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Lessons in French Business – How Our Startup Survived Recessions, Referendums & Rough Times

Lessons in French businessWe’ve been in business for 10 years now and during that time we’ve managed to keep our heads above water during a monster worldwide recession, a knock-on economic dip in France that seemed to be never-ending, an EU referendum, and a rocky political climate. But despite those difficulties, our company Euro Start Entreprises just kept trucking through it all and thankfully thrived. It’s been a battle at times, and there were some points when we wanted to not only throw in the towel but wanted to shred it and burn it too. However, something within us said success was around the next corner, just as long as we didn’t give up. And here’s how we did it…

Humble Beginnings

As international business consultants, we started off in very humble beginnings - sharing a small office with an online music distributor Paris Jazz Corner who sold obscure jazz records out of a pokey place in Rue de Nancy in the 10th district in Paris. In those days, it wasn’t the gentrified ‘Bo-Bo’ (French for bohemian) neighbourhood it is today. Amongst towers of CDs and stacks of vinyl, we forged a little niche for ourselves offering to help foreign entrepreneurs expand their enterprises into France, helping them with the tricky obstacles of language barriers and registering a company with the fussy French tax offices.

Having owned a few companies before, we were used to battling the system – after all, France holds the crown for Most Pernickety Bureaucratic European Country (which new president Emmanuel Macron is desperately trying to shrug off). Setting ourselves up as company formation experts we had to learn how to navigate that system as smoothly as possible for our foreign entrepreneur clients who wanted to set up businesses in France complete with offices and bank accounts and chartered accountants and all the lovely accoutrements that go with owning a new company in a new country.

The Business of Bureaucracy

One of our first steps was to set up contacts with well-established banks who at first seemed rather reluctant to welcome entrepreneurs with unusual foreign names, even if they were parking tens of thousands of euros in their vaulted systems. But as long as we’d done our due diligence with potential clients and confirmed that these business people were indeed regular and decent business people who simply wanted to expand their operations to La Belle France, then the banks began to welcome us and our clients with open arms.

We also had to learn how to navigate our clients’ patience levels. Unlike the UK and other European countries where opening a business takes a fraction of the time, we had to make sure that our clients were aware that the paperwork for France was significantly bulkier which meant a bit more to-ing and fro-ing with the various tax and registration offices. Not to mention the delays caused by the partial shut down of the French government and banking offices during July and August for the summer break. It’s well known that within French civic offices during the hotter months, appointments would get shunted, phone calls left unanswered and paperwork would become hidden amongst the in-tray debris only to be dusted off in September.

NB: Luckily for us – and our clients – France has finally begun to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to being more business friendly. In the 10 years we’ve been operating, we’ve noticed a big difference to how the business and banking system is now operating, even during the summer!

Rough Times – Tough Times

For a new business, the empty summer months were the most crippling for our turnover. Whatever profit we made in the previous months would be wiped out when the phones stopped ringing and entrepreneurs worldwide headed off to the beaches instead of hunkering down at their desks. And whenever we thought: “Oh well, if you can’t beat them, join them” and decided to take a holiday, then that would be the exact moment a new client would pop up. As we were in the first stages of trying to forge an efficient reputation, we would have to drop our sand buckets and spades and head back to the office to try and nail that deal.

But after a couple of years, our hard-working attitude began to pay dividends and we found we were able to say goodbye to the little Rue de Nancy office and settle in a more prestigious address in Avenue George V, just off the famous Champs Elysees and within spitting distance of the Eiffel Tower (which impressed our foreign clientele no end).

But life took a sharp downturn when the 2008 recession hit. Luckily, France’s stringent banking laws on loans and credit meant that few French people were hit by the mortgage crisis that took down countries like the US and UK. This meant our business didn’t take a complete dive but we did notice English-speaking countries were suddenly a little quiet on coming forward. The French recession also seemed to have a kind of long-distance delay which took hold a few years later down the line and dragged on long after the socialist president François Hollande was elected in 2012.

When you get lemons….

Instead of mirroring the rest of the French population by bemoaning our lot in life, we decided to make lemonade out of the large stack of lemons that had been thrown at us. Our answer to our sagging business prospects meant we had to take a look at ways of saving money first and then find new ways of bringing in the cash.

So we firstly took the decision not to take on or replace any staff. It meant the remaining staff had to shoulder more of the work – for instance instead of having the luxury of a runner to do the post runs, sort out the correspondence, stand in line at the bank and make teas and coffees for clients - we had to swallow our pride and damn well do it ourselves. But by having a smaller staff we found we could also communicate with each other better, become more productive and allow the remaining staff to get more involved in more interesting aspects of the business.

We also had to go through the upheaval of moving offices again (luckily, not too far, as it was just across the road) to share some equally pleasant but cheaper offices with a real estate company. After the move, every expense was looked at: we bargained for better deals on everything from stationery to couriers to coffee filters. Little by little, we began to see our expenses go down and our profit margin creeping up.

But instead of just standing still and hacking at expenses, we knew we had to push harder for more business. This made us expand our horizons to other territories as well as France. We started to amass a fantastic network of agents in the rest of Europe and beyond, until we could offer our clients a choice of 30 other countries in which to develop their businesses.

When we felt the financial wheels begin to move again, we then got focused on marketing. We developed a stronger social media presence and started a business blog to attract more attention and direct people to our website. We also decided to give our website a make-over too. Even though it was a big expense at first, it was this change - along with hiring SEO experts from Gooey Digital  who helped us increase our online presence - that made some of the most significant differences to our business. We’d always relied on our efficiency, professionalism and world-of-mouth to land us contracts but we knew we had to do more to help clients find us easily online. And when they did find us, they had to be impressed by the look and branding of our company.

Brexit – Opportunity or Bust?

In 2016 when the Brexit referendum delivered a shock victory for the ‘Leave’ campaign, our business was once again plunged into turmoil. The stock markets suffered and business suddenly went very quiet. Enquiries and phone calls to our office got quite thin on the ground. We realised that everyone was taking a long, hard look at their options and pondering very carefully about what their next business move would be. So instead continuing to expand their companies, everyone was assessing what the damage might be before taking any big business decisions.

A few months down the line came another shock result – the election of Donald Trump to the White House – and soon France was looking at a presidential battle between the independent Emmanuel Macron and Marie Le Pen, the far right Front Nationale candidate who wanted to get rid of the euro and clamp down on immigration.

In terms of our business, we were having to play the waiting game along with everyone else to find out exactly how such drastic moves would affect the world markets. This time we opted not to make any hasty decisions. We chose to just hold fast and steady, keep faith and hope that the world would right itself once again. The only difference we made during that time was to adjust our Google advertising which our accountant and SEO guys had pointed out was costing us a fortune and not bringing in much business. (Sometimes it pays to have experts on your side!)

Fortunately for France and for us, the business-friendly Macron took the presidential reins which heralded a much-needed shake-up of some of the more bureaucratic departments and a fresher stance on how France should be welcoming foreign business and pushing for a more international business platform. Music to our ears.

Little by little, the enquiries began to rise, the phones started to ring again and we realised that far from being a bust, Brexit was bringing us a fair few clients from the UK who were looking to set up in France in order to keep business presence in the EU.

On the Up

lessons in French business officeNow, almost 10 years on from our start date, we have upsized once again – this time to the chic Left Bank quarter of Boulevard Saint-Germain in the heart of the 7th district where coincidentally all the French government ministries are nestled. Our offices (pictured right) are bigger and they come with fancy marble fireplaces and parquet flooring but we haven’t got ahead of ourselves this time. We remember only too well our humble beginnings and we’ve kept some of our recession belt-tightening: we continue to keep a small but perfectly formed staff and always go after the best deals for our stationery.

So to all you startups out there – whether you be in France or further afield – we wish you all the best of luck and hope your business ventures go from strength to strength. And if you’d like to open a company in France, the UK, various states in America, the tax-free zones of the United Arab Emirates or any of the 30 other countries we deal with, or you need some help with finding a bank, finding a chartered accountant, sourcing a virtual or serviced office or just need some advice, you can drop us an email via our contact page or give us a call direct on 0033 (0) 1 53 57 49 10 to discuss how we can help you. “Bon courage” as we say in France!

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Euro Start Entreprises SARL – Limited Liability Company (“SARL”) with capital of 8,000 Euros incorporated in Paris, France under the registration number 500 820 410.
250 bis Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75007, Paris, France
Tel : (France) 00 33 (0) 1 53 57 49 10
Tel: (UK) 0044 (0) 203 445 0916
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