Sally Caroline Klopper entered her twenties knowing two things for sure. Interior design was her life’s calling and she absolutely had to study it in Denmark. Her first application to a prestigious design school in Copenhagen didn’t make the cut but she shrugged off the disappointment and tried again the next year. This time she made it onto the very short acceptance list of 15 students.
“I was a late starter but my ambition was deep-seated and unwavering,” Klopper said. “I was desperate to study in Copenhagen. A lot of design classics are Danish and I was really attracted to their design approach and simplicity. Denmark’s hold on the industry is very strong and I wanted to be part of it.”
What she also found herself a part of when she finally arrived in Copenhagen was an immense sense of isolation and the coldest winter she had ever known. Klopper had left a beautiful Australian summer to jet off alone to a temperature of minus ten in a country where she didn’t know a single soul.
Each overwhelming day would end in a fresh flood of tears. Then she would straighten her shoulders, focus on her purpose and march through another day. Despite her sharp loneliness, Klopper knew she was exactly where she needed to be and that same fierce determination soon brought its own reward.
“I’ve always been really focused, and I’ve always known exactly whom I wanted to work for. I was a huge fan of Philippe Starck and Jade Jagger who I regarded as huge style icons.”
So Klopper did the most obvious thing – she wrote a letter to Philippe Starck in London asking for an internship. Three years of obsession had taken her past the crippling fear of not being good enough to simply putting herself out there. Philippe Starck wrote back offering her a six-week position with a “very generous” paycheck.
When Klopper returned to Melbourne she bombarded the two companies she had earmarked as part of her career growth until one of them finally hired her. But if Philippe Starck was “the most incredible experience”, her time with this company was “nothing short of awful”.
With only three staff members, expectations were impossibly high and the pressure was unrelenting. Then Klopper found the silver lining. She was the only junior designer in her circle of peers who was already project-managing clients rather than organising the supply library. With that came the realisation that she was unintentionally being groomed to start her own interior design outfit.
Three years later she resigned to do exactly that and her eponymous interior design studio was born. But there were two problems. Klopper had neither the clientele nor the full skillset of an entrepreneur.
“I didn’t know how to charge people or manage clients. I hadn’t bridged that gap between a worker bee and a company director. My rates were low and I was taking ten times as long to get the work done because I was trying to accommodate every single additional request.”
“I wasn’t investing in business development or marketing which meant I wasn’t making money or winning new clients. And I was still uncomfortable with being the face of my business which largely contributed to its failure.”
After four months of dry coffers, Klopper was forced to accept that she had to return to working for someone. It was a terribly bitter pill to swallow. Her only consolation was that she was highly employable. She decided that she would only work part time and just for a year while continuing to build her business. No, one business failure wasn’t a good enough reason to snuff out her entrepreneurial fire. That same grit and resilience that had taken her to Denmark and kept her was working its magic once again.
“I’ve never doubted myself as an entrepreneur,” Klopper said. “I love talking about business and being around business people. Many of my clients today are entrepreneurs themselves and I’m fascinated by their journey.”
Klopper didn’t waste time preparing for her second shot at business. Each day from 6am to 8am, she was either in her home office or at client meetings. She hired a business coach to help refine her offer and business model as well as show her a different perspective.
Within six months, she had mentally transitioned from employee to company director. In line with that breakthrough, Klopper hired her first staff in January this year to shoulder the brunt of the day-to-day workload while she continued juggling her her dual role as employee and entrepreneur. She led this double life for another six months before reaching a point where she knew something had to give.
All her free hours were spent at client meetings with nothing left over for the actual work. If she didn’t start delivering, she wouldn’t have glowing client testimonials and eventually she wouldn’t have a business.
“So I resigned but the doubts were incredible. I couldn’t sleep the night before and the next morning, I learnt I hadn’t gotten a job I had bid for and one of my clients had undermined me, leaving me questioning my capabilities. That moment was a test of my ability to manage clients and of whether I could back myself. A few years ago I would have given in to that client. This time I pushed back.”
Aside from hiring an employee, that act of pushing back was the other most powerful change that Klopper brought into her second round of entrepreneurship. The “flaky freelancer” who risked her business and dignity in her eagerness to please clients no longer existed. In her place was a businesswoman who stood tall behind herself, her company, her ideas and most importantly, her rates.
“My previous clients would keep asking me to do them favours for free and I would agree. They took me to the cleaners! So now I have a very specific rate proposal. This is what it costs and if that extra something you want isn’t in it, you’ll have to pay for it.”
“You need to be strong in your opinion. If you meet clients with a flaky front, they will walk all over you. And as soon as you’re not in control that’s when things get ugly. So know what you and your time are worth.”
Klopper has emerged from her first business baptism of fire with a clearer perspective, gratitude at the chance to fail fast and early, and a steely determination to keep moving forward. Sally Caroline is only six-years-old but its future is looking very bright.
“Opportunities have been landing ever since,” Klopper laughed. “Second time lucky. You never know!”
Sally Caroline (www.sallycaroline.com) is an interior design studio specialising in high-end residential, retail and boutique hotel projects.
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