Straight from the VC: 10-point strategy to build a star team


How can an entrepreneur get her team to rally together for the success of a startup? How can she get them to align their individual aspirations with the startup's goals?

When we put these questions to Inventus (India) Advisors MD Parag Dhol, little did we think that the seasoned VC would share with us lessons from sports. But that's exactly what he did – along with sharing his experiences with startups – to give us some rare insights.

Parag has been an institutional venture investor in India most of his 18-year career. At Inventus, he is a Board Director at Vizury, FundsIndia, Power2SME, eTechies, PolicyBazaar and eDreams. Earlier, he worked with ICICI Ventures, GE Equity and Intel Capital’s India venture team. He has invested in 27 companies across India, resulting in 14 exits, including three IPOs.

Parag also loves football – “a game that is arguably the second most watched (but not played, unfortunately) in urban India today”. So he used the widely-followed English Premier League (EPL), and one of its leading teams, Manchester United (ManU) to draw analogies with how startups should manage their teams.

Having studied several companies at close quarters, as well as great football teams, Parag gave us 10 parallels with what he saw at work and on the football field. Over to him:

1. Short-term, medium-term and long-term goals: For ManU, it's a team game with short-term (the current match), medium-term (winning the EPL this season), and long-term goals (getting ManU out of its slump).

Similarly, for redBus, the short-term goal is reaching x thousand tickets per day, medium-term goal is y-number-of-times revenue growth over last year, and long-term goal is to be the largest bus ticketing company (online or offline).

2. Communication of goals down the organization: The ST, MT and LT goals have to be communicated effectively to members of the team so that they are all on the same page.

The CEO of one of our more successful companies, for example, takes great pains to write precise emails on such goals (as well as the order of priorities) to his management team or the whole organisation.

3. Functions of the Coach and CEO: The coach is equivalent to the CEO (because the captain in football is largely ceremonial - think the President of India). He motivates and gets the team to bond, while doing little playing himself. Sir Alex Ferguson, a legendary coach, was just an OK football player in his younger days.

Similarly, a CEO has to be multi-faceted rather than necessarily be the best at one of the functions (technology, marketing etc) in the company

4. Coach/CEO gets long-serving/selfless players to unite team: Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs played such a role during Sir Alex's time, helping him to drive the whole team in one direction.

There are many examples of such "uniting" skills amongst early employees in our portfolio companies.

5. People-management skills: Good coaches and CEOs know how to apply the carrot-and-stick at appropriate times and in appropriate doses

6. Nobody is bigger than the team: David Beckham had to leave ManU because Sir Alex felt he had become too big for his boots.

Similarly, in one of our companies a star sales guy was let go because his siloed-thinking was impacting the rest of the organisation adversely.

7. Delegation of authority, but never responsibility: Post-match analysis by coaches on TV is analogous to how a CEO reacts when things go right or wrong. Who gets the credit? Discredit is always the CEO's – Intellectual honesty when something goes wrong (which it inevitably will) is one aspect that differentiates an ordinary CEO from an extraordinary one, in our opinion. And one should celebrate successes, however small.

8. Strengthening the team: Apart from adding to the team during the transfer window (Robin Van Persie from Arsenal), at times, this can also be opportunistic (ManU's signing of Michael Owen in 2009 after his injury layoff) even when there is no real "requirement".

9. Breaking up goals into individual responsibilities: I saw a leader during my GE stint do this very effectively – break up a project into individual responsibilities with an innate sense of who would deliver and who would need help/monitoring.

Think of a football coach requesting the central defender to help out the left full-back as the right-winger in the opposing team is speedy or a great dribbler.

10. If it ain't broke, don't fix it: Chelsea and its rich, if whimsical owner, dumped coach Jose Mourninho at their peak in 2008 and the team slumped thereafter. Jose Mourinho came back (under the same owner!) this season.

There is an important lesson for us VCs too here - don't fix something that is not broken.

At the same time, there has to be succession planning. Look at what has happened to ManU in the one season under David Moyes (after Sir Alex retired).

Many of the 10 points above might not be very easy to tackle at once, especially if you are a young startup. But they're worth thinking about, because sooner or later a situation will arise in which one of Parag's football analogies will be a perfect fit.

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