I spent the past two weeks on vacation in St. Petersburg, Stockholm and Copenhagen, and I realized that the United States does not have a corner on entrepreneurism.
Our Russian tour operator, Tatiana Alexandrova, efficiently provided the most expensive day of my life. Private guide. Well-connected driver with a sleek sedan. A 12-hour tour. Private boats.
Tatiana gets capitalism. Small-business entrepreneurism is alive in post-Soviet Russia.
In Stockholm, entrepreneur Lars Rosen, 63, ditched his job as a firefighter a few decades ago and dived into publishing.
“One day when we played soccer and I saw the older [firemen] standing on the sideline instead of playing. I decided to [end] my job as a fireman. I did not want to be the guy standing on the sideline.”
Rosen’s father worked for the Swedish royal family, so Lars had a network of contacts. One was the editor at the biggest car magazine in Scandinavia, and Rosen approached him about starting a couple of magazines that judged cars for consumers.
The magazines became successful, and Rosen sold them about three years ago. Now he owns a big chunk of a high-end, monthly car magazine called Gran Turismo, which is more a lifestyle publication than a consumer guide.
The company has nine full-time employees and more than $1 million in revenue. He hopes to double that by next year.
“I sometimes think about the hours and money we have invested in our small publishing house and if I instead had started something with more potential profit. But if I then look at all the fun and good times we have had during this ‘trip,’ I don’t regret one day.”
Rosen is still bringing in investors to help build the business. His current project is a car show/auction planned for this fall that could boost the visibility of his magazine. He also has a new car magazine in the works, featuring more-basic cars that might appeal to a broader audience. He hopes to double his revenue next year.
“I like this kind of business because it never stands still, and you meet a lot of nice people, and I get to drive all the cars that most people just dream about,” Rosen said.
Rosen does well. He and Milena Bergquist live in a waterfront apartment on the island of Kungsholmen in central Stockholm. They also own a country home in southwestern Sweden.
Bergquist, 53, has written children’s books, has a cookbook coming out any day and is finishing up a novel.
When we met for dinner at a restaurant in Stockholm two weeks ago, she said she was in negotiations with a Swedish television network to develop a show around her children’s books. The TV show could become an financial home run if it boosts the sale of her children’s books.
“I started writing quite late, at 38,” said Bergquist, who quit her job as a features editor at Svenska Dagbladet, one of the big Swedish newspapers, to strike out on her own.
“For me, it’s always been a freedom thing,” she said. “Being able to decide for yourself how to spend your day. I have a hard time with the 9-to-5 thing.”
I met another entrepreneur accidentally. Our Stockholm hotel left a complimentary bag of delicious caramels in our room, and my wife, Polly, and I decided to hunt down the manufacturer, Parlans, so we could buy some for friends.
After a long march around the city, we found Lisa Ericson, 33, and her employees cooking up the candy in the kitchen of an airy, upscale cheese shop that reminded us of a mini-Balducci’s.
Ericson, who was born in the college town of Uppsala, north of Stockholm, comes from a food family. Her father works for the Swedish Dairy Association and made sure that the family diet included generous portions of fresh cream and butter.
Ericson studied food science at the Swedish Agricultural University before working as a product developer in the food industry.
She started thinking about starting her own business while traveling on business to London, New York and Tokyo, where she learned the business of branding and marketing. She built a network, and she raised money by selling her apartment and moving in with her boyfriend.
“Suddenly, it was the right moment,” she said.
She registered the company in March 2010, but it took six months to find a kitchen where she could make the caramels and to hire employees.
Parlans opened in November, just in time for the Christmas season. Ericson designed simple, attractive brown boxes and small bags for packaging. Her first customers were businesses that wanted to give caramels as holiday gifts.
“Three weeks after opening our shop, we were working in shifts to be able to produce enough caramels to meet the demand. I had to call my friends, trying to find people that could help me. It was very fun, but I was totally exhausted at Christmas.”
Come January, she started taking samples to Stockholm’s fine food stores, asking them to put the candy on their shelves. The Hotel Skeppsholmen, where I stayed, called her after reading about Parlans in a magazine.
The candy isn’t cheap. Each caramel costs about $1 retail.
Parlans has sold about 200,000 pieces, about 40 percent of them through direct sales at its store and 35 percent through resellers. The rest were bought by companies that give caramels as gifts.
Parlans, which employs five people, may have its first profitable month in September. Ericson is looking for bigger quarters so she can expand sales, which will help reduce the per-unit cost.
“We have had problems with a very inefficient and costly production, but we have done a lot of improvements during the last two months,” she said.
She wants to expand, but carefully, mainly through upscale hotels and fine food stores throughout Sweden.
Ericson said the hardest part of owning a business is sleeping at night.
“I am responsible for the livelihood of five people. They depend on me.”
She also borrowed money from her family. And she wants to make sure she pays it back.
We did our part to help her sleep. We bought several boxes.
Follow me on Twitter at addedvalueth.