It is customary in our society to ask each other "How are you"? When you are an entrepreneur, that question is often accompanied by a question about 'your baby'. "How are you, and how is it at StartDock"? In this time of Corona, not a day goes by that the question is accompanied with an attached assumption: "Gee, how are you and StartDock, you're going to have a hard time"? I would like to give you a glimpse into my head and into our company, as the ultimate manager at StartDock during Corona.
In December 2019 and January 2020, news reports of a virus rippled, first in China and later in other Asian countries. Among our tenants (Dockers), this was frequently discussed as we Dockers do with trends and developments. Within our team of colleagues at the three locations of StartDock, we also discussed these trends and developments on a daily basis. Similarly, this unknown virus passed the revue. Something along the lines of "nothing to worry about" was the conclusion.
Corona in The Netherlands
When the virus reached The Netherlands in mid-February 2020, this sentiment quickly reversed. We thought of all kinds of scenarios in which the opinions and measures from The Hague were rapidly piling up. The run-up to intelligent lockdown #1 was a never before seen scenario, with a hoarding population and panic all over the place. This panic was also there with me as a private individual, with us as entrepreneurs, and with us (the StartDock team) as a company.
As a private individual, citizen and resident of The Netherlands, my questions and concerns did not differ from the society-wide questions, I noticed this in conversations with friends and acquaintances outside my "StartDock circle". As an entrepreneur and as a company, we do, because we rent out office spaces and workplaces to startups, scaleups and freelancers. We estimate the impact of Corona on this customer group. I remember one of my first thoughts was, "Oh God, this is going to hit a lot of growth companies hard." Because many Dockers themselves were very worried about their near future, our fearful feeling was reinforced. For weeks, this has led to sleepless nights for our entire team. The biggest concerns were the concerns about the life's work of our Dockers. With these Dockers, the bond often develops into friendship, or at least good acquaintances, of my colleagues and myself. The involvement is enormous, so fear…fear and question marks prevailed over us as a group of entrepreneurial pioneers. Concerns about what a wave of bankruptcy and downs would mean for StartDock were great.
Lockdown #1 was an outright wrecking ball, arriving hard. It created a stream of emails, calls, WhatsApps and face-to-face conversations, which our team has had with almost every individual Docker at StartDock's three locations. Conversations between fear, hope, sadness, panic, support, impotence and despair eventually led us into a nasty position with StartDock. Because we are the landlord, we noticed that sometimes it was just assumed too quickly that we would pay for the rent. We ourselves raised this problem with our landlords, who had the same thought: "why is your problem suddenly our problem"? We explored the possibilities for government support, but were not eligible for this (luck in an accident). Because we don't have a money tree in our backyard, the fear was unmatched at StartDock. After a difficult period, during which the relationship between StartDock and the Dockers sometimes went from "to each other", we decided to offer ailing Dockers a reprieve. This was also the maximum our landlords could offer us. With this, the mood returned somewhat to normal.
For the first time in our existence, we have then radically reduced our costs, on the advice of our investors and experienced entrepreneurs around us. All marketing cranes closed, trainees were immediately asked to stay at home, food and non-food purchases went to zero and each expense had to pass our CFO Johan first.
A big impact from The Hague was the 1.5-meter rule. At StartDock, the trick is to make the most of square meters, so that as many people as possible can make use of our beautiful buildings and we can keep costs down. In offices this is do-able (our desks are 75cm deep, so exactly 1.5m), however many of our flex spaces and fixed workplaces were not 'Corona-proof'. We solved this by converting empty offices into workplace spaces, which has led to a dip in sales.
Many of our physical tenants of an office room or workplace were able to cope with the impact of Corona, without government support. At StartDock, we saw freelancers and companies that are steadily growing in sectors such as software, hardware, accountancy, e-commerce, real estate, accounting and legal profession. Based purely on an estimate, about 70% of the Dockers seem to be able to handle the impact of Corona (without government support). At the same time, we see companies in sectors such as marketing and communication, events, travel and or training and coaching, going through really tough times.
Besides the fact that many Dockers survive well, there are also many companies from outside StartDock that want to downsize in terms of office space needs. They then end up at StartDock, which keeps the growth of potential new Dockers undiminished. Because our Community Managers Britt and Lois, had quickly resolved the 1.5m issue, the bulk of the Dockers are moving well through Corona and the growth of potential new Dockers remains high, StartDock's occupancy rate of workplaces and office spaces is going well.
On the other hand, with StartDock we rent meeting rooms to municipalities, large SMEs, corporates and NGOs. From moment one, this has been the subject of the entire industry of meeting and event space rentals, and so does us. Whereas in 2019 just over 9% of StartDock's revenue consisted of meeting room rentals, this has fallen to about 2% in 2020. This is not problematic for us.
The announcement of new measures constantly causes feelings of fear to prevail in me and at StartDock. I have enormous respect for entrepreneurs who are reinventing themselves in this day and age and are repositioning themselves through disappointing turnovers.
Unfortunately, there are also many sectors in which this is not possible. We talk a lot about each other here at StartDock. With StartDock we facilitate entrepreneurs, and from their entrepreneurship we get the energy to keep doing what we do. You don't build a business in a day, because you're going to have to win the trust of customers. About trust we in The Netherlands have a saying, which is speaking for the injustice and disappointment of many entrepreneurs in times of Corona: "Trust comes on foot, and goes out on horseback". The success of your company is due to the trust of your colleagues and customers, which comes on foot and goes out on horseback. We are immensely grateful for the close bond we have with our Dockers and the trust we receive on a daily basis, having also given our support and assistance.
For our fellow members who now have to make use of the government regulations, or who have seen their company go into bankruptcy, I can only say: “this is not your fault”. Countless wonderful companies in sectors that have been flourishing for years (catering, broadcasters, second-timers, events, travel etc.), are unfairly affected, but this is not down to the teams who have been investing their blood, sweat and tears in this for years. Don't get knocked out of the field, there are better times! No one is alone and besides a government that offers some support, I hope that we will come out stronger shoulder to shoulder, and as entrepreneurs among ourselves. In the meantime, I hold my breath for 20-30 minutes at every press conference, and I hope that stricter measures for StartDock will not be taken.
In office space-land there is a lot happening at the moment, the biggest trend of which is "remote working". Many companies now find out that working with the workforce in a (main) office and at regular intervals is not easy at all, for simple reasons such as 'travel time' or 'a better work-life balance' (nice hip term, isn't it)? Full-time working from home, on the other hand, has also proven not to be a future solution, for example stress-enhancing reasons (children, partners or roommates who make you crazy), or a lack of compensation for our need for interpersonal contact.
StartDock specific, but coworking spaces like the sector in general, provide the solution to the problems that are now coming to light during Corona. Our sector is growing, because people are looking for:
Today we move around the premises with masks. We keep 1.5 meters away from each other, we no longer organize social events, we no longer have lunch together, we cleanse our hands on entry, register via a QR code and there is little social interaction, but we do have a workplace close to home where people like to come as an alternative to socially limited and stressful full-time work. Again, every press conference from The Hague can disrupt this suddenly and abruptly. This fear will remain present until we have something like group immunity, a vaccine or both. To summarize how I and StartDock are doing: So far…so good.