Writing down goals and a supportive partner who was willing to sell his house to make a business dream come true were the starting points of the kikki.K success story. However, this is also a business growth story right out of the box.
Nowadays this retail stationery supplier has more than 75 stores across Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. 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 happened 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.”
Then one night 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 week.”
She certainly has exceeded her expectations with her business named a winner in the 2010 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards for the products category.
Thinking outside the square
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.
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 stand out 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 September 11 terrorist attacks.
Despite all of these challenges, the then 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 more than  boutiques across Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and a 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.
“When you sell your house to fund the business development, walking away from it all isn’t an option.”
Asked what are the big business lessons she would pass on as tips to up and comers, 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.”
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.