Part-2: How Yarlagadda ran Baahubali like a startup

This is the second part of a three-part series that examines how Shobu Yarlagadda followed an entrepreneurial template to produce Baahubali, a two-part film franchise that is continuing to shatter box-office records worldwide.  Merely three weeks after its release, Baahubali: The Conclusion created history in Indian cinema by collecting over 1500 crore rupees (approx. $240M) worldwide.

In Part 1 of this three-part series, we investigated how Yarlagadda identified an unmet need in the Telugu film industry as well as the Indian Film industry. Like most startup founders, he performed the required primary research that was necessary to validate the “need” before he got ready to develop the solution to address that need.

Forming the right team is a major step in building a sustainable company. The success of the company relies primarily on the team and not so much the product. Now, what is the right team? In its most basic form, the right team is the one that shares the same core philosophy as the leader. And, a great working culture is defined by how team members treat and interact with one another.

3. Build a strong work culture: To establish a “culture,” a company needs to come up with a set of priorities that help achieve the company’s goal. Take the case of the U.S based airline – Southwest Airlines. Southwest operates in an industry that often lampooned for its disinterested employees and crappy customer service. But, Southwest’s loyal customers often resort to social media to rave about the friendly employees who go out of their way to make their customers happy. Here’s a video from 2014, when I flew Southwest.

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Southwest invests time and money into hiring employees that share its vision- dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and company Spirit. The company empowers its employees to go the extra mile to make its customers happy.

Yarlagadda assembled some of the industry’s biggest names to create Baahubali’s core team. From acclaimed art director, Sabu Cyril to the visual effects expert, Srinivas Mohan. Having an ensemble of accomplished team members is fantastic. But, for the successful execution of this vehemently expensive project, a lot more was required of the team members- emotional engagement, seamless team collaboration, and a sense of personal fulfillment.

Nurture Passion: The first technical crew member to start work on the movie was Sabu Cyril, an ace art director who was not new to large-scale films. His work on Priyadarshan’s Kaalapani (1995), fetched him multiple accolades including the coveted National Award for the Best Art Direction. Two decades of experience and 5 National awards later, Cyril stood out as the best art director in India.

Cyril spoke about the creative freedom extended by the producer “Even with all the years of experience and knowledge of different materials, I wanted to explore new ones. To have the producers’ support was liberating. What I learned in these three years of working on Baahubali was much more than what I would have learned in 10 years of working on different films.” By providing an environment where team members were able to harness their potential not only kept them engaged but also helped them be truly invested in their jobs.

Appreciate Teamwork: Each person has a different motivation for working. The reasons for doing our daily duties are as individual as the person. But, everyone works to acquire something that work inherently provides. The something that is derived from work impacts morale, motivation, and consequently the quality of our lives.

Yarlagadda took to social media to publicly appreciate hard work. Technicians and behind-the-camera crew members were acknowledged on social media to increase awareness of the technical work and elevate the technicians, who often go unnoticed. This approach educated audiences on the process of filmmaking. Fellow filmmakers started noticing how team spirit was nurtured and cherished at Arka Media Works and started following suit.

The Baahubali team was extremely motivated because they enjoyed their work and the people they worked with. Beyond compensation, the crew was extremely engaged and determined to work hard and deliver their best. The culture on the set was one that the team members loved. They interacted with one another and helped each other out. This made them see the location set as an extension of their home.

Essentially, the team needs to share the same passion as the leader. Extending beyond the monetary and personal gains, team members need to see the value in bringing the project to life. Without the required passion and the belief in the vision, they’ll treat passion as their job, and that’s not what any leader would want.

4. Lead by example: In the movie world, the producer holds the designation of the leader. This is an implied deduction considering that he is the one who finances the project and pays the team members its wages. The command-and-control approach to management has been found to be an ineffective mode of control. According to Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind, “Effective leadership starts with engaging in simple person-to-person conversion.” Several team members including the lead actor Prabhas and Art Director Sabu Cyril spoke about how effective a leader Yarlagadda was. Team members considered Yarlagadda a “friend,” “a sounding board,” and “a support system.”

Teams do well when leaders support social relationships and demonstrate collaborative behavior themselves. Yarlagadda showed up to the sets every day and made himself available to the team. Yarlagadda’s approach to team management was simple- instead of being the captain of the ship who commands others to row harder while they lay back and watch, but functioned as a team member who rowed alongside them.

Wear as many hats as possible. In the early stages of building a company, almost all founders perform multiple activities. While their expertise might be programming the software, they may take on business development as well.

Given his experience as a line producer, Yarlagadda believed that he could add more value to the project beyond merely funding the film. He assumed additional responsibilities that included managing the overall schedule for the movie including resource schedules and movie sequence planning. He showed up on the sets every day just as other crew members did.

According to the producer, “I would interact directly with Rajamouli to determine the requirements for sequences that need to be shot. I would then hand it down to the line producer, Valli, who would then manage the schedules at a more fundamental level.” Based on the shoot requirements, Yarlagadda would then perform the required financial planning. When Yarlagadda wasn’t on the location set, he would be at his office brainstorming on innovative techniques to market the film or travel overseas to explore other opportunities to extend the franchise.

Support the team: As an art director, Sabu Cyril reminisces an episode when he was frustrated, he found his sounding board in Yarlagadda. “Shobu just heard me out. I vented all my frustrations”. When the team was shooting in Bulgaria, where temperatures were well below freezing point, Yarlagadda was with the team. He did not send the team away to shoot in extreme temperatures but was there in it with them.

What is the example that Yarlagadda was setting? He was not trying to create some cadre of mini versions of himself. He led the team by becoming one of them.

While having the best of talent is crucial for big budget films (to increase the chances of success), the very aspect of being “the best in the field” can render collaborating with other experts difficult. Put another way, the very element that determines success could be the quality that can undermine success. All the tangible success factors for Baahubali’s success were there- a compelling storyline that was being executed by an accomplished team of subject matter experts. But without effective leadership, the success of the project would have been impossible. A successful team is one that “sinks or swims” together and this team surely synchronized swam for five years.

In the next and final installment of this series, we examine how Yarlagadda was able to tackle the various challenges that he faced in the Baahubali journey. His approach to problem-solving helps us understand the kind of leader he was- one with a heart and a laser-sharp focus on the goal.

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Part-3: How Yarlagadda ran Baahubali like a startup