More than eighty five years ago, a boy by the name of Ingvar Kamprad began selling matches in the Swedish countryside. Slowly, the five-year-old entrepreneur expanded his offering, setting in motion developments that would become a global empire.
Today, IKEA may not be a verb, but it has affected our lives in ways few other brands have. The words "We're going to IKEA" have both wrecked and rescued entire family weekends. IKEA is heaven and hell at the same time--a study in reconciled opposites. The retailer manages to hold the line between friendly Swedish neighbor and international superpower, design-conscious aesthete and lowest common denominator.
Despite its convivial, family-oriented brand, IKEA is a tightly run ship, cost-conscious and analytics-savvy. Still, even as it has grown, it has managed to preserve its human-ness. It is a giant engine at human scale, simultaneously local and cosmopolitan. IKEA is the great equalizer: regardless of class and background, it attracts a large demographic swath. Within the showroom's labyrinth walls, everyone is treated the same, in keeping with the mission, "To create a better everyday life for the many people."
As so often is the case, the company's DNA, the "IKEA Spirit," goes back to its visionary founder who died this past Saturday, aged 91, in a remote mansion in the town of Älmhult, Sweden. Kamprad leaves an impressive legacy, not just because of the brand and global operations he built, but also because of his unique style of leadership. His manifesto, "Testament of a Furniture Dealer," published in 1976, became required reading for all IKEA workers, and Kamprad may serve as an inspirational North Star for generations of managers to come.
Here are seven of his lessons for tomorrow's leaders and brands:
1. Humans crave intimacy
IKEA is often the first port of call when moving to a new city. As people slowly settle in their new home, they flock to IKEA to pick some of the basics, and often it is the visit itself that gives them a sense of comforting familiarity in an unknown territory. The brand's character is remarkably fluid: IKEA manages to be just as comfortable communicating with an audience of millions as it is at creating memories for an individual, and brings to mind both vast, impersonal warehouses and remarkably intimate assembly experiences. Indeed, assembling IKEA furniture is some of the only hands-on carpentry that makes it into many everyday lives, and the effects, while occasionally frustrating, can be deeply rewarding. In many ways, IKEA is the anti-Amazon. Like the Seattle giant, it has revolutionized retail, but unlike Amazon, it has never removed the human from the center of its actions. Amazon personalizes, IKEA is personal. It is a proud human brand, while Amazon is proudly post-human. It's fair to assume that IKEA will never launch a fully automated store like Amazon Go.
2. Experience beats convenience
IKEA understood the "experience economy" long before it became a buzzword. From its iconic Kottbullar meatballs to co-working spaces, the IKEA experience continues to evolve. IKEA also knows that convenience is not everything. In fact, it has mastered the art of making it customers suffer a little. Think of the pains of self-assembly that some researchers dubbed the "IKEA Effect," citing the inflated psychological valuation for completed DIY products, or the IKEA shopping parcour that has rightly earned the scorn of satirists ("Ikea Founder Forced To Walk Through Entire Heaven Before Getting To His Section")--the greater the labor of love, the stronger the brand attachment. Effort beats effortless.
3. Give up control
While charming the world into homogenizing its interior landscapes, IKEA has spurred a crafty rebellion, inspiring a new wave of DIY enthusiasts through its constraints. While IKEA wasn't too pleased with this initially, the company has since come to recognize the value of ceding some control to its worldwide community. It has even fueled a new industry with furniture assembly jobs being among some of the most requested chores on platforms like TaskRabbit, which IKEA recently acquired.
4. Take the bus
With a fortune estimated at $59 billion, Kamprad was until most recently listed as the world's 8th richest man on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Yet at the same time he is considered one of the most down-to-earth corporate leaders of all times. His modesty--some say frugality--is legendary. One anecdote recalls his meeting with a young accountant at the airport. Exiting the terminal, while the accountant veered towards the taxi stands, he was met with a gentle reprimand: "We're taking the bus, no?" Kamprad is also reported to ask IKEA employees to write on both sides of pieces of paper, fly only economy class, and pocket the salt and pepper packets at restaurants.
5. It's personal
Leadership is personal. You have to show up, hold tight to your vision, and never compromise on quality. Kamprad's style was inclusive, but not egalitarian. While the IKEA brand stands for democratization, he was a hands-on micro-manager who understood that no one cared as much as he did (he didn't even entrust his sons with the company's leadership). Until his death, Kamprad was famous for his "management-by-walking-around" and frequent visits to the stores that brought him enduring popularity among his employees. "No method is more effective than the good example," he wrote. He never gave his workers the impression he was more important than them. A beloved leader, he personified soft power: warmth trumping brute expressions of authority, heart trumping fear.
6. Humility makes you strong
Humility is usually not a popular term among business leaders. Strong leadership is often equated with a sizable ego, a firm voice, and assertive action. But Kamprad had the courage to simply be himself, an eccentric, mostly private man who forewent the help from coaches or leadership literature (he would probably turn around in his grave reading this post). He intuitively knew himself and his place in the world, while at the same always questioning his impact. Nothing makes you more authentic, nothing gives you more strength.
7. Nothing is ever done
"Nobody can guarantee a company or a concept of eternal life, but no one can accuse me of not having tried to," Kamprad once said. His own work may be finished now, however, the IKEA story continues, true to his motto: "Most things still remain to be done!"