2 Dec 2015 09:03am

Member profile: Emily Coltman

Emily Coltman is on a mission to make finance friendly. She talks to Xenia Taliotis about how software can win over the tech-averse, and why plain speaking is an accountant’s most powerful tool

Emily Coltman, chief accountant at accounting software company FreeAgent, says her job is perfect. And from whichever angle you look at it, it’s a great fit for her, giving her ample opportunity to flex her skills and develop some of her key areas of interest.

“I do feel very fortunate to be working for FreeAgent,” she says. “Our product is something I believe in and it’s great being able to use so much of the knowledge and expertise I’ve built up over the years. But what I most love is that FreeAgent is doing something to take the fear out of tax and money for small businesses and freelancers.”

According to Coltman, FreeAgent makes easy-to-use online accounting software that enables even the most tech-averse and finance-phobic business owners and contractors to stay on top of their finances. The software, she explains, keeps tabs of every element of a business’s money issues – from expenses and payroll to cash flow and project profitability.

Coltman has been with FreeAgent since she was headhunted by its founder, Ed Molyneux, six years ago. The two met while she was at Ask M, where she was making screen-capture training, sales and marketing videos. “Ed was one of my clients,” she says. “I was doing a video for FreeAgent for him, and we hit it off immediately. The more we spoke, the more we realised we were aiming for the same goals, so I didn’t hesitate when he offered me a job.”

She says one of the main reasons she joined the company was because it chimed so well with her desire to make finance, money and accountancy easy to understand. “People are intimidated by figures, but ultimately it’s all about perception; it’s almost as if we’re brought up to fear them, and so we do. That has to change, with the change starting at school: teachers need to explain maths to children in a way that doesn’t frighten them. And the same goes for other professionals involved in finance. Certain industries – and I’m afraid accountancy can be one of them – all too readily reset to jargon when there is really no need for it.”

Coltman jokes that she speaks two languages – accountantese and English – but actually looks forward to the day when accountantese, and all jargon, is replaced by plain writing and speech. “One of my best quotes of all time, and one I refer to again and again,” she says, “is Albert Einstein’s ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. To which I would like to add, ‘and if you don’t understand it well enough, you shouldn’t be explaining it’.”

Coltman herself clearly understands and explains very well, as demonstrated in her three books: Refreshingly Simple Finance for Small Business; Micro Multinational: A Guide to International Finance for Small Businesses; and Very Awkward Tax: A Bitesize Guide to VAT for Small Business.

All three aim to demystify tax and finance. “Business owners and freelancers need to understand tax. If they don’t, they’ll either forever be reliant on someone else – an accountant – to work things out for them, or end up doing it themselves without fully capitalising on all the breaks they’re entitled to.”

Looking back on her CV she acknowledges it includes a few surprises, but says she is exactly where she wants to be. “It always throws people off balance when they see that I studied music at Cambridge,” she says. “I loved music – I still do – but I was just a second violin and when I got to university I met so many truly gifted musicians that I knew I could never really compete with them. Plus, if I’m honest, I knew I wanted a more lucrative career.”

After graduating, she joined Whitbread’s financial training programme and stayed with them for two years, before leaving to join Cannon Moorcroft. That’s where she got her first taste of how accountancy software could be used to improve the lives of business owners. “I was with Cannon Moorcroft for seven years,” she says, “from 2000 to 2007 – a time of rapid development in accountancy software. I found it very exciting and particularly enjoyed training our clients to use Sage. I saw how big it could be potentially, how it would change the face of accountancy forever, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do full-time.”

She’s pleased to have joined FreeAgent when it was tiny – just a handful of staff and 1,000 clients. It now employs 80 people and has 40,000 customers. “Our client base is growing daily and we’ve had some amazing reviews, but of course the feedback that most interests us is that from our clients, and I’m glad to say that has been excellent too.”

Asked to reflect on her career, Coltman says: “The crucial lesson I’ve learnt along the way is never think you know it all. The minute you start thinking you know all there is to know about accounting, tax, financial reporting or whatever your area of expertise is, give it up and start breeding Angora rabbits for a living instead! Over-confidence can come back and bite you hard. If you’re not sure, always ask – talk to a more experienced colleague, look something up in a manual, or contact a network of experts. There’s always something new to learn – perhaps because the tax law has changed, or because you’re looking at a slightly different situation. Always keep your mind open and listen.”

She intends to stay at FreeAgent to work on new projects such as auto-enrolment, improvements to the mobile app and lots more useful features for accountants. And aside from that, she has a new life goal to achieve – to learn to fly a plane. That, when added to her other interests – walking, running, sailing, knitting, writing and playing in a folk band – should keep her as busy out of the office as in.
“I love my life,” she says. “I enjoy everything I do, socially and at work. I’ve had quite a few jobs in my time and changed direction a couple of times, but now there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”

2009-present chief accountant, FreeAgent Central
2009 videomaker, Ask M
2007-2008 accountants software trainer, More Software
2007 director, Ask M
2000-2007 accounts senior, Cannon Moorcroft
1998-2000 trainee accountant, Whitbread


Xenia Taliotis


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