The Startup Interview: Katchspace

When taking a trip to IKEA you probably aren’t looking to invest in a piece of cardboard furniture but Karis Gill, a first-year Undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh is hoping to change all that. Together with a team of designers and entrepreneurs, she’s launched Katchspace, a company designing a modular cardboard furniture series which will be cheap, compact and flexible. We met at the library for a chat about cardboard, creativity and why she’s always wanted to be her own boss.

“Our general table discussion over dinner is about the different ideas we’ve come up with throughout the day,” Karis begins. She’s been brought up with what she describes as an “entrepreneurial background” with both parents working in business or for themselves. It comes as no surprise then that she’s immersed herself in business from the get-go; “I had my first business at the age of ten when I ran a solo art exhibition at the city gallery in Leicester and made £150 — for a child, that sort of money is like winning the lottery,” she says. “Business has been a very big part of my life and I’ve always consciously assumed that I’d be my own boss.”

Throughout her childhood, Karis has run a number of businesses ranging from car-washing to child-minding services before coming to her current startup, Katchspace — a modular cardboard furniture business which she’s come up with in this, her first year at the University of Edinburgh where she’s studying Business and Enterprise Innovation. “I originally applied to study Art, but I realised that I didn’t want to be surrounded by people who do art, I wanted to be surrounded by other entrepreneurs,” she reveals. Like many others, Karis is inspired by her own kind and is more evidence, if it were needed, that co-working is the workplace of the future for startup businesses and their founders.

“I originally applied to study Art but I realised that I didn’t want to be surrounded by people who do art, I wanted to be surrounded by other entrepreneurs.”

“So tell me about Katchspace. Where did the inspiration come from?” I ask. “This one came from moving into university accommodation. They didn’t provide much in terms of storage furniture for clothes and things, but the cheapest chest of drawers I could find in IKEA was ridiculously expensive,” she tells me. “I was thinking about what could make furniture cheaper and easier for students and came up with cardboard which, after lots of research, I found to be really robust and capable of being made into furniture. So that’s where it all started.”

The idea came to life at 3 Day Startup, an entrepreneurship weekend run by LAUNCH.ed which has featured in a number of The Startup Interviews so far. The difference here, however, is that, unlike the other entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to, Karis has kept her team on post-event, a fact which surprises her. “The reason they’re all still here is because they all believe in the idea,” she says confidently. It’s refreshing to see that Karis believes in the team who rallied behind her at 3 Day Startup; “they all have something unique to give,” she says. “Pablo has experience with Kickstarter, we have two designers working on a prototype, we have someone who has started a company and has experience in that area, …” Her team’s list of talents continues.

“So what does the future hold?” I ask, aware that so far, there isn’t actually a product for sale. “At the moment, we’re working on a prototype but we’re hoping to ship by September,” she says. “We’ll be launching some social media promotion soon and we’re also looking at a Kickstarter campaign to raise the initial funds to produce the first batch of products.”

I’m curious as to whether or not there is a demand for cardboard furniture in the UK market. I, for one, am quite accustomed to my cheap-ish, wooden furniture from IKEA and I suspect many others are as well. “The benefits of cardboard furniture is that it is lightweight, very flexible and it’s very easy to change configuration. We’re marketing modular cardboard furniture so you can use the same kit to build a number of different items of furniture. It’s also really easy to store away,” she says. It’s a highly polished pitch. “There’s definitely a market out there for it. The cheapest desk at IKEA costs £60 and we believe that we can produce a desk for just £30. Our market research found that price was essential. Lots of students were very keen on the idea, however, having initially focused on a target market of first year students, we’re actually finding that travelling, or exchange students are in much greater need of our product. There’s also a much bigger market out there — think market stalls. We believe that everyone can use our product: students, low-income families, businesses.”

“There’s definitely a market out there for it. The cheapest desk at IKEA costs £60 and we believe that we can produce a desk for just £30. Our market research found that price was essential.”

“Long-term, do you see yourself as an entrepreneur?” I ask. “Absolutely, no doubt about it. Except when I was younger and wanted to be an artist and creative writer, I’ve always seen entrepreneurialism as my path,” she exclaims, sitting forward in her seat. “There are so many aspects of being an entrepreneur that I like, but the main thing is that the sky is the limit. The more you put in, the more you get out of the experience.” Today, many students are put off entrepreneurship by the financial risk, but this hasn’t been the case for Karis. She’s convinced that all students should make the most of their time as a student where there is very limited financial burden but a great deal of opportunity. “Yes, when I’m a graduate, there is more financial risk but, you know what, if you get a job, you could be fired the next day,” she says. It’s a fair point I suppose.

I ask her for the best piece of advice she’s ever been given. She tells me about a book she read which asked the question ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ “It really made me think — I’d probably do so much more if I wasn’t afraid,” she admits. “So now, whenever I’m coming up with an excuse, I think about that quote and it just tells me to go and do it.” It is this piece of advice that she’d offer to anyone else as well; “Never give in, don’t make excuses for yourself, just go and do it.”

“Never give in, don’t make excuses for yourself, just go and do it.”

“So how would you describe an entrepreneur?” I ask Karis. She laughs, “this is a really difficult question.” After a little thought, she replies, “everyone in their own way is an entrepreneur but I would say the theme I associate the most with entrepreneurs is creativity. I need to think about that question a little more.” We agree to come back to it later in the interview.

A really interesting source of inspiration turns up when I ask Karis about the individuals who inspire her the most. Aside from naming Grayson Perry, she points her finger at James Dyson, the British industrial designer and inventor of the bag-less vacuum cleaner who is often omitted from the lists of great entrepreneurs. “He wasn’t paid for three years and produced thousands of prototypes but he 100% believed in himself and now look, he’s one of the richest people in the world,” she explains. “He never gave in.” We discuss Dyson a little more, agreeing that he ought to be credited as one of the greats in entrepreneurship more frequently but noting that his reserved character — when compared to the likes of Richard Branson — may be part of the reason he isn’t.

Unexpectedly for Karis, my list of questions comes to an end so she is, once again, put on the spot about her definition of an entrepreneur. We discuss a few of the other definitions which have emerged as part of the series so far before she settles for, “entrepreneurs are people who go about changing the world in a creative way, with an element of risk taking.” She recognises that entrepreneurship isn’t all about profit, however, noting the rising number of social enterprises in existence today. Very interestingly, Kaksie decides to frame me as an entrepreneur despite my insistence that I am not and that I prefer a 9–5 job. I ask her why; “You’ve made a difference, you’ve taken a risk — it’s quite daunting to write a blog with a big risk of not getting any views, etc — and you’ve done it in a creative way by writing,” she says. Now there’s some food for my thoughts.

We gather our belongings and head for the exit of the library — we’ve been sat in a rather warm, enclosed and overcrowded room for the past half hour so the limited sunshine outside is a nice alternative. As we’re on our way out, I ask her about the business ideas she discussed with her family over dinner. “Do you have any fun favourites?” I ask. “Oh, yes. If you mix glucose with chocolate, you get mouldable chocolate which you can keep in the fridge. It’s like edible playdough,” she exclaims. Now that sounds like great fun.