Kristina Karlsson knew that she wanted to start up her own business. She just had no idea what kind of business until a seemingly mundane trip to buy some stationery.
Swedish-born Karlsson arrived in Australia in 1995 and quickly fell in love with the country. However, she wasn’t happy in her job and planned an entrepreneurial escape plan.
“I was working in hospitality and whinging about it, so my partner Paul said I should write down all the things that were important to me,” she tells StartupSmart.
“I wrote down that I wanted to drive to work on Monday happy. I wanted my own business, but had no idea what it was. I wanted a connection to Sweden. I wanted to earn at least $500 a week and, lastly, I wanted to do something connected to design, which I was passionate about.”
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Karlsson decided to set up a home office for her as-yet unknown venture and attempted to kit it out with all of the necessary stationery. This is when the germ of an idea that spawned Kikki.k was planted.
“All of the stationery I saw was price driven and of bad quality,” she explain. “There was nothing beautiful in terms of stationery. I thought that there was an opportunity because so many people are passionate about stationery, it’s almost like an accessory. So I got very excited and started drawing up designs and talking to manufacturers.”
Karlsson borrowed $3,000 to produce some samples and then set up a series of focus groups involving around 350 friends and friends of friends. The response of the focus groups gave encouragement to Karlsson, with people saying they would be happy to pay for her range of storage boxes, folders and notebooks.
The business was named Kikki.k, adapted from Karlsson’s childhood nickname, with the logo drawn up on a serviette after a few glasses of wine with a friend.
Karlsson embarked upon her start-up in earnest, filling her car, which didn’t have air conditioning, with products to deliver orders in the February heat. She managed to get a Melbourne manufacturer to produce small runs of her products and then sold them onto other stores.
Struggling for finance
What Karlsson really needed, however, was her own store. This provided her with her first major challenge, with banks unwilling to lend her the capital.
“It took a long time to get the banks interested in the business,” she says. “They are just so careful with small businesses. They talked so much about the history of the business and were very conservative when I wanted to be quick.”
“Once we had five shops, they invested in us and we were able to grow quickly, but at the start there were plenty of sleepless nights.”
Unable to find investment, Karlsson’s partner offered up his house in a high-risk but ultimately successful move. It provided the cash injection Kikki.k needed to open its first store in 2001, in Melbourne.
“I was so determined that it would work,” she says. “It doesn’t even seem that long ago that I was driving out orders by myself after packing them up the night before. I was very hands on and it was very tough. I nearly hit the wall with it, but I now know what that role involves and what our staff have to do.”
Cashflow was also an early problem. “Cashflow was also tough to start with, I really realised that cash was king,” she says. “There were days when I couldn’t pay suppliers or staff.”
Despite having little experience in running a business, Karlsson’s initial store was a success and won an award for innovation. A second outlet, in Chadstone was launched, with further stores in Sydney and Melbourne. The company now employs 300 people.
“When I opened up in Bondi, a lot of business mentors said that I should’ve stayed in Victoria, but if I can’t make it in NSW then I can’t be a global business and my vision is to make it in Paris,” she says.
“We’re looking at Hong Kong and the UK now. I’m still very close to the product development. I should never say never (about selling the business) but I wanted to run the business to make it a reality, not to float it.”
So what are Karlsson’s tips for aspiring startups?
Be passionate – “It doesn’t matter if things are tough if you love what you are doing,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of businesses where people aren’t prepared to work weekends. But I love the business and couldn’t put in those hours if I didn’t.”
Have a plan – “You need to have a clear vision from day one,” she advises. “It gets you through the bad days and pulls others through.”
Never take no for an answer – “You’ll have the daily experience of people saying no to you but you always have to find a way around it,” she says. “People often give up, but you shouldn’t. We have big letters on our office wall that says ‘don’t say no, say how.’”
Find mentors – “Different mentors can offer you different things,” she says. “I have four mentors and I can learn different things from all of them. They can save you headaches. Go and see these people speak and be where they are.”