Running a business in France can bring more than merely financial rewards, says Sally Stone, of Les Bons Voisins.
Les Bons Voisins is the first national network of property managers in France, established in 2002.
The name came from appreciating Sally’s own very good neighbours (in southern Brittany) who had helped her out when she was an absentee owner of a small cottage there whilst still living in the UK.
As a result of that experience, Sally got the idea of starting a company with the name 'the good neighbours' because that indicated a helpful business without actually tying down precisely what was on offer.
In fact, for those with second homes or relocating to France, LBV provides caretaking, property maintenance, gardening, help with buying, selling and letting property for holidays, with a network of people throughout France from Nord Pas de Calais to the Languedoc. This is what she has to say…
In large measure, we were driven to set up the business by the need to earn an income if we relocated to France. Although many people arriving in France do so with a capital sum in the bank, that can disappear surprisingly quickly if you are not topping it up at all with some kind of regular income!
From what little we knew we could see that few expats had been successful in getting regular salaried employment in France, not only because of problems of language, skills and age, but also simply because of the limited opportunities available in the rural areas to where most of us relocate.
So if you don’t have a game plan when you arrive then you may struggle to make a living.
I also took the view that if I was to properly enjoy my new life in France I needed to ensure I did something with it. The initial euphoria of not needing to get up every day and drive to the office sounded very exciting, but the prospect of a perpetual round of coffee mornings for the rest of my life was not something I was relishing.
Expats frequently talk about the desire to integrate, but what better way it seemed to me than through starting a business?
However, as I have learned over the years, in order to succeed, self-employment requires good preparation, dedication, and determination.
Starting the Business
At an early date we decided to take some accountancy advice. We soon learned that it was more important our accountant knew the French system inside out than that they spoke English, so we chose one recommended by French friends. Most French business owners are versed in the art of tax avoidance, regarded in France as a national pastime!
We also quickly learned that income tax was the least of the things we needed to be worried about, that the payments for “cotisations” - social security contributions - were going to take around 45% of our net earnings, although that does depend on the type of tax structure you adopt.
And, as part of your business plan, I hope it goes without saying that a reasonable level of French language ability is an important prerequisite for a sustainable business.
What to do?
Of even greater importance than the advice from the accountant was the need to carefully consider what type of business to set up. Around 80% of new businesses in France fail – it’s a tough market and you have to think around the subject.
The first thing to say is this is not the most appropriate time to reinvent yourselves. Sure, it’s a change of direction, but beware of a complete U-turn. From what I have seen the most successful people use their old skills, albeit in a new way.
The idea for my own company came during a weekend visit to France, when I bought a neglected cottage and shortly afterwards realised that reliable help for absentee home owners in France was hard to find.
At the time, the learning curve for us was like a vertical rock face up which we had to climb, without any safety equipment, and with directions only available in a foreign language!
Although regulatory requirements are not always as severe as is sometimes stated, you do need to check out any entry or regulations for running the business, as would also be the case in the UK or elsewhere.
Taking the business to market
Market research on the sales prospects for the business is also critical. Is there anyone else doing it? How do they run it, and what kind of business are they making of it? What are you actually selling? And really important, can your target market afford what you will be offering? I have over the years seen some wonderful potential businesses fail for the lack of understand however good the product, the people it appeals to must be able to afford to buy it.
Thankfully, we also quickly learned the power of networking, which was extremely helpful to us in not only getting a better understanding of our market, but also of potential business partners.
The hidden benefit which I found was that working within the community amongst the local French people is a wonderful way to integrate. In the past, the local French people had been used to either expats who were retired, or who ran gîtes – so someone running a French business and working hard was a real novelty. I’m sure it helped that we deliberately try and use French artisans for our clients if they require something we cannot do ourselves – a true win-win situation and an ethos which runs right through the LBV network.
So the benefits of running a business are not just about the ability to buy a decent bottle of wine. Being your own boss takes some beating. And if that can be matched with the wonderful life-style it is possible to experience in France, then it would be difficult to ask for more.
Les Bons Voisins
Sally Stone will in our French Village at A Place in the Sun Live, Birmingham NEC 27th to 29th Sept.