The object of my affection is made from the most beautiful printed calf leather, perfectly finished with an elegant enamelled gold slide. It costs more than a spree in Zara but I don’t care. I wanted it and it makes me happy. We’re not talking about handbags, but notebooks. As I write this, my desk is cluttered with them. There’s diaries – current and present – notepads I use to scribble ideas down in, not to mention quirky postcards friends and family have sent me over the years, along with thank you notes from designers and a whole drawer full of highlighter pens, ballpoint pens and special foundation pens for those days I’m feeling all swish and grown up.
Like many women, I’m addicted to stationery. I can pretty much measure out my life in paper form, from the flimsy notebooks from my school days to the ludicrously expensive ones I use now. The endless pads I used to scribble notes on during secondary school have followed me with each and every house move. And the Mont Blanc pen my grandfather bought me after my GCSEs is never too far either. While I’m likely to um and ah over dropping serious pounds on a bag I’ve had my eye on, I just can’t resist the urge to splurge on a sexy diary I don’t need. Don’t even get me started on calendars, art prints and thank you notes.
The thrill of stocking up on new season stationery is something I don’t think ever leaves you – who doesn’t remember the joy of a shiny new note pad before it became defaced with Tip-Ex and ink stains in your school bag? It all started with a Smythson notepad, a gift from my mum when I started college. So elegant, so precise, so chic. WHSmith’s spiral bound lined books were dead to me from that day onward, and a lifelong love affair was born.
Kikki.K founder Kristina Karlsson has made a career out of good stationery. Over ten years ago she woke up at 3am with an epiphany. She’d spent years moving between jobs and wanted something more. “My partner Paul encouraged me to write down everything that was important to me,” she says. “I wanted to follow a passion and do something I truly loved driving to every day. I wanted to stay connected with my friends and family in Sweden. I wanted the independent of a venture of my own. I wanted to do something meaningful. I wanted to earn enough to pay the bills.” It was only after she began toying with the idea of setting up on her own and working from home that she noticed a gap in the market for functional but design-led stationary. Fast-forward to now and Kristina heads up a business of over 600 people, with stores everywhere from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and her native Sweden, to Singapore, the US and finally London.
She’s the first to admit it hasn’t all been plain sailing. She launched the business months after 9/11 and the economic crash. Up until that point she’d never worked in the stationery business, had zero business knowledge and English wasn’t her first language. Instead of selling on Etsy, she convinced her partner Paul, to sell his house to give the brand the cash injection it needed and quickly opened their first store in Melbourne. The gamble paid off. She’s managed to create a world of kikki.K in the way clever brands like Anthropologie and J Crew have created perfectly curated worlds for us all to buy into. For Kristina, it’s not simply about creating something pretty. It’s about creating a look and products that we all really connect with.
New York magazine’s The Cut started a blog series called, “I Like That Bitch’s Life,” that’s pretty much set out to parody the beyond-perfect aspirations that bloggers and Instagram stars curate, but also admits that it’s something none of us can truly resist. That’s how you feel when you walk into a kikki.K store. That homeware set you bought the other day instantly feels tired and far less Instagram-worthy than the ones they have on display; their whole assortment of organisers, diaries and desk trinkets will have you rethinking your whole workspace. Here, she talks candidly about her story…
Before starting my dream for kikki.K, it was at a time in my life where I had worked in many different industries but was yet to discover my passion. I had done many things and worked all over the world – I learnt so much along the way. I hadn’t had any formal business training but I learnt by throwing myself in the deep end. Travelling, working in ski resorts in Austria, working in wineries in Germany, studying languages, working as a nanny, working a s a tour guide, working in hospitality – I did many different things. I became quite restless and at 3am one morning, my partner Paul encouraged me to write down everything that was important to me. I wanted to follow a passion and do something I truly loved driving to every day. I wanted to stay connected with my friends and family in Sweden. I wanted the independence of a venture of my own. I wanted to do something meaningful. I wanted to earn enough to pay the bills. I thought, if I were going to have a business of my own, I’d need a beautiful home office. I looked in stores for products for a productive, organised and inspiring workspace but couldn’t find anything that suited my taste. I got a bit discouraged at first but then I realised that I’d actually stumbled across a wonderful business idea and that’s how it all began. One of the first products we ever designed was the humble Storage Box – and it’s still one of my favourites to this day. You could even say, it all started with a box! It’s the perfect representation of beautiful Swedish design – form meeting function. It’s stylish, practical and can make organising your home or workspace such an easy task.
I started the business with very little training or business knowledge but I’ve never been scared to ask questions people might think are stupid. I don’t think a question is ever too stupid, because what I’ve learnt from asking those questions has been a huge help to me along the way. It’s always been a dream of mine to own my own business. I guess the first indication I had of my entrepreneurial instinct was at the age of ten, when I used to ride my bike around the snow-covered streets in my neighbourhood selling Christmas books door-to-door. I was completely driven by the rewards on offer and had a clear vision of being able to win my own TV. I decided that I would do whatever it took, and finally I did win a TV for my efforts as the region’s best saleswoman. This little venture taught me that it’s possible to achieve something when you really want to. It also taught me that you can make money and earn rewards by doing something that you truly love.
The best thing is that I truly love what I do. There’s nothing better than driving to work on a Monday morning (or every day for that matter) being excited. I love, love, love developing new products with the team. It’s so rewarding to start with a blank page and end with beautiful and meaningful products that people use every day to live their best life. Challenges? There’s been plenty. Having limited financial resources was probably the hardest challenge I faced as a start-up. When money is scarce, you have to be resourceful, and that’s probably the best lesson. If you’re not sure about how to do that – don’t be afraid to ask. English was my second language when I launched kikki.K, too so I didn’t even know what the word ‘invoice’ meant – I thought it was something to do with talking, as in, ‘in-voice’! And I had no idea how to put together a product development schedule, negotiate a lease, make a sales presentation, build a website or employ a fantastic team. I had absolutely no formal business training and almost nothing in the areas of finance, accounting or bookkeeping. I’d never even heard of logistics or operations. But all these challenges (and the many more that followed) are what really excited and inspired me. I had a crystal clear vision, and still do today.
My partner Paul sold his home to open our first store, just after September 11 and the big financial crash, but I never had any doubts that it was the right decision. I had such a clear vision of what I could create and I truly believed there would be enough people who would love what I had in mind. There were definitely points in growing the business where things were tough and giving up would’ve been an easy way out. Anyone who has started a business of their own will know exactly what I mean. But because I had a crystal clear vision of exactly what I wanted to achieve, that was always strong enough to pull everyone through, no matter what happened. When the doors of our first boutique opened in Melbourne and I met so many people looking for product like ours, I realised that my vision and our decision had paid off. But I did have some friends tell me I was crazy convincing my partner Paul to sell his house and throw it all into kikki.K. They thought it was a huge risk but I had such a clear vision of what we wanted to do that I didn’t see it as a big risk. My partner Paul has been a total inspiration and a very supportive mentor. Aside from the fact that he believed in my idea (that some thought was crazy) enough to sell his house to fund our first store, Paul has guided me to one of my most important lessons – to find something I was passionate about and make it a career.
In the early days, you could count our team on one hand. Today, in our peak periods we have a team of over 600, including our retail teams. There comes a time when you need to realise you can’t possibly do everything yourself – as much as you’d love to. That’s when building a wonderful team of people around you is most important. From day one, I’ve always had lots of support from the people around me, and we have such an incredible, talented, passionate people today.
Opening our very first boutique was a huge milestone. Being able to open the doors to my own store was just an incredible feeling – and then seeing the reaction from customers every day was just as exciting. From there, opening our first interstate store was a highlight of its own, as was our first international store and the many more that followed. Some other highlights include being nominated for the Innovation Award in the Oracle World Retail Awards (an award previously won by Apple and Nike) and being presented with a Swedish Business award by the King and Queen of Sweden.
As our Creative Director, I’m still very much involved with our product development and design process. We have an incredible team of talented designers and product managers that I work with to bring ideas to fruition. It’s quite a long process, but I absolutely love it. I’m always gathering inspiration throughout the year – snapping things on my phone, jotting things down in my notebook, collecting prints, colours and type that inspire me. I’ll put together a mood board for the range and present it to our design and product team and from there, we’ll assign the designer who will work on the range and provide the theme and a brief, including everything from colour references to ideas on the illustrations and fonts. From there, we go through many different concepts as a team. We have weekly meetings where we develop illustrations, change colours and discuss taking ideas down different paths. Having a strong team and an ability to delegate is so important. As much as your passion will tell you otherwise, you can’t do everything yourself – so surround yourself with wonderful people to help you on your way. Contacts are invaluable, so seek mentors. You’ll be surprised by how many people are happy to help, and how much you can learn from others.
I remember reading about Entrepreneurs’ Organization nearly 10 years ago when I just started my business. I couldn’t wait to meet the criteria so I could join. Being part of EO has been great as there is nothing like learning from people with experience in starting and running their own businesses. Learning from peers who have themselves learnt from experience has been really valuable and I’ve also got so much value from many great EO events including hearing insightful speakers from all over the world.
With a family of my own, it’s important to find that balance, and that’s where having such a wonderful team of people who are just as passionate about striving for our vision is really important. Remaining balanced is difficult but I try to by sticking to a generic week, to get the important things done first and put social and family time as important as work. I also make sure to set aside ‘me time’ – which I like to have early in the morning. Most mornings if I’ve had a good night sleep, I love to rise extra early. I’ve started waking up at 5am and it’s made a huge impact on my days. Getting up early gives me time to think, read, write, be inspired and exercise – and I can do it all before the rest of the family wakes and the normal day-to-day starts. I absolutely love to start the day with a beautiful pot of Earl Grey tea and spend some time writing thank you cards or in my Gratitude Journal. It’s all about enjoying those little things in life.
It might sound simple, but the best piece of advice I can give is to find something you’re passionate about, and find a way to make a career out of it. If you absolutely love what you do, you’ll get through anything and be likely to find more joy in life more often. Anyone who starts a business knows that there are many mistakes made along the way. For me, I’ve always welcomed failing or making mistakes as the important learning opportunity they are. Genuinely, my instinct is to always reframe problems as opportunities and mistakes as brilliant learning opportunities.
This interview was been edited and condensed. Kristina was shot in the kikki.K Covent Garden store.
Join The Community
Join thousands of women who wake up with us every Tuesday and Thursday for inspiring stories, entrepreneurship wisdom & updates on our workshops, supper clubs and events.