The Art of the Ask

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How did a high school dropout like me get into university? Well, at 19 I decided that I wanted to pursue a business degree.

Knowing that any application I sent would likely be trashed due to my general lack of scholastic achievements, I went to the admissions office and pleaded my case. This moment of gumption got me accepted, and looking back, I still think it’s incredible that I got in just because I asked.

Most business owners achieve success by putting themselves out there – networking, knocking on doors, and refusing to be turned down. Making requests and knowing when to push harder (and when to pull back) is a foundation of entrepreneurship. But when you’ve used up your powers of persuasion and the answer is still “no”, it’s equally important to learn how to come back from rejection and capitalize on the opportunity to learn.

After 30 years in business and talking to so many other entrepreneurs in similar positions, I know that making “the ask” is kind of an emotional rollercoaster – seeking a favour or funding puts you in a vulnerable position. Getting rejected is disheartening and embarrassing. The key is learning to move on to the next thing.

With that in mind, here are tips on how to make your approach and deal with the consequences.

Ask questions, get answers

For most of us, “the ask” is difficult – we don’t like being an imposition or an inconvenience. But fearing the outcome of a request can hold franchisees and other entrepreneurs back from new opportunities and relationships that could be the next step to business development.

I launched my second company, WOW 1 DAY PAINTING in 2010, and it all began with my willingness to ask. I invited the guy who painted my house out for a beer so we could talk about his business model – to paint your home or business in a day. Casual conversations with him turned into a full-out franchising strategy and the next company under the O2E Brands banner. Now, there are dozens of locations across North America.

I’m not alone – just asking for a little time or consideration has turned out well for many of the entrepreneurs we recognize as business legends today. At only 12 years old, Steve Jobs showed a kind of tenacity many of us still struggle to harness as adults when he called the founder of Hewlett-Packard Bill Hewlett. He just wanted some spare computer parts, but Hewlett was so taken with the prodigy that he offered young Steve a summer job. And the rest is history.

The lesson here is to summon your courage and make the ask, no matter how unattainable your request seems. You might just get what you need to level up.

Then what?

Of course, focusing on the request is not enough: you should always prepare for rejection. The trick is realizing that even if you’re rebuffed, it’s not personal. Many business owners – especially ones running an enterprise alone – feel defeated when their proposals are declined.

Just remember that everyone gets rejected sometimes, and when you hear “no” it doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. Instead, be ready with alternate ways to pose the same question, find out who else you can talk to, and discover what you could have said differently.

I’m a big believer in the power of the media, and know from contacting journalists myself that rejection is part and parcel of the pitching game. However, when I put one of my brands forward for a feature and am turned down, I take the chance to ask the expert journalist what’s missing from my story. The feedback is essential to improving my outreach strategy and usually results in a better pitch than I had in the first place.

Go to plan B, C, D…

As a franchise owner working to make a dent in your local market, remember that perseverance is perhaps the most important trait to have. Bill Gates did not start with Microsoft – demos for his first project, the Traf-O-Data, were laughed out of the boardroom. JK Rowling commands the literary world now thanks to Harry Potter, but she was rejected by 12 publishers who wish they’d seen the magic earlier. Milton Hershey tried three different candy companies before he baked the right bar.

Almost no one gets it right the first time. When I first decided to franchise 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, I discussed my plan with a dozen experts. Everyone told me it was impossible, but I took their feedback and found a solution to each obstacle they said I’d face. By being open to criticism and not taking it personally, I was able to refine my plan and eventually create the world’s largest junk removal service.

No matter where you are in business, asking has the potential to change your trajectory. A “yes” – and even a “no” – will put you en route to success, one question at a time.

Brian Scudamore is the founder and CEO of O2E (Ordinary to Exceptional) Brands, which includes companies like 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, WOW 1 DAY PAINTING,You Move Me and Shack Shine. Brian is passionate about helping others grow small to medium businesses and corporate culture.

Tweet Brian at @brianscudamore