Managing the books and boosting productivity

Any small business will know the pain of keeping accounts up to date. It can often involve juggling multiple spreadsheets and a pile of receipts


SPONSORED BY AWS

As former freelancers themselves, Ed Molyneux, Olly Headey and Roan Lavery decided there must be a better way to manage the books. In 2007, the trio founded FreeAgent, an online accounting platform for small and micro businesses.

FreeAgent is designed to make it easier for business owners to manage finances and allow them to focus on what they do best: running and growing their companies.

FreeAgent helps businesses with everything they need to keep their finances in order, from time-tracking, expense management and invoicing, through to self-assessment tax returns, VAT calculations and automated filing with HM Revenue & Customs.

FreeAgent had been employing Amazon Web Services (AWS) storage capabilities since its inception, while running its own hardware in co-located datacentres. At the time, with its growth on a predictable course, this suited the company’s needs.

However, in 2018 FreeAgent was acquired by NatWest Group, which was a huge step-change for the business. With sudden access to hundreds of thousands of small business customers, it became difficult to anticipate demand for FreeAgent’s services.

The company turned to AWS because of its ability to scale in line with its business requirements, enabling it to accommodate for any surge in customer numbers, while optimising its hosting budget. Since this time, FreeAgent has moved several production services to AWS and will move everything to AWS later this year.

FreeAgent’s relationship with AWS now allows it to use more time and resources to focus on other priorities, including helping its small business customers to level up their productivity.

So how does FreeAgent help its customers be more productive? One significant way is by leveraging the data it collects to provide valuable insight and advice to customers about their business performance, which is especially important during the current period of economic uncertainty.

FreeAgent looks to AWS to take care of the underlying technology infrastructure, so it can instead concentrate on delivering exceptional service to its customers.

“There are lots of technologies AWS offers that we would struggle to create ourselves, such as serverless computing or machine-learning,” says Headey, FreeAgent’s chief technology officer.

“We can make sure that regardless of the demands in terms of number of customers, we can still offer a service that is fast, responsive and has high availability. But we can also put new technologies in the products and new features in front of customers faster; things we wouldn’t be able to do without the unique support AWS provides.”

We can make sure that regardless of the demands in terms of number of customers, we can still offer a service that is fast, responsive and has high availability

An example of how FreeAgent is leveraging machine-learning is for automatically categorising bank transactions. Knowing which accounting category a transaction should be assigned to is a common painpoint for customers.

The company uses Amazon SageMaker, a fully managed machine-learning service that provides every developer and data scientist with the ability to build, train and deploy machine-learning models that result in a higher degree of accuracy over more traditional, rule-based systems. Automating this work with SageMaker ultimately saves customers precious time, allowing them to focus more on their core business.

Working with AWS has also enabled FreeAgent to be less siloed. Headey says: “Previously, a lot of our knowledge was highly specialised and separate from the rest of the business in our operations team. At scale that becomes a bit of a problem. A lot of this kind of specialism is effectively outsourced.

“AWS provides us with flexible, secure infrastructure and services on demand, so we can focus on the design of the systems, how we want data to flow and the tooling we use. We can broaden the knowledge pool away from just operations engineers.”

FreeAgent now has more than 100,000 customers, but this is still the tip of the iceberg, says Headey. “There are over five million small businesses in the UK. That’s a huge number of potential customers we want to reach, whose problems we can solve,” he says. “Also, there are now many people who have been furloughed, as a result of COVID-19, or lost their job, who will have gone into self-employment in some way. The more we can help serve them, the better.”

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