There are an awful lot of people with empty calendars. How do I know? My inbox tells me. Many of them are filling that time by sending me messages like these:
“I am going to be in town next week and would love to meet.”
“I am always looking to network and learn more about people and the companies they own or work for.”
“Can we partner?”
These are all lines from emails or LinkedIn messages that I have received in the last week. And guess who sent them — someone from a startup with “business development” in their job title.
I can understand that partnering with my company may seem like a good way to reach a large and emerging market — especially for a startup looking to expand their reach. But no, I do not want to meet. And no, I’m not interested in partnering.
That sounds sour, right? But it’s not. It’s just about the reality of life and the fact that time is the one asset you cannot buy more of. Mine is running out (and so is yours). I simply do not have time to meet when I know there will not be a reward from that effort.
Let me share a truth I’ve held for the last 10 years: Business development is fool’s gold. Startups that think they’ll get ahead by investing in business development are wasting their time. There are nearly zero startups that succeeded by moving themselves one step further away from customers. (And I hate to tell you this, but biz dev people are the first to get fired when their startups fail to gain traction.)
So let’s dig into the details. Why is business development a waste of time for emerging companies? And as a startup founder, why is it a waste of your team’s effort chasing dead-end “partnership” deals? 1. You need customers. Before you bother doubling down on partnerships deals, you better figure out what your customers value and how to deliver it to them. Pursuing those elusive deals will distract you, derail you, and deter you from that important work . 2. No one trusts you (yet). Would you trust someone who knocks on your door and asks to join your family? Not likely. Yes, you might engage in polite chit-chat, but you’re not going to invite them in for dinner. Until you can prove that you have happy customers (and better yet, revenue) no one will trust you enough to forge a union. 3. You have nothing to offer. Great relationships are built on mutual value. It’s about trust (see above) and a beneficial exchange. When you are just getting going, you have nothing to offer. And that is fine — it is still early. Keep building, and let’s sync up in the future. 4. Only you will fight for your survival. You have limited time to succeed and only you will fight with the urgency needed to achieve that success. No partner can do the hard work for you. Invest that energy in making meaningful progress and achieving important goals.
So, if you are considering hiring someone in business development for your early-stage company: STOP. And if you already did hire someone, you might want to help that person transition to a new role before you assume their lack of progress is due to a lack of ability — rather than the fact that no one wants to partner with a startup.
The startups that turn into thriving companies have clear goals and know what they need to do to achieve them. And they get close to customers — really close. These are the companies that learn what customers value and how to deliver it.
The distraction — and yes, the idiocy — of business development has no place in your early steps on that journey.
Brian de Haaff is founder and CEO of Aha! His previous two companies were acquired by Aruba Networks and Citrix, respectively.