Hi Ed! Please can you start off by telling us a bit about yourself.
Thanks for having me, I'm Ed Molyneux and I have an academic computer science background, but when I left university I joined the RAF to be a Harrier pilot, which was an incredible experience. However, while the RAF is full of extraordinarily committed people, it’s not a particularly conducive environment for creativity or strategic control unless you are at the top. It was also hard spending so much time away from my family, so I left the RAF in 2003 and with my background in IT moved into consultancy work. This was a stepping-stone to where I am today, CEO and co-founder of FreeAgent.
Why did you start FreeAgent?
Whilst I was freelancing I met fellow 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 this was all the impetus I needed to write the first prototype of FreeAgent.
Together the three of us dived into 6 months of rapid development, prototyping the service and developing the business model in our spare time. It was extremely hard work, but worth it when FreeAgent was launched in 2007. 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 and micro-businesses – the best method of managing their day-to-day accounts, staying on top of their tax and working more effectively with their accountants; and that’s what we continue to do today.
Last month, FreeAgent launched its first crowdfunding campaign. Talk us through your experience of crowdfunding.
It’s a new experience for us, but it’s going very well so far and we’re already halfway to our £1m goal (you can see the campaign here.) Since we founded FreeAgent, we have secured more than £5m from angels and other investors but this is the first time we’ve opened up investment to a wider audience and we’re learning a lot from it.
We chose the crowdfunding route because it’s a great fit for us and reflects what we’re trying to do as a business. As well as Democratising Accounting, by opening up investment to our 40,000-strong customer base as well as to other traditional and non-traditional investors, we’re also democratising the way we finance the business. Crowdfunding gives our customers the opportunity to share in our future success and that’s really important for us.
Why do you think so many entrepreneurs know so little about accounting?
Mostly because they don’t have the time! When you’re following your entrepreneurial dreams, you tend to be more interested and excited in all of the interesting bits of running a business like marketing, product development and sales, rather than the less glamorous parts like accounting.
Entrepreneurs tend to be creative people and whilst they are no doubt interested in the bottom line, they may not be particularly interested in the number crunching. And historically they haven’t really had much help when it comes to systems designed to enable them to understand their accounts better. Accounting software has long been an unglamorous, under-served backwater full of complicated packages that are too confusing and jargon-filled for the average micro-business owner to fully understand - and a lot of entrepreneurs don’t really want to engage with them.
That’s actually why we designed FreeAgent the way we have; as a system that empowers everyone who runs their own business and gives them the tools to understand and manage their finances. We put the business owner at the forefront, not their accountant, and that’s something that entrepreneurs and micro-business owners really value.
What’s the best thing about running your own business?
Being your own boss in a creative and fast-paced industry is incredibly exciting and it’s also really satisfying to know that you can change things for the better.
What traps should young entrepreneurs be wary of falling into?
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.
And be sure to find a real problem and solve it – far too many entrepreneurs are trying to sell vitamins, not painkillers.
What’s the best business advice you’ve been given?
As much as you might want to, you simply cannot do everything yourself and you have to learn to be able to trust others to do it for you. Also, you can’t change the world but you can do something positive every day to move you in the right direction and build momentum.
What was your favourite cartoon as a kid?
I loved Inspector Gadget! I’m sure some of the FreeAgent team are tempted to draw some parallels with my role as CEO - although I do like to think I’m a bit less bumbling than he was!
Finally, why should small businesses use FreeAgent instead of any other accounting software?
Because we’ve built FreeAgent especially to solve the real day-to-day problems that micro-businesses and freelancers face with their books. You don’t need an accounting qualification to understand how it works, or to use it; instead it helps you take control of your finances, relax about tax and run your business more effectively.
We like to let our customers explain why they think we provide the best accounting solution on the market - and we have 40,000 of them who regularly tell us how smart, not stupid, FreeAgent makes them feel about managing their finances and business admin.
Check out their crowdfunding campaign with Seedrs.