The Cambridge Satchel Company: Julie Deane

The co-founder of the Natwest Startups Business of the Year 2011 shares the secrets of her company’s success

When 44-year-old Julie Deane speaks keenly of setting up her handmade business with her mum, you picture them sitting around the kitchen table with sheets of leather and a Stanley knife. In fact, behind her humility is a pioneering 47-person enterprise, experiencing phenomenally fast growth around the world.

Humble beginnings

That is not to say, however, that The Cambridge Satchel Company didn’t start in her kitchen. At the end of 2007 Deane wanted to raise the money to move her six-year-old daughter from a school where she was being bullied into private education and came up with an idea to make traditional leather satchels for the schoolchildren of Cambridge.

“The kind of bag you felt Harry Potter and Hermione would carry,” she says.

The first bags were a classic chestnut colour, closely followed by black and dark brown; as these leathers were readily available. However, then a request came in from a customer for a red satchel and Deane decided to expand to all the colours of the rainbow. She had found her niche and invested just £600 to get the idea off the ground.

“The thing that we’ve done that’s really different is we’ve never borrowed,” she says. “To have the growth that we’ve achieved without any investors is incredibly unusual.”

More than unusual – it is almost unheard of. And furthermore, the company has never paid for advertising.

Instead Deane used fashion bloggers, celebrity gifting, and word of mouth to raise awareness of her brand. Soon, London’s fashionistas were being photographed for magazine street style pages with unmistakable paintbox-coloured satchels swinging from their shoulders.

Going global

The international reach of these publications meant that the home-based business which was founded to tote the youth of Cambridge was soon receiving demand from across the world. To date, The Cambridge Satchel Company has been featured in six international editions of Vogue and a subsequent surge in orders from the United States and South Korea saw the company’s profits spike by more than 350% from June to September 2011.

By the beginning of December the business had received nearly 40,000 orders for Christmas.

“Meeting the challenges of such rapid growth has kept us busy, perhaps cocooned,” Deane says. “Everyone I’ve spoken to – even people at Mulberry and the big fashion places – say they’ve never seen such phenomenal growth within this area and they’ve never seen a brand develop such a loyal fan base.”

Astoundingly, the company was approached by the buyers of Harrods, Selfridges, and Bloomingdales in New York – individuals any other fashion brand might spend months trying to secure a meeting with – and all of which now stock the satchels.

Innovation

The business’s credibility was further enhanced by some clever collaborations, with respected international e-tailer ASOS and cult fashion brand Comme des Garçons. But – crucially – the innovations have come from Deane’s savvy eye and daring spirit.

A turning point came when the UK edition of Elle magazine asked Deane what the brightest bag she could make was and she took the challenge to heart – returning soon after with a range of fluorescent neon satchels. It was this collection that shocked, awakened and enchanted the fashion world; establishing The Cambridge Satchel Company’s reputation as the innovative, cutting edge, one to watch. After all, everybody loves an underdog.

Deane is herself an unlikely fashion entrepreneur. Having graduated from Cambridge in 1987, she worked as a chartered accountant before returning to the University, where she was the Fellow for Development for her college, Gonville and Caius. In the eight years before starting The Cambridge Satchel Company, Deane was a full-time mum – the role her own mother and co-founder Freda Thomas had had in lieu of a career.

Family values

This latter role has instilled the business with a deep sense of family values, which underpin every aspect of its operation, and – it could be argued – is the secret of its success. Deane refuses to let the exponential growth of her company compromise her staff’s commitments to their families.

“Even if we’re very, very busy, anyone who needs to go to their child’s school play can do that,” she says. “I would never take it out of their holiday entitlement.”

In return they work tirelessly for her. For example, throughout December the team will work seven days a week to meet Christmas demand. She, herself, will play a hands-on role – embossing bags before they are sent out.

Giving back

Deane’s loyalty to the local community is also key. (I say Deane’s – it is easy to interchange Julie for the business, so key is her spirit to its ethos, operation and success.) The business is a sponsor of the Cambridgeshire Awards, a supporter of anti-bullying month both in the UK and the US and a contributor to Jamie Oliver’s foundation (he grew up nearby).

She is also committed to preserving British manufacturing – a luxury rarely afforded by start-up businesses. Despite enormous pressure to satisfy demand with an overseas production model, Deane has ensured that each stage in producing every bag sold has taken place on British soil.

Furthermore, she has used the company’s success to drive a re-skilling of the British population; taking on apprentices, engaging disillusioned youth and encouraging people to embrace craftsmanship.

“We need to look towards the future and youth unemployment is such a horrible problem,” Deane says. “It’s great to start giving people some of those [old fashioned] skills back.”

Ethical integrity

It is this sincerity which has attracted such a loyal fan base (one customer in Birmingham has 20 bags in different colours and styles – no mean feat at just under £100 a pop). Deane and The Cambridge Satchel Company are utterly unpretentious, putting a passion for delivering products with meaning at their core. They are ambitious, but never greedy.

“I remember in the early days my husband said we should aim to sell 10 bags a day, which seemed a lot at the time,” Deane says. “Now we make 3,000 bags a week.”

Troubled times

However, theirs has not been an easy road. The last 18 months, in which dramatic growth saw the business expand from a team of two to 47, has also been a time of great turmoil.

A trusted manufacturer unexpectedly thieved Cambridge Satchel’s leather and used their templates to set up a rival satchel business using the same design.

“When we saw the rival site we felt physically sick. The sense of utter betrayal is still with us,” Deane says.

It is enough to make any first-time entrepreneur lose their nerve, but Deane courageously persisted, seizing the opportunity to safeguard the business against future incidents by setting up The Cambridge Satchel Company’s own factory in Leicester – bringing a significant number of jobs to the area.

“Many mentors at that time advised cancelling orders with customers, or filling them using our existing manufacturer until I could find a replacement, but I don’t work with people I don’t trust or respect,” she adds.

Bright future

That unexpected diversion hit the company’s financials hard in 2010, meaning thus far the numbers on paper have not reflected the business’s incredible success. However, in 2012 The Cambridge Satchel Company is forecasting a turnover of over £10m.

With several innovative new collections set to follow, this homemade business – which started by making just three bags a weeks – can’t tan, sew and emboss fast enough.

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  1. What an inspiring story from Julie. It’s part of the inspiration for us launching The Stamford Notebook Company. We hope one day that every Cambridge Satchel has a Stamford Notebook inside. Best wishes. Paul