The Power of Being Human in Business Development

I’ve had some really crummy experiences with business and corporate development people in the past year. There’s been a strange change in ethos, where suddenly people have forgotten that when they do deals, they are doing deals with other people, not with a company. I learned this in 1993 when my first company was acquired by Len Fassler and Jerry Poch, two of the absolute master deal makers I’ve ever worked with. The each taught me so much about this, by first being people, then dealmakers.

 I’ve got a few posts on this topic coming but until then here’s a great post from Chet Kittleson at UP Global about how he thinks about it. Now, while Chet focuses on business development, the same is true for corporate development or sales.

My name is Chet Kittleson and I’m a human. I have eyes and ears and a nose and two nieces, and one nephew, and two sisters, and a wife, and a house and a couple of cats and a mom and a step dad and a biological dad and some friends and a history filled with good and bad and right and wrong and so much more that I can’t fit into one run-on sentence. Like I said, I’m a human.

What I’ve done with this first paragraph, hopefully, is began to build up trust between you and I. The type of trust that extends beyond the walls of LinkedIn and Twitter, and into a meaningful relationship between us as human beings. I’ve exposed more than simply what I do for a living, and in doing so, I’ve broken down a wall that previously would have created a barrier between where we stand now and where we might stand a week or a month or a year from now.

This sentiment is meaningful in every walk of life, but in business development this is the difference between failure and success. It’s not Microsoft or Google or Amazon that you’re looking to partner with, it’s Mary or Matt or Lindsay.

“Companies don’t make deals with other companies. People make deals with people. Understanding the motivations and incentives of the relevant people involved is critical to getting a deal done,” said Greg Gottesman of Madrona Venture Group.

The old adage, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” should be something closer to, “it’s not what you know or even who you know, it’s who you can influence.” And to be clear, influence is not in the same family as manipulation. Influence is based off of authenticity and trust built by years of friendship and communication. People who genuinely trust you to help them make smart decisions based on their needs as human beings as well as the needs of the companies they work for are in your sphere of influence. This is where the bulk of real and lasting business happens.

You’ll be surprised at how captive another person will be when they view you as an industry expert on things that pertain to their needs, rather than an expert at selling whatever it is you’re selling. Send them suggestions on other partnerships or products that have nothing to do with your organization. (Thanks to T.A. McCann for that nugget.) Connect them with your competitors if they’re able to offer something that aligns better with their goals. Stay relevant and true and you’ll be invited into conversations and email threads that otherwise you would have never been privy to.

“I never would have imagined what a profound impact the people I bonded with – co–founders, investors, mentors, partners –  early on in my entrepreneurial career would continue to have in my personal and professional life over 15 years later.  What better investment can we all make than in the people we respect.” said Mike Fridgen, GM at eBay and former CEO of

So if you’re interested in pursuing a career in business development, or are new to the field, here’s your first call to action: drop every book you’re reading with “sales” in the title, walk outside, and meet someone. Then meet someone else. Then go back to the first person you met and ask them how they’re doing. And all the while, don’t forget for one second that every single person you’re meeting is ridiculously human. Every one of them, regardless of their title, the number of connections they have on LinkedIn or the amount of budget they have control over, they’re human and they have eyes and ears and a nose and nieces and nephews and sisters and brothers and wives and husbands and all the rest.

Second call to action: start selling something. Anything. Learn how to remain human when money is added to the equation. Cold call strangers out of the phone book, set up camp outside of a grocery store, and learn to build trust out of nothing in an authentic way. I’ve worked with partners on $500 deals and I’ve worked with partners on $500,000 deals, and in the end it all comes down to your ability to understand those on the other side of the table. Start with beef jerky like Noah Kagan did with his 24-hour business challenge, and work your way up from there.

Good people are everywhere, even in the business world, and as the barriers fade away those who you once referred to as contacts or connections turn into, don’t let this word intimidate you, friends. They turn into people you can share stories with, people you can consult with on the next fiscal years partnership proposal, people who can help and that will at some point need help. It’s simple, but if you can remember this throughout each coffee meeting and each conference call and each email, you’ll be just fine. Hey, that’s one human’s opinion though.

Chet Kittleson is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at UP Global, parent company to Startup WeekendStartup NextStartup EducationStartup Digest, and Startup Week.

  • Yep. Another classic that everyone should read is “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie. It was written in 1936, and its principles are as rock solid as the July 4th Declaration of Independence. Here’s a quick Slideshare refresher:

    • Thanks for the suggestion William, I’ll definitely check that out. I’ve seen it on shelves, but have never actually read it. Hoping the author does a good job at distinguishing between influence and manipulation.

      • The core idea in his book is that it is possible to change other people’s behavior by changing one’s behavior toward them.


        “influence and manipulation”
        What’s the difference?

        • In this context: “Influence is based off of authenticity and trust built by years of friendship and communication. People who genuinely trust you to help them make smart decisions based on their needs as human beings as well as the needs of the companies they work for are in your sphere of influence.” To me, manipulation is the ability to alter one’s opinion on something, regardless of whether or not it’s a good decision for them. You might be able to sell them, but they’re likely going to leave with a bad taste in their mouth. Then, the next time they’re looking to make a deal, they’re unlikely to go back to the “manipulator.”

  • Walter

    Influence by Cialdini is another classic book to read. Main ideas are reciprocity, scarcity, liking, authority, social proof, and commitment/consistency. I ask all the engineers I work with to read this book.

    • I like the sound of this one, will definitely check it out. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • John May

    Great post. In the end, it is about respect and care for the parties involved. It is amazing to see that the best performers in sales often put the needs of their customers first and work as an advocate internally to meet those needs. The company expects you to find as many deals as needed to meet a quota or goal. However, by earning the trust of the other party, it results in the customer giving you more information and opportunity to meet their needs. The close rate is much higher, provides better visibility into the pipeline and overall higher sales with less effort. Salespeople are often said to be greedy and out for the commissions. If only they knew that by being less selfish, they would achieve more.

    • Couldn’t agree more John. Years ago I worked an entry level sales job at a Verizon store, (selling cell phones/plans), and was always disturbed and disappointed by the way our incentives essentially encouraged abusing and manipulating the customer. In the end it was always a loss: the buyer would eventually cancel all of their unneeded subscriptions and would never come to our store again for the trust had been broken. Just because you can sell something, doesn’t mean you should. Thanks for the comment!

  • Drewmohoric

    I love this post. A refreshing reminder not to lose our humanity in work, but rather to lead with it. Authenticity and empathy go a long, long way. This reminds me of Zuck’s recent comments on how fb should be referring to users as people, rather than the reverse…a subtle but meaningful difference.

    • Thanks Drew, this is a post I’ve been thinking about/kicking around for some time now, so really glad to see it’s resonating. I love your thought on “leading with humanity,” I might have to use that in a future post. 🙂

  • This is a great post Chet. Thanks for writing this. I’ve worked in sales for the past 4 years, and have found that no matter how big or small the company you’re dealing with, people want to do business with real, live, solid people that they’ve built some sort of connection with; this is a foundation for trust, which is the foundation for any relationship, including business. It’s weird because I still meet people in sales who act a little robotic at times. I understand – sometimes high volume sales jobs can be pretty grueling, and people can lose sight of the importance of a real connection, when numbers are clouding their brain.

    But it’s important to have a bit of a reality check once in awhile, like I am right now. 🙂 Thanks again.

    • Yup! Glad it rang true for you.

    • Thanks for this Nick. (And sorry for the delayed reply, traveling for work at the moment.) As Brad said, glad it rang true for you. It’s crazy how similar business development conversations are, regardless of the size of the company, the stature of the person on the other side of the table, and/or the amount of money being discussed. Sure, there are differences, but in my experience there are far more similarities. It’s, get ready for me to sound like a broken record, all about being human. Thanks again!

  • Saw a company, that is handling the human side of HR. Really cool company and fits this ethos.

    • Neat – I’ll take a look.

      • I should have put, “full disclosure-I am committed to investing in their next round”. Shows my bias.

        • That’s an even more powerful reason for me to take a look.

          • And of course I wasn’t minding my manners. If you want an intro, I am happy to make one. Be well.

          • Sure – go for it.