Legacy to Leverage: How Michael McNerney Stumbled Into a BD Career

This guest post was edited by Mark Uzunian based on an interview with Michael McNerney, Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships at Performance Horizon.

Come hear Mike share more about he’s seen BD roles evolve across companies of all sizes at at Firneo Forum on March 29th in NYC.

 

With a background in product management and spending much of his early career at publishing giant McGraw-Hill, Mike McNerney never saw his role at the company as business development. But with the legacy print-media products that was McGraw-Hill’s bread and butter becoming a fast-shrinking market, McNerney’s role was essentially to figure out how to grow the business any way he could.

 

“I eventually realized that in order to build a better product, I had to think of new way to leverage our assets,” says McNerney. “We had a very strong brand name, terrific reach, and a great audience. But we lacked the product feature set that could help us grow in the digital space. That meant that we had to attract new digital partners to build those features that we didn’t have, then negotiating the right relationships with those companies.” Without knowing it, McNerney’s job started to become what people now refer to as business development.

 

But What Is Business Development?

 

“In my experience, business development is all about helping an organization determine the best ways to create value. Another way you could look at BD is that it’s creating partnerships that create value,” McNerney says. One thing is certain: don’t call it sales. McNerney explains: “The biggest misconception about it is that it’s just another sales job. There’s certainly a sales element to business development, and that’s an important element. But you’re not always selling a product. You’re selling ideas, and that’s a little bit different.”

 

After spending a number of years at McGraw-Hill, McNerney received a job offer from Yodle, an up-and-coming tech startup that was going through a major growth period. A similar deja vu moment happened after being walked through the role at Yodle. “The job was going out and looking for organizations that did things that Yodle didn’t do very well, and marrying them to the things that we were very good at to create value,” he says. Even though the script had flipped by comparison to what McNerney was doing at McGraw-Hill, those relationships to business development were still very much there.

 

What It Takes to Be Successful at Business Development

 

Business development isn’t for everyone. Some days you’ll spend hours on the phone trying to work a potential partnership. Other days you’ll be working across the organization with the product, marketing, and sales teams, to figure out how to bring a product to market. A typical day doesn’t exist when you’re in the BD world, and that’s what makes it so enticing for some people.

 

“From a temperament and personality view, you genuinely have to like working across the functional units of a business, and collaborating with them,” McNerney says. “That’s where it differs from sales. Salespeople are hunters. The most successful business development people that I’ve seen have a completely different kind of motivation.” At the same time, you’ll be working with a number of different organizations, learning the ins and outs of their products, how they function, and be able to evaluate them relatively quickly. Are there strategic reasons to work with this company? Does it make sense to go to market together? Will this partnership actually drive additional profits? “Not only do you need the ability to make those kinds of calls quickly, but you also need the skills to do in-depth analysis to back up those assessments. This often comes down to having the ability to ask the right questions,” he explains.

 

Success in BD doesn’t just come down to one person, however. “Often, success isn’t tied to anything the business development person did. It’s whether or not the business itself was successful. What makes my job exciting is being able to make those connections, and to benefit both my company and our partner organizations,” McNerney says.

 

Tips for a Long, Successful Career in BD

 

Let’s say it’s the first day of your new business development job. You have some experience under your belt, but you’re hungry for more knowledge and determined to make the most impact right away. McNerney has 3 essential tips for a long career in BD:

 

  1. Get to know your CFO, and know them well. “At the end of the day, the CFO makes the final call when it comes to business development. They can support your ideas, and they can tank them. The more you learn about who they are and what they’re looking for, the easier your job becomes.”

 

  1. Get to know the 21st century equivalents of the “mailroom”. These are the workers within the organization who know everything, and know how to get things done. Maybe they’re the IT staff, the sales support staff, or the coding team. It will be different in every organization, but every company has some group that fits the description. Get to know them, and make sure they know that you appreciate what they do. If there’s some extra pizza or doughnuts around after a meeting, bring them the leftovers. Find out who those junior people in the organization are that keep the place running, and befriend them with food.”

 

  1. Identify your professional goals. “This is something you should do early in your career. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s important if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve. Don’t be afraid to change those goals — what you want will almost certainly change over time — but always have them.”

Want to connect with Mike and hear more about his journey into BD?  Come to Firneo Forum, the first-ever conference on Business Development on March 29th in NYC.

Making the Leap: How Molly Siems Went from In-House Lawyer To Business Development Professional

This guest post was edited by Mark Uzunian based on an interview with Molly Siems, Director of Business Development at Justworks.

Come hear Molly share more about her journey from corporate lawyer to BD all-star at Firneo Forum on March 29th in NYC.

“Why would someone spend so many years in school and sleepless nights studying for the bar exam, only to change careers?” asks Molly Siems, Business Development Director at Justworks. A pointed question, but after five years of practicing law, Siems says she felt unfulfilled because of the skills she wasn’t using. The practice of law began to feel forced, and many lawyers – feeling unfulfilled by legal practice – seek a different path. But, how exactly does someone go from practicing law at a big New York firm to business development professional?

Taking the Leap

“There is no one way to move from the legal to the business side, but one way I recommend is going in-house,” says Siems. After practicing law for a number of years in mergers and acquisitions with a later detour into trademark and copyright law, Siems was approached with an unexpected opportunity: Practice in-house law at a tech startup called NewsCred as their fifteenth employee. Siems jumped at the chance.

One of the things I immediately enjoyed as NewsCred’s Legal Director was my high-level vantage point of the company’s operations,” explains Siems. The role involved negotiating for the company’s best interests which required a complete understanding of what each of the divisions actually do, and what their priorities are. “A perspective only a few people ever get to see,” says Siems. “I appreciated being a critical part of the conversations shaping the company.”

A major part of her job at NewsCred was reviewing and negotiating contracts on behalf of the various teams, including reseller and referral agreements for the business development team. “After three years of being Legal Director, our then-BD lead left for another company, and the CEO asked if I was interested in taking on the role,” Siems explains. “I’d spent years putting deals together on paper, but now my job would be making those deals and relationships successful in real life.”

Making the transition to BD wasn’t without its challenges. “It took some getting used to. As in-house counsel, I spent the majority of my time on defense. This BD role, on the other hand, was more ‘salesy,’ primarily focused on channel sales through strategic partnerships, which requires a much more offensive mindset,” Siems says. Some days she would find herself staring at emails, brain hurting, trying to force a shift in perspective. But every successive conversation she had with partners became easier until a switch was flipped.

 

From Legal Director to Business Development Director

With a BD career that was off and running, Siems’ experience as a lawyer continued to serve her well at Justworks. “My legal skills helped me operationalize the deals we design in business development. I can bring a practical perspective to the esoteric ‘what if?’ conversations and shift them toward more practical discussions,” Siems says.”If the parties move forward with this deal, how will it actually play out in real life? What resources is it going to require from both sides? Who is going to be responsible for what parts?” Having a more disciplined, practical approach to conversations due to her legal background helped Siems turn abstract ideas into concrete practice.

There have also been plenty of calls and meetings where her legal background made a huge impact on the resulting deals. “Recently, I was involved in a big negotiation with a Fortune 500.  As we talked about the deal, the lawyer side of my brain instantly identified a serious flaw in the deal terms that could potentially cause the partnership to go off the rails,” recalls Seims.

After working on the deal with this company, Seims decided to bring up the problematic issue, which did not go over well with the other side. “It definitely caused friction during the discussion. As a lawyer, however, I knew that this kind of thing happens in tough negotiations. I knew exactly how to handle it, and how to get things moving forward again,” recounts Seims.

“While I certainly don’t regret getting my law degree, I’m happy to have made the transition to BD. I get to be more creative, and I get to think more about the offensive side of the business,” says Seims. “When I was a legal director, most of the conversations I had were adversarial. I spent my time playing a zero-sum game with the people on the other side of the table, hashing out who gets what, and who is responsible for what when things go wrong. These days, I’m creating ways for my company and our partners to win together.”

Molly’s 3 Tips For Lawyers Considering A Career Transition Into Business Development

Imagine this: You’re a business lawyer, and recently you’ve started to feel burned out. The daily grind of negotiating, writing contracts, and reviewing them with a fine tooth comb has finally gotten to you. At the same time, you like creating deals and helping partnerships come together. Is business development for you? Lawyer-turned-BD professional Molly Siems has a few tips.

  1. Remember: It’s all about people. “When you’re a lawyer, your job is all about concepts and abstract ideas. It’s about thinking through things. It’s a very academic and intellectual kind of work. Business, on the other hand, is literally about people. All day, every day.

“Whether it’s people outside of your organization, or people inside of it, you have to figure out how to work well with others. You need to learn how to build rapport and relationships with them. Working with people means understanding their needs. The better your understanding, the easier it becomes to team up with them on a partnership. In BD, it’s your job to convince people both inside and outside of your organization that your unconventional ideas are worth pursuing, and to help you make those ideas a reality.”

  1. Build bridges inside your own organization as quickly as possible. “It’s essential that the people you work with know you and trust you. Trust goes a long way, and it makes it much easier to get help when you need it. Asking for favors is a part of the job in BD. You may find yourself in a jam, and really need the marketing team to help you with a piece of partner collateral, for instance. If they don’t know who you are, why would they help you? They have their own job and their own responsibilities to worry about. Unless you have built up those relationships, believe me, they’re not going to pay attention to you or help you out.

“That’s very different from the practice of law. As a lawyer, your most important coworker is the law. You know how to read the law, and how to interpret it. You’re writing contracts, you’re reading cases, and working with ideas all day. It’s a very solitary, academic kind of job. In BD, it’s all about people and relationships. That’s a big shift, and a very different set of skills.”

  1. Balance your creativity and pragmatism. “Being successful in BD means being creative, and constantly thinking about new ideas. You need to spot new opportunities that other people haven’t spotted. At the same time, you need to bring a critical eye to all of those ideas, to make sure that they are actually worth pursuing.

“One of the best uses of your time will be figuring out what the real-world impacts will be for these exciting ideas that BD has come up with. Not just the ROI, but the full set of consequences. Your legal mind will allow you to take into account things like how much pain a partnership or deal is going to cause for your company, and how difficult the deal will be to operationalize. Sometimes, you may realize that an idea that looked great in concept just isn’t worth it in reality.

“Believe me, it’s easy to spin your wheels and have a lot of great ideas that don’t end up going anywhere. If you’re not careful, six months can go by, and you can have literally nothing to show for it.”

Want to connect with Molly and hear more about her journey from law to BD?  Come to Firneo Forum, the first-ever conference on Business Development on March 29th in NYC.

 

It’s Not All About The Money: How Kenny Herman Listens His Way to a Deal

This is a guest post from Kenny Herman, EVP of Strategy & Business Development, Slice.

Come hear Kenny share more war stories from the front-lines of a career in Business Development at Firneo Forum on March 29th in NYC.

It’s easy to get focused on the wrong things when you’re trying to create a partnership. It’s even easier to talk yourself right out of a great deal, simply because you won’t let yourself hear what the other side is trying to tell you. Learning to see things from the perspective of your potential partners is one of the most important lessons in business development. It’s also a lesson I had to learn the hard way.

The Birth and Near Death of SinglePlatform

When I was 24 years old, I helped start a company with another New York startup guy named Wiley Cerilli. It was called SinglePlatform. This mission driven startup was focused on helping local businesses — specifically restaurants — become more visible throughout the web. These businesses would give us basic information, like their menus, hours, and photos, and we would syndicate that information everywhere that people might go to look for it in the hopes that we’d drive them more customers.

It’s easy to forget just how different the internet was in the late 2000s. Most restaurants had virtually no online presence back then, and even if they did, that information was often out of date. It was a real headache for people who just wanted to figure out where to go for a meal.  When do they open? Is it too expensive? Do they have a vegetarian dish for my difficult cousin who’s visiting from out of town?

There was a huge demand for this kind of data, but there wasn’t yet a business model for monetizing it. Our original approach was essentially a referral model. The local businesses would pay us a small fee for each customer we sent their way, which we tracked by providing a unique phone number that would redirect to their main line. We would then pay a portion of that fee to the publisher of the website associated with that unique phone number.

My core focus at SinglePlatform was to convince these huge online publishers that there was serious money to be made in these referrals. The referral fees were small — maybe 50 cents per call — but that would add up over of thousands of calls. A popular website could make a few thousand dollars a month by partnering with us. But, as the smaller publishers simply didn’t drive meaningful volume, we needed to aim our sights at the big guys.

Thanks to some of my previous startup success, the success of Wiley’s previous startup, SeamlessWeb, and countless hours trolling LinkedIn pursuing conversations with decision makers, we were able to land meetings with significant publishers like Google, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, AOL, and The New York Times. We set up meeting after meeting, but things never seemed to click. They would hear my pitch, I’d try to partner with them on this referral fee idea, and then, ultimately, they would turn us down – or worse, go radio silent.

It’s not that these publishers weren’t excited about the idea or the technology. Almost all of them would say something like “This content is interesting. If you had a critical mass of restaurant information and menus, we’d be interested in working with you.” They were taking our calls, but they weren’t taking us seriously.

At that point, I was getting really frustrated. When you’re an early-stage startup, you raise a round of funding to last you a year, give or take. We were six months into the business, and all we had to show for it were partnerships with a handful of lesser-known publishers. And while I’m more than thankful for those partnerships, if things didn’t change, and soon, SinglePlatform was going to fail.

The Lightbulb Moment 

I had one last idea. I reached out to a friend-of-a-friend, Mike Brown, at AOL Ventures, and asked him to help me understand what we were doing wrong. He listened to by pitch, and — as patiently as he could — explained why these deals weren’t happening. Our product wasn’t the issue, he said. The problem was that I clearly didn’t understand the needs of these huge publishers.

A company like Yelp or MapQuest isn’t going to stop whatever they are doing to integrate a new technology that might only bring them another $75k a year. Even if we were bringing single-digit millions of dollars to them every year, rather than single-digit thousands, they still might not find it very compelling.

These publishers cared about content. They cared about providing the content that their customers wanted. We had that content, and that made us worth talking to. In my pitches to these publishers, I kept focusing on this revenue stream that clearly wasn’t meaningful. The more I talked about the money, the more I was actually hurting my chances of making a deal. I was trying to force a square peg through a round hole.

A few days later, I went to the BIA/Kelsey conference in Boston, an important summit for people working in and around local businesses. I was still wrapping my head around the idea of completely reworking our pitch, and I found myself listening to a presentation by a speaker named Chuck Lee, who was one of the big idea guys at the Yellow Pages. I generally don’t have a great attention span, and it can be hard for me to sit through dronning presentations, but I was absolutely riveted by what Lee had to say.

Here’s a guy who helps solve problems for a multi-billion dollar business with over 5,000 sales people, and runs a site that has millions of visitors every month, and he’s talking about one of the biggest problems they face: Providing up-to-date restaurant information. I started to see the problem from Lee’s point of view. Restaurants are notorious for not answering their phones. They don’t spend a lot of money on things like advertising, because they are a low-margin business. When a restaurant fails, they don’t call up the Yellow Pages to let them know to stop listing them.

And yet, when most people visit the Yellow Pages, restaurant information is usually what they’re looking for. Something like 63% of the people who were searching restaurants on the Yellow Pages were just looking for a menu. But the Yellow Pages didn’t have those menus, because they hadn’t figured out how to work with these restaurants, namely restaurant data, in a scalable way.

That’s when the light bulb came on. We had thousands of menus from restaurants from all over the country. For the first time, I understood how we could bring value to these huge publishers, and create partnerships that worked.

Listening Saves the Day

Later that day, I had a meeting with Maria Kermath, the Director of Business Development at the Yellow Pages. Instead of talking about money, we talked about the unique, high quality content that we had – menus – and she got it immediately. The end result was a simple agreement. If we could provide them with 100,000 restaurant menus within 90 days, we’d have a partnership. 90 days later, we delivered 180,000 menus to them.

Things changed quickly for us at SinglePlatform. I started reaching out to those publishers that had, only months earlier, turned us down. This time, the pitch worked. Within 100 days of that BIA/Kelsey conference, we had partnerships with Yellow Pages, FourSquare, TripAdvisor, New York Times, and the Tribune Company. Soon after, we had partnerships with Google, Yelp, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Within a year, we sold the business for $100 million.

The problem had never been our product, or even our business model. It was the tone-deaf pitch. These publishers cared about making their user experience better. In almost every meeting, they said it. But I wasn’t about to hear it. Instead, I incorrectly inferred that the only kind of value big publishers cared about was monetary value. That’s a rookie move, and it happens often in business development.

These days, I’ll go into a meeting and ask all of the other people to speak first. I’ll ask them about what is most important to them. What matters to them? What makes them look good? Once I understand their needs and priorities, creating a partnership becomes much easier.

Come hear Kenny share more war stories from the front-lines of a career in Business Development at Firneo Forum on March 29th in NYC.

Physics, Baseball, and the Future of Work

I was a pretty unusual 5th grader.  While most of my fellow 11-year olds were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, most of the them gave the expected response: lawyer, doctor, third baseman for the Yankees.  I, on the other hand, wanted to be a physicist.   Granted, I had no idea what a physicist actually did, but I loved science, it sounded like a cool gig where you could play with lasers, and I knew that if I studied hard enough that I could become one.

 

As I look back on that memory 25 years later, I realize now that I could have never imagined the career track on which I actually wound up.  I’ve spent my entire professional life doing the ambiguously-described* work of Business Development, but no kid ever grew up saying “I want to do BD when I grow up.”   While the appeal of playing professional baseball may be partially to blame, so too is the fact that many kids are workers of tomorrow who will grow into career tracks that don’t exist today.

 

The Jobs of Tomorrow Don’t Exist Today

 

Increasingly, the jobs of today are ones that didn’t exist a few years ago.  Social Media Analyst, Data Scientist, Product Manager, SDR, UX/UI Designer, Business Developer, Customer Success Rep, Blockchain Consultant — there are countless roles that have existed for so short a time that they are continuously being defined by the people in those jobs.  It’s only reasonable to expect that many of the jobs of tomorrow don’t exist today.

 

While the explosion of new roles creates exciting opportunities, these new and emerging jobs lack the support structures that ‘traditional’ careers have.

While the explosion of new roles creates exciting opportunities, these new and emerging jobs lack the support structures that ‘traditional’ careers have. If you want to become an accountant, for example, the path is pretty clear: what schools to attend, what classes to take, at which companies you’ll want to work.  Throughout your career you’ll likely be surrounded by fellow accountant peers and mentors.  You can foresee the opportunities for a 50-year career, as it’s been done so many times before.

 

But new and emerging careers don’t enjoy the same benefits.  Educational resources are often lacking, and it’s often unclear where to study these new roles.  Opportunities to connect with peers or mentors are hard to find, and you may be the only one of your kind in your company.  A resume filled with experience doesn’t have the same impact when recruiters have no idea what you actually do for a living.

 

Introducing Firneo

 

And that’s why I’m starting a company called Firneo.  Our mission is to help individuals thrive in the future of work.  To do that, we’re building communities that support new and emerging career tracks.
 
The first Firneo community will be centered around an area that’s admittedly near and dear to my heart – Business Development.  Over time, additional communities will form to support the wide array of career tracks that are equally under-served and unexplored.  Stay tuned for more, and sign up for our mailing list to hear about our first opportunities to participate in the new Firneo BD community.

 

And perhaps one day, when another 5th grader has a dream job that’s a bit off-the-beaten track, they’ll be able to see a clear path towards the life they want to live.

 

How to Get a Job in Business Development

I often talk to career switchers, job seekers, and aspiring BD folk who ask some variation of a common question: “How can I get a job in Business Development?”

In my definition of Business Development I say that the role of business development is to create value for an organization, so I often pose a ponderable to chew on as they embark on their hunt: What value would you bring to a BD job?

I firmly believe that there is no one single path that leads to a career in business development, but there are a few ways to navigate your course. Here are some tactics that can help you demonstrate the value you would bring to any business development role:

You’ve built a network

Resumes don’t open doors, people do. Many Business Development hiring managers look to their own networks to source their next hire, so being a valued node in someone else’s network of fellow business developers is one way to get in the door.

Starting from scratch to build a network isn’t as difficult as it may appear: it requires asking for help, and then offering it.

Most people want to be helpful, and asking someone to share the story about how they found their way into a role that you, too, would like to one day occupy is an endearing request. Start locally with people who already know and trust you. People who work in BD roles in your current company or friends who work at other companies. Ask about their role. Ask them how they found their job. Ask what they’re challenged with right now. Offer to be helpful. Ask them if they know anyone else to whom you could be helpful, and who might be willing to share their story.

Every relationship that starts with a request should end with an offer, and lead to your next relationship.

You do the job before you’re hired

Bevel & Co. founder Tristan Walker famously hustled his way into an early role at Foursquare, but my favorite story of proactiveness and perseverence comes from my friend Avi Lichtschein. He was so enamored with Square that he started buying Square readers and giving them away to merchants on the streets of NYC, ultimately turning his free evangelism into a job with the company.

Doing free work on spec can certainly be a fruitless waste of time. There are no guarantees that your efforts will be rewarded with the job of your dreams. At the same time, demonstrating your creativity, skills, and entrepreneurial spirit via side projects can help you build a portfolio of achievements that will help you get noticed, and hopefully, get hired.

You have a particular set of skills that you have acquired over a very long career that make you uniquely valuable

I’ve met people from all walks of life who have joined Business Development teams: lawyers, strategy consultants, financial analysts, community managers, product managers, engineers, investors, investment bankers.

A background in consulting can help identify opportunities in new markets. Experience in finance can help build models to size and assess opportunities. Spending time working in a law firm will likely have honed your negotiation skills and comfort with drafting terms sheets and contracts.

There are many requisite skillsets that are useful in Business Development but not every job requires the full BD stack. Some may lean more heavily on your background, and deep experience in a related field may be the foot in the door that you need.

You know what you like and what you don’t

Business Development is a function, not necessarily a job description. The role of business development changes as companies grow so having a sense of what you’re most interested in doing will help identify the job opportunities that are most interesting to you.

At smaller or younger companies, you may have more responsibility and work on a larger array of tasks, from developing the initial strategy to “playing General Counsel” by drafting your own contracts. At larger companies, the specific role may be smaller in scope, but you may have more colleagues to leverage and learn from and more opportunities to work on larger, more complex deals.

You recognize that it takes time

As the saying goes, “it takes 10 years to become an overnight success.” Doing the job you want to have, earning the experience, building a network – these things take time and effort. Finding a job in Business Development isn’t necessarily easy, but it is absolutely possible to make the leap if you put in the work.

Just ask yourself the same question that you’ll be asked once you finally land the job you seek: How do I create value?

 

How to Stay in Touch with Everyone

No one would argue that having a large network is valuable in business development. From getting in the door to turning individual relationships into organizational relationships, having a personal connection to someone at just about any company you’re looking to engage is incredibly helpful.

But how do you actually develop a strong network of relationships that can serve as the gateway to BD opportunities? In my case it comes down to a core rule: Stay in touch with everyone.

Read More…

A Tale of Two Salesforces

Early on in my tenure at American Express, I worked on two very different partnerships, both with the same goal: get our partners’ sales force to get people to sign up for our credit cards.

The Partners

One partner was a merchant acquirer — a company that sold credit card processing services to businesses. The partner employed a huge salesforce that would pop into every restaurant, hardware store, and hair salon on Main Street and convince the owners to switch their credit card terminals to their own offerings.

The merchant acquirer’s salespeople were all stone-cold hustlers, entrepreneurial-types who looked for every possible competitive edge in what was a surprisingly cut-throat industry. At the partner’s annual sales conference, I was surprised to find a common theme in my cocktail hour conversations: many of the top salespeople had their pilot’s licenses. For their own planes*.

The second partner was Costco. While anyone could just walk into any Costco and sign up for an Amex card at any time, a few times per year Costco made an extra big push on their sales effort — for a few days, Costco employees would stand at a table and tell members about Amex cards. Costco employees were decidedly not stone-cold hustlers. Their company culture is known for being obsessive about customer service, generous to employees with their salaries and benefits, and an frequently awarded Best Place to Work. But cutthroat sales junkies, they were not.

The Incentives

For the merchant acquirer, the salespeople would pitch the benefits of an Amex card at the tail end of their sales process and would get a nice little cash bonus with each one.

Costco didn’t allow partners from offering any form of bonus to their employees, so the Costco employees had no incentive at all to offer Amex cards.

The Results

Which do you think performed better? The merchant acquirer, whose salespeople did enough business enough to buy themselves planes? Or Costco, whose cashiers hawked credit cards alongside bulk paper towels and 10-gallon mayonnaise jars for $18/hour?

Surprisingly, it was Costco. By a landslide.

How could Costco possibly be so much more successful than the merchant acquirer at selling

The merchant acquirer had everything in its favor: a clear alignment between our product and their core offerings (it made sense to talk about applying for a credit card during a sale of credit card processing terminals); an aggressive sales team; and an incentives that made it easy to see the immediate value of offering our product.

And yet, we were missing something critical: an understanding of what truly motivated the sales team. Naturally, we figured that the merchant acquirer’s sales reps would be motivated by cash. And in a sense, we were correct. But the sales reps actually made the vast majority of their money from the credit card transaction fees — for every swipe of a credit card at one of their clients’ stores, they took a fraction of a penny per dollar. Over the years, and with a large base of businesses running their credit cards through them, that could add up to a recurring revenue stream worth millions of dollars per year.

Comparatively, our little cash bonus was pitifully insignificant. When the merchant acquirer’s sales reps were getting close to closing a sale that could have resulted in another register ringing for them over the lifetime of the customer, they had little interest in risking their deal by offering yet another product. The risk was too great, and the incentive was far too small.

By contrast, Costco employees were not motivated by cash bonuses or long-term revenue streams. Pushing credit card applications alongside bulk frozen foods didn’t actually make a ton of sense. And yet, for years the Costco partnership was one of the most important ones we had.

Costco employees were motivated by one simple thing: they were doing their jobs. Costco’s culture looked for people who enjoyed doing the job of helping its customers, and provided sufficient incentive for being a productive member of the team. Cash bonuses were’t a distraction from a greater incentive – being good employees. And at the end of the day, all we needed for a successful partnership were Costco employees who were just happy to do their job.

*One pair, a husband and wife team, had a helicopter, too.

Big Sexy Deals

A few weeks ago I went apple picking with my family at a local orchard. I’d never been apple picking before, so my gadget-loving inner child was delighted to find that the orchard rents out 10′ poles with nets at the end to pluck apples from the upper branches. While I fumbled around swinging the heavy pole at the treetops, my 4-year old daughter Sasha ran around picking apples off the branches of small trees that she could reach on her own.

“Ha,” I chuckled to my wife. “She’s literally ‘going for the low-hanging fruit.” Sasha quickly filled up our bag, and we went home to make a pie.

In Business Development, few people pride themselves on going after the figurative low-hanging fruit. Instead, we look for the Big, Sexy Deals. Those are the deals that we can easily brag about. It’s usually easy to see the value of a Big Sexy Deal, whether it’s the brand value of having a household name attached or the economic value of a major payday. Big Sexy Deals make it easy to impress a boss or build a resume. Who wouldn’t want that?

The Utility of Small Unsexy Deals

The challenge, of course, is that Big Sexy Deals are big and sexy because they are rare and hard to come by. If they were easy-to-pick low-hanging fruit, then no one would be impressed.

It’s easy to overlook the value of low-hanging fruit, but sometimes that’s exactly the best place to focus your attention. Scoring a deal that is smaller, yet easier to land, may provide you with momentum to trade up to larger opportunities in the future that are out of reach right now.

Sometimes Big Sexy Deals will be out of reach no matter how much time or effort you put into them. Perhaps that’s because your product is not mature enough to provide value to a prospective partner’s customers, or because your brand is not well known enough to be attractive. Big Sexy Deals require a mutual exchange of value and sometimes you’re just not there yet.

Small Unsexy Deals may provide less long-term value than you’d normally think to pursue as a superstar business developer, but racking up small wins helps to build momentum that can accelerate your journey down the path to larger opportunities. Pursuing smaller deals may requires less organizational buy-in from a prospective partner in order to move forward, and accordingly may have a lower hurdle to leap to get them interested.

Small Deals Have Option Value

The key to turning a Small Unsexy Deal into a Big Sexy Deal is to think of your initial deal as an MVP. Inviting someone from a company to speak at an event provides an opportunity to build a direct relationship with an advocate within the company. Scoring an opportunity to syndicate a blog article you’ve already written onto their own blog establishes a connection between your content and their audience. Securing a discount on their product to offer to your own customers can demonstrate the potential an ongoing distribution partnership.

Individually, these may all seem like relatively small deals with little fruit to bear, but each provides more than what’s on their face. They can provide option value: the time for your own audience to develop into a size that they would want to reach; The resources to build a more customizable product that would appeal to their customer base; an initial contact within the organization to learn about how their business is structured and to establish relationships that can lead to bigger and better things. None of those opportunities may be an exciting destination, but they are all valuable steps on a longer path.

It may be hard to realize it when you’re standing in the orchard, but sometimes the lowest hanging fruit can become a most-satisfying pie.

The Local Politics of Selling an Idea

A friend of mine recently got a fancy new job as a deputy press secretary for a U.S. Senator. While congratulating him on the exciting new gig, he modestly demurred and suggested that his boss is the one who handles interactions with the big national news outlets, while he’s mainly responsible for relationships with the smaller, less prestigious local newspapers. Think The Main Street Gazette rather than the The New York Times.

“Actually,” I told him, “I think your role may be more important than your boss; role.”

Why would that be?

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He’s Just Not That Into You

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you meet someone at an event who strikes you as a great potential customer or partner. You raise the notion of working together, and have a great chat. You both seem excited by the potential deal in the offing, and you part ways with every intention of following up again. You email the next day, and then…nothing. You follow-up again: nothing. And again, and again, and again: nothing.

I’m sorry, but he’s just not that into you.

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