WHAT TIMES SQUARE TAUGHT ME ABOUT THE SPIRIT OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP
There’s a saying which goes something like — if you stand in Times Square long enough, everybody you know will pass by.
I decided to put that theory to the test. I didn’t have eternity to stand there but i felt 6 hours straight would do the trick! So in the summer of 2019, while visiting NY, I strolled across Times Square like a hawk, observing every tourist, every billboard, every street performer and every intersection, with laser-like attention! I had done the touristy thing a few days earlier so i wasn’t too keen on taking random photographs of the human kaleidoscope that is Times Square. This time around, I thought I would try and interact a bit with some of the humans of New York ( Humans of Times Square to be precise!) and observe what this iconic stretch of .25 square miles could teach me. Well, as it turns out, it taught me a lot…
The first thing you’ll notice when you’re in Times Square is the ubiquitous Billboards. If you’ve passed through Times Square after dark, you know that the light pollution here is real. Even after sunset, it feels like the land of the eternal sunshine.
In fact, Times Square is so bright due to the gazillion electronic billboards, it’s one of the few places on earth that astronauts can pinpoint from outer space!
Beyond the billboards, the next thing that’ll surely catch your attention are the motley crew of street performers near the famous red stairs. Depending on which evening you’re visiting, you are sure to run into every possible character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Transformers, DC and Disney. Everyone from Captain America, Batman, Optimus Prime to Mickey Mouse! These folks donning the superhero suits will gladly pose with you for a selfie in return for a tip. It is amusingly surprising how many tourists actually do end up taking silly selfies with a spiderman clone at a random street corner in Times Square. Hilarious at best and overtly pushy and pesky at worst, these ‘performers’ merely add to the carnival atmosphere of Times Square. Nothing more. Nothing less. Or is it? I decided to dig deeper.
Since I was strolling around from 9pm -2am, around 1:30am in the night most of these street performers were packing up their wares and pushing off for the night. The perfect time to walk up and strike up a conversation with Captain America, I thought. ! He had just taken off his mask and for the first time in the evening and I got a glimpse of the person behind the persona. Once out of character, he was free to talk about life as a struggling immigrant in New York city. Turns out that the ‘Captain America’ in question was originally from Santiago. Authentically, more Captain Chile than Captain America! On being enquired about his motivations to come to Times Square daily, he frankly said that the tip that he earned weekly from an 8-hour shift as a street performer at Times Square, paid in part for his tuition fees for college. He had spotted an opportunity while watching other performers during his stint as a tourist in the city. So once he became a New Yorker, (and being a MCU fan himself), he hustled his way to Times Square and donned the shield and the stripes at the crossroads of the world. On being asked about the thousand rejections he faced daily as he tried to convince random strangers to take a photo and tip him afterward, he merely said, “ The more the people, the more the opportunity. It’s a numbers game and you get better at the pitch with every rejection.” He was grateful for the fact that he got a shot at this in front of teeming tourists in arguably one of the busiest streets in the world. In spite of the countless rejections, frequent taunts and occasional haggles (some obnoxious tourists can be quite a jerk as well), he stood there with a smile, in character and ready to save Time Square from doomsday. What a super mindset! Befitting of donning the superhero costume, I thought.
Lessons from “Captain America” :
1.) There’s always an opportunity round the corner.
2.) Embrace the hustle.
3.) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
4.) Even Superheroes have to listen to a lot of “Nos”. Get good with rejection.
My next lesson from the Humans of Times Square was from “Mr street smart shutterbug” on the Square, Rohat Türk. I was noticing this guy for quite some time and he clearly stood out from the gazillion other photographers hustling to make a buck from snapping up some portraits of the tourists. He zoomed in on the subjects with an air of assured confidence and instantly stuck up a conversation. Within seconds I saw him directing his clients and clicking away to glory. Within the next minute or so, he was done with his work and I saw him talking again to his subjects. Most of them seem to love the images (judging from their expressions) he was showing them on the back of the LCD monitor of his camera and the next thing you know, they were handing him a 20$ bill! This happened multiple times across a span of 15 minutes or so. I had to talk to this guy and know about his secret but I wasn’t too keen to dish out 20$ for a fancy photo in the middle of Times Square! Oh wait, he had a better deal, he shot on burst mode and in different poses (remember, he was directing you as well!) and he was giving away ALL the photos as a package. Sweet deal. Still, I wasn’t too keen. Going on stealth mode, I approached him as he was taking a breather between the shoot and stuck up a random conversation about me being a photographer as well (white lies don’t hurt!) and how he resembled a shaven head David Blaine. “David Who?”, He said!
We got talking and very soon I found out that he too like “Captain America” was doing this as a side hustle that sponsored his personal projects and tuition fees at Art School. He was an Art Director, filmmaker, photographer and Visual Communication Designer by the day and Shutterbug at the Square by night. And his secret to effortlessly closing clients consistently amid the hustle and bustle of Times Square? As it turns out, fairly simple. He gave them a pretty good deal and the product that he was offering solved a clear problem — a professionally taken photograph with nice flattering lights and wonderful background bokeh of the billboards of TS. For the average New York tourist who will probably never visit Times Square again, this solution made perfect sense. They might be carrying a fancy mobile in their pocket but no mobile phone selfie can measure up to a professionally taken photograph. Sorry, iphone11 wielding folks. Not even yours! And the fact that he transferred the photos on the spot to his clients’ mobile via wifi made it all the more convenient.
I sensed that he was getting a tad impatient as our conversation got longer. I soon figured that I was eating away his precious time as we were talking in between peak business hours. He had limited time to close as many clients as possible for the evening and wasting time chatting to a stranger (who stubbornly didn’t avail his services well!!) was downright unproductive. We followed each other on Instagram to stay connected on our creative journeys and I took his leave. He was back in closing another client within the next 5 minutes!
Lessons from Mr Street-smart Shutterbug, Rohat:
1.) Find the right fit for your solution
2.) Always try and add extra value to your offering in order to stand out from your competitors. (bundled package and on spot wifi transfer)
3.) Thou shalt not waste time during showtime!
My third and final teacher at Times Square was not your usual street performer. And the lessons that I learnt from him were anything but ordinary. It was hard to miss a blindfolded man with outstretched hands and a hard-hitting message on his Tee, standing in the middle of Times Square. I couldn’t read the message from where I stood but I saw a ton of people walk up to him and give him a warm hug. I was perplexed beyond reason. I know TS can surprise you with its quirks and fancies but this? It all made sense when I read the message on his tee. Take a look yourself — “I’m a black man labeled as a thug. I trust you. Do you trust me enough to give me a hug?”
I thought WOW. What a strong way to address a sociopolitical issue by clearly outlining the problem, suggesting a micro solution and giving a super focussed call to action, all in no more than 20 words!! That’s brilliant. The intent. The idea. The Authenticity. The execution. Near perfect.
And there was this genuinity in every hug of this man. You could see it. You could feel it. I had to experience this in person. So I did. I don’t exactly remember what I whispered into his ear that evening as I gave him a hug but I’m sure it was a word of gratitude for what he was doing. Silently teaching the rest of us that there are a thousand ways to break stereotypes and incite change in simple ingenious ways. And if you noticed, he had a poster at his feet with all his social media handles asking others to connect with him. Why on earth would you connect online with a random stranger displaying even more random acts in the middle of the busiest intersection of the world? Why not? That display of vulnerability and authenticity is a rare trait. Even more so online. That’s exactly why.
Lessons from Isias “Hug” Guity :
1.) Authenticity can’t be faked. Show up with some to stand out from the crowd.
2.) Never be afraid to own your story.
3.) It’s the small things that matter.
4.) What problem are you solving? Make it crystal clear, articulate it in written words and then go execute your vision.
5.) Embrace networking and leverage social media to tell your story. ( Check out the story highlight on his Instagram profile which documents the gazillion hugs he has received on Times Square! ) @iamisiasguity
As you can see, Times Square taught me a ton. Maybe because I was open to the lessons. What did you learn on your last travel/vacation/trip? What lessons were you open to? Would love to know…