“I wanted to try a different pace of life.”
What work were you doing previously?
I was a housing manager in Social Housing, managing a team of housing officers and doing strategic planning.
What are you doing now?
I’m now an alpaca farmer and accommodation owner in France with my husband, Will.
Why did you change?
We were at the end of the weird summer of 2020, with prolonged pandemic lockdowns and closed bars and restaurants.
Will was working for a large wines and spirits company, selling to (now closed) bars and restaurants, and found himself in a Covid-induced redundancy.
I was plodding along in my job that whilst I was good at, I didn’t love. My job was a salary to me really, something that helped fund our lifestyle.
We saw Will’s redundancy as an opportunity. The prospects of Will finding a new job was a little daunting, so we looked to self-employment options.
One thing led to another….
When was the moment you decided to make the change?
Will had floated the idea to me of moving to France and starting a new life.
It started as a joke (to me, Will was serious) on a Friday night. By Monday morning, I logged on to work from home and had a typically frustratingly busy day, when a pile of unexpected issues landed on my desk.
That’s when I knew I wanted to try a different pace of life.
How did you choose your new career?
We’ve always wanted an outdoor business mixed with our lifestyle.
We spoke about fishing lakes with coffee lodges, nature lodges in Scotland and other dreams before, all unobtainable when we looked further into it.
Then we fell in love with alpacas. Completely unknown to us before, seeing their popularity and their charming characters, we spent some time with some and were hooked immediately.
Are you happy with the change?
We work harder than ever before. Even if the farm is closed and we have no guests in the accommodation, there are no complete days off without emails, phone calls or social media work.
However, it makes us so happy and proud to see what we’ve been able to achieve, once we took the leap.
We love meeting new people, helping people discover alpacas and have the best experiences at our farm.
It’s a far cry from dreading being customer-facing in previous roles. We’ve surprised ourselves at how satisfying and fun it is.
What do you miss and what don't you miss?
We miss some of the British culture, guaranteed monthly salaries, friends and family living a short distance away, and take aways at the touch of a button.
We don’t miss having a garden the size of a postage stamp, never seeing each other due to conflicting work schedules and different days off, daily traffic on the roads, and the stresses of working for large faceless companies that leads to poor mental health.
How did you go about making the shift?
We jumped straight in.
We sold up fully in the UK and bought our farm in France.
The shift involved a lot of research, writing a business plan, and asking for help. We hired a hand-holder who completed paperwork to get our businesses registered, set us up in the healthcare system in France and advised us on setting up bank accounts etc.
How did you develop (or transfer) the skills you needed for your new role?
I think every job and experience we had in every job we’ve had since we were 14 helped us; customer service, retail work, management, project work, etc.
We did several days training to learn how to look after alpacas with the highest welfare standards, and made great relationships to lean on for future help and advice too.
What didn’t go well? What wrong turns did you take?
We had a struggle with planning permission which led to a delayed start to the accommodation, which was half of the business plan.
We didn’t start the planning permission process soon enough – we should have started before we even completed on our purchase, rather than three months after that!
This was sorted a few months after we’d planned, but it did mean that during that time we could focus on the customer experience part of the business.
How did you handle your finances to make your shift possible?
Being in the middle of Covid with no firm end date for travel restrictions and lockdowns, we made sure we had enough funds to live on comfortably for a year, whilst investing in the new business.
What was the most difficult thing about changing?
For us, it would have to be the language.
Our French has gotten better and better over time, but still now, what you don’t know you don’t know and that can be frustrating.
What help did you get?
We made great friends with fellow alpaca farms and they gave us invaluable help, in times when we were feeling a little bit overwhelmed.
We also had help from some friends who’d made the move themselves, for local help and help on regulations.
What have you learnt in the process?
That you have to try to achieve your dreams, or you could regret it forever.
What do you wish you'd done differently?
There were a few purchases (equipment, furniture, fencing) that we rushed before researching, probably because we were too excited to get stuck in.
I would have preferred to research a little more into quality and think about our requirements before committing too soon.
What would you advise others to do in the same situation?
Research your area, know who is around you and the tourism rate.
We know others who have done something similar but struggled with footfall.
Speak with a consultant / handholder to see what you need to achieve your change.
Make sure you’re financially stable somehow, as change (even when the most happy and exciting change) is stressful, so you don’t need any other stresses around.
To find out more about Sophie’s business, visit www.lapetitefermedalpagas.com.
What lessons could you take from Sophie's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.