A guest post by young British endurance adventurer, speaker & mental health fundraiser Alex Staniforth. Alex raised corporate sponsorship as a teenager for his expeditions to Baruntse in 2013, and Everest in 2014 and 2015.
He is now a successful motivational speaker [read more about his speaking journey here]. His first book is Icefall, the story of his Everest attempts. In 2017 he became the fastest person ever to climb all 100 UK county tops, advocating his struggle with depression and eating disorders.
Banner photo: Alex on top of Amphu Labsta Pass in Nepal, on November 2013 (during his Baruntse
expedition). Textlocal were his head sponsor for the Baruntse and Everest 2014 expeditions.
Let’s take things back to basics. What do we mean by sponsorship?
Basically, it’s marketing - a company giving money or products in return for an advertising opportunity. It’s also much more… like CSR (corporate social responsibility), brand acquisition and staff development. The key point is that it helps a business achieves its own goals in some way. They want to be associated with positive things, and adventures/expeditions are an exciting way for them to engage with their customers and take their brand to cool places.
TOP TIP: When approaching prospective sponsors, many people get confused. They think you’re asking for charity sponsorship, that is where people raise charity sponsorship by doing challenges like marathons, cycles and skydives by family/friends/colleagues. Be clear in communicating that you’re funding the cost of the project itself. I've supported chosen charities through all my expeditions – but you won’t raise much for charity unless the trip actually goes ahead!
Finding sponsors as an amateur adventurer is very hard and it takes a long time. But it can be done! I relied on sponsorship for my Baruntse 2013, Everest 2014 and Everest 2015 expeditions. Here are eight tips I learnt along the way.
1. Do You Really Need Sponsorship?
It's very time-consuming
We see everyone else doing it and we all love free stuff, don’t we? At 18 years old my options were very limited – my parents were never going to slip me a cheque, so I had to find another way. But if you can afford to pay for the trip up-front, then you could save a lot of valuable time and use that for planning or training instead.
Many people balance seeking sponsorship with a full-time job. That isn’t impossible, but they might be better off working overtime instead and saving up – dependent on the cost of the project. Chasing sponsorship can often feel like a full-time job itself.
Getting product sponsorship i.e. kit, is much easier than cash, but don’t accept rubbish gear just to save £ when your life could depend on it.
It's a value exchange - not a donation
The other key point is sponsorship denotes a two-way relationship. A donation means the donor gets nothing in return. But sponsorship implies that the sponsor gets the return they’ve paid for, like paying a decorator to paint your kitchen. This takes a lot of work, you have a responsibility to deliver, and there are risks and consequences if you fail to do so.
Personally, being sponsored didn’t affect the enjoyment of the overall trip and it was a small price to pay for the benefit of being there and living the dream. But if you don’t want the responsibility of sponsors and want to do something for yourself, then maybe sponsorship isn’t for you.
There’s a great article on this by Tim Moss.
2. How will you Approach Sponsors?
The two most common ways to approach possible sponsors are by email or phone.
Having a bad stammer (albeit now a professional keynote speaker) meant I chose the former, which in todays’ modern age is widely becoming the normal approach. It is however easier to be ignored by email. Many adventurers I spoke to found sponsorship more quickly entirely by phone. Others combined both – emailing, then following up by phone to check they got your email and to try and push for a meeting.
Whichever option you take, it’s essential to have a professional sponsorship PDF or ‘brochure’ to accompany your email or to send as a follow-up after the phone call. Spend time making it look top notch as this is one of your earliest impressions. This should sum up the project - what you need, why you’re doing it, and most importantly: what’s in it for them?
The harsh reality is that most sponsors don’t care much about you or why you love mountains. Everyone can relate to goals, but the key question is: why should they help you realise yours?
[Related blog post: Tips on Branding Your Expedition for the professional look]
3. Learn as much as you can
In the early days of my sponsorship apprenticeship I was fortunate to come across a few young Everest climbers who not only inspired me and planted the idea of sponsorship, but shared their advice and tips. Now I try to repay their help by helping others in the same way. Without their example I can almost guarantee I’d never have got there.
Don’t be afraid of asking for help – for everything I didn’t know (i.e. everything) I found someone who did.
Get yourself a good mentor by approaching them on LinkedIn or even asking around. Go to networking events. Find people who believe in you and ask you the right questions: that’s the beauty of mentoring. I was very fortunate to come across mine by chance. When things aren’t progressing so well they can keep you accountable and back on track.
One of the best bits of guidance from a mentor Chris Spray was: “Shy bairns get no sweets”.
4. Stand Out From The Crowd!
Just because Richard Branson has £££ in the bank doesn’t mean he wants to to fund your expedition – especially when a hundred of others have probably sent him the same email in the last week. One of the best posts I read was from Alastair Humphreys, with a simple line standing out to me: GET THEIR BLOODY ATTENTION.
If you start an email with ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ you might as well be sending them an invite to Candy Crush Saga. Nobody likes cold, impersonal emails. Making an effort to find the appropriate contact and personalise the email will help reduce the chances of your email being trashed. If someone calls you by your name, you would feel rude to ignore it.
What makes your expedition/challenge/project stand out?
Let’s face it, there are many people climbing Everest and cycling the world nowadays. It doesn’t lessen the achievement, but it does increase the competition. You need a USP (Unique Selling Point). Use whatever unique angle you can. In my case, being 18 worked massively in my favour. But anyone of any age can be creative and come up with something exciting. For example, a team are attempting the worlds’ highest dinner party record on the North Col of Everest this year!
5. You need to really, really want it…
For nearly a year Everest was my life - sending emails to prospective sponsors day in and day out, often into the early hours. On weekends I washed dishes in the local pub to pay my way, so I had five weekdays free for training (one day isn’t very cost effective when Scotland takes pretty much a day to get there). Obviously, being young I was fortunate to have this flexibility but there were guys on the team with full-time jobs and families who managed to fund the trip with more determination and initiative than I’ve ever seen.
Everything I did had to meet a single criteria: will this get me to Everest? Obviously, there were exceptions. But Everest took priority. Staying motivated can be hard so I made it into a challenge - how many emails could I send in one day? It’s a bit like running a marathon – find your rhythm and things go by much quicker.
I have since watched many expeditions fail due to lack of funding, which shows how difficult it can be. For some, you question the level of dedication when members of the team are posting Facebook snaps of their random nights out and holidays abroad. The summer prior I skipped family holidays and ‘fun’ stuff because that was valuable time to be working on the expedition.
Remind yourself that the end goal is going to be more rewarding than anything you miss out on in the meantime; it will be far better than wishing you’d worked harder when you had the chance. Friends who challenged my lack of ‘down time’ would later question how I managed to get to the Himalayas so young.
The feeling of pride boarding the plane to Kathmandu made every long day on the laptop so worthwhile. Let fear of failure be your biggest driver to succeed.
6. Who do you know?
First time round, finding sponsorship was a numbers game. It was about speaking to as many people as possible to try and find a brand who might be interested and finally say ‘yes’. I approached nearly one thousand people. If you have a personal relationship with someone in a large business – a friend, spouse, family or neighbour – your chances of getting to the right person and being heard are infinitely higher. You have no idea how small the world is until you start networking.
When finding sponsorship for my second expedition, I only sent around thirty emails yet was fully funded three months before the trip, instead of just three weeks. This was down to the network I’d made, and also to a talk I gave prior to the first expedition, which caught the attention of the chairman of Westgrove Group. That talk came from one email. Westgrove Group still sponsor and support me today.
7. Do The Right Thing
Visualise yourself posting about your new sponsor – how do you feel? If there’s any uncertainty niggling at the back of your mind, ask yourself: Are they the right fit for you? Do you want to be associated with a brand that doesn’t align with your own values? One example is when McDonalds sponsored the Olympics a few years ago. It caused a major hoo-ha, with the obvious clash of interest around public health.
Nowadays I’m very selective about which sponsors I work with. I have partnerships with brands where there is a personal connection and a genuine belief in my journey rather than just the marketing in return, so that together we can make the biggest difference. Of course, it wasn’t always that way - you may get to the point of desperation and accept anything you can. For Everest 2014 I was called ‘the walking billboard’ for this reason! Keep in mind that managing ten sponsors is difficult, and if you’re got more than one sponsor, then HSBC might not want their logos shared alongside John’s Kebab Shop.
During my first Everest expedition, we were at base camp following the avalanche that killed sixteen Sherpas. Out of respect of the victims we posted little on social media for a week whilst awaiting news: one smaller sponsor emailed during this period to ask for a shout-out on social media! It’s safe to say I terminated that contract once I got home.
8. Persevere and Stay Positive
Everest was expensive (£35,000+) so it was going to take a while to find that much. From creating my sponsor brochure to being fully funded took about fourteen months – although I’d been learning about it for years more.
You will spend a lot of time convinced your email has broken when you get no response. You will get rejections. Most of the time you’ll get generic rejection emails. At the same, you never know what’s around the corner. You might hear nothing for months then suddenly two will come in one week – it became quite exciting and once you get your first sponsor, it creates momentum.
One major sponsor pulled out three weeks before the trip, but by this point I realised things happened for a reason and it made way for a better-aligned sponsor to come onboard. If you lose belief in yourself then why should others believe in you?
Yes, sponsorship is difficult, but it largely comes down to how much you want it and how much time you can put in. Whatever you do – never ever give up!
Alex's book Icefall contains a lot more information about his sponsorship-raising journey.
An extract from Chapter 3: “One adventurer told me to take up golf—but wearing stripy trousers was a step too far. A famous polar explorer told me not to even bother trying, which spurred me on even more. There really is nothing better than doing what people say you cannot do.
Besides the adversity, I needed something different to sell. I brought my notepad everywhere and brainstormed ideas on paper, even sticking post-it notes to the Everest poster in my room. The Olympic torch seemed promising. The Chinese had already taken a lit torch to the top of Everest in the 2008 Olympic Games, but mine could still help me get noticed. I was also endorsed by renowned explorers Sir Chris Bonington and Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Eventually, I came up with the slogan “Climb4Change,” which aimed to change the way young people followed the path instead of achieving their potential.”
Related blog post:
Alex Staniforth - Using Talks to Fund Adventure
about Alex's work as an adventurer motivational speaker