot of apps like that before,” Rank says. “I went out there in turkey season, and we had three different locations, me and one of my buddies. We went through our plan [from the Sportsman Tracker site], trusted it, and that morning we had four different toms coming in.”

“We later went down to our other spot,” he adds, “which we thought was good [and would have went to if not for the site], and there was not a single [turkey] there.”

Rank adds that he likes the desktop software’s ability to interact with Google maps, letting him visualize the exact tree he might be hunting out of, rather than just dropping a pin in a bird’s-eye map. He can also monitor different locations where he considered a stand but didn’t opt for one, he says, letting him effectively hunt his 300-acre property all by himself.

“A lot of people put up one stand and sit there all day,” he says, “but [with this,] if you’re not getting any success, you can look up a different spot, move the stand and maybe have a higher success rate. I know it’s worked for me. I’ve used it for fishing and it’s the same, too.”

Of the software’s social features, Jeff Courter says that his lifetime of experience with the hunting and fishing community taught him that Sportsman Trackers users probably won’t accumulate hundreds of friends like the average Facebook user. Outdoor sporting circles tend to be tighter-knit, he says, and so the company designed the social aspects of the software more around immediacy and impact than quantity and scope. As a result, the platform encourages photo-sharing and direct messaging with accompanying text-based alerts; more akin to phoning a trusted cohort to tell them about a hunting spot, or sharing photos of a trophy buck around the water cooler, than to the content avalanche of typical social media feeds.

“The experience is very much: we know you’re gonna share to a handful of people,” Courter says, “whereas something like Facebook, you post it and it becomes part of this endless feed where you don’t really know who they are.”

Despite the frequent positive feedback on their prediction software from Sportsman Tracker’s 280,000 or so existing users, Courter says he understands that some people in the hunting and fishing community tend to approach web-based technology with a certain degree of wariness. He promises, though, that his company isn’t out to ruin anyone’s Whitman-esque love affair with the great outdoors. Users can check in and plan using the web-based version the night before a hunt or fishing trip, he points out, and upload photos and notes when they get back, all while leaving their smartphone on the charger as they truck out the door on the critical morning.

“I love the outdoors, and I love that it’s serene, and it’s a place where you can go often and not have the business of life,” he says. “But our tools are not in contradiction with that. We’re creating a product that is used to help increase your love of the outdoors; whether you choose to bring your phone with you or not is up to you.”

“But if you’re the guy that wants to sit in your stand and be on your phone, we’ve got stuff for you to look at,” he adds. “Like anything else in this world, it’s up to the user to decide how they’re going to let technology impact their life.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steven.t.kent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback. His stories are made possible by support from Emerge West Michigan.

Photography by Adam Bird
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