Summer has come to an end, and so has the second cohort of Social Impact Scholars, an organization connecting students with consulting opportunities at mission-driven companies. It was a year in the making: finding partners, signing agreements, finalizing project plans, project execution, and finally presentations. My role in all of this was business development.
Through a combination of strategy, sales, and relationship management, a first-timer in the trade secured 8 partnerships, creating 8 different projects for the student teams to help these businesses. Being mission-driven, the organizations embodied the ethos of doing good while doing business, founded by individuals who set out to solve the problems they’ve encountered.
This was a process that involved a lot of trial and error, rapid learning, and a meeting of many minds. A wonderful experience, a journey of discovery that further led me down the path of BD.
To best capture how I got my start, imagine pushing a circular rock up a mountain in order to get it to the other side. Starting on flat ground, the slope begins with a slight upward gradient, taking some effort to push the rock . As the climb becomes steeper, it becomes harder; however, the pusher begins to adapt: knowing the best balance between taking a break and pushing, how long of a stride to take. And finally, once at the top, the rock rolls downwards with just one push.
All this is to say that I started out with a great focus on researching prospective partners over conducting outreach. The problem was in action and the fear of rejection — the fear of the other party saying no. Hence the over-researching channeled some of my anticipatory energy into an action that I thought was productive (developing my spreadsheet of people to contact), but stalled actual progress. A form of procrastination, though a delaying of a process that came with a deadline.
Upon saying yes to helping my former professor in finding partner organizations, I had made a commitment to deliver results. A decision I made, as well as my actions, would influence not just myself but also the professor and so I had to take the dive. So, taking what I knew about cold outreach from my time interviewing for a job before graduation, I drafted an email to the person I had the closest form of relation to (I’d spoken with him before regarding learning about his previous job in finance) and hoped for a response.
Indeed, I got a response and we set up a call. That first call was short, lasting less than 15 minutes. It was fortuitous in that the founder was immediately interested in partnering, wanting to know more details from the professor as a next step. It was also a learning experience in offering exposure, experience gained from pulling the trigger and just starting.
Gradually, things began to smoothen out. After drafting a few conversation-starter emails, I picked up patterns and developed a template that formed the base of my communications. In consolidating the intro email to make it contain only the most important information, I devised a slide deck with additional points and data from the program’s previous year. Conducting calls and having meetings, I saw the process over and over, getting more familiar with each repeat.
It gets better
Soon, after seeing one cycle through from initiating talks with a founder to introducing him/her to the professor for next steps, I started to see how the process would look for future partnerships. And to add to the learning, not one partnership was the same. Each involved learning about a company’s business, problems, and potential solutions — upon spotting the patterns from analyzing a few businesses to propose projects, I started to establish systems.
Each stage in conducting business development provided room for optimization. Finding the contact information of prospects became a methodological exercise of looking across a variety of sources in succession. Researching a company and concocting the value proposition comprised of an attempt at matching a consulting framework/technique (competitor analysis, supply chain analysis) to an envisioned challenge of the company. Talks with founders involved skills that I continue to develop to this day, where learning comes from reflection: what I am doing in writing this piece, one that is also a crucial part in BD.
In order to analyze the data, there had to be a place for storage. Referrals, deal stages, and best practices would be lost without a place to track them, and here came the CRM system. In short, while enterprises use CRM (client relationship management) systems in storing all data related to the business, I used an Excel spreadsheet. It was of utmost importance to keep tabs on what was going on, especially when speaking with multiple parties, simultaneously handling multiple discussions.
What do you see looking back at you?
Business development is strategy, execution, and maintenance. It is also a people business, and I can’t write this without mentioning all of the people I’ve met along the way. Just through trying something out, I found such a multifaceted function, one which I’ve expanded upon since.
This exercise in BD involved the non-monetary exchange of value. My function in this was to convey to company founders the win-win situation that could play out in a partnership: students gaining practical work experience by working on research-based consulting projects for their company. As an example, one project involved finding product-market fit by analyzing comparable companies and conducting infield surveys to identify the company’s target market.
Partnerships are different from sales. They differ from transactions in the length of the engagement. After making my first initial outreaches in September, follow-up conversations might not be for a few weeks to allow for time for the founder to come up with project ideas. Once they were more finalized, it would only be in late May that the projects would start, to then culminate in presentations in August. This is to say that there was a lot of relationship management along the way.
That’s not to be interpreted as a complaint, as the founders I worked with were great. It was absolutely thrilling to hear their stories on founding their businesses.
You never know until you try. You don’t know if you don’t ask. Say what you might about these cliches but my journey above embodied them both. And also, this experience was just the start (more to come on this).