How I Built a Career in Business Development

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.  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.


16 Responses to How I Built a Career in Business Development
  1. Gaurav Reply

    Great write up Scott ! Really great. I am too sailing in the same boat by managing as a QA manager for a consultancy and looking to set myself as a business development manger. I can relate my story to your’s. I am really obsessed with my organisation’s growth and have started some cold calling initiatives and looking for some luck. Your story has given me some light as I should not stop working towards my goal of becoming a technical CEO of an organisation:)

    • slpollack Reply

      That’s fantastic, Gaurav! Anyone can “do business development” — just go out and develop the business. As you’re discovering, it doesn’t need to be your official designation.

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  5. Markiza Mkd Reply

    Wow…well hm I just move to another country and i’m starting all over again lets say. New marketing management school even i have degree in finance from my country. I just figured out finance is quite boring and i needed something more energetic. As last semester of my marketing management course i was offered to be business development assistant as intern in a company that is trading with energy, oil, gas etc. So here ‘m checking what the hell i’m suppose to do 😀 You differently have some goof tips but also the fact that everything is possible and there is needed creative mind to certain level gives me hope that maybe this is what im looking for 😀

    • slpollack Reply

      Thanks Markiza – best of luck with the internship!

  6. Patrice Theriault Reply

    Hi Scott,Read your article in the Forbes magazine and now have read most of your articles on your blog which are by the way really interesting. Thank you for all your insight and for having taken all the time to write this.
    One aspect of Biz Dev that I am interested in is the way companies typically compensate people that become Biz dev for them? I have been offered a position by my company for specific BD in a market where they would like to grow. It sounds like the BD would be a contract based on 50 to 100% commission from sales of product in that specific market. The type of business has a long sales cycles, could be up to 3 years.
    What is your expérience in the different to pay employees in BD?
    Thanks for your help.

    • slpollack Reply

      Hi Patrice. In my experience, business development jobs that are oriented more towards developing a growth strategy, expanding into new markets, partnerships, etc. are more often salary-based, whereas jobs that are more sales-oriented (e.g., selling a pre-defined product) more likely have have commission structures. My career has always been focused on the former. I’m no expert on compensation models so I’m speaking a bit from intuition, but a commission-based job for a product with 3-year sales cycles sounds very risky and tough to make a living on. A bit fishy even.

      • Patrice Theriault Reply

        Thank you for your insight and comments.

  7. Angelie Pareja Reply

    Thanks Scott for all the articles and blogs you’ve shared. I’m newbie to Business Development and Leasing, reading all of your articles really helps and motivates me. I started having the passion for it. It’s a long way for me. God bless 🙂

    • slpollack Reply

      Thanks Angelie!

  8. […] firmly believe that there is no one single path that leads to a career in business development, but ...
  9. Bao Khuyen Reply

    Thanks Scott for your all Articles. A searching for ” business development definition” on Google lead me to an article on Forbes. And now I am here. I see myself in yours path to BD someway and feeling happy with this. I was a BD manager for 3 years in a small company but I haven’t got a clear definition on this untill now. Right now I am looking for a job and a Head Hunter is inviting me for BD manager in Vietnam. I’m going to make a presentation to the hiring manager for 2nd interview next time. Thanks again for the articles, it’s really helpful for me. May I become a friend of you?


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