Get Alison's book on Amazon: The Freelance Bible - Everything You Need To Go Solo In Any Industry
Alison's website: Alisongrade.com
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Hey everyone, it's Ollie here. Very warm welcome to the eCommerce Freedom podcast. So I've got a really, really exciting guest with me today by the name of Alison Grade. Alison Grade is the author of a brand-new book that was released on the 5th of March, called The Freelance Bible.
So if you're interested in either becoming a freelancer by doing freelance work for other people, or if you're interested in hiring freelancers for your business - which is something you inevitably will do at some stage - this interview should be packed full of really valuable information for you.
So, Alison. It's an absolute pleasure to have you here. How are you doing today?
Yeah, I'm really good, Ollie. It's lovely to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
No, you're very welcome. So what I'd love to hear about, first of all, is your story and your backstory, and I'd love for you to tell us what led you up to this moment. At what point did you decide to create the Freelance Bible and what happened running up to that.
Oh, well, thanks for asking. It was a really interesting journey for me. It was about three years ago that it started. I'd been working with the local university to me in the West Midlands and I'd been researching for them as part of a consultancy project - what the university was doing for employability across its creative faculty.
And I came away from these meetings kind of with the information I needed for the report, but also these additional reflections, which were if a student wanted to get a job though was a career service, if they wanted to start a business - they had an enterprise department, but if they were going to be freelance, then neither of those were really suitable options.
And they were really left to talk to the academic staff. And I looked up some stats across the creative industries and I could see that Creative Industries Federation report in 2017 said 47% of work in the creative industries is freelance, as opposed to 15% across the workforce.
So nearly 50% of these students who were in university were going to be freelance. Stats tell you that, and they weren't really given the support that they needed because the academics, who were the tutors, who were the only other people they could talk to were salaried employees and quite likely there because they didn't want to be freelance.
So you're in the situation where the students just don't get taught the skills they need. They get taught the technical skills of how to make ceramics, how to design fashion, how to make film, but not how to survive out there. So it was kind of niggling away at me and I was mentoring a guy who is a writer and is now a friend of mine, William.
When we first met, he'd said to me, oh, so what book are you going to write? And I gave him that look of like, over my dead body, am I going to be somebody who writes a book? But obviously I did get over my dead body because we're here. And then I did that classic freelance thing of having been really busy with one company on a big project and falling out the other side and realized that I hadn't filled my pipeline, I had no projects.
So I thought, well, I could try and write this book because there's no literature out there. The students need this information. I know a lot about it, so let's give it a go. And I did. And it took me about 18 months to write a draft that I was happy with, ‘cause I had all the work that came in in between and I needed some time to think about it. And then I started looking for publishers. And here we are today, 15 months after signing the publishing deal, I'm out in the public domain. So yeah, a really exciting journey.
It's very exciting. I'm really glad that you've put this together because I think, like you say, we've got a 50-50 chance of becoming a freelancer according to the stats. So we need more people helping freelancers out. So it's definitely a good thing that you've put this book together.
I'm curious actually, before we get into the mechanics and start helping out people either become freelancers or hire freelancers, I wanted to know what kind of freelance work have you have you been doing over the past few years?
So really in the last 10 years I've done a mix of different things. I've done some sort of traditional film and TV - well, which is where I cut my teeth. I've done some nontraditional work like that, which is very much remote working and free. I'm very much part-time and an ad-hoc projects. I do a lot of consulting with SMEs, public bodies, creative industries, companies, universities around employability, creative enterprise, that kind of thing.
So it's, it's been very much creative industries. It's been my focus and I sort of define my key skill out as turning creative ideas into a business reality. So any situation where that kind of skill is needed, that's where I tried to position myself.
Love it. Awesome. And yeah, becoming a freelancer is largely about positioning yourself, right? I mean, it's not as if you just hand out CVs. I mean you need to really be able to sell your unique ability. So let's dive into this, then.
Let's say, someone was listening to this podcast and they were thinking, you know what, freelance work might be something I'm interested to dive in and explore. Or maybe they already are freelance and they're thinking, you know, I don't think I'm doing a very good job of this. How can I be better? What would be the main things that you would recommend they research and look into to be a very successful freelancer?
I think the first thing I'd say is absolutely anybody can be a good freelancer. I firmly believe it can absolutely be taught in London. That's what this book is about because you know, it's all about working ON your business, not IN your business. And most people are really good at what they do. I'm working in that business. It's working on my business.
And really the first place to look at is for me the freelance mindset. Really understanding who you are, what makes you tick, you know, how comfortable do you feel instinctively as a freelancer? How well do you know your marketplace? How, you know, are you really scared about asking for money? Do you want a bit more security and therefore slightly longer projects with companies? All of those things - and really understand who you are and how you take them and what your values are.
You know, we talk a lot about values when it comes to brands and we know what we like in brands and we know what we don't like in brands, but as a freelancer, you are your own brand. So try to kind of interrogate yourself in terms of what is my brand, what is brand me? How do I position myself in the world and how do I stand out from the crowd and attract the customers who will value my services?
It's quite like dating when you think about it because you're looking for companies that are a match with you. You're looking for people who value what you have to offer and you like what they do. That's when you can build a really good freelance relationship.
Love it. So, like we talked about just before we started the interview, there's four main steps, should we say, to becoming, really mastering the art of being a freelancer. And the first one, like you just said, is mindset. The second one, which is what really made my ears pick up, was money.
So how do you get the money? How would you make sure it's enough? How do you decide how much to charge? I mean, these are all the questions that, well, even experienced freelancers are probably asking themselves daily. So I'm really interested to hear your thoughts.
So with money, money has two sides. There's money going out and there's money coming in. And those two things need to be at least imbalance or have more coming in than going out to make it work. I mean that's not rocket science.
I always encourage people to start by really looking at what they actually spend to live the life they want to lead. So you know, yes, that's all your household stuff. It's like, if you've got to call how much that costs to run, you know, all of the general standard expenses.
But what about, how many times you go to Costa, Starbucks, or somewhere like that for a coffee? Then you buy a muffin as well or toasty or whatever. Or you know, how much do you spend on those incidental things? If you've got a gym membership, if you go to the cinema, if you go out to the pub with friends, you go out for a meal - all of those things cost money, and how much does living that life cost?
You've got to know how much you spend to know how much you need to earn. Yeah? So that's just sort of starting point and it's not about going, okay I renounce the material world, I'm not going to spend anything, I’m just going to eat baked beans, that kind of thing. ‘Cause that's just not sustainable.
So this is about being a freelancer and living the life you want to lead. So you've got to know how much you need to live. And then once you’ve calculated what matters, you then need to add back in what the taxes you would pay to get to what you need to turn over. Because as a freelancer, you'll invoice companies for your services. Unlike being an employee, they'll pay you with all the tax.
So you'll get all this money in with the tax. You've got to put some of the tax to one side to pay your tax bill. And then what's left over is what you can live on. So you've got to work out how much you need to live and then back calculate to what the tax man says you need to earn to get to that point.
Places like HMRC have a great ready reckoner on their website where they'll calculate that back up for you. ‘Cause it was quite complicated with different tax rates. But that's the sort of thinking that you need to do to work out. And if you're just starting out, you might need to buy a computer or a mobile phone or you might need to buy some business cards and those kinds of things.
So you've got to make sure you've got some cashflow just to pay for those tools of the trade, those things that would be part of your business expenses as when you do your taxes. But actually there's money that you need to pay for now. So you've got to work out how much needs to go out the door. Once you've got that figure, you can then go, well, how much should I charge?
We know how many days there are, or hours there are in a year. So you can say, well, there's 365 days in a year. How many of those days, realistically, will I actually earn money on? Now it's not going to be 365 and it's not going to be 52 times five either because there are bank holidays, you're going to need a break. You're not going to be able to deliver and admin and set up all of the things that you need to do if you're working 52 weeks a year, five days a week, basically.
So realistically I try and encourage people to think about, well, actually what happens if you say 120 days a year, which is about 24 weeks work, what would my daily or weekly rate look like based on 120 days a year or 24 weeks? So that gives you a sense of, well, if I can earn that in 50% of the year, then actually I've got quite a lot of scope to have some time off, to live the life I want to lead.
But equally give some scope if those numbers aren't quite working to, say, well actually maybe if it's 150 days a year, do I think I can get that right? So you've got that kind of initial, quite simplistic calculation to get a sense of a daily rate. Does that sort to make sense?
100%. Yeah. And it's so funny ‘cause before I started to sell on Amazon, build these commerce businesses, I was aiming to become a freelance composer. And one of the main things people said was, it's like feast and famine that you'll have a project and bringing you a load of money and then you'll spend some time looking for your next project.
So you want to keep some of your money that you've made from the project while you're looking for the next project. And don't spend all of it because you don't know when that next production project's going to come.
So is there a way you can get out of the feast and famine cycle? ‘Cause there's some video game composers and other freelancers who are not feast and famine and they're doing very, very, very well. So how do you bridge that gap and make things more consistent?
Well that's where the third part of it comes in and that's your marketing. And you know, I've got a very good friend who's a freelance voice over who's just brilliant and he puts it really succinctly. He says, you've got to get good. Tell people you're good and then keep being good. Marketing is all about telling people that you're good and you're out there.
And the hardest thing to do when you're really up against it - particularly in creative sector on a project, it's often very intense - is filling your sales funnel, keeping those leads going, starting to look for the next project for when this one finishes. You know, I'm sure it's the same with composing. It's really, really intense and you don't have the head space to go, oh, I should just go and send a few emails or tweets about this and tell people I'm available and I'm coming up.
But unless you start filling your sales funnel, whilst you got projects on, you all are just going to fall off the end of a cliff and then have to start again. And it's trying to get that point attraction of finding a way to carve out that time to work on your business even when you're very busy to really stabilize that income.
Mm. Yeah. It sounds like you have to, in a way, you have to build systems and build a rhythm to focus on the marketing whilst you're doing the work. Is that right?
Absolutely. And different people have different approaches, so some people will say, well, actually yeah, in order to get a baseline level of income, I might do some teaching about my special area of knowledge and lots of fine artists and things will do that. They'll do some teaching, which give them a base level of income and the structure within which they can operate. And those kinds of things are quite good.
Or you might a client who puts you on a retainer one or two days a week. So you've got a core bit of what that you know you're going to be doing over a longer period of time and that allows you to reach out to new customers, but from a place of slightly more security.
Love it. That's awesome. Okay, so we've talked about the first three steps, the mindset, the money, the marketing, touch briefly on tax.. But is there anything else that you think people need to know about taxes when they're just starting the journey?
Put some money aside, put some money aside. What you get in, you got all of the money, including all the taxes, you need to be thinking of putting somewhere around 25% of what comes in aside for your tax bill. Because it will.. not only do they take it at the end of the financial year, they also take money on account.
So the money that I'm getting in as a self-employed person in this financial year, even before I've done my tax return, they are taking a portion of that on account in advance from me. So they've taken out all that cash flowing from the system quite a long time ago. So you've got to put the money aside or you'll get a nasty surprise and a bill that you weren't expecting and that can really throw people.
So you just need to get into really good habits. And I think what, well, what's really exciting for me - and I've seen the biggest change in freelancing in the last since I started - is technology's just empowering us so much. I mean I've done a digital download on the mechanics of freelancing, which is available on my website in partnership with Coconut and IPSE.
And coconut has this fantastic app that just makes all really simple. So you pay for something on your card, it goes straight on your tax return, it gets calculated to the right expense part of the tax bill and it just shows you at a glance what your tax bill is going to be. So you know, you don't have that bag of receipts that you sort of look at it in the corner of your room that gets ever bigger as January gets closer. It's all just done for you in real time. And I think that's the sort of thing that just makes being a freelancer so, so much easier than it was when I first started.
Love it. Yeah. So nice when you've got a really good workflow with getting the tax all sorted, that's amazing.
Let technology do the heavy lifting because we don't need to do it, but it's just.. get yourself organized. The one thing is to make sure that you've got a business account for your freelance or business expenses, a savings accounts for the tax money, a separate account for your personal spending.
So when the money comes in, it goes into your business current account and then you pay yourself some sort of wages. I'm putting my fingers up in quotes here. You know, some wages into your personal account. So you can spend that, and you don't have to worry about the receipts, but anything going through your business account, you have all the receipts, but it's all on.. you pay for out of the same account. So all of the transactions in there are all business ones.
So you’re starting from a good place and that everything's being calculated for you so you can see at a glance have I got enough in my tax account straight away, you know? Every time you get an invoice paid. So if you've gone a bit too far one month, you can correct it the next month, the next time some money comes in.
So it's about staying organized, staying on top of it from day one so you don't get into a bit of a mess.
Yes. But it's not nearly as difficult as it used to be. And that, to me, is really exciting because it just makes it so, so much more user-friendly.
Love it. Awesome. Okay. Well we've covered some great tips about how to get started and there's four steps, four key things to cover if you're interested in diving in and becoming a freelancer.
And you mentioned to me earlier, Alison, that you talk about three of them in your book, right? And you talk about tax on your website, is that right?
Yes, the book. Yes. The books were written from an international perspective. So, I'm not even a lawyer or an accountant in the UK, so I definitely wasn't prepared to start looking into tax and accounting systems around the world. So we took that out of the book and felt, you know, that was just such a practical necessity.
It wasn't what the essence and the flavor of the book was. The book is a really empowering and educational, practical way to get you to being successful. The mechanics is the practicalities of what you have to do because of legislation. So that's available in partnership with IPSE and Coconut on my website.
Awesome. And that's alisongrade.com. Right?
That's the one.
Cool. All right. So we've talked about how to become a freelancer. I want to talk about flipping it on its head now. How do you hire and work with freelancers effectively?
‘Cause right now, just counting in my head, I've got one, two, three, four, possibly five freelancers that I'm working with right now and I've been working with freelancers since 2014 and there is a lot of things I've done right, there's a lot of mistakes I've made. I've hired a lot of great freelancers, also hired a lot of terrible freelancers.
I wanted to hear your thoughts on how to effectively work with freelancers, how to get, you know, good value for money as all business owners want. And how to get them to do their best work.
So what I look for in a freelancer is somebody who is flexible in the way they work. So, you know, when I worked in TV as a production manager, I was hiring lots of different freelancers and I was sitting in that production management seat in a range of different production companies and every company that I worked in operated slightly differently.
So I'm always looking for somebody who is listening for how are the nuances, how the project's going to work in this particular company rather than this is how you do it and this is how I do it and I don't adjust kind of thing.
So I think I'm looking for people who are flexible. I want them to listen and really take on board and have good ideas. I've got to know, you know, if I'm looking for freelancers, the chances are the people coming through my door should all be kind of good at what they do. So if we can assume that's the case, then really it often comes down to fit and you know, do I feel like there's somebody that gets my company, cares about it?
That's where the whole dating thing comes in. Does it feel like a match? Do we feel like we can work together? Because as somebody hiring freelancers it's an inconvenience if I don't have somebody in my network to go to, if I have to go and reach out and find new people. So if the people in my network are all good and I've got some go-to people that makes my life easy, right?
I can give that to that person, I can give that to that person. So from the freelancer's perspective, you want to be that great freelancer that does the work well with a smile on their face and delivers for the client because they'll come back to you.
That makes so much sense. So you mentioned network, but where else do you look to find freelancers? Do you ever use things like Upwork or Elance or any of those other sites that you find? Or is it all just, you know, word of mouth stuff?
So most of the freelance work that I would recruit for or I go for is about value-added services. It's very much about a specialist who has the specialist talent that they can deliver that service. So particularly in film and TV, you're looking for that specialist. So a camera operator, a makeup artist or costume designer. You're looking for those specialists who do that work day in, day out in your sector and you're looking to build up your team that way.
The work that I do is less with people who are just capacity building for a busy period. And I think that's where some of the Upwork type sites come in a bit more.
So I'm always encouraging freelancers that I talk to, to think about the value that they bring to the company because of the knowledge and the skills that they have, so it doesn't become a race to the bottom in terms of price, but it's a kind of understanding that by getting, you know, if I'm selling my services, by getting me and I can help you transform to this point in your business that you want to get to.
So the conversation isn't about money ‘cause we're all agreed that they want to take their business to that place and I'm the person that can help deliver that. And so it's much more about, oh, can we work together? Can I deliver for them than it is? Does it cost 50 pay or quit kind of thing.
So it's about the end result rather than making a saving here and there, nickel and diming people. And trying to get things super cheap.
You know, if you're constantly having those conversations about money, I think as a freelancer, I'm always encouraging people to think actually what value are they adding? And I've had this so many times in workshops.
I did this fabulous workshop over in Alexandria in Egypt few years ago, and there was some fabulous women, fashion designers and seamstresses, and they had some amazing household products and cushions and stuff that they were trying to get into department stores and they just kept saying.. they only asked about price and saying, well, yeah, but what, why do you think the store should have your products in them?
And they say, well, you know, at the entrance our products can make it look high-end and bespoke and you know, a nice place to come into. So it's like suddenly the light bulbs coming on, actually can sell on the value we add, not just be constantly bartering about price. And I think that's a really hard mindset for a freelancer to get into.
But when you get into that, you start realizing the service and the business that you're actually in. It's often not what you do, but why people choose you. That's the business you're in. And the reason why people choose you.
Love it. So it's more about you as a person and what you can offer than just the core skills that you have.
It's thinking about things in terms of the customer's point of view. So if you think about web design, you're always talking about the user experience and the user journey. What does that mean for you as a freelancer? What is that user experience? What's the user journey? What's the value? What is the pain that you're taking away from your customer by doing what you do really well?
That's what you're talking about, not just going here. I've got a suitcase full of things I know how to do. I'll do that for you. It's trying to explain it in times of needs that that business has, and that starts to transform conversations both around gaining traction, longer term relationships with clients, and also less about money because they're just bought into the fact that they need to do that for the good of their business.
Got it. Yeah, I love that. Okay. We’ve covered a hell of a lot of ground there I really hope people listening, whether they're looking to hire a freelancer or maybe become a freelancer, is going to check out your book. And so they can find it on Amazon. Is it in bookstores as well?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Published by Penguin.
Awesome. As I said earlier, the title is The Freelance Bible: Everything You Need To Go Solo In Any Industry, and it's out today. So also, if people want to find you, Alison, where do they go?
I would say the easiest starting point is my website, which is alisongrade.com. You can buy the book there, you can email me there, you can download the mechanics there, and you can pick up all my social media there and join the conversation.
Love it. And that's Alison G R A D E. Great. Yes. Fantastic. Okay. Well is there anything you want to say other than what we've covered today? Anything that you really wanted to share with everyone?
I think for those people like you talked about, people who hadn't freelanced before and are a bit nervous. I think, well, what people really underestimate is how many people they really have in their network already ‘cause they think, oh I don't know anyone who'd buy my services, but we've all got lots of friends, family and colleagues and they're all really supportive of us. So you know, who can they introduce us to because they've all got friends, family and colleagues.
So just start to think about how you can leverage your networks to get further introductions and you know, start small, just ask really cool things and then build it off, build that relationship. Think of that longterm value of working with that customer.
I've got a burning question for you actually, which I think some people will be asking. Do you advocate working for free in the beginning or do you say absolutely no way, get paid regardless of how small it is.
Oh, I tread a very gray line in between those two, which is, I always suggest people do a cost-benefit analysis with why they would do that and what they're doing it for and have a very clear conversation with the client about why they would do that.
The challenge of not working for a full rate is, you're not valued for your time if people don't pay you properly. So the times when I have done a mate's rates or a freebie for somebody, they haven't done their side of the bargain.
So I'll turn up at the next meeting and everything will be a bit of a shambles because they’re not valuing it, because they're not paying me. It doesn't get done. It doesn't get prioritized. So it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle. So there are very, very good reasons to do it.
But generally, exposure - and that kind of thing is not always the best one. But you know, you've got to work out for yourself if it makes sense for you on a case by case. And if you are doing funding for exposure, make sure it's getting you or can get you the exposure that you want and you can talk about it.
There's no point doing something confidential if you're trying to get exposure and you can't talk about the project. So there are reasons to do it, but be really, really clear what they are and why. And be prepared to know how far you'll go when you walk away.
That's some really sound advice and I'm sure tons more nuggets like that inside your book, Alison, so thanks so much for being my guest today. It has been a really, really fascinating interview and I really can't wait for some people in my audience to go check out the rest of your stuff and get some results. Awesome. Thank you.
Thank you so much for having me.