When “No” Really Means, “Maybe Later”

Have you ever tried to contact someone, for a job, to make plans etc., and gotten a cold response? Perhaps no response at all? And so you figured that meant no? Like “no, we don’t have a job for you”. Me too. But with many years of experience I’ve learned these cold responses, even the outright “sorry we can’t encourage you, we are not interested in exploring future employment opportunities with you” (paraphrasing a response I got from William Morris Agency in 2003), may in fact just mean “sorry not right now, but check back with us later”.

It’s funny, and maybe doesn’t even seem so strange. But that’s true. And “maybe later” doesn’t mean 6 months from now. Try 6 weeks.


Once upon a time I had an internship at a record label in New York. Martha Stewart’s Omni Media offices were just a couple floors above mine (pre-insider trading conviction). It was an exciting [unpaid] job for me. Naomi Campbell came into the office occasionally to visit the owner of the label. I was still in college and this was something I’d never experienced before.

My position was in the marketing department. I spent a lot of time preparing shipments, photocopying press kits, and organizing the CD closet. My big break came when I was asked to organize promotion of a Japanese metal band who was coming to the USA for a short tour. One of my first jobs was to contact the venues where the bands would be playing and ask the venue managers if we could organize a ticket giveaway to help promote the show.

As the email responses from the venue managers came in, I reported back to my marketing director. Some of the venues hadn’t replied. When I asked my boss what that meant, he said “it means ‘No’”.

Unfortunately for me, he was just not into the band and suspected most of the venues weren’t either. But I took his comment as a lesson and took it to heart. For a while afterwards, whenever I was pitching to someone, or trying to start a dialogue with a person not close to me, if I didn’t hear back I thought it was a sign to give up.

Fortunately, not too long afterwards I learned that repetition actually could be very effective. I gained this wisdom while watching Sex and the City. In the 6th season, while Charlotte York pursues a rabbi to learn the ways of her fiancées religion, she learns, that displaying dedication and temperament with repetitive attempts, despite outright rejection, eventually proved her devotion to the faith and won her the attention and ultimate support of the rabbi.

Pretty convoluted learning experience, I know, but it made sense to me, and so I let go of the words from my marketing director. Going forward when situations came up where I couldn’t succeed without getting the attention of someone too busy or important to talk with me, I just politely continued to poke them for a little bit of their time. It doesn’t always work, but more often than you expect, you can turn a “no” into a “maybe”, and once you have “maybe”, it’s much easier to get to “yes”.

Me with Alexander the Great. Thessaloniki, Greece
Me with Alexander the Great. Thessaloniki, Greece

Present Day

This all ties back to a methodology I’ve had lately. Persistence. Seriously. Persistence. Reach for the moon. Find the CEO of a company. The Senior PR Director for a global brand. Whoever it is. Whatever you want. Approach, carefully, and thoughtfully. At first you might not succeed. But with patience, displayed thoughtfulness and planning, you can make contact, and even get what you’re after.

If you’re in sales this is a pitch meeting. If you’re looking for a coveted job, this is a meeting with someone who can get you an “in”. If you want to get a sponsorship or propose a new product idea it could be any number of people.

There are two things to keep in mind about this:

1. You might be reaching out to the wrong person

2. Follow up is key

Point Number 1 : Reaching Out to the Wrong Person

People scare easily. We don’t want to piss anyone off, or have a room full of people hating us. So naturally when we are trying to get in touch with a person, who more likely than not, is one of several people at a group, or company who could be the entry point of that organization, and we have no success, there is this fear that our one and only person to reach out to has nixed the request, and therefor no one else at the company is reachable either.

In reality what it probably means if one person doesn’t respond, or gives a really cold “go away” sort of email, is that that person just wasn’t the right person to reach out to.

What to do?

Why not reach out to someone else? Most companies are big, people talk, sure, but not that much, certainly not about you. Unless you did something really creepy or amazing, you were 4 seconds of someones day and they will not remember you from 20 other Joe Schmoe’s who also tried contacting the wrong person that week.

Other people aren’t always the same as the first person. You have to get creative and look around, try to learn who is who, and use your smarts. If someone says no, find someone more important, or closer to the department head of the team you’re trying to reach out to. If you’re trying to get a job and HR tell’s you there aren’t any positions available. Go directly to someone on the team you could potentially work for and see what they say. Hint: aim high. Team leaders are part of or responsible for hiring. Team members — not so much.

When no one replies or do, but say they aren’t interested… move on to point #2 — Follow up.

Me posing as a tourist in Belgrade, Serbia
Me posing as a tourist in Belgrade, Serbia

Follow Up

No one speaks better to follow up than Jason Sadler. Jason famously started the company “I Wear Your T-Shirt” which got sponsors to pay him to wear a t-shirt branded with their logo, and many other promotional opportunities around that idea. Since shutting down IWYS (after plenty of success), Jason has moved on to teaching others, which at one point included a email based course in getting sponsors. I was able to dig up one of his posts from the course here which embodies Lesson 5 of his Sponsorship Course “The Secret Art Of The Follow Up Email”.

Summarizing his points, follow up is huge for getting sponsorships. Which by the way is asking for money. If you think whatever you want is super in demand, and no one want’s to give it to you, try switching the subject of your pursuit to money. Now go out and ask people to give you money… you get the idea (I hope). If Jason could do it, then he probably has a thing or two to teach us all about asking people for stuff when they are used to saying “no” all day long.

Jason claims 75% of the sponsorships he got came after following up. Read: he did not get people to give him money after sending one email. Sometimes it took two, sometimes it took 4–6, but most of the time the 2nd or 3rd email was actually enough to get an in.

Why Does it Work?

Because most people don’t do it. Yep. So simple. Most truths in life are aren’t they? Most people just give up after the first email or more likely they forget. So by following up, you’re taking advantage of the fact that you will stand out by the amazing feat of sending not one, but two emails. Another great benefit of the 2nd and subsequent emails is the gift of memory. Since your name has already passed by your target’s inbox once before, you are no longer a complete stranger. Oddly enough, though you’re still a stranger to the person you’re contacting, just by having some existence and continuity in another person’s life, you’re creating familiarity. If you wait long enough, your name may have appeared more to that person than their best friend who never posts on Facebook anymore and disappeared after he had some kids.

How To Follow Up?

This is probably part of the secret sauce. I mean. If you just resend your email, the recipient will see that, and this action says you’re lazy. You didn’t take the time to give the recipient fresh info, you just hit the send button again. Which sort of says you don’t think that person is valuable. So don’t expect huge results from this.

Your recipient is thinking “great, I already ignored this person (told them to buzz off), now they’re sending the same email again, when will it stop…”


Your follow up email should be a development. It should show that you know you’re following up, and that you’re re-requesting time from that person. But this time, it’s just a reminder of the first message you sent. A “refresh” or “bump back to the top of the inbox” if you will. And that’s all you really need to say. I wouldn’t load your second email with new stuff. Hopefully the first was clear, concise, and included your main value proposition. The followup is a reminder, to look at the first email, that’s it.

And in this follow up method, time is on your side. Just wait a little while and any number of things can change to benefit your cause. See, while the person you are reaching out to may seem impenetrable, the forces around them are anything but. Stuff changes constantly, an important project launches, or doesn’t. A position that was about to be filled falls through at the last minute. A new marketing strategy totally bombs and new talent is needed fast! Don’t under estimate the trillions of variables which can in lots of cases improve your chances of suddenly becoming the important solution to somebody’s problems.

And that’s about it, at least for now. If you have gotten this far and I haven’t convinced you to send a reminder to someone, or just start tracking the people you reach out to and occasionally send a “refresh” to the ones you never heard back from, or seek another gate keeper to try contacting, then I’ve failed. But hopefully that’s not the case. Hopefully, you have a huge head of optimism now, and you’re going to try to do that one thing you always felt was impossible, because now you realize, help isn’t so far away, it might even be just a few emails to the right group of people.

So do it. Go!

Turn a “no” into a “yes” today.

Photos of the Names

Today, we discovered this little popup photo memorial for the residents of Choriner Straße 82 who are remember with Stolpersteine.

A Stolperstein is a cobblestone sized memorial to commemorate victims of Nazi oppression, including the Holocaust. They are installed outside the home where once lived the victim they name.

If you’ve visited Berlin, Hamburg, or any of the 1,000 cities in Europe where one of the 48,000 Stolperstein are installed in the sidewalks, you’ve probably seen them or took fascination in them. Thinking about those people, or just letting their name bounce around in your thoughts. What you don’t see everyday are photographs of the people named.

This was really nice. I hope to someday meet the person who put it together.

Chorinerstr_82_Door Chorinerstr_82_photos_4 Chorinerstr_82_photos_3 Chorinerstr_82_photos_2 Chorinerstr_82_photos_1 Stolperstein_Chorinerstr_82