Home Depot’s Billionaire Co-Founder Built a Soccer Team–and Every Entrepreneur Should Learn From Its Success
Arthur Blank used a startup mentality to build a soccer team in Atlanta. The blueprint contains lessons for every entrepreneur. This story originally appeared on Inc.com.
In late 2016, Gerardo “Tata” Martino, a transplant from Argentina, took his turn at the microphone–thrown into the fire despite having just begun English lessons. His song selection reflected his progress. “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes. Knees and toes,” he sang, a cappella.
If that sounds like startup culture to you, that’s because it is–with one small caveat. The organization isn’t exactly a startup. It’s Atlanta United FC, one of the newest entrants to Major League Soccer. The team burst onto the American soccer scene in 2017, becoming only the fourth expansion team in MLS history to make the playoffs in its inaugural season. This year, Atlanta United is a legitimate contender for the league championship.
The team’s owner knows something about building a successful enterprise: It’s Arthur Blank, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot. What’s the difference between founding startups and founding soccer franchises? “It’s exactly the same,” Blank says. “In terms of things that are important, there really are no differences.”
It seems an odd marriage, and the parallels aren’t perfect. Blank acknowledges a difference in scale: Home Depot can open as many stores as it wants, while Atlanta United can only put one team on the field. Atlanta United is also bankrolled by Blank, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $4.1 billion–a luxury most startups don’t have. And it’s enjoyed the built-in awareness and infrastructure of an already-established league.
But every entrepreneur can–and should–learn from the way Atlanta United was built to compete from day 1. It’s largely based on an element that drives most successful startups: culture.
Finding the right people
As Blank secured Atlanta’s MLS franchise in 2014, he started searching for the right person to run the team. He found Darren Eales, an executive from London’s Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, who became Atlanta United’s president later that year. During his interviews, though he didn’t know it at the time, Eales stressed all six core values Blank says he wants in his ventures: put people first, listen and respond, include everyone, innovate continuously, lead by example, and give back to others.
Starting from scratch was exhilarating, Eales says. He spent months researching other teams before filling out the rest of Atlanta United’s organizational chart, and started hiring people who craved the entrepreneurial challenge–for both business operations and the on-field product.
Eales and Carlos Bocanegra, the team’s technical director (the “general manager” in most American sports), spent time with every player they considered signing. While scouting Paraguayan star Miguel Almirón, for example, Bocanegra ate meals with him in between his matches in Argentina and talked extensively with his former teammates and competitors to gauge his personality.
The lesson, Blank notes, is that it takes time to define your culture and hire the right people to embody it–most startups fail because they move past that part too quickly. “I don’t really worry about the numbers,” he explains. “We know that if we’re doing the right things for the right reasons, whatever numbers we want will come out.”
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