Paulina Liffner von Sydow is sitting in a sunny storefront window in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, coffee in hand, saying, “Isn’t it awesome that this is part of my job?” She has the fresh gratitude and energy of someone with a new sense of freedom: although her bag label Little Liffner has been around for 3 years, Paulina only left her day job 6 months ago. Named Accessories Designer of the year (2015) by Elle Sweden, Stockholm-based Paulina is living proof of her own philosophy: “As a general rule, do good work and good things will come.”
“I always wanted to have a line of my own. I knew what kind of style I was going for, but not exactly what the product would be. I had been working in PR for 7 years before I started Little Liffner about 3 years ago. Around that time I noticed a hole in the market. I love the combination of simple design and touch-worthy quality, but found that the bags which had those traits were hugely expensive. Personally, I want to enjoy many experiences in life and spending a month’s salary on a bag is not the smartest thing to do. I wanted to see if I could create something to fill that gap.
Entrepreneurship wasn’t necessarily natural for me. I was into getting my paycheck every month, being a good girl and having a steady, proper career. On the other hand, I was longing for more freedom and adventure. Launching the brand was a very gradual process. I kept my PR job for 2 years and worked on Little Liffner on weeknights, over breakfast each morning, and during weekends. After a while, I cut down my full-time job to 3 days a week, then 2. I’ve only gone full-time with Little Liffner in the last 6 months—I’m a slow burner in that sense. The fact that I started thinking about it a year before I actually started doing it makes the process feel even slower. But since doing Little Liffner full-time, I’ve really enjoyed being able to focus.
When you start something that you’ve never done before, you’re in a vulnerable state. One second you feel very strong, the next you’re freaking out. So particularly in the beginning, supportive people are tremendously important. Once you start making sales, your customers become a valuable source of encouragement. It’s so gratifying seeing people who come back for their second or third purchase. The balance between design, quality and price is very important to me, but I also started this as a quiet reaction to the whole ‘It Bag’ craze. With branding, I feel like it’s easy to get tricked by publicity. Sometimes I’ll start liking things because they have a certain label rather than liking the actual product. I try and give my bags a blank canvas quality—I don’t want them to say so much about you as a person, I’d prefer that you project what you want onto them, instead of the other way around.
Since launching Little Liffner, I’ve found that one of the trickiest things is to stay ambitious while still being a balanced, happy person. I’m really conscious of getting stuck in the pattern of living for the next thing and the next thing.
It takes a lot of discipline to enjoy where you are, but you have to do it.
My husband reality-checks me a lot. He’ll say, ‘If you would have told yourself years ago that this is what you’d be doing, you’d be super happy.’ You need someone from the outside to give you a wake up call from time to time—it has to be someone you know really well for you to actually listen. It can be tough to keep your head down rather than looking at what everyone else is doing. I compared myself more in the beginning, when the vision for my brand wasn’t as clear. But I realized that comparing myself doesn’t do me any good—it only distracts me from my focus.
I want to do my thing, do it my way and stick to my values.
You need to stay in touch with those values, and I think writing things down helps. About 5 years ago, I started writing down what I want to get better at—in life in general, not only my career. Every year I revise it a little bit. That simple exercise pushes you in the right direction because it reminds you of what you want. I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m working on it. The motivation has to be something intrinsic. Personally, I’m working on handling the success, the failures, the crazy and the calm times, with a kind of ease. I’m learning to be less reactive to everything that’s going on outside of me, and that takes continuous work. You have to exercise your brain just like you do your muscles.
Going out on your own can be emotional—you have to soak in the positivity and let the negativity pass you. It’s this weird faith where I’ve decided that this is what I want to do, and I’m going to keep on doing it regardless of external circumstances. And that feels very good. It also feels good to learn that you’re capable of much more than you think you are. I was partly driven by fear of failure before—which is why it took me a while to get this off the ground. I always wanted to do something like this, and should have started at 20-years-old instead of 30, when I wanted to. It wasn’t until I started taking this idea for my business seriously that I saw how fear was holding me back. I started thinking—what’s the worst that could happen? I tried to get to know my fears and looked them in the eye.
For me, the worst thing that could happen was to spend my life not doing what I really wanted to do.
Once I acknowledged that, my fear faded. It comes back, occasionally and irrationally… I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘What if no-one ever buys a bag again!’ You can’t control it all the time, but you become better at handling it. I think that’s the same for anyone who owns a business.
Being able to work on a physical product is so fun—from having your idea, to finding that perfect material, to producing the bag, then seeing someone wearing it on the street—for it to come full circle is so rewarding. During production in Italy, we’ll lay the materials out on the factory floor and start putting together samples, and those moments make me really, really happy. The fact that I created that opportunity for myself makes me so proud. I think the best thing you can do is just start. Most likely, the worst that could happen is that everything will be the same as it was before, and most of the time, that’s not that bad. You always have so much less to lose than you think.”