The Exeter and surrounding area is overflowing with ambitious, successful people with a great story to tell career-wise. How did they get to where they are today? Was it what they set out to achieve? Were there any setbacks along the way? Well now you can find out!
The Sarah West team thought it was high time the tables were turned on Grow’s Editor-in-Chief, Joff Alexander-Frye and we were thrilled when he agreed to let us do the grilling (for a change)…and what a great story to tell!
“As far as I see it, the ingredients for being an excellent professional are fairly simple. If you have common sense, are fairly intelligent and work hard, you’re not going to go far wrong. Oh, and try not to be a dickhead too! That helps.” Joff Alexander-Frye
You’ve had a brilliant start to 2019 – you must be made up?
“You’re right; January’s been an awesome month for us – carrying on exactly where we left off in 2018.
Over 200 of our friends and supporters recently joined us to celebrate the official opening of our new offices. We’ve also gone from publishing one magazine at the start of the year to now creating multiple titles, including having won a publishing tender with Exeter City Council. As a starter, keep your eyes peeled for the all new 2019 Visit Exeter guide!”
Having launched just 18 months ago, you must be really proud of what you and the team have achieved with Grow Exeter Magazine?
“I’m not naturally someone who likes to shout from the rooftops about success but, yes, I like to think that the magazine’s now firmly on the City’s radar. It’s been a real team effort to get where we are and the support we’ve had from the Exeter business community has been incredible. If anyone would have told me two years ago that I’d be doing this job, working with such a great team, absolutely loving what I do and looking forward to the future and the exciting things that we’ve got coming up – I wouldn’t have believed you!”
Intriguing…from what you’ve said, it sounds like joining ‘Team Grow’ was a bit of a change for you?
“It honestly was. I’ve known Llew and Dan for a long time – we’ve always been close – so I was really excited when I heard their plans to set up Grow. We’d had conversations about me joining them from the beginning of Grow but I was nervous. I was used to having the relative security of working for large organisations so, while I had every confidence that Grow would be a success, joining a start-up while having a family to support was, initially, too far out of my comfort zone.”
What was it that finally made you take that leap of faith?
“A chance meeting. I was in a job that had been everything I wanted when I’d accepted it. I’d gone through the hardest process, including the most difficult interview I’ve ever faced to get it and was made up at the prospect of working with an MD who was a true revolutionary in the media industry. It felt like a vote of confidence to have been chosen – I’d got a stamp of approval if you like.
On day one of the job, everything had changed. The MD who had been a crucial factor in me taking the job, had gone. Right away I knew it wasn’t going to be for me long-term and I’ll admit that this was a pretty emotional moment. However I don’t give up easily and I like to work hard so I gave it my best shot. That said, the newspaper industry was changing rapidly as digital media and advertising started to take over from the traditional print format. For the first and only time in my life, I felt really down. Looking back I’d go so far as to say that I was depressed.
Then there was the meeting that changed everything! I ran in to Dan and Llew by chance and they knew straight away there was something wrong. Normally there’s loads of banter between us but I was just completely flat.
The option of joining the Grow team cropped up again and I realised that something had changed in me. My heart finally overruled my cerebral sense of responsibility! Although I wasn’t at Grow right at the very beginning, it was still early enough to be part of the adventure early-on. I was ready to take a risk and take on something new that would challenge me at the same time. And I haven’t looked back once.”
You’ve been involved in the media industry for a number of years – is this where you saw yourself heading when you were younger?
“In a word – no! Early on, the thing I wanted to be more than anything was a Dad – and at a fairly young age too. I was lucky enough to meet Jodie, my now wife, in my first year at University and we welcomed our first child into the world when I was 22. So you could say it was job done, I’d achieved what I’d set out to do but, with that, came responsibility and meant I had to grow up and provide!”
How did you do that?
“I’ve always thought I was pretty employable – I’ve got common sense, I like to think I’m fairly intelligent and I work hard – since the age of 13 I’ve always had a job, driven by a desire to be financially independent.
I’ve also been lucky enough to work for people who saw potential in me and were willing to spend their time teaching me how to behave in the workplace – skills that I still find invaluable today.
Going way back, I grew up in London and I was sent to a high-powered boy’s grammar school which was pretty much as you’d imagine it to be. Expectations were high academically with many of the people I went to school with going on to pretty high-profile roles in politics and business – I couldn’t have felt more out of place!”
What made you feel out of place at school?
“Well, I’m naturally creative and as a teenager my passion was music. I was in a band and we were pretty successful. Even at the young age of fifteen, we were being touted as a ‘band to watch’ for the future and I couldn’t imagine doing anything except turning professional. I thought I’d got it made!
And then reality hit, in other words, A Levels. We were advised by pretty much everyone not to follow our musical-hearts and that, was that! Bang – the dream was over. I mentally checked out of education and have no problem admitting that I went off the rails! I did ok at GCSE level but for a school that was all about being top of the league table, I was dragging them down and I was asked not to go back to do A Levels. This couldn’t have suited me better and off I went to my first co-ed school. I couldn’t have been happier!”
If you’d mentally checked out of education – what made you do A Levels?
“My parents wanted me to carry on and I didn’t have a decent argument not to. And looking back I had a blast! After that, and I guess like many people at 18, despite doing A Levels I still didn’t know where I was heading. After making some bad life decisions, I had a sudden need to get away from London and left overnight to stay with one of my brothers in Birmingham. Initially, I thought I was going for a week but ended up staying there for three years and starting a degree in Sociology. It was then time to grow up and be responsible!
My wife’s family are from the Exeter area so, when I met her at the end of my first year of University, I dropped out and decided to make a permanent move to the South West, where my ‘proper’ career started.”
Where did you start once you made the move to Devon?
“I’m not massively driven by money but I needed to earn enough to pay the bills and support a family so ‘temping’ was a quick fix. The flip side was that it’s hard not knowing what you’re doing from one week to the next. I felt disposable and you do feel like you’re different when you work alongside people who are permanently employed, or at least I did.”
What was your first permanent role?
“Temping bought me time to figure out what I wanted to do long term. After a lot of soul searching, I narrowed it down to two things – a primary school teacher or a journalist.
Despite having no experience or qualifications, I applied for a Special Educational Needs Teaching Assistant job. I knew I interviewed well but I was in competition with 30 other people, which made me fight a little bit harder when it came to the interview! Against all the odds – I got the job!
I worked one-on-one with a six-year-old who, when I first met him, had the developmental age of a three-year-old and the one thing I had to do was not let him slip back academically. I worked with him as I would do with any other child – I engaged with him as a human being.
Rather than slipping back, I was delighted when he was put forward two school years, but that did me out of a job! With hindsight, this wasn’t a bad thing – while the job satisfaction was up there (I was even classed as ‘cool’ by the kids!), the salary wasn’t.”
Having done yourself out of a job, where did you head next?
“I made a move in to Sales. It wasn’t something that I’d ever wanted to do as I’m more interested in people than money but it was a big jump in salary. I leapt to the dizzy heights of £12k a year + bonus which is laughable now but it was a big step up at the time!
I soon found I was good at what I did. I’d take the time to listen and understand the needs of customers and be consultative rather than giving it the ‘hard sell’. I enjoyed it too and found myself taking on more senior roles, managing a team and being responsible for ever-bigger budgets. However I knew it was something I couldn’t do forever and, ultimately, this lead me to join Team Grow.”
What have you learned along the way?
“Way too much to mention and I hope I never stop! One of the most valuable things I’ve learned about myself is that people skills are central to good management. I make a pretty good manager as I’m all about managing the person first and foremost. It’s important to be honest with people that you work with, which is something I’ve managed to refine over the years and I’m a firm believer that if you do that, the results will follow.”
You say you’re a good manager? What are you like to work for?
“I definitely don’t go round the office with the attitude that ‘I’m your boss’. I like to think that I give people in my team the freedom to do their job because they know that if I’ve hired them, they are the best.
I also give people a chance, just as others did for me, so I keep an open mind when it comes to looking for new members of the team. They need to be able to do the job but ‘gut-feel’ also plays a part in my decision too.”
What are you most proud of?
“I’m proud that I managed to find the courage to make the move Grow as it wasn’t easy but I realised something had to change. You could say ‘the sun came out’ once I had, and I found I was emotionally available to my family and friends again.
Having made the move, it dawned on me that, despite being 100% committed emotionally to Grow, I wanted to be invested financially too – a step that I took in 2017, when I became an executive Director and joined the Grow board. I now have a new-found admiration for business owners! Being financially invested does make a real difference. I’m proud that, despite navigating tricky situations and having to ‘look at ourselves in the mirror’ from time to time, that we’ve never lost our unity as a board.
I’m also incredibly proud of what we have achieved in a relatively short time at Grow!”
What do you most enjoy about your career now?
“Becoming Editor has been a big change, however I get to do something that I thoroughly enjoy every single day – write. Being creative gives me a sense of freedom, I feel more relaxed (remind me of that as the next print deadline approaches!) and I see things with fresh eyes.
I’m also passionate about Exeter and the surrounding area and as the Grow journey continues, I’ll always enjoy being a huge advocate of the South West!”
What is your top career tip?
“Dan Frye (our CEO) once gave me this piece of advice: “Don’t have a plan B”. Having a fall back option gives you every excuse not to go out and give something 110%, just when you need to the most.”
A massive ‘thank you’ to Joff, from the Sarah West team for being our ‘number one’ in our ‘Conversation with…’ series. Who will be next? All will be revealed in the next few weeks!