A few months ago, an old college roommate that I don’t see often came to visit me. My friend builds very high-end systems that help the world’s largest retailer predict which deals they should present you based on the multi-variable behavioral traits they have accumulated about you. These systems use incredible natural-language capable “bots” which evolve into better workers the more human interaction they have.
It was a fascinating conversation and got me thinking about AIs future influence on the world of private equity. Obviously hedge funds have used very sophisticated AI algorithms to parse through terabytes of data enabling them to make better investment decisions. Could our back office, deal execution, and business development teams all be replaced by (gulp) an artificially intelligent computer?
Today the answer is no. However, Bloomberg recently ran an article about how “AI is laying a claim to the future of investing after many false dawns going back decades.” It’s now becoming understood that they make clever work partners when coupled with the situational perception that human can readily add.
Chris Mims of the WSJ wrote an apt titled piece called Without Humans, Artificial Intelligence Is Still Pretty Stupid. In it he argues that AI will work together with humans but that our role will be to help AI work better. “Whether it’s winning at games like Go or keeping watch for Russian influence operations, the best AI-powered systems require humans to play an active role in their creation, tending and operation. Far from displacing workers, this combination is spawning new nonengineer jobs every day, and the preponderance of evidence suggests the boom will continue for the foreseeable future.”
So what are some of the best AI enabled tools business development professionals can use to generate more deal flow? Some of them are probably well-known names.
Previously, I’ve written about how (and why) business development pros should use social media. A strong social media strategy will strengthen your deal flow and get your name out there, serving as a funnel to streamline and supercharge the relationship building process. Think of it as indirect, passive marketing: you build an online reputation and presence, and interested parties will come to you.
Of the various social media channels, I’d go so far as to say LinkedIn is the very best. It’s not simply Facebook optimized for business; instead, LinkedIn offers some very unique features that are practically tailor-made for business development. And unlike Facebook, which began its life as networking for college students and has since expanded to include everyone else, LinkedIn is restricted to professional purposes only. In practice, LinkedIn members are prowling for opportunities, professional connections, and development–which means that it’s easier to contact LinkedIn users (either cold or warm) to chase down business leads.
LinkedIn’s AI-enabled recommendation engine is also very powerful; by itself, it’s a compelling reason to use the platform. LinkedIn’s proprietary algorithms power several features, including LinkedIn Groups, Jobs You May Be Interested In, and Talent Match. As I mentioned in my previous article on small network theory, building a small network with purpose (and thus, becoming a big fish in a small pond rather than the other way around) can yield productive results.
With Talent Match and Groups, BD professionals can get a footing in relevant communities or seek out the individuals for an upcoming deal. For example, if you work in business development for a biotech engineering company, you can seek out biotech interest groups or reach out to individual researchers for leads.
Enterprise scheduling software
For us, time is often our most limited asset. At some point, all of us have been presented with more opportunities than we can follow-up on. For this reason, a solid enterprise scheduling program is vital to improving our efficiency and helping us reach out to more potential partners.
Right now, if you use Excel spreadsheets or paper calendars to plan out your days, it’s past the time to switch. The great advantage of the digital age is automation; used properly, it can augment human performance and improve efficiency. There are a lot of choices available, but ideally, you want to find a program that can link to your email accounts (be they Microsoft Outlook or a Google-powered interface). That way, you can seamlessly transfer appointments, resolve any conflicts, find open time slots, or assign out tasks to yourself or your staff. If you’re on a budget right now, Google Calendar is a good place to start; at the first opportunity, however, try to upgrade to a program with more features.
Despite what the name implies, virtual assistants aren’t actually AI. Instead, they’re remote workers (either freelance or on contract) that help you and your staff with more mundane tasks. Because they often live outside your immediate city (and perhaps even outside the country), virtual assistants tend to be cheaper. Thanks to the internet, however, they can be every bit as efficient and useful as an in-person assistant.
Aside from cost savings, the value of virtual assistants lies in both ability and flexibility. Unless your organization is headquartered in a big city with a concentration of human capital, it can be difficult to find a physical, full-time worker that has the requisite skills and abilities. Additionally, if you need an expensive, highly capable specialist for a set amount of time, it’s far easier to find remote employees who will work on a contract basis. An in-person worker may expect to transition from contract to full-time, an opening that you may not be able to provide.
However, while the internet can soften the harsh realities of distance, time is another matter. Try to find a virtual assistant in the same timezone as your organization. If not, make sure that your virtual assistant is willing to work the same hours that you do. Otherwise, what is the point of a virtual assistant?
An effective customer relationship management (CRM) software can make or break your organization. I’ve previously collaborated with Axial to examine how PE firms use CRMs to enhance deal sourcing and the deal pipeline–and I have to say that the results are concerning. Though two-thirds of respondents (which included BD and PE professionals, investment bankers, and business executives) use CRM extensively, only about 60 percent were satisfied with their existing system. They cited a range of issues, including clashes with existing culture and procedures, difficulty of implementation, and inability to integrate with current programs.
From this, we can infer that while most professionals in the investment and PE spaces do appreciate and understand the value of CRM, they don’t like what they have. There’s space for growth and improvement. For producers of CRM, users specifically want a more intuitive, seamless interface and design.
For users, however, there are some growing pains associated with learning to use CRM properly. I lay out some important points in the study, namely involving data, responsiveness, and the ability to improve and correct points of friction. For that reason, it’s key to focus on systems with strong usability and a robust backend infrastructure; you’ll need an interface that can easily aggregate and sort data, is optimized for mobile and computers, and integrates seamlessly with your other programs (Excel to generate reports, for instance).
Ultimately, BD professionals can’t go it alone. With a trusted team and a suite of state-of-the-art programs, they can boost their deal flow and source more opportunities for expansion. To paraphrase an old saying, a BD pro is only as good as their weakest tool, which can drag them down, trip them up, and crimp the supply of deals coming into the pipeline.
What will the world be like as we increasingly find ourselves working alongside AIs? David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says automation has tended to reduce drudgery in the past, and allowed people to do more interesting work.
“Old assembly line jobs were things like screwing caps on bottles,” Autor says. “A lot of that stuff has been eliminated and that’s good. Our working lives are safer and more interesting than they used to be.”
Business development is built, in large part, on relationships. For this reason, I think that our industry may not be one that won’t be so quickly replaced by automation–at least not anytime soon. After all, AIs can’t easily replicate the many intangible aspects of a proper BD relationship: the relationships, the values, and most of all, the trust.
With that being said however, there is a place for technology in the toolkit of every BD professional. Our resources (capital, attention, and time) are limited, and the right set of tools can help you sift out the best targets, develop the best relationships, and thus, leverage the best deals.