Julie Deane OBE: “Self-employment changed my life”

Leading a new campaign to support the UK’s self-employed, the Cambridge Satchel founder talks red tape, exports and becoming her own boss…

The Cambridge Satchel Company has come a long way from a humble idea conjured up by Julie Deane OBE at her kitchen table in 2008.

Launched with £600 in savings with her mother Freda Thomas, Deane has taken her once home-based satchel business – started as a route to finance her children going to private school – to revenues of over £13m with global sales and a roster of celebrity fans including Taylor Swift and Alexa Chung.


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Dubbed the ‘Brit It’ bag, you can now find Deane’s satchels stocked with the likes of Harrods and John Lewis and she hasn’t stopped there. The fashion entrepreneur is regularly launching new lines – her latest includes pencil cases and wallets – and Deane tells us that plans are underway to launch new stores regionally.

Given Deane’s monumental start-up success, it’s of little surprise that the government has chosen her to lead a survey to support the independent review of self-employment in the UK – a survey which she says is all about “hearing from the people that matter”.

With the survey having closed earlier this month, Startups caught up with Deane to find out what self-employment means to her, how she turned Cambridge Satchel into the brand it is today, and how dealing with a “dodgy” manufacturer made her toughen up…

Self-employment

“Personally self-employment changed my life. I could never have afforded to put my children through private school [which was really important]. They were six and eight years-old at the time and it gave me the opportunity to be there for them and to do something really exciting; much more than the 9-5. I can work from 8 pm to midnight instead of the usual working hours.”

Spearheading the review to support the UK’s self-employed

“There are over 4.5 million self-employed people in the UK and there are now more possibilities to set-up as self-employed. People can now create opportunities for themselves – they now have options.

“It was a massive, great honour to be chosen [by the government] and the review is about hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth – hearing directly from the people that matter is essential. It’s very easy to sit back and think ‘oh politicians what do they know about the self-employed? They’re so disconnected from my business’, but this survey is so much more than that.

“The self-employed are a diverse group; I have connections with the creatives in retail, fashion but we’ve been reaching out to everyone from farmers to baristas, it’s about their voices being heard.

“At the end of the review (set to publish March/April 2016) I want to be able to go back to the government with a list of practical recommendations that can really help the self-employed community.”

Turning a business idea into a reality

“I would say [it’s about] clear vision and real tenacity. You need to have belief in yourself – it’s very easy to be talked out of something but you need to have cheerleaders around you when you’re starting out.

“In the early days, we used to reach out to bloggers, magazines and websites directly depending on whether I felt they were prevalent or I if just liked the blog, surprisingly word quickly started to spread. I’ve always done everything for the brand and tried to do as much as I can myself. We use social media to keep our relationship with customers direct, people send us things on Instagram and email us kind messages – that all counts. I can’t always be everywhere so say there’s a display in Dubai, we’ll tweet our followers to see if anyone’s there and can send us a picture of what it looks like. It’s about that direct, human relationship.

“Scaling and still staying true to who we are [is my greatest achievement]. We’ve taken investment and it would be very easy to step back and potentially get too big for our boots but we’ve remained the same company essentially – we have a direct relationship with our customers and want it [to stay that way].”

Getting out there and exporting

“I never looked at it as exporting so I think I never had a fear of it. When I was emailing to get my business out there, to me it was just an email address, I wasn’t thinking about where that person was based. In the early days, I would just go to the post office and I saw it as just another stamp on a package. I think people aren’t aware of how easy it is to export. Advice is really out of date [on it], and it’s not the same as the days when you used to have to use post-it notes to plan your business strategy!

“E-commerce is invaluable – the internet has opened up so many market opportunities. I once had Urban Outfitters contact me from the US and ask me when we were going to open our store there, at the time it was just my mum and me at home! They obviously felt our site looked up to scratch. That relationship with Urban Outfitters and retailers like J Crew has been great.”

One big business mistake

“It was not doing enough research on that dodgy manufacturer [the first factory Deane used stole her designs and leather to make copycat products].

“I didn’t know what they were up to, I would speak to them each day and they would look me in the eye and I had no clue what they were planning to do. It made me question my judgement and my judge of character. I felt like I had been too trustworthy. On the other hand, it made me set up my own manufacturing so there was a silver lining! It did toughen me up and made me wise up to the fact that I needed to use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

“It changed my view of business completely. At the start, I was doing everything on a handshake and did little to protect myself. I’d always been very trusting – it was a lesson learnt”.

The benefits of ‘Britishness’

“We are absolutely made in Britain, it’s not like 80% is manufactured in the UK and 20% in China, and that has helped us to stand out. It’s opened up conversations with the government and UKTI. British manufacturing is key and should be supported at all costs.”

Changes the government could make to support entrepreneurs

“When I was starting out I wish I had known the importance of non-disclosure agreements and I wish there was somewhere where you could download a NDA for the manufacturing industry for free. Back then, I would have also [benefitted] from having access to a central database listing all of the UK’s manufacturers.

“I hear from a lot of people that are confused about where to go for advice and what help is available. I would like to see the government launch a platform that would pull everything together – laws about setting up a business, employing people, payments and so on. Something that was engaging and simple without the jargon.”

The prospect of exiting the Cambridge Satchel Company

“I can’t imagine stepping back from the company and I don’t plan to as there’s just so much more we can do. It’s not a formulaic process like ‘we’ll do this and that and then after this many years exit’, our business doesn’t work like that.”

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