In this interview series, entrepreneurs discuss how their company was affected by COVID-19, with highlights, low points, new routines and opportunities and what comes next. First up, Voys, Spindle and VoIPGRID founder Mark Vletter.
Back in 2006, Mark Vletter, founded online telecommunications company Voys. Voys became one of the fastest growing companies in the Netherlands and even Europe. They now support 25.000 businesses in more than 55 countries. Two years ago, 48percent.org was founded, a non-profit organization to bring internet access and usage of unrestricted communication to developing parts of the world.
How’s business currently?
Slowly getting back to business as usual, after a few really busy weeks where we had 4 times the amount of customers questions we normally get. Companies suddenly have to restructure their entire organization to facilitate working from home, while keeping their lines of communication open. It was all hands on deck for us to help those companies.
And of course also you also needed to set up home offices for Voys in the meantime. Was that difficult?
We actually already had some experience in doing that. A few years ago, we moved the entire company to Spain for a week, just to see if we could do it. And about 10% of all the work here is done from home anyway. Of course, it’s extra work and I drove around in my RV (camper) to help move some of the stuff from the office to various colleagues. We also had to order things like extra screens and office supplies, but all in all, I think we nailed it, haha!
And how are things at home?
Pretty good. I lost some weight because I go out running more now. My wife and I did some extra cooking, but we’re also ordering more now to support local restaurants. Though it can be challenging now and again to divide our time to homeschool and be there for our kids, but we’re managing.
Is there something you look back on with pride?
Some of our clients include general practice and other healthcare centers and also things like crisis transport, so I’m really proud we get to help them and do so together, as a team. We’re also supporting 10 different Corona initiatives, such as the 900 volunteers from heelgroningenhelpt.nl.
Working remotely makes it more difficult to check up on the mental health of the team or just see how they’re doing. These can be pretty lonely times.
How do you think this will affect the rest of the Groningen startup and scale-up ecosystem?
I’m not that worried really. We have some pretty healthy and robust companies here, most of them have a buffer and can take a hit. We’re actually pretty unique in that way, because there isn’t as much hot air here as other places. I’m more worried about the hospitality industry and independent contractors.
What do you think about the current government measures for startups?
It’s a good thing that startups are now also included and I hope these measures won’t be abused and help the startups that have real potential and are in real need of help. I also think we can now see a bigger underlying problem with the way we’re currently doing things. A lot of startups live from investment to investment, with growth as their sole focus. A startup is on route to become a company like any other, so I think the number one priority should be building a healthy business. That’s what I had to do when I started Voys in the middle of a recession.
You’re an entrepreneur, and with that comes risk and uncertainty, whether you like it or not. If you’re currently struggling, now is the time to be smart and rethink the way you’re doing things and who your customers are. If you can’t do that, you’re not going to make it anyway. Think about the value you’re adding to the system around you as a whole, and the people working for you. Don’t focus on growth for the sake of growth. I genuinely believe that when you put your soul into your company, that same soul will also guide you to new opportunities.
What’s your take on the near future?
I’m really worried about how this is going to affect our privacy, because I’m afraid these new technologies now used to help prevent the spread of the virus, will still be used long after this virus is gone. And we shouldn’t go back to business as usual. We’re going to learn a couple of very valuable lessons from this and we really need to take a good look at how we do things. Unlimited growth isn’t the answer. If things go back to the way they were, this current crisis will look like child’s play compared to the climate problems we’re going to have to deal with in the future.