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Kristina Karlsson is a dreamer, yet the stationery and Swedish design empire she founded, kikki.K, is the product of insomnia.
At age 22 she had moved to Melbourne to be with her partner, Paul. Working as a waitress, restless and missing her homelend, and lay awake at 3am in their one-bedroom apartment wondering what to do with her life. She woke Paul for guidance. His advice would lead to an Australian retail powerhouse.
Her partner to this day, and the father of her two children, told her to write down what’s important to her. “Let’s see if we can help you get some direction”.
As Karlsson recounts in her debut book, Your Dream Life Starts Here, released last year: “That night Paul inspired and empowered me to really dream. It was to be a profoundly pivotal moment in my life.”
The young woman raised on a farm came up with four goals. The first was a career she’d love when driving to work on Mondays; a business of her own; a way to stay in touch with her Swedish heritage; and to make $500 a week.
Setting up a home office sparked her lightbulb moment. A design lover who disliked the stationery options available at the time, “Kikki” – her childhood nickname – wanted more beauty. She borrowed a few thousand dollars to produce sample stationery, then tested it on friends.
It was a bootstrapped venture, with a local manufacturer creating Karlsson’s products, which she drove around Melbourne delivering to retailers.
Six years after first listing her goals, Paul came to the rescue again when she couldn’t get finance to expand the venture. Karlsson convinced her partner to sell his house, and the funds went into the first kikki.K store in 2001. It soon won accolades as Melbourne’s most innovative store. A second followed in Chadstone. The dreamer admits to plenty more sleepless nights in those cash-strapped early days.
But by the time Karlsson opened a fifth store, the banks wanted in on the vision they’d previously rejected. There are now 102 kikki.K stores in five countries including the US and UK, with her products featuring in 2000 other retailers globally, plus an online business that spans nearly 150 countries. Around 20 million people use kikki.K products annually.
She still dreams of a store in Paris, and the Australian resident who lives by the dictum “don’t say no, say how?” has set herself plenty more goals, including “this new big crazy dream” to inspire 101 million people to write down their dreams and act on them.
“I honestly believe learning to dream is an important skill that everyone needs to practise. Inspiring the world to dream will make the lives of all of us much richer, and that really shaped my dream of inspiring 101 million people to dream,” Karlsson told Executive Traveller.
As kikki.K heads towards its third decade, with continued success in a challenging retail landscape, Karlsson said she still loves heading to work on Mondays to start new designs, followed by the pleasure of seeing them in-store.
She also walks the talk at work, having introduced “Dream Days” for the kikki.K team, with staff scoring “a paid day off to dream or work towards achieving their dreams, which definitely keeps people inspired and motivated”.
Another axiom Karlsson lives by is: “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything at the same time”. She’s happy that kikki.K “now works without me being there every minute”, and works from home a lot to help with work-life balance as the parent of Axel, 11, and Tiffany, 8.
“Remaining balanced is difficult, but I try to do it by sticking to a generic week, getting the important things done first and always put social and family time as important as work,” she said.
“I also do some kind of exercise every morning, which clears my head and keeps me focused, but balance remains a real challenge for me. Because I love what I do so much, I find myself working very long hours, which is often fun and very satisfying, but leaves me needing a little more time for other important things.”
Among the 101 dreams she has written down as goals, Karlsson wants to take a year off when she turns 50, but admits, “it’s so hard to know where my life is going to be once I turn 50”, so she hasn’t been able to plan yet.
“It’s currently a work in progress but I’ve got it written down on my dreams list so I will be working towards making it happen,” she said.
Travelling is a source of inspiration for the kikki.K founder, and London, Copenhagen and Tokyo are among her regular favourite destinations to fuel her creativity. Her children enjoy travel as much as their mother.
“I try to take them on as many work trips as I can and encourage them to be independent by helping out at events and being involved in the business. This has allowed my children to be exposed to many different countries, cultures and people, which I think is the best education for them,” she said.
As kikki.K’s globetrotting Creative Director, we asked ‘Kikki’ for her travel advice.
Executive Traveller: When you travel with family, where do you take them?
Kristina Karlsson: My favourite place to take them is back to my hometown, Falkenberg in Sweden. We go back there once a year and it’s a great way for my kids to stay connected to their Swedish background as well as spending plenty of time in nature.
ET: What advice would you give about travelling with kids?
KK: I believe exposing children to different countries and cultures is the best education for them, so I would suggest travelling with your kids wherever and whenever you can. Encourage them to be independent and interact with different people and different environments.
ET: Where is your favourite place to go so no one can get in touch with you?
KK: Our home in Falkenberg for sure. It’s such a happy place for us as a family and I love spending time with my extended family and friends back home. I also love the Maldives for the most relaxing family holiday with something for everyone.
ET: Any tips for flying?
KK: I’ve learned that being at the airport early/ahead of time makes travel so much nicer and gives me time to relax and get ready for the flight ahead. I have had too many stressful moments getting to flights on time, so I always give myself plenty of time now. I also make sure I drink plenty of water during my flights and try to get facials done when I travel to help with the jetlag and looking less tired.
ET: What things do you make sure you pack?
KK: I have my travel wallet with me to keep all of my travel documents in one place. I always bring my laptop with me as I’m very productive waiting for flights, especially on long haul flights. My notebook and pen come with me everywhere because I find so much inspiration when I’m travelling and want to make sure I capture it down on paper.
ET: Your favourite airport lounge in the world?
KK: I have two favourites, actually! The Qantas First Class Lounge, because they serve the best coffee and breakfast. Funnily enough, my son Axel is a higher-tier frequent flyer than me at the moment, so I have to attend the lounge as his guest. My other favourite is the Emirates First Class Lounge (at Dubai), because you can board straight from the lounge and don’t have to spend time looking for the gate.
ET: What's your secret part of Sweden that no one knows about (until now)?
KK: My hometown of Falkenberg is a tourist spot for locals, but not very well known to tourists. It has some of the best food and is actually the only place in Sweden that has won the White Guide [the Nordic version of the Good Food Guide] as a whole town.
ET: Your favourite Swedish restaurant?
KK: My favourite place to eat is Prostens, in Falkenberg. It’s owned by the very talented TV chef Lisa Lemke. They do the best pizza in an old rustic converted farm barn with a wood-fired pizza oven. In summer, we bike there through a lush forest and have a drink outside on the lawn. There are sheep and hens and the most beautiful country view.
ET: You want to live to 120. Where do you want to celebrate your 100th?
KK: It would have to be in one of my favourite places, the Maldives!