At five years old, Ingvar Kamprad looked up at his aunt with his big blue eyes and told her his business plan.
He wanted to make money selling matchsticks to his classmates and his neighbors in the Swedish village of Agunnaryd.
Instead of brushing him off like most adults do to children, she brushed the blonde hair out of his eyes and helped him buy 100 boxes of matches in bulk.
He bought the bunch for 80 ore (at the time it would have been about $0.78). He went to school and sold the matches for 2-5 ore per pack.
It was a return on investment of almost 300%.
The same time he was learning how to ride a bike, Ingvar was learning how to make a profit.
It seemed he was born to be a businessman. Maybe he just didn’t want to be poor anymore.
Having a business sense was good for Ingvar, because he struggled all his life in school. From the day he started, until the day he finished — Ingvar had a hard time learning to read.
He saw words backwards and couldn’t remember how to spell. His teachers thought they would give up on him.
They didn’t have a word for dyslexia in 1931 when he was in school.
It became clear as time went on that Ingvar would have to work harder than any of his peers to get the education his father insisted he have.
It was going to be tough.
Once Ingvar learned to ride a bike, he would travel from village to village selling items people needed or wanted.
By the time he was ten, he was not only selling matches, but also fish, pencils and Christmas stockings. His scrawny legs pedaled him through the dirt roads of numerous towns.
In the summer he would be covered in dust and sweat, but it didn’t stop him from trying to make the sale. At ten years old he already had a reputation for selling everyday items at an affordable price.
Before Ingvar could leave to go make his sales rounds, he still had to help on the family farm. He had to feed the animals and milk the cows.
It was a schedule that he had kept from the time he was old enough to walk.
And it taught him responsibility.
But more importantly, it taught him that he did not want to be a farmer.
It wasn’t something that he loved. And doing what he loved was important to him.
As he made his way through high school, Ingvar struggle. And his father pushed him to make good grades — accusing him of being lazy and sleeping too much.
Ingvar didn’t like thinking that his father believed he was lazy. So he bought an alarm clock and woke up at 6:30 every morning from that day on.
He milked the cows. He studied. He went to class — and sold supplies to his classmates. He studied some more. And then he got on his bike and went selling in the villages.
It was a daily routine that he stuck to.
When he finally graduated from school at 17, Ingvar’s father was so happy that he gave him a small fortune.
Ingvar added that present with the money he had saved — and he started his own company. He named it after himself, the farm and the village he was raised.
He called it Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd. He nicknamed it IKEA.
To get started, it was a mail-order business. He continued with his longtime strategy to sell items that Swedish people wanted but either couldn’t afford or weren’t commonplace to common people. He started out with ink pens from France and eventually decided that he wanted to sell furniture.
In Sweden, furniture was reserved for the rich.
Everyday people couldn’t afford such luxuries.
So Ingvar got in touch with local furniture makers to contract them to make simple, functional, affordable pieces of furniture.
And his plan worked. People started buying furniture.
He was selling it for less than any other furniture manufacturer around and the competition was not happy. They called for the furniture makers and the wood industry in general to boycott Ingvar and this new IKEA concept.
But that did not discourage Ingvar. He grew up having to adapt to tough situations. So when Swedish manufacturers stomped on his dream, Ingvar took his business to Poland — where he had his furniture made.
And it was even cheaper. So Ingvar and IKEA had even lower prices than before he was boycotted.
His determination gave him the edge yet again.
Eventually, his mail order business slowed down and he needed to regain some momentum. So he opened up a showroom.
He knew if people could see their options and touch them and sit in them, they would end up buying something before they left the showroom. Ingvar’s plan was to deliver it to them later.
And his prices were always right for every day people.
Ingvar believed that selling 600 chairs for less was better than selling 60 chairs for more.
He wanted to help people. That was always his number one goal. To give common folk the luxuries of the wealthy.
He made people happy and he found happiness in his mission to give his neighbors (and eventually the world) luxuries that he never had as a child.
Within five years of opening up his showroom, Ingvar opened up an IKEA store where people could come shop and go home with furniture the same day.
One day, he saw one of his employees, who he always referred to as co-workers, take the legs off a table.
Ingvar again, started to think about momentum. He started thinking about convenience — and came up with the idea of packaging everything in flat boxes to be taken home and assembled by the customer.
After all, they were having to re-assemble what they took apart at the store anyway. Yet again, Ingvar’s understanding of people’s needs was right on.
But it wasn’t because he was guessing. Ingvar was hands on.
He was always in the middle of everything going on in his stores.
Even by 2000, when he had over 300 stores in 38 countries, Ingvar remained hands on. Flying around the world to talk face to face with his “co-workers.”
He would also talk to customers who had no idea who he was — asking them how they liked the service they were receiving and if they thought IKEA could be improved.
IKEA became the world’s largest furniture store for a reason. Ingvar made sure customers loved the product and he made sure his employees loved their jobs.
“If you work and do not feel incorrigible enthusiasm, consider that at least a third of your life has gone down the drain.”
Ingvar related to his employees and his customers.
Despite his billionaire status, Ingvar still drove an old Volvo.
He never flew first class. He stayed in cheap hotels when he traveled. And most of his clothes were bought at a flea market.
He didn’t believe you had to be flashy to be successful or happy. And he wanted to always teach that frugality to the people who worked for him. He wanted them to be comfortable.
He didn’t enforce strict dress codes and he didn’t get mad when they made a mistake at work. He believed things would work out or they could be fixed.
And he was frugal in business as well. When Ingvar bought land for a new store, he bought less costly land outside of the city. He bought materials at a discount.
He left unseen parts of furniture unfinished.
And he minimized his sales staff to let people shop without the pressure of having to buy — because sometimes, you just want to look.
By adopting those practices, Ingvar was able to keep IKEA prices low and affordable, even as he expanded.
When he died early in 2018 at the age of 91, he not only left behind a business legacy, he left behind a school of thought that it’s more about life and less about money — and always about keeping the momentum going. He was able to keep and build the momentum of IKEA for over 70 years.
“WHAT CAN YOU DO IN YOUR LIFE OR IN YOUR BUSINESS TO GAIN SOME MOMENTUM?”
Have you found things becoming stagnant? Look around, what do people need? What do they want? Take a page from Ingvar’s book and ask them.
“I see my task as serving the majority of people. The question is, how do you find out what they want, how best to serve them? My answer is stay close to ordinary people, because at the heart I am one of them.”
You may be surprised what you come up with.