Julie Deane's iconic satchels have taken the world by storm – first being spotted by eagle-eyed fashion bloggers and then brought to the masses by a Google Chrome advert.
For the first time, Deane opens up about how her daughter being bullied led to her her decision to start her own business, and talks about learning the hard lesson that you can't trust everyone you work with.
Talk to me about what life was like before the Cambridge Satchel Company…
I was a stay at home mum. My husband and I have been married for 21 years and he always says that I'm a 'basic model' – I don't have any gears, it's either stationary or full steam ahead.
When I was expecting my daughter Emily, I remember I thought 'I'm going to make the choice to stay at home and go for being a mum in a big way' – the amount of time I've spent with play-dough over the years is incredible!
But when my kids were six and eight years old, it suddenly dawned on me that I probably wasn't going to be their best friend, or the person they wanted to spend all their time with, forever so I had to consider what I wanted to do when they grew up.
Did you automatically know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I considered going back to work at the local college again for a bit, but I wanted something which would easily revolve around family life – I love picking up the kids from school, it's the highlight of my day.
The turning point was when one of my daughters came home one day and told me she wasn't happy at school anymore – we found out she'd been kicked on the floor in the playground for not knowing who the characters were in a particular Eastenders storyline.
I tried to work with the school about it, but it was obvious things weren't going to change. I had to find a new school, not just for my daughter but for both kids as you couldn’t send them to different schools, and the only one nearby was a private school.
That meant two lots of school fees to find, and that's when I decided 'I'm going to make something to sell, to pay for that'. There’s no better motivator than thinking you want to do something to improve life for your children. I also have the most supportive mum, which helps.
Some of the iconic satchels
So, you decide to settle on bags, what happened next?
We had £600 as a seed fund to start with, and my kitchen table. With that, we were off.
It took a long time to find someone who made satchels and when we did he wasn't sure what to make of us. He went back to his wife and said 'she was so enthusiastic, and I tried telling her people don’t like satchels any more, but she wouldn’t have it, so I'll make a few and then she’ll realise'. (Dean laughs)
I made the website myself in about three nights, added Paypal buttons to take payment and make it accessible and that worked for us. It can work for a lot of small businesses, although once your volumes increase Paypal can become expensive.
That first £600 got us six satchels - I got the kids from my children's school to wear them for photographs for the website, we took the photos around Cambridge and sent them out to bloggers, along with a note about what I was doing and why.
And then did the business take off?
It grew gradually throughout 2009 and then people like Sophie Ellis Bextor bough a bag on the website and that was a turning point.
Soon after, it got to the point where my husband said 'look, I think we need more space', but I was really cautious about expanding – what if this was just a Christmas fad? So I told him, I'll wait and see what the sales are like in February. But he kept on until we went to go and look at storage sheds for the garden.
And we were in the garden centre when my phone started pinging – it pings every time I get an email, but there were a lot of pings. 'Don't worry', I said to my husband 'it was only a cheap website so it's probably only a few emails really'. But it wasn’t. We got back and there were more than 70, all with different email addresses. 'Alright,' I said to my husband, 'we'll need more than one shed'.
How did the Google advert come about?
In the summer of 2012, Google were made aware of our story and came to speak to us- by that point we were selling in 120 countries, thanks to the internet, so it fitted with their campaign of ‘the internet is what you make it'.
We sent over a lot of information, including all our home videos. We were completely open with them – which I think helped. We got down to the final five, and all the other companies had these professional pitch teams, but they obviously liked our amazing story the best.
What hurdles did you face?
Really simple things like getting all the boxes out – can you picture me and my mum at the post office with 72 boxes which all needed to be individually weighed and posted? Big businesses forget about that sort of challenge for SMEs.
I'm a trained chartered accountant so I knew that cashflow is what businesses live or die by. We never keep our people waiting for their money; we use six manufacturers, plus our own factory, I always want to be the one they want to make bags for, and one way to guarantee that is to keep them happy.
Julie and mum Freda outside number 10, waiting to present a new design to Samantha Cameron
Any other nightmares along the way?
The biggest shock I had though was with one of our manufacturers; we had three in the UK and our demand was growing, so we were put in touch a new manufacturer by Business Link – they hadn't made bags before but were used to working with leather.
So we went and met with them, trained them and handed over our designs, showed them where to get the leather and thread from and helped them to buy the templates.
They started supplying us one September, then in February I got emails from fashion bloggers saying 'I'm being sent bags for free by a group called Zatchels which look exactly like the Cambridge Satchel Company ones', so I had a look online and saw there was a new brand 'coming soon', boasting new satchels. It never crossed my mind that it could be one of my manufacturers – they feel like family.
Then I got a call from someone working at the factory, who told me anonymously that Zatchels had been working behind my back since December, taking my designs and passing them off.
It made me sad at first, and made me question my ability to judge people's character. Then I pulled out all of my leather and while I knew that would cause me a backlog, I couldn't stand the thought of that manufacturer getting another penny. They were my biggest manufacturer and I felt utterly betrayed, but thought 'I'm determined to fight and make sure I succeed'.
Did you sue them?
I took them to court and they settled. I also set up another factory in Leicester and a lot of the guys from that manufacturer came over to work for me, saying they felt what their previous employer was doing was so wrong that they wanted to move across. Now we're making 600 bags a day at that factory.
That's some advice I'd pass on to any budding entrepreneurs – make sure you protect yourself with manufacturing agreements and intellectual property protection.
The problem of people setting up companies and websites for fake goods has got worse over the past six months. True Religion and Mulberry do a lot of work in this space and have been really helpful to me to help shut down cyber crime.
What does the future hold for you?
After the Google advert I was contacted by loads of people who were inspired to set up their own business – I really like the element of being able to encourage others, so maybe I'll look to do more of that.
But I was never in to creating the Cambridge Satchel Company just to create a company and leave – there is no exit strategy. I was sat on an awards panel recently where competitors were talking about growing a business for four years and then flipping it – that's not something I could do, I couldn't turn my back on the people who work for me.
After all, where else could I bring my dog to work? I can't see me leaving this.
I've also just completed a deal with Disney for Mickey Mouse satchels, which are so cute. There's be more projects to come hopefully.
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