As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Niklas Oppermann.
Niklas Oppermann is a co-founder of leather & travel goods brand, Carl Friedrik. He splits his time between the London and Barcelona offices and is heavily involved in the company’s day-to-day operations. Niklas counts technology and entrepreneurship amongst his chief interests and is particularly intrigued by innovations in the e-commerce space.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The story really begins while I was working in China during my twenties. I lived close by to a large tailor market. It was really all-encompassing — there were over 100 stalls dedicated to buttons, for example. So I started designing my own coats and shirts, buying the raw materials from these small-scale vendors. It really cemented my interest in fashion and encouraged a ‘do it yourself’ mentality.
Some years later I wanted to gift my brother [and co-founder], Mattis, a stylish yet high-quality leather laptop case for his birthday. There were none available that offered the desired craftsmanship and value for money. After noticing the gap in the market, we simply stopped thinking and started doing. Oppermann London, as our brand used to be called, was established soon after.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We certainly had teething issues with early productions. Factories tend to de-prioritize smaller companies. To receive products on time, you really have to be austere with them. I remember flying to one of our early factories and literally directing operations on the factory floor in a bid to speed up the production. These kinds of sacrifices are part and parcel of being a founder.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In all honesty, the thought of giving up never entered the equation. We entered the industry with a very clear understanding of the challenges facing us. We expected things to be difficult — and that’s a natural part of the process.
When you believe wholeheartedly in your mission and the quality of your product(s), you can always see light at the end of the tunnel.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
2022 is going to be an exciting year for the brand. Later this year we will be releasing a new collection of soft bags. It represents a slightly more casual offering than previous collections, with an overall aesthetic we like to describe as ‘functional luxury’. Aside from that, we’re working on a couple of exciting collaborations with brands we have a lot of respect for. The last few years have seen much growth and development, but expanding Carl Friedrik and improving our service is a never-ending process. We’re not ones for resting on our laurels.
While grit and resilience have got us this far, we still view ourselves as small in comparison to the key industry players. But the tenacious, disruptive attitude we share at Carl Friedrik should stand us in good stead for the future.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We’ve made plenty of mistakes but one, in particular, stands out. Back in late 2019, Mattis placed a leather bags order from one of our supplies and accidentally over-ordered by a considerable amount. This was before Covid-19 hit and we were concerned about overextending. As readers will be aware, the pandemic prompted many factories to close down, which stifled supply chains. Thankfully, we had an abundance of stock because of Mattis’ order and this proved to be a real stroke of luck. The lesson? Always do your due diligence. The optimist in me also wants to say that things have a funny way of working out.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our key USP is quality. Whether it’s materials or suppliers, we exclusively work with the best. This translates into extremely long-lasting products — and that’s why we feel qualified to offer a lifetime guarantee across our entire collection.
We heard a great story from an American customer last year that vindicated our efforts on the quality front. He took his Carl Friedrik 25-hour bag to a local cobbler in San Francisco for its first leather treatment. The cobbler — Tony — commended both the craftsmanship and leather quality, calling it one of the finest bags he’d ever seen. To hear this kind of praise from an experienced artisan was a nice touch.
Another aspect that makes us stand out is that we design products for users and use cases, rather than for seasonal fashion. In this sense, we identify as industrial designers, not fashion designers.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Your mindset is so crucial. You have to recognize that hard times are unavoidable and, to a certain extent, normalize them.
I try to be as stoic as possible. Essentially, the Stoics believed that external events can neither be viewed as positive nor negative because they are not under our control. They focused on what they could control and didn’t let the uncontrollable dominate how they felt. I highly recommend implementing this tenet into your work life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My brother and co-founder, Mattis, has been with me every step of the way. Every significant business decision we make together. The open dialogue with have is a major reason for Carl Friedrik’s success. I remember a few years ago Mattis suggested we start producing luggage and I was initially reluctant. Fast-forward 4 years later and our two cabin suitcases — The Carry-on and The Carry-on Pro — are top five best-selling products. The decision to start selling luggage set the wheels in motion for Carl Friedrik’s (continuing) transition into a travel-focused brand, catering to everybody from digital nomads to business and leisure travelers.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m heavily invested in the conservation of the Amur leopard, the most critically endangered leopard species in the world. There are only hundreds of these majestic animals left on earth, who are ruthlessly hunted for their fur. Raising awareness is crucial to their survival. The easiest way for you to get involved is through sponsored adoption.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. The lack of transparency in the luxury industry
The opaqueness of the luxury industry is something that has become increasingly evident to us. Luxury brands are extremely misleading about the provenance of their products and the conditions in which they are made. The regulations are inadequate. Years ago we visited a factory in a developing nation and saw them manufacturing products for a leading French luxury brand that publicly states their products are made elsewhere. Consumers are routinely misinformed and deserve better. Carl Friedrik is completely transparent about the provenance of products: this information can be found on every product page.
2. Murphy’s Law
Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”) is a concept I wish I was familiar with back in 2012. For example, we received a production once and the factory had placed the bag handles on the wrong side — the products were completely unusable. You just have to take the good with the bad and keep your focus.
3. The power of teamwork
On a more positive note, I’ve found there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing a team of talented people work together towards a common goal. Take last week. We launched The Creator’s Club: a new customer initiative that involves the Carl Friedrik community in the design process of our next soft bags collection.
The team worked extra hard to make the launch a success and the program ended up being heavily oversubscribed. We celebrated in style that Friday.
4. Find your point of difference and communicate it
The leather and travel goods industries are highly competitive. The key players have strong brand awareness and very distinct identities. In order to wrestle away market share and attract a following, we learned to communicate our points of difference. Quality and intelligent design are two of Carl Friedrik’s defining characteristics, so they form the focal point of our communications strategy.
5. Expand your network
It might be tough to find the time when you’re busy building a business, but establishing a network of industry experts, start-up founders and mentors that you can lean on for sound advice will pay dividends in the long-run. To give an example, I became friends with the founder of a Swedish e-commerce company through a LinkedIn business group. The brand has seen huge growth in recent years and he told me that SEO blogging is instrumental to their success. Inspired, we started publishing regularly on our own blog, and one year on, the channel now drives a considerable amount of organic traffic to our site every month.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
I always wake up early and squeeze in some exercise or fresh air before the working day starts. Whether that’s cycling, outdoor swimming or even yoga. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and puts me in a positive headspace before I switch on my laptop. Beneficial rituals like this can go a long way in preventing burnout.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Being part of the international community and having exposure to many different cultures had led me to be a strong believer in multilateralism over self-interested, nationalist ideology. Given the current socio-economic climate, I think it’s important not to turn our backs on globalization. Globalization has the ability to empower billions worldwide, allowing them to join the global community and reap the economic rewards.