If you’re out wandering the Paris streets one day and you happen to see a huge bicycle in the shape of a restaurant table, with 16 people peddling along while tucking into charcuterie, French cheeses and bottles of wine, then you’ve just witnessed the Cyclo-Café - the brain-child of expat entrepreneur Andrew Lyons.
Andrew – who is originally from Pittsburgh but has lived in Paris since 2006 – hit on the idea after seeing a similar contraption on a trip to Texas. Having worked at the French Energy & Transport company Alstom, Andrew decided to take the idea further and make the leap into being an entrepreneur by launching his French version. Now his rolling café – complete with French style canopy and table covers - can be seen around the beautiful sights of Paris, peddled by not only merry expats but also Parisians too.
However, unlike his home country where such an idea could have been launched in no time at all, Andrew had to struggle with language barriers and also the French Auto-Entrepreneur system.
First off, he was met with the “flabbergasted expressions of the French administration” after he pitched his idea at the City Hall. Despite having a “thick and painful accent” Andrew was able to convince them that the Cyclo-Café was a fantastic idea and even managed to rouse the French officials into something resembling enthusiasm. Unfortunately, being such an original idea, the French officials resorted to their bureaucratic default setting and said they had no idea how to get such a project off the ground, except to give Andrew a list of numbers and other ministry departments to contact.
Andrew spent the next few months cold calling the names on the lists: “Wow was that painful!” he recalled. “Average waiting time 15 minutes; average call length 15 seconds; ratio of transfers 100%; number of hangups 95%; useful information extracted minus 1%. If you want to start a business in Paris, better be prepared to hoof it. Information is not readily available nor updated online. The language barrier is too wide for phone calls and you have to present yourself in person to be taken seriously.”
In desperation he decided to make a visit to the French Police HQ to see if the officers there could give him some pointers. The police loved his idea (and he even had a few offers to join the Cyclo-Café team!) but again they had no idea how to make it happen. Finally the Ministry of Transportation agreed to see him after a further delay of three months. Andrew said of the meeting: “It was worth the wait. I was greeted by the patient, kind and open Director of Transportation. He was able to understand the concept and my accent. The majority of the meeting was spent searching through the ministry’s road map software of Paris and selecting the most historic, fun and safe routes. I left the meeting with few ‘concrete’ answers, but a renewed level of motivation.”
After a whole year of trying to launch the Cyclo-Café, Andrew paid a visit to the CCIP (Chamber of Commerce) who, after hearing his tale of bureaucratic woe, advised him to “lance-toi” which is the French translation for “just do it”. So opting for the quickest way - but not necessarily the most cost-effective - he launched himself as an Auto-Entrepreneur/ Micro Entreprises. (Had Andrew hired a French company formation expert, he could have bypassed all these difficulties right from the start!)
Andrew then teamed up with fellow Paris expat and digital marketing expert Dan Lavelle from EyesOnEmail who was able to formulate the entire business platform online, from advertising to the reservation system. With the website in place, it seemed Andrew entrepreneurial journey was at last nearing his desired destination.
But as with all adventure stories, Andrew came across more obstacles over the next year. First off was custom-building the unique Cyclo-Café bike, making sure it was not only safe but comfortable. And in the spirit of inclusiveness which is at the heart of his business, Andrew wanted everyone – young, old and those with disabilities – to be included in the ride. That meant manufacturing the bike with a safety platform with easy access, handrails, seat-belts and creating a bench for those not able to pedal.
(Watch the video here of Andrew’s Cyclo-Café bike being constructed and tested).
Describing his creation, Andrew says: “When stepping aboard Cyclo-Café, you should immediately feel like you are sitting at the counter of a French café or boulangerie. The colours and arrangement intentionally match the French flag and the canopy imitates French boutiques and table covers. The entire experience is aimed at ‘living Paris together’ with all the beautiful sights, sounds, feelings and tastes. A favourite Parisian past-time is to enjoy a picnic outdoors with friends and family in front of a historical monument with fresh, French artisanal products. Cyclo-Café affords the opportunity of all the above with the unique aspect of a bit of sport, music and tons of laughter.”
Once the bike had been designed and put into production, Andrew’s biggest challenge came with finding a suitable parking space to house the enormous Cyclo-Café bike. Andrew elaborates: “Parking in Paris? Hard enough for a moped or scooter so imagine finding a place big enough for an elephant? I hired someone to walk the streets of Paris, knocking on doors and calling agencies for six months!”
As with all storybook heroes, Andrew refused to give up, and after finding a parking solution and with another six months of redrawing business plans and finances, Andrew got his fairy-tale ending and was finally able to launch his extraordinary Cyclo-Café.
He says of the experience: “Starting and incorporating a business in France would require an encyclopaedia volume. An expat entrepreneur has a unique perspective. My ability to learn and adapt is second to none. I possess a natural ability to warm to people and, although a huge procrastinator, once a commitment is made I will stop at nothing. Thirty years of French social policies have rendered a large part of the French population unable to see the ‘big picture’ and dream big. But like a true American, I would prefer to ‘jump into something’ and figure it out later, rather than not jump at all.
“When I look back, I chuckle to myself. It actually worked. All the hoops and ladders, red tape, flops and follies. This avant-garde project is actually here in Paris.”
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