Arthur Blank used a startup mentality to build a soccer team in Atlanta. The blueprint contains lessons for every entrepreneur
There’s an organization in Atlanta that hosts employee karaoke nights every few months. New hires always sing first. 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.”
Earning the community’s trust
With its org chart full (the team employs 78 full-time staff) and internal culture established, Atlanta United’s focus turned outward to its customers–the fans.
The team’s initial strategic plan emphasized three things: fielding a winning team, providing a positive fan experience, and connecting with the community. Eales made sure his face was familiar in Atlanta before the team even played its first game, spending up to five days a week with soccer fans at sports bars across the city. “The book we write should be called Pub Crawl Our Way to Success,” he jokes.
Earning the community’s goodwill has proved extremely important. Atlanta is often maligned as a “bad sports town,” but Atlanta United has already set MLS attendance records for a single game (72,035) and season average (48,200). On three separate weekends, the team has boasted the fourth-largest soccer attendance in the world.
Still, Eales is hyper-aware that sports fans can be fickle. That’s why, after every match, representatives from every department gather for a postmortem in the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium to break down that day’s customer experience. The fan-first ethos is also baked into the team’s marketing: Atlanta United’s primary tagline is “Unite and Conquer,” and while every graphic displaying the word “Conquer” shows athletes, every graphic with “Unite” features fans.
These initial results remind Blank of how he felt when Home Depot took off–but like any startup, he says, Atlanta United can’t rest on its laurels. “You hear it and see it and feel it in a whole variety of ways, but you know when you have that kind of success,” he says. “Then it’s a matter of just being able to sustain it.” “These are the sort of things we’ve got to continue doing,” Eales adds. “The moment we start to take our fans for granted is the moment that this is going to disappear.”
From Inc. Magazine by Cameron Albert-Deitch, Inc.com’s assistant editor and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.