Lessons from the trenches: part 2

Reminder: I’m going to post some key lessons that I learned from my time as a scrub college offensive lineman at Penn.  General theme will be how these lessons have shaped the way I look at my professional life.

Quick refresher, o-linemen are the fat guys who stand in front of the QB with their hands in the dirt.  Their job is twofold: a) protect the QB by staying in front of defensive players or b) move those defensive players backwards/sideways to make room for RBs to run.

Part 1 was here

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In college football, the coaching staff assembles its team every offseason on the recruiting trail.  In big time athletics, recruiting can get pretty ugly because there’s a ton of money at stake.  In the Ivy League, there are no athletic scholarships, no big TV deals and athletes definitely don’t get extra benefits, so recruiting comes down the coach’s ability to sell.

This is a tough job, because all eight teams are offering pretty much the same thing: a spot on the team, a kick-ass education and a chance to win a ring.  They’re also constrained by the same things: no scholarships, limited revenue and really, really high admissions standards.

All eight Ivy League programs have their selling points for recruits:  Harvard is Harvard, Princeton is Princeton, Yale is Yale.  Penn has Wharton, Columbia has New York, Dartmouth has beers, Cornell has the hospitality program and I’m sure Brown has something going for it too.  To debate the merits of a degree from Ivy League schools A vs. B is splitting hairs- a graduate will be just fine, regardless of where he decides to go within the Ivy League.

In addition, all of these coaches are generally going after the same group of recruits: mostly multi-sport high school athletes who know they’ll never play in the NFL.  Smart guys who want to play ball, but realize that they’re not quiiiite good enough to get a scholarship offer from Cal, Stanford, Michigan or Northwestern.

That all suggests that there should be a relatively level playing field in this hyper-competitive, commoditized marketplace, so building a sustainable advantage in Ivy League football is hard, if not impossible.  

Not so fast: in the last 21 seasons since Al Bagnoli took over the football program at Penn, the Quakers have won 9 ivy league championships (42%).  So how has Penn been able to build a consistently successful program?  Recruiting.

Penn consistently has one of the top recruiting classes in the Ivy League, and they always have among the best coordinators and assistants in the League.  High quality talent + high quality managers = on-field success.  Credit Bagnoli for this- he’s a great coach because he crushes it in recruiting of both players and assistants.

Better still, after you assemble a great team you become more marketable.  A number of my teammates went to Penn because they wanted to win a championship.  Recruiting well makes it easier to recruit well.   

Here’s where I draw parallels to “team building” in startups.  Over the last year, I worked as a seed-stage investor at Scout Ventures, where I sourced, screened and managed VC investments.  At Scout, we looked for exactly what every seed-stage VC looks for: a huge market, a great team and some indications of product-market fit. Rob Go had a good post about the seed investor’s decision tree here.

So, let’s dig a little deeper into that whole “team” thing.  Unless this is a founding team that you’ve worked with before or one who comes from a very trusted source, what can you possibly know about the strength of the team during the few months that you’re doing DD?

Of the many characteristics that investors look for (experienced entrepreneur, technical chops, salesmanship, etc), one that I think is undervalued is the ability to attract and retain talent.  This is especially important because founders are usually asking seed-stage VCs for money that they will usually turn around and spend on new hires.

Questions I like to kick around, all of which are hard/impossible to answer: Would I like to work with this person?  Why/why not?  Could this person persuade me to join him/her in a crazy, risky, life-consuming entrepreneurial journey?  Do I think this person can identify personal strengths and weaknesses and fill them efficiently?  Same question for other team members.  Will this person inspire his/her teammates to want to do great things?  Will this person get the most out of his/her teammates? 

None of the above are necessarily red lights or green lights, but guidelines on how to assess the hardest qualitative aspects of judging an investment. 

Current team is obviously important, but VCs are investing in the future, so its just as critical to back a founder who is likely to be a star recruiter.

If you’re interested, here’s an interesting book on Ivy League recruiting. 

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