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 RAF pilot. We asked him about what it takes to scale and grow and business and building a team in Edinburgh..
How do you retain company culture while scaling a team?
I believe company culture can only thrive when there is a really clear vision that everyone can get behind. If everyone's pulling in the same direction, and there is real clarity about what we're all doing to move things along, there's a lot more chance that a healthy culture will evolve. That clarity demands a high level of transparency, though, which can be a double-edged sword.
At FreeAgent our vision is 'Democratising Accounting' and we work hard to ensure all our indicators and objectives are aligned with that vision.
How do you keep the company from becoming "political" as business functions expand?
My favourite definition is that "Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think." (Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team).
This is hard to avoid, but we can keep it at bay if we ensure we're being data- and evidence-driven in our decision-making. One key area of potential political behaviour is in the resource allocation process - budgeting in particular. We need to be able to call each other out when a manager's lobbying for resource is not obviously aligned with wider company objectives. This is sometimes challenging!
How do you help people to scale? i.e. from being a manager of a few people to managing many?
We try to hire for potential rather than necessarily immediate fit. But in reality for FreeAgent it's the co-founders who've had to scale the most so far. It's the first time any of us has built any kind of business at all let alone one of this size. That's for us to address ourselves, and so we read a lot about business, management and growth, and aim to tap into our networks to learn from others' experiences.
How do you structure Product Management to keep building the best possible business?
There's a constant - and healthy - tension between evolving the product in line with a long-term vision, and responding to short-term user requests for specific features or improvements. We aim to move forwards with both demands in parallel.
What are the toughest lessons that you have learned?
It's better to have a difficult conversation sooner than later. I tend to put them off far too long, but they're never as bad as you imagine they're going to be.
How do you take insights from sales and marketing to iterate on the product?
This is hard - the most vocal customers don't always represent the views of the wider customer base. We try and record all feedback and look for patterns.
How do you think about the role of sales teams when deploying digital business?
This depends a lot on the product being sold and the go-to-market. But for us they're really important - the fastest-growing part of our business is in license sales to accountants, and a fairly traditional sales process can be pretty effective.
I believe the biggest sin in technology businesses is thinking 'if you build it they will come'. 'They' - your potential customers - almost certainly won't. You're going to have to get out there and sell.
How do you manage your own Board so they deliver the rights sort of support for the business?
The key is keeping them well-informed with very clear, simple business metrics. That means you spend very little time going over the current status of the business and have more opportunity to dig into problems and opportunities. And when it comes down to it, if you want help you've got to ask for it!
How do you retain staff?
At FreeAgent we have really low staff turnover. It's a testament to our strong, inclusive culture and clear vision, I think. And paying a lot of attention to hiring right in the first place.