What is Business Development, Anyway? How to Get a Job in This Surprising Field

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May 19, 2024 at 5:0PM UTC
If you've scrolled past a job that said "Business Development" and squinted your eyes a bit out of confusion, you aren't alone. Business development (BD) is one of those careers that most people don't understand beyond it being a buzzword. However, as Catriona O'Kane, a business development manager in the payroll industry at PCG Group, argued in the latest Fairygodboss webinar, it is a great career path for anyone to be on right now. It often means flexible scheduling, remote working options and a variety of other perks. 
Now that I've piqued your interest, keep reading for the definition of "biz dev," who's suited for roles in it and how you can find a great job with this buzzy title. 

What is business development?

Technically speaking, business development entails developing and implementing growth opportunities both within an organization and between that organization and its partners. Business development is generally intended to increase product users, revenue or both.
However, O’Kane was careful to begin her definition with a disclaimer: business development tends to mean something a little different at each organization. 
"Broadly speaking, [business development] is bringing a business to market, getting clients and developing that business to grow... revenue,” O’Kane said. "How organizations define that and what they expect within that role can really vary.”

What's in a business development job description?

So, if business development roles vary, what can you expect from a business development job description? 
"So it varies, but what we see often is it comes down to a sales element and a partnerships element," O'Kane said. "For someone interested in BD, be very careful to look at the job descriptions and look at what the expectations are."
O'Kane described her job as a business development manager as the following: 
  • Identifying sales leads, determining their needs and determining how to contact them, 
  • Setting budgets for your communication efforts (e.g. traveling to see a potential client), 
  • Reaching out to potential clients to book meetings,
  • Taking potential clients through the sales cycle to establish them as clients, 
  • Negotiating contracts, 
  • Identifying potential industry partners who can refer clients to her organization (and vice-versa), 
  • Managing relationships with prospects, clients and partners, 
  • Establishing her organization as a source of thought leadership by attending conferences, filming marketing videos and more.

What is the difference between sales and business development?

O'Kane shared that the sales function of her job — making potential clients real clients and negotiating their contracts — doesn't exist in every BD role. That's the difference between sales and business development. While sales involves pitching a potential client and converting them to a paying client, business development sometimes means finding those potential clients through partnerships or outreach and passing meetings with them off to salespeople. 
However, O'Kane's role is heavily sales-oriented, meaning pitching can occur in the field. 
"Sales versus BD varies by company," she said. "Most [business development roles] have a sales function, but its not a requirement."

What skills should business development pros have?

While some business development roles may require technical skills and experience, like project management experience or an understanding of certain softwares, many of the skills required of business development are less technical, especially in entry-level roles. Key skills include: 

1. Great communication skills.

Business development professionals are constantly interacting with others — in emails, on the phone and often in real life. Strong written and verbal communication — along with a dash of the social butterfly bug — come in handy on this career path. 

2. Negotiation tactics.

Like many professional careers, business development requires negotiation. Landing partnerships and clients requires a strong understanding of the art of persuasion, as does presenting your insights to suggest product enhancements and changes. 

3. The ability to be flexible.

Roles in business development require flexibility — both literally and figuratively. First, business developers are often booking meetings with partners, attending events and doing other things that are hard to pin to a 9-to-5 schedule. As a result, they usually need lots of space in their calendar to work odd hours. But also, business development requires mental flexibility. If a pitch isn't working, a good business development professional needs to understand how to change the conversation or how to change the product to fit their needs. If a partnership opportunity isn't working out or a sponsor bails, biz dev representatives need to find a new one — stat. The job is quick paced and requires mental agility. 

4. Proactive thinking and self-reliance.

Business development professionals are often able to craft their own schedules and manage their own workflows. Many times, there's no boss telling you how to do something or how many emails to send. As a result, people in business development need to be self-reliant, organized and proactive. 

5. Resilience and persistence.

Working in business development means a lot of rejection. Potential clients may say 'no' to a meeting or simply never respond. Potential partners may hear your pitch and decide not to move forward. Your new product idea may completely fail or not match your senior leadership's vision. However, a good business development professional keeps moving towards their end goals and understands it is all part of the job. 

How to get a job in business development

Now you know what it's like to be in business development — and if you have the right skillset to join the BD world. Now, how can you land your dream biz dev job? 

1. Because business development job descriptions vary, look for a description that matches your skillset before you get picky about the company or industry. 

O'Kane says she approached her job search this way, and it allowed her to find a business development job with no prior experience in the field because she had the skills listed in the job description. 
"Look at the job description and try to replicate that in your application," she said. 
Obviously,  the company you work for — and how they treat you — matters. O'Kane advocates for vetting the company after you've determined your specific skills are a good fit. 

2. Approach your job application like you would approach a potential client. 

Identifying potential clients and booking meetings with them requires an acute eye for detail, thorough research and a general stick-to-it-ness. Be sure to channel these qualities in your job application to impress the hiring manager. 
"You’re going to be prospecting, so take a lot of care," O'Kane said. "Write a good cover letter. If you can find out who the hiring manager is and reach out to them directly, I would say do it."
O'Kane also stressed the importance of using your network. After all, the role requires a lot of network building — and flexing — and hiring managers may be impressed by your strong connections. Don't have that network yet? O'Kane suggested connecting with other people in business development on Firneo or simply finding an Eventbrite networking event near you. 

3. Develop your soft skills before your interview. 

You've already read what it takes to be in business development. O'Kane emphasized that you can work on many of the required skills on your own — she had no business development experience and no online training before getting her role. Instead, she reads books and listens to podcasts that help her work on things like her confidence, negotiation skills and more. She suggests The Confidence Code: the Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman and Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

To gain more insights, watch the full webinar here

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