Mykita – When the Crew's Happy, the Ship Stays on Course

 

 

The Mykita building stands on Brunnenstrasse where the creative district Berlin-Mitte borders on the blue-collar borough of Wedding. A fitting location for an establishment that draws both on traditional craftsmanship and state-of-the-art creative progress. The Mykita-Haus, as it is known, is a spacious brick building from the Gründerzeit period in the late 19th century. But, the continually expanding company has long since outgrown the original premises. In a series of steps, neighboring shops and office spaces have been rented to serve as the new base for various departments, a showroom was opened and conference rooms were installed. Some people have even begun to refer to the area as the Mykita neighborhood. The company philosophy of making everything in-house and corroborating closely requires occasional improvisation.

The courtyard to the building is the only space that isn't overcrowded. Only a few cars are parked here, a couple of Vespas and a large number of bicycles, all of which have to be passed to reach the main building, the Mykita-Haus. Originally, its four floors housed stables and a blacksmith; today between 400 and 600 spectacle frames are manufactured here daily. The 185 employees design, produce, clean, pack, market and sell eyewear "Made in Berlin" on location. Globally almost 300 people are involved in the company.

Mykita's development is a success story marked by astonishing growth spurts. Between 2011 and 2012, the business recorded a 15 percent increase in sales. In figures, this amounts to a turnover of 18 million euros in 2012. The company also manages seven stores in Tokyo, Paris and Berlin. In June, another store is set to open in New York. All told the Berlin-made frames are available in 63 countries. They are especially popular with fashion-savvy hipsters in North America, France and Germany, but also among people who simply prefer the discreet design. High-tech or classic, the eyewear – available both as sunglasses or prescription glasses and usually made of acetate or stainless steel – is avant-garde and understated at the same time. By designing frames for sunglasses and spectacles, the budding entrepreneurs were careful not to grow top-heavy in one specific field from the start.

A first growth spurt occurred in 2003. That was the year when the four childhood friends from Oldenburg – Philipp and Daniel Haffmans, Moritz Krueger and Harald Gottschling – decided to market their innovative eyewear.

"The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds," as Mark Twain once said.

A quotation that befits the start-up spirit when the four founders' first headquarters were located in a former day-care center. Day-care centers in Germany are called "Kindertagestätte", colloquially abbreviated to Kita. Adding the possessive "my" to make Mykita, the four men decided to keep the name when they moved on to a larger venue. The original role model for their novel stainless steel concept was the Citroen 2CV. This automobile with its pared-down design was developed in France in the forties of the last century and renowned for its utilitarian simplicity. One of the car's most innovative features was its connector system that held the bodywork together. The four young friends applied this principle to the design of spectacles: simplify overall and remove anything that is not essential. The result was a light and adaptable frame made from sheet metal without the traditional screw connections and soldering point. The connecting end of the temple is rolled into a sort of spiral and hooked into the front of the rim. Although the men weren’t all spectacles wearers themselves or even particularly enthusiastic aficionados of exclusive eyewear design, they believed strongly in the concept of the connector system. And the experts concurred: at the first trade fair they attended, they sold over 4,000 frames. And the company has been growing ever since.

Today three of the original four partners still work in the company. Harald Gottschling has retired from day-to-day operations. Yet, even to photograph the three remaining partners together requires a lot of flexibility. While one has yet to arrive, another is already getting up to leave again. At Mykita the pressure is always on. "Of course, ten years on, our roles in the company are still important," says Moritz Krueger, who today holds the position of Managing and Creative Director and is generally the one who takes on interviews. "But we are not the navel of the company." Krueger is approximately 6 foot 3 inches tall, usually sports some form of headgear and wears white Birkenstocks. He considers their business structure the key to their success.

From the beginning, everyone agreed that they would not be solely responsible for the enterprise's strategic operations. "We did a good job of placing the right people in the right positions, giving them a lot reponsibility and allowing them sufficient space to act," Krueger says. Another factor was that everyone knew their role and they are able to communicate on equal terms. “We work well together because each of us is a specialist in his own discipline. Between us we have developed different methods to tackle problems and our multifaceted approach benefits the creative potential. Of course, the occasional points of friction do occur; situations in which we don’t agree. Yet it is precisely this process of chafing that generates fresh viewpoints and create new things.” And so Philipp Haffmans works in design, and Daniel Haffmans is deputy Managing Director and Corporate Design Director.

We work well as a founding team because we are in contact with our employees more often than with each other in our daily routine.

Other outside events also benefitted the company's development and caused further growth spurts. For example, there was the economic crisis in 2008, which had a strong effect on consumer behavior in the Western world. Consumer awareness for production conditions and fair salaries grew, good craftsmanship was sought-after. People became interested in the business ethics a company stands for and started seeking out operations with transparent philosophies. For the Mykita employees, the crisis meant they had to collaborate even more closely than before.

And then there was that matter with Patricia Field. As costume designer for movies such as "The Devil Wears Prada" or "Sex and the City," she is one of the most powerful stylists in the world. If Patricia Field decides that some unknown brand will be decorating the hands, feet or legs of an actress like Sarah Jessica Parker, this can only be good news for a young business. And when, in 2010, Patricia Field decided that Ms. Parker would wear gold-framed Mykita spectacles – the model Franz designed by fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm – on the movie poster for "Sex and the City 2," Franz was sold out permanently and sales of Mykita sunglasses just about doubled.

We don't need sales targets or visions of where we want to be in ten years. If you create the right conditions, economic success follows automatically.

By the "right conditions", Krueger means the company's creative autonomy, their independence to uphold the approach they defined over the years, and staying in touch with their employee base. "If the crew's happy," he says, "the ship stays on course." In practice, this doesn't simply mean humoring personnel, but rather maintaining a focus on the employees, challenging them and creating opportunities for professional development.

When Krueger speaks, he occasionally pauses, reflects and sometimes says, "Right now I can't think of an answer, but I'd like to send you my reply later." Krueger is not your stereotypical businessman who hides behind marketing phrases. "Mykita," Krueger says, "is strongly shaped by our autodidatic approach, a company that learns by doing." And possibly that's why he becomes very upset when the same mistake happens twice. "Though of course it happens all the time," he says with a laugh. A dream they still want to realize is to create other products totally removed from the field of spectacles and sunglasses. "I know we can do it." And what form or direction would these new plans take? Krueger simply gives us a smile.

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