An entrepreneur in France
An English entrepreneur in France.
I never imagined I’d be an entrepreneur of any sort. And now that I am one, I cannot imagine being anything else.
I trained as a teacher and taught French and Spanish for twelve years. My father was a doctor and my mother a professor of Latin. My background, therefore, was academic, and when we first moved to France in 1989, three little children on tow, I assumed I’d get a teaching post of some sort.
We were utterly broke. We had lost everything almost overnight in England, the bank repossessed our house, our youngest was barely a year old, my husband’s business in property development had crumbled in the blink of an eye during the property slump, and we were crawling.
We were among many hundreds – thousands – of families who lost out financially at that time, but there was no way we wanted to allow circumstance reduce us to a council house or even a rented property.
So we moved to France. Like so many other British families before and since we – so naively! – thought that life would somehow be “different” once we got to France. Well, it is different – it is in French !
On the assumption that I’d teach, we likewise thought my husband would just go in to the property business as he had in the UK, ie buying up cheap properties, restoring them and selling them at a profit. But no. Although English was (and perhaps still is) badly taught in French schools, they didn’t want me. My qualifications were not valid, they said. I had not one but two B.A Honors degrees plus twelve years’ experience, but that was not enough.
My husband had bought, with the help of local banks and my language skills, four derelict little houses going for a song. But the French do not have the same hunger for owning property as the British have; there are rules and regulations for anything and everything, and it was nigh-on impossible to forge forwards. It seemed to us that the French system was designed to make life as hard as possible and I was desperately homesick.
And so I set up business selling houses to the British. I asked the local notaire (like a lawyer) if it was all right to just set up business and he assured me that it was. He was wrong and I ended up in Court over it … but that is a different story altogether, a very stress story and one among several – but a different one. Because my clients, almost uniquely British, loved a bargain and bought very cheap semi-derelict properties, my husband’s business was the renovation and restoration of them. His business operated off mine.
One of the first things that struck me was how clueless I had been. As a teacher I had been on the academic staff of a secondary school, I was a post-graduate and tri-lingual, I had already travelled around the world … yet I was so clueless. I think this is often the way, particularly in a job like teaching – you live in that one world and never see beyond the job.
I was instantly amazingly successful. I gathered dossiers about properties for sale, relying largely on the local notaires and the jungle-drums, and sold them to the British. It worked like magic and within a matter of months money was rolling in.
A bit of a sweeping statement, but I sometimes think that only people who run their own businesses really know what work is. If you are employed by somebody else, you go in to work, do whatever it is you have to do, then go home again. You get paid for it. It may be easy stuff or difficult stuff, but essentially you get paid for a specific job and it is up to you to do it properly.
People who run their own businesses have to create a situation, in our case out of thin air, out of which they can earn some money. Nobody said to us “do this and I will pay you for it”. We had to cause ourselves to be paid. I, in the first instance, had to persuade my client (having got the client at all) to buy a house in France. Not just any house in France, but a house on my books. In order to get to this situation I first had to place advertisements in magazines and newspapers in the UK. This was long before the internet. I then had to answer the phone, the fax and the post several hundred times, enclosing details of five or six properties each time, in order to get one solitary client into my car. I worked out that for every 200 sets of details I posted, I got one client. Out of the clients who got as far as looking at properties with me, about one in every seven would buy.
Having got the client to agree to buy something – invariably an old fermette in need of repairs – I then had to get them to sign papers called a Compromis de Vente, which is a kind of promise to buy. At that stage I also had to persuade them to part with a cheque for 10% of the value of the property. This was sometimes done in the office of a notaire, but was also regularly done in my own little office at home with the washing machine chugging away in the background , the smell of burnt toast and the sound of children playing. The cheque was always made out to the notaire. From that moment responsibility should have fallen off my shoulders and onto his, though it never really did, and it was his job to do a search while I kept the clients informed.
Of course, the clients always referred back to me, from sensible questions like the perimeter fences to silly questions about the height of the skirting boards. If something went wrong it was always my fault – even the weather seemed to be my domain – and people never wanted to pay for anything.
It was, however, a neat little business. My clients looked to me for sorting out utilities and insurances for their properties, and I was able to make a small charge which helped to swell my commission a little and – Lord knows – we needed every penny.
The situation was, nonetheless, fraught with difficulties. I had never dealt with this sort of thing before, and now I found myself translating contracts, advising people about building permits, talking with banks, interpreting at the notaire’s office and generally stepping a long way out of my comfort zone. The job involved endless driving, first to view properties and then to show people around. I was so short of money that I had to ask my clients to help with the petrol on several occasions – something that turned out to be illegal in France, though Lord knows why. Why in Heaven’s name would that be illegal ?! And that was another thing – I wobbled constantly on a thin line between doing something illegal and keeping on the right side of the law. Everything went via a solicitor, so you’d have thought it would be fine, I paid tax and VAT … yet nonetheless kept getting letters from this authority or that, telling me it was interdit to do whatever I had done. Frequently this was something so simple – like the petrol money example – and often it was something ridiculous like not translating my own forms.
I was ruthless. I had to be. Whether you are selling a property or a packet of Smarties – you have to sell it. That is the whole point. Being kind did not come in to it – though I hope I was never unkind. I could often see people making totally unsuitable choices, not least because very few of them spoke French, but at an early stage learnt to keep my opinions to myself and just get on with the job.
Rule no.1: I think that is one of the first things I’d say if asked about being an entrepreneur: you have to be tough. You are selling your product, whatever it is, and that is your aim. Lose sight of that and you will not succeed.
Sometimes people comment that it was lucky that I spoke French. Well, the ability to speak French has nothing to do with luck actually! I learnt it. But apart from that no – it was not necessarily an advantage simply because it meant that everything fell on to my shoulders. If the phone rang, if somebody came to the door, if the children needed help with homework or teachers needed to see me, I had to deal with it myself. From talking to the bank to the tax man and the accountant; from waiters to vendors to petrol station attendants – I had to do it myself. My husband could not speak a word, the children (although they learned very quickly) were too young. I was alone with it and it was a long uphill grind.
But it was precisely that long uphill grind that taught me so much. I was fantastically energetic and willing to learn. Each hurdle was a lesson learned, a step up the steep ladder. Sometimes the hurdles seemed insurmountable – the French bureaucratic system truly did its best to break me – but I clambered over to the other side, as it were, and learnt from it.
Rule no.2: And that is the second thing I’d say to anybody who asked about being an entrepreneur: learn from your mistakes. Learn from all the things that go wrong, all the things that are difficult. The mistakes you make are a crucial part of the solid platform you are building.
It took its toll on me, however. It sounds nice, doesn’t it, driving people around, looking at properties ? But competition from local French estate agents was vicious – positively nasty in fact – and the whole thing gradually ate away at my nerves. I earned good money and had come to thoroughly enjoy having money on the account. But I needed to look for something else, something more gentle, or I felt I’d just crack up.
Rule three: recognize the difference between giving up and changing direction. So many people say “I don’t want to give up yet” as though they are facing failure. Changing direction is not the same thing. You need to know which way you are heading, and if it does not seem to be working out, you need to be practical.
And so one day we drove past a big old house called the Chateau de Rochebonne. It was on the main road and stood gloomily staring out through half-dead trees, closed, semi-derelict, grey and depressing.
“I wonder which idiot is going to buy that?” asked my husband.
We did. It was us.
We will convert this lot in to holiday lets, we decided. Once they are built, all we have to do is take the bookings. Simple enough.
We had left England six years earlier, broke, depressed and up to our eyes in debt. By the time we bought this property we had cleared all our debts, which were considerable and were able to pay cash for the house. Admittedly it was very cheap at the equivalent of £75 000 for a small chateau with 6 acres of land. With three small children – they were now aged 6, eleven and twelve – we moved in to our derelict chateau a few days before Christmas.
Rule no.4: An entrepreneur cannot be afraid. Do not be afraid. If you are going to say “but we haven’t got enough money” or “it is too cold” or “I can’t do that and work and care for the children” – you will not succeed. The key to your success is knowing that not only you can do it, but that you will.
My husband had the right skills, and that was a huge advantage. You need, of course, to have the skill sets to go with the enterprise. Had we been setting up a cooking and singing school we would not have succeeded because neither of us can either cook or sing. Mark you, you can raise the capital to pay somebody who does have the right skills, but nobody will do it in the devoted and determined way that you will. No matter how much you pay somebody, the bottom line is that you do it best. Your own heart and love and strength is the very thing that pivots the project forward, and that is something only you can provide.
We did take on a labourer. It is a big mistake to not delegate where you can. The trick is deciding which bit of the work (and the work was massive) to give him to do, and which bit to get on with ourselves. Our middle child, William, became our best man in many ways, though he was only eleven years old. And even Pips, our daughter, was brilliant at loading and unloading wheelbarrows. Funny that. Children usually complain about helping their parents, but ours loved it.
Within two years we had restored the chateau and converted the barns in to eight cottages. We did this on a shoe-string budget, and with the help of banks who were at that time very keen to lend. Everything was a juggling act. We juggled taking from Peter to pay Paul. We begged and borrowed as and where necessary. We both became brilliant at making do and at using an item designed for one thing as something totally different. Necessity is the mother of invention. Lateral thinking, imagination, energy, stepping out of the box – these are crucial attributes.
And speed. For us speed was a hugely important element in our success. Because of shortage of funds, it was essential that we got the chateau and the cottages all let to holiday makers as quickly as possible. The deposits they paid financed the next part of the project. In just five months we raised the roofs on the barns, laid ground floors, installed staircases and upper floors, all plumbing, all wiring, all rendering and plastering and painting. And the furnishing ! Our youngest, Jake, rushed back and forth with me to local shops (the nearest “local” one being a good half hour’s drive) loading up with beds and mattresses, chairs and side tables, sofas and shelves, pots and pans and crockery and duvets … on and on and on, and always frantically looking round for the cheapest option. A great deal of what we bought was second hand.
Rule no.5: when something goes wrong (and plenty went wrong for us), ask yourself what advantage you can get out of it. How can you turn this dreadful setback in to something you gain from ?
A huge storm hit France at that time and took away the roofs we had just finished and destroyed all the lovely trees that protected the property from the main road. Windows were smashed in and stocks ruined. It was a bitter bitter setback for us.
It was very difficult indeed to find an advantage in the situation – yet there was. A team of village men turned up, looking for work. Just clearing the smashed roof tiles and windows that lay strewn all over the grounds represented several weeks’ work, and we explained to these men that we could not pay them till the insurance had paid us. They agreed to work on that basis and in fact turned out to be a brilliant team who went a long way towards helping us get the properties all finished and ready for holiday-makers in good time.
Years have swept by. I spend my time writing (I have published several books) and sketching. Our properties are full every year, and many of the holiday-makers are people that come back year after year. I take the bookings, all of which are on-line, and my husband oversees maintenance work (which is constant). We come and go as we please. We have a caretaker and a gardener, and a team of excellent cleaning staff. During the winter months we travel – at the time of writing we have just returned from a six-week tour of India and Sri Lanka. We own a property in England and another in Belize; we stay in one or the other as the moods takes us. Many people would give their right arm to be in our boots, but very few of them have the remotest idea about what we overcame, the risks we took and the work we ploughed through.
Catherine Broughton has written a book “A Call from France”, available from Amazon.