I ❤ sarah oliver handbags and the Purlettes +1 from The Redwoods Senior Retirement Home in Mill Valley! Tune into #SharkTank tonight, Friday, December 4th and cheer Sarah on.
Mother’s Day is just around the corner and the gift I am eyeing for myself this year comes from the sarah oliver handbags collection. Sarah has a unique business model that not only helps her small business but also employs seniors (a.k.a. Purlettes +1) from The Redwoods Senior Retirement Home in Mill Valley. Between her extraordinary talent and passionate knitters, I couldn’t wait to talk more to Sarah Oliver.
How did Sarah Oliver Handbags begin?
I’ve been making things with my hands my whole life which has always brought me immense joy. As a kid I was so proud that I could create something and give it as a gift which is where the idea to make the handbags came from. My business formed when I started making handbags as holiday gifts for friends and family. The recipients of the bags loved them and encouraged me to start a business. The biggest boost came when one of my friends offered to include them in her trunk show.
How did you connect the Redwoods Senior Retirement Home with your business?
I learned to knit from my grandmother, mom, and great aunt. It made sense for me to work with what I knew and with what’s in front of me. When my kids were small I brought them to the Redwoods with their playgroup. That is when I approached the Redwoods Senior Retirement Home to find knitters to partner with me to make the bags and build the company. They're such a special group. I didn’t realize what an impact I would have on them. That came later.
Why not produce your product overseas?
I did talk to some smart and successful friends who are Stanford MBA’s and they told me the only way this company will survive and be sustainable is to send this work overseas. That was not something I was interested in doing. I love being apart of the production and I couldn’t imagine letting it go where I couldn't oversee it.
When sarah oliver handbags first started, what expectations did you have, and how have they evolved?
When I started it was just trying to grow this business slowly while I raised my children and maintain a balanced family work life. I only made what I could sell. My friends and family were the ones with huge expectations for the company. I went into this without a lot of knowledge in business or manufacturing but with a huge heart for making things with my hands, working with other people, and sharing my love of the craft. I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself at first then my bags started getting into stores. The first major one was Gumps in San Francisco and when that happened things started changing. My vision for the company and goals started to blossom.
What makes your bags special?
They are made by hands with stories and lives that have molded who they are and they bring that to what they create. That adds to the emotional experience of our bags. Each bag includes information about the knitter. It is important to tell their stories. When people buy my bags, their is a special meaning behind the bag and that differentiates this bag from all other bags out there.
What are your inspirations in creating your designs?
I love simple classic lines with a little whimsy. That’s how I dress myself; simple but with a little statement piece. Also, my designs are drawn by what I feel the seniors are able to handle. They knit at different levels so I purposefully think about what they can make and repeat. The finishing work is where I put touches of something different, surprising or practical.
I read that you majored in economic. Do you use your degree in your day to day work?
I did majored in economics but it was not because of a love for economics. I thought it would help me in a corporate business environment. I wasn’t following my passion - it was more doing what I thought I was suppose to do.
I am a member of a group called Marin Mompreneurs. What advice can you share with mom entrepreneurs wanting to start or expand their business?
Stay engaged and productive. You have a purpose, you add value, and are contributing. Talk to as many people as you can, whether it’s with people in the same industry or not, then follow your instincts based on everything that you've done in your past. If you are questioning your business, typically it's never as bad as you think. When something amazing happens, celebrate, but keep going. You just gotta keep moving forward. And work with what you have, find ways to be creative, and resourceful. Don’t be afraid to ask for help because people love to help &/or trade. When you are bootstrapping you need to do that. You'd be amazed how people want to help.
Do you have a fashion role model or icon?
In terms of business I am inspired by Alice Waters. I love what she did and how she stuck with it. The end result was so much bigger then when she started. I find that extremely inspiring. And I love Kate Spade and her sense of style. I met with her which was super exciting.
What was your conversation with Kate Spade like?
The major advice she gave me is that you just have to get yourself in front of the media. You have to find a way to reach out to tell your story in different ways, with different hooks all the time and that is what her husband/partner did. For us, we’ve been lucky to be featured in O Magazine, Marin Magazine, and Martha Stewart American Made. Bryan Bratt, an actor from Mad Men, has a store that carries our bags too.
You had a successful Kickstarter campaign grossing nearly $30K for The Sarah Oliver Bridal Collection. Why did you decide to do this and how did it go?
It was an amazing experience and a lot different then I thought it would be. We decided to do Kickstarter because I read about how small companies have benefited. At the time, Kickstarter was just gaining momentum when we tried it. It’s driven by your own network of supporters which means I needed to tap into everyone I knew and all the social media I had built over the years. Kickstarter offers the template, but it’s like anything, it’s what you put into it and how you run your campaign that determines your outcome. It’s not turnkey where you just fill out and load up a video. You have to be passionate and think it through.
What are your favorite things to do in your hometown, Mill Valley, CA?
Hiking! I just got a puppy who motivates me to take him for a walk every morning and I leave my cell phone at home. I love to eat at D’Angelo’s; my first space was above the restaurant. As a family we love Joe’s Taco.
Part of what gets me excited about growing the business is working with the seniors. My goal is to recreate what I built at the Redwoods and bring this to other senior homes across California. I am working to raise the capital for that expansion and creating a foundation to put pieces in place to scale the business. My second major goal is to consciously think about where we get our materials. My materials are ethically produced overseas but I want to look for ways to make my business conscious of the environment and bring that back locally. And I’m always expanding product development. I just wish I had more time.
* Photography by Dean Bentley. Photography may only be used with permission of the Sarah Oliver.
Sarah Oliver is the Founder and CEO of sarah oliver handbags, elegant, designer purses, clutches, shoulder bags, and totes with a twist: every exquisite bag is made by The Purlettes, her unique knitting team comprised of talented senior citizens from the Redwoods Senior Retirement Home in Mill Valley, California. For more information, visit the sarah oliver handbags website, Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, and Instagram.
* Published May 2015