The Growing Pains of Business Development

hammer on screw, wrench on nail

hammer on screw, wrench on nail

Picture John.

He and his business partner started their company a few years ago now. One or two clients bankrolled the business during the first year. Their offer was really strong – it was new and fresh, client wins were backed by the owners’ personal promise, they were agile and hungry. As they grew organically through word of mouth and through existing clients and contacts, they evolved and improved their proposition, laying down structures and processes, building a loyal team along with a burgeoning reputation. John’s a creative, or a techy, or a consultant. Whatever, he’s an expert in his field. He knows far more than any of his potential clients. New clients instantly buy into what he says and in the early days, the conversion rate is great.

As the company grows John has more and more to deal with and less and less time to do it. He still smashes it when he meets people but as time goes on the list of ‘they were interested but I’ve got to get back to them’ new business prospects gets longer and longer, with leads growing colder and colder. The senior team still want 50% YOY growth but 50% of millions is much harder to deliver than 50% of hundreds of 000s, and the senior team’s extended network isn’t big enough. So, you have two problems – not enough new leads in and leads not progressing through the pipeline.

I hear this story every day. The solution is fairly straightforward to me, but that’s because I’ve been doing this for 20 years. To people with limited business development exposure, you just don’t know what you don’t know. So this article is to give you a starting point.


What do you want the business to look like in 2 years time? Imagine you’re there and use the hindsight you have to write your plan. If you want to be known as experts in retail, finance & leisure then it’s going to take you two years to get enough clients to be able to say you’re the experts. You also want to think about things like lifetime value, margin & recurring revenue.

Then set objectives for 6 and 12 months from now and develop a plan for that. Don’t be a slave to the strategy either – you’ll need to refocus the strategy every 6 months and adjust regularly, e.g. monthly or quarterly because there will always be an element of suck it and see.

The other angle is the route to market. Direct, partners, channels, etc. – each will contribute a percentage of your growth and different industries will need a different approach.


Putting it simply, who’s going to do what, when. And how. You’ll need to think about the activities you’re going to do, what channels you’ll use, content to support your activity, and timing, and then knock it all into some sort of plan. If you’ve got more than one person working on it you’ll need to decide who’s doing what and set milestones so that it all happens.

A side note: Put someone with good project management skills in charge. And be realistic! Slippage is one of the biggest killers of a business development plan, and I’m sorry to say this folks but Owners and Directors are usually the culprits because you over-promise and run out of time.

Actually, another side note: Be pragmatic. It doesn’t have to be perfect. 80% good content appearing regularly will do far more than the killer insight once in a blue moon.


The first phase. Building connections. Building your contact list. During this phase, generating opportunities to build the pipeline is your key objective, but don’t forget the long-term aim: Build your reputation in the industries you want to target & build your knowledge. It’s easy to get caught up in ‘6-month thinking’ – going after the ‘quick wins’ and just thinking about this financial year’s target.

But – what knowledge do you need in order to know who’s a lead next year. And how do you make sure that as many people as possible think of you when the need arises. Of course next year you will pick up opportunities as they arise – but the extra comes from having learned about contract end dates & purchase cycles, and from making sure your reputation spreads.


i.e. Sell. Too many people are ashamed of the word. Sales, alongside financial management, are the two single most important activities any business conducts. Don’t sell and you’re fucked. So I’ve just promoted it to #1. Stop being ashamed of it. If you don’t have sales skills in your business, hire or buy training.

And as a little aside here, to this day it amazes me how many business owners a) say they can sell when they’ve never been trained in sales techniques and b) have no sales skills in their businesses. Make no mistake about it, if you’ve never been trained in sales, you do not know how to sell any more than you can ski down a mountain. Yes, you could get down and you might even not break your leg. But you don’t know what you’re doing so you’re going to go extremely slowly, and without guidance, it’ll take you months to learn how to do it fast and how to go over jumps. And in all that time, you’ll miss loads of stuff you didn’t even know existed.

This is particularly common among marketing agencies, who think selling is presenting, and then pitching because that’s what they’ve been taught by Mad Men & countless agency owners and account directors since time began. A good salesperson will destroy a presenter every single time. Not saying there isn’t a place for pitching – just that it’s a small part of selling, and it’s always trumped by the quality of discovery & relationship building. Rant over.

Sell a Little, sell a lot

A key plank for your strategy is to get in with a small piece of work for a big client. Have a section in your plan that details how you’ll turn a £30K proof of concept projects into six and seven figure clients.  Understand what that growth journey will look like and task someone with the job of taking clients on that journey. If six and seven figures aren’t viable, then work out where your recurring revenue will come from. If you don’t have anything that clients can buy on an ongoing basis, find something and recruit the skills. Otherwise, your business development activity is trying to fill a leaky bucket.

Data, insight, tracking

Yes, you know the revenue you need, but do you understand the building block metrics? If not, work them out and measure them, every week. Once your reports are set up, producing them should take minutes: the benefit is that you spot things going wrong immediately rather than after 6 months wasted investment. We’re not joking on this. There will be 20 – 30 numbers you can measure that will tell you everything you need to know. Without them, you’re literally flying blind in the dark. If you’re serious about doing it well, you don’t do that.

If you don’t have one, get a CRM that has a pipeline view. Meet once a week and discuss next actions for each and every lead. Keep everything moving through your pipeline because if it’s not moving it’s not a lead. Kill dead leads.

So, there’s a fag packet how to build your own business development function that actually does some good shit. If you’ve hired your own salesperson, if they’re a 2nd or 3rd job salesperson, or god forbid if you’ve given the biz dev role to an account manager or office manager (i.e. setting them up to fail), there’s a good chance they will have gaps in their knowledge of what’s necessary and will not do all of this. You need it all. Get someone to help them, otherwise, you are setting them up for failure. You don’t have 18 months for them to ‘learn on the job’ and there is no manual for this stuff. Every single minute you waste is money.

So stop messing around and do it properly.

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