It sounds like the start to a Hollywood movie. Sara Miller was 29 and working as a greeting card designer when she realised her marriage was failing, and she flew to India “for soul searching to try to work out my best way forward”.
It was her first solo trip abroad: “I remember walking through the airport apprehensively. But I was bowled over by the beauty of India, and weaving through the chaotic roads of Delhi in a tuk-tuk, I realised I had to take charge of my life and break free from an unhappy marriage.”
Back in London, Miller says, “my friends were all married and having children, but I got divorced from my 10-year relationship and started a new business”. After a decade working for Hallmark and other greeting card firms, she launched Sara Miller London, an Indian-inspired accessory brand “for a woman who loves colour and print”.
Her decision was initially met with scepticism: “A friend in the [design] industry said, ‘There is more chance of you being struck by lightning than creating a brand through surface pattern design like Orla Kiely or Cath Kidston have done’.”
Miller, now 39, proved them wrong: the designs of her brand Sara Miller London are now licensed to 1000 products spanning bedding, wallpaper, cushions, stationery, gifts, and luggage; they brought in sales of £20 million last year and can be found in shops including John Lewis, Next, M&S and Harrods, and in 60 countries.
“But at the beginning,” Miller admits, “it was hard to know where to start.” She had experience in designing greeting cards, but little else. “I was aware of an exhibition called Surtex in New York where designers present their work to manufacturers and retailers for licensing, so in April 2015 I contacted them and to my amazement there was one stand left at the show.”
“I maxed out my overdraft and quickly booked it for $5000, using my savings to get the business off the ground. I had three weeks to design my first ever stand, and work out the logistics of getting it all to New York.”
Miller worked from 7am until 3am for three weeks on a green bird print design that still sells well today, plus stand designs, and a presentation to buyers, then flew to the US “with 100 kg of luggage and lots of excess baggage charges”. It was another apprehensive airport stroll: “To create a series of designs, put it on a wall and know your future depends on it is so personal and exposing and quite frankly terrifying.”
It paid off though: work came in including a £10,000 design project which enabled Miller to employ her first member of staff. Her first HQ was a friend’s spare bedroom in Primrose Hill; Miller’s own spare room was rented out on Airbnb to raise cash. “Once royalty payments started coming in I ploughed these back into the business to grow our small team.”
Greeting cards and wrapping paper designs took off; a licensing deal saw John Lewis stock Miller’s designs, with a million cards sold in the firm’s first year. The relationship grew: “When John Lewis asked if we’d design a window for the Oxford Street and Peter Jones stores, I felt like I was being pranked on one of those TV shows!”
Miller then secured licence partners in other areas, including tableware (with crockery maker Portmeirion), gifts, luggage, handbags, watches, tableware, upholstery and more.
“Getting to grips with so many product types was mind-boggling, and I had everything to learn: navigating myself through the commercial [details] and contract negotiation was a steep learning curve, and days spent driving around London delivering 50 hand wrapped press samples was exhausting.”
It wasn’t glamorous behind the scenes: Miller worked from “a tiny desk space near Finchley Road, which was a bit of a dive, made worse by receiving some samples which included a nest of cockroach eggs which just bred and bred. We lifted up the skirting and there were hundreds of them running riot.”
They weren’t the only pests Miller had to tackle: she’s faced legal battles over copyright infringement with other brands. “Our designs have been ripped off many times and each time we’ve pursued legal action which we’ve won,” she says. “We had this with a major toiletries company — a big brand which said it had no knowledge of Sara Miller London, but had actually purchased products from our website for delivery to their head office just a few weeks before!
“It’s a major problem for all successful brands and it’s tiresome but we take it very seriously and will always do everything we need to protect the brand and our IP.”
Miller wants to expand from her current 60 international markets into the US, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore; having remarried and now with two children, she wants to move into kids’ products too and has published a children’s book. She has big ambitions for her brand but says she will wait until her five- and two-year-olds are older before fuelling more international growth.
“Don’t live unhappily in a marriage just because it’s too hard to break away,” she says now. “I built this business by refusing to be frightened of failure.”