When the Netherlands ended up in a lock-down in mid-March after the press conference with Prime Minister Rutte and the Minister of Health, the train to growth in which start-up Woon Duurzaam was riding came to a screeching halt. The shock was enormous, says Rense van Dijk, founder of Woon Duurzaam, looking back on the eventful months behind him.

“We had money until November this year and were in the process of carrying out assignments for the energy-efficient, climate-proofing of houses with a year of construction from the 1,930 contracts that had already been signed. There were about ten of them. But from one day to the next, not a single new assignment came in. Turnover fell by about 85 percent.”

Tough growth scenario

This meant a steep drop in the growth scenario which Woon Duurzaam, which means “residential sustainable,” had calculated. And it wasn’t able to count on much support from the state at the time, either. That income support applied to companies with turnover that was the same or higher than this year. “But we are a start-up and are growing every year. At least that was the expectation. We now have more assignments and more staff than last year. On the basis of last year’s turnover, which was lower than it should be this year, we do not receive any support.”

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In the meantime, the company kept going. To reduce costs, Van Dijk made a deal with the landlord who offered all his tenants a 3/4 reduction in their rent next year. With the Rabobank he also agreed to postpone the repayment of the loan for his company. Marketing plans to record videos about Woon Duurzaam’s product, for example, were shelved for the time being.

Weeks of quotes and no contracts

“Meanwhile, the commercial team continued to work as usual. People still came to us for quotes via the website, e-mail, and one of our contract partners for heat pumps, Vaillant. That was quite remarkable. Except that not a single signed quotation came back.”

The question in those quiet months of the lockdown was, of course, whether those e-mails and calls from homeowners about making their premises more sustainable were a sign of things to come. Would consumers start thinking about their houses when they were working at home? “You also saw that they went to DIY stores en masse,” says Van Dijk. “I do think that working from home has had an impact on interest in our company.”

But hindsight is always 20/20. “In June, after the government announced a relaxation of corona restrictions in a press conference allowing catering establishments and gyms, among others, to reopen, our mailbox overflowed with assignments. Suddenly about fifty signed contracts came in. Turnover was once again pouring in. That was truly unimaginable. It really took a load off my mind. I didn’t expect it to turn out like this.”

InnoEnergy called after the press conference

So far, it seems that Woon Duurzaam is one of the start-ups that will get through the corona crisis with flying colors. But did Van Dijk expect that in advance? “I never really thought we would go under. We’ve had a lot of support from our investors since the crisis erupted.”

The first person to call him was Jacob Ruiter, CEO of investor EIT InnoEnergy in Eindhoven, an investment vehicle of the European Commission and private investors including Kees Koolen. “Ruiter called a week after the first press conference to ask how things were going. He said they would develop a plan and were looking for money to invest in start-ups if necessary. After that, we went through our crisis scenarios with him and the start-up supervisors of InnoEnergy, Alexander Goos and Raymond Meeuwsen. This included a negative scenario, but also a rosier one that we are now experiencing. We also talked to the business coach that InnoEnergy provides for all the start-ups in which they invest. He had a kind of crisis handbook that contains points you should go through in a crisis. We used that to reduce short-term costs by postponing payments for rent and loans, for example.”

Uncertainty was scary

“At a later stage, the state came up with a corona bridging loan (COL), which we also took out. That is an amount of €240,000 at 3% interest, a favorable rate. Normally interest rates are much higher.”

So even at the low point for Woon Duurzaam, Van Dijk, who calls the period of total uncertainty “scary,” still had a foundation of solid ground under his feet. Due to the upturn in the market for Woon Duurzaam and the measures he has taken, it is now up and running, it seems. “We have nothing to complain about now, but you don’t know how the market will develop this autumn. Will the corona support stop soon? How many companies will go bankrupt and how many people will lose their jobs? We’ll all have to wait and see.”

Sustainability still a necessity

On the other hand, there is – eventually one day – the prospect of a vaccine against corona, and the obligation of the European member states to make their properties energy-efficient and climate-proof. This is one of the pillars of the Green Deal of European Commissioner Frans Timmermans. If they don’t do so, they won’t succeed in halving CO2 emissions by 2030 as agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement. You can also see that the Dutch government is providing subsidies to consumers who want to make their homes more sustainable. That is a positive sign.

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