Getting to Know You: Ed Molyneux, co-founder & CEO, FreeAgent

Ed Molyneux

Ed Molyneux, co-founder of Scottish based fintech company FreeAgent tells us why you have to admire anyone who starts a business as it’s a challenge that tests your mental and emotional endurance

What do you currently do?

I’m the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of FreeAgent.

We’re a successful fintech company based in Edinburgh that makes award-winning online accounting software for small businesses, freelancers and accountants.

We help people take care of their business admin day-to-day – from managing expenses, running a fully RTI-compliant payroll and tracking time, through to creating and sending professional-looking estimates and invoices to your clients. We also help you keep track of your cash-flow, see how much tax you owe and when it’s due, and file digital VAT and Self Assessment returns directly to HMRC.

Our mission is to make people feel in control of their day-to-day business accounts, relax about tax and work more effectively with their accountants.

What was the inspiration behind your business?

I left the RAF in 2003, where I served as a pilot, and moved into IT consultancy work. I met fellow freelancers Olly Headey and Roan Lavery and we all agreed that, although we enjoyed working for ourselves, the experience of sorting out our accounts was incredibly stressful.

At that time, the only accounting software available that freelancers could use were big, complex desktop packages that were designed for larger companies and which contained a plethora of confusing features that a solo business would never need. The alternative was wrestling with a complicated spreadsheet in addition to paying a lot of money to an accountant to do your books.

All three of us were frustrated with the fact that there was no accounting system available that had been designed specifically with freelancers in mind – and that was the spark we needed to build FreeAgent.

What defines your way of doing business?

I guess it would probably be defined as ‘systematic’. My way of getting a handle on things is to be very rigorous about measuring the impact of what we do – as the FreeAgent team will attest to! – so we can stay on top of everything and keep everyone aligned.

That doesn’t mean I’m telling everyone what to do, though. On the contrary, by asking someone to deliver a certain impact they have a lot of autonomy to do that in whatever way they want. I’ve always found that the best way to motivate employees and keep productivity high is to trust them to do the job they were hired for – not constantly monitor every little thing that they do to make sure they’re doing it ‘my way’.

What do you admire?

I admire anyone who starts a business. It’s a massive challenge that tests your mental and emotional endurance, as you’re always having to juggle a variety of responsibilities. On a typical day, you can find yourself switching between financial management, business admin and crafting marketing or sales strategies – while at the same time also making sure you’re keeping on top of your core work (working with clients and actually delivering your product/service).

I think the vast majority of people who haven’t started or run a business underestimate just how emotionally challenging it is to keep on top of all of that stuff.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

In many ways FreeAgent has been built from our mistakes just as much as our successes. Our whole culture and ethos is the result of 12 years of decisions, ranging from what we envisaged our product becoming and how we would build a team to achieve our vision, all the way through to what investment we took and which partnerships we formed. I really don’t know whether FreeAgent would be the same company today if we’d done anything differently – so I’d be very reluctant to change anything with hindsight.

However, one thing that may have been helpful is knowing how much of a challenge it would be to grow a business while maintaining your company culture! In the very early years we had a handful of staff all working out of one room in Edinburgh, whereas now we have more than 200 employees – including many who work remotely across the UK.

We’ve also been on a pretty unique journey from ambitious start-up, through equity crowdfunding, to publicly listing on AIM and then finally being acquired by the RBS Group – so it’s been a challenge to keep the same FreeAgent philosophy and not let our business become a more corporate-feeling entity.

Even with this knowledge, I still don’t think I’d have done anything differently – but understanding the challenges in advance might have made them more easy to navigate.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Be open-minded about tweaking your initial idea and listening to what the market wants. It’s easy to get blinded into thinking your concept is the next world-changer and just ignore what others are telling you, but that feedback could be invaluable.

Also, be sure you find a real problem and solve it – far too many entrepreneurs are trying to sell vitamins, not painkillers.

Finally, try to do something positive every day to move you in the right direction and build momentum.