I’m often asked, what is business development? And all too often, it seems that “business development” is confused for a glorified alternaitve term for “sales,” when in fact it is so much more than that.
I’d like to propose here an alternative description that fits with my experience, having worked with and built startups, so that the understanding and pre-conceived notions about this area of development can be more fully understood within the greater context of any business endeavor and can begin to move beyond being thought of as “just” sales – which doesn’t do justice to either the heroes who are actually in sales, or the business developers among us.
While sales is certainly a part of business development, it is also so much more. It should be thought of as a conglomerate practice based on four fundamental pillars of any successful endeavour: Sales, Marketing, Product and Operations.
You can’t have business development in the truest and fullest sense of the term without that role addressing each of these four pillars, in tandem. Despite the natural silos which form around these areas within any organization not long after it moves from the garage to its first cramped (and possibly shared) office space, the role of the business developer is to bridge these different areas, navigate between their seemingly disparate interests and continually work to best combine them so as to meet a single goal – growth, however you define that.
Think of business development as a “full stack” endeavour. The art of building a business from nothing into something or growing it from something into something bigger, better and more profitable. It requires you to be a hustler, an architect, a bricklayer, a leader, a team player, a negotiator and a rapport builder. You’ll need soft and hard skills to succeed, and being good with people or knowing how to build a pipeline isn’t enough.
So let’s dive in and examine each of these four pillars in more detail, from the paradigm of this perspective on business development.
Sales is crucial to any business. It is the fuel that drives your growth, keeps the lights on and validates your idea in the first place.
There are many ways to grow your sales, but all of them invariably should start from first defining and crafting a plan of attack from which you can begin to mold your days and your activities. But in the startup world things aren’t as straightforward as they are in more established businesses. Very often you find yourself building what you think is a plane, only to end up with a train. So to pigeonhole business development as only a sales job is a huge mistake, as in the early days you must be crafting your product or service just as vigorously as you are pitching it. It is the ultimate chicken before the egg issue – and to do it right you have to have your finger in multiple pots.
Which brings us to marketing. Marketing is the front end of any successful sales funnel. It’s job is to build brand awareness, begin the process of segmenting the market of potential customers into those that actually, or might eventually, give a shit vs those that never will. Marketing has the herculean task of being a one-to-many game vs. sales which is very much a one-to-one relationship. A business developer knows this and understands that in order to drive sales later, they have to be very marketing focused early on. This includes brand building, which neccessitates defining the value proposition of your offering so that you can not only find the voice of the brand… but bring relevancy to it.
Marketing truly is, in the early days of a venture, the art of turning nothing into something through the conversion of a unique vision and idea into a shared vision that is capable of drawing and attracting the right crowd, as well as creating desire. While not a marketer in the traditional sense, the business developer must have a sixth sense for knowing how to position what the business can offer with the interests of the market. In other words, they are fundamental to the process of discovering product-market fit (from both a strategic and tactical standpoint). This is doubly true when you don’t yet have a product launched or have just relaeased an MVP.
But how do you create a shared vision when you aren’t really vested in the creation of the product or service being pitched in the first place? The answer is, you can’t! That’s why it’s said that a founder and/or CEO is always a company’s first salespeson, evangelist and fan. They have to be… and more importantly they are positioned by default so that they can be. They are involved with every aspect of the process. But a business developer needs to have the same level of commitment, if not the same level or scope of responsibility, to the overall success of the business if they are to succeed in their role.
That means that in order to practice business development, one needs to be able to work with engineers, product and graphic designers and customers with equal ease, in order to complete the feedback loop between those who build it and those who will come, once it’s been built.
The only way to do this is to have a more than casual understanding of what it takes to create something and how it is built in the first place, coupled with either the empathy or the experience to look at that creation with the same ruthless utilitarianism that every product or service faces when first placed in front of a potential customer.
You might be asking yourself, ‘so why should operations enter into the mix?’ The reason is simple. Or rather the reason is “simple, repeatable processes.”
There is so much going on, on any given day, within the life of a business. In order for the business to grow and develop, everything and everyone needs to be aligned towards achieving a common goal. This requires the business, usually in the form of the founders or a management board, to first define what success looks like in the form of a clear, primary KPI. This is more difficult than it sounds. Will it be reaching a certain level of ARR? Or is it all about maintaining and then beating an NPS score, month over month? Or maybe growth and user acquisition pegged against a declining CAC is the core metric that needs to be focused on?
Whatever it is, a proper business developer is on the front lines working to make sure those goals are met, in relation to both those who are within their addressable market as well as behind the scenes with the people who are on their team. Knowing this, there is one thing that is certain and has been proven true time and time again: The only way to ensure that everyone consistently stays on track is to ensure that there are solid, simple and repeatable processes or frameworks in place in order to keep the business running smoothly and as self-sufficiently as possible. A business developer is uniquely positioned to help inform what these processes should look like as they (should) have a birds eye view of the entire workflow, from the very first brainstorming session to closing a lead and beyond, on into the lifecycle of customer care and support.
In otherwords, each member of a venture’s team is immensley important, from sales to front and backend developers, from customer support to product managers. But just like a bird is not a bear, a business developer is not a salesperson. Keep this in mind when building your team and you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.