While many industries are grappling with the economic challenge posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, there have also been a few surprising business success stories. And solar energy startup Smart Energy appears to be one of them.
Founded in 2016 in Byron Bay, the startup set out to make it easier for consumers to harness the power of the sun. Now, it has more than 150 employees across seven Aussie offices.
And, while we’ve watched in amazement as people panic-buy a lifetime’s supply of loo rolls and booze, Smart Energy has also seen a noticeable uptick since the coronavirus set in.
In a two-week period, the business had a 41% spike in sales, and a 400% increase in enquiries.
Speaking to SmartCompany, co-founder and chief Elliot Hayes theorises that as more people are working from home, their energy costs have gone up, and they’ve realised just how much they’re spending on it.
At the same time, “energy has been in the news as being quite uncertain”, he says.
He also suggests that there are probably people out there who have been thinking about making the switch. For some, this is the final straw.
“Recently we’ve seen bushfires and floods, and now this,” Hayes says.
“People are worried about the sustainability of the planet, and they’re looking to become self-sufficient now.”
When we saw people panic-buying toilet paper and pasta in the supermarkets, that was just people looking to ‘future-proof’ themselves, he suggests — taking control of the situation as best they can.
Making the switch to solar energy is just another way this is manifesting.
“This is a form of future-proofing,” Hayes says.
“We’ve seen it become more mainstream over the past five years anyway,” he notes.
“People were going to go towards this anyway, it’s just a push to get people there a couple of years earlier,” he adds.
“It’s just that certainty at a time of uncertainty. This is something you can lock in, you can set, you can forget about it, and not worry about it.”
In the short-term sense, Smart Energy is clearly doing well, having just completed its biggest install yet — but we’re almost certainly headed for a recession.
However, when asked if he thinks the company’s growth can continue at this rate, Hayes isn’t worried.
“The way that solar works for consumers — it’s a product that saves you money,” he says.
And he believes those consumers are increasingly aware that solar power isn’t only something that’s good for the environment, it’s a sensible economic choice too.
“I wouldn’t have been too sure if you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago,” he says.
But the increase in sales and enquiries speaks for itself.
“People are aware of this,” he says.
“I was worried people were going to lock down and not do anything. But people are being quite proactive, and trying to secure themselves at this time.”
Of course, for a young business, seeing a fast uptick in orders comes with a whole new set of challenges.
But Smart Energy operations director Jasper Boyschau says the business is well-equipped to meet the demand, and support new customers.
“We’re a very agile business, and we’ve built a scalable model so we can handle spikes in demand like this,” Boyschau says.
The startup has a network of installers all over the country, he says, and has even added new resources.
It has also launched contactless installation. Installers don’t have to enter the home, or have any personal contact with anyone at the residence.
The only real risk facing the business, Boyschau says, is a potential shortage of stock coming from China or Korea — countries businesses such as Smart Energy rely on.
“Right now, we’re not really sure exactly what’s going to happen … It seems like a lot of factories have gone into shutdown mode,” he explains.
“We’re not seeing any major issue yet, but at the same time, we’re seeing a drop in the Australian dollar. A lot of these things are traded in USD,” he adds.
“So, there will be a spike in price; we’re just waiting for that to come.”
As it stands, Smart Energy has a healthy stockpile of its solar panel products. But in the uncertain climate, there’s no real way of knowing how long that will last.
It’s inevitable that, at some point, the cost of the initial solar installation is going to go up, Boyschau says.
“That’s why we’re seeing an enormous influx of customers. I would say that is one of the largest reasons,” he explains.
“It’s really just supply and demand. If you put a strain on supply, and demand also goes up, the price will go up.
“Right now, we’re not seeing that. But we are seeing customers want to get in early.”
That said, in times of economic uncertainty, it’s never very clear what will happen to the price of traditional energy either.
Hayes believes people are getting solar panels installed now, to protect against that potential fluctuation.
Switching to solar “protects them against the rising cost of energy”, he says.
Once solar panels are installed, “you can’t put a price on the sun”.