At home: Queen of organised

By Claire McCall

Kristina Karlsson, owner of stationery store kikki.K, brings the best of Scandinavian order to her business and to her own life.

Kristina Karlsson divides her time between her Australian and Swedish homes. Photo / Supplied
Kristina Karlsson divides her time between her Australian and Swedish homes. Photo / Supplied

Lego may provide a bright, colourful world of exploration for kids but for a young Kristina Karlsson, the originator of the kikki.K stationery and gift boutiques, this rainbow offering was overkill. "I loved sticking to just white when building with Lego - maybe an insight into my desire for simplicity and order?" Born in Sweden, Karlsson enjoyed a happy childhood on her parents' farm. Come summertime, she'd play in the nearby forest with her two brothers and sister, picking wild berries, mushrooms and flowers, and plunging into a pristine lake to cool off.

Karlsson, now 38, may have moved many miles from the farm (both physically and mentally) but she remains tapped into her roots - her parents' strong work ethic and the clean-lined Scandinavian aesthetic, now translated into her stationery range.

With 60 kikki.K stores across Australia, Singapore and New Zealand (where there are seven), plus a young family to take care of, she is role playing the company mantra - to be organised in a stylish way.

Karlsson lives in Melbourne with her long-term partner, Paul, who is co-founder/CEO of kikki.K, their 3-year-old son, Axel, and 5-month-old daughter, Tiffany.

Viva spoke to this energetic entrepreneur about her life so far

Tell us about your childhood

I grew up on a farm near Falkenberg, Sweden - a coastal town on the West Coast about one hour south of Gothenburg. Mum and Dad worked hard and my brothers and sister and I helped out where we could. It's a beautiful area with lush forests (home to wild moose), placid lakes and rolling hills. Our recent catalogues were shot around my childhood home.

At 22 my travels took me to Lech - a ski resort in Austria - where I met a wonderful Aussie boy, Paul. Although he says I chased him back to Australia, my version is that I was going there to travel anyway. By the time I'd been from Cairns to Melbourne, I wanted to stay.

Were you an organised child?

I remember from a young age feeling fantastic when I had a sense of organisation and clarity. As a child, I would often sort out my brother's room, as well as my own - but maintaining that order was a different story. Our house was busy and chaotic with the family and farm workers in and out for meals. Thinking back, I didn't feel comfortable with the disorder we lived in, which probably motivated my desire for calm.

Could you describe your home

We divide our time between Australia and our summer house in Sweden. In Melbourne we have a modern place on the beach which I'm gradually filling with my dream Scandinavian-designed furniture. I love Arne Jacobsen's Swan Chair, Pia Wallen's felt rug and my Swedese Lamino Chair.

In Sweden, our home is more cottage-like and rustic. Built in the 1920s, it backs on to a beautiful river, has well-established trees and a big lawn for the kids to play on. I spend a lot of time working from my home offices which are full of white kikki.K storage boxes and folders.

What is your favourite piece of Scandinavian designed furniture?

My absolute favourite is my Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair. I love it. I won Telstra Young Businesswoman of the year and got some money and decided to buy a chair (I have a passion for chairs). And when I was in Copenhagen later that year I sat in a beautiful raw leather Egg chair, and once I sat in it I had to buy it. I was so incredibly excited. It has aged beautifully and is still my favourite piece of furniture at home.

How did you get the idea for kikki.K?

After moving to Australia, I was struggling to find the right career path. One night, after tossing and turning, not being able to sleep, Paul encouraged me to grab a pen and paper and make a list of what was important. We created "my 3am list".

I wanted to do something that:

* I was excited about driving to on a Monday morning

* Would keep me in touch with family and friends in Sweden

* Had to do with design

* Would lead to a business of my own

* Would enable me to make $500 week

My 3am list gave me the focus I needed to refine my thinking. Then, when setting up an office at home, I struggled to find gorgeous stationery. In Australia, stationery was a commodity/price-driven category ... and that's when I realised I could combine my passion for Swedish design and my love of stationery to create a business.

I was so excited I grabbed Paul and told him I would open beautiful stationery boutiques around the world - in all of my favourite cities.

What training did you have to set up kikki.K?

I had no formal training and English was my second language, so the hurdles were big. Apart from not understanding some basic business terminology, I had almost no financial skills, no idea about marketing or how to run a retail store. I'd never heard of logistics or operations, had never put together a product development schedule, run a trade show or negotiated a lease. I had never made a sales presentation, built a website or written a position description. I had no design qualifications, but from an early age appreciated beautiful design - particularly the Swedish aesthetic. So when it came to putting my first range together, I had a clear vision for what I wanted to create.

You sound super-organised but do you ever feel out of control?

I certainly feel out of control at times - particularly as a working mum - but I'm more conscious that it's a state of mind and that there is no permanent organised nirvana. For me, it's more about progress than perfection.

It's not so much about being in control as it is about having clarity - which just feels so good. There's a calmness that comes from knowing you can find things when you need them.

To anyone who says that having to be organised is putting more stress on them, I'd say do what you feel is right. If being a bit better organised is important to you, there are lots of simple ways to move in that direction which will reduce rather than create stress.

Where do the design ideas behind kikki.K take their cues from?

Being from Sweden, I just love Scandinavian design - I can't help it! I'm a huge fan of Arne Jacobsen, Efva Attling (jewellery) and [fashion houses] Acne, Filippa K, Hunkydory and Odd Molly.

I hope people see much of our offering as having timeless Scandinavian style, but there are certain collections that are aligned with our view of fashion - predominantly influenced by what's happening in Sweden. Much of our product is in everyday use so we do our best to move with the seasons in colour, design and materials. We like to give people a choice outside the boring stuff that was typically available in the past.

Isn't there a move away from paper diaries and calendars to online?

You know, it's counter-intuitive, but we're just not seeing that. Maybe it's because there's nothing like putting pen to paper - the tactile nature of it, the connection to a childhood joy of stationery, the avoidance of gadgetry/lost files.

Any anecdotes about setting up in New Zealand?

I have fond memories of opening our first store in Nuffield St. Our advice had been to "stay focused on Australia." People said it was too hard to run a business in New Zealand as well. But Paul and I took a trip to Auckland and loved it, so couldn't see a good reason not to jump at the opportunity.

Who is your mentor?

I've learnt so much from listening to the experiences of others. Gillian Franklin, who founded [cosmetic company] The Heat Group and was named by The Age newspaper as one of Australia's most powerful businesswomen, has been a wonderful mentor and inspiration to me. I also credit my partner, Paul, with guiding me to an important learning which led to creating kikki.K - to find something I was passionate about and make it a career.

Your motto is "tough times don't last, tough people do". How are you tough?

The other day Paul and I were reflecting on our journey so far which, by the way, we believe is just getting started. The one thing we identified as pivotal to growing kikki.K is quite simply just not giving up when faced with obstacles. I guess tenacity in some way equals toughness.

There were definitely points when giving up would've been an easy way out, but it wasn't an option because we had such a strong vision ... besides, I'd convinced Paul to sell his house to fund the business development.

Can you describe a day in the life of kikki.K?

Here's a random sample:

* Excitement as new product samples arrive and people drop what they're doing to tear open boxes. Gasp! Squeals of delight.

* Reviewing results of Mystery Shopper visits to our stores to see how we've performed against our objective of "providing a world-class customer experience every time".

* Scouring my favourite blogs from Sweden to stay in touch with what's happening at home. I like to visit trendeser.se; enmammasdag.com and lovenordic.blogspot.com.

* Responding to a cry from my 5-month-old - who is probably being doted on by one of the team, but needs a feed.

* Reviewing plans for our upcoming photo shoot in Stockholm. Exciting!

Tell us about the organisation workshops you run?

I'm not sure about the New Zealand school curriculum but in Sweden we were never taught the principles of organisation - particularly when it comes to paper work in a workspace. But it's one of those learnable life skills.

Customers can join one of our Personal Organisers in-store for a group workshop. It's a fun, interactive session where people share their challenges with an expert and walk away with ideas to help them more often feel that sense of wellbeing that comes from being better organised. Just making a permanent place for things in a storage box - like keys or sunglasses - can bypass so much angst. Passing on these learnings is at the heart of what we do at kikki.K.

Kristina Karlsson's top five tips for getting organised

1: Take five minutes at the end of each day to put papers/files away and tidy your workspace. You'll start each day in a refreshed working environment and a better state of mind.

2: Use labelled storage boxes to create homes for things. Store documents and files in Lever Arch Binders. Make a design piece of pens and pencils by keeping them on your desk in a stylish pencil cup. Swap the disarray of scrappy notes by condensing them into a gorgeous notebook.

3: Use colour and colour blocking of storage boxes to create a simple, clean, co-ordinated look that is functional too.

4: A yearly wall planner is an ideal way to see the year ahead. Mark important dates, holidays, deadlines and events as they're confirmed so you'll avoid last-minute dilemmas.

5: Being organised wasn't taught at school. But it's never too late to learn simple solutions that will make a big difference to your everyday life.

- NZ Herald

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