I’m often asked questions like “what steps should I take to build a career in business development?” and my first instinct is to relay parts of my personal career story. It’s my feeble attempt to provide a thoughtful, structured answer for how they can do the same thing.
I’ve spent over 10 years working in all facets of partnerships, but labeling myself a “business development” guy is a relatively recent phenomenon. Here’s the story of my winding road to a career that I’ve loved.
It all started a long time ago, in a place far, far away, called Long Island:
May 18th, 1981: Scott Lawrence Pollack comes into the world, the youngest son of an electrical engineer and a children’s librarian. I quickly adopted a personality that is the perfectly odd hybrid of the two.
1986: My love of electronics and nerdy things is cemented during my formative years as my brother Justin and I receive a Nintendo Entertainment System as a Hanukkah present. To date this is still the best present I have ever received.
1988: My brother Justin successfully lobbies my parents to upgrade the family computer to an Intel x386 as a means to playing Leisure Suit Larry and other kid-inappropriate games by planting subliminal messages in cereal boxes. Â My appreciation for persuasive techniques begins to blossom along with my obsession with computers.
1989: My brother Justin, the natural born businessman of the family, runs out of storage space in his bedroom for the mail-order comic book and baseball card business he runs while in Junior High school. I rent him half of my closet for $7 per month.
1994: After devouring my first book on “programming”, the first edition of Creating Cool Websites with HTML, I hand-code Scott’s Webpage of Funkiness. I quickly become obsessed with teaching myself to code and later go on to write an English class book report on Who’s Afraid of C++?
1995: Over dinner at a Friendly’s restaurant with my parents and my friend Jared Mizrahi, I suddenly declare that I will one day compete against the venerable Bill Gates by creating a rival company called Microscott. Our first product will be an operating system called Doors 2004 as a 9-year late response to the recently released Windows 95.
1998: I parlay a portfolio of homespun programming projects into a summer job at a local telecom equipment manufacturer called Porta Systems, where I and one other high school intern build a testing platform for a telephone switches. I have no idea what I am doing.
May 1999: My brother Justin forwards me a job listing from the Silicon Alley Reporter for a web 1.0 startup called UVentures hiring a “Junior Web Master.” I ace a phone interview with the CEO until the last question illegally asking me my age. Despite being “only fucking 17?” I am offered a role an internship where I am assigned the task of reading patents. I am paid $6 per hour and I start the day after my high school prom. I have no idea what I am doing.
Summer 1999: I move to NYC full-time to attend NYU as a Computer Science major and continue to work at UVentures several days per week. After our contract with outsourced developers expires, I teach myself how to program Java servlets by reading programming books on the floor of a Barnes & Noble. I become the inadvertent head of engineering for the 10-person company and manually make weekly tape backups at the Global Crossing data center on 9th Avenue. I get a raise to $20 per hour.
Spring 2000: I realize I have more of a passion for the business side of startups than the technology. I continue to work at UVentures to pay for college but transfer into NYU’s business program to study Finance and Information Systems. I have no idea what I am doing.
2002: I read the autobiographies of famous CEOs and observe a pattern of successful business people having an early career stint in sales. For that reason, and because I am terrible at Finance, I decide that I will go into sales after college.
2003: I am recruited into Dow Chemical’s rotational program for Sales and Marketing. I am placed into a full-time role managing the Northeast’s largest distribution partnerships. I have no idea what I am doing.
2006: I decide to explore a career in Marketing and a college friend recommends me for a job at American Express. I join a marketing team that is focused on launching newly signed distribution partnerships. I realize I am sold a bill of goods and wind up doing no marketing.
2007: While considering my next role at Amex, I have a discussion with my boss where she recommends I stick with partnership-facing roles. I balk and exclaim a desire to avoid “being pigeon-holed as a partnerships guy.”
2008: I find myself on a team working on the partnership between Costco and American Express. I come to appreciate being pigeon-holed as a partnerships guy, but hedge my bets by also founding a cooking events startup as an exit strategy to return to the startup world. Like any first-time entrepreneur, I have no idea what I’m doing.
2009: Having managed partnerships of every conceivable size, I look for opportunities to focus on strategy and deal signings. I become the second business development hire of a new division of Amex. I fall in love with the art of negotiating partnerships and explore opportunities to pair Amex with tech startups. I learn a ton about what works in deals, and a ton more about what doesn’t.
2011: I shut down my startup and begin to plot my escape from the Big Corporate world. I focusing on re-building my personal brand in the startup community by teaching a Skillshare class about business development. I stare blankly at the title of my first slide, “What, Exactly, Is Business Development?” and nod along as I write an answer that seems to make sense.
2012: With one foot out the door of Amex, I am offered an opportunity to work on a Digital Partnerships team focused on building cool stuff with companies like Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter. I’m tasked with doing product development, which I’d often discussed as a crucial aspect of driving smart partnerships but in which I had little experience. I have no idea what I’m doing, but decide I want to learn.
2013: I start writing a book about partnerships between startups and Big Companies, realizing that my entire career has led to this. I have no idea what I am doing next. I think that’s exactly how I like it.
My story is just one of an infinite number of combinations that may lead to the same end result. I don’t believe there is a clear path for becoming a “business development” person. And yet, the very knowledge that you do not need to walk a straight line to arrive at a career in BD can be just as valuable as a more prescriptive answer of what steps to take do.
I didn’t set out on a course to build a career in business development; I wandered onto it by constantly searching for interesting problems to solve. I consider that good news: without a prescribed path to follow, there can be no roadblocks. Every hopeful Business Developer’s path can – and likely will – be different.