In-Person Meetings: Four Ways They Differ for Business Development

by McCann, Erin

How should startups approach in-person meetings for business development partnerships? While examples like Rent the Runway’s meeting with Diane von Furstenberg1 demonstrate the value of meeting in person, many founders have asked me what (if anything) sets partnership meetings apart from potential client interviews, especially in light of Frank V. Cespedes’ note.2 While much of his advice applies to both contexts, in my experience the rules for in-person business development meetings differ in four important ways.

Think “when,” not “if”

Business development meetings should always occur in person to enable face-to-face interaction. Beyond pitching a deal,3 managers need to demonstrate commitment to their prospective partner’s team while reading their level of interest and interpersonal dynamics. Thus while some client interviews may be conducted remotely, the lack of visibility and time delays hinder effectiveness for partnership discussions and mask interpersonal dynamics. Admittedly, as in Mochi Media,4 in-person meetings require more time and travel expense, which may seem wasted if no deal occurs. However, in my experience this investment pays off, as every critical deal I closed began by building in-person relationships.

Promotion is key – but listen first

Unlike client interviews, promotion is critical and expected -- both parties anticipate some sort of pitch. However, business development managers often dive into selling too quickly, missing critical opportunities to learn about potential partners. Closing deals starts with listening. Ask questions about the team’s recent product launches or upcoming initiatives to uncover additional ways your partnership facilitates their roadmap. Sure, managers can impede meetings by asking too many questions. However, as we saw in Rent the Runway,5 the benefits of deepened understanding far outweigh this risk, and often prove essential to uncovering and resolving objections.

Focus on their team, not yours
When deciding who to send, prioritize voices the partner should hear. Your primary consideration isn’t just who will use the information internally (as in client interviews), but rather who can best answer potential questions. To start, I recommend confirming who your partner plans to send (both roles and total number), and then considering whether to match their approach. Even though partners often expect this, break the norm if you expect questions which require additional expertise. While balanced teams are generally encouraged, quality answers should trump invitation norms.

Streamline your objectives to one request

Given relationship-building and multi-party dynamics, meeting agendas are more complex than those for client interviews, and never go exactly as planned. Despite this, my experience shows managers often start with small requests and gradually build to top priorities, putting their critical issues under the greatest time pressure. Avoid this pitfall by asking yourself, “What is the one thing I need to take-away from this meeting?” (i.e. a subsequent meeting, proposal, etc.), and preserve time to address it. While time management poses a separate challenge, this becomes more feasible with only one takeaway in mind.

Ultimately, these tips provide a starting point for building partnerships through in-person meetings. Obtaining and structuring the initial meeting is only the first step towards closing deals. However, as foursquare demonstrated with Bravo,6  early partnerships often provide critical resources for acquiring customers and helping startups cross the chasm. In your experience, what other rules apply for in-person partnership meetings?

1  Eisenmann, Thomas R. and Laura Winig. Rent the Runway. Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2011.
2  Cespedes, Frank V. Customer Visits for Entrepreneurs. Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2011.
3  Bussgang, Jeffrey, Thomas Eisenmann, Sarah Dillard, Katharine Nevins, Puja Ramani. The Business Development Manager. Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2011. (47)
4  Eisenmann, Thomas R. and Amit Jain. Mochi Media. Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2011. 
5  Ibid. 1. 
6  Piskorski, Mikolaj Jan, Thomas Eisenmann, Jeffrey Bussgang, and David Chen. foursquare. Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2011.


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