Rags to riches: how one expat made good in France

Rags to riches: how one expat made good in France

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France is full of entrepreneurial Brits these days. But not so in 1992 when Paul Herbert arrived, penniless, except for that house in the Dordogne. Here, this expat online entrepreneur explains how he turned his finances around in France and his tips

Expat Tales are real-life stories on making the move to France and learning to thrive here. We hope these stories will provide tips and help make connections among our readers. 

Most people move abroad as a matter of choice, either to further their careers or to seek a better way of life.

The Brits heading over now usually arrive with cash in their pockets, thinking there is easy money to be made in the burgeoning expat markets and knowing there is an established network of expat support. Most of them arrive well prepared for the challenges and with solid experience in their chosen field.

Yet many still fail to establish themselves and return home.

My family's story

My arrival in France in 1992 was not by choice, at least not my first choice. I had a total of £700 in cash, three young children, my wife, no 'transportable' skills and absolutely no idea on how we were going to survive.

Here's my story of how I remade a successful work and personal life in France anyway.

Back in the late 1980s, I was at the top of my career in sales and marketing. I thought I had the Midas touch: a good income, holiday homes in the UK and France, a property portfolio and various business interests. I thought then I could retire at 40.

But one fatal decision to sue a bank, unsuccessfully, coinciding with the stock market crash and the property slump and we lost everything.

Except the house in France.

Paul and Julia Herbert moved to France nearly thirteen years ago. The early years were hard and beset with problems. Now they head up France's largest holiday accommodation network, France One Call

Our friends all thought I was mad — but I could not face living in rented accommodation and trying to start again in the UK. So I ran away to this house in France, mostly to hide and lick my wounds.

Survival in the middle of the Dordogne was no easy task. Putting food on the table was a day-to-day battle. Cleaning, gardening, painting, nothing was too menial if it paid money or logs for the fire or anything else we needed.

The strength to continue came from my wife and my young children —then three, six and seven — who adapted amazingly to their new, frugal lifestyle.

But I could see no business opportunities that fit my background and skills. We lived in a semi-rural area, we didn't speak the language and the expat population at that point was still small.

My past success had been tied to the fact that I was in the thick of the business world, intellectually stimulated, living close to other entrepreneurs and investors.

In France, I was isolated and penniless. My only ambition was to feed my family and any motivation to make real money seemed to have disappeared. I convinced myself I was content with my lot.

The light bulb goes on

Then, by chance, some German neighbours asked us to advertise their holiday gîtes for them in the UK press.

Suddenly, we were inundated with calls from holidaymakers, many of whom claimed to have made 40 or 50 calls, trying to find suitable, available accommodation.

The Dordogne was still fairly empty of Brits when we first got here


It was as if someone had just switched the light on. Here were scores of holidaymakers trying to thrust money at me and I was having to turn them away.

Somewhere there had to be holiday homeowners who wanted the enquiries I was suddenly getting.

I couldn't believe there was no central system where holidaymakers could call to find suitable available accommodation. But there wasn't — and so we set up France One Call.

Although we started with nothing more than a ring binder, I immediately realised my business belonged on the internet and we joined forces with a friend, who was developing a searchable database and website. We are now Europe's largest internetwork, a kind of electronic middleman helping accommodation providers to advertise on hundreds of websites with one application.

We're not alone in the market anymore — but we're still here and thriving and today we market ourselves as the Anglo-Franco-Dutch company Where on Earth Group.

What I learned

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Unlike when we first arrived, there are lots of British entrepreneurs in France these days. That means more cultural and practical support, but more competition too.

So here's the part where I sum up what I've learned building your typical 'expat business' from the ground up. 

1) Optimise for Google

Success on the internet is something few experience. If your site is not highly ranked by Google, you don't have a business. As we had a friend with special expertise in this domain, all our sites are built for the search engines and it's a big part of the secret of our success.

2) That 'slow-paced' French lifestyle will have to wait

It hasn't been easy; my wife and I worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day for the first five years.

You may have thought you're coming to France for 'quality of life'. But nothing happens if you do nothing and (just like wherever you came from only more so because you're a foreigner) all results come from hard work and commitment.

Wherever you go, whatever you choose to do, if you are doing it in a foreign country, in a foreign language, you will find it more difficult than you would do at home. Don't fool yourself on this point.

3) Don't combine moving abroad with a major career change.

Don't try to do something you have no experience in.

Too many people decide to start a business abroad in a market they have never worked in before. You must first learn the language, integrate with your neighbours, make yourself known to the local authorities and la mairie; you don't have time to learn a whole new trade.

At the same time, don't try and emulate other businesses; if it's already been done, the market has already been captured and even if you think you can do it better, others think the same.

Be innovative, work out a proper business plan, do your market research, and seek expert advice. Having moved abroad is no excuse for marketing sloppiness.

4) Look to the locals

Don't be too dependent on the local expat community as they come and go, and many a friendly face will be looking to see if their new business can succeed at the expense of yours!

Make the effort and the locals will be just as welcoming and helpful as your fellow Anglophones, but they'll always be around and not be looking for what they can earn off of your effort.

And, by the way, if take all this to heart and come up with a good idea for an Internet-based business, look us up: we may well back it.


December 2005


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