A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
With no industry connections or family ties, talent agent John Ferriter applied basic entrepreneurial principles to reach the pinnacle of Hollywood’s elite.
You can watch John describe his surprising Hollywood journey in the following 20-minute excerpt from his recent talk at UC Santa Barbara.
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John began his talk by explaining that, “All through life you’re going to run into temporary people who make permanent decisions. Don’t let them get in your way. When you run into those people and they (say), ‘No, no, no, can’t be done, no, no, no’. That means, ‘No, they can’t get it done.’ You have to turn a ‘No’ into a ‘Yes.'”
Hippy Trapped In Corporate America
John continued his story by discussing his first job out of college, working at Delco. Although his performance was excellent, John rebelled against the rigid corporate culture, which dictated short hair and a suit and tie. His two year tenure at Delco (which was acquired by General Motors) finally came to a head when one of the executives confronted him and said, “‘Look, you are either going to be a GM guy, and you’re going to be a corporate guy and you’re going to do what we tell you to do or you should really leave. I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘I am not going to have a job where I have to wear a suit every day! ‘”
John then looked down at his suit, as the audience laughed and said, “So there’s things we say when we are young that we really don’t mean.”
After leaving GM, John focused all of his attention on The Stingrays, his college band. Their careers soon flourished, touring with a number of headliners, including: Guns-n-Roses, REM and The Bangles.
The turning point for John was several years later when he ran into a former local rocker whom he once admired. John was 30 years old, whereas his local idol was in his forties. In John’s words, “This van pulls up, it’s the opening band. The door’s not even affixed to the side of the van… (there’s a) bungee cord and I thought, ‘This is really terrible.’
These guys (then) roll out of the van and start setting up their gear and I go, ‘OK. I am now 30 years old and the guy that’s in the opening band, who is about 42 or 43, was the hottest musician in Santa Barbara when I first came up and all I wanted to do was be him. And I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t want to be him. I don’t want to be that guy, doing this (when I am his age.)’And I thought, ‘I really need to get serious… I need to figure out business.'”
The Life-Changing Phone Call
John then described his journey from rock-n-roll to Hollywood. According to John, “I started looking at the talent agencies and… (everyone told me), ‘You’d be a great agent.’ I found out you had to have a college degree and… you had to have at least two years of experience in the company mailroom and that it could take three to four years to get promoted. So I sat there (and thought), ‘That means I’ll be 35 if everything is perfect. Okay. My philosophy is gonna be this, I will out work every person here and I will do this in record time.”
Unable to secure a job at a talent agency, John accepted a clerical position at a temp agency. They told him they would try him out for six-months and if he did a good job within the agency, they would start sending him out on jobs. John short-circuited the temp agency’s plans in a bold and clever way. If you haven’t watched the video yet, stop now and start the video at 5:45. John’s comments earned him a rousing ovation from the class – you have to hear John tell the story to get the full impact.
On his first day at the temp firm, John arrived before anyone else. Little did he know that his life was about to change forever. In John’s own words, “Long before 9-11… I just walked into the building and said, ‘Hey, I work at this place now’ to the security guard, ‘Can you open the door?’ and he did. I figured, my first day, I’m gonna make some coffee… and the phone rang. I answer the phone and the woman says, ‘Hi, it’s Liza Rivera from the William Morris Agency. We have a really difficult agent who can’t keep an assistant. I need the most mature person you have who can deal with difficult people.’ And in one of those ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’ moments, I (said) ‘His name is John Ferriter and I will send him over right now.’ (applause) That was the first job I got for somebody. That job lasted nineteen and a half years.”
The “I Only Know Two People In Hollywood” Interview
John rushed to William Morris before anyone at the temp agency could stop him and found himself sitting across from a veteran agent named Dick Howard. Sizing John up, Dick asked him, “‘Who do you know in the entertainment industry? If I’m gonna make a call right now, who can I call who can vouch for you?’ So I said, ‘I know Tony Sheppard.’ And he goes, ‘I don’t know Tony Sheppard.’ The only other person I knew who was in the entertainment industry was Kim Shimmel’s husband, (so) I said, ‘And I know Mark Shimmel.”
Mr. Howard then picked up the phone. John connection with Mark was tenuous. Mark was: John’s girlfriend’s brother’s assistant’s husband. As Mr. Howard was dialing the phone John thought, “I am out of here in 60 seconds and I am never coming back.”
Mr. Howard then said, “‘Mark, it’s your cousin Dick. (laughter) I’m sitting with this guy, John Ferriter. I’m thinking of making him my assistant, should I do it?’ And Mark Shimmel said, ‘You absolutely should do it. He’s hungry as hell, he’s smart and he’ll make your life easier.’ (Mr. Howard) hung up the phone and I got the job.”
Bagging Claudia Schiffer And Jerry Garcia
John then discussed how he made it out of William Morris’ mailroom in record time and began building his client roster. “I picked up a copy of Vanity Fair (magazine) and the ‘it’ girl of that moment was the Guess model named Claudia Schiffer. I found out she had no representation and I went down to a show (where she was appearing)… I talked my way onto the set and I met Claudia and three (guys) were hitting on her in the dressing room and she wanted them to leave. I just walked in and said, ‘Hi. My names John, I represent Claudia and you have to leave.’ And they all got up and left. I turned to her and I said… ‘I’m John Ferriter. I’m an agent with the William Morris Agency and I should be your agent.’ We talked for about 15 minutes (and) she signed with me.”
Two days later, John called his sister. As they are casually chatting, she told him about a “weird” client of her law firm who was signing artwork in a nearby conference room. As they talked, John realized that the “weird” guy was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, so he asked his sister to put Jerry on the phone. “I said, ‘Do you have an agent?’ and he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Okay, what are you doing tomorrow? Could I please come up and meet with you tomorrow? I’m gonna be there (in San Francisco). He goes, ‘That’s great. Come on in, you can meet me.’ John signed Jerry the next day.
John then outlined one of the keys to his success, saying, “The phone isn’t going to ring for you, you’re going to make the phone ring and that’s how you make your career take off. Here’s the most important rule that I realized early on: Everybody is talking to somebody. They may not be talking to you, but they’re talking to someone… they’re having breakfast with someone, they’re working out with someone, they’re having lunch with someone, they’re having dinner with someone. Since you know that they do (these things), you just have to figure out how you get in their rotation. They’re talking to someone, so they might as well be talking to you.”
John’s advice for what to do after you get into someone’s rotation is equally as powerful. “The first time you talk (with someone) don’t waste their time.”
Leveraging his first two clients, John tried to sign up actors and newscasters, only to be consistently rejected. Assessing his failure to expand his client roster, he said, “I’m gonna build my business in a different way. I called every single radio personality I could find. I said, ‘Let me be your agent. You don’t have to pay me on your radio deal, but if I get you TV, I get all of your business.”
Leveraging this new strategy, John signed a number of radio personalities whom he helped launch significant television careers, including: Dr. Drew, Carson Daily, Jimmy Kimmel, Adam Carolla, Tom Green and Ryan Seacrest.
John’s inspiring story proves that you do not need connections, money or an Ivy League degree to succeed, even in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood.
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about Hollywood celebrities or that killer burrito I just ate.