Since graduating from St John’s with a degree in Management Studies, Alison Grade (1989) has been a “serial freelancer”, predominantly working in international television & film production and rights management. She is also committed to educating the next generation of her kind. Her book, The Freelance Bible, guides the budding freelancer along the path to success.
Hello Alison! Briefly summarise the concepts and aims at the core of The Freelance Bible.
The core aim of The Freelance Bible is to give readers the knowledge they need to be successful freelancers, irrespective of the industry they work in. It’s written to inspire and empower people to start their freelance journeys, and also to improve their freelancing skills.
How did you come to work as a freelancer?
I came to freelancing because I wanted to work in TV and to work in TV you had to be a freelancer. There aren’t many permanent jobs in that field, so you hop from short-term fixed contract to short-term fixed contract. I just got on with it and learned how to be a better freelancer as my career evolved. I learned from my mistakes and I learned from others.
When I look at the current statistics on freelancers — 15% of the workforce, 47% of the creative industries, and likely double that in film and TV — it astounds me that there isn’t more teaching about how to be a great freelancer.
In what ways did your experiences at Cambridge prepare you for freelance work? What were the hardest aspects of freelancing to learn from scratch?
In some ways Cambridge prepared me brilliantly for being a freelancer. By nature, I’m an extrovert and a networker and I suddenly found myself at St John’s with a big group of new people with whom I had to network to make friends. I didn’t know anyone in College when I first arrived. Many of the people I clicked with are still good friends today, and it was through my St John’s network that I was introduced to my editor at Penguin. On the flip side, this was all informal learning conducted as part of everyday life — there wasn’t a specific education about being a freelancer, and that’s still true today in many universities. It’s a big part of the reason I came to write my book.
When I look at the current statistics on freelancers — 15% of the workforce, 47% of the creative industries, and likely double that in film and TV — it astounds me that there isn’t more support and teaching about how to be a great freelancer.
You’ve been freelancing for over 25 years. How has the field changed in that time, both in terms of the perception of freelance work and the tools, technology and opportunities available to freelancers?
I think the perception of freelancing is changing — people used to see it as a stop gap between jobs, and that if it didn’t work you could always go and get a ‘proper job’. These days it is increasingly a necessity to be a freelancer in many professions. I talk to many highly skilled professionals who go freelance so they can focus on the work they like doing. Companies are also beginning to realise the opportunities that freelancers present — highly skilled experts available as and when they need them, as well as extra capacity for busier periods.
Technology has enhanced my ability to freelance immensely — especially now as I have a family as well. When I first started out, ‘working from home’ was a euphemism for a hangover and people were completely disconnected when they were at home. Now I have a smart phone in my pocket so I can be across my work wherever I am. All my finance and banking is done via my phone, using contactless payments and a banking app — no need to dig out all those paper receipts to do my tax return. Increasingly, I’m collaborating on documents, spreadsheets and slides when working with colleagues around the UK.
I thought that lockdown would be quiet for me as I had lots of face-to-face workshops planned but these have now been re-imagined in an online environment. It’s also given me the opportunity to find my own audience and market webinars directly, something I’d never have considered prior to lockdown.
The lockdown has forced companies to adopt the already burgeoning practice of working from home. Moving forward, what can more traditional corporate structures learn from the world of freelance?
Looking ahead to post-lockdown, I am optimistic that many employers will now understand what their teams can do remotely and what can be achieved, so that when we come out the other side of this pandemic we can embrace new ways of working and blend them with the old. In doing so, we could invent a way of working that is collaborative, both face-to-face and remotely. For me, I hope this will mean less travelling to meet clients across the UK, which will free up time for me to balance my work and family life better, something that is important to me.
As well as producing for film and television, you also freelance as a consultant, a mentor and a non-executive director. How do you divide your time so that each of your projects and ventures receives the support it needs?
Balancing the competing needs of clients can be challenging when you are freelance. I liken it to both spinning many plates (all the projects you have in play) and wearing many hats (the roles you play within your freelancing operations — for me, CEO, FD, COO plus sales and marketing). The COO in me has to be really strict and focused on what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by. By building long-term relationships with my clients I work hard to manage their expectations of what can be done by when. If I think a deadline is slipping I’m up-front and honest about it in plenty of time. I know I wouldn’t want to be left in the lurch so I work hard to treat my clients the way I’d like to be treated.
You can build a career; you’re doing the work you want to do with the people you want to work with. What’s not to like?
If you could distil your Bible into a core piece of advice for Johnians looking to go freelance, what would it be?
Freelancing is hard work, but it’s a great way to work. You can build a career; you’re doing the work you want to do with the people you want to work with. What’s not to like?