Drawing on her knowledge of online retailing from her days as the chief operating officer at London-listed Iomart, Sarah Haran is building a handbag brand based around practicality and style, as Peter Ranscombe discovers.
When Sarah Haran signed up to promote her debut range of handbags at Jenners, little could she have known that her pop-up concession would be there for one of the busiest days in the Edinburgh department store’s history.
“It’s absolute mayhem here,” she says. “People are queueing up the street to get in.”
The day we speak coincides with House of Fraser, Jenners’ owner, going into administration.
Later in the day, Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct swoops in to buy the business, but not before customers have marched on Edinburgh’s flagship department store to try and nab a bargain, fearing a closing-down sale.
As Haran navigates her way to a quiet spot so we can talk, the sharpened elbows and crazed eyes of the shoppers feel like a long way from her previous career.
Haran was one of the first employees at Iomart when the Glasgow-based information technology (IT) company was founded in 1998 and saw it list on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market two years later.
She worked her way up through the ranks at the cloud computing specialist – which lists Universal Music, Virgin Media and Liverpool football club amongst its clients – to serve as its chief operating officer and take a seat on its board of directors.
“I was travelling extensively and realised I couldn’t find a handbag that would help me with my travelling,” she explains.
“Going straight out from work meetings to see clients and prospects, I needed a really functional bag.
“I’d already started teaching myself to make handbags as a hobby because I realised I was working far too much and needed a better work-life balance.”
Being her own case study
Haran was running Iomart’s Easyspace division, which hosts websites for clients, and so her employer was able to use her as an example of a small business.
“I developed my website using Iomart products and that allowed me to get into the head of a small business,” she remembers.
“At the end of last year, I was at a crossroads – I’d been on the board for a long time and I felt it was time to have a change.
“If I’d kept working at Iomart then I felt the handbags would have remained as a hobby business, but I felt the idea had legs because it was growing – it’s like any new small business, you need to spend 100% of your time on it.
“I’m still very close to them all – it’s like losing a child in a way, because I was there from the beginning and employed a lot of those people, so it’s not as if I can just cut myself away.”
Standing down from Iomart has allowed Haran to focus on growing her own business.
In the early days, she made each bag herself, but now she has outsourced production to a company in Manchester, with a back-up operation in Spain.
Haran still works from her studio in Glasgow and designs all the handbags herself.
“At the moment, all the production except for one bag takes place in the UK, and I’d like to keep it that way, but it’s difficult because there are skills gaps and getting the price point right in the UK is hard,” she adds.
“My intention is to do as much of it as I can here, but I’m running a business, so I have to be practical as well.”
Early adopters of the handbags included actress Rachel Weisz, star of films including The Mummy and The Constant Gardener.
“I’ve not seen any pictures of her with it, but my handbags are everyday handbags, while most of the paparazzi photograph people when they’re out in their beautiful evening outfits,” Haran says.
“But I’m much more interested in the ‘real’ women who are using them, because that’s who they’re designed for.
“My target market has mainly been business ladies – because that’s the market I understand – so I’ve mainly been doing style events with corporates.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m an events company, because I approach marketing departments and explain I know they will want to put on events for their female clients and that I can come in and bring a stylist, talk about my story and how to improve your look and style to get beyond the glass ceiling at work.”
Her partners for the events are Caroline Donaldson of executive coaching firm Kynesis and Numba Pinkerton from image consultancy Style Me Flawless.
Sarah Haran Accessories has also opened a showroom in East London with workwear brand Dai, with the studio on the edge of The City and Shoreditch open for appointments during the week from lunchtime into the evening.
This summer’s month-long pop-up in Jenners coincided with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest arts festival, giving Haran a huge platform on which to promote her handbags.
“Jenners has such a loyal customer base and there are so many tourists coming in,” Haran observes.
The Jenners pop-up was Haran’s first “adventure into proper retail”.
“So far, I’ve focused on online sales, because I feel I have a slight advantage there,” she says. “I’m using my tech experience there.
“My biggest challenge now is sales execution because I’m up against some big brands but I think there are opportunities as people want to deal with a brand that they can get to know.
“I’m not a faceless brand – people are looking for more authenticity these days.
“I don’t want to become the size of Iomart and become a corporate, but my background does give me an insight into how a business should work.
“I think that’s an advantage because a lot of designers know how to design something but don’t understand the framework of business.
“Once you’ve got your product, you’ve then got to find your customers and after that it’s all about sales execution.”
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