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We’ve succeeded by filling new niche

It is often claimed that there is a lack of entrepreneurial spirit in France.

In a new series, we interview inspirational business people who prove this wrong.

By Oliver Rowland

JEAN-BENOIT Durand founded Normandy-based La Petite Boîte in 2004. It specialises in books and other material for children about the French regions. His turnover grew 55% last year, to more than half a million euros, with publications covering 15 regions.

Did you realise there was a lack of this material?

Yes, it didn’t exist. There were national editors of children’s books, but none sought out regional specialities. We talk about things like castles, but also, for example, recipes. Cooking books for children didn’t really exist. We wanted to make high-quality little books, with reliable text and fun presentation, with lots of illustrations and photos. They are written by journalists specialising in children’s writing and the text is reread by a subject expert. I don’t just sell them in bookshops, but go to museums, tourist sites, tourism offices, souvenir shops etc, so we target tourists passing through.

Do you have plans for the remaining regions?

We would like to cover all 22 eventually; and we will continue to bring out a lot of books and party games as well as communications material for children, like visitors’ guides. We also do English-language material, like books about William the Conqueror or the Normandy Landings. When we do little visitors’ booklets for children to fill in, museums often ask for English versions of those as well. Our party games are also in both languages.

How did you start up?

I did several things before – journalism, illustrating, and philosophy studies, then decided to work for myself. I had no preconceptions that it would be difficult and I had enthusiasm. Straight away I made use of specialists.

I planned the project with an accountancy firm so I would not have to worry about the money side, or how to hire - contracts and salaries etc. That is all done out of house, so I can concentrate on creating concepts and products.

Did you have financial help?

I started with my own money, but then I won several prizes to help with business set-up. There was one from the Salon des Micro-Entreprises in Paris, €7,500, and the Concours Talents, where I won first prize in Normandy, and then a national one, around €10,000, and then a development prize which winners could compete for a few years later. So that helped and was motivating, because professionals believe in your idea, and it reassures bankers. I went to see the banks two years ago, when I wanted to branch into books for other regions.

I wanted to do a lot of books at the same time and I needed to pay for them before getting money from sales. My bank was timid and didn’t want to help, but the Crédit Agricole believed straight away in the idea and wanted to give me more money than I was asking for. You often hear “banks don’t lend, it’s difficult” but that wasn’t my experience.

What’s your firm’s status?

It’s a limited company (Sarl).

What challenges did you face when starting?

The commercial side was difficult. I thought you just had to make nice products. But at the start it was hard because parents, children, teachers all said the books were great when we showed them to them, but no one knew them.

How did you deal with that?

I spent a lot of time going to meet people and instead of being timid, started taking on staff to develop the firm, with very competent graphics people and journalists and an experienced marketing person, who helped find a lot of customers. A lot of firms complain about social charges and set-up costs etc but the hardest thing was putting together a good team.

How did you go about that?

It’s something I’ve focused on, and no one has left so far. I picked people with a passion for the children’s sector, because we are a real niche firm, and I give the teams a lot of autonomy, which I think is motivating. I come up with new concepts and give general outlines, but there’s a team that does the day-to-day work from A to Z.

I learned to delegate because at the start I was doing everything and wanted to control everything. I’m also very flexible, I don’t mind if people come in a bit late or leave early, or go to the doctor’s, if the work is good quality. We have a good atmosphere, we eat a lot of sweets, we have breakfasts and every two years we go for a two-day seminar where we look at what we’ve achieved and think how we can do better.

How did you grow the firm?

I chose to stay in Normandy, and work with freelancers in each region to do the texts. Layouts and photo research are done in-house. I made a partnership with local newspaper group Ouest France to help with marketing. They are specialised in the regions and know the tourist sites.

So, you think would-be entrepreneurs should not be put off by people who say its too hard and bureaucratic?

Yes, it’s not the real problem – the main thing is to find customers and to have a good team. You can always find specialists to help with the formalities. In the development phase you learn bit by bit to use management tools, performance indicators etc. I learned some accounting and how to read a balance sheet, but that’s not the first priority.

Obviously we’d all like to pay fewer social charges, but I don’t like to focus on that. However, what does seem unfair, is how very large firms pay three times less tax than small businesses because they can make use of tax breaks, have foreign subsidiaries etc.

One could imagine various things that would help, like an exoneration of charges for the first people you take on. It would be more useful than all the measures for certain groups, like seniors or youths or unemployed people. We seek a skillset, not a specific age. I never qualify for help because the person never ticks the right boxes. Big firms that take on thousands a year will benefit most.

Do you have any other tips?

Get help, in particular talk to your chamber of commerce. If possible have a parrain (business mentor).

Recently I was at a chamber committee meeting where we were trying to help a start-up to have a regional council grant, and I was asked if I would be a mentor.

I’ll meet him regularly for three years to see how his business is progressing. It’s good, when you are working like mad seven days a week, to take stock like that. I didn’t do it, but regretted it.

There are also lots of monthly clubs for business owners to meet and to feel less alone.

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