We all know that diplomacy is a core skill for any BD professional, so when we had the chance to interview a former international diplomat turned partnership leader, we jumped at the opportunity. Meet Jason Starr, Partnership Director at Via, who shares his perspective on entering new markets, disagreeing respectfully, and understanding customer motivation.
You have a fascinating background. Can you tell us how your career evolved from international diplomacy to business development?
I’ve always gravitated towards mission-focused organizations. I started my career in public service based on my passion for international politics, conflict negotiation, and diplomacy. I had the opportunity to attend Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service for grad school and was awarded a Presidential Management Fellowship at the State Department right after. I worked there for 6 years in a variety of roles, including serving overseas in places like the UAE, Baghdad, and Tripoli. I really enjoyed working for an organization that made such a big impact, but I also realized I was a one very small piece of a large organization. I moved into the tech industry, taking on roles at Dataminr and Lime before joining Via, hoping to take on roles with greater singular impact within much smaller organizations.
My career evolution from diplomacy to BD was actually a very natural transition. I really enjoy business development (BD) – I always say that I do more diplomacy in my current job than I did as a diplomat. I think the two roles are actually very similar. As a traditional diplomat working on behalf of your country, you’re effectively selling your country’s values and central message about a certain issue. In Partnerships / BD, you're selling a product that you believe has great value in whatever market you're in.
"I always say that I do more diplomacy in my current job in BD than I did as a diplomat. I think the two roles are actually very similar."
What skills did you learn in previous roles that have helped you build partnerships?
It's easy to agree and talk about positives but delivering bad news is hard. This is true in both diplomacy and BD. One of the skills I’ve taken from all my roles is the ability to respectfully but effectively defend positions against parties that do not agree with you, or, in other cases, to defend positions on behalf of your organization with which you don’t necessarily agree yourself.
Partnerships are an exercise in give and take, and nobody should expect that it's a one-way street. There are going to be very easy messages to deliver and there are going to be very difficult messages to deliver. For example, if you know a product won’t be finished on time, you need to share that with a partner in a simple and direct way that serves your long-term relationship well.
You’re at Via now. Can you tell us what the company does?
Via is a global public transport technology company that strives to make public mobility more affordable, operationally efficient, and accessible. Formerly known as a peer-to-peer, direct to consumer ride sharing platform, Via is now dedicated to powering transit systems for transit agencies, cities, counties, companies, and in some cases, entire countries.
What’s your favorite part of working with partners?
I don't think anybody goes into business development without really liking people. For me, undoubtedly, the ability to work with so many different people across businesses is my favorite thing. In one role, I managed partnerships with international, state, and local government organizations. One week I was meeting with NATO officials in Brussels and a couple weeks later I was meeting with cops in Arizona.
Via is based in NYC but one of my favorite customers is a rural transit agency in central Texas. They come from such different backgrounds and having the chance to interact and work with them has challenged my assumptions and hammered out a worldview that’s uniquely my own.
What’s a common misconception you hear about Partnerships/BD?
When I talk to people outside of the field, the biggest misconception is that it's all about the money or self-interest. They think you care more about hitting a quota than you do about a customer or their mission. I actually tend to find that the opposite is true: that often people in Sales, BD, or Partnerships are often too relationship-focused. We find it difficult to separate professional interests from the friendships that we develop with customers.
What's one of the biggest challenges you’ve tackled in your role as an Ecosystem Pioneer?
One of the most exciting challenges I’ve faced is launching new international markets. At Via I had the opportunity to launch the inaugural technology-powered transportation service in Brazil, and then managed those customer relationships for a number of years.
I did the same thing in in the Gulf, where we launched a project that was focused on first and last mile transportation to one of the world's newest subway systems in Doha that the national rail company had built in preparation for the World Cup this year. Working with customers and partners in two very different parts of the world and actually bringing those markets online for a company that had never operated there before is probably the most rewarding challenge that I've taken on in this role.
What advice do you have for those looking to launch their services in new international markets?
Once you get to that, forget your assumptions about who those customers should be, how they should act, and how you should talk to them. It's easy to make assumptions about how a different type of business works or how one organization should work in one part of the world, but those assumptions are often incorrect.
As an example, I went into our Brazil project thinking that it might be chaotic, and what I found was exactly the opposite. They were some of the most savvy, exacting, data-driven, and business focused customers that I've ever worked with. While they were challenging, they challenged me to be better too.
On a deeper level, before you get there, slow down and assess why it matters to launch services in new markets. There's a genuine risk of expanding too quickly – especially internationally – to markets that might only make sense in the short term. There are different resource allocation requirements, cultural barriers, and legal and compliance regulations involved in operating indifferent countries. Thinking critically about why you want to expand may seem obvious but it’s often overlooked.
"When you're expanding internationally, forget your assumptions of how a business should work in one part of the world because they're often incorrect."
As you grow transit agency partnerships at Via, how do you make them successful? Are there certain activities, processes, or methods you’ve found to be effective?
First, we work with our partners to figure out what's motivating the customer. We align on what their goals are, whether they're focused on something that's quantitative and operational, or something that's a little bit more qualitative and customer-centric or not necessarily data-centric.
The second thing is a relentless focus on data regardless of what that motivation is. We always try to make decisions based on metrics. We also think about what makes customers successful. We always strive for transparency. Be honest about what services you're providing and roadblocks or limitations you have. BD professionals also need to be able to turn data into a simple, compelling story.
What’s the biggest challenge that your industry is facing today?
Pandemics can be very bad for business in any travel-related industry, whether it’s flying planes, operating trains, or driving taxis. The transit industry as a whole still has not recovered from COVID. Fortunately, we, and many of our customers, have viewed our work as an opportunity to help drive beneficial change in the wake of tragedy. It’s a chance to help our customers and our partners rethink how they work and how we can partner with them to help them carry out their missions and find better, innovative ways to transport people. I like to think that we, and our customers, are more resilient despite the tragedy of the last couple of years.
What are some superpowers you’ve seen in other partner ecosystem leaders that make them particularly effective?
I would say empathy is the biggest one. Listening, fundamentally understanding, and then being able to explain back to a customer why they feel as they do is an incredibly important skill. There's such a tendency to be the one talking and not listening that often we misunderstand where somebody else is coming from.
"Listening, fundamentally understanding, and then being able to explain back to a customer why they feel as they do is an incredibly important skill in Business Development."
Are there any business books, podcasts, or communities you enjoy that you’d recommend?
I have a one-year-old son who has like endless energy, so reading is somewhat of a luxury. When I do, my favorite genre is political biographies. I devoured former President Obama’s memoir about his time in the White House and a recent biography of James Baker, who was Secretary of the Treasury under President Reagan and then Secretary of State under the first President Bush. I also like learning about how men and women dealt with particular conflicts or challenges, and then thinking about what I might have done differently.
What’s a surprising fact about you that we can’t find on Google?
One thing that would be very hard for you to find about me on Google is the personal accomplishment of which I'm most proud, which is that I've run the Boston Marathon twice, in 2015 and 2016, each time in less than 3 hours.