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Entrepreneurs 101, day six – growing out of the box

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How did kikki.K become an industry leader? Having a partner willing to sell his house so you can build a business dream is one sure-fire incentive to succeed at where you turn your hand.

“When you sell your house to fund the business development, walking away from it all isn’t an option,” says Kristina Karlsson, founder of kikki.K and bone fide entrepreneur.

Nowadays, this retail stationery supplier has stores across Australia, New Zealand and Singapore with over 400 staff in peak periods. Not a bad effort for an idea, which was born out of a restless night’s sleep and an early morning Eureka moment.

Kristina Karlsson was born in Sweden but her entrepreneurial inspiration took hold in Melbourne, Australia.

“Shortly after moving to Australia, I was struggling to find the right career path,” she admits. “I was really restless, not knowing what I wanted to do in my life – I had lots of ideas but was just bouncing from idea to idea without any direction.”

Around 3am, after tossing and turning, her partner, Paul Lacy, got fed up and encouraged her to grab a pen and paper and make a list of what was important to her that could guide her thinking. 

“We created what I now call ‘my 3am list’,” she says. “It included the following to guide my career choice – I wanted to do something that I was passionate about and would keep me in touch with my family and friends in Sweden.

“It had to have something to do with design and would lead to a business of my own and that would enable me to make $500 each week.”

She certainly has exceeded her expectations with her business named a winner in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards for the products category.

So the ‘3am list’ gave her the focus but how did she wind up in boutique boxes and paper?

“When setting-up an office at home, I struggled to find the gorgeous stationery products anywhere to turn my home office into the organised and inspiring space I wanted,” she explains. “I wanted my office to be an extension of my home, my personality and my ideas on fashion and design.

“I could find all this at home in Sweden, but nowhere here in Australia and that’s when the idea for starting kikki.K was born.”

For an artistic body such as Karlsson, her business would combine her passion for Swedish design and her love of stationery creating her the business she had to have.

And this is such a personally-driven business experience with even the name of the operation emanating out of her childhood nickname – Kikki.

Business growth tips

It sometimes is unreal to look at a business success story and think it was just a matter of rolling up the shutters with a great name and a standout idea but that belies the gambles, the worries and the cash challenges that come with the entrepreneur’s patch.

Not only did her partner flog his house for their first store in the shopping centre – Melbourne Central – in 2001, it was a tough year for retail with the GST, the new tax on the block. And worse still, the Japanese-owned Daimaru, the centre’s flagship, was struggling ahead of closing and then along came the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Despite all of these challenges, the uniqueness of the store concept helped it stand out from the crowd.

The store was really well received and was named Melbourne’s Most Innovative Store by the Lord Mayor,” Karlsson says. “We now have over 50 boutiques across Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and an online store that services the world.”

Asked how she achieved this formidable achievement, she was very Swedish – straight to the point.

Tough work and perseverance,” she advises but there was more. “And of course, by surrounding ourselves with a talented team of individuals – you certainly can’t do it on your own.”

On why it was so tough in the early stages, the old limited resources line featured prominently but it was how she dealt with it that is an important lesson.

“Having limited financial resources to start and grow my business was probably the hardest challenge I faced in getting kikki.K off the ground,” she says. “However, I overcame that by being creative, working hard and with ‘do it yourself’ as my mantra in the early days.”

However, she also was helped by combining her group of associates and bartering for assistance.

“I switched-on to the power of networking – exchanging favours with other people as a way of getting things done without having to find cash,” she points out. “There were definitely points where things were tough and giving up would’ve been an easy way out. However, it was never really an option.” 

Writing the future

On the road ahead, Karlsson is determined to take kikki.K to the wider world.

“Our big vision is to have ‘something kikki.K in every stylish life’,” she says. “We’ll need lots of stores around the world to achieve that – we opened our first New Zealand store in Newmarket, Auckland in 2006 and our first Singapore boutique in ION Orchard last year.

I’ve always had a clear vision of opening beautiful kikki.K boutiques around the world in my favourite cities – New York, Stockholm, Tokyo, Copenhagen, London, Paris – and that’s what we’re going to do.”

By the way, this impressive record has been done without franchising, though they have had minority equity partners.

Asked what the big business lessons she would pass on as tips to up and comers are, Karlsson summed it up with vision, plan, network and decisions.

“Along the way so many things occur that can distract from your original vision,” she counsels. “If you start out with a clear vision, it will guide you through the ups and downs.”

She argues a business plan is essential to achieving your vision.

“Putting it on paper really cements it and gives you direction but don’t be afraid to refine as you go,” she adds. And you can’t do everything yourself, so find some mentors.

“You’ll be surprised by how many people are happy to help.”

On decisions, she says, go for it.

“You’ll have to make a lot of decisions, and welcome this as a positive,” she said. “There is no such thing as a bad decision as all decisions bring new learnings.” 

Motivation is essential

Karlsson believes you have to be motivated to stay in the business growth game and win, so what keeps her going?

“My passion for kikki.K has never wavered, which keeps the motivation going,” she enthuses. “Sure, there have been many challenging times. However, growing a business involves investing so much of your effort and energy, you sacrifice so much and go through many ups and downs – so you grow a very close emotional and intuitive attachment. I love what I do. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.”

Finally, many entrepreneurs cite mentors, prominent business leaders or even books that have inspired them to stick to the journey, even when the road gets tough to endure. And so who or what inspires Kristina Karlsson?

“My partner, Paul, believed in me from the very beginning,” she says. “He helped me discover what it was I wanted to do with my life and he’s been along for the ride ever since from the initial business idea and now he’s the company CEO.”

To the outsider, the kikki.K story seems like something out of a Swedish fairytale but it has been a story that this writer has observed at close quarters over the years.

In fact, this is an Aussie business success story driven by two young people who have integrated passion with professionalism and an undying drive to make a business succeed. And they have done it with style.

First business: My first business was actually kikki.K. I started kikki.K when I was 25 with no business training and experience and opened my first retail store when I was 27.

Career highlight: Being named Melbourne’s Most Innovative Store just six months after opening was personally very satisfying. We knew we had something unique, and something that people responded to. But to receive the award from the Lord Mayor really cemented the fact that we had something special and it really was just the beginning.

Best piece of business advice you ever got: Do something you’re really passionate about. You’re going to need to invest considerable energy and time into it, so make it something you really enjoy. In other words, have fun. You must create a crystal clear vision of what you want to achieve and let that guide your decision-making and your team. When times get tough (and they will), your vision has to be strong enough to pull you and everyone else though.

The worst piece of advice you ever got: Don’t go into retail, it’s too hard. I can understand that people say that as it’s not easy, however it all depends on your concept, your products and your drive to make it work.

Most frustrating part of doing business: In the beginning it was definitely the lack of resources and money. We had so many ideas but not enough resources or money to do them all. The good thing about that though is that you have to be creative and find a way to do more things with not much resources, and I enjoyed working it all out.

Favourite marketing technique: Word of mouth. We’ve always believed it’s more important what others say about you, not what you say about yourself.

Business leader you most admire: Gillian Franklin, who founded The Heat Group and has been named one of Australia’s most powerful businesswomen, has been a wonderful mentor and inspiration to me. She has taught me so many things. Perhaps the most important has been the value of having a mentor.

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