My Swedish Career

‘I brought my childhood summerhouse to life’

‘I brought my childhood summerhouse to life’
Finnish businesswoman Sara Vilkko, who now lives in Stockholm. Photo: Martina Klimesova
After growing up in Rovaniemi in Finland before enjoying an advertising career in London, Sara Vilkko, 38, chose Stockholm as the city from which to launch a new app game for toddlers based on her own childhood holiday experiences.

Sara Vilkko had a blast studying and working in the UK in her twenties – climbing the corporate ladder in advertising, sharing a house with friends and spending her weekends rooting around Notting Hill market.

“But there’s only so long you can do that for,” she tells The Local.

“I had a lot of creative ideas, but it was hard to fit those in around the hours I was working. I also started to crave returning to a more Nordic culture and the chance to live on my own without having to spend a fortune, like you just have to in London,” she added.

Now in her late thirties, Vilkko is living in Stockholm and finally bringing some of those ideas to fruition. Last week, she launched an app aimed at under fives, which transports its users to a fictional land based on the idyllic woodland summer house where she spent her own childhood holidays in northern Finland.

Nampa Forest consists of five mini games which allow children play with a selection of animals – jumping into water, running through a field of daisies, blowing up balloons with the help of wild bees and catching magical fish.

There is no score counting and all users are treated to a disco dance with the characters once they decide to stop playing. With no dialogue featured, each game can be played by children from all over the world.

What the Nampa Forest app looks like. Image: Nampa Design AB

“I have always loved drawing and putting black pen to white paper, and I actually designed the characters in the games a long time ago,” says Vilkko, who shares a home in the Swedish capital with her partner and their pet sausage dog.

“In 2006 I started putting the Nampa Forest creatures on greetings cards, which I made as a hobby while I was working for Proctor and Gamble in London, but I never really had the time to develop the idea. I couldn’t visit enough stores or markets to push it forward,” she adds.

“I guess I always knew that they would have another life someday though,” she smiles.

But Vilkko’s venture into Stockholm’s start-up scene was a gradual one.

She initially relocated to the Swedish capital while still working for Proctor and Gamble, the same multinational firm that she had forged her career with in London. After working as a store design consultant, she later took a role helping to promote one of the region’s best-loved exports – vodka – with The Absolut Company.

“I learnt loads in the corporate sector – 11 years in total – but I guess deep down I knew it wasn’t full ‘me’,” says Vilkko.

“Following three years in the same role I started thinking about what might come next and it really felt like the right time and the right place to get to work on the app,” she explains.

Some of the Nampa Forest characters. Image: Nampa Design AB

Having developed a global network of contacts across the advertising and retail sectors, Vilkko began working part-time as a freelance consultant two days a week, while using the rest of her time to turn her fictional forest into a real-life business venture.

“I think Sweden offers a very positive environment in which to start your own business – the actual process was much easier than I thought,” says Vilkko.

“For me one of the things I have enjoyed the most is the freedom I have had to make my own decisions, without getting trapped in the bureaucracy there can be in bigger corporations.”

When the Nampa app launched last week it went straight to number one in the ITunes app store in Finland, while reaching number two in the children’s chart in Sweden. It is available worldwide.

“Me and the developers have been delighted with the success,” she says.

“We’re already working on ways to expand things even further.”

The entrepreneur says she is convinced that she’ll be sticking around in Stockholm as she expands the project.

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“My heart is in Finland and I still miss the buzz of London sometimes – that is like a third home for me I suppose after northern Finland and Sweden,” she says.

“But Stockholm really is the place to achieve some balance; it’s a proper city but it’s more gender equal than London and it’s just a joy to live surrounded by so much water and nature.”