The Rewards of Being a Good Neighbour
Tuesday 05 July 2011
Running a business in France can bring more than merely financial rewards, says Sally Stone, of Les Bons Voisins.
Les Bons Voisins is a property management company my husband and I established in 2002.
For those with second homes or relocating to France, we provide caretaking, property maintenance, gardening, property search and letting services, with a network of offices throughout the country.
In large measure, we were driven to set up the business by the need to earn an income if we relocated to France.
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.
But 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 the 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 these past ten 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, for social security contributions were going to take around 45% of our net earnings, although it does depend on the type of tax structure you adopt.
What to do?
Of 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.
So when setting up a business in France it may not be the most appropriate time to reinvent yourselves. Sure, a change of direction, but not 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 the 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.
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?
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.
And it surely goes without saying that a reasonable level of French language ability is an important prerequisite for a sustainable business.
Working within the community amongst the local French people is also a wonderful way to integrate. We frequently use French artisans for our clients if they require something we cannot do ourselves – a true win-win situation.
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