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Knowing when your startup should go all-in on business development

There’s a persistent fallacy swirling around that any startup growing pain or scaling problem can be solved with business development. That’s frankly not true.

Business development is rarely, if ever, the solution to succeeding in a crowded industry, differentiating an offering or delivering a truly exceptional customer experience. But standing up an effective BD operation that brings in sustainable revenue and helps validate product-market fit can be the difference between survival and failure for a startup.

Business development is rarely, if ever, the solution to succeeding in a crowded industry, differentiating an offering or delivering a truly exceptional customer experience.

I’ve had the opportunity to lead business development functions at three companies experiencing three very different stages of growth: Yelp, Stitcher and TrialPay.

At Yelp, I served as vice president of business development and corporate development for seven years. The business development team I was brought in to lead was a core business unit with accountability to the COO, CEO and board. During my tenure, I was involved in securing around 200 partnerships with companies like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Samsung, as well as with scores of organizations ranging from early-stage startups to corporate giants.

Yelp was on its way to becoming a go-to source of information and customer value before I arrived. But partnerships like the one I secured with Apple made Yelp into a global market leader.

At Stitcher, I took on business development as central to my role as a company founder. While it may seem like an early phase to go all-in on BD, the partnerships with music and media companies that I orchestrated in the earliest days were essential to the company’s very survival. Stitcher is an example of a company where early BD investment made sense because of the dual importance of brand name involvement in concept validation and rising above podcast market congestion.

At TrialPay, an e-commerce platform acquired by Visa in 2015, there was already an established founding team and business model to involve customers in the marketing and payment of offerings by the time I showed up. In fact, I was brought in to run business development because the company was approaching an inflection point: There was pressure internally from investors and externally from customers to expand TrialPay’s network of merchants in order to diversify commercial offerings more rapidly.

The need for business development was directly tied to consumer demand and the company’s own position between growth funding rounds.

When to go all-in on BD — and when to avoid it

There are certain market conditions that make it smart for companies to invest in BD as a growth engine and others that signal it’s best to place money, talent and time elsewhere.

You should invest in business development early when your startup’s early success depends on it. For example, at Stitcher, we wanted — and perhaps needed — early buy-in from large media companies who created the podcast content we were going to feature. We didn’t want to get in the same murky legal territory early music startups had gotten into, like Napster.