Get All Access for $5/mo

This Founder Used His Last Pounds to Buy a French-English Dictionary. Last Year, His Company Raised £1.2 Million. Determination and resilience, this entrepreneur went from homeless to successful business owner.

By Xavier Bernal Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Europe, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


Almost 14 years have passed since I first arrived in London, a wide-eyed 20-year-old unable to speak a word of English but full of youthful bravado.

I wanted to prove myself after leaving all my family and friends behind in France. My eyes lit up when I saw people driving expensive cars and going out enjoying themselves, and I knew I wanted to be like them. But, within 24 hours of arriving, I abruptly discovered how vulnerable I was.

My first night was spent in a squat where everything I owned, apart from the clothes I was wearing, a £20 note and a DVD, was stolen by a stranger who'd befriended me. He was the only person I knew in London and had disappeared into the night.

Unable to speak the language, totally isolated and having no access to money, I became one of the 300,000 homeless people in Britain and lived rough. I started sleeping in Hyde Park, on night buses and when desperate braved other squats. It was a lonely and frightening winter.

But, my desire to succeed hadn't diminished. Determined to master the English language, I spent my last few pounds and bought a French-English dictionary. In retrospect, it was the best purchase I've ever made.

After three cold and desperate months, I was referred to the youth homeless charity Centrepoint. It helped me find accommodation and got me back on track. With a roof over my head and armed with my trusty dictionary, I began to grasp English.

The next step was getting a job. I started selling wallets in London's iconic Camden Market and to my surprise I discovered I was good at sales. After six months, I set up my own stalls and began to hire workers -- now that I could speak the language, my confidence had returned and I was making money. My career as an entrepreneur had begun.

After a while I needed a new challenge, so I sold my business and began working with the rich and famous at two London nightclubs. Starting as a waiter, a series of promotions found myself working directly with celebrities with the task of making sure they spent money -- lots of money. Again, I found I was good at the work, and even managed to return to the south of France, spending several summers working in similar clubs.

On the surface life was good -- I was well paid, enjoying life, going to lavish parties on yachts and meeting the rich and famous. But, as corny as it may sound, I wanted to do something more meaningful.

Here are a few lessons I learned as I finally launched a business I believed in:

1. Just how enthusiastic and determined are you?

Long hours await you as you grow your business so you'll need to find an idea you're passionate about for it to be a success.

My first idea was to run a take-away chicken franchise business in France. I was proud of my idea, but knowing that it was very ambitious I'd done my market research and even had funding in place, but ultimately my mother helped me to change my mind. She made me realize I wasn't passionate enough about the business to make it a success and that I was only thinking about making money rather than doing something worthwhile. I also came to the realization that money did not make me happy.

The much better idea for Findoc came after a friend unfortunately broke a tooth. Frustratingly, we couldn't find any useful online information about local London dentists -- let alone a service that allowed you to make a real-time booking.

This was my lightbulb moment -- Findoc was born.

2. Listen to experts and be aware that your idea may need additional work.

Determined to succeed, I went to networking events and workshops and realized the importance of testing my fledgling idea before proceeding with the next stage of development.

Inevitably your original bright idea will evolve as you work to build it to scale -- there's no shame in accepting the advice and input from those with relevant experience.

3. "No strings" philanthropy does exist.

While I was lucky enough to have some savings, like all startups money was tight. So, 18 months ago we entered a Virgin Media Business award and much to our joy 24,000 people chose us for the Public Choice Award. Our win provided us with a small but timely injection of cash -- and also helped raise the profile of our fledgling business.

There are schemes around that will offer you much needed help and advice that will assist you in the fledgling stages of your business.

4. You can't afford to be "precious."

Being mindful of our cash flow, we took a low-tech approach to marketing and walked the streets of London to cold call potential clients.

Along with my friend and business partner Sylvain Vuillen, we mapped every private health practice in central London. We walked over 600 miles knocking on their doors, asking what booking system they used and whether they'd be interested in trialing Findoc.

If you want your startup to succeed, everyone -- including founders -- must get stuck in. Not only will it save money, you'll get a realistic view of your product and the market you want to enter.

5. By being creative, it is possible to avoid expensive recruitment agencies.

As Findoc began to grow, I realized I needed to improve my tech knowledge and recruit some staff. I regularly attended weekend-long hackathons in London to both learn about coding and as a means of finding people I wanted to hire.

If your startup is tech-focused, sadly you'll be competing with hundreds of others for skilled and experienced coders. A DIY approach to recruitment not only cuts costs -- it also helps you to get to know what your soon-to-be-employee is really like.

As we've expanded, so too has the need for additional funding. We recently completed a £1.2m investment round, enabling us to enter 2018 perfectly positioned for growth.

My life has changed dramatically over the last few years -- but I believe that my experience of being broke and homeless taught me how to overcome challenges and prepared me for hard work.

Hopefully things will never be as desperate for me again. The experiences and lessons I've learned along the way have made me even more determined to succeed. But, I know I wouldn't be where I am now without the amazing support I've been fortunate enough to have had on my journey.

Xavier Bernal

Founder and Chief Executive of Findoc

Xavier Bernal is the founder and chief executive of Findoc, an online booking platform for healthcare professionals. Founded in London, the startup is enjoying rapid growth with the site handling around 10,000 bookings a month.
Business News

Apple Reportedly Isn't Paying OpenAI to Use ChatGPT in iPhones

The next big iPhone update brings ChatGPT directly to Apple devices.

Business News

Sony Pictures Entertainment Purchases Struggling, Cult-Favorite Movie Theater Chain

Alamo Drafthouse originally emerged from bankruptcy in June 2021.

Money & Finance

Day Traders Often Ignore This One Topic At Their Peril

Boring things — like taxes — can sometimes be highly profitable.


Are Your Business's Local Listings Accurate and Up-to-Date? Here Are the Consequences You Could Face If Not.

Why accurate local listings are crucial for business success — and how to avoid the pitfalls of outdated information.

Business Ideas

63 Small Business Ideas to Start in 2024

We put together a list of the best, most profitable small business ideas for entrepreneurs to pursue in 2024.


Want to Be More Productive Than Ever? Treat Your Personal Life Like a Work Project.

It pays to emphasize efficiency and efficacy when managing personal time.