Tips for Starting an Online Business in France

Despite its relatively small population, at least compared to global behemoths such as China, India, and the United States, France is an economic powerhouse

Despite its relatively small population, at least compared to global behemoths such as China, India, and the United States, France is an economic powerhouse. In fact, France’s economy grew by an average of about 1.3% in 2019, according to the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (Insee). As the global economic environment is deteriorating overall, consumption in France remains steady while “purchasing power and employment are dynamic.”

Today, the French business landscape includes brick-and-mortar locations as well as online companies. And of course, French-based companies are increasingly conducting business utilizing both internet-based and in-person channels and methods. However, the opportunity to start a business in France is only available for those with a residence permit or who are native citizens of the EU. If you’re a French citizen or recent expat who wants to get in on the action, there are several things you need to know before diving into the realm of online business.

Of course, every potential entrepreneur should have at least a basic grasp of relevant legal requirements and bylaws, to ensure that your business runs smoothly. But running a business in France may be more complex than meets the eye; for instance, there are numerous societal norms that are unique to France and French culture. These factors should come into consideration as you create a business plan, brand image, and digital presence that will attract your target audience without alienating them.

Regarding Laws, Structure, and Culture

No matter where you are in the world, the first and most crucial step when starting up a new business is developing a solid business plan. A business plan allows for transparency and should provide a breakdown of your mission statement and details about how you’ll run your business. Your business plan will also help you clarify the company structure of your business, which will ultimately determine the bylaws you will be required to adhere to.

In France, there are three primary types of company structure: Branch, SAS, and SARL. If you already have an existing business in another country and want to expand into France, you will open a branch. A joint partnership between a French business and a foreign company is classified as an SAS. If you’re building a company from scratch and don’t have foreign partners, you’ll likely be running a SARL, which is essentially like an LLC.

France is home to the Paris Climate Accord, 2015’s eco-centric agreement calling for an end to climate change and the acceleration of global sustainability efforts. Thus, it should come as no surprise that corporate social responsibility is taken very seriously in France. The French Commercial Code, in fact, dictates that all publicly traded companies are required to provide annual environmental reports to the government. The good news for online companies is that your carbon footprint is likely to be much smaller than that of a traditional, brick-and-mortar business.

In addition, online business owners may see lowered insurance rates since there’s typically no physical storefront to protect. However, online businesses in France are still vulnerable to risks. Online business insurance policies can help protect you and your company in the event of a data breach, a delayed project, and/or product loss or damage.

Societal Norms and Workplace Traditions Unique to France

Punctuality is extremely important in French society, in both social and business settings. Always arrive on time to business meetings, and don’t just “drop in” unannounced. An unannounced visit is considered extremely rude, and you may end up alienating business contacts by committing a similar faux pas. In regards to an online business, the same etiquette applies: If you have an important matter to discuss with a supplier, business partner, or investor, make sure to schedule a meeting or appointment rather than just picking up the phone.

In our modern digital society, having a dynamic social media presence is vital to the existence of any business, no matter its origin. To keep your customers engaged, publish periodic blog posts that are well-written, helping you to stand out as an industry leader. Further, lively social media posts provide an ideal channel to share those articles, as well as new product or sales announcements.

In France specifically, demonstrating both emotional and cultural knowledge when posting on your company’s social media accounts can help you reach and retain a diverse customer base. According to Western Governors University, cultural intelligence is key to building trust, both in the workplace and on a business level. Strategy, knowledge, and action are just a few of the underlying traits among those with cultural intelligence, and they may prove invaluable when it comes to customer retention.

Language Considerations for Your Online Business

Speaking of your online business presence, what should you use as your website’s primary language? When it comes to reaching the largest possible customer base, consider whether French text is the best choice for the web pages of your online business. If you look at the data, a website in English may actually help bring in more customers from across the world.

English is the third most common native language spoken in the world, but when those who speak English as a second language are factored in, it climbs to the top overall spot. Data from Babel Magazine puts the total number of English speakers across the globe at 1.132 billion. That number significantly surpasses the 280 million people who speak French, either as a native or second language.

No matter which language you ultimately choose for your online business, make sure to do your research before investing in or starting a French company. Perhaps you’re looking to enter the online wine market in France, which brought in an estimated 1.5 billion in 2016. Or maybe your French-based business idea involves handcrafted goods, designer clothes, or digital content. No matter the product or service you aspire to provide, starting an online business in France begins with a business plan and a basic knowledge of cultural expectations.


Guest Post by Devin Morrissey