Welcome to the new blog page for Charente Assistance (Charente Assistance Blog Page). As I sat and planned what to write the list was long as there is much to say regarding the areas we cover: home, garden and pool. However I decided my first blog should be a more personal one. One that tells the story of the transition Charente Assistance has made in order to get to where we are now.
Charente Assistance was born in 2015 when I decided to launch a handyman service helping people like myself who needed a helping hand with their projects. Builders are not interested in the small stuff and I was not interested in the big buildings works (not to mention not being qualified nor registered).
Just three months in and Nicki, my wife, decided a change of career was what she needed and rather than continue as a beautician, which she had been doing in France for some years before, she too wanted to be working outdoors. Her epiphany moment came whilst helping me out on an early job in the vines for a local organic cognac distillery.
With us both registered as auto entrepreneur (micro entrepreneur now) we obtained the necessary changes to our registration and off we went. In fact from the very start our work was dominated by garden and pool maintenance with the handyman work hardly coming in at all, so much for that great idea. However with plenty of experience maintaining gardens, we were both in demand and our client base was steadily growing. We were very careful not to claim to be something we were not: all the work we undertook was maintenance, in all three of the areas we cover. Often asked about pool repairs in particular, my answer was consistently “no, that’s not my area”. I will maintain your garden and I will keep your pool water clean and clear but I will not install a new filtration system or a new liner etc.
The business structure in France is much more rigid than in the UK. In the UK the line between sole trader and company is pretty much non existent and growing a business is quite simple. Not in France: auto entrepreneur (AE/ME) is a sole trader and can never be anything else. It’s a great way to start out but, in itself, it prohibits growth. AE/ME also has a ceiling on how much you can earn with the threshold for vat even lower still and this too inhibits business growth. Bizarrely you can earn up to c€70k as an AE/ME but if you reach c€33k you have to declare vat without being able to offset any costs.
As our combined business grew we reached a point in mid 2018 where we were at saturation point. Even though our eldest son, who had just left school, was working with us, we were doing 7 day weeks and getting home late everyday. We were exhausted. Our clients were asking us to do a job and we were having to ask them to wait up to three months. It was untenable and so we decided something had to change….
We were faced with the choice of either expanding the business or losing 20-25% of our clientele and for someone who has been in business for over 20 years this was sacrilege. The problem was, as I started to look at expansion I came across a number of ‘facts’ that told me it was impossible to expand my business. This information was everywhere, on every forum and English spoken information site I could find but it just did not seem to add up, after all there are other business in France.
My first step was to consult an English speaking French business consultant based in Paris who provided some good basic information. Firstly dispelling the idea that employing someone meant the cost was double their pay. Ok, it’s still costly but 42% is better than 100%. First obstacle (sort of) hurdled but what about all the other costs I have been told: Accountant fee: €6000 pa – false; social charges in the first year: €6000 – false; rigid and prohibitive employment laws: false (well, the same as the UK at least).
She also provided excellent explanations as to what avenues I must take in order to expand. Her consultation cost me €100 and it was money well spent. Her parting piece of advise (which to be fair was already a given) was to find myself a good English speaking French accountant and use them. Do not, like so many Brits in France, decide that I could take this project on without any qualified advice.
A friend of ours, who is in the same business, recommended an accountant nearby and off I went to see him. Three hours later I emerged from my free consultation (yes, free) with a head full of ideas and pages and pages of notes. Nicki and I took ourselves off to the coast for the weekend, locked ourselves into an Airbnb rental and planned our future: there was a fork in the road ahead of us, not left or right but, on this occasion backwards or forwards. There was a decision to be be made.
Obviously we took the path of expansion and that is where the work really began. I cannot remember how many visits I made to the accountant’s office but we collectively set about cancelling both mine and Nicki’s AE registration which had to be done by 31 December and it was already October. There would be a month in January where we would be unregistered and then the new Charente Assistance was be born on 1 February. We had chosen a SARL (Ltd company with two shareholders) rather than a EURL (Ltd company with one shareholder) and we were on our way. We had started advertising for our first full time member of staff who would be directly employed and soon found the ideal candidate.
I had had all the information that I needed to make this very informed decision but there was one factor I had not reckoned with. I had momentarily forgotten that this was France and that meant paperwork – and lots of it. The nature of our business means it is quieter between mid November and the end of January but really busy after that. There I was going off to work each morning but I would come home to 3 or 4 emails from the accountant – every day – requiring immediate attention. For a good couple of months I would often still be working at 21h or 22h trying to get the accountant the necessary information whilst all the time translating and trying to understand what was in front of me. I will not lie, on more than one occasion I asked Nicki whether we had done the right thing as it was exhausting. However, after a few weeks, the demand for information subsided until it only became a month end request.
We are 1 year on from that point which is why I write this now. I talk to a lot of other tradesmen and women and I think our adventure has been picked up by a lot of them and I often get asked how things are going. I see a lot of guys struggle keeping up with the demands of a sole trader or husband/wife combo. To me, these peoples’ businesses are crying out for expansion but I also see and hear their hesitation as they too have heard what I had heard. So, were the forums correct? Is it impossible to expand? No. Was it easy and stress free? No. Was it hard work and harder than in the UK? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes, absolutely.
Finally, would I recommend this course of action to others? Yes but with a caveat: seek good advise, get a good accountant and do not be afraid to get them to do a lot of the work, it will be money well invested and most importantly, do it with your eyes open and expect a lot of extra work in the first 6 months. After that though, you will be free to really get going.