Paul McIntyre and Penelope didn’t just fall in love with Italy when they moved to the country six years ago. They also fell in love with each other.
Paul had come over to start a fitness business as he was fed up with the weather in his native Scarborough and to leave his damp proofing and plastering company. Penny had come to Italy for a rest from her busy IT job in London, which involved a lot of travelling. Paul’s plans for the fitness business had to be put on hold while he tackled a three-year renovation project with his ex-partner, which took him from 2004 to 2007. Penny, in the meantime, was busy working as a translator for a Le Marche real estate agent and picking up invaluable information and contacts that would stand them in good stead later on.
After Paul and Penny got together they bought a house in the town of Amandola, Le Marche and began thinking again about Paul’s business idea. They decided that they would have to revise Paul’s original plan and settled on the idea of renting bikes to tourists staying in the area. This seemed very promising - there was no bike holiday business at all in their part of Le Marche. Either they were filling a gap in the market or there was no competition for a reason - but it was a risk they were willing to take.
‘The initial idea was to provide accommodation too,’ says Penny. ‘But to keep things simple, we decided to focus on the bike rental side of things.’ The couple knew a commercialista who helped them set up the business, Sibillini Cycling, in 2007 with Paul as the sole proprietor in what is known as an ‘attività individuale’ – like a sole trader in the UK. They advertised using Google adwords. ‘That brought us quite a lot of business,’ says Penny ‘and we leafleted a lot of the local B&B’s and agriturismi too. We thought they would be the main source of our business - tourists on holiday who fancied some cycling.’ As it turned out, they had things the wrong way round. ‘We discovered that people were booking the bikes with us first and then asking us to help them find accommodation,’ explains Penny. ‘And so we developed from simply bike hire into a company offering cycling holidays, short breaks, day trips and so on.’
Last year the couple opened a bike hire shop to attract passing trade and although the business was building nicely, they were becoming increasingly concerned about the way the company was set up. ‘From talking to our Italian friends it was clear that an attività individuale was actually a pretty bad idea,’ says Paul. ‘Our business is really only busy for four to six months a year and yet I was liable to some pretty hefty taxes including an INPS payment of €2700 a year. It meant that we would never be able to clear a profit.’ The solution was to set up as a sporting association, which would allow them lots of tax advantages including being able to bill their own association for services provided. ‘So we are now in the process of closing the first business and reopening as a sporting association,’ explains Paul. Do they blame their commercialista? ‘There were faults on both sides,’ says Penny. ‘As an Italian he assumed we knew all kinds of things about the way things work here that we actually didn’t. And we didn’t ask the right questions, because we didn’t know which questions to ask.’ What would their advice be to others thinking of setting up a business from scratch as they did? ‘Talk to people in the same line of business who have already done it,’ says Paul. ‘Learn from their experience and mistakes. If you can’t meet them in person then call them or talk online. Some people may not want to share the information, but many others will. I know I would give people advice quite happily if they asked me.’ Another thing they would advise is to choose a well frequented tourist area if you are going to set up a tourist oriented business. ‘We are seriously thinking of leaving Le Marche,’ says Penny, ‘simply because it is not well known enough. We spend half our time selling the area to people instead of selling our cycling holidays. People have just never heard of Le Marche!’
Where are the couple thinking of moving to? ‘Liguria,’ says Penny. ‘And another piece of advice I would give to people coming to Italy is to find a good estate agent that you trust – I would always use an Italian one – and get them to find your house for you. That’s what we will be doing. Brits and Italians buy houses in completely different ways. Brits window shop. Italians go to their agent, tell them what they are looking for and then the agent finds it for them, even if it is in a completely different area.’ So in effect start using your Italian estate agent as a property finder or a US realtor? ‘Exactly,’ says Penny.
Penny and Paul won’t be relocating just yet as they are expecting their first baby in a few months time, and Penny is at the moment having a battle with the local Ascoli Piceno health authority who are unilaterally trying to stop foreign residents having access to free health care. This could make you suppose that the couple might have some regrets about moving to Italy, but you would be mistaken. ‘We have absolutely no regrets whatsoever,’ says Penny. ‘Having lived in Italy I could never go back to the UK.’