One of the questions I get asked most often is how I got my job as Associate Online Editor at Ride BMX magazine. The answer isn’t a short one, and as many times as I’ve given nutshell versions of it in person and in writing, I decided it was time to divulge the full story once and for all. Obviously I’m biased, but to me it’s an interesting and insightful story, and it’s certainly one I’m proud of.
I’ll start off from when I was in 9th grade. (I told you this wasn’t going to be a short one…) Although I had been into riding bikes practically my whole life, during my freshman year of high school I got a bit more serious about it. Around that time I started racing BMX and hanging out with other riders in my area. I feel like that’s when I truly transformed from being a kid that was stoked to pedal a bike and catch some air into a BMX rider. Part of that transformation included watching videos like Road Fools and subscribing to magazines like Snap and Ride BMX. The videos were awesome, but for some reason I was really drawn to the magazines more than anything. Maybe it was because I had been interested in photography since 5th grade. Maybe it was because I liked tearing out the photos and covering my walls with them. Or maybe it was simply because I could get them more often than videos… After all, there weren’t any online videos, and VHS tapes were expensive, and they certainly didn’t show up in my mailbox twice a month.
Setting The Goal
Over the course of the next few years my passion for BMX continued to grow and I continued to plaster my walls with the pages and posters from BMX magazines. Then in my senior year of high school I was finally able to get onto the school’s yearbook staff—something I had been trying to do since seventh grade. I always knew that I would love being a part of putting together my school’s yearbook, but I didn’t know how much I’d love it until I actually started doing it. As part of my duties for the class I walked around school taking pictures, then laid out the images into pages that I created for the yearbook. Being that this was going on during my last year of high school, at a time when kids are encouraged to think about their future and potential careers, it didn’t take long for things to click in my naive mind. My train of thought was very simple… “If I could take pictures and lay out pages for a BMX magazine, that would be the coolest job in the world.” So with that basic notion, several months before I actually got my diploma I made it my goal to work at Ride BMX magazine. I remember countless people at school, at home, and at church asking what my plans were after I graduated, and I had a response ready for all of them that went something like this… “I’m going to college for graphic design as a backup plan, then when I graduate I’m moving to Southern California and doing whatever it takes to work at Ride BMX magazine.”
I was 18 and had never read self-help books, had never studied successful people, and had never watched The Secret, but somehow I already knew how important it was to set goals and have a clear direction. This is something I still hold very true today and is still extremely important in all areas of my life.
My path was set, but as the cliché goes, I couldn’t see the top of the staircase (not by a long shot), but I saw the first step, and that was enough for me. I enrolled in Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and declared fine arts as my major with a concentration in graphic design. I didn’t know the first thing about graphic design or the magazine business. And I didn’t know anything about professional photography. And I was totally clueless about the BMX industry. What I did know is that I wanted to make a career out of what I loved and nothing was going to stop me.
The First Big Step
Over the next four and a half years, while working towards my bachelor’s degree I slowly and very organically pushed myself to learn about everything I needed to know so that when the time came I would be ready to make my dream a reality and get that job at Ride BMX I wanted so badly. This is where the story gets a bit more complex and really starts to take shape… (Again, I told you this wouldn’t be a short one!)
I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on things now I attribute the first big step in my journey to a friend of mine that decided to build a mini ramp in his backyard during my first year of college. Sure, it was cool getting to help build a ramp, and since I had never ridden ramps before it was definitely fun learning how to ride it, but even more importantly, that ramp brought together and helped build up the local BMX scene. After the ramp was complete Brad Jensen (the guy whose backyard the ramp was in), Brock Gomez (the other friend who helped build it), and I all decided it would be cool to call up all of the riders we knew around Louisiana and our neighboring states and get them out to Baton Rouge for a jam at the freshly built ramp. Our plans were very informal, but within a few weeks we had secured a local cover band to come play a few songs and had riders from all over the South excited about the event. Brock and I made flyers and posted them up wherever we could think that riders may see them—in bike shops, at popular street spots, and around the college campus. Then I thought it would be a good idea to make a Web site so our friends in other states could see pictures of the ramp and read all the information about the jam. So I signed up for a free Web site and used an easy template to make a simple page explaining what we were doing.
That jam went much better than we could have ever expected, and before people even left they were already asking when the next one would be. Brock and I knew we had created something great that people in are area were stoked on, so for the next four years we continued to build on our DIY backyard jam idea, and by the fifth year “Transitions” had turned into an internationally recognized event with riders coming from all corners of the country. What was once a single ramp and a small cover band in a backyard had turned into two side-by-side backyards with two wild ramp setups, five touring bands, an entire street blocked off, flatland riding, DJs and break dancers, and enough free food to feed upwards of 1,500 people throughout the all-day affair…
Part of us building on the event each year included doing proper promoting, which meant that I sent posters and press releases to every BMX company I could think of along with all the BMX media outlets I knew of, including Ride BMX. This outreach helped people in the BMX industry associate my name with the event, and allowed them to see I was doing positive things with my local scene.
As a spin off of the event’s no-name Web site I ended up building a more legit, custom site under the name LouisianaBMX.com. It was a full-on Louisiana community site where I posted news about what was going on around the state, information about the spots we rode, photos from events and trips, interviews with local riders, and occasionally videos, too. Just like the event grew each year, the Web site continued to mature and more and more people around the country started to click on it on a regular basis.
With our event getting bigger each year the local Red Bull market in our region took notice and stepped in with some funding to help make it even better. Part of that money was used to fly in media to cover the event, which really helped give the event some good exposure and credibility, and of course in turn, helped give me some credibility as well. The first year we flew in someone from the BMX media we brought in Ryan Navazio, who at the time helped run an independent video magazine called Standpoint. The coverage of our event was only in the bonus section of the Standpoint DVD, but that was enough to get some attention on the event, and on LouisianaBMX.com.
After seeing the LouisianaBMX.com logo in the Standpoint DVD, Ryan Fudger, one of Ride BMX‘s Associate Editors emailed me and asked if I wanted to be interviewed for a feature in the magazine called “Web Site of the Month.” I remember receiving that email like it was yesterday—it was a bigger deal to me than you can imagine. To me, this meant I was doing something right and the people I wanted to notice me were in fact taking notice. There I was, about the farthest place away from the BMX industry, in South Louisiana, and all of a sudden someone from Ride was contacting me. I had never even dreamt that someone from Ride would know who I was before I started pounding on their door asking for a job. But it was happening, and I was beside myself.
I did the interview and got my half-page feature in the magazine, complete with a screen shot of the Web site. However, I didn’t let the correspondence with Ride end there… I wrote back to Ryan and asked if I could be a part of another feature for the magazine called “Quick Look,” which was a one-page scene report in each issue that a rider from that area wrote up describing the local vibe, spots, and riders. Ryan and the other guys at Ride agreed, and before I knew it I had my name and work in the magazine once again.
Along with organizing the Transitions jam, and running the Louisiana BMX Web site, Brock and I filmed and edited a full-length Louisiana-based BMX DVD that we sold to our friends through the Web site and local bike shops. It was a personal project for us, made specifically for our own keepsake, for our friends, and for our local BMX community. But unknowingly at the time, it also became a good way to promote myself to the BMX industry. After the video was complete I pulled out my list of BMX companies and media outlets that I had used to promote Transitions and sent each contact a copy of the DVD. It was a good way to remind everyone in the BMX industry that we had a strong scene in the South while giving them something new to watch, and of course, helping associate my name with another project.
Entering Into The Magazine World
Around this time I was in my third year of college and I realized that if I was going to work for a magazine I needed more experience in that world than just a quick write up and a short interview in Ride, so I applied for and landed a job at my college campus magazine as a graphic designer. For two semesters I helped lay out pages of the magazine before moving up to the design editor/art director position that I stayed at for another year and a half until I graduated college. That job was my first introduction to the print media business and allowed me to learn a ton of valuable skills and lessons that would help me out in the marathon I was running to achieve my goal of getting a job at Ride. The job and experience also gave me some much-needed insight as to how things worked in the real world publishing industry.
My biggest lesson learned from working at the magazine was one I desperately needed to know, and that was this: designers sit at a desk all day, and photographers get to travel and do cool stuff. Back on the high school yearbook staff I shot photos and laid out pages, but that’s just not how it works in the magazine business. In most cases the designers and photographers are two very different people with two very different jobs and roles, and they rarely have any crossover. This realization created a pretty big paradigm shift for me, and although I didn’t give up my major in graphic design, I slowly began to alter my focus from design to photography. I came to realize that I didn’t really want to be a designer for a BMX magazine after all…I wanted to be a photographer.
The next step of the staircase was starting to become visible and I bought an entry-level professional digital SLR Canon camera, a cheap lens, and a generic brand flash and began to teach myself how to shoot photos. While working for the college magazine I did manage to weasel a few of my photos into the pages, but when I asked my editor if I could write something for the publication she told me I should just stick to one thing and focus on design and layout. The rejection lit a fire under my ass and motivated me to do something on my own. I figured if I wanted to write, photograph, and design for a magazine, then why not make my own? So that’s what I did… I took old journal entries, life stories, write-ups from the Louisiana BMX Web site, and other ideas I had and created enough content for a 40-page magazine. I shot all the photos for it, did illustrations for it, designed and laid it out, and edited the entire thing by myself. Since it was solely a personal project and the content was based around my life, essentially it ended up being one big self-promotion piece. I got 50 copies printed, and once again, sent them out to BMX companies all around the U.S. I never sent a resume with them or asked for a job from any of those companies—I simply just wanted to get my name and my work out there. And it actually worked. Years later several important figures in the BMX industry told me they remembered the magazine, and as a result, remembered me.
The Face-To-Face Introduction
Once it came time to plan for the fourth Transitions backyard jam I got in touch with the editors at Ride and offered to use some of our event budget to pay for a flight so one of their photographers could cover the event and give it some exposure in the magazine. They agreed and sent out Jeff Zielinski, which was the first time I met one of the editors face-to-face. It was huge deal for me to get to meet someone who had the same job that I wanted. Meeting Jeff was eye opening and an instrumental part of me being able to connect the dots in the giant puzzle I was blindly trying to put together.
While Jeff was in town for the jam he set aside time to shoot photos with Terry Adams for an interview in the magazine, and lucky for me, Jeff allowed me to tag along for a day while they shot photos. Maybe he just didn’t know how to tell me no. Or maybe he was trying to throw a hungry dog a bone. Or maybe he just needed me to help find them cool spots to shoot at. But whatever the case was, I got to go out on a photo shoot with one of the most well-respected and talented BMX photographers in the world as he shot with one of the best flatland riders in the world. Throughout the day I watched Jeff work and tried to ask specific questions about what he was doing without being too nosey or annoying. And of course, I took a lot of mental notes along the way.
While I was driving around with Jeff that day we stopped by a famous street riding spot that Jeff planned to use for a department in the magazine called “Spots” where they featured a photo of a famous riding spot and had pros write about their memories from the location. Since I was the local in that area who was already on their radar, naturally the guys at Ride asked me to write the intro for the feature—another huge score for me.
Things Falling Into Place
By this time I had helped organize four very successful BMX events that had seen coverage in Standpoint video magazine and Ride BMX magazine, I had three small features in Ride, and I had sent out a full-length DVD and a self-promo magazine to people in the BMX world. Industry heads were starting to take notice and things were starting fall into place, but I was still a year and a half away from graduating, and I was still extremely new to BMX photography. It was obvious that was what I needed to work on, so I cranked it into high gear and started shooting as much as possible.
I didn’t live around any professional riders, so I was only able to shoot with amateur-level riders that did amateur-level tricks, but that didn’t matter. Every time I set up a shot and pressed the shutter I was learning more and more. And every time I opened images in Photoshop I learned even more. I looked at every situation as an opportunity to grow and improve on my skills. I studied each image in the pages of Ride and tried to figure out what made it a good photo. And I attempted to dissect the photos and imagine how I thought the photographer set up the shot. Then, after months and months of shooting, when I thought I had a few photos that would be good enough for Ride, I sent them to Jeff Zielinski and crossed my fingers. Several days went by and I finally got a reply in my email inbox. It was a no go. None of the photos were good enough. However, Jeff was nice enough to take time to give me some solid advice as to why they were rejected and what I could work on to improve my photos. Getting free, professional advice was a pretty new concept for me. For some reason I never even thought to ask the pros for tips… It seems so obvious now, but I guess when you look up to someone and admire them so much, you tend forget that they are just people too, and you don’t realize they are probably willing to help you out, even though you may feel like you are “a nobody.”
I continued to shoot with the local riders in my area as much as possible, and every so often when I got to a roadblock or was confused about something I sent Jeff an email asking for tips and advice. And lucky for me, he was always extremely kind and helpful. I quickly learned that sometimes the simplest tips from an expert can make a huge difference to a struggling novice. Those tips from Jeff meant a lot to me, and remembering how much he helped me out is part of the reason I started this blog in the first place—so I can help others who are trying to push themselves and get further in life.
A New Kind Of Submission
Over the next several months I sent a few more photos to Jeff, and all of them were turned down. I was beginning to see just how difficult it was to get a photo printed in Ride, so I decided to take a step back. Instead of asking the editors to print my photos in the magazine, I sent them eight images and asked if they would post them on their Web site as a photo gallery.
I visited the Ride Web site almost every day, but it was rarely updated. I saw a void that I thought I might be able to help fill by giving them free photos to run in order to keep their site updated with fresh content. They were more than happy to run the photos, so the next time I had eight more photos, I sent them in again. And they posted them again. I began to contribute photo galleries several times a month, and never asked to be paid for them. I eventually even contributed short stories and coverage from local contests. I was just excited to have my work seen by riders all around the world, and of course, I was excited to have my big toe in that heavy door I was trying to pry open.
Throughout all of my college years I traveled as much as possible to new places to ride, meet riders, and eventually film and photograph them. The more time I spent on the road, the more I wanted to keep traveling, and during my last summer of school I took my biggest road trip to date and made my way all the way from Louisiana to Southern California. The purpose of the trip was to see as much of the country as possible, but I did have a specific plan on my agenda to try to meet some more people in the BMX industry.
In one of my college classes they told us that, as weird as it may seem, people are usually really receptive and inviting if you ask to visit them at their workplace to learn more about their company and what they do. I had nothing to lose, so I emailed the editors at Ride along with another BMX company and asked if I could pay them a visit while I was on my trip. To my delight both companies agreed, and a few weeks later I walked into Ride’s office for the first time and shook hands with the other photographers and editors I had previously only had email correspondence with. I didn’t ask for a job, or even if they’d have any positions available any time soon. I simply asked questions about the office, about the magazine, and about what each of the editors did. It was a short visit that afternoon, but an important one that I feel truly served me well.
The Home Stretch
The next personal project I worked on was a Louisiana BMX calendar. It started out as a one-page class assignment, but I ended up expanding on it, and I eventually made a full-size 12-month wall calendar with photos of riders from Louisiana. The project helped show off my growing photography skills as well as my graphic design skills, and of course my ambition, drive, and love for BMX. And you guessed it…I sent a copy to a bunch of BMX companies again.
I was about a month away from graduating college—that exciting, but frightening time when you are forced to break free from everything you’ve ever known about structure and become completely free and independent. Then, one night, out of the blue, I got a phone call. It was Keith Mulligan, the Editor in Chief of Ride BMX magazine. He said they were opening a position at the magazine for someone to run their Web site full-time and wanted to know if I was interested in the job. Everything I had worked towards for the past four and a half years had come to a head, and this was the moment I had been waiting for.
I didn’t hesitate to tell him yes, and within a few short weeks I was on a plane to Santa Ana, California to be interview for the position.
By the time I walked across the stage in my cap and gown to receive my bachelor’s degree my dream job was in plain sight and I was on course to start my career in the BMX industry. And as yet another cliché goes…the rest, my friends, is history…
* If this post has brought up any additional questions, or if you want to know anything more specific about any part of this story, please leave a comment and I’ll reply so everyone else can see.