Varun Chawla, co-founder of Indian coworking space chain 91springboard, knows more than a thing or two about how to scale a business. In particular, how to grow a winning team that can keep up with a continually evolving and dynamic industry such as the coworking industry. I was fortunate enough to sit down for a conversation with him at CU Asia 2018 in Penang.
Five years ago, Varun co-founded 91springboard as a VC firm that would invest in and nurture Indian startups. However, the team realized they could have a more significant impact on the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem by restructuring 91springboard as a startup-focused coworking space. Five years and nineteen locations later, I think it's safe to say they were right.
In this interview, Varun outlines his strategy for maintaining the happiness and quality of their team members during times of rapid growth. We talk about how to manage hundreds of staff over multiple locations, all the while ensuring people stay motivated, optimistic, and always putting their best feet forward.
NOTE: There's a couple of spots with some sound interference. It's noticable, but minimal. Don't worry, it's not your headphones! 👌
Below are some of the most critical insights from the interview.
While 91springboard is currently adding an average of one new location per month, they are only presently opening new spaces in India, and Varun seems to want to keep it that way for as long as possible. As he explains, 91springboard currently has home court advantage in India. If they were to expand to another country, they would be competing against other brands on their home turf.
His advice? Build something great at home, develop its competitive advantage beyond local knowledge and experience, and then expand to other regions.
The team at 91springboard is quite large. They are 185 strong as of this interview. When you account for their nineteen locations, it’s clear that 91springboard has a lot of flexibility when it comes to staffing.
If a team member wants to move to another city that has a 91springboard hub, there’s no problem with doing so, which ensures staff can be quickly and freely transferred between spaces, if needed.
But with all this flexibility and the ability to move staff about, I wondered if team members would feel disconnected in their new locations. Quite the opposite, in fact.
When a new team member is transferred, for example from Bangalore to Delhi, they aren’t alone in the city. The main cities where 91springboard operates have about fifty staff members between various hubs throughout the region. So, as Varun puts it, “your first forty-nine friends are other 91springboarders... their connections become your connections.”
Even for us at Habu, which currently has a six-person team, adding a single staff member creates the need for a lot of additional communication, documentation, and processes. I almost can’t imagine what it would be like for an organization as large and complex as a 19-location coworking brand.
That’s why Varun says it’s essential to empower your frontline staff. “I want two hundred decision-makers… not two at the top.” The people on the front line are the people with the data. The larger your coworking space gets, it runs the risk of adding more layers of communication for something to go through before it gets to a decision-maker.
Empowering your frontline staff not only allows you to remain flexible and fast in the face of challenges but also ensures your team members appreciate the autonomy.
Empowering frontline employees isn’t necessarily easy. Sometimes, the work culture ingrained into individual team members prevents them from acting autonomously. People are afraid of making mistakes and being punished.
While taking responsibility and acting autonomously feels tough for all workers, it’s especially prevalent in some cultures around the world.
Almost reluctantly, Varun admits it is easier to work with ‘blank slates,” i.e., team members for whom 91springboard is their first or second job.
More experienced team members may have the skills, but often struggle to adapt to a new work culture and a new way of doing things (such as being an on-the-spot decision-maker). With less experienced team members you might sacrifice skill, but they are easier to shape into the culture you’re trying to build.
CU Asia 2018 was my first time meeting Varun, and I’m happy I did. I look forward to watching 91springboard grow, and to meeting another massive group of 91springboarders (seriously, there were 26 of them at the conference!) at CU Asia 2019, which just so happens to be in India!
I hope you learn as much from the interview with Varun as I did.