Tired of biz dev? Sharpen your network, and let the work find you
As we celebrate our 10-year anniversary, we wanted to create some content to share with you the kind of insight we gather and ponder at 9others. We hope it’ll be useful for entrepreneurs, investors, and anyone else with an interest in the challenges of modern business.
John Graham is a consultant helping early-stage businesses with their performance marketing – paid social, paid search and advertising. His company John Graham Etc. describes itself as “bringing calm and clarity to startup growth”. John previously founded Newton Bell, a team of experts scaling up multi-channel marketing for clients such as Oxford University, BBC Maestro and City Pantry. He also consults for start-ups, taking them from seed to series A funding or acquisition.
Over the past year, John’s made the decision to work on a referrals-only basis. “When we were first growing the business,” he says, “we were always asking ourselves: what happens when our referrals run out? How do we attract new business?” He says there was always stress, a negative frame of mind, around finding business outside their network. And though he’s worked mainly via referrals for nine years, it’s only recently that he’s turned it into a positive. “It was just about having the confidence to say that’s actually enough,” he says.
Building a sturdy network
John doesn’t have strict rules for referring – it’s more about matchmaking. “It tends to be more than ‘I met so-and-so at a lunch’,” says John. “People who are recommending tend to know exactly what we do. So when they speak to people with certain challenges, they can confidently say that we could help.” This approach helps to surface people who are aligned, who are having the right problem at the right time, as opposed to looking for a generic solution. “It’s not about exclusivity at all,” says John, “not like a private members’ club. More like a reliable backstreet tailor you’d tell a mate about.”
Referrals typically come from past clients who’ve gone to new companies, or people – like 9others founder Matthew – who’ve worked closely with the same entrepreneurs and investors. John first went to a 9others meal in early 2016, and found it beneficial. “Thoughts that had been in my head for months gained clarity from talking with some great people who came at it from a totally new perspective,” says John. “That’s hard to find. I genuinely walked away feeling a little lighter.”
John rarely does pitch work or proposals, preferring the social-centric approach that comes with referrals. “It always starts off with a ‘chat to this person’,” he says, “as opposed to someone telling you how things are and asking for a proposal”. With recommendations, there’s an in-built filter which can get you past a bunch of hurdles, the usual frustrating layers of finding work. And when a contact refers someone, there’s also a pressure on them for it to be fruitful, a kind of self-governance. “At the end of the day,” says John, “I think people work with people. I don’t think we’re that loyal to brands or businesses per se.”
Better, closer working relationships
Businesses that come to John have often tried other marketing that hasn’t worked. “A lot of my clients will have worked with agencies before but been disappointed,” says John. “Maybe the proposal sounded great, but by three months in it’s gone downhill.” He says this is common. A client might be sold-to by one set of people, then their account gets passed to a junior. For founders this can be especially frustrating, because their business is their baby. There’s a lot of control, and the decisions are personal because it’s money they’ve raised themselves. John’s aim is to work more closely with fewer clients – to make fewer, better bets in order to work with people longer term. “With bigger agencies,” he says, “clients can feel like a number on a sheet. I feel like it’s a necessity to get fully involved.”
John finds when speaking to friends in bigger agencies that finding new business is usually their number-one gripe. “I think all companies have an issue with business development,” he says. “I have friends who have 30 staff and are at 50% capacity at the moment… Either people are sitting around because they don’t have enough work, or they’re too busy.” John’s aim is to grow in other ways, to grow his value. His team usually has five or six projects on the go at once. At the moment, three: a couple of small projects, one larger.
Trusting your gut
This year, John put up a website for the first time. “I’m actually trying to wind down my online presence,” he says. “If I can shave that down over the next few years, it’ll be going the right way!” He talks about the definition of success as not having to do that stuff. He’s not worried if people don’t find his site. “I think people still care about who you’ve worked with,” says John. “But if you read ten marketing agency websites, often it’s just fluff over fluff, you’re none the wiser.” He says he gets excited when he discovers a business people might not have heard of, but – quietly – they’re the best in their field. The kind of people you’d know through their work, rather than their name. “I’ve always aimed for that,” says John. “I don’t really want to be writing blogs and LinkedIn updates to drum up new work. It feels good to accept that I don't have to!”
Founders who are on the fence about expanding might look up the fable of the Mexican fisherman. A wealthy American businessman spots a fisherman on the pier of a small coastal town, and compliments him on his tuna catch. He advises him to spend less time relaxing on the beach and more time fishing. Then with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat, then a fleet. Open his own cannery, control the processing and distribution. Move to Mexico City, then LA and New York, announce an IPO, sell his stock and make millions. “Then what?,” asks the fisherman. “Then you would retire,” said the businessman. “Move to a small coastal town where you’d sleep late, fish a little, spend time on the beach with your family.”
“The biggest thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years,” says John, “is that it’s so hard to go against what people think you should do. People were always saying to me: it’s a good business, it should grow.” He says he never really cared about expanding, but rather he cared that other people cared. “You have to do things the way you want to. What feels right.”
You can see (very slightly) more at www.jgetc.com
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Article by Sam Edwards, a freelance copywriter based in London