This much we do know – that economic development is business development. And business development means, in some form or fashion, outreach.
If we are to further break it down in the simplest of terms, and I think there is value in doing that, then it follows that much of what economic development organizations should be doing is about reaching out to businesses.
This holds true whether businesses already exist in a community or are outside a community. One forms the basis for business retention and expansion (BR&E), while the other is the bedrock for attraction.
And yet despite stating what might seem the obvious, I’ve come across more than a few economic development organizations that are not so accomplished at business outreach. They don't know where to start. They don't know how to start.
This past week, I was engaged by the Lake Martin Economic Development Alliance in Alabama to show them the wheres and hows. Using my laptop computer, I sat down beside Denise Walls for most of a day and showed her how to cross reference and hone in on potential prospects using a variety of methods that I have learned over time. We identified prospect companies, decision makers within those companies and then “scraped” for phone numbers and email addresses.
The following days I would be looking for scrapes of a different sort.
Develop Your Base
Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter, I somehow came to understand that it was vital for me to develop trusted sources who would tell me things, sometimes on the record and sometimes off the record.
I was only as good as my sources, people to whom I developed relationships with over time. Years later, when I became an economic developer, I took that journalistic model of developing sources and applied it to building a network of business contacts.
Periodically, not too often as to be annoying, I would “touch” my contacts – sometimes by telephone, sometimes by email -- to see how they were doing, if there was anything new happening with their company, and inform them of things that I thought might be of interest.
And that approach worked. I found projects, some of which resulted into substantial capital investments by companies. It’s a system that I have never abandoned but have only refined now that we have social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and host of other platforms.
Now, too, we have the benefit of digitally-based CRM and research tools at our fingertips that can help us determine who the corporate decision makers are, where they went to school, and even their hobbies.
Where to Start
The Lake Martin Economic Development Alliance is not unique in the fact that it has been largely dependent on the state to bring it projects, to which I would quote Dr. Phil: “How’s that been working out for you?”
That is not a cut at the Alabama Commerce Department, but rather a declaration that all local economic development organizations will have to tackle business development on their own. You got to start somewhere and slowly but surely building a base of contacts, inside and outside your community, is a pretty good place to start. Indeed, I would argue that it is foundational, just as it was for me as a newspaper reporter in developing my sources.
If you are an economic developer and are not on LinkedIn, then I have to wonder what in the hell are you doing. I’m serious. And if you don’t have at least 500 contacts on LinkedIn, are you being serious about business development?
But here is a cautionary note and one that must be said. Business development is very time consuming and is far from being a perfect science. I’m not sure it’s even an art so much as a methodology. Mistakes and miscues will be made. Rejection comes with the territory. There are no guarantees.
It might take me three minutes to find a CEO’s email address and direct phone number or it might take me three hours. Or I might not be able to find it at all using all my tricks of the trade. And even if I do find the desired contact information, then what? How do I best make contact and what is my message?
The hard truth is that business development is a rocky road to travel, which was the subject of a blog that I wrote in 2015. Since then, I have come up with a more refined way of developing contacts, to which I am willing to share to those so interested. (Using LinkedIn is only one segment.)
But the basics are that you must build your base of business contacts, you must continually expand and update your base (people do leave jobs), you must periodically touch base with your contacts, and you must develop a tailored message approach that clicks with people.
Your goal is making an emotional connection, developing a relationship of trust. Without that, you’re just making noise.
Tailoring a specific message to a specific contact or contacts that will create a favorable impression is one that many economic development organizations struggle with. Your message to senior executives in the food processing industry will be and should be quite different from that of automotive suppliers. One size, one message, will not fit all.
What that means is that it is incumbent on economic developers to develop a deep knowledge of their target industries and about business in general. In short, it means studying up on the subject matter, knowing the players, the drivers, trends and challenges, of any particular industry sector.
At Consultant Connect’s annual Economix event last month in New Orleans, it was revealed that economic developer’s No. 1 gripe about site selection consultants was the frequently imposed short deadlines for submitting information on projects. Their No. 2 complaint -- that many consultants come off as arrogant know-it-alls, to which I would agree.
A primary criticism that site consultants lodge at economic developers is that they (the economic developers) are not particularly good students of business. Too often, they have no deep understanding of their target industries; hence, they are unable to talk turkey to them. I would also agree with this assessment.
This lack of study, lack of industry knowledge often results in economic development organizations limiting their marketing efforts to only site selection consultants at the exclusion of prospect companies. It’s precisely because of their lack of knowledge that economic developers see the consultants as their default, go-to contacts.
To make matters worse, much of the material sent to the consultants is marginal at best. On almost a daily basis, I will get an email from ED group that should never have been sent to me, but rather should only have been directed to internal stakeholders within the community.
Come to our community breakfast next week and hear animal control officer Bob Jones speak about recent coyote sightings at local craft breweries.
“He walked right in liked he owned the place. But he couldn’t belly up to the bar and ask for a pint, because, you know, they’re short little fellows.”
Do No Harm
I got an email today inviting me to a four-hour jobs fair for hotel and restaurant workers in a city in Virginia. I remember that my first job as a teenager was as a dishwasher in the kitchen of a hotel restaurant, but I no longer have aspirations to work my way up to busboy.
These why-in-hell-are-they-sending-me-this emails used to irritate me as it was apparent that the offending ED group had made no attempt to sort its database for marketing purposes. Now I take it more in stride, knowing full well that I can always unsubscribe if things get too out of hand. (I don’t like to do that but have.)
Just as in the Hippocratic oath, when it comes to email marketing, which is always a bit of precarious undertaking, I would advise economic development organizations to do your best to do no harm, knowing full well that you will always get some unsubscribers. Again, rejection comes with the territory.
Back in Bama
I had a good time in Alabama last week, a place where I lived for 23 years. The state is coming off some big wins of late, the $1.6 billion Toyota-Mazda in Huntsville, gunmaker Kimber to build a $38 million plant in Troy, and strong indications that Canadian-based Bombardier may build a new aircraft assembly line in Mobile.
Then there is that national championship with Nick Saban and the University of Alabama. Intangible but notable nonetheless.
My trip was both for business and recreation. After showing Denise how to build a contact base by identifying prospect companies and decision makers within those companies, I subsequently joined old friends for a two-day deer hunt on a beautiful, remote piece of property that revived my spirits.
Exercises in Pursuit
We stayed in a small farmhouse, where there was no TV, no internet service, not even a cell signal for my phone. After dinner each night, there was chopped wood and a fireplace to enjoy, along with craft beer and whiskey. With that came, good fellowship and meaningful conversation. The hunt was just a backdrop. Just an excuse.
I saw plenty of deer but never took a shot, because it wasn’t the right shot or the right deer to take. But spending time alone in a serene natural setting gave me time to think.
Business development and deer hunting are both exercises in pursuit. In business development, you want to be noticed by your quarry, to even get their full attention. But it is the pursued that largely calls the shots on what eventually happens.
In deer hunting, you want to go unseen, unheard and unscented. You don’t want your quarry to know of your presence or the fact that you even exist. And then, if circumstances permit, you take the shot. Or not.
Pondering on that while sitting in a ground blind, a rifle on my lap, I nodded off asleep.
I’ll see you down the road.