Tuesday, April 17, 2012

So you think you want to be Self-Employed in France!


I know it’s been a while and I’m sorry if it appears I’ve been neglecting my blog, but I’ve been busy – even busier than usual if that’s possible.  This year, true to one of my New Year Resolutions at least, I’ve been putting a lot of my energies into the business side of my life.  It’s not easy being self-employed and although I have been for most of my working life (15 years in England and now 8 years in France), I find I’m learning new things every day.  I’ve been thinking recently about what it is that makes a business successful.  It’s not just about the business itself – of course you need to offer something other people want, but it’s also largely down to the individual.  

To be self employed in any country you need to have certain qualities, but to be self employed in France (or any country other than the one you were brought up in), these special characteristics become even more important.


Many foreigners come to France with dreams of a new life. The majority are retired and so already have their income in place, but more and more younger people are settling here, some with young families, and they need to earn a living. If they don’t speak French fluently (and even if they do), it's difficult to get salaried employment here and so often the only option is self-employment. 

Typically we sell our little houses in the UK and use the equity to buy massive country homes with loads of land and lots of renovation work to do, in idyllic rural France. We watched the programs on the TV (A place in the sun has a lot to answer for), and we think "Why can't we do that?". Many of us leave it there, as a pipedream, but there are a brave few who actually see it through and follow those dreams.  We're young(ish) and full of hope and ideas on running gîtes and B and B’s, being self sufficient and living the good life or jacking in our safe jobs and starting something completely different.  Some have a trade such as plumber, electrician, builder, gardener which are practical, transferable skills and perhaps have experience of being self employed.  Many come from regular jobs with plans of starting a business for the first time doing something completely new.   You might think its madness to consider starting a new business, with no previous experience and in a new country.  Yes experience helps massively, but looking at all the businesses I've seen fail and succeed here I would say it’s also largely a persons aptitude and attitude to their business that determines whether it succeeds or not.

If you've sold up and made the move to France (or are in the process) then you already have one of the most important qualities of making it self employed and that's COURAGE.  Having the guts to leave your comfort zone and try something different.  Of course that's not the end of it, but it is a good start.   

Being self-employed in France does require that you have at least some command of the language. You can't expect to just work for the English speaking community and even if you do, you still need to be able to communicate with the officials etc to register your business, so you need to be ADAPTABLE and willing to learn the language and the ways of running a business in France (which is quite different to the UK).

You also need to be FLEXIBLE and listen to the changing needs and expectations of your potential customers. Try to offer a few different services or products and if you find that one is more popular or lucrative than the others then focus more attention on that.  If you have a firm business model and try to stick rigidly to it, you may be missing other opportunities.  Even if you’ve run the same type of business successfully in the UK it doesn’t mean that it will work in the same way in France.  If you try things one way and they don't appear to work then don't give up, try a different approach.  If at first you don't succeed try, try again.

You need to be RESOURCEFUL and think outside the box, try alternative approaches and branch out into different markets if you want to succeed.  For instance if you have a gîte business, you may find that your letting period is short and only during the summer months. If you want to generate more business in the winter, think about offering longer term winter lets at reduced prices or why not offer themed holidays (painting, guided tours, yoga etc), be open to opportunities around you.

Try to notice gaps in the market and how you can fill these gaps. Listen to what people are saying they want and need around you and consider ways of delivering what they want within your business model. Take time to look at what resources and skills you have available to you and constantly review if there are better ways of utilising them.  Could your business premises be used for other complimentary businesses?  Are you using all the skills you have or could you add another dimension to your business by offering something utilising skills or knowledge you already have.  For instance we've recently started a plant clinic on a Wednesday (market day) at our garden centre. My husband Gary will be working there anyway and always offers free advice, but not many people realise this.  By advertising the fact and giving it a name and specific day we’re encouraging more people into the garden centre seeking his advice and expanding our customer base and reputation.

RESILIENT - you have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth. There are always periods when work is difficult to come by and nothing seems to be going your way. At times like these you need to be prepared to get your head down, tighten your belt and ride the storm.  You also need to toughen up (something I find particularly difficult). You can't please everyone no matter how hard you try (and I do try very hard) and you need to not let the difficult customers or negativity get to you. One of my husbands favourite sayings is "Balls of Steel", you can't take everything to heart and you need to ignore any minor niggles and keep you eye on the goal. Sometimes decisions you make may not please all. Not everyone will agree with you all the time but as long as you’re confident your decisions are fair and just then you need to accept that not everyone thinks the same way and get over it!

KNOWLEDGEABLE - you need to know your trade or product well and if it's something you've never done before try to research it as much as possible before hand. If you're setting up a holiday home business read all the books, use all your experiences of staying in gîtes and B and B’s to help you formulate what's good and what's not and plan you business strategies. If you’re an experienced qualified tradesperson in your home country, find out what's different about your trade in France and whether you need any additional qualifications to start your business here. For example the electrical wiring systems are very different in the UK.  If you are thinking of starting something new, consider taking a course before moving here or in France if your language is good enough and find out whether you can register your business here before you start. 

MOTIVATED - you have to be motivated to succeed. Most of us need to earn a living and you could say that money is the biggest motivator but I would say money isn't enough of a motivator. You have to enjoy what you're doing and be keen to share your knowledge or products because you believe what you have to offer is of value to others.  Keeping motivated isn’t always easy, so try listing all the things you want to achieve from your business and look at these from time to time to help keep yourself motivated.

DISCIPLINED - come rain or shine when you are self employed you have to be disciplined to do what you have to do. If you're running a gîte business you have to get the gîtes cleaned and ready for customers arriving. You have to smile and be friendly (whether you feel like it or not). If you have a market stall or shop you have to be there during opening hours even if its freezing cold and you don't think anyone will turn up. You have to sometimes force yourself to do things that you don't want to do and if you’re not disciplined with yourself then you will quickly start to sink.

OPTIMISTIC - think of all the people you know who run successful businesses and I'm sure you'll notice that one of the many things they have in common is their optimism and positive outlook.  You may not be aware of it, but any negative feelings you have about your business ooze out of you without you realising it.  If you don't believe in it, how can you expect others to? 

It’s easy to slip into pessimism if things don’t seem to be going your way, but try not to let negativity cloud your attitude to your business.  Instead of looking glum and moaning about how hard it is to run a business in France and how difficult it is in the current financial climate, try to be more positive and actively think of ways to create more of a buzz about your business.  Send out a newsletter about all the things happening in the future and invite your customers to special events if that’s appropriate to your business. Don't let those doubts creep in and turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy - believe in your business and strive to find ways to help it succeed.

COMMITTED - you have to commit yourself fully to your chosen business. Do your research and believe in your product or service. If you start with the attitude you'll give it a try but it might not work, you know what?  It’s not going to work!  Not because its not a good idea, but more because you don't fully believe in what your doing.

There's not many entrepreneurs out there who get it right all the time, but the key is not to give up at the first hurdle.  Not everything you try will be as successful as you had hoped, but look on this as a learning curb. Often we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes because it makes us consider why it didn’t work and look harder for alternative solutions.

SOCIABLE - to be successful in business (particularly in another country) you need to have a good business and social network. You need to support other local business and look at ways of helping each other both French and British. You need to join local groups and keep in touch with what's going on locally. Go to the school fund raiser and support local events by donating goods or services, advertise with the local sports associations etc. You need to be seen to be doing your bit in the local community. Build up an email list of customers and friends interested in your business. Watch all the anglo websites or other websites related to your business and participate in social networks on the internet. Create a Facebook page, open a Twitter account, create a website and maybe a forum if appropriate. Look for as many ways as possible of reaching your target audience. It all takes time but is worth the effort

Last, but by no means least, you need to be HARD WORKING.  This may sound obvious (well it does to me) but many people don't realise just how hard you have to work as a self employed person. You don't get sick pay, you don't get paid overtime and you don't get holiday pay.  You often have massive overheads, start up costs, insurances, taxes etc to cover, so you have to work extra hard to cover all this. You will often find yourself working unsociable hours (evenings, weekends, bank holidays etc). Its not enough to just provide the physical work on the product or service you are offering, you also have to put the time into promoting and advertising your business. Leafleting, advertising on websites, newspapers, networking with other business, organising promotional events and of course not forgetting the admin and book keeping. Often in the early stages of any business you have to put in a lot of hours for very little (if any) gain - if you're not prepared to do this then maybe self-employment is not for you.

Having been self-employed in both countries, I would say it is much more difficult in France compared to England.  The system of registering your business is more complex, the social charges are much higher and the banks are less flexible.  If you’re aiming to cater for the British Market only, then your customer base is limited.  If you’re planning on offering your product or service to everyone, it’s very difficult to break into the French market.  In rural France the people are very set in their ways and dislike change, it’s very difficult (but not impossible) to encourage them to open up to new ideas.  If you are looking to come to France to make lots of money then you are coming to the wrong place.  However, that said, we find that the way of life, the scenery, the weather and the experiences we are offering our children make up for this.  Work is tough, but life is fulfilling and we love it!

5 comments:

  1. Great post, something I think most ex-pats can relate to. At least here in Portugal it is very relevant.

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  2. Thanks Christine. I would imagine it's the same in most countries where you've living as expat.

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  3. girl, you should open a business class.
    you sound so great!
    Congratulations!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, they are much appreciated. Open a business class, now there's a thought.....

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  4. Great blog thanks very much for all the info - we are a DS company in Ireland/Uk but expanding into france at the min so it great to know about the cultural differences we might experience when looking for and training in consutlants.

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