Business Development May Be On The Upswing Careerwise, But What Is Business Development?

Earlier this year I had heard from sources at various business schools that given the recession and slower consulting and investment banking hiring, a lot of MBA graduates were looking to careers in business development. This is a great development, but in my experience the term "business development" means quite different things to different people. Here's a paraphrasing of some of the types of statements I've heard in the workplace:

  • "Business development is about new customer acquisition and sales."
  • "Sales personnel are divided into existing accounts and hunters. Business development looks for breakthrough, strategic sales."
  • "Business development handles strategic partnerships & deals."
  • "Channel sales are the primary focus of the business development team."
  • "The VP of Business Development works financing, acquisition, and strategy activities."
  • "Business development establishes the cross-promotional marketing deals."
  • "Business development focuses on strategic initiatives (whether partnership, financing, product) identified by the Board."
  • "The business development team is facilitating design of a new product with XYZ company and our development team."
  • "Business development sells product to the channel."
  • "Oh. You handle a mixture of finance, marketing & sales, strategy functions. You're business development."
  • "Business development folks are jacks of many different trades."
  • "Business development is about getting larger partners to commercialize on brand extensions that you may not be able to handle on your own."
  • "The sales team does that. You want to know what business development does? We need to talk about that in my office. Come on in, and please shut the door so we can have some privacy."

There is an element of truth in all of these statements. Business development can be all of these things. It really depends on company. In my mind, however, the role of business development is to find new strategic opportunities for the company and start the company on the path to execute (incubation). It is not uncommon for business developers to have a combination of strategy, marketing & sales, finance, legal, and operations background.

Based on my experience in business development, here's the flavors I've run into (roughly from more to less common):

  • Partnership development
  • Strategic market development and sales
  • Strategic marketing
  • Mergers, acquisitions, and financing
  • New business line exploration
  • Channel sales
  • New product development

What are your experiences with business development professionals? To what extent is it a well-defined function within your business? What types of issues have you run into?


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7 Replies to “Business Development May Be On The Upswing Careerwise, But What Is Business Development?”

  1. I worked at Oracle for years at it headquarter. The company was so product line focused, it struggled when new trends or markets emerged (.com, Hosting etc). I had a business development role that all about creating overlay products the field could go and sell. It was interesting and exciting, since the field were desperate for materials and consulting offer that got packaged up. It called on my experiences in sales, marketing, business practices and product management.

  2. Great perspective. The overlay “solutions” function is an interesting one. At Nortel, we had a number of solutions overlay people as part of the services organization (basically because it helped us to be more focused on the total customer environment and get out of the box-selling mentality).

  3. Steve, great post! It truly is a GM role that requires great people skills because you have a small team that has to continue to deliver value and MAKE IT CLEAR that you did so and how the company benefited from it.
    But, since you prefaced it with current trend for career seekers, I’ll take that angle in my comment. I think you hit it on the spot…ideally, BD encompasses all those things and therein lies a bit of a trouble in practice. BD is many ways is always stepping on the toes of other organizations, especially in large companies–strategy, marketing, sales, finance/corp-dev and to some extent with alliances, especially in organizations where strategic alliances is a standalone group.
    I have been in two BD roles–one within the product/marketing organization and one within corporate development–and there is a tendency for the functional leaders to drive BD with their functional bias and understandably so…but sad because it is such a missed opportunity. When BD is a part of sales (I see that more often), it is primarily a sales support function without a quota to provide account “coverage” or domain expertise. In all these cases, when times get tough, BD is first to go.
    While at Selectica, I started in the Marketing org, but was fortunate enough to eventually be in a standalone org reporting to the CEO. It gave me the flexibility and leverage to pursue all growth strategies–build, partner or acquire–to successfully open two new verticals and rebuild the business model, marketing strategy and sales process. Dream job for a new MBA! Only thing I craved for was a true P&L responsibility.

  4. Your point is so true that, it is not uncommon for business developers to have a combination of strategy, marketing & sales, finance, legal, and operations background. This is a useful information for people who are into business development.

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