Interview with Harj Millington, owner of Style Our Home
Find out how spending time in hospital with her premature daughter inspired lawyer Harj Millington to start a new career in online retail.
What’s your career background before having children?
Before launching my online furniture retail business, Style Our Home, with my two business partners, I spent ten years working as a commercial litigation lawyer in a large international law firm where I acted for big companies, high net worth individuals and government departments, and usually worked long days and nights.
For most of my pregnancy, I worked on a lengthy trial in London and then delivered a very important client pitch for my firm the day before my first baby arrived six weeks prematurely. Thankfully we won the pitch, which was great news to hear while I was cooped up for a month in the special care unit at the Birmingham Women’s Hospital.
It was the pensive time I spent in hospital with my daughter which really reinforced my view that I wanted to devote time to bringing up my children – the tricky part was how I was going to balance that with my need for a fulfilling career.
I had always wanted a family and when I quickly fell pregnant with my second child, I knew I didn’t want to return to work full-time in a demanding legal environment with two young children, as it would inevitably mean I would be away from them, sometimes for days on end.
What else inspired you to have your own business?
I knew that being a mum would be challenging, especially with no local family support to help with childcare and, although I have a very supportive husband, his job as a corporate partner of a global law firm means he is regularly working 12 hour days.
I wanted a job which would allow me time to take my children to, and collect them from, nursery/school, which didn’t involve commuting long distances and which wouldn’t require long absences from home (at trials or on business trips).
So, rather than rest on my laurels as a lawyer, I decided to explore different career paths. The one I decided to take was an opportunity to get involved in the development of an online furniture retail business with Style Our Home.
How did you launch a business with young children?
I put the children in nursery at a very young age for three days a week with flexibility to increase the days, so that I could build the business around them and be able to stay at home with them when they were ill.
I was also keen to make sure that, when I switched careers, I didn’t lose all of the great client, professional, legal and written skills that I had spent years developing and perfecting.
As I started to run the online business I found that I could transfer and put many of those skills to good use in a different environment, not only to draft contracts but, more importantly, to:
- Create a great customer-friendly website.
- Pitch to new suppliers enabling us to win brand accounts which had largely only been available to bricks-and-mortar retailers.
- Create all the unique written content on our website and even to write design blogs.
I can’t say that running the business has been any less challenging and demanding than the legal alternative might have been – I have had many highs and lows over the last seven years! Thankfully however, the business has gone from strength to strength and been more successful than we could have imagined.
What are the biggest business hurdles you have had to overcome?
The hardest part was when the team was small and my two business partners and I had to do everything: sales, customer service, supplier pitches, marketing and content creation.
It took a lot of hard work, resilience and commitment to get through that stage, particularly with little financial payback and whilst juggling the demands of the children.
We have worked hard to establish a strong brand and trusted relationships with our suppliers – developing those connections and professional networks in a climate of initial resistance to an online-only retail channel was a challenging, but ultimately fulfilling, part of our journey.
Now we are a team of seven and, although there are always new challenges we are in a stronger place and receiving recognition for the fruits of our labour – we have just been shortlisted as a finalist in the Online Retail Awards 2016 – designed to recognise online retailers who have demonstrated a high degree of innovation and excellence in delivering a retail shopping experience.
We will find out in September if we have won – I am thrilled that we have been shortlisted alongside some great and prestigious names in retail.
How do you balance your business with your family?
It is tough. Being a full-time working mother can lead to feelings of guilt and stress, because of the conflicting demands of running a business and wanting to be there for my family.
I am a hands-on Mum and I really enjoy spending time with the children, helping them with their homework and taking them to and from after-school activities.
I am also actively involved in the day-to-day management of the business – I love my independence and being able to make a professional contribution. It is a constant challenge to get the two to work in harmony together – being organised and managing our home life properly is the key to balancing the two.
I have found small ways of making things easier for myself: for example, we have allocated times for homework, reading and playing. Planning routine tasks also helps, like laying the children’s (and my!) clothes out the night before – it is the difference between having a rushed or stress-free morning.
I tend to carry on working most evenings after the children have gone to bed and I have had some of my best ideas at 7am on a Saturday morning while doing the ironing!
And your proudest moments so far?
Being the first person in my family to go to university and become a lawyer felt like a big achievement at the time, particularly as a woman from a strict Indian background. More recently making the transition from law to running a successful online retail business has been very exciting and satisfying.
On a personal level, my proudest moments are overcoming cultural hurdles to marry my (non-Indian) husband, then going on to have two wonderful children together, who are a precious gift which I don’t take for granted – to be able to give them a brilliant platform from which to grow and develop into the best people they can be is a great (and exciting) responsibility – I hope I can live up to that challenge!
I am also very proud to have been appointed as a Governor at the local primary school which my children attend. It’s really important to me to be able to give something back to the state education system which has given me the education and life opportunities that have led me to where I am today, and which I hope will do the same for my children.
What are you top three tips for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
- Believe in yourself and follow your instincts: if you have an idea, hold the thought, don’t let it pass, write it down and explore its potential.
- Develop your personal networks and follow industry experts: like-minded people are a huge inspiration.
- Write a business plan – set ambitious but realistic targets and make sure you know what it will cost to achieve them.
You can find out more about Style Our Home on their website.