How the devastation of divorce led to a multi-million pound homeware business starting from credit cards and savings

Sara Miller, owner of Sara Miller London, started her business from her friend’s spare room

Sara Miller London

Sara Miller, owner of Sara Miller London, started her business from her friend’s spare room

“I realise that I am comfortable with taking risks – you can’t be too afraid to try as things can happen in the strangest or most roundabout of ways,” Sara Miller tells me. “And you probably find you learn more from the failures than the successes.” 

Sara grew up in North London with her mum, dad and younger sister. She always had a love for print, pattern and colour and immersed herself in the world of art at a young age, sketching and drawing for hours on end in her spare time. It was a no-brainer for Sara to follow a career in design. After graduating from Leeds University, Sara had a placement at a fashion print design studio in New York before landing a job as a designer at Hallmark Cards. 

With her career picking up, Sara was on a roll. However, her world soon came crashing down. At 29, Sara’s marriage to her ex-husband fell apart. Heartbroken, she decided to take a solo trip to India, a place her ex had never wanted to visit while they were together. Sara needed a new perspective, and bravely decided to adventure to the country alone. She described the trip as an ‘awakening’, and that was when she made a life-changing decision to break free of any unhappiness in her life to find her true calling. “Aged 29 I was faced with the reality that my long-term relationship and marriage to my ex-husband was failing,” Sara said. “I was devastated. Just separated I decided to take myself off to India for a much-needed trip of soul-searching to try to work out my best way forward. It was my first time to really go at it alone and I remember walking through the airport in Delhi apprehensively.  

“I was completely bowled over by the beauty of India, a sensory overload in every direction I looked. Amongst all the saris and sensational palaces, I can distinctively remember one particular moment, weaving through the chaotic roads of Delhi in a tuk-tuk, whole families bundled onto a motorbike and amongst the chaos I had an epiphany. I had to take charge of my life and break free from what had become an unhappy marriage. However, I didn’t quite realise the significance that this trip would have on my career until much later on.  Returning home, I went through with my divorce and as I was rebuilding my personal life, I was also getting an itch to do something new with my career having spent nearly 10 years as a greeting card designer. I decided it was time to take the plunge, leave my job and set up on my own.” 

With just £3000 of savings and credit cards, Sara began launching her new business designing novelty tableware from her friend’s spare room. But after six months of working on the brand, there were not enough orders to sustain the business. Sara needed to think out of the box and revamp her brand – and that was when her business, Sara Miller Design, was born. “I had a flashback to the feeling of empowerment that I had felt on my first trip to India,” Sara said. “And I remembered how I had taken control of my life. It was only then that the beauty of that first Indian trip came into play. The brightly coloured saris adorned in golden embellishment, arched doorways from the sensational palaces – through to the pom poms and ribbons decorating the local buses – it all came flooding back.  

“I now had a vision – to launch a design-led brand for a woman who loves colour and print, who wants to be surprised with her accessories, who celebrates the fun of life and friendship. I imagined our customer to be someone who enjoys tea and cake and travel, a person who always looks for the silver (or pink!) lining no matter the situation and who wants to stand out from the crowd. I’ve always loved exploring new colour combinations and creating something unexpected and I wanted to create uplifting products that bring the exotic into people’s everyday lives. And having already done one wedding list knew there was a lack of bright and colourful homewares on the market.” 

Within the first few months of launching her revamped brand, Sara managed to book an exhibition space in New York. With just three weeks to complete her designs, Sara worked from the crack of dawn every day to create the most incredible exhibit she could. Her exhibit drew the eyes of top industry professionals, and her brand began to cause a buzz in the design space. Within just 12 months of launching her brand, Sara had six licensed partners on board and this increased to 10 just six months later. With her business booming, Sara soon met the love of her life – and later fell pregnant with her first child.  

“It certainly wasn’t all ‘glitz and glamour’,” Sara explained. “It was all-consuming and I had everything to learn. Getting to grips with so many product types was mind boggling. Navigating myself through the commercials and contract negotiation was a steep learning curve, and days spent driving around London delivering 50 hand wrapped press samples was exhausting. I worked harder than anybody can imagine and was delighted to sign watches and jewellery, handbags and luggage and just 3 weeks after I did, I fell pregnant with my first child!” 

Sara has built a successful multi-million pound business with just a dream, lots of passion and fire in her belly. Sara Miller London sold one million greeting cards internationally within the first year of launch. The brand now stocks over a thousand different types of homeware products in John Lewis, Next, M&S and Harrods, including bedding, wallpaper, blinds, cushions bath & body, stationery, gifts, luggage, handbags and tableware in collaboration with ceramic specialists Portmeirion. Now sold in over 60 countries worldwide, Sara Miller London’s international brand awareness is growing with around £20 million at retail last year. 

Sara has been nominated for six Henries awards, and went on to win the ‘Most Promising Young Designer 2016’, and the ‘Best Licensed Fashion or Talent Brand’ at the Brand & Lifestyle Licensing Awards in 2018, 2020 and 2022. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would grow into something so big so quickly,” Sara tells me. “It’s been a whirlwind of a journey that has been filled with more pinch-me moments than I can remember! One of the first outings after my daughter was born in 2018, was to the V&A to see none other than our Green Birds ceramics included in the ‘Portmeirion Trendsetter’ Exhibition. Having spent hours at the V&A as a student it was totally humbling to have my work featured there, sitting on display, behind glass, not just in the gift shop!” 

Sara prides herself in her positive attitude as an attribute to her tremendous success and has praised her incredible team for helping take her brand to great heights. “I think I have always had quite a naturally entrepreneurial mindset – a flexible, ‘can do’ attitude, open to new opportunities and I enjoy problem-solving – all skills which I have needed in abundance on this journey!” Sara said. “Also knowing that you can’t do everything yourself – building the right team around me has been essential. I am so thankful to have an incredibly talented super supportive team and am forever grateful for all their support.” 

In a few words of encouragement to other SMEs struggling during these difficult times, Sara said: “Keep focused on your goals and the most important things for your business. It can be tempting at the start to want to make the most of every opportunity that presents itself, but choosing carefully which projects to put time and effort into really helps you drive a business where you are wanting to go. And choosing partners to work with who share your ideas and objectives is essential. I am so lucky to have great partners on board who have helped build the brand to what it is today.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Latifa Yedroudj
Latifa Yedroudj
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