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Behind Every Successful Entrepreneur...

Assembling the right team for success


Watching the Olympics unfold over the last few days was inspiring and impressive. Amidst all the glorious accomplishments, the tears of the 'almost victors', and the inspiring examples of sportsmanship that were displayed, I could also feel the presence of the mostly unseen support staff that propped these players up -- the hidden 'teams'. It reminded me of the faithful reliance that entrepreneurs have on their mostly unseen 'teams'.

This is a question often posed to mentors like me about the 'hows' and the 'whos' of building a social enterprise's (SE’s) team. Clearly, this can be a make-or-break exercise for SE's, as my incubator colleagues often tell me that they are betting mostly on the team as success indicators for an SE. Given the tumultuous life of an early-stage SE, punctuated by innumerable pivots in product offerings, target customer segments and the business model, the one constant that can help an SE pull it all off is its core team.

Building a Social Enterprise Team: The Whos

Early-stage startups are fairly young and often end up nucleating their teams around the DNA of the core founding team, picking those with matching characteristics such as age, energy, 'vintage' in a common organization, adjacency in skills, etc. This, of course, changes as the SE matures and its core functions evolve. So, what should a founder look for when forming the early-stage SE team?

I think the one characteristic quality they should look for is 'passion'!

Passion towards: solving the social problem at hand, the technical challenges that are bound to arise, the experience of being in a startup, working with an energetic team, putting in long hours, and creating something unique! With all the radical changes that an SE has to go through, including the constantly evolving definition of success and the rapidly moving goal-posts, the team members who survive this phase of the journey and remain excited are going to be the ones with passion.

The solid Olympic champions who repeated their stellar performances were the ones who overcame failures with pivots, and repeatedly reinvented themselves -- with their passion sailing them through this journey. Their core team -- spouses, coaches, friends and family -- were aligned with that passion, too. I also observed that these champions, as they progressed in their journey, identified key gaps in their path to the medal, and added members to their team, with a specific focus on expertise and effectiveness, and could help them fill those gaps.

I see the same focus emerge in SE's that evolve into the more mature stages.

Hiring at this later stage, should be all about attracting the right expertise needed,such as in sales/marketing regulatory, deep-tech, clinical, etc., to bring about effectiveness in accomplishing their organizational goals.

Building a Social Enterprise Team: The Hows

How can a 'lean' startup that has taken upon itself the challenge of solving a social problem sustainably attract such passion in the early stages and effective expertise in the later stages?

Passion, I believe, can be attracted by communicating one's own passion and commitment explicitly. The raw passion exuded by a founder while sharing the story of their endeavor to solve a social need has a certain allure to those with the same latent passion. As the saying goes, “Birds of a feather, flock together”.

Expertise, on the other hand, is best attracted by the offer of 'ownership' -- of both the entire competency they would represent in the enterprise, and also the enterprise itself. The latter is best realized through an Employee Stock Option Plan (ESOP), and this requires a far-reaching vision as well as meticulous, dispassionate planning during the early stages of the SE.

The entire ecosystem of support that an impact incubator offers, like mentors, sector experts, technical assistance and networks, can make these team-building decisions fairly easy and efficient for an SE.

It does take a village, and the village can help. At least, I'm sure Villgro can!


Arun Venkatesan

Co-founder and CEO at Villgro USA

Arun is passionate about scaling impact by helping impact incubators succeed. He led Villgro India's health sector before his current role at Villgro USA

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