Some of my favorite gifts and products over the years have come from Kikkerland. Think cat butt magnets (a best seller), solar powered waving garden gnomes and multi-species nail clippers. I recently caught up with Jan van der Lande, the man behind the cheeky design company. Jan started his company back in the early 1990s on a houseboat in NYC and delivered his orders by bicycle — a nod to his former life in Holland, where he’s originally from. Jan shared a little bit of his own history and how he came to be a master of quirk and of a thriving design business. I hope you enjoy his take on business as much as I did! — Caitlin
Why did you decide to start your own thing, versus working for someone else?
I studied environmental engineering and was working at NYC DEP for 3 years and I did not particularly like it. It was always my dream to be my own boss.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
I came into this field through a friend in Amsterdam who was making vases. I quit my job to sell his vases in NYC. He introduced me to other self-producing designers. I learned about design by interviewing each designer asking them why their product is better than existing products in the market. I learned and read about design and art and had a passion to combine this with business.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Before I started my business I made an appointment with the Better Business Bureau. I spoke to a retired businessman who also happened to be Dutch. He told me “Zuinig Zijn.” It literally means: Be economical.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Starting your own business is not difficult. Knowing what to do when things don’t work out is more important. You have to have a plan B.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a creative business?
I learned my lesson early on when I wanted to change a design from a designer. I ruined it. From that moment on I learned to never argue with a designer and know your place. The design was a simple light. A square block with two long rods going up. At the top was a fuse that lit up. I complained the light was a little bright and suggested a little shade. That ruined the design. At that time the vases were something totally new. Vases are either made of ceramic or blown glass. These vases were made of plate glass and carefully glued together. The glass was fractal glass which gave a special light effect.
How did you approach distribution of your early products? I’ve read that you did early deliveries of your products on your bike in NYC.
Well, you have [to] start somewhere. For me it has always been on my bike. It is quick and efficient. I was a bike messenger in New York. No matter rain or shine. You have to deliver.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experience that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
My moment of failure was the loss to recognize one’s responsibility and the loss of trust. The most important aspect of design is safety. You cannot deliver products that are dangerous and that lead to injury. We had a recall one time. Design has its limits and you have to understand your responsibility and keep the trust.
Your work (to me) is all about redesigning utilitarian products and adding dose of humor. How do you decide what to improve upon or reinvent next?
Deciding what to design next really depends on what’s going on in the world. People and things change all the time and we have to change with it. When something or someone works we stick with it as long as we can. Falling in love with something can be dangerous. We don’t take design too serious but the business is very serious.
It’s been written that you started your business on your New York City houseboat back in 1992. Can you give us a little history on your houseboat and is it still around? (And just so you know, when the Design*Sponge community hears the word “houseboat” we all get excited!)
The story of living on a boat started when I was evicted from my apartment in the east village. I won the lawsuit but failed to save the back rent. A small ad in the Village Voice read ‘why not live on a boat.’ When I called, an old man answered and told me to come at 8PM. Luckily the old man forgot too and at 8AM many people came and at 8PM I was the only one. This was in 1986. Meanwhile I have upgraded to a running boat. One of the greatest accomplishments for me was to learn how to operate this monster. It took many crashes and bump-ins. Living on a boat in NYC is like living in a small village while being in one of the busiest places on earth.
Image above clockwise: Don’t Tip the Waiter Stacking Game | Scented Erasers | Animal Multi-Tool | Solar Gnome | Whale Comb | Lady Bug Clips | Lucky Wallet | Solar Rainbow Maker | Make Your Own Music Box | Lady Bug Clips | Carrot Fork & Spoon | Little Fish Big Fish Nail Clippers | Geometric Wood Clock
Switching back to your business as a whole, what do you look forward to most when you head to your office? Is it looking at new designs? Choosing colors? Greeting your co-workers?
Every morning I arrive at work on my bicycle. Even though everyone calls me boss, I don’t feel like a boss. I work with everyone as [being] part of them. I have my shortcomings just like everyone else. The most exciting part is to see the team’s outcome of a small spark of an idea into a successful product.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Read all the time. Right now I just finished reading a book The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille, who is an anthropologist. It teaches you about cultures and values around the world. One of the first books about business I read was called How To Make A Business Plan. It basically told me what to do in case you fail. So don’t bet your farm.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? If so, walk us through that.
I studied so long as an engineer and that taught me (so many times) to not be afraid to fail and don’t give up. Walk into every lamppost possible and sometimes twice. You may not be so certain, but if you don’t try you’ll never know. We are constantly being challenged and pressured, especially now by social media. We are so close and at the same time so hard to reach.
When I was in college I overslept for an important exam for which I studied very hard. I was sad and distraught. There was one boy that came to me and instead of treating me poorly like most others did, he felt genuinely sorry for me. I’ll never forget this.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
I would probably go to bed and sleep. Maybe get up a little early and do something for which I don’t always have the time; do some more exercise, fix something, find out about something and spend some more time with my family and friends. I normally don’t work more than 40 hours or so a week. It is important to keep mind and body fresh and ready knowing that this not always possible.