Growing up, I was painfully shy. Even something as simple as walking up to the counter at McDonald’s (don’t judge, you know you ate there too as a kid) to ask for a drink refill was a struggle for me. I’d rather be thirsty while finishing my meal than bother or inconvenience anyone–even complete strangers who were being paid to provide me with customer service. I was always afraid to ask for what I really wanted.
I didn’t realize what a huge mistake that habit was until my senior year of college. I was launching a new entrepreneurship club at the University of Florida with a few friends and as VP of Marketing, it was my job to make sure people actually showed up to meetings for this brand new organization. It’s no secret that college kids are always hungry, so I figured food would be the biggest draw. I called tons of places asking for price quotes and created all kinds of crazy spreadsheets to figure out what we could afford. But as a new organization, we didn’t have much of a budget. I was so determined to make the club successful that when I met with the club’s President, a friend of mine named Hayden Trepeck, I even told him that I was willing to pay for the food myself since the club couldn’t afford it. I had a great part-time job at a local brokerage firm at the time and figured I could set money aside.
Hayden said, “let’s take a walk.” We left campus and walked to University Ave, where a bunch of quick service restaurants were located. The closest one was Chipotle. “Wait right here,” Hayden told me as he gestured towards a nearby bench. He walked into Chipotle and walked out less than five minutes later. “Food problem solved,” he told me. They’re going to give us free food for all of our members once a month for the school year. We just have to create some sort of coupon for our club members so that Chipotle knows who to give free burritos to.”
I immediately sprung up from the bench. “What?!? Are you kidding? How on earth did you do that?,” I shouted in disbelief. I spent hours making phone calls and doing all sorts of calculations and I got nowhere. It was impossible for me to even fathom how someone could convince one of the most popular food establishments in town to give us free food for an unlimited number of club members for an entire year–and all in under five minutes! Hayden replied, “I just asked.”
“Did you happen to know someone there? What exactly did you say? What if they had said no?” I continued to pepper Hayden with questions like that for the next 10 minutes. There was no way a huge win like that could have been achieved using a method as simple as just plain asking…not after I did all of that time-consuming research and made all of those phone calls.
But it was that simple. And all he did was ask nicely. Hayden proceeded to rattle off an epic laundry list of awesome things and opportunities he’d gotten in the past just because he had the guts to make the ask. My mind was blown. (Side note: Hayden is now Co-founder of howicompare.com, a free online platform that helps students with the law school recruitment and admissions process).
Anyway, I decided to try it for myself. There was a TV Broadcast class that I really wanted to take, but up until that point I thought there was no way I could possibly get in. You had to be a senior journalism major on the broadcast track, several prerequisites were required to enroll, and there was a waitlist every semester because it was an extremely popular class. As a business major who hadn’t completed any of the prerequisites, I had no shot. So I asked myself, what would Hayden do? I emailed the professor and asked to meet, explained why I really wanted to take the course, and asked if an exception could be made. She said she’d be happy to have me in the class, but that the dean of the journalism school would need to approve. I emailed the dean, met with him the following week, and voila–I was enrolled in the class before registration even opened up to everyone else. And all I had to do was ask.
But it doesn’t stop there. A CNBC anchor was a guest speaker in that particular class. After his speech, he wrote his email address on the board and had to leave the room right away to head to another meeting. A long-time CNBC fan, I ran out of the classroom after him to introduce myself and ask him if I could intern for him over the summer. He told me he was in a rush and to email him. I did.
He later told me that out of the entire class of nearly 40 students, I was the ONLY one who followed up. My mind was blown once again. There I was in a classroom full of journalism students who dreamed of moving to New York and working in broadcast. An extremely notable anchor came to our classroom to chat with us. He even put his email address on the board! And not one person thought to follow up and ask about internships?!? At the time I thought it was insane. Now I know it’s just normal. Most people are terrible when it comes to following up and they’re even worse when it comes to actually asking for something. Don’t let that be you!
And if you’re wondering what that follow up led to…the anchor (who’s been a great mentor for the past 5 years and I still speak with him regularly to this day) ended up moving to Fox a few months later. But he was awesome and gave my resumé to a guy by the name of Jim Cramer. Yes, that Jim Cramer. I was subsequently invited to work on the show Mad Money w/ Jim Cramer at CNBC that summer and had an amazing time. Oh, and I graduated from Columbia Journalism School which was huge because several of the classmates I befriended there are now integral parts of building Invibed. There’s absolutely no way I would have gotten into Columbia without my experience at CNBC.
To sum all of this up, asking one professor to make an exception and let me into her class led to an amazing internship at CNBC, awesome mentors, an opportunity to study at the #1 journalism school on the planet, and connections to incredibly talented friends who are helping me build Invibed. This is just one example–I have countless more just like this. And, all I had to do was ask. Asking for exactly what you want is by far the easiest and most efficient way to get it, even though it can feel a little awkward to do.
Making the ask still feels a bit awkward and unnatural for me, but it’s much easier than it used to be and can definitely be learned! Here are a few tricks that have helped me get better at this:
- Don’t take NO personally. I used to get really upset whenever someone told me “no.” But when someone tells you “no,” they’re usually rejecting the idea you presented, not you as a person.
- Get comfortable with NO. To do this, I took a job cold calling for my school’s alumni association. I figured calling complete strangers to ask for money during one of the biggest recessions ever (it was 2009) would probably get me comfortable with “no” really quickly. It worked. The more you hear the word, the more familiar it becomes, and the less it stings each time. You can even make a little game of it. Go out and ask people for outrageous things with the hope of getting a “no.” I bet you’ll be surprised by what people actually say “yes” to.
- Accept the fact that EVERYONE (Hayden included) is told NO sometimes. In sales, 10-3-1 is often mentioned as a rule of thumb. For every 10 people you approach, about 3 will be responsive/show interest and one will actually say “yes.” If professional sales people are getting a “no” 90% of the time, then you definitely shouldn’t feel bad when someone tells you “no.”
- Recognize every NO you hear as a badge of honor. If someone tells you “no,” it means you had the courage to ask. You’re creating a potential opportunity for something great to happen. Pat yourself on the back and give yourself some props. If you’re not hearing the word “no,” it’s because you’re not asking. If you never ask for something, you’ll probably never get it.
- Understand that what you’re asking for is probably not as much of a stretch as you think it is. I thought it was crazy to ask Chipotle for $500 worth of free food for our first meeting. But the manager thought it was a completely normal request. In reality, this was actually a good business move for the manager because UF’s business school was directly across the street from Chipotle. Students from The Entrepreneurship Club often wound up at Chipotle after every meeting…so while they were giving us free food once a month, our club members were paying Chipotle customers the other three weeks out of the month. Thinking about what’s in it for the other party can make you more comfortable with asking for what you want.