Three years ago, things were different. I didn’t know any French, I didn’t have a business, and I didn’t have a job.
I had just quit a great job in Singapore to start my own company. My partner was starting her master’s in Paris and told me to come stay. So I packed up everything, shipped some of it to my mom in New York, and hopped on a flight to CDG.
Around this time, French President Macron released an iconic video as part of the Make Our Planet Great Again campaign. He told scientists, researchers, and innovators from around the world to come to France. I was supposed to be an innovator now. My ears perked up.
“Your new homeland” it said. It continued: “Entrepreneurs and skilled employees from all over the world, France is made for you!”
Made for me, huh? Okay, I’ll bite.
A few clicks later I found myself reading about the French Tech Visa, a visa scheme that awards founders of tech companies a visa for four years to live and start their business in France.
This seemed like the ultimate three-birds-one-stone: I would get to start my company, be with my partner, and live in effing Paris—learning French, discussing philosophy, eating croissants, whatever else people do in Paris. Life sorted for the next few years! Right?
In retrospect, I was right about the big stuff: starting the company, living with my partner, learning French, and the croissants (oh oui).
But it did not come easy. I learned a ton. I am incredibly grateful that it worked out. There were many moments when it almost didn’t. Through a combination of luck, hustle, privilege, and the kindness of others, I am where I am today: running my own business, living in France with my partner, speaking French, eating croissants, and looking back on it all muttering putain in happy disbelief.
Looking back too, I’m struck by how little information there was out there for people in my situation. I kept finding out critical information through chance conversations—and I’d done my research. I started thinking that the whole process should be a lot more transparent.
I’ve since had conversations with several people who were considering this path. So I decided to write down some of it to help others who are thinking about coming to France to start their company.
If that’s you, here are the basics of what you need to know. The challenge generally breaks down into 1) the visa, 2) the business, and 3) the language and culture.
(If you’re really serious about this, I’m writing a complete guide to the French Tech Visa which you can preorder here.)
First: the visa
The first step to getting the French Tech Visa for founders is to look at this list of incubators.
These incubators are all partnered with the French government to support foreign founders. The kind of support varies, but your goal is to find one that can offer you the visa.
One week, I decided I would do this. So I came up with a startup idea, made a pitch deck, website, and email address, and started sending emails. I reached out to probably 30 of these and had conversations with about 10 until it got down to 2-3 that seemed promising.
I just found the deck I made in Canva. It was an employee engagement app called Purpose, Go! (I know right?).
I ended up on the phone with Schoolab in Paris, who said they liked my idea and told me to come in to meet the team. I met them, did a tour, and got offered a spot. It cost me €650 a month for their 6 month program, including the visa, access to the community of startups and mentors, and office space. I took the deal.
Fees vary by incubator, but overall you’ll need around €5,000 in the bank to pay for the incubator program plus taxes and fees in the application process.
Then, you’ll need to prove that you have money equal to the French minimum wage (€18,254.60 in 2019). I didn’t have this. Instead, you can find someone who does have this kind of money to be your “guarantor”. The visa office will accept it as long as that person signs a letter saying they will support you if needed while you’re in France.
Once you get into the incubator, they will help you apply to get your three-page business proposal approved by the relevant government agency. They even helped me translate mine into French. It takes a couple of months, but once you have that approval letter, you are on the fast track for a four year visa.
There are differences by country, but being a US citizen, I had to go back to my home consulate in New York to complete the visa process.
I arrived in France in August, started the incubator in September, and didn’t get my provisional visa until February… So that gives you an idea.
Second: the business
Once I was in the incubator, the next challenge arose: What the hell was I going to do with this business?
For about two solid months I worked on Purpose, Go! alongside various client projects to keep some money coming in. I networked hard in the HR tech world in Paris and got to know some interesting people. But it became clear that these relationships were not going anywhere—and without relationships, I had no hope of selling into businesses.
So I started spending more time with a friend I’d made in the program, Buddhika, who was working on a VR fitness company. When it became clear my thing wasn’t going to work (and they were struggling a bit too), we started talking in earnest about partnering up. Becoming co-founders.
So I started to work with them on the VR fitness idea. It was clear it was going to take a while to mature into something that could make money, so we looked around for income sources. One of our friends in the program needed an app built, so we decided to go into software development. That’s what led to our real French company.
We started out as individual micro-entrepreneurs, since it’s super easy to get started and get paid legally through that status. Eventually, we opened up a SAS entity in what seemed like an extremely painful and expensive process. It didn’t need to be.
The perfect time to start a SAS (the equivalent of a US Corporation) is when you’re building something you want to raise money for at some point. We wanted to keep our options open, so we did that.
Many small businesses start as SARL entities (rough equivalent of a US LLC) instead, since taxes are lower but fundraising ability is null.
Whatever you choose, the most important (and most difficult) thing is to find a way to actually get paid in the first place. French business is highly networked, even more so than the US, which means that people like to only do business with people they have a relationship with. So investing in building relationships is the number one most important thing you can do for the success of your French business.
Speaking of which…
Third: the language
To build relationships with people, you will need some level of French. It’s certainly possible to only run in circles where you can speak English, don’t get me wrong. But you will miss opportunities if you’re constrained by language.
One of the first places you may run into this problem is when looking for an incubator. Schoolab, for instance, has since shrunk or canceled their English-language programming since I was there because it was too difficult to maintain programs in two languages (and they couldn’t get everyone to switch over to English).
So how do you learn French quickly, cheaply, and effectively?
This is exactly what I tried to do, being hyper-conscious that my runway was dwindling with each passing month. Here was my rough language-learning regimen that got me conversational in about 6 months:
- Start out with cheap private lessons through iTalki. You can spend $10-15 an hour for a junior teacher to talk with you and teach you core grammar principles and vocab.
- Listen to French podcasts constantly. This is key to improving comprehension. Read the transcript along if you can. My favorites at the beginning were Le Journal en Français Facile from RFI, Learn French by Podcast, and Coffee Break French. Now I love La Story by Les Echos, A bientôt de te revoir, and many more.
- Read French news and blogs. Focus on what you’re interested in. I’m interested in technology and startups so I would read Maddyness.
- Get grammar lessons from YouTube. My hands-down favorite here is Learn French with Alexa. She explains even the advanced concepts so clearly.
- And of course, take every opportunity to talk to real people! Having friends who are willing to suffer through your awful French (and laugh at you a bit, yes) is one of the things that will accelerate your learning the most. Go to events you find on Facebook. Take a dance class. Get out there. The more uncomfortable you are with your language ability, the more motivated you will be to learn faster.
There’s also the culture to get used to, but maybe we’ll save that one for another post.
It’s wild that I’m coming up on three years in France. It has been an adventure. Hopefully some of this will help others navigating this for the first time.
If you liked this story and you want to stay in touch, follow me on Twitter.
- Step-by-step instructions on how to obtain your French Tech Visa
- The full list of documents you’ll need
- The full timeline of how long you can expect it to take
- The full set of visa-related costs you’ll face
- Step-by-step guidance on creating your French business entity (Micro-entrepreneur, SAS and SARL)
- Important information on taxes, insurance, employment, and liability
- Opening a personal and business bank account and getting paid
- How to market and sell your product/service in France
- How to learn French quickly, cheaply and effectively
- and more
This guide is a collection of all the resources I wish I had when I was first starting down the path to starting my business in France. It’s designed to help you succeed faster and better than I did.