Making it in the big bag world

Annabel Denham
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A GOOD quality leather satchel was a rare find four years ago. The schoolbag market was dominated by canvas and velcro record bags that Julie Deane, founder of the hugely successful Cambridge Satchel Company, found “shabby”. So when she considered possible business ventures, satchels were high on the list. Her timing could not have been better, “Harry Potter would have had one, after all”.

Her story is well-known and widely applauded thanks to a recent Google Chrome advert. When her daughter started to have problems at school, Deane resolved to raise the fees necessary to send her to a nearby private school. With no fashion experience – Deane studied natural sciences at Cambridge before working as a chartered accountant at Deloitte – she sat at her kitchen table, drew up an excel spreadsheet, crunched the numbers, located a manufacturer, and created a DIY website. Her bags are now sold in 100 different countries, have been worn by countless celebrities, and the company has just opened its first shop in Covent Garden.

Averse to any sort of debt, seeking investors was always out of the question. She set aside £600 – a “suitable budget” – and decided that, if the pot was exhausted without any success, she would move onto the next business idea. She never subscribed to the doctrine that reading countless business books, finding appropriate business models, and creating 50 page strategies was the ticket to success. Her modest budget made her think more imaginatively. “If you have a small, tight budget, you have to get creative.”

Her initial marketing strategy involved contacting every magazine, newspaper, journalist and editor that she could think of. “I knew I had to get noticed”, she says. It was only later that she encountered the world of fashion bloggers and used their influence to get the word out. Her advertising strategy was dependent on a £50 Google analytics voucher.

There have been some bumps along the way. The company’s former manufacturers copied her designs and used her customer list to form a rival company. Deane filed a High Court claim, which she won, and bought her own factory in Leicestershire. Moving production abroad was never an option; she is committed to preserving British manufacturing.

Deane had thought that her drive and commitment lay in raising a sufficient amount to fund her children’s education. But the experience showed just how involved in the company she had become. I ask if she plans to be at the helm in the long term. “I realised then how far I would go to protect my business. I can’t imagine leaving it in the foreseeable future – I would find it very hard to take a back seat.”

A reluctant entrepreneur – it’s a word she associates with short-term ventures rather than long-term sustainable businesses – Deane was recently a judge at the National Start-ups Awards. She found it alarming that future entrepreneurs approached her to discuss building a “brand” before they had even established their business idea. I ask what advice she would give to future startups, therefore. “The success of my company has stemmed from my commitment to building a long-term, ethical business.” She also says it is crucial to keep overheads as low as possible. “Two years ago, we were selling to Urban Outfitters in the US and to celebrities around the world – from my kitchen, and with one part-time member of staff”.

The company is getting ready to evolve from its staple satchel. The shop is providing a new way to engage customers and get their feedback, but there are also more big designer name collaborations on the horizon, as well as designs for new handbag styles.

Company name: The Cambridge Satchel Company

Job title: Managing director

Founded: December 2008

Number of staff: 84

Company turnover: £10m

Age: 45

Born: Swansea

Lives: Cambridge

Studied: Natural sciences at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Drinking: Sancerre

Reading: The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands

Talents: Getting along with dogs

Favourite business book: Millionaire Upgrade by Richard Oarkes Cordock

Heroes: Mother

First ambition: “To be the first in my family to go to university”

Awards: Most recently, Winner of the Athena category at the 2012 NatWest Everywoman awards