Selling the Future – Business Development

Business development (BD) is a combination of figuring out what product to build and selling it simultaneously. It is as much about what the markets, customers, or partners want that overlaps with your potential product as it is about selling an idea before it has been built. This role is crucial before you have product-market fit at startups and Fortune 500s alike.

Let’s start by separating sales and BD. The role of sales is to efficiently and repeatedly sell an existing product. With BD,  you often do not have a product or sometimes even a product roadmap and need to sell the future. Even when you have a product roadmap, the features and timeline of that roadmap are so nascent that the organization is flexible to change it based on customer needs and engineering challenges. We should also not confuse a business development representative (BDR) as BD. BDRs are synonymous with a sales development representative (SDR) whose primary objective is to find qualified leads to pass on to a sales manager to close. This is a key role in a sales organization, but does not entail the entire BD role; instead, it is a subset of both roles.

The primary role of BD is to:

  • Understand what is desirable and possible for the organization to deliver. Those who are best at BD grasp the nuance of what the leaders of the organization want and center their energy on delivering it. They give weight to the needs of the organization and set expectations on how to win.
  • Convince decision makers at potential partners and customers that they want and need what your organization can uniquely deliver. The most effective way I have seen this come to play is painting a picture of the future centered around your product, one that the market and all their competitors will move toward regardless, and the only question is if the customer is going to lead or follow.
  • Broker what the market wants and what your team thinks should be built. This is not about shoving a deal down someone’s throat or creating scenarios where the only way forward is for the organization to begrudgingly sign a deal. These methods will never get the organization where it needs to go, nor will they provide you a career trajectory you want. What is important is exploring the overlaps and divergences between what product and engineering are thinking and what customer decision makers want.
  • Close the deal that customers want and that your team wants to deliver. From here on out, the process may sound more closely aligned with sales, but again it is different. For starters, a contract does not yet exist which takes into account what is being built, on what timeline, and for what value. The key for this stage is understanding how to pragmatically manage the deliverables and align a contract to what is known and unknown without trying to predict the future to the last detail.
  • Manage the deal to delivery and completion. This is still best done by the person who did the deal in the first place. So much of these types of deals are in the intent, the context, and most importantly the trust between the two people who put it together. In this stage, one needs to project manage the deliverables and keep the relationship budding along.

In the end, people do business with people and not businesses with businesses. BD is all about helping people, aligning both sides to the same objectives, and being in a rhythm of delivering solutions through every stage. Lead with your strengths and be mindful of your weaknesses.

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