Visiting Marieke Homan, the creator of Nachtzon by Lula, sustainable outdoor solar lighting. As robust as it is ingenious, that's secret secret. What a good idea actually. Marieke doesn't like half measures, that quickly becomes clear. When you see her busy with the chainsaw, the drill already at the ready in the hip pocket of her overalls, you immediately think: she has always had the idea. you immediately think: she has always wanted to be a carpenter.
Is that right, Marieke?
'Well no. I worked in education for a long time, then for a time with the teaching union. I didn't like it there anymore; things often didn't go fast enough for me. I want to see results, to improve things! And preferably a bit quickly. Now I'm having the time of my life; rolling up my sleeves. Get to work. Soon I will be doing business on the laptop again.
We get to take a look around her workshop, which is already threatening to get a little too small. Because things are going superbly, with the quirky, wooden Nachtzon lamps and the muddy, oversized arc lamp Industrie.
Products that make the sun shine
The Night Sun lamp for outdoors is actually two. In fact, Lula makes a sturdy, round version and an equally sturdy square one. They are called 'Nature' and 'Craft'. That immediately gets to the heart of the business plan. They can take a beating and they do very well in a natural-looking garden, along the paths of a large recreation park or on a campsite in the dunes. Great if you want to spend the night after
a visit to the washroom, you know how to find the right tent or camper again. It is outdoor lighting for outdoor people. So at first glance a rough tree trunk or a sturdy mooring post at a jetty. The cap for the solar cells Marieke makes as desired from stainless steel or Corten steel, which is allowed to rust nicely authentically. Not so complicated to make, right?
'You have more outdoor lights on free solar power. I wanted to be head and shoulders above that. I'm always looking for improvements anyway; even in people. I can't help it; just ask my husband! He happily stays himself, no matter what I say. But we are digressing now. In the first place, I wanted to get the solar LED lamp out of the spotlight. It has quite a bad image. Quick
broken, not very nice. You know them: for a few euros in the discount store or a vague webshop online. Often it stays dark after a week, with such a disposable stuff. A waste of effort, and of course a waste of materials and energy in production.
'So when I thought about the product I wanted my company to provide, I wanted to do things completely differently. I deliberately chose 100% artisanal, with a nice long lifespan. The wood is American Douglas fir, oak, chestnut or robinia. The secret is "under the hood"; I like to keep that idea to myself. We spent a long time developing a control system that ensures that the solar cells, the battery and the LED lamp work together smartly and efficiently. Even if there is once little sunlight. So a Night Sun lamp like that thinks for itself.'
'Anyone who wants one will get a remote control with an on-off switch for the garden. Campsites often leave them on all night. You can do that, too. It can be on a base, which I also supply, or just in the ground. The bottom is partially wrapped especially for this purpose with a kind of protective sock of a strong material called Postsaver. I burn that tight around it myself. Exactly at the height where microorganisms live underground, which could cause wood rot. So that's also been thought about.'
So I wanted to do things completely differently. I deliberately chose 100% artisanal, with a nice longevity.
It's going well, with the Night Sun
There is a lot of interest in the Lula Night Sun. Marieke is already supplying buyers across the country, as well as in Belgium and Germany. Private individuals, garden centers, gardeners. New to Lula's range is the Industrie. The outdoor lamp for those who love the grand gesture. In the form of a design desk lamp, but then a generous arc of about 2 meters high, high above the ground a round, dome-shaped 'dome'. Simply put: a statement and an eye-catcher. The lamp you won't easily overlook. Made of Corten steel, or optionally finished with powder coating in a RAL color of your choice. Who does what? As a reassurance to all those who love a rugged outdoor life, but don't like a smudge of rust on their white summer pants: Corten steel will rust, it's supposed to. But once the steel is "done" rusting, that process stops on its own and doesn't give off any more. It's a small miracle!
'Not too frugal at the development stage'
Marieke has some clear advice for other startups. 'In retrospect, I say: above all, take all the time you need for a careful development phase. That is very important to get off to a flying start. In my case, it took more than a year; we didn't take any chances - and I am also lucky that my husband Marc is a business developer. He was a fanatical thinker. What is a distinctive product and what do people need? Still, there were some minor teething problems and teething troubles in the very beginning. Of course, these have now all been solved and have even led to improvements. But if I had to do it all over again now, I would still start selling later. I understand very well: you are enthusiastic, you want to make people happy with your product and the till has to start ringing. Still, I would say: even better preparation always pays off. Your product should sound like a bell from Day 1, no matter what you make. But you are right, I said it at the beginning: patience is not my strong suit!
How the partnership with the Groninger Growth Fund came about
Suppose you are an entrepreneur from Drenthe, with an original idea and a good business plan, all conceived on Drenthe soil. Then you can apply to the MKB Fonds Drenthe for a loan. That's what Lula did. In fact, that application for funding had already been approved, after the usual, careful procedure. Nothing stood in the way of a sparkling start.
Until Lula found the ideal location to make the big plans really big. A property with possibilities, on Woldweg in Kropswolde. Not so far from the Drenthe-Groningen Zuidlaardermeer, in the hinterland the old hamlets of Lula and Kalkwijk, perfect in every way, only ... unfortunately also just a few hundred meters on the wrong side of the provincial border. Officially the municipality of Central Groningen. As much as the MKB Fund Drenthe would have liked to continue the cooperation, it was suddenly no longer allowed. In this respect, the rules are implacable: Groningen is strictly speaking not Drenthe.
Investment manager Emma Schakel of the Groninger Growth Fund explains: "I think it's good that we are precise about this, without allowing exceptions. Otherwise it's literally: where is the line then? You could say about Lula: different letterhead, new signature, fresh stamp on it and done. After all, the various regional funds work closely together within the NOM building? That is
indeed, but each fund has its own governance. Besides, the money ultimately comes from the province.
What always comes first in everything we do: we want to help the entrepreneur in the North as much as possible. So my 'Drenthe' colleagues Dave de Groot and Emmy Saimi-Roozeboom did not hesitate for long; they contacted the Growth Fund, asking: wouldn't Lula fit in very well with your fund? We thought so.
It meant that I had to prepare a new application, a proposal that again had to be approved without bias, this time by our board. Naturally, we used each other's knowledge in the process; everything they already knew at MKB Fonds Drenthe about Lula's background and ambitions.
So now, with combined efforts, we have managed to get the funding in place after all. In this case it was the kind of loan we call an "impulse loan. That is, with the (less onerous) standard conditions that apply to a loan of up to 100,000 euros. This has an intended term of 6 years, at 7% interest. With such a relatively modest application, a shortened process is usual; now it could be even faster, thanks to the thorough preliminary work of the MKB Fonds Drenthe.
We assess everyone equally carefully, but of course it can't hurt to also remain pragmatic at times when it helps everyone. The entrepreneur and society. A nice proof that we have done our best together here at home to still get the funding, for a promising and sympathetic plan that in any case fully deserves our support!
Rob Drees, team leader for regional funds at NOM: 'For Lula, the MKB Fonds Drenthe already had all the tick marks for the application green. When it became clear at the last minute that Lula could not establish itself in Drenthe but could establish itself in Groningen, we wanted to assist Marieke Homan properly. From MKB Fonds Drenthe we were able to quickly refer her to the Groninger Growth Fund, because we have a collegiate fund with similar conditions and assessment criteria. Because the funding had already been properly worked out within MKB Fonds Drenthe, Emma Schakel was able to speed up the process on behalf of the Groninger Groeifonds and help the company move forward within a short period of time. All's well that ends well.
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