The Art of Business Development As A Startup In An Old School Industry

by / ⠀Startup Advice / March 5, 2013

Business DevelopmentConcept?  Check.  Experienced Team?  Check.  Working product?  Check.  Customers?  Check.  But getting there sure has been interesting…

As a commercial real estate technology startup, we’ve had some unique challenges in our business development and customer acquisition efforts.  Of course EVERY startup company faces these kinds of challenges, but we found that many of them seem to be specific to real estate.  Commercial real estate is an odd duck.  Where almost every other industry uses data, has transparency and has embraced technology, real estate is slowww to change and has been operating much of the same way for 25-30 years.

TheSquareFoot is a marketplace for commercial real estate leasing; we bring together prospective tenants and available spaces in a simple, easy-to-use platform.  Our service is free for the prospective tenant, so our true paying customer is the landlord or the tenant’s leasing agent.  Out of the gate, our challenge seemed fairly simple: build up the supply side (the available space inventory) in order to be able to service the demand side (the prospective tenants) of the marketplace.  These were two very different exercises–in essence art forms–that took plenty of trial and error to hone.  What follows is how we went about attacking the demand side of the equation.

Our normal business development cycle with landlords goes something like this: 1) Get the meeting. 2) Outline the problem. 3) Present our solution. 4) Show them value. 5) Have happy customers!

Getting the meeting is not always easy.

Because our team has substantial commercial real estate experience, we have been able to leverage our existing relationships to get our foot in the door with a lot of large commercial real estate firms.  In some cases it took one introductory email to the right person at a firm, but in others it took several introductions to several different people with a lot of “squeaky wheel” follow up from us before we could set a meeting.  Sometimes, we connected with the right person over the phone, but because we are a technology company and the industry is slow to adopt technological change, we weren’t (and still aren’t) always welcomed with open arms or ears.  We had to be scrappy if we were going to crash through this wall.

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Explaining the problem was easier than we initially thought it would be.

Almost all landlords and brokers recognize that they have a hard time marketing their smaller spaces directly to prospective tenants looking for them. They easily see the problem that our solution aims to solve and many times, once we finish our pitch, the listener’s initial reaction is one of the “too good to be true” variety.  From there, it’s…

Showing how our platform is THE solution.

As a startup company, it’s amazing how unintentionally complicated potential customers tend to make things.  We are a newcomer to the market and our brand recognition is still in its early stages, yet we are able to map out exactly how we can help our customers make more money and save time.  The solution is more often than not received with nods of agreement and one time even fainting from believing it too good to be true (that might have just been a dream).

The net result however is oftentimes sudden interest followed by indecision and doubt and a series of questions including:  “How are you really gonna pull this off with such a small team and limited resources?”  “Why is YOUR team capable of providing me with this much value?”  “Your service seems like a no brainer for us, but if what you’re saying you can do is so easy, why don’t the more established companies in the space add this to their service?”  All questions that we’ve learned over time how to effectively answer.  Helping the customer understand that while established companies might have a similar look and feel to our platform, their true value proposition and target customer is X, while ours is Y.  We are a startup company, but we’re able to deliver because we’ve spent time being resourceful and understanding how to optimize the resources that are at our disposal on top of having a tight budget so that we can focus all of our energy on our customers.  All typical startup company questions and answers that we understand and acknowledge.

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Delivering on the value we promise.

We’ve sold them on our product and how our company can show them value in ways they haven’t seen in the past.  Next comes making it a reality.  We aren’t naive.  We know that when you’re creating a new product, things rarely go according to plan.  They end up taking twice as long as they should, customers aren’t as responsive as you want them to be, and every customer is different and demands different kinds of attention.  The key for our team is making each other aware of every challenge/question, internalizing it, and mapping out solution sets BEFORE communicating with the customer.  If we immediately responded to every question or issue before laying it out and coming up with a strategy, we would be losing customers left and right!  This is something that we’ve kept front and center as we push out TheSquareFoot to include Dallas office space.

Keeping your customers happy is an ongoing challenge and one that we’re still figuring out.

This isn’t about making the sale and disappearing.  We provide our customers value on an ongoing basis and they pay us as such.  We’ve been successful to this point and have gotten nothing but positive feedback [you’ve gotten zero negative feedback?!?], but we understand that it’s an art form and one that takes a high level of nurturing.  A very general rule of thumb we tell other startup companies is to always maintain contact with your customers, via email, phone or ideally in person from time to time.  It’s never wise to allow too much time to pass between visits, you’re either missing out on an opportunity to learn how to make the product better or giving your customer a reason to look around for something else!  Always keep customers in the loop of company news and events.  You want your customers to know how well your company is doing and to be aware of any milestones or recognition the company has received.   People want to be associated with a recognized brand, so even if you get an award for being the best company for people who love yodeling, brag about it!  Note: TheSquareFoot is a yodel-friend environment.

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Acquiring customers is tough for any new business, but in an industry as set in its ways and often <cough> stubborn <cough> about changing for the better, unique challenges will always pop up.  With good preparation and communication however it can surely be done.

What about you?  Any business development tips?

Justin Lee is a licensed commercial real estate salesman with experience in commercial property leasing and development.  He along with 2 other co founders launched with the goal of making the space leasing process more digestible for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

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About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.


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