Interviews

The RAF pilot who hated number crunching so much he set up his own online accountancy firm

7 min read

20 October 2015

Successful SME owners are passionate about their business but rarely about the administration needed to support it. Doing accounts must be one of the least appealing jobs.

It was this dislike of writing out invoices, doing expenses and calculating VAT payments, that drove Ed Molyneux to launch an online accounting system for small businesses and freelancers.

After a decade spent flying military fast-jets in the RAF, Molyneux moved into freelance IT consultancy in 2002. However, he found that trying to balance his books with a spreadsheet provided by an accountant was a slow and complicated process.

“While I was freelancing that I met a couple of fellow freelancers, Olly Headey and Roan Lavery, who became my FreeAgent co-founders,” said Molyneux. 

“We all agreed that whilst we enjoyed working for ourselves, the experience of sorting out the accounts was painful and we detested using spreadsheets. We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a single piece of accounting software on the market that was specifically targeted towards the kind of one-man businesses we were running – and that was all the impetus I needed to write the first prototype of FreeAgent.”

He co-founded FreeAgent in 2007 with a view to “democratise accounting” for SMEs and micro businesses – “making people feel smart, not stupid, about their finances”. The system allows users to send invoices, track time and expenses, analyse bank statements, calculate tax bills and build real-time, jargon-free accounts and is now used by more than 40,000 freelancers and small business owners worldwide. 

Keeping the company focused has been a key reason for its success, believes Molyneux. “We knew our target audience, understood the problems they faced and tried to develop a solution to those problems,” he added. “We specifically-designed FreeAgent to address the needs of micro businesses, which have been historically under-represented in terms of accounting software and we’ve tried to completely reinvent the way that these businesses manage finances.”

Molyneux’s training and experience as an RAF Harrier pilot has helped him in business. “If you look at some of the key leadership qualities that the Royal Air Force seeks from its aerial war fighters, you’ll notice a great deal of crossover with the qualities that make a successful business leader,” he explained.

“Courage, emotional intelligence, a willingness to take risks, flexibility and responsiveness, the ability to handle ambiguity, technological competence, the ability to lead tomorrow’s recruits, mental agility and physical robustness, political and global astuteness – they’re all important traits that both pilots and business owners need to have in order to succeed.”

He went on to say: “The RAF also says that it’s difficult to overstate the importance of leadership in a military context, while strong and courageous leadership is needed at all levels to achieve success, it must be underpinned by a degree of emotional intelligence and the empowerment of subordinates in order to get the most from our people.”

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What he enjoys most about his current position is the emergence of new ideas and of change. He explained: “As much as the RAF was an exciting operation to be part of, there’s little room for radical change or building something new.”

He’s also learnt more about delegation and about reacting quickly to changed circumstances. “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. 

“You’ve got to be open-minded about tweaking your initial idea and listening to what the market wants.”

As part of this open-minded approach, Molyneux and his fellow co-founders have introduced what they call “hack days”, when, every six months, they release the majority of their staff for a couple of days and encourage them to do something interesting and creative.

“Sometimes we see teams inventing innovative prototypes for features that we can incorporate into the FreeAgent system, but we don’t limit anyone to building things for our core business,” he explained. “In the past three years, we’ve seen everything from apps that teach kids about saving their pocket money, LED rigs to show when someone is on a Skype call or doesn’t want to be disturbed – and even a zombie movie. It’s a great chance for everyone to be creative and do things a little out of the ordinary, which is something you probably wouldn’t expect from an accounting software business.”

Today, the Edinburgh-based company employs over 90 people and has secured more than £7m in external investment – securing £1m this August in its first crowdfunding campaign through equity crowdfunding site Seedrs.

The company has picked up numerous awards and was named in the FinTech50 list last year as one of Europe’s most influential financial tech firms. In November 2013, the company secured eighth place nationally and first place in Scotland in Deloitte’s FAST 50 list of growing UK tech firms reporting a rise in turnover of 2,128 per cent between 2007 and 2012 and was listed again in 2014.

“We set out to ‘democratise accounting’ and give our customers the best method for managing their business accounts but there are still many small business owners and freelancers around the globe who use out dated or inferior methods for bookkeeping,” said Molyneux.

“In the UK alone there are around five million micro-businesses and we want to introduce as many of them as possible to FreeAgent. We hope to establish FreeAgent in new markets, continue to develop our system and introduce innovative new features that will dramatically help our customers manage their business finances.”