Sarah Haran has created bags of joy that you can cram your life into – and a whole new career for herself.

When I first started making leather bags it was a hobby. I wanted to do something creative that wasn’t working or being a mum! At the time I had a high-powered job as chief operating officer of a cloud computing company, and I needed a creative release, especially as my children were older and beginning to find their own feet.

I’d always made clothes when I was younger but I really fancied giving handbags a go, so after doing a few courses to learn leather craft I started custom making them for friends after work. I realised I was good at it and most of all enjoyed the process. Apart from the creative challenge I loved the fact that I completely switched off from everything else while sewing and trying to figure out how to make a bag work. It was a challenge I relished.

At this point I didn’t have any clue that I was going to turn it into a business. I guess I was just seeing where I could go with it. I did a variety of courses to master the art of handbag making, including one in London run by a former creative at Mulberry – and I also paid to work in a factory in Ireland for two weeks to learn all the extra skills around bag making! But I wasn’t exactly on a mission to start with.

The company I ran at the time made templated websites for small businesses, and to prove the software works we made one for me to sell my bags. From there I got a few orders and it started building up gradually. But things really took off after I designed a bag that met my own requirements. A big part of my job involved travelling and I always wanted to travel light so I could get on and off the planes quickly. And if I was going away for a few days and going to events or socialising with customers, I wanted a handbag that could be customised to match with different outfits, rather than having to take multiple bags with me.

I’d looked for one that would answer all these requirements and just couldn’t find one. My husband said “Why don’t you just make one?” So I got out my sewing machine and started experimenting. Pretty soon I’d created a customisable bag with a detachable part that can be used as an evening bag. It’s a two-in-one bag that can be worn ten different ways and even fits a laptop. I loved it. One of my customers admired my new bag and promptly ordered one. And that became the Dahlia, now our best-selling bag.

By 2017 I had been in my career for almost 20 years and, almost 50 by this point, I was ready to move on. I realised that if I spent 100% of my time on my handbag business it would gain traction and really get somewhere. Why not give it a go? When I launched Sarah Haran in 2018 I used my network to do VIP style events in corporate companies. I’d talk about my journey from high powered job to handbag designer, and this always led to plenty of sales. I built up a good customer base in this this way, also doing a few pop ups in department stores. But I mainly sell the bags online, which has turned out to be a blessing.

I can’t deny that in the first few days of the pandemic I didn’t know what to do. How would we survive? Who would want to buy bags during lockdown? I sat down and thought ‘What can I come up with that will attract existing customers, but also help me get through the next few months?’ As a result we launched the Bags of Joy Club. People join by paying £5, then reserve a handbag that they get for free by reaching a certain spend on the site within three months.

But it’s more than that. They also get to be members of the Bags of Joy Facebook group where we only talk about joyful things. Every friday members get to nominate a key worker and share their story and why they deserve a free gift. Through existing customers and word of mouth it’s been a huge success. During lockdown we’ve experienced the same level of sales as we would expect at Christmas.

I think the reason it’s been so popular is that it’s a joyful view of the world, showing that there are still amazing things happening, people being kind to other. All the members vote on the nominees they feel the most moved by. It’s a lovely thing and we’ll keep it going after lockdown as there are still going to be people going through awful times and for me it feels so so powerful – this way we’re able to do something with our members and bring them into the whole process of giving back.

Of course running your own company can be tough and there was no guarantee it would be a success. But if you’re thinking of turning your hobby into a business, I recommend it. My top tip would be to start like I did, running your business alongside your day job while you build up a customer base. And experiment until you get your products right.

But don’t hold back from exploring your creativity for its business potential – especially if you’re in need of a change. As soon as you feel unhappy in what you’re doing in life it just adds layers of stress, so find something you love and the sooner the better – be willing to take the risk. If you weigh up not doing something against just being unhappy with your day to day life and feeling resentful, well you’re better off just going for it. And if it fails? You learn from that and find something else to make a success of. And don’t forget, if you’ve had a career in something else you can always go back to that – those skills aren’t going to go away.

Words: Marina Gask
Photo: Rachel Vogeleisen