“Who am I to tell people what they ought to do?” I taunted myself as I wrote my first article for Fstoppers. I wanted to convey how much of an impact that asking for what I wanted had had on me. Nevertheless, I was acutely aware of being condescending as I don’t consider myself old enough, wise enough, or successful enough to warrant people’s ear. As the post went up, I read and reread my work, even though I had proofread it several times before it was published. I tried to assume different characters to gain new perspectives and understand ways in which people might react badly to my advice.
Over the next 24 hours, I started receiving messages from all angles: email, private messages, Twitter, Instagram DMs, Facebook messenger, and so on. I expected confrontation true to the internet’s aggressive reputation, but I was instead shocked by the content of all this contact. A large number of the readers of Fstoppers had appeared to have locked in on the point I desired to be most salient and that I also feared was the most condescending, namely “asking.”
While the motivation behind people reaching out to me was loosely bound by the want for clarification, the questions were varied enough to prompt me to follow that particular section of my article with its own article. If you’re au fait with asking for things and attain a degree of success from doing so, then this piece is unlikely to be for you. However, if you are – like I have been previously – reticent to ask for what it is you would like, then I hope this article will be of use to you.
Narrow Down Your Niche
First thing first: what is it you would like to do? Whether you’re a talented all-rounder or not, most people feel more comfortable with someone experienced in a specific area. If you had to have a doctor diagnose a condition, would you prefer a GP (general practitioner) or a specialist in the area of your problem? I have used this approach in a number of different areas over the years, but it’s important to approach each ambition with a degree of tunnel vision.
Once you’ve identified the area you want to explore, you need to prove your worth, and the best way is to create relevant work of your own volition. As I mentioned in my previous article, I wanted to be trackside and risking death at a motorsport event, not in the comfort of the stands. I attended it as a spectator, and I did the best I could in gathering images. I used these images to secure the chance to go trackside at the next race day. Note: I’m not necessarily saying work for free – I’ll leave that to your best judgment – but you need something to show to display your worth.
Next up, I tend to do a lot of research. I have worked for companies who have essentially "spread bet" with company contact, and it’s extremely ineffective. I worked in sales from the age of 19 (both full-time and then part-time) until just a few years ago, and I have made (as a modest estimate) over 50,000 cold calls. I can tell you with a degree of certainty that the conversion rate is extremely low, even for the slick-haired and silver-tongued smooth talkers. What you want to do is closer to what is known as a "warm call." That is, you want to have a level of familiarity with whom you are talking.
Research who the big players in your area are, both the photographers and the companies. I personally choose to do something which I suspect will be heavily disagreed with: I approach companies with products I like as it helps both my creative process if I get the job and my drive to get the job or opportunity. If you’re looking for entry level work, startup businesses are often a useful place to begin. They tend to not have the budget to spend to attain the sort of imagery they want and may be more open to someone inexperienced in the field but lower in price. That said, don’t make the same mistake I did regarding the big companies, in that I presumed they were impenetrable, but I’ll come back to that shortly.
One of the best sales people I ever met got jobs, opportunities and sales through being a hard-ass. That’s not my approach and again, I precede this section with the acceptance that some may vehemently disagree with me. I am not a guy of enormous success, wealth, and power, nor do I intend to convince anyone that I am. What I do have is a high conversion rate (contact leading to collaboration, opportunities, or work), and I can only offer my thoughts on what I credit that to.
There are three elements I regard as imperative: be honest, be clear, and highlight what the other party stands to gain. Being honest feels a bit “fluffy” as advice goes, and I err on the side of caution when it comes to sounding like a bumper sticker. What I mean is you ought to state what it is you want to do and why. For example, I once approached a startup company offering product photography. I hadn’t done any paid work in this field, and I explained that I wanted to build a portfolio, and I was offering discounted rates as I would use the images I create for them to approach other companies. It is business even if it isn’t; no one will be shocked that you’re doing something to further your own ambitions. Whether it’s for paid work or the chance to attend something as a photographer as opposed to a spectator, it is fine to be transparent about it.
To "be clear" is self-explanatory, and I shan’t go into too much depth. When it comes to initial contact, don’t write an essay (like this), or the recipient probably won’t read it. State who you are, what you do, and what you’re offering ,and enquire as to who is the right person to speak to about this matter.
The final constituent part is – in a business sense – the most important. If whomever you are approaching doesn’t stand to gain anything from helping you, they almost certainly won’t do it. With the example in my first article regarding the trackside access for a race event, I approached the organizers and offered to let them use any images I took for promotional purposes, free of charge. There are currently photographers foaming at the mouth, desperately trying to type that it’s people like me that are costing other photographers paid work. I only gave them permission to use it in their own newsletters and posters, and I wasn’t about to get stuck in the "experience required for experience" employment loop.
David and Goliath
I used to look at big companies and think my approach to collaborate would be laughed away and scoffed at. I viewed these titans as one large, arrogant beast that held a collective disdain for anyone of a different class, when actually, that’s far from the case. These beasts are large, but they’re not arrogant; they are comprised of hundreds, if not thousands of "you." They are lots and lots of whirring cogs, and each one is likely to be similar to you and open to dialogue.
Before I was at Fstoppers, I wrote primarily for my own site, and I wanted to branch out into hands-on previews of soon-to-be released lenses. I’ve always seen Carl Zeiss as one of the great manufacturers of glass, and so when they announced a lens, I pounced and was promptly passed from cog to cog. I felt like a small town minnow, but after months of trying, I was given the go-ahead for a two week trial of their newest lens. I handed the lens back in person, as I wanted to meet the relevant faces at their office, and I remember a wave of shame washing over me when the social media manager asked who I worked for. I got the impression he was a little confused how I got my hands on their brand new $5000 lens, but he was a lovely bloke and a cog just like me. We exchanged emails addresses, and he offered to help me with those types of enquiries in the future.
Embrace Your Inner Toddler
There’s this old sales proverb carved into an ancient tablet in the ruins of a call centre somewhere that says: “toddlers make the best sales people.” The reason for this is they don’t shut up, and the little sods can’t get their heads around why you won’t give them what they desire. You’re approaching companies, people, or groups cold, most of the time at least, and you’re going to get rejected a lot. That is fine, but morph into a refined and more eloquent toddler; think Stephen Fry, aged seven. Ask the person who rejected you why they don’t want to help/work/collaborate with you. If it’s down to experience, note them down, and come back when you have some. If it’s budget, be flexible, or try again in a few months. If they’re a big, hairy racist, then... actually, just walk away from that one.
You see, the toddler doesn’t fear rejection like us simple adults, and should they be met with its devastating slap, they face it head-on with a barrage of “why?” One way or another, they’re getting that limited edition Kit-Kat sippy cup.
I do believe that has – in one way or another – covered most, if not all of the questions I received. I truly hope this hasn’t been read in a condescending voice, as it was written in a far more reserved and tentative one. Transitioning from sales and academia to full-time writing and photography was difficult, and I made a lot of mistakes; however, asking for what I want has most definitely not been one of them. On the contrary, it has been my most obvious area of success.
It seems to me that some people pirouette through life while being showered with opportunities, catching what they fancy and gliding past what they don’t without a second thought. I’m not one of those people. What I am becoming, however, is someone who is confident in asking for what he wants, and it is standing me in good stead thus far. As there is a theme of bumper sticker wisdom running through this article like an artery of cheese, I'm going to leave you with some sage advice from Hugh Laurie. For those of you who still don't feel ready to ask for what you want, this snippet is tattooed in my mind:
It's a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you're ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready.