Alex & Leja Kress (twins) are laughing and saying that they’re old. I jokingly say that I’m using that as the opening line. Truth is, they’re far from it—but when you’ve been immersed in the rapidly paced digital world since the 90s, time becomes a little warped. What started as a band in 1998 (“We were pretty terrible, but people liked us”) between Alex, Leja and Richard Agerbeek (Leja’s husband) became the digital agency Sweden Unlimited. The OG team of fashion e-commerce, they’ve worked with all of the big players: Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, Lanvin, Kate Spade, Alexander Wang, Coach… the list really does go on and on. Today, we’re sitting at a black table which was the first piece of Sweden Unlimited furniture in the first Sweden Unlimited office: Alex and Leja’s tiny post-college apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village. It now sits in the center of a pink-walled, glass-doored room that opens up into a beautiful airy studio, where their 20-or-so employees sit working. Designed by their mother who passed away, the table seems to represent the four pillars that Sweden Unlimited has been built upon: passion, perseverance, integrity, and family.
Leja: “Sweden Unlimited actually started as a band called Sweden. It was 1998, and Richard, Alex and I wanted to create a band together before we turned 30. To this day we’ve never been to the country, but the name stuck. We all had jobs we weren’t that into, and this was around the time when the internet started. One day Richard said, ‘I want to be a web designer.’ So he taught himself Photoshop and figured out how to make websites. I decided I wanted to know how to do that too, so I taught myself how to code and quit my job. Alex quit her retouching job six months later. We had a lot of friends in fashion, and the three of us started to make fashion e-commerce websites. In 1999 the internet was ugly and confusing. We were unusual because we were able to bridge the gap between fashion and technology.”
Alex: “The first Sweden Unlimited office was our studio apartment. It was so small, we shared a pullout sofa which was also our bed. Leja got the desk by the window, and Richard and I were shoved up against the wall sharing this table, always bumping elbows. It was so uncomfortable and the mouse never worked.”
Leja: “We never set out to be digital agency for fashion. It’s just what we knew. There weren’t a lot of people who knew how to do it, and now everyone knows how to do it. It has infiltrated our lives in New York. I keep getting added to these email lists about content marketing and tech and analytics… and I can’t help but think of those early days when it was more creative. It was less about data and money. There’s so much at stake for the brands we work with now, so it’s understandable—but back then, brands were able to take risks. Like, let’s have this crazy flying owl on the homepage or some weird talking animation. What clients expect from a digital agency has really changed. In the beginning it was pretty clear what we would do for you. We would do your design, your development, and launch your site. Now, we’re often expected to be and know absolutely everything: from knowing the best Snapchat strategy to having an opinion on all that exists in the digital world. We’re held to an incredibly high standard.”
Alex: “There’s an impossible expectation to be a step ahead at all times. I’ll always remember a very famous fashion designer saying to us, ‘Why did you build my site in flash, and now it doesn’t work on an iPad?’ Well, when we built your site you specifically asked for flash, and there was no such thing as an iPad. Or clients asking, ‘Why isn’t my website responsive?’ Well, that wasn’t a word when we built your site. It actually meant if you were like, awake. We giggle about stuff like that.”
Leja: “I also think that with everything being so measurable, the integrity of the work can be compromised.
Numbers aren’t always an accurate measure of success.
Someone might say, ‘This content you’re creating for me is not resulting in sales.’ But sometimes, content is contributing to brand building, or creating presence. The problem with analytics is that people are expecting return on every single pixel on their website. If it’s not results or conversion driven, people aren’t as interested. So some of the fun has been taken out of it. There’s also this funny expectation for agencies to have a big mission statement, claiming that they’re solving the world’s problems. When we started, our mission was to make pretty websites because the internet was ugly. It was a way to make a living and it was cool and fun. This cultish thing of ‘What are your morals?’ and ‘What do you stand for?’ gets on our nerves a bit—like, what are you even talking about? In all honesty, we’re fulfilling a service. You need a website and we’re making it. We’re a bunch of former art students who had to write a mission statement in college years ago. And that’s kind of what it feels like—that everyone is taking themselves way too seriously, trying to outdo each other with their why. We just want to do good work, and that work is not going to cure cancer or solve world hunger.”
Alex: “That’s not to say we don’t have reason for what we do. We’re just a bit over the expectation to broadcast it. But the reason we’re doing this is always in the background. Every so often we have these moments of, ‘Who are we? Why are we doing this? What is our meaning?’ We need to find it again, because the industry has changed—and we want to hold on to what we believed in the beginning.
Sometimes you can lose sight of the why. You need to make sure it’s still there.”
Alex: “Sweden Unlimited didn’t quite feel real until we got this office. Our employees walked in for the first time and said, ‘We don’t have to work out of your apartment anymore.’ When our mom was dying, I remember sitting in the hospital room with her, saying, ‘We looked at an office today, but I don’t know if we should take it.’ She said, ‘Take it. You have to take it.’ She never got to see it, but she gave us her blessing. That’s one of weirdest things—not having someone proud of you anymore. We’re Generation X: we finished college in the 90s, had no idea what we were doing with our lives, but wanted to make our parents proud. Even though they’ve passed away, in some way that still drives us—that yearning to make them proud is still there. I think we’ll always be trying to prove ourselves to them somehow.
If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to respect your elders. Know that you haven’t figured it all out yet.
There’s this weird thing with the younger generation—they seem to value their virtual realities more than the real life experience of someone older than them.”
Leja: “When it comes to the work and family dynamic, we have to be careful not to drag our family relationships too much into the workplace. We’ve had feedback that sometimes it feels like a family dinner. But the advantage of working with family is that the three of us care about each other so much. We share an incredible amount of trust.”
Alex: “How comfortable we are with each other is probably what makes people uncomfortable. Often people will look for their leaders to be aligned—but for us, that alignment comes from our differences. We argue at times, but that’s often what brings us to the best solution.”
Leja: “I also think having both a male and female perspective is really valuable. Particularly when the agency world is still dominated by men.”
Alex: “There’s an expectation for women in business to be a certain way. To be less emotional, more focused and intellectual about things. I think men are still trying to figure out how women fit into the whole working picture. On the one hand they want women to be feminine, or have this maternal nature, but that emotional element is often what we’re criticized of. We’re not allowed to be critical, but then we’re not allowed to be emotional. It’s also interesting how a woman can say the exact same thing as a man, but it will be interpreted differently—we’ll be called nagging or uncompassionate. Women receive far more descriptions about their behavior. Whereas a man just is.”
Leja: “Sometimes our employees might call us ‘mom’ as a little dig. But you would never call a male leader ‘dad.’ You don’t call a woman leader ‘mom’ just because they’re asking you to do something.”
Alex: “There’s an undertone, for sure. You can even pick up on mannerisms in email. I don’t think it’s intentional, either. I think it’s just this new world we live in where women are taking leadership roles. The whole working-mother thing comes into play also. Leja and I happened to have children right when we were the most busy, and also went through the deaths of our parents when we were the most busy. Both our mom and dad had very difficult deaths where we had to watch them suffer. With kids—I was in the middle of launching a site with my first born, and it was so hard to jump back into work straight away. But I feel like we have this weird inner strength to endure those types of hardships, and it’s the small things which are tough. The things that don’t mean as much… somehow they’re still difficult. I don’t understand why that is. Perhaps because they stand outside of what a person should naturally go through in life—like parenting or death.”
Leja: “It sounds crazy, but the the big things kind of make sense. They’re real. They’re part of life. With our kids, we understand how to be mothers. It’s innate. Making our kids happy is easy. We know what they need, they love us unconditionally. But running a company and being everything for your employees and your clients? That’s hard. We’ll make mistakes with our kids, and the next day it’s OK. Whereas employees and clients are less forgiving, sometimes they don’t let us be human.”
Alex: “It’s easy to come home and deal with kids screaming. It’s all part of it. Everything else is like this weird playing grown-up game. We often look around and think, is this really ours? I think when you run a company and have kids, you’re bound to feel like you’re doing each of them OK—because it’s difficult to do both really well. No matter how hands-on your husband is, let’s be honest—it’s about the mom. Because the dad doesn’t feel the guilt. It’s just different. Some days we toy around with, ‘Should we be the mommy at home or the power woman here?’ But we’ll never be either. We’ll always be somewhere in the middle. So it’s about accepting that, and most days we are OK with it.”
Leja: “We do realize that having small children while Sweden Unlimited was growing definitely affected the business—there’s no way it couldn’t have. But we wouldn’t change anything. We’re also aware of how lucky we are. Perhaps if there wasn’t that New-York-digital-age pressure in the air that we breathe to be better instead of just being good, I think we would be pretty content. We do good work, we’ve built a successful business, we have beautiful children, but there’s always that nagging… you need to be doing more. I mean, what a cliché. Everyone talks about it. It’s this New York thing where you’re constantly comparing yourself to everybody and seeing success everywhere you look. You can’t help being influenced by that. But sometimes, you have to stop.
You need to look at what you have and say: this is everything I’ve ever wanted. I never really wanted anything else.”
Alex: “We’ve created a nice life for ourselves. Is that enough? Maybe it is. Maybe that’s OK.”
As told to Amy Woodside, June 2015
Images courtesy of Alex & Leja Kress