Business Breakthrough Thursdays

Episode 7 — Dave Fionda on Business Development Skills for Founders

October 22, 2020 David J Fionda
Business Breakthrough Thursdays
Episode 7 — Dave Fionda on Business Development Skills for Founders
Chapters
Business Breakthrough Thursdays
Episode 7 — Dave Fionda on Business Development Skills for Founders
Oct 22, 2020
David J Fionda

In Episode 7 of Business Breakthrough Thursdays, our regular show host Dave Fionda shares his tips on how entrepreneurial CEOs and tech founders can grow and hone their business development skills—even if they're not good at the "hard sell." Business development isn’t about selling, he reminds us. It's about identifying, closing and nurturing the key relationships you need to acquire many customers.

Learn:

  • Why founders and owners need to learn or improve business development skills
  • What the three most important sales and business development skills that owner and founders need to focus on are
  • Why sales and business development aren't the same thing, and what the differences are
  • How technical founders and owners can become great business developers, even if it's "not who they are"
  • What steps can owners and founders take to develop these skills

Are you a natural-born sales person? If not, don't despair: Dave tells us you can still become a kick-butt business development professional.

Business owners have to wear many hats—sales, customer service, marketer, human resource, finance and others.  Many times critical business development skills for founders is overlooked.  But business development isn’t about selling. Sales is about acquiring one customer.  Business development is about identifying, closing and nurturing the key relationships you need to acquire many customers. Selling (closing) is part of that equation, but it's not the only part.

So how do business leaders without a sales background learn to build and hone their ability to close the deal? First, don't forget that these are learnable skills, not inherent traits or personality characteristics. 

The three most important skills that owners and technical founders need to develop, according to Dave, are:

  1. Never give up. Persistence is the biggest skill. And this is a skill that technical founders have in spades. 
  2. Learn how to listen. Business development is 80% listening and 20% speaking. Active listening is a learnable skill
  3. Learn how to build trust. Your prospect doesn't necessarily need to know how you're going to solve their business challenge—they just need to be confident that you're the person who can best solve it.

Sales skills, Dave argues, will get you one sale. Business development skills will get you many sales. He gives a specific example from his own experience—how he was able to turn on his business development skills to get a deal made that launched a successful overseas business where 14 previous attempts had failed. 

Dave is a 35-year sales and business development veteran, a CPA, author, mentor and, most importantly, a technical founder himself. Dave’s entire career has been focused on helping companies grow and be more successful. He loves helping companies succeed. Dave founded and grew 5 ventures in his career and sold three of them successfully. He is a mentor for the Mass Challenge startup competition and has also  taught at three of the leading business universities in the US ( Babson, Northeastern and Bentley) and has presented keynotes and executive briefings all over the U.S. and Canada. Dave received his BS in Accounting from Bentley University and an MS in Technology Commercialization from Northeastern University.

Show Notes Transcript

In Episode 7 of Business Breakthrough Thursdays, our regular show host Dave Fionda shares his tips on how entrepreneurial CEOs and tech founders can grow and hone their business development skills—even if they're not good at the "hard sell." Business development isn’t about selling, he reminds us. It's about identifying, closing and nurturing the key relationships you need to acquire many customers.

Learn:

  • Why founders and owners need to learn or improve business development skills
  • What the three most important sales and business development skills that owner and founders need to focus on are
  • Why sales and business development aren't the same thing, and what the differences are
  • How technical founders and owners can become great business developers, even if it's "not who they are"
  • What steps can owners and founders take to develop these skills

Are you a natural-born sales person? If not, don't despair: Dave tells us you can still become a kick-butt business development professional.

Business owners have to wear many hats—sales, customer service, marketer, human resource, finance and others.  Many times critical business development skills for founders is overlooked.  But business development isn’t about selling. Sales is about acquiring one customer.  Business development is about identifying, closing and nurturing the key relationships you need to acquire many customers. Selling (closing) is part of that equation, but it's not the only part.

So how do business leaders without a sales background learn to build and hone their ability to close the deal? First, don't forget that these are learnable skills, not inherent traits or personality characteristics. 

The three most important skills that owners and technical founders need to develop, according to Dave, are:

  1. Never give up. Persistence is the biggest skill. And this is a skill that technical founders have in spades. 
  2. Learn how to listen. Business development is 80% listening and 20% speaking. Active listening is a learnable skill
  3. Learn how to build trust. Your prospect doesn't necessarily need to know how you're going to solve their business challenge—they just need to be confident that you're the person who can best solve it.

Sales skills, Dave argues, will get you one sale. Business development skills will get you many sales. He gives a specific example from his own experience—how he was able to turn on his business development skills to get a deal made that launched a successful overseas business where 14 previous attempts had failed. 

Dave is a 35-year sales and business development veteran, a CPA, author, mentor and, most importantly, a technical founder himself. Dave’s entire career has been focused on helping companies grow and be more successful. He loves helping companies succeed. Dave founded and grew 5 ventures in his career and sold three of them successfully. He is a mentor for the Mass Challenge startup competition and has also  taught at three of the leading business universities in the US ( Babson, Northeastern and Bentley) and has presented keynotes and executive briefings all over the U.S. and Canada. Dave received his BS in Accounting from Bentley University and an MS in Technology Commercialization from Northeastern University.

Todd: Hello and welcome to Business Breakthrough Thursdays. I am not your regular host. This is Todd Van Hoosear. I'm really happy to be the special guest host today, but those of you who are jonesing for David Fionda don't worry, because Dave is my special guest today on this podcast. Dave Fionda welcome to Business Breakthrough Thursdays 

David: Welcome, Todd. Thanks very much. It's pretty interesting being on the other side of the microphone. Instead of interviewing now all I have to do is answer questions. So, it's going to be a heck of a lot easier for me today. So, thanks Todd great to be here. 

Todd: It's never hard for you to look and sound smart. So, I'm really happy to have you here. For those of you, because Dave doesn't like to talk about himself all the time. So, I want to make sure you all know Dave's qualifications. Dave is a 35 year veteran of this industry of what we're talking about today. He's a CPA. He teaches accounting at Northeastern University, and he's writing an upcoming book on business development skills for technical founders. Over the past 35 years, he's been living that life. He's been understanding how business development is practiced. He's put it into practice every day of his life. So, today we're really, really happy to have you here to talk a little bit about the book that you're working on and to share some of your thoughts and insights about doing this crazy thing called business development.

David: Great Todd. Thanks very much. As you said it’s been a long career and it's interesting. I attended some webinar about writing a book and my first impression was, oh jeez, I have nothing to talk about. But then I kind of sat down and thought about all the different stories and all the different deals and all the different things I learned. I just think it would be valuable to share some of these things because guess what, I was a technical founder too, right? I mean, I'm a CPA, accounting trained. I wanted to go to engineering school. I'm a drummer, so I've got that side of the brain going on, but I just thought it would be beneficial to kind of share these thoughts and insights so great to be here again. 

Todd: Well, Dave, let's start there with that term technical founder. It's the focus of your book. It's the audience that you're writing too. So, tell me about a technical founder. What's different about a technical founder than some of the other founders that you worked with, in your career? 

David: Well, I think you always think about business founders and you put them in a couple of categories. The first category is people who are natural-born salespeople. If you take a look at founders, they were trained, they've got that personality. They're natural-born salespeople, don't have an issue with that. But for me personally, CPA background, focusing on math, I've got the music thing going on. A technical founder is someone who has a particular expertise that wants to start a company. 

So, whether it's engineering expertise or whether it's finance expertise or whether it's environmental sciences or software development or anything like that. I think that if you take a look at companies being founded and run today. For the past four years I've been affiliated with the Mass Challenge, which is a startup competition. 128 companies vie for a million dollars in prizes. I've been a mentor there for two years. Actually, I was a mentor to two winners two years in a row but most of those companies are being started by technical founders. In my work with those people, a lot of the work I did with them was around business development. So, that's how I define a technical founder. 

Todd: Let me play the role of a skeptic for a second. If I'm a technical founder, I know this technology inside and out. I know some of the technical founders that I've worked with are actually doing some of the coding. I never think that's a great idea, but they are heads down on this stuff. Why on earth would a technical founder need to figure out business development skills and not just hire that out?

David: Pretty simple Todd. If somebody wants to take an idea from conception to launch, they've got to know how to sell. They've got to know how to sell. Interesting enough this year with the Mass Challenge, I was talking to a fellow mentor, and he was a judge, and somebody came in to do a presentation, a pitch because it's a pitch competition and they had nothing about going to market, nothing about business development, nothing about channel. They just had everything about their product, and I find that at the end of the day if you are a technical founder with a great idea, a great technical idea, the only way you're going to get this company to explode in those early stages. 

Down the road when you get funded and I mean, if you're an early-stage company, you want to get funding. But if you're an owner, you're not going to get that kind of funding. Anything you have to fund is organic. So, if you take a look at the early-stage companies, they need to get between the period of starting the company and growing it enough to be able to get funded. If you look at the basic business owner, they're doing most of the selling. So, this book focuses on those two audiences. If you can't and it's not about selling and, I differentiate it as business development is more about finding the relationships that you need to and making those relationships productive and getting them to work and getting them to grow your business. So, it isn't just about sales.

Todd: That's good. You and I were talking before the podcast and you gave me this list of the three most important sales and business development skills, and I love that idea. Can you share that with us? What are the three most important sales and business development skills that owners and technical founders need? 

David: Well, the first thing I think is never giving up. Persistence is the biggest skill. One of my experiences is that a few years back, I was actually given the rights to bring Italian software to Italy. When I started because I'm Italian, I've been there a lot of times. When I started doing the investigation, I found that 14 American companies before me had failed to bring Windows accounting software to Italy. But you can't be deterred by that. Business Development is about persistence. That's the greatest skill that you need to have. It doesn't matter to me. Someone tells me I want it to happen even more. Now, that's the first skill you need is persistence. 

The second skill you need is the ability to listen. Business development is 80% listening and 20% speaking particularly, again differentiating business development is finding the relationships you need to grow your company. You need to have the other person on the other side of the table know that you understand what their needs are, and that takes active listening. The third and most important skill is learning how to build trust. 

Learning how to build trust because I was reading an article the other day. Actually, someone sent me a whole bunch of articles to review sales and business development. Back in like the 2000s, it was about what features do you have? What benefits do you have? But today it's evolved, and it's evolved to can I trust you to solve the business challenges that I want to solve? So, it's persistence, it's listening and it's trust. Those are the three big things and in the book, I'll talk about how to build those skills, but I think those are the three biggest skills you need.

Todd: I'd love to talk more about trust but that might be a topic for another podcast. There's just so much to it, so much to build that trust relationship. It might be a blog post or two as opposed to a podcast.

David: Sure.

Todd: So, now when you gave me that list I'm listening to what you're saying and you're calling out sales and business development skills. I heard that from you a couple of times when we were talking beforehand and I heard it just now and I'm curious., aren't they the same thing? What's the difference between sales and business development?

David: I would probably characterize sales as transaction-oriented, and business development is relationship-oriented. What's that?

Todd: The trust thing you were just talking.

David: Exactly. Exactly. It is relationship-oriented. So, a sales skill is about the pipeline and the funnel, and basically filling the pipeline and pushing people down the pipeline through qualification, through a needs understanding. Some of those skills do overlap but sales are more transactional, okay in my view. Business development is more relationships. A sales skill will get you one sale. A business development skill will get you many sales. Alright. 

So, in my Italy example, I could have gone into that country. I could have started a company. I could have sold the software myself, but I decided the only way to be successful internationally was picking the right partner. So, I did a business development sale to a strategic partner that although 14 companies failed, including a company called Olivetti which is the IBM of Italy who spent a million and a half bucks trying to get this done. We did it in 10 months. We launched our product, localized it, and launched it in 10 months. The reason why I did that was I was able to do those three things. 

1.     Be persistent 

2.     Listen and understand and 

3.     Build trust. 

Because by the time I was done, my colleague, his name was Maurizio Ruggi and the company that I did the deal with was the Staples of Italy. They were the largest office supply and software deal in Italy. At the end of the day, he trusted me and trusted that I would do the right thing by him and that resulted in a multi-million dollars of software. So, business development, I believe, is about one to many. Sales are about one to one. 

Todd: I like that. I like that. Now, you were talking about skillsets and all about skill overlap and it strikes me that speaking of skill overlap, there's very little of it, it would seem, between the skills that you need as a technical founder and the skills that you need to be a good biz dev person. Do you need to have a split personality or how can you work with a technical founder to get them to understand business development skills better and to grow those skills? 

David: I think, listen; a skill is like anything else. It's something that you understand you need, and you practice, and you practice, and you practice, and it becomes second nature. My business development skills didn't come to me automatically. I mean, yes, I've got that kind of personality. I've developed that kind of personality but when I started selling for myself and doing business development, I really lacked a lot of those skills and I mean, I took courses and did a lot of reading. 

Back then when I was doing it, when I first started selling 35 years ago, I couldn't Google something. I'd go to YouTube and watch a video like you do today. But I think that the way you develop is, first of all, you have to understand that you need, it's necessary. I think that's the biggest thing, knowing that you need it. I'm working with somebody right now doing some coaching with this person and they're an accounting major and their first focus is technical, and my job working with them is to get them to understand beyond that, to really understand beyond that. So, I think that everybody knows how to listen. 

Persistence is a skill learned and it's something that is challenging many times because at the end of the day especially when I was faced with this daunting task that 14 people failed before me. Some people would say, oh, that's not going to work but you've got to have the vision to make it happen and you've got to see it, make it happen. Tony Robbins talks about that a lot too. So, I think that the way that the technical founders can build these skills is by practicing, is by practicing a little bit at a time. I mean, I think most of you talk about owners instead of entrepreneurs. Most owners know how to sell. If you take a look at most service businesses and most small businesses, the owners are doing the selling. They're doing the selling so they're doing the transactional stuff. What I want to help people with is getting above that to do the one too many types of things which is what business development is all about. 

Todd: That makes good sense Dave. So, is it just about practice makes perfect or are there some other steps that owners and founders can take to really make sure they develop and hone these skills?

David: Well, I think that the first thing is that obviously we're going to be putting some programs together to be able to develop those skills but, as I said, people like Tony Robbins say you can't just change something like this overnight. You're not going to wake up one morning and be a great business developer. But the more you practice these things, it's like playing a sport or playing music or whatever. I'm a drummer so if I have to take on a challenging jazz composition, I have to practice and I have to keep practicing it until I feel confident to be able to do it. So, I think that's really important. I think it's about practicing but I also think more it's about letting it get into your frame of reference. 

I think that many technical founders and owners come at things from a certain way. They look at things from a technical way. It's having a conversation. Yes, Dave is someone that I'm working with and the conversation came to, I think, of what it was, and her reaction was technical, and my reaction was business development. Her reaction was look at the things I'm not doing and my reaction to her was, hey, look at everything that you are doing and look at the benefits of that. So, I think it's just a process that as you go along, you can start to develop those skills. But the key is understanding.  A lot of people don't really understand that they need these skills and I hope that my book will open their eyes up and help them be more successful. 

Todd: Well, I'm sure it will, Dave, I just want to add one thing When you were talking and sharing that list of skills and listening was number two on the list, and a little bit later in our conversation, you mentioned oh, yeah everybody knows how to listen, But I want to challenge you on that statement because I learned very recently in my career, in my personal life, probably maybe 10 years ago that I'm not as good of a listener as I thought I was. I compare myself and my wife. When I'm listening, this is what I'm listening for. I'm listening for opportunities for me to talk more. What am I going to talk about next? How do I jump off from what the person I'm interacting with is talking about and talk about me or talk about stuff I want to talk about? 

My wife, on the other hand, listens for opportunities to ask more questions and in the end, when people walk away from a conversation with me, they start to think, okay, this guy likes to talk a lot. When people walk away from a conversation with my wife, they say, oh, my God, I love this person. Wow, I feel great! Why? Because my wife got them to talk more about themselves and about things they care about. Me, look, I'm a college professor. I like to talk obviously. So, I've just learned that lesson over the years that when you're interacting with someone, the more you get them to talk, the better they feel about the engagement with you after the fact. 

David: Well, I've always held that the business development game is very similar to dating, and if you were to walk into somebody on the very first date and do nothing but talk about yourself for 45 minutes the prospects of you getting a second date are slim and none. However, if you were to talk a little bit, ask questions, and take your wife's approach that's the key to good discovery. I coach basketball. So, I coach girls basketball in high school. Now, if I had to explain to you how to take a foul shot, that would be very difficult. But if I showed you how to take a foul shot, that's easier. But you've got to practice taking those foul shots hundreds and hundreds of times because when you're on the line and the game's on the line, you go back, and it becomes part of your memory.

I think active listening is the same type of skill. Listen, we're all ingrained we're all conditioned to talk about ourselves and me, especially. I did a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator about 20 years ago and out of the ranges introvert, extrovert from 0 to 60, I was a 59 okay. The guy who was doing it was a guy who had been doing Myers-Briggs typing for 20 years. He worked with one of the companies I founded, and he said that was the highest score he has ever seen in 20 years of doing thousands of these profiles. 

Todd:  Why doesn't that surprise me, Dave? 

David: It shouldn't. But what I was able to do is that is my preference, that is the way I'm wired but I was able to train myself to listen more. My mom always told me you got two ears and one mouth. You should listen twice as much as you talk. I think that by listening what you're able to do because when you're talking about yourself, it's blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and all these good things but when you're listening to somebody, you can get a lot more information about paying attention to their mannerisms. What gets them excited? The emotional cues that you need to close that deal and the other thing is people love to talk about their company. People love to talk about what they want to do. People love to talk about how somebody could make it better and I think that listening is probably a skill that you can develop. 

Like I said, I know I developed it. Like I said, somebody said to me once, Dave, you just got to shut up, Dave, you've got to listen. If you want to be successful, you've got to listen. You just can't, I call it showing up and throwing up. You get into a business meeting and you just carry on and it's all the time and then someone walks out goes... I'll never forget this, and this happened to me back in December. I was at a networking event. Networking is business development. When I network my goal is to try to get the person to speak as much as possible about their business, about their needs, about what they want so I learn. I learn about what approach to take. This guy walks up to me, I'll never forget this. His name is Charlie, and he spent 15 minutes pitching me about saving money on my electrical bills which:

a.     I had no interest in; I mean, my electrical bill is 100 bucks a month and 

b.     he carried on for like 15 minutes, 10 to 15 minutes and then he said, hey, great look forward to hearing back from you. Here's my card goodbye and he walked away, and I just started laughing. 

I'm like, do you really expect me to call you back? You didn't even know what I want, what my desires were. So, I think it is a skill that can be developed, Todd. Absolutely. If I could do it, anybody can do it. 

Todd: There you go folks. There you go. But I think that's true and then that gets to the question of focusing more on benefits rather than features. When you're feature-focused, you just want to talk about everything great that the product can do but that may not matter to the person that you are selling to, that you're interacting with. So, listening is a great way to figure out what matters to them and then you can own your pitch accordingly. Dave, this has been an incredible conversation. Any parting words of advice before we go?

David: Well again, I think that:

a.     It's been great to be on the other side of the microphone. I had a lot of fun. 

b.     As you can tell, I'm pretty passionate about this because I really believe that the way to successfully grow your business and grow it in a wholesale kind of way, not a retail kind of way. 

Retail is deal by deal, by deal, by deal, and that's great. But the way to really grow your business successfully is to take the wholesale approach. How can you identify a relationship that is one to many? That's what successful When I went into the Italy problem, the Italy opportunity, I identified someone that could get me one to many not one to one. So again, you know, obviously, I would love to do it on the podcast on trust and building trust. 

That is a whole other thing because in my career I primarily sold pretty high-end finance software and that is a business development exercises as well. How do you get people to trust you? Because at the end of the day, if they trust you, they will do business with you. It's been great being on here Todd today. I really enjoyed hearing you and listen to questions. It's just a lot of fun. I really, really enjoy this topic and working on the book. I'm trying to get this out as quickly as possible, but you'll see something very soon. So, thanks very much Todd for having me today, 

Todd: Dave. It's been my pleasure. You folks will see and hear Dave next week in the next Business Breakthrough Thursdays. So, thanks for letting me get my voice in here too every once in a while Dave.

David: You're welcome Todd. It's always great. Always great. Thank you.