After starting his career as a Harrier pilot in the RAF, Ed Molyneux is now the co-founder and CEO of FreeAgent, which provides cloud accounting software for freelancers. He talks to BQ about his career so far and plans for the future.
What is it the company does?
FreeAgent provides cloud-accounting software specifically designed for freelancers, micro-businesses and their accountants. We help our customers to take care of their business admin day-to-day – from managing expenses, running a fully RTI-compliant payroll and tracking their time, through to creating and sending professional-looking estimates and invoices to clients. We also help customers keep track of their cash-flow, see how much tax is owed and when it’s due, and file VAT, RTI 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.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
As CEO my role is to lead the executive management team and take overall responsibility for the strategic direction and development of the company. The reality is that no two days look the same. I could be presenting to investors or potential partners one day and the next speaking at a conference, in a team meeting or talking to the media. Every day brings a new set of challenges and experiences but I certainly don’t get much opportunity to sit in front of my Mac writing code these days!
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I have an academic computer science background but when I left university I joined the RAF, eventually completing two tours of duty as a Harrier pilot. While it was an incredible experience it is not a particularly conducive environment for creativity or strategic control unless you’re at the top so I left the RAF in 2002 and with my background in IT moved into freelance consultancy work which was the stepping stone to founding FreeAgent.
Whilst I was freelancing I met fellow IT freelancers Olly Headey and Roan Lavery (who became my FreeAgent co-founders) and we all agreed that whilst we enjoyed working for ourselves the experience of sorting out the accounts was painful. None of us liked using spreadsheets to manage our accounts and we couldn’t believe that there wasn’t any software designed specifically for freelancers out there. So, we decided to create our own, and we dived into 6 months of rapid development, prototyping the service and developing the business model in our spare time.
We set out to ‘democratise accounting’ and to take the hassle and pain out of doing the books. We wanted to give our customers – freelancers, contractors and micro-businesses - a better way to manage their day-to-day finances and work more effectively with their accountants. FreeAgent was born in 2007.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
The writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” And that sums up my approach too. We have a host of exceptionally talented individuals in our team at FreeAgent, none of whom we hired because they wanted to be told what to do. ‘Internet time’ moves too fast for old-fashioned top-down management.
Instead I lay out our vision, practice extreme transparency so everyone can clearly see where their contribution might lie, and think hard about how we align those people with our broad goals. Sometimes it can feel like herding cats, but I’d rather herd cats than sheep!
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
The early days were challenging, I think. We’ve always known our target audience, understood the problems they faced and tried to develop a solution to those problems, but actually developing the system and getting it live on time was very nail-biting.
We were working hard on creating a useful product we thought people would like – but there was no certainty that enough of them would want to pay for it to make the business sustainable. It meant the credit cards took a bit of a battering as we drove forward and hoped that FreeAgent would be as successful as we thought it could be.
And as the company has grown I personally found it difficult to let go and delegate but I’m getting better at that knowing I have a fantastic team of talented individuals around me.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
Spending time with my children puts things into perspective and helps me to destress. When I’m not spending time with them I often run or cycle.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
At one time, being a milkman seemed like a good idea. Later on, technology started to have its attractions. I guess I got there in the end, albeit with an 11-year diversion in the RAF first.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
I spend a lot of time worrying that we’ll stop being as bold as we need to be. So I want everyone to question the status quo regularly. It’s all too easy to get used to a way of doing things that becomes out-dated, and I hate seeing people just assuming it needs to be done a certain way, just because that’s how it’s currently done.
My response is to ask difficult questions about our process, to make people think hard about it.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
Our plan has always been to keep growing FreeAgent as a business and to continue evolving our software to meet the needs of our customers. Having successfully IPO’d last year, we’ll be looking to accelerate this growth.
We have also built a successful partnership with Royal Bank of Scotland too which is very exciting and we’re looking forward to working with them over the coming years. And we’ll also be looking to expand our influence in the accountancy sector as well. We’re already working with some of the UK’s leading contractor accountants, and we’re hoping to introduce even more of these firms to FreeAgent and demonstrate how our software can help them work more effectively with their clients.
With the government’s Making Tax Digital agenda on the horizon, we’re also going to start seeing more freelancers, contractors and micro-businesses looking to technology to help them comply with the new legislation. That’s a big opportunity for us to explain how FreeAgent can help smaller businesses stay in control of their day-to-day finances, manage their tax digitally and work more efficiently.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
The first is that as much as you might want to you simply cannot do everything and you have to learn to be able to trust others to do it for you. Secondly, you can’t change the world but you can do something positive every day to move you in the right direction and build momentum. Thirdly, be open-minded about tweaking your initial idea and listening to what the market wants. Be sure to find a real problem and solve it – far too many entrepreneurs are trying to sell vitamins, not painkillers.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
How hard it would be! Or rather, how the role of CEO changes constantly as the business grows, so just as you’re getting the hang of dealing with a team of 50, you find yourself at 100 employees and need to develop new ways of aligning and driving forward.