7 Biz Dev Tips for Startups

Being able to quickly get in front of the right people is an important skill. Biz Dev has evolved to be leaner, but people’s attention is ever more scarce. Gone are the days of lengthy emails – Twitter has forced us to fit most of our thoughts and actions into 140 characters. Here are 7 (lengthy!) tips for how you might go about it:

1. Find the Right People

First, you need to figure out who are you selling to. Start by segmenting your market and really spending time to do it right. Doing this step wrong will lead to a lot of time wasted.

Within the target companies, understand who the right groups and people are. Again, getting this wrong will lead to a waste of time. For example, if you are selling social media tools, you are targeting either social media groups or marketing groups. If you are selling recruiting or learning software, the right people would be in HR. If you are selling tools for game developers, buyers might be product managers, producers, or engineers on the other end.

Whatever it is you are selling, determining the right companies and people to approach is key. Assuming you find the right people, the next step is to use LinkedIn, email, or Twitter to reach them.

2. Search LinkedIn for Contacts

To be able to use LinkedIn for business development you will need to get a PRO account. It is worth the $45 per month because without it you can’t really see who in your network is connected to your targets.

My favorite method is to enter any organization at the VP or Sr. Director level, (unless you know the CEO 😉 The reason is that they are often the decision makers, and will route you properly through the corporate pipes. The second thing is they will remember you, and will feel like they brought you in, if your product or service is bought.

Let’s go through a few examples of how to do the search on LinkedIn. First, click the Advanced link next to the search box. Use the Advance Search because it allows you to configure your search precisely.

Say I am looking to sell a social media tool to HBO. Here is the search:


Note that I searched specifically for VP social media (not VP of social media, it’s noise), and I selected currently holding this position (past matches are never useful for me personally). You can see that there is a direct match. If there was no match for VP, try searching for Vice President.

If instead of social media, I searched for marketing, I would get a different set of results. It is not necessarily wrong, it is just not what I was looking for. If you reach out to the wrong person, and they feel like what you are doing is interesting, they will route you to the correct person. Now look closely at the results below:


There is no such thing as just marketing in larger companies. People specialize and own different functions. For example, at HBO you will have folks who market currently airing shows to consumers, and then different folks responsible for social media marketing. Yet another group would own DVD marketing, and another group would own marketing relationships with cable companies and other distribution channels. You get the point – know who you are selling to.

If you absolutely have no idea who could be responsible for what you are selling (this is really bad!) you can search for all VPs in the company and try to figure out who is the best match. In the case of HBO this will work just fine, but in the case of IBM it won’t work, because it is a 300,000-person company.


And sometimes you have to go outside of LinkedIn to find the right contact.

For example, if I search for VP or Vice President of HR at Facebook, I get no matches. I keep tinkering with that search but nothing happens. I then search Google like this: VP HR Facebook and I get a link to this Crunchbase profile for Lori Goler. I then search for Lori Goler on LinkedIn, and I see that her title is actually Head of HR at Facebook. That checks out and she is the contact I am looking for.

3. Leverage Your Network

It is better to get an introduction vs reaching out cold. Business Development is a collaborative sport, and the best players don’t play alone. When you are introduced by someone, your chances of getting attention are usually higher.

LinkedIn provides a great way to get introduced via your network. Let’s say I want to get an introduction to Lori Goler at Facebook (I really do!), and when I search I see that she is connected first degree to two people in my network: David Jones, EVP of Sales and Marketing at Shazam and Albert Cheng, EVP and CPO of Digital Media at Disney.

This is actually an unusually low number of contacts for me. Typically, when I am looking for an intro I get 10+ connections who know the person. The reason is – and this is important – most of the time, I am connecting to other people in tech. Since I have well over 1,000 connections I can always get to someone in tech. However, outside of tech my network is not strong. Tech HR is actually on the border of my network, that’s why I only have 2 leads to Lori. I recently was asked for help with intros to folks in the hospitality industry, which is not something I can help with.

Another interesting thing to note is that Lori only has 154 connections. She is not a super-user of LinkedIn like I am. This means that getting to her and getting her attention will be pretty hard.

Now comes a really important point – think about and visualize your network. What does it look like? What sectors are the strongest for you? What geographies? Who are the super nodes? Who are the people connecting you to other industries? Similarly, think about the network of the person you are trying to reach – is it the same as or different than yours? Is this person an active networker or not?

If you remember one thing from this post, remember this – always connect on LinkedIn with relevant people. Always build your network, and make sure it is up to date and relevant.

4. Request an Intro

Now back to the introduction to Lori Goler at Facebook. I only met Albert (Disney) once and exchanged a few emails. I met David (Shazam) a few times, and feel like I know him a little better. I am going to first ask David for an intro. Keep in mind, every time you ask someone for an intro you need to think about the state of your relationship with them.

Specifically, think about how well you know them, when was the last time you talked, when was the last time they did an intro for you. Obviously, you can’t keep asking the same person for an intro over and over again. (This is why you need to build a strong network!) You don’t need to overthink who to ask for an intro, but you definitely need to think about it.

I like LinkedIn as a tool for finding the contacts, but I really dislike using LinkedIn as a messaging mechanism. It just doesn’t feel right to me. Instead I will write David an email:


Things to pay attention to:

  • Email needs to be short
  • Subject line varies depending on your relationship
  • A/B test subject lines heavily
  • Be warm and friendly, but compact
  • Be SUPER deliberate with spacing. I am.
  • Always ask to be connected to a specific person
  • State the ask and the reason for the ask

If I am friends with the other person, I will be A LOT less formal. I would do this:

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 8.45.58 PM

Seriously, I am not kidding. I totally do this all day long. Why? Because it saves a ton of time and people know that I love and respect them. They know I am not being rude, instead I am saving everyone a lot of time opening emails – no one likes to do that!

The thing I never do is this:

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 8.47.52 PM

While this is not rude, it demonstrates laziness and lack of judgement on my part. Why? Because I didn’t even bother to do my homework to figure out who the right person is. I am pushing the work onto my contact; I am not doing my job. This is bad.

Another thing to keep in mind when connecting people is double opt-in. Just because you asked for an intro, it does not mean that the person you are trying to reach is open to it. Fred Wilson wrote a blog post about Double Opt-in. The only thing I would add is that at times, you can do a direct intro if you think both people will benefit or if they are both part of the same network / peer group. In general, double opt-in is the etiquette and rightly so – it gives the opportunity to say ‘no’ in a way that’s genuine and respectful of everyone’s time.

Finally, a word on forwarding intros via LinkedIn. I am not a fan. There is something mechanical about it. Something that de-voids the intro of what it’s meant to be – the human touch. If this is the only way you are offered, you might go for it, but I would personally rather reach out directly.

5. Reach out Directly

If you don’t have an intro, you can reach out directly. I’ve done it countless times and it works if you keep it simple and genuine. It also gets easier over time as you accumulate points in the world – your LinkedIn InMail score is good, you have lots of Twitter followers, and people have heard your name somewhere before.

The first thing you can try is LinkedIn InMail. It costs money and you have a limited number of these credits with your membership. However, if the person does not respond within 7 days, you get the credit back and can use it again. Here is my InMail intro to Lori at Facebook. This exact format has worked for me 80% of the time.

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 9.04.08 PM

It works because it is simple and because I have credibility. If you are starting out, you might not have the latter, but if you stick with simplicity and directness you will be more likely to get a ‘yes’ response. The one absolute key thing is make it light – ask for feedback.

Everyone understands that in the end of the day you might want to sell them something. But if you attack it head on, people will not connect. Why would they? They know nothing about you or your product and they are busy. You may have the most amazing product ever, but they don’t know about it yet. All you are shooting for is to have a brief opportunity to tell them and ask what they think. From there, it can become a follow-up call, a trial, a sale, or a ‘no’. Whatever it is, you will have the chance to make your case, and this is really all you can ask for.


Another key thing is to signal that you understand they are busy. I say: I appreciate your time instead of I know you are busy. Why? Because if you know that they are busy, why are you bugging them? Instead, by saying I appreciate your time, you acknowledge that they might be busy and you get that their time is valuable. And to show you get it, keep the intro meetings short. I’ve asked for a 15 min call. You can ask for a quick intro call. But don’t ask for 30 mins or 1 hour. That is just a huge and unreasonable ask.


Now, one last thing on LinkedIn intros. A/B test your subject lines. They are way more important than the inside of the post. As long as you keep the body short and legible it will be fine, but the wrong subject line might get you an instant DELETE. Like everything else, this takes practice and polish. Make yourself enjoy polishing the intros and take pride in your LinkedIn InMail score and success rates. I do.

In addition to reaching out to people via LinkedIn InMail, I’ve been also doing cold emails and, more recently, tweets. Cold emails work much like LinkedIn InMail, except you need to figure out the person’s email. Most of the time, it is pretty easy to do. The format of the email is the same as the LinkedIn InMail. In my experience, direct emails tend to get a slightly higher response rate, and also feel a bit better. The emails allow you to skip an annoying step that exists on LinkedIn – asking for their email.

Twitter has been an interesting and very successful experiment for me. I’ve been reaching out to people like this:

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 9.27.47 PM

This has worked for me 90% of the time. Why? Again, because it is short and simple. Because my profile says who I am, so she knows it’s not a spam. Because people are paying attention to Twitter these days. More attention than email or LinkedIn. This works because Twitter is fun, and email is work.

But don’t go crazy with this strategy. You don’t want your feed to be full of those. Use it sparingly and likely as a last resort.

Last point – best times to send the intros. I consistently hear about Sunday afternoon. This is because most people catch up on their work emails Sunday evening. This way you are on top of their queue. The worst days are Monday and Friday – people are slammed with work or are ready for the weekend. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are fine days. I would recommend sending between 2 pm and 4 pm for maximum impact, to avoid being part of the morning email rush.

6. Be a Meeting Nerd

You’ve heard all the obvious tips about meetings – be on time, keep them short, be polite, pay attention, be specific, ask for the next steps. Here is something that is so basic, yet people consistently fail to do. Spend 3 minutes learning about the other person’s background. Use the very LinkedIn profile you’ve been staring at to get insights, to create touch points, to show you care.

You don’t need to memorize the person’s background, nor do you need to artificially inject the facts you learned into the conversation. Do it at the appropriate moment, if the opportunity comes up. Mention someone you both know, a common hobby, a school, a sports team, a conference – anything that creates simple and basic human connection and shows you are prepared.

And don’t sell, listen. Engage the person you are meeting with and really understand what problems they are trying to solve. Involve them in thinking through what the solution should be, and then if what you are selling is it, things will be a lot easier. Selling hard does not work.

7. Follow up!

So… You got that intro and the first meeting. Now what? This is not the end, it’s the beginning. Now you have to get results. Whether it’s sales or biz dev, the process is always complex and takes time to master. One thing that remains constant is follow up. No matter what you are doing, you need to manage your pipeline – you need to follow up.

A while ago, I used a system of reminders where I would take the email and create a calendar event and a reminder to follow up. The system was both exhausting and ineffective. I was constantly context switching and soon I realized that I was doing it wrong. Instead of reminders, it’s better to scan a pipeline.

Specifically, a simple integrated email CRM, like Streak, allows you to turn your emails into a pipeline. You label the conversations with company name and organize them into a pipeline – Intro, First Call, Pilot, Purchased, Declined, etc. Then what you do is book the time in your calendar to review different stages at different times.

This will allow you to efficiently process all Intros in one day, all Pilots in the other, etc. You will be able to focus. For more on how to manage your calendar and allocate time, see my 7 Calendar Tips for Startups post.

And there you have it. Yes, there is a lot to this, and what I described is just the tip of the iceberg. There are subtleties and nuances here. There is an art to it. Of course a lot of it is science too.

Would love to hear how you do this. What have you learned, what worked for you? Please comment on the post and share with me and other readers.

Best of Productivity Startup Advice

5 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Alex – great post! Just shared with my team. I would echo 90% of this. (All of us BD types have 10% of “secret sauce” tucked away somewhere else ;-).

    I have a couple of minor comments:

    1 – i would *always* make it as easy as possible for someone i know to intro me to someone they know. You write: “If I am friends with the other person, I will be A LOT less formal.” I do that too. However, I would not simply say “can you intro me to X at Y”. The means my “friend” now has to put in some work to write an intro email. Instead, I would say “can you intro me to X at Y. As you know, my company is ABC and i’d like to talk to X about DEF. Feel free to fwd this note to make it easy.” Then my friend simply has to hit “forward” to X. Who could say no to that?

    2 – “best times to send the intros”. I think there are two times, depending on if the target is at an established Big Co or a Startup. Weekends (Saturday mornings, Sunday afternoon/evenings) are definitely best for getting hold of startup execs for all the reasons you laid out. But – and i’m making sweeping generalizations here – many folks at Big Cos will not look at email from 4pm on Friday till 8am on Monday. So i like to send emails to *those* people early Monday morning. Then as they’re getting to inbox zero over their first coffee of the work week, they see my emails at the top, and i’m immediately top of mind.

    3 – Leverage the geolocation card to get the meeting. I often use this when i’m cold emailing / reaching out directly. For example, i live in NYC and get to the Bay Area once every two months or so. So in an email i might often write “We’re in NYC, but i’m in the Bay Area next Wednesday. Can you meet then at 10am?” or something else specific. There’s something about being a visitor from “out of town” that gets people to say “yes” to taking a face-to-face meeting – which are the best ones to have if you are selling.

    4 – Speaking of cold emailing / reaching out directly… I do that a lot, and I try not to do that via linked in. i always try to figure out the person’s proper email address and send straight to their inbox. I find that’s a better strike rate. It’s pretty easy. Most email formats are @company.com (startups), @company.com (Big Cos) or some similar variations. Even if i get two or three email bounces as i try to guess the address, it’s still worth it for the strike rate. Power users of this approach might also want to try https://rapportive.com/install – for gmail on chrome. you can start guessing an email address for some target… and often rapportive will complete it for you. Very nice!

    Again – GREAT POST. We need more BD knowledge dropped in start up land.


    • Hey Tobias,

      Fantastic feedback!! I will definitely edit the post to reflect.

      – Completely agree and I missed it! Make it super easy to intro by preparing a note for them they can forward.

      – Great point on the geo location card! This also makes me think about proposing specific times for the meeting. Need to add that.


  2. Great post Alex. I’d add a few more keys.

    – get a coach. Tap your network to find somebody who is formerly from, has sold to, or has relationships in your BigCo target. Ask them to help define the right contact, it may not be obvious, most likely is not, from the org chart.

    – warm intros are the best. Again, tap your network for this. But be wary that it is coming from quality. A warm intro from a poor connection can be the end of your outreach.

    – be super clear on your ask – from the first intro forward. So you can get connected to the right person.

    – If there is any way to orchestrate a face to face meeting – in the same town, same conference, etc. Even if it’s 10 minutes after a conference session. If you can get a face to face meeting at the onset, you will get better engagement as you work through the email chain to the right contact.

    – Follow-up and follow-up some more until somebody tells you to stop. Having been in corporate venture for 6 years, there is huge email flow both internally and inbound externally. In some cases external requests are not managed as urgently as we would expect. So keep pushing the note to the top in an open, helpful way. Don’t message any attitude (that will be the end of it).

    – make something happen. Once you have an engaged connection at BigCo, make a friend. It takes time, it takes energy, but that one connection can help you navigate to the other 10 you need to make something to happen.


  3. Lots of good points in this post.

    A couple of other hacks I’ve used to identify ‘earlyvangelists’:

    1) Scour your competition’s and / or potential partner’s press releases and customer success stories.

    2) See who spoke at a recent trade show relevant to your market and reach out to relevant speakers

    Both methods give you name, title, and company name of people that are likely target buyers for your product.

    Even better, if they are being quoted in a press release or presenting at a trade show they’re also likely to be the type of person who likes to partner closely with vendors and provide tons of feedback.

    This level of interaction is like gold for a startup trying to find product/market fit.

    (More on this topic for those who are interested here: http://johngannonblog.com/2009/12/17/how-to-find-earlyvangelists-in-your-customer-development-process/)