Over the past few years, I’ve had a number of different roles at Zillow.com, but I spend most of my time now doing business development forming online partnerships. I’m by no means an expert (far far from it), but I’ve learned a few things over the past few years regarding what works and what doesn’t and thought I’d share for those interested in getting started in the biz dev world. First, let me say this — every business opportunity is different. Each company is likely looking for something slightly different — traffic, branding, and/or links are the primary things most people are looking for from online partnerships. And of course revenue (now more than ever). With that said, here’s what I think are the three most important factors to succeeding in a business development role:

1. Determine your value proposition — If you aren’t bringing anything to the table in a partnership, you don’t stand much of a chance to land the partnership. And if you can’t demonstrate the value proposition you provide verbally, in text, or visually, then you stand zero chance of landing a deal. How do you figure out your value prop? Talk through your value proposition with others. I’ve been managing the Zillow API program for a couple years, yet I was just recently talking to Zillow’s VP of Sales, Greg Schwartz (raves9 on Twitter), and he helped me nail down the value proposition of the Zillow API program to potential partners (primarily agents, broker, and financial institutions) into something much clearer and succinct than the way I had been explaining it. I was getting at the same point all along, but in a roundabout way. Greg made me realize that “more qualified and profitable customers” is what brokerages, agents, financial institutions are looking for and that I needed to do a better job driving home that selling point and how the API program helps accomplish that goal.

If you seriously have nothing to give in the way of content, data, time, resources, connections, branding, etc — ie don’t have a value prop — then quit wasting everyone’s time and just spend money on advertising.

2. Build strong relationships – This is absolutely crucial to succeeding. Larger partnerships inevitably have to go through layers of bureaucracy before they come to fruition. Without your main contact vouching for you and your company, the deal probably won’t get done. Relate to them with something outside of business, get face to face, talk constantly, help them with other deals, etc. My best partners are now friends more so than just business connections and we help each other on multiple fronts. Expect your good partners to be the same type of contacts for you. Even once you win the deal, you have to keep the deal away from competitors. Inevitably, your competitors will come after your partners (they’d be stupid not to); make sure you have strong enough relationships with your main contact(s) so they are compelled to fight for you internally when those discussions happen.

3. Persistence — To get partnerships done, you need to be VERY persistent. I really wish everyone answered every single e-mail within 2 days (or at all), but the fact of the matter is they don’t. Everyone has busy schedules at their own respective companies and if you send one e-mail to someone and don’t follow up after not getting a response, then you’re missing the boat. In regards to lack of responses to e-mails, I’ve heard numerous people tell me that “If something is important enough and I don’t respond, inevitably the other person will e-mail me again or pick up the phone to get to me”; it may be frustrating, but that’s how life works. You’ve got to want it. Follow up until the partner firmly tells you no. And then follow up again using a different approach or value proposition.

A couple other tips worth mentioning:

  • Find your way to the right contact first — The hardest part of business development is actually finding the right contact to talk to. The larger the organization, the harder and more important this becomes. It really is all about who you know and how good your relationships are.
  • Be strategic — There are only so many hours in the day to spend on closing deals, so determining where to spend your time is important. While larger strategic partnerships take significant time and energy to complete, they are absolutely worth it in my mind. Having partnerships with recognized brands that you can talk about with other potential partners goes a long way toward closing the next deal.

If you have your own tips to succeeding in a business development role, please leave them in the comments.



  • Andrew Mattie

    Great stuff, Drew. In particular, point #3 really makes me reconsider some things. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of needing to be persistent and wishing I got quicker responses, but I don’t often consider things from the other side.

  • Luigi D’Agnelli

    I agree, in particular way with point 2. It makes me reconsider something about the mistakes I did in my old experiences.
    Don’t have so much experience but I suppose these 3 will be my main point on which I will be focusing now on.

  • iMobileRescue

    Awesome stuff. Finding the right person definitely is important. It’s the difference between wasted time and not, among other things.