Liisa Wrang - the rags-to-riches story behind Stardoll
By Ritva Liisa Snellman
It is said that there are only seven kinds of story. All the rest are variants on the original seven.
The most intriguing of the basic narratives is naturally the model in which the protagonist surprisingly goes from rags to riches or from obscurity to fame. The ugly duckling morphs into a beautiful swan, the humble office gofer makes a million, and Susan Boyle becomes a world-famous singing star.
Or alternatively the celebrity paper dolls created by a Finnish cleaner grab the attention and the fat cheque-books of international venture capitalists.
This mysterious former cleaner has surfaced briefly in news items in financial and IT journals, which have reported on a new Stockholm-based company known as Stardoll.
Stardoll, described as "the world's largest online fashion and games community for girls", has caught on in massive numbers among pre-teen and teenage girls interested in fashion, brands, and in role-playing with virtual paper dolls.
It could just conceivably become the latest Swedish success story after Abba and Ikea.
Stardoll.com is already among the most popular web portals among young people, and it is still growing fast.
The online doll community, launched in 2004 as Paperdoll Heaven, is said to get around 20,000 new members every day.
The site and community now has more than 80 million registered users, who can dress up virtual dolls using a range of tools and can participate in interactive activities, depending on the type of account they are using.
They can also furnish the virtual suites their dolls occupy, and - as one might have come to expect - nearly all of this involves some form of payment for "discretionary purchases", whether in euros or the site's own stardollars.
Hardly any wonder, then, that Stardoll interests advertisers and branded goods manufacturers quite as much as it does girls between 7 and 17.
The company does not divulge its net sales, but last year it was up there behind leaders Facebook and Wikipedia on the list of "The Most Valuable Internet Startups", published by online magazine Business Insider.
The league table features those private online companies that have yet to go public on the stock exchanges.
At that point in October 2009, Business Insider was estimating sales for the year of around USD 25 million and a conservative valuation for the company of roughly USD 200 million.
There have only been a few brief mentions in the media of the founder of the original company.
She is "Liisa", who loved paper dolls and after her retirement started drawing them again, this time on the PC.
The Stardoll.com site, in a section intended for the parents of would-be teen customers, has this to say on the subject:
"Stardoll's original name was Paperdollheaven.com, and started out as the hobby of the Scandinavian-born Liisa. Inspired by a childhood passion for paperdolls, Liisa started drawing dolls and accompanying wardrobes and taught herself web design. Her personal homepage rapidly became a popular destination for teens.
In 2004, with the help of her son, she upgraded the site and called it Paperdoll Heaven.
'Most online sites are focused on violence and competitiveness', says Liisa. 'I wanted to create a positive online environment for young girls who are creative and interested in fashion. They are looking for alternatives to shoot 'em up and kill 'em up games.'
Liisa is still an important part of the Stardoll family and she makes new paper dolls every week, which you can find at Stardoll.com, your paper doll heaven!"
In some news clippings, Liisa is further narrowed down to being "Finnish" rather than just "Scandinavian".
In a few instances she is described as having been a cleaner, or retired, or a factory worker.
The lack of detail and any online or real-world presence is explained by the fact that Liisa herself is extremely shy and reticent.
From time to time, there have been suggestions that the entire "Liisa back-story" is nothing more than a clever figment of the imagination dreamed up by the advertising people to give flesh to the site.
It has to be admitted that the Cinderella story does give a nice drop of edge to the company's history.
So does "Liisa" really exist, or is she as artificial a construct as the "Ploughman's Lunch" invented by the UK's Milk Marketing Board in the 1960s?
Helsingin Sanomat went to find out.
A dark-haired woman opens the door of a duplex apartment in Turku and invites us in.
The woman looks like Hazurama, one of the paper dolls featured in the Stardoll.com virtual world.
The same straight fringe, brown eyes, and a long ponytail.
Hazurama is Liisa Wrang's paper doll alter ego, or "MeDoll".
She has her own space on the Stardoll.com site, complete with lookalike Marimekko Unikko drapes in the kitchen and Japanese prints on the wall.
While the characters on the online portal generally dress in glamour outfits and stiletto heels, Liisa Wrang opens the door to us in a tunic, leggings, and woollen socks. And she has an inquisitive expression, as illustrators so often do.
The apartment does actually resemble the MeDoll virtual suite on the website: dark furniture, large empty surfaces, Japanese wood-block prints on the walls, a lot of black and white, print curtains with strong designs.
Liisa Wrang does not make appearances at Stardoll press briefings and she does not divulge her views on the business at get-togethers, IT-conferences, or in the pages of the women's magazines, because she finds the very idea rather intimidating and frightening.
Sometimes even the everyday world seems frightening enough.
Then Wrang shuts herself up in her apartment and draws, most often the heads of paper dolls.
When she concentrates on hair and eyebrows and eyelashes, she no longer notices that she is herself not feeling altogether right.
Even at the age of 63, she can on occasion take up her pens and crayons and sketch for fourteen hours straight.
And now she gets paid for her drawing, since she is Stardoll's "Creative Director".
"For my part, I'd sooner call myself an illustrator, which is what I am. The titles they come up with have got so grand that as a cleaner I would probably have been nothing less than a Cleaning Director these days."
But let us sidetrack for a moment and pick up another story.
This is one of post-war Finland, and it, too, has a few Cinderella features about it.
The country that had barely preserved its independence and was struggling with poverty and heavy war reparations grew into a wealthy and advanced state, although it was hard to imagine it happening in 1947.
It was in that year that a second daughter was born into the family of a carpenter from Paimio near Turku.
She led much the same childhood as her contemporaries.
This was not a time when terms like "self-respect" and "encouragement of the young", and "the importance of hobbies" were commonplace when children were being discussed.
Quite the opposite: children were expected to be seen (very discreetly) but not heard, and one was definitely not supposed to have ideas that might be above one's station.
Even playing was not smiled upon unreservedly, although Liisa was allowed to draw paper dolls.
Fortunately watercolour paints were relatively inexpensive, and her mother bought waste cartridge paper from the shop for her to draw on.
In the spirit of the age, the parents had a firm belief in education, even though there was not the money around for school textbooks or tuition fees.
Liisa was sent to grammar school, but she did not become a college graduate, or even a high school undergraduate with a white cap, since her schooling did not go very well.
Her grades remained low, and the teaching staff tended to ignore a girl who was too shy and awkward to answer or raise her hand in class.
"A typical underachiever" is what they would say about her today.
Liisa continued to draw paper dolls, to design clothes for them, and to cherish dreams of a place at the Atheneum and a career as a fashion designer.
Her teachers were not exactly overwhelmed: they gave her a seven (on a ten scale) in arts at school.
Liisa's parents subscribed Suosikki for the children.
Having a youth magazine like this in the household was unusual for Paimio in the 1960s, but Liisa made the most of the opportunity, and took part in a "draw your favourite pop star" competition at the age of 15.
She came second, and was encouraged to keep it up.
A couple of years later, while still a teenager, she took part in a design competition arranged by a Finnish coat manufacturer.
The best four entrants were invited to the factory, and Liisa - one of the four - was even asked if she would like to go to Paris.
The whole idea seemed so preposterous at the time that she said: "No, thanks".
It was a pretty stupid idea to turn down such a golden opportunity, but what was one to expect from a diffident and shy 17-year-old with no self-belief.
After school she should have gone to work, but when even an apprenticeship in a hairdressing salon did not seem to be working out, Liisa stayed at home to look after the family.
By the age of twenty or so, she was already married, had had two children, and had become seriously ill.
Exhaustion, they said at the hospital.
Falling ill of something vague like this was regarded as so shameful in those days that her husband simply took the kids and left.
This was in 1973, and Liisa was just 26.
The years thereafter do not make for much in the telling.
They were full of tattered and broken relationships, and movements from one country to the next.
Nothing much came of anything, whether it was in Finland, Germany, or England.
More children appeared on the scene.
Finally, Liisa Wrang moved with two toddler boys to Raisio in the west of Finland, where she did odd jobs in a factory and eventually wound up as the housekeeper for a wealthy businessman and his family.
She prefers to use the term "cleaner", since the main part of the job description was in fact cleaning and tidying the 350 square-metre household.
But then she fell ill once again, only this time more seriously and with a more specific clinical diagnosis: depression.
In 1984, at the age of just 37, she found herself retired on a disability pension. Her two boys Lasse and Matti were six and seven at the time.
The future looked bleak and the horizon a million miles away, and life stagnated.
There was always too little money to go around.
Years passed, and then something unexpected happened to the storyline.
Liisa came into a small inheritance in 1997.
She was fifty at the time.
With the money, she bought a new computer.
The boys had had one of the famous Commodore 64s and then an Amiga after that, but this new PC was to be a common machine for all three of them.
"I don't really know why I did it", Liisa Wrang says in retrospect.
"Computers had never really interested me before, but now for some reason I wanted to learn how to do it. The boys just told me to get into it by trial and error, one step at a time."
And so she did, and she noticed very quickly that it was easy to draw with the drawing software that came with the PC, even if it was rather clumsy and clunky to use.
Still, at least now there were no paints and brushes or pencils to buy, and the paper would never run out.
On top of all this, the Flash software she was using had recently acquired a new drag-and-drop function, and Liisa rapidly grasped that it could be used to dress and undress paper dolls.
Frocks, shoes, scarves, and accessories like handbags could be moved from the wardrobe to the doll figures and back with a few simple moves and clicks of the mouse.
"I discovered to my surprise that I was a real tigress nerd. A geekette. The computer was my thing", says Liisa proudly.
Liisa got a further grounding in her skills at the keyboard when she spent some time in Norway with a new boyfriend.
The relationship itself turned out to be nothing special, but the man in question had a kind of advertising agency business that was specialised in medical materials, and Wrang helped out when they were busy.
It was there that she learnt the basics of using vector graphics drawing software.
"I knew how to use the Flash multimedia platform, and in Norway I picked up an understanding of CorelDRAW. I used to draw livers and brains when my help was needed in the business."
With these newly acquired skills, the earlier hobby of drawing paper dolls took on a whole new dimension.
Liisa started to draw dolls of celebrity figures, for which she would also design clothes and accessories.
The first celeb paper doll she made was probably one of the Norwegian Crown Princess Mette-Marit, the wife of Crown Prince Haakon.
Liisa collected her best doll creations on her own website.
Then she decided that it would be nice if other people could see them.
Running the website was rather awkward.
After paying rent, living expenses, and any incidental travelling out of her meagre EUR 600 a month in pension, she had no money left for server fees.
Disk space on the server came at a hefty price in those days, data transfer was also costly, and painfully slow into the bargain.
On several occasions she was booted off servers because the dolls took up a lot of bandwidth and there began to be altogether too many visitors to the site for the operator's comfort.
At times things were so tight money-wise that Liisa did not even have an internet connection at home.
She would save new doll designs onto a floppy disk and go to the Turku Public Library to update her site.
In the PC-room at the library, one could get onto a terminal and go online for half an hour at a time.
One day, Liisa told her son - then studying at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki - that she had around 8,000 unique hits on her site every day.
Was this, she asked innocently, a lot or just a trickle?
"Lasse's jaw dropped, and he said that it was quite a large figure, and perhaps we should sit down and think this one over. And so in 2004 we set up a company with Lasse and an IT-professional we invited onboard."
The new company was given the name Paperdoll Heaven.
The two men developed the commercial side of things in Helsinki, and Liisa Wrang continued to turn out paper dolls from her home in Turku to put up on the site.
The other two shareholders actually got paid for their time and effort, but Wrang carried on living on her barely sufficient pension income alone.
And now we are at the point where the financial papers take up the story.
A venture capital firm in London called Index Venture took an interest in the company.
The tip-off came from some teenage girls who were relatives of the Index Venture owners, and who were thoroughly enjoying themselves playing in Liisa Wrang's magical paper doll world.
The investors smelt a business opportunity - Paperdoll Heaven had at its fingertips a powerful and influential consumer group, namely girls in their tweens.
Index Venture announced they would be willing to invest EUR 4 million in the startup.
The ownership arrangements would need to be changed, the company would become Stardoll, and it would be domiciled in Sweden.
A professional manager with a background in online business was to be headhunted.
All these things came to pass. The founders of Paperdoll Heaven sold their stock in the original business.
Only Wrang kept for herself a small slice of the share capital of the new company.
"When the papers had been written up, I stayed over in Helsinki at Lasse's place and went to sleep on the floor on a blow-up mattress that didn't have any air in it. I had precisely four euros in my bank account when I put my head down. But I knew that by the time I woke up next morning, I would have hundreds of thousands sitting there. It was a pretty wierd and wacky feeling, I can tell you."
The next step for Liisa Wrang was to call KELA, the National Pension Institute, and ask them how she could get herself off the disability pension register.
The new owners of the company wanted the inventor of the paper doll idea to continue on the payroll as a designer for a couple of years.
This suited Wrang just fine.
For the first time in her life, she would be getting a decent salary, and it would be being paid her for work that she had been doing most of her life for free and for the sheer joy of doing it.
And what about the money? Liisa Wrang laughs out loud at the question.
She now knows from personal experience the sensation felt by lottery winners, that incredible rush that goes through the entire body when you realise suddenly that you are no longer on your beam ends.
At least for a bit.
"I spent money like water, quite deliberately. I bought an apartment, furniture to fill it, and all the necessary gadgets that I had never had. In the euphoria that went with the spending spree I sometimes got the markkas and the euros muddled up."
The surreal existence lasted for a couple of years.
Wrang travelled extensively; she spent some time in London and in Paris.
She looked at street fashion and new trends, in order that she could transfer them into clothing for the virtual dolls she was still drawing.
In the first flush of consumer madness, she bought herself this and that to wear. It was no longer necessary to make do with sewing things for herself.
"It was all rather hit and miss. That first autumn, I bought myself a sheepskin coat with mink trimming on the collar and cuffs. I think I went out and got it mostly because the sales clerk believed I couldn't possibly afford it. The coat was hideous and I gave it away almost immediately."
Now the money has all been spent, and Liisa's life has returned - if not back to her former impoverished state, at least to the level of a normal salary-earner.
Wrang once again lives quite frugally, keeping a close eye on prices, and she only splurges on holidays.
Her time is spent mostly at the computer. Wrang draws even at the weekends, if she feels in the mood for it. When the work has been done, she can always draw something else to occupy her time and energy.
Geishas, for instance. Wrang has always had a soft spot for old Japanese woodcuts. She admires the fine sculptured lines.
These days she only follows the goings-on of Stardoll.com from a safe distance.
New investors have entered the company, and it has set up offices in the United States and in Central Europe.
Contracts and relationships with partner companies are easier to administer from close at hand.
This year Wrang stopped drawing clothes for her virtual doll models, because it became altogether too laborious an exercise to keep track of popular fashion fads.
She had a constant sensation that she was now too old to be running around after teen trends, and that things had got beyond her grasp in this respect.
Merely tracking other websites from Turku was no longer enough - one had to get out and about and follow new trends where they were hatching, on the streets of big cities around the globe.
And so to the future of the story. Stardoll.com is clearly being grown and groomed into the sort of shape where it will be sold on to the next stage.
Possible buyers are rumoured and speculated about in the business and trade papers, with the Disney Corporation currently heading the ante-post betting.
If a sale does take place down the road, Liisa Wrang will get her cut as a shareholder, and she will become a wealthy woman once again.
She wants to leave this money behind as a nest-egg for her children.
But more important than the mere money is the sheer joy of success, and the realisation that it can come in life without the benefits of degrees and diplomas on the wall.
This is something she can hang on to for longer than euros in the bank.
"The fact that I, a loser from the top drawer, have actually managed to succeed in something", says Wrang.
"I would so much have liked for my parents to see me where I am now. They were forever telling me I would never amount to anything."
They were wrong.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print in the December 2010 issue of Helsingin Sanomat's monthly supplement, Kuukausiliite
Stardoll Official Blog
RITVA LIISA SNELLMAN / Helsingin Sanomat