• Kristine Metter, MS, CAE

Business Development in Associations: Four Foundational Factors

In last week’s blog post, I suggested a three-tiered framework for your business development activities: strategic stewardship, business line development and management, and product development and management. This week, I dive a little deeper into preparing your association for business development success. Here are four elements to consider as you build out your strategy.


Personnel Plan

Who will be responsible for developing and launching new products and services? Will you devote new, dedicated FTEs to this activity, or will this be embedded into the work of staff with other programmatic or operational responsibilities? There are pros and cons to each option. If you go the route of having staff dedicated to regular and ongoing product development, keep in mind that the new products, once launched, should be handed off to a permanent product manager. It is unrealistic to ask your business development team to keep up a regular drumbeat of new product development and also be product managers. They just won’t have the capacity to do both in the long run and may lose focus on the business development process if asked to manage products simultaneously.


In addition to allocating staff to develop and manage new products and services, you should look at your

staff expertise. Do you have the talent to take on business forecasting, pricing, financial modeling, or market analysis? Do you have the talent to operationalize the new products or services? Will the new product require dedicated customer service staff? Very often, you’ll have to boost your bench strength in one or more of these areas. The solution can be hiring new staff to fill these gaps or contracting free-lancers and consultants to round out the missing competencies. Another option is to find a partner organization to share the responsibilities (and potential risks and profits).


Resources

Developing and launching new products and services requires a variety of resources. Leaders typically think about budgeted dollars and staff time, but that can be just the starting point. Technological capacity often goes with new products. Will existing technology require updates, upgrades, or expansions? Will you need completely new tech capabilities? Data is another overlooked resource. Will you want to collect new data on members, other stakeholders, or your association’s industry? Will you need to boost your ability to analyze and apply findings from this new data? Will you have to enhance your data handling and IT security protocols?


Time

Even though you might feel an urgency to innovate, developing and launching new products generally takes time, especially in associations where consensus rules. Consider when to vet a concept with the board, the broader membership, or other stakeholders, and how quickly can you gain approval to move forward? You also might consider how polished a new product or service needs to be before piloting it. If you are comfortable with an iterative process, you can adopt lean startup or agile innovation methodologies to push business development along more quickly, but typically it will still take months or years to bring a new product or service to market, not weeks.


Financial Plan and Goals

Our favorite new products meet a stakeholder need and generate a profit. However, you may intentionally launch a new product that will never return a profit but is so essential in meeting your mission that you take it on anyway. More often, new products start as an expense line item and then, in time, move to break even or a profit. Consider how many years you are willing to run a new product to achieve a defined long-term financial goal. Be honest in assessing the new product’s progression and be ready to pull the plug if it does not perform as expected.


Launching a dedicated business development effort can be complex and may take a variety of forms. Depending on your association’s goals, you may commit to a single new product per year or a more expansive, multi-pronged effort. Regardless of where you are on this continuum, I hope that thinking through these aspects provides you direction for getting started.

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