If you are reading this, chances are that you are an adventurous nomad - or at least you have flirted with the thought of forgoing the 9-to-5 to live a less structured life outdoors.
There are countless ways to leave behind the 9-to-5, just as there are a plethora of options to make adventure and the outdoors a focal point of your life. Nailing the intersection of these two desires and getting paid for it can seem to some like the ultimate goal - though, as Ted Hesser might say: it's just one of many dreams, not THE dream.
I regularly receive questions about how to get started. As I said in my last post while talking more broadly about ways to generate income while being nomadic: making life on the road pay you takes a lot of hustle but it's also pretty fun.
How I got started
I attended and made industry connections at Red Rock Rendezvous and Outdoor Retailer - against the backdrop of a well-developed photography portfolio and a track record of story-worthy adventures - which allowed me to build relationships with brands, and translated to friendships with established athletes that I later went on to photograph and adventure with.
To get paid directly for going on outdoor adventures of your own design really just means that you are an outdoor industry content creator. Maybe you're an athlete; maybe you're a talented photographer, or a hard-working writer. Or maybe you're simply a relatable guy or gal with a distinctive voice who enjoys telling stories. No matter which of those categories you fall into, content is your bread and business.
The good news is that brands are always hungry for fresh content. The bad news is that content creators are a dime a dozen, and establishing yourself as a content creator whose work is worth money doesn't happen overnight; like anything else, it takes a lot of time and effort.
So how do you break into getting paid for content? Let's start out with the bad news.
- You won’t make a living as a content creator unless you truly love what you do - and by that I mean both the craft of storytelling as well as whatever it is that your stories focus on. Adventure? Fitness? Travel? Whatever it may be, you need to be truly passionate about it, and you ALSO need to be passionate about the craft of visual or verbal storytelling. Photography and writing both are art forms; to get paid for content you need to hone at least one if not both, or you need to be working with someone who is skilled in those disciplines.
- Start out doing what you love without expecting to get compensated for it. This applies no matter if you're an athlete, a photographer, or hoping to follow in the footsteps of social media influencers like @briannamadia or @hayoui. You need a portfolio, a distinctive style, and a track record, all of which take time to build: I would suggest 6-12 months of full-time effort at a minimum, if not several years. If you are looking for a quick way to make money, this isn't it.
- There is not much of a point in approaching brands for photo/writing work or sponsorship if you can't point to a robust track record of high quality story-telling. Thankfully that track record is straightforward to build, and you may not need anything more than Instagram and a well-designed personal website or blog (I built this one in about two afternoons) that has some depth to it and shows off the quality of what you do... and also serves as evidence that you didn't just decide yesterday to give the whole adventure writer/photographer/athlete thing a go.
Now on to the good news.
- You don't have to be the best in the world at something to get paid as an athlete / photographer / story-teller, but you do have to be distinctive. The stories that you create, be it through athletic achievement or through powerful words and visuals, have to stand out. What sets you apart from the crowd:
- Is your personal story unusual?
- Is there a specific cause that you are passionate about?
- Do you have friends with extraordinary talents or stories, to write about or photograph?
- Are you pursuing an objective or putting together a project that is unusual? (Check out this mission from Sophie Radcliffe aka Challenge Sophie as one of many great examples)
- Do you take your camera - or at the very least yourself - into environments that not many people venture into: remote and seldom visited places, vertical environments, high altitude?
- Do you have a strong social media footprint, both as far as reach and engagement go?
- Also - not all types of content work and sponsorship are created equal. Product is generally easy to come by; hard cold cash is much more difficult. Think long and hard about what you are going to pitch to a company. Have a rad project in the pipeline and need a specific piece of gear for it? Chances are you'll find your brand of choice receptive to your pitch, as long as you can demonstrate that your rad project is going to translate into great content for them (this is where the need for a track record comes in). Looking for a company to not just trade product for content but also pay you an annual retainer unrelated to specific projects, for you to serve as a brand ambassador at large? That is much, much more difficult.
A note about authenticity
Two friends and I decided we wanted to go on a big stand-up paddling adventure; we approached a leading SUP brand for support. The brand was excited about our pitch and happy to commit to paying for the content we were going to create - but logistics got in the way and in the end we weren't able to make the trip happen as planned.
When we offered our brand partner to use the same time window and budget towards another location of their choosing for us to create content 'on assignment', they said "Thanks but no thanks." They wanted real, authentic content from a trip that the three of us were keen to go on anyway, not a staged photoshoot; and we'll be excited to deliver when logistics align.
No matter what you are hoping to do, here are a few things that you can do to position yourself to work with outdoor industry brands:
- Network. Not just on social media - even though having a robust Instagram following is a great way to get a brands' attention, particularly if you have an organic followership above 10k strong - but in real life. Identify industry events that are relevant for what you want to do, show up and chat with people. Attend talks, clinics, festivals and trade shows whenever you can. To maximize your potential as a content creator you need a robust network of industry professionals including other athletes and adventurers, photographers, writers, editors, and marketing managers.
- Do things that are story-worthy. That doesn't mean that you have to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, but it does mean that you have to be excited about and sufficiently skilled to execute unusual missions. Climbing Kilimanjaro is pretty commonplace at this point in time; climbing its lesser-known neighbors Meru (the one in Africa, not the one with the Shark's Fin!) or Mt Kenya? There might be a story to tell.
- Document what you do. Remember, this is the part that you're (hopefully, eventually) getting paid for: not for having a grand adventure or accomplishing an amazing feat, but for creating stories and images to share with the rest of the world. This doesn't mean that you have to do it all yourself; you could be part of a team - friends or a partner with the same interests and a complementary skill set - or you can work hard at creating story-worthy moments so that professional writers and photographers seek you out and want to work with you.
No matter which approach you choose, what you are getting paid for is helping to bring stories and images back. Just imagine Alex Honnold ten years ago - and now imagine that he *didn't* work with folks to create killer images and make rad movies out of his story: most of us wouldn't know who he is and his market value would be a fraction of what it is today, even though Alex would still be arguably one of the most extraordinary athletes to walk the planet.
- Stay authentic. Don't come up with random trips or projects just because you think they'll sell. Do things that you are truly excited about, and then think about what brands could be a good fit and willing to pay for the resulting content.
- Be disciplined. Make sure you consistently deliver value. That means staying on top of your game, whatever the focal area may be: planning and executing missions, maintaining your social media presence etc., honing your story-telling craft. You also need to make sure that your partners and sponsors get out of you what they paid you for and then some: got free product in exchange for social media tags? Go beyond simply upholding your part of the deal and, a few weeks into your collaboration, proactively share a snapshot of the value that you delivered. This could be as simple as summarizing the reach and engagement of your relevant posts, and sharing a bit of relevant imagery that you don't plan to use on your own channels but which may be useful for your brand partner to add to their library.
On a final note: if this is the path you are pursuing or hoping to pursue - remember that in the end, it's all just business. Instagram is not a popularity contest, and brands don't partner up with you or decide to pay you because you're rad. Of course you ARE rad, but what I'm trying to say is this: brands will pay you in product or money because it's good business for them, not because they are doing you a favor. So make sure that you are thoughtful about which brands you would like to work with, and that your proposals reflect why working together will be good business for both sides. When you get silence or rejections as a response: don't take it personal. It's business. Tweak your approach and try again.
To be sustainable in the outdoor industry you don't have to be the next Jimmy Chin, Krystle Wright, Sasha DiGulian or Alex Honnold, but you do have to be consistent and willing to work hard. With that... time to hustle!