How one woman spun her love of stationery into a store chain, now in Hong Kong

A life-long love of stationery became big business for a Swedish-Australian with an eye for detail

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 6:06am

Kristina Karlsson confesses she's always been a "stationery freak", which is just as well for the 42-year-old Swedish-Australian founder of kikki.K, a fast-growing stationery chain that has 80 outlets across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and now Hong Kong. In April, its first local store opened at Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui.

When Karlsson was young, however, building a stationery empire was the farthest thing from her mind. She just liked notebooks and pens. "When I was a child, I loved going back to school. It was that promise of a new notebook, sharpened pencils, erasers," she says.

Even as she grew older, that excitement never waned. "There's something about a stationery store. It's like a lolly shop for grown-ups."

Swedish-born Karlsson stumbled across her business idea by accident. In 2001, she had just moved to Melbourne with her Australian partner, Paul Lacy. "I travelled a lot after I finished school, and I came home one day and didn't know what I was going to do with my life," she says.

Lacy suggested she start a "3am list" to record her life goals on those nights when she couldn't sleep. "I wanted to drive to work every day, I wanted to have a connection with Sweden and Swedish design, and I wanted to make US$500 a week," she says with a laugh.

Karlsson decided to start a home office, but when she went out to buy supplies, she couldn't find any stationery that suited her taste. That's when she hatched the idea that would eventually grow into kikki.K: a line of colourful, inspirational notebooks - named after Karlsson's childhood moniker - that drew on the aesthetics of Scandinavian design.

She borrowed some money to manufacture a line of sample products, which proved a hit with friends. Then she persuaded Lacy to sell his house to fund her first shop, in Melbourne's upscale Prahran district.

It was a wise move. The first boutique was "immediately popular", says Karlsson.

These days, Lacy is the company's CEO and Karlsson its creative director, leading a team of six designers.

"It's hard to get a job with us as a designer," she says. "It's about understanding the philosophy."

The first kikki.K shop featured signs handwritten by Karlsson; as the business expanded, each designer had to learn how to mimic the writing in order to duplicate the signs. (They have now created a custom typeface based on Karlsson's handwriting.)

Karlsson sees kikki.K not simply as a stationery company but as a vehicle for both productivity and creative inspiration. "It's not just a notebook, it's what's inside the notebook," says Karlsson.

Along with notebooks and pens, her product line includes homeware and accessories that complement the creative process, such as "inspiration boards" and candles.

All of it stems from Karlsson's own experience. "I start every day by journaling three pages," she says. "It's a way for me to get things out of my system, whether it's an issue or something I'm grateful for, or a dream, a goal, an idea."

She also keeps a personal planner with an organisational system that categorises events as "meetings, people, product, big picture, marketing and personal".

There's something about a stationery store. It's like a lolly shop for grown-ups
Kristina Karlsson

The homeware came about when Karlsson considered all the things that help create a good working environment: a cup of tea, candles, plants, even "a bowl for your nuts".

Karlsson says she isn't concerned about the rise of digital time-management software such as Google Calendar: electronics is all business, but "paper is personal", she says.

Others seem to have adopted the same approach. "We sell a lot of paper diaries and calendars," says Karlsson.

She thinks the rise of digital media has given the tactile experience of paper products a new cachet. "I love putting pen to paper," she says.

That focus on the physical extends to the kikki.K shops themselves, whose interior design reflects the sensibility behind the brand. "It's very neat and tidy," she says. Products are colour-coordinated against a calm backdrop of white shelves, with birchwood accent walls to give it a Swedish touch.

Those interiors are one way that kikki.K hopes to set itself apart from competitors in the Asian market, which is much more attuned to stationery than Australia was when the brand was in its infancy. In some ways, kikki.K's products are reminiscent of the Japanese notebooks familiar to any Hong Kong stationery lover right down to the inspirational quotes.

Rather than a challenge, Karlsson thinks Asia's abundance of stationery options is an asset because it means there is already a large base of customers obsessed with stationery. "It's better for us when people are already really into stationery," she says. "People get very excited when they come into the shop."

If all goes according to plan, kikki.K's Harbour City outlet will be the first of many in Hong Kong. Karlsson says she would like to open larger-format shops to show even more products, and she hopes eventually to expand into Europe. She already splits her time between a house in rural Sweden, where she spends the northern summer, and Melbourne.

In both places, Karlsson is surrounded by Scandinavian design. She names Danish designers Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen as two of her favourites. When she won her first business award, she used the prize money to buy a Jacobsen chair in Copenhagen.

"I have a lot of Arne Jacobsen furniture now," she says.

It helps keep her inspired. "We have so many ideas we don't know what to do with them," she says.

Products based on the idea of "mindfulness" is one area she'd like to explore. Fortunately, she has more than enough ways to keep those ideas in check.