Golla puts Nordic design in the bag

Global changes in consumer habits have made the Finnish design company change course several times – but it’s always stayed true to its original style

When’s the last time you saw someone dig out a digital camera to take a holiday snapshot? That’s right: these days, the vast majority of amateur photographers would just reach for their phone.

Before smartphones, digital cameras used to be everywhere. In the heyday of the mobile takeover, Finnish Golla used to sell seven million camera and mobile phone bags a year. It had products available in over 120 countries and tens of thousands of resellers. Awards were flying in from entrepreneurship societies and the President of Finland.

Around 2012, things started to look different.

“Cameras disappeared and all mobile phones turned smart,” says CEO Petri Kähkönen.

For Golla, that meant that pivoting was inevitable. Fortunately, the company was experienced in looking into new directions. When it was founded in the ‘90s, it produced design gift items such as CD racks. Hand on your heart – when did you last listen to a CD?

Hence, changing gear was nothing new to the family business.

“A lot has changed indeed,” Kähkönen notes laughingly. “But the idea has remained the same: designing consumer products with a distinctive twist and pushing them abroad furiously.”

Electronics turns to lifestyle

Now, Golla designs minimalistic, Scandinavian-style bags. At department stores, its products have been moved from the electronics departments to fashion and accessories.

As with the mobile revolution Golla was at the forefront of, the company has managed to jump on another trend. These days, even businessmen in suits don’t refuse a backpack. Commuters as well as students are turning to Golla’s classic designs to carry their daily necessities.

Kähkönen describes the most recent pivot as the most labour-intensive so far.

“It’s the odd life of an entrepreneur,” he points out. “A company that used to grow year-on-year had to take steps back and start from small again. Fortunately things have taken off again.”

Golla isn’t just sending bags out to the world and hoping they’ll find a carrier. The company’s goal is to establish stores around the world, similar to those it already has in the capital region in Finland.

“The store can be an export item in itself,” Kähkönen explains. “The world is full of products, so selling just an individual bag in Japan can be difficult. The concept of a shop is much more interesting.”

No regrets

Golla’s history includes the world-famous bean bag brand Fatboy, which Kähkönen then sold to a Dutch company. The next big step might be adding shoes to the selection.

All design work happens in Golla’s office in Espoo – as well as trade fairs and travels abroad. The manufacturing itself is outsourced to China, but the plan is to bring at least some of it back to Europe.

“The first Golla products were made by hand by as in the village of Kolla, where the name of the company comes from,” Kähkönen tells. “But once you start selling something in their millions, you’ve got to start looking elsewhere.”

Golla has a subsidiary in China, a very international team of about a dozen people in its headquarters and one employee in Germany, one of the company’s main markets. The head count is set to grow soon, as future plans are big.

“Consumer products are something people always need,” Kähkönen notes. “The world is a huge place to sell stuff, and with the right kind of branding it poses vast opportunities. Finland has definitely not reached its full potential, so there’s a lot of work to be done.”

In spite, or because, of the whirlwinds that have dictated Golla’s direction, Kähkönen doesn’t regret a day of entrepreneurship. When he founded the company with his brother in 1995, he was a lawyer with zero experience in design.

“No previous knowledge was in the way,” he says and grins. “I always had a gift for visual things and an urge to try my own wings, and it definitely was the right choice.”