Meet Kristen Geldermann, founder of KONA CAVE.
After 16 years in corporate life Kristen decided to quit her job and travel the world. When in Munich, she fell in love with a man, decided to take her Jack Russell Kona and move to Germany. She started a new life, and became an entrepreneur.
Kristen, how would you describe yourself in three words?
Kristen: Happy, adventurous, loyal.
Please finish the sentence: „When I get up in the morning, I…“
Kristen:…am motivated and excited to be doing the things that I love.
You were born and raised in the United States. After graduating from college you started working for a popular American fashion label and you actually stayed for 16 years in the same company. How would you describe your career?
Kristen: I was very proud of working for that company, for what that company stood for – style, quality and sophistication – and for my accomplishments within the company.
I actually started working part time in one of their retail stores while I was living in Hawaii and studying at the University. After graduating with a Fine Arts degree, I wasn’t sure of my next step. So while I was trying to figure out my future, the company offered me a store management position. At the time I thought it would be a temporary position until I started my career as an artist.
However, I really enjoyed what I was doing. I had the opportunity to be business minded at the same time as being creative, and I enjoyed empowering and leading teams of people. I traveled around the US assisting with store openings; and because I was always open to new challenges, I lived in several different States, managing different stores for the company. I was also fortunate to work with many excellent mentors who inspired me and helped to strengthen my skills along the way.
Ultimately, I ended up living in New York City, where I stayed for 13 years and was promoted to numerous different positions. I garnered in-depth experience in both the vertical retail and wholesale divisions of the company. This vast experience in luxury retail, and dedication to quality and style, definitely paved the way for me to start my own high-end company. As a founder, you must wear many hats, and my having essentially grown up in the retail world, working in so many different capacities, has trained me well for all types of challenges that come with building and running a business.
And after 16 years you decided to quit and travel the world. Was there a specific moment when you decided to take the leap and go on a sabbatical or would you say it was a process?
Kristen: Funny enough, it was kind of both. I had always dreamed of traveling around the world. I thought that “one day” I would do it. However, like for most people, that “one day” was rather hypothetical. I had made no plans for a trip and there was never any time to think about it. My career was always my first priority and it was unimaginable to think of putting my career on hold for my own personal growth.
However, as I achieved more and was promoted higher in the company, I began to realize I had less and less satisfaction in what I was doing and where I had put myself on my priority list. I had always believed that I would start my own company one day and would work for myself, but all of a sudden, 16 years had passed and I felt that I couldn’t now give up all that I had accomplished, and the reputation that I had built for myself, within the company.
One evening I was speaking with a friend, another successful, career driven NYC woman, and she asked me what I would do if I had the opportunity to do something for myself. Without thinking, I quickly answered that I would travel around the world. That moment, although I didn’t know it at the time, would change my life forever. My friend decided that she would also like to travel around the world, and as there would never be a convenient time, we decided to make it happen on our own.
How did you go on developing this idea?
Kristen: My original approach to the idea was that I would take a sabbatical. However, as the trip planning came to life, I realized that with just taking a few months off to travel, I wouldn’t allow myself the full experience of letting go and making it truly an adventure. I knew that I would still be answering emails and worrying about what was happening at the office instead of being present in the experience.
It was a hard decision at the time, but I decided if I really wanted to fully enjoy this life experience, then I would need to step out of the security of my career and make the ultimate change and leave my position.
How did you spend the first day after your last working day in 16 years?
Kristen: Freaking out. I questioned everything. Was I making the right decision? Could I really give up the career that I had worked so hard to build? What did I want to do after I came back from my travels? Where did I want to live? There were so many unanswered questions, that yeah, I would definitely say I spent the first day freaking out.
Luckily, there was so much to do to prepare for the trip that I had no choice but to focus all my energy on the near future.
Was it a big change? To not work? Was there a special moment you remember mostly?
Kristen: It was a huge change not to work. I was work-obsessed before leaving. To a strong degree, my company and my position defined me as a person. I was my job. That was very hard to let go of. I have to say, it took me a very long time to separate myself from my work. Even after I returned from my travels, I still associated myself with my previous job. It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I was able to let go of that old concept of myself and start to see the opportunities ahead of me.
Then you travelled and also visited Munich during the Oktoberfest. And you lost your heart to a real Bavarian. And decided to move here. It sounds like a story from a movie but you actually gave up your life to start a new one. What was the most difficult for you to give up from your „old“ life?
Kristen: As exciting as it was to move to a new country, and build a life with my new family, what was hardest for me was leaving the openness of the people, and the non-stop energy of New York City. Living in Munich, I missed the verve of NYC, and the incredible network of friends that I had established there. Because it is such a melting pot of people, who come from all over the world, there is an openness and supportiveness, that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. The friends you make there become your family.
Don’t get me wrong, I love living in Germany, and I’ve met a lot of amazing people and made wonderful friends since moving here, but the electricity of living in a city like New York is unique.
Berlin tends to be a bit of an exception to that in Germany. Because it is so International, you meet people from all over the world. I think this melding of cultures, and openness to new people and ideas, aids in the creative feel of the city. There is so much energy and creativity in Berlin that it inspires you.
You only brought your Jack Russell Kona from home. And then you actually became a founder because of a necessity – for your dog. Can you tell us a little about the initial incident then let to founding your company, Kona Cave?
Kristen: Since Kona was a puppy, I’ve searched for high quality, good looking dog beds and accessories, that would look beautiful in my home.
When we moved to Germany, my fiance didn’t want Kona to sleep in the bed with us. Although I was disappointed, I understood. Before I got Kona, the notion of a dog sleeping in my bed was ridiculous. However, Kona made it clear to me when he was just a puppy, that he liked to sleep under the covers – and that my bed was the best place for him.
In Germany, I tried to find Kona a dog bed that offered a cover so that he could still get that snuggled and protected feeling while in his own bed. Unfortunately, I could not find any dog beds that were stylish, high quality and met the needs of my dog. As I spent more and more time on the internet, searching and researching the bed I wanted for Kona, I became more educated on a dog’s natural sleep needs (dogs are den animals, and in the wild they slept in caves), and why terriers and other hunting breeds like to sleep under the covers and in small spaces (they were breed to be in tunnels). I realized that Kona was not alone and that there was a void in the market for high-quality dog beds that fulfilled a dog’s natrual sleep instincts.
And you created your own version of a Cave Bed?
Kirsten: Exactly. After extensive research and intensive testing, the Kona Cave Snuggle Cave Bed was realized. Not only are our beds of the highest quality for your dog’s ultimate comfort, but they are elegantly designed, in sophisticated fabrics, to look great in your home. In addition, matching Home accessories for people furniture are available in the same beautiful fabrics as the beds, to help integrate the look into your home.
Shorty after the Snuggle Cave Bed was released, I designed the Kona Cave Travel Mat. I loved bringing Kona to restuarants with us, but didn’t like him lying on the cold and dirty floor. The Travel Mat is carried like a flat handbag, with practical handles, and opens into a plush dog bed. It is so useful, that I couldn’t imagine life with Kona without it. It has become one of our best sellers.
What’s the plan for the next months and years – for you and your company?
Kristen: I actually wish there was more time in a day because I want to spend more time working on Kona Cave! It’s my passion to grow Kona Cave into a well-known, premium lifestyle and dog brand. Having spent so many years of my life working for a luxury company, high quality and beautiful style have become part of my DNA. It is important for me to be extremely proud of what I am designing and the product that I am creating.
I have often been told that my standards are too high, or that the little details do not matter. However, they matter to me, and they matter to the people buying my products. The entire customer experience is important to me. I want my customers to be just as happy with their purchase in 5 years, as they were the first day they bought it. When you are passionate and care about what you are making, that passion shows and becomes contagious.
Do you have a practical tip for women who are thinking about founding a company?
Kristen: Stay true to yourself!
If you have a good idea, that you are passionate about, and believe it can be a success, then do it! It doesn’t matter what phase of your life you are in. Traditionally, most start-up female founders are much younger than me, and I did think for a moment if I still “had it.” However, I realized that my age was a benefit for me. My vast work experience and career accomplishments meant that I had already proven myself, and my abilities, and that I would therefore be a success with Kona Cave too. I had the additional challenge of starting a company in a foreign country, in a foreign language with no network or resources. Had I started Kona Cave in the US, I would have had access to the vast business connections that I had developed throughout my career. As it was, I had no support and had to start everything from new. The challenges make us stronger.
If you believe in what you want to do, and have a valid proof of concept, then nothing should stop you. Do not get discouraged by people who don’t share your passion or vision (there will be many). You have to believe in you first, the rest will follow.
And finally, what is your personal life tip for women out there who are thinking about leaving their job, their life, and are hesitant?
Kristen: There is never an ideal time to make a huge life change. What is important is that you listen to your heart because you know exactly what is right for you. You are your best advocate.
If you have a dream that you want to follow, and are unhappy in your current situation, only you can change it. There will always be many reasons not to take that bold step of change, but you are the reason to do it. You need to make sure that you are making your happiness as important as the other priorities in your life.
Measure the pros against the cons to decide what is the best time for you to make a change. Give yourself milestones so that you are continuously moving closer to your goal. The challenge is not to wait too long to achieve your happiness. If you’re passionate about it, you can do it.
Thanks Kristen for taking the time and sharing your story with us!