Ed Molyneux is the CEO and co-founder of FreeAgent which he formed in 2007 with Olly Headey and Roan Lavery. FreeAgent is an online accounting system specifically designed for freelancers and small business users. Before setting up FreeAgent, Ed had been an IT consultant and until 2002, an RAFpilot.
Q: What inspired you and your fellow co-founders to set up FreeAgent?
A: After I left the RAF in 2002, where I had served as a pilot, I moved into IT consultancy work. While freelancing, I met fellow freelancers Olly Headey and Roan Lavery. We all agreed that although we enjoyed working for ourselves, the experience of sorting out our accounts was incredibly stressful. We were frustrated with the fact that there was no accounting system available that had been designed specifically with freelancers in mind - and we hated the prospect of wrestling with a complicated spreadsheet in addition to paying a lot of money to an accountant to do our books.
It was the spark I needed to write the first prototype of FreeAgent and the three of us propelled ourselves into six months of rapid development, prototyping the service and shaping the business model in our spare time. It was hard work but well worth it when the fruits of our labour was launched as FreeAgent in February 2007.
Q: Did you have any great concerns when starting the business or were you confident from the start that you could be successful?
A: We were certainly passionate about what we were doing and knew that there was a gap in the market for a product and service like ours - which is specifically designed to meet the needs of small businesses and freelancers. However, until we launched we had no certainty that enough people would sign up to it and pay for it to make the business sustainable.
Q: You’ve mentioned that one of your goals has been to demystify accounting; do you think you’ve been able to achieve this?
A: Our customers certainly think so. We get a tremendous amount of feedback from FreeAgent users about how much they love the system compared to other software they’ve used in the past. One of our customers told us that ‘FreeAgent makes me feel smart – not stupid – about my company finances’, which is exactly what we wanted it to achieve.
Q: The market for business software is becoming ever more competitive, why does FreeAgent stand out? What is its USP?
A: Unlike most other accounting tools, FreeAgent is designed very much with the business owner in mind, not an accountant. We built what our ‘gold-plated solution’ would have been when we were freelancers. That includes projecting UK tax bills and being able to file VAT directly, and was a much more ambitious project than simply trying to replicate the software that was already available. But the work has really paid off for us.
Q: After starting out as a military pilot and later moving into technology consultancy, what made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A: I really enjoyed my time in the RAF, and subsequently working as a consultant. But there’s little room in either sphere for building something meaningful and unique to me. They’re both about working within the parameters of a larger endeavour. With FreeAgent I feel much more ownership (literally as well as philosophically).
Q: What have been the biggest challenges that you have faced since starting the business?
A: Going live on time was tricky as was securing our first round of funding. But our on-going challenge is to do what we’re doing on a much larger scale but without losing the quality of service and diluting the culture of the company.
Q: If you could, would you go back and do anything differently?
A: Looking back, I think we needed to make all of the mistakes we made for us to be where we are today. They are all part and parcel of what FreeAgent has become and have shaped the way we work.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about being an entrepreneur in your chosen industry?
A: It’s a fast-paced and creative industry and I enjoy that – you need vision, intellect and tenacity to survive and being surrounded by people who share your drive is exciting.
Q: What are the disadvantages to being an entrepreneur?
A: I spend a lot of my time well outside my comfort zone. I’m very happy to sit in my front of my Mac writing code – and that’s really how FreeAgent was born - but nowadays I need to be presenting to investors or standing up in front of large groups of people or cold calling. It’s a huge responsibility but it comes with the territory.
Q: Do you sometimes find it hard to create a work/social life balance?
A: In a word, yes. I love spending time with my wife and children but in spare moments I often find myself thinking about the next great feature or the next tweak to the website.
Q: What would you describe as the three most important characteristics that an entrepreneur needs to possess in order to be successful?
A: Passion, drive and tenacity.
Q: What do you think the biggest challenges are facing start-ups and entrepreneurs in the current economic climate?
A: Getting a business off the ground even in the best economic circumstances is a considerable challenge. In some ways growing up in challenging times means you build a stronger business for the long-term.
Q: If you could give future entrepreneurs three pieces of advice, what would they be?
A: 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 and thirdly be open-minded about tweaking your initial idea and listening to what the market wants.
Q: Do you currently run a graduate scheme? If so, do you think that recruiting graduates is worth-while and valuable to your business?
A: We don’t have a graduate scheme, but we probably should. However, we have been very successful with hiring interns during the summer (paid, of course!) and recruiting them once they’ve finished their studies.
Q: What are your plans for the business moving forward?
A: We have big plans and are already on track for significant growth. We have grown from three employees to 35 in just five years and with a great team in place we think FreeAgent will help redefine not just the small-business accounting software market but the whole small-business accounting-services market. That’s our plan!