Business Development Careers & How to Break Into BD

Jeff White September 1, 2021

Jeff White

Jeff is a small business expert focused on marketing, finance, sales, business development, and legal work. He's been featured in a number of publications such as USNews, Forbes, The Week, The Street, Investopedia, and CNBC.

Business development careers typically refer to revenue-producing roles in a business, but the method of bringing in revenue can vary greatly. Some career choices in BD are short-term revenue drivers, like sales, while others look to drive a sustainable flow of revenue for many months and years to come, like partnership-driven options. In this article, we’ll look at the most popular business development careers and how to get the job you want.

Business Development Career Options

Many people assume that BD career options only exist if the term “business development” is in the job title. This simply is not true at all because business development opens doors to not only directly related career fields but also ones you may not have thought of. From sales to operations, a career in BD can open many doors because of the diversified set of important skills that you must develop to be successful. 

We’re going to break down your career options into two groups: BD-specific careers and other careers that you can grow into after spending some time in business development.

BD-Specific Careers

Business development careers can have a lot of different roles and responsibilities, but many of them have a widely-used but generic title like “Business Development Manager” or “Director of Business Development”. 

Some individuals in the field take on specific roles, typically in much larger businesses, where their specialization is clear. One example of this career option would be a “Partnerships Manager” job for someone whose main job responsibility is to manage external deals and build relationships that lead to profitable partnerships. 

Let’s take a look at some of the common career tracks or job titles for someone who wants to spend the rest of their career life in business development. 

Business Development Management (Strategic BD)

A Business Development Manager, Director, or Head of role is responsible for all business development activity if they work for a smaller business, and much of the strategy and leadership if they work for a larger one. These jobs will drive the entire strategic process in defining what partnerships, sales, or other revenue-generating activity that the business should be focusing on. 

A role in generic BD management can be a rewarding one that requires a lot of diversified skills. Some of the skills you’ll need include: 

— Negotiation
— Relationship building
— Marketing
— Sales
— Communication
— Strategic thinking
— Strategy planning
— Be able to be adaptive
— Ability to create opportunities on the fly
— Project management
— Ability to get work done through internal teams

All of these related jobs focus around what many refer to as “strategic business development” and is the most common path for those wanting to remain in BD for the remainder of their careers. 

Partnership Management

In larger companies with bigger BD teams, you may get the opportunity to specialize in the management of partners and the creation of new partnerships without any other responsibilities. While this may be your main responsibility if you have a title like “Business Development Manager” or “Director of Business Development”, these roles will generally carry a title more similar to “Partnerships Manager” all the way up to “Chief Partnerships Officer”. 

It should be noted that these roles are widely available and many don’t use these types of titles. However, even if your role is called something different you can still focus on partnerships BD and build a great career out of that very important function. 

Business Development as Sales

A very natural tie-in to business development has always been sales. In fact, many people still think you’re referring to sales when you bring up the fact that you work in BD. To many outsiders, any revenue-generating activity can be classified as sales. However, working in sales can be radically different than other revenue-generating activities that occur earlier on in the sales cycle. 

If you’re working in BD sales then you’ll likely be focused on the end of the sales cycle, which is closing the business or individual and turning them into an actual customer. Management in this field is similar to normal sales management, but it is strictly B2B. The difference between this and normal sales is that you still get to wear the BD hat of working customers through other parts of the sales cycle and you can often still use your creativity to do so. 

Careers a BD Job Can Lead To

Due to the skills listed above that you’ll need to acquire during a BD-specific career, many doors are opened to you after you’ve gained some experience. Let’s now dive into a few of the most popular options that many former business development professionals have progressed into. 

Marketing

Marketing is the focus of the top of the funnel for all new potential customers. This can be done in a variety of ways depending on what your business sells, but these days it almost always involves building a brand in the digital space. A role in marketing can be right for creative individuals that don’t want to worry about potential customers after they initially show some interest in your business. 

Operations (Including General Manager)

Operations is a great, and natural, progression when it comes to someone who has been in the business development leadership roles. In SaaS companies many BD folks have ended up in a General Manager role after their time in BD. Being a General Manager, or in operations in general, requires a straightforward skillset, most of which you’ve likely picked up from driving value throughout your BD career. You’ll likely get to run a P&L and own the day-to-day decisions to run your business unit, or the execution of all strategies throughout your business.

Internal M&A Management

An interesting career path that isn’t often talked about is to manage the mergers & acquisitions activity of a business or holding company. This type of work is creating partnerships to purchase or merge with other businesses. Negotiation and communication are two strong skills that could make you successful at a career in M&A as you’ll be networking and listening to pitches from other businesses quite frequently. 

Consulting

There is no single way to do BD. This means that you’ll need to think outside the box and kind of develop what your strategy is going to be in order to execute, and it’s never going to be an “out-of-the-box” solution when you work on multiple projects or in multiple companies. That sounds a lot like the role of a consultant, which is where you’ll give advice or create strategies for another business in order to help them overcome a problem or create more customers. 

Private Equity

Actually working for a private equity firm is a different viewpoint of fast-moving businesses. Here you’ll network and negotiate but you’ll also get to hear why businesses are created and how they grow all the time. This job is deciding what businesses to either purchase, which is similar to M&A management but for a fund. You get to make recommendations or the final decision on all businesses. 

Sales

Another option is to go into a traditional sales career. Typically after you’ve worked in business development you’ll qualify for a sales leadership position to teach others how to build relationships and close customers. These roles vary widely by industry but it’s a position that will take advantage of your BD skills in negotiation and communication. 

The sky is really the limit for the doors that BD could potentially open up for you. You could, theoretically, move into any other department after BD but the ones above are the most widely adopted next steps for business development professionals because no additional training or education is needed to transition. 

Average Salaries for a BD Career

The salary for a business development professional is going to vary based on your industry and the role that you’re filling. Here is some basic salary information that we were able to find: 

Business Development Manager: According to Zippia, the average business development manager mankes $92,000 per year in the U.S. The range, before any bonus program that your industry may offer, is $60,000 to $141,000. Glassdoor, on the other hand, says that the average salary is $81,716 per year. The range is similar with a lower floor, running from $47,000 to $143,000.

Director of Business Development: Glassdoor has put the average for this role at $108,996 in the U.S., with a range from $62,000 to $193,000. Zippia, on the other hand, has put the average at $111,000 with a range from $68,000 to $182,000. 

These numbers, while in the ballpark of what is real, don’t always paint the full picture. We can’t list out every BD-related position, but Fireno has completed a survey study that details what other BD professionals make. If you fill out the survey here, you’ll be able to see the results and get real and actionable data around what people in the industry are making today. 

Pros & Cons of a Business Development Career

A business development career can be greatly rewarding and enjoyable. There are many positives about working in any facet of revenue growth, especially one where you get to negotiate and create partnerships that have such a direct impact on a business. It’s not all fun though, which is why we’ve listed out both the pros and cons of business development as it relates to your career. 

Pros of a BD Career

The pros of a business development career include: 

  1. You get to bring value to your business. There are few roles that can bring such a direct impact to a business as BD does. When you succeed it becomes very clear how you’ve helped your business and you get the satisfaction of that effort and the end result.
  2. You get to learn a lot. In order to be successful in BD you’ll need to develop a variety of skills and learn about different businesses and how they operate. Understanding multiple revenue streams and strategies will make you more successful, long-term, in your career. There are few jobs that give you so much career growth in even the shortest amount of time as BD does.
  3. You’ll never get bored. A career in business development means never getting bored because you’re literally working on a new challenge all the time and two problems are rarely, if ever, the same. If you like a career life that is challenging and keeps you on your toes then this can be a good fit for you. 

Cons of a BD Career

The cons of a business development career might include: 

  1. Not everyone always knows what you do. This can make it difficult to build relationships, depending on your business, and it can create bottlenecks within the business until everyone understands the value that you can bring to the table.
  2. You need to master a variety of skills in order to be truly successful as a business development professional. It is not a career for individuals that want to just be really good at one individual thing.
  3. It isn’t easy. Some will find this as a “pro” but it should be said that a life in business development isn’t easy. It’s a new challenge constantly and you have to be creative to figure out how to solve each one. There’s no blanket system that works for everything you’ll do so you have to evolve your strategies over time and you can’t coast. 

If you can live with those major cons then a business development career can be extremely rewarding, and it can lead to a variety of other opportunities. 

Who a Business Development Career is Right For

There is no limitation to who might find joy or success in a business development career. With that said, we’ve listed out some of the most popular types of people or situations that will do great in this realm below. 

  1. People who love change. A major role of business development is to inspire change through different strategies, always pushing the boundaries of what the business can accomplish. Plus, the world of partnerships is always moving beneath your feet so it’s important to be someone who can adapt quickly.
  2. Someone who likes to learn. Even the most experienced business development professionals are always learning new things in the field. This isn’t a career for someone who likes to stand still and just do the same tasks over and over again.
  3. Outgoing individuals. There are a lot of conversations that have to happen to accomplish even one value-adding deal. You have to speak to people externally and internally to drive the work to be done, and constantly negotiating and checking in to make sure everything is on schedule. Introverts will find it more difficult to succeed in that type of environment. 

How to Land a Business Development Job

Getting a job in business development is just like any other job when it comes to preparation, making sure that you meet the minimum requirements, and going through the interview process. If you want to transition into business development either as at an entry-level position or from another department or role then here are some basic things you can do to improve your chances: 

— Get a college degree. While this isn’t required for some roles, it’s pretty standard across the board in something that most businesses look for. This requirement is starting to get more relaxed and experience can trump this but it is a good first step towards a BD role. 

— Get sales experience. Many roles require at least 1-2 years of either sales or marketing experience before you jump into becoming a business development manager, which is the first BD role many get in the industry.

— Get startup experience. Working for a startup can speed up your knowledge and understanding of how deals are made and the pace you’ll need to work at in BD.

— Manage a team. It doesn’t matter how or where you manage a team but any leadership experience is typically considered a plus when looking to transition.

— Shadow other business development professionals. As we’ve found at Firneo with our community of BD professionals, everyone is pretty helpful and open to helping you break into the field. Spend some time understanding what they do and how they bring value to their organization. This is a huge leg-up in any future interview process. 

The next way to break into business development is to convince your current company that the role is needed and that you’re ready to fill the void. Check out how Mark Jeffrey was able to do it and then help the company bring in someone he could learn from and develop under. 

Convincing Your Company It Needs a BD Role

You may find yourself in a situation where you’re doing BD work but it isn’t your full-time gig. If that’s the case then you may need to convince your business to hire, or make you, a full-time business development manager. It could be a great way to get leadership experience quickly as you could find yourself being the only BD employee at the company. This means you’ll get to be involved with everything from setting the strategy to reaching out with a new partnership in mind. 

Let’s take a look at a few tips on how you can convince your business that they need full-time business development.

  1. First, show your company the value that can be achieved through allocation of full-time resources. Value is the best thing that BD professionals accomplish and it’s the first reason a business will want you to do this full-time.
  2. Provide case studies throughout your industry, making it completely relatable to your decision-maker, that show why it’s important not to wait to bring you on for BD work.
  3. Go do it! If you’re able to find a potential partnership with another business that is beneficial then your company is going to be much more likely to see the value first-hand and know that you’ll be able to deliver if you get the job. 

Bottom Line

Business development is a rewarding career field that has what feels like limitless possibilities to grow into whether you want to stay in BD or move on to another field. It’s a great stepping stone into everything from marketing to being a General Manager because of the skills you’ll be able to develop while working in the field. No matter what path you choose, this should give you a good overview of everything that might be possible for your next career move.