Interview with Helen Miller of Helen Miller Leather
Helen Miller is an Auckland-based leather handbag designer and maker. She started 15 years ago, contracting her work out of her bedroom.
Helen now works out of her home studio space overlooking the rolling hills of West Auckland, where she’s grown her business to cater to international customers.
I was lucky enough to visit her studio where she crafts every handbag herself. Visiting Helen was one of the highlights of my Auckland trip.
There are people you meet and you think “oh they’re lovely,” and then there are gems like Helen—genuine, hilarious, and brilliant.
We chat about how she started her business 100% bootstrapped (without any bank loans or investors) and the lessons she’s learned in business along the way.
Describe the day in the life of Helen Miller.
I’m a mum and creator/maker.
My kids always come first. I’ll drop them off at school in the morning which I love doing because the school has a barista and the mums will meet to have a coffee at school drop-off.
The school has been such a great network for me because I come home to work by myself for the rest of the day until school pick up.
I have a list of what needs to get done —my orders, ordering materials, packaging, post-office, social media, emails, photos. It’s all me.
The lighting in here is really shit—this is my excuse, so I don’t work in the evenings and I can spend it with my family.
How did you start doing what you do?
I went to AUT for the 6 month-course on pattern making and garment construction.
Before that, I joined friends at university and started a degree in Philosophy/Film. University was not for me, reading and essays are not for me. But it’s how I met my partner.
I fell into leather because my father co-owned a leather manufacturing company. Alongside fashion accessories, they made those phone holsters that Americans like to wear on their belts.
We made the leather fashion accessories for most of NZ designers at that time. I was able to work alongside the designers to sample and organise the manufacturing of their ranges.
I realised then that working with designers is what I loved, so I decided to leave my employer.
I was lucky enough to be able to take my clients with me and started my self-employed adventure working out of my bedroom from the flat I rented.
What makes your bags unique?
My customers get to choose the leather and the interior lining of their order, so every bag is one-off, and I produce every single bag myself.
It’s all made right here—not in China, Bali, or India. Everything is made to order, so it creates minimal waste, and I don’t hold stock.
Out of all of the things you have here in the studio—besides tools—what is essential to your work productivity?
Spotify and natural lighting.
Can you describe your biggest “AHA!” Moment or breakthrough. Now you’re going international?
I had been manufacturing Georgia Jay’s bags for 3 years. Her brand is beautiful, very clean and modern.
She’d drop everything off on a Monday and I’d have it finished on Friday. It was a pay by piece contract agreement, so I was always at the mercy of her orders.
I had started making my own designs around 2 years earlier and as this grew slowly on the side it reached a point where they were competing for my time.
That is when I realised that I can make something that’s completely my own and get my name out there!
When I realised money was coming in from my products, I gave her 3 months notice. It was then that I realised “wow, I’m doing it and having fun and it’s making money!”
You never started with an Etsy page. You just put a website and a Facebook page up. How did you bring in your first customers?
I don’t know! Word of mouth? The network of mums at my kids’ school has been so supportive. It’s a massive school. Lots of mums and lots of teachers.
Word of mouth recommendation is wild-fire.
The greatest challenge in business you’ve overcome?
When I first started, all those years ago, I didn’t have an accountant, I thought I could do it all myself. I screwed up massively with taxes and it brought on so much stress!
Lesson learned—Outsource! so that you can focus on what you’re good at and save yourself the stress!!
What’s one piece of advice that you struggle to put into practice even though you know you should?
I saw a business coach last year. I was at a point where I wanted to be serious about this, so I invested in myself.
My business coach was really big on journaling, so I’m trying to journalling more because I find it does help me focus, stay positive and grateful.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone aspiring to be where you are that they can put into action today?
On customer service—do your business how you’d wish people would do business with you.
On the back end of things, I pay for everything upfront. My business is run by the order, so I’ll have money come in from my customers and I’ll use it to pay for materials and supplies.
I used to have to go out and borrow machines for the finishing touches on the bags, but I had finally saved enough money for all the equipment in here.
I figure that way, I don’t owe anyone anything and everything is squared up straight away. Money can be such a big source of stress for people and it’s not fun when you’re stressing about money.
What is your favourite part of living in Auckland?
This is a good question because it makes me think where else would I live and what stops me from living somewhere else?
I love the people here in Auckland—my friends, family, community.
It's also a beautiful city. The Waitakere Ranges are out my window and beautiful beaches are only a short drive away. I would love to live on a lifestyle block or a farm and be able to see the ocean from where I live.
If you had a secret passage behind a bookcase that opened by pulling a single book, what would it be? Where would it lead?
Mine would go to a paddock with stables and horses to go for a ride.
The book would be… Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It's so amazing to be able to appreciate ideas and how maybe they either stay and get used or go on to find another person to inspire.
When you’re your own brand, you end up wearing many hats.
And I think Helen juggles them very well because she’s not afraid to reach out for help when she needs it.
Outsource where it’s not fun for you, so you can focus on what you’re good at!
I also appreciated that when Helen was deciding on taking Helen Miller Leather more seriously, she invested in herself with a business coach to bring in more direction in what she wanted out of her company.
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