Is Hustling For Business As We Know It Dead?
Business development in the COVID era (Involving Star Trek, Wrecking Balls and Internet Philosophy )
The digitization of the world as we know it has forced us to rethink many aspects of our professional lives.
While the advantages and disadvantages of WFH have taken centerstage, I feel there is a far more important topic that has failed to make the mainstream –Hustling for Business.
Now, I am by no means an expert on hustling: But it is something I have had to do a lot of- And a topic that has always fascinated me as it is, at once, an art and a science.
And so the purpose of my article is to share my own perspectives to encourage you to engage in collective brainstorming:
Is Hustling as we know it indeed dead? And is this a good thing or a bad thing?
The Universe of Hustling
So what do I mean by hustling? At a basic level, it is what those of us with business generation responsibilities need to do to bring in new pieces of work from pre-existing clients and/or new clients.
This article deals with active hustling — this is likely to conjure up an image of a used car salesman going door-to-door- the somewhat sophisticated version of “active hustling” (or so we tell ourselves) in the professional services space has an online and an offline component. In visual terms, it is the virtual version of the below:
i.e.- a virtual shopfront window to give potential clients a peek into our capabilities in terms of the breadth or depth of our technical expertise
On the one hand, one can share content through email (digital marketing), writing (articles/LinkedIn posts/tweets) and/or audio (participating in panels/podcasts). One the other hand, one can also do so through meetings or calls with old and new contacts to forge new relationships or strengthen pre-existing ones- the well-established equivalent of a courtship ritual that precedes a commitment.
I’m writing this piece from my own perspective — that of a female professional in the legal services industry but I dare to say that my ramblings are equally applicable to anyone in the professional services industry.
So with that, let me dive into my take on the burning question: Has the Pandemic changed Hustling as We Know It?
1. The Culture of Travel
While practically everybody misses personal travel, the jury is still out there on whether the end of business travel as we know it is a boon or a bane.
I’m going to put myself out there and say that business development is particularly challenging for women. What may appear to be a wonderful, free, “expense-paid” vacation to a bystander comes, in reality, with its own mixed bag of early morning flights (Fact: women need more sleep!), long car rides in traffic-snarled streets with access to grotty public loos and the occasional awkwardness of being in meetings with the opposite sex where you feel that the equation is moving from the professional to the personal in a way that isn’t exactly welcome.
There is also the added (gender-neutral) stress of getting that super-important email from a client needing an “urgent response” seconds before you need to switch your phone off or just as you reach a wifi- dead zone.
For those juggling parenthood with careers, a key survival tactic for the twin time-intensive demands of clients and young children alike is a carefully calibrated mix of quality and quantity time allocated to both. And well, if the schedule had a persona, this:
is how business travel would appear to it!
But there is a more nuanced downside to the end of business travel — building that all-important personal connection with clients and contacts.
It also helps to build one’s “Cultural EQ” which I define as covering everything from developing the “smell test’ to determine what could be the unwritten regulatory roadblock on a deal to “reading between the lines” and understanding the true deal-breakers of the opposing party (and sometimes even your own client) in a critical business negotiation. This nuance is not to be underestimated- the broader context of a business deal and parties to a deal can often make or break that deal (even more so in the relationship-based culture prevalent in Asia).
2. Zooming in on a Meeting-less World.
The other corollary of a travel-free world is a move to virtual meetings.
It is clear that deal meetings can and have successfully transitioned to a virtual-only format. But what about the “business development” meeting?
There are those who believe that meetings are a waste of time. Silicon Valley entrepreneur (and now “Internet philosopher”), Naval Ravikant is one such person who famously said
“People want to “do coffee” and build relationships. That’s fine early in your career, when you’re still exploring. But later in your career — when you’re exploiting, and there are more things coming at you than you have time for — you have to ruthlessly cut meetings out of your life..
By corollary, he would presumably agree that the forced reduction of business development travel is no bad thing
For us lesser mortals, there is the oft-quoted statistic (See here) that it takes 8 touch points to convert a cold lead into an income-generating source of work . So does a forced virtual-only format make it easier for us to develop these touch points?
As an example audio calls with cross-border contacts, are now, for the most part audio and video calls, which arguably accelerate our ability to connect.
From a purely personal perspective, I’ve found the move to virtual-only meetings beneficial for the most part. Similar to WFH, it takes away the time and energy of commuting and “chit chat” around the core of the business meeting. On a lighter note- From a purely personal perspective, I have found it a refreshing experience not to have to don my high heels or pitch my voice higher by a few decibels to be more effective at a business meeting (the occupational hazards of being a vertically- challenged individual born with a soft voice!).
3. Global Domination in a Take-away Box (And Where the Star Trek Analogy Comes In).
Leaving aside the process of hustling, there is the larger question of what the pandemic mean for the strategic aspects of hustling.
There is of course an almost romantic aspect to this- the forced acceleration of digitization across the globe means that, in theory, one can offer one’s services to anyone in the world from the comfort of one’s desk.
And this is where the Star Trek analogy comes in.
In the romanticized world, our “package” of skill sets take on a life of its own to become, in Star Trek terms, like a USS Enterprise, boldly going where no man (or woman) has ever gone. Effectively, we’re charting new frontiers by being able to offer our services across the world while sitting tight at our desks (with a latte pit stop at a nearby cafe being our version of “beaming down”).
Once again, the ground reality is far more nuanced. One’s services have to be capable of international export and potentially deal with price competition from across the globe more so than in the past.
Once again, from a purely personal perspective, I feel privileged that, as an international lawyer, my practice has the benefit of being inherently — well, international. But while that does give me a bit of a head start , it by no means guarantees a podium finish. One also has to grapple with the old dilemma of whether to “go wide” or “go deep” in terms of one’s technical expertise: I’ve personally always been in favour of the former and therefore it was an easy choice for me to spend my additional time (read forced distraction-free time courtesy the lockdown) broadening my international privacy compliance expertise (via the CIPP (A) and CIPM certifications from the IAPP).
4. When Marketing Looks Same Same But Different
Then there is the all-important question of what is the most-effective marketing strategy in today’s digitised world?
There are many who argue that the basics of this remain the same- Leadership gurus such as Simon Sinek argue that the marketing focus should be on “What is Your Why”? no matter what is the medium of communication. In his words,
“People don’t buy WHAT you do; they buy WHY you do it.”
Also, the old-school digitisation of marketing was actually brought about by tools such as Twitter and LinkedIn which have been around since Zoom was in its metaphorical diapers (Not to mention Youtube — it being a sign of changing times that a certain US-based V-logger is capable of giving us a masterclass on digitally-enabled marketing at the tender age of 6). US-based Deb Feder (see here) offers an interesting perspective on how marketing can be done easily and effectively through curious conversations on LinkedIn.
It clear that the key to successful hustling in our pandemic-blighted “new age” will be adaptability- be it adapting/upgrading one’s technical skills or one’s marketing skills or both.
Indeed adaptability has always been the core of successful hustling- As, for most of us, it inherently requires operating outside one’s comfort zone .
Rather conversely, for many of us, the rapid changes brought about in our personal and professional lives over 2020 have left us longing for the familiar precisely at a time when charting new territories is not only the need of the hour but also likely to face less skepticism in what I think is a generally less “compartmentalised” world.
What do you think?
 This article does not deal with what I call “passive hustling”- the tried and tested “word of mouth” route (where happy clients refer contacts) or for those of us who work for larger firms, work that comes by virtue of legacy relationships that the firm has, including as a result of an established brand name (Having inhabited this world back in the day, when faced with the “unpredictable” v. “predicable” fork in the road, I choose to take the former- forging a practice under what is effectively my own brand name, best described as the dangerous practice of “living by one’s wits”).