In 2007, Julie Deane’s eight-year-old daughter was being bullied at school. Deane needed to move her to a new, safe school and figured the best way to come up with the tuition was to start a business.
“The Cambridge Satchel Company was born to fulfill a need, I needed to make enough money to pay for my children to go to a great school,” Deane said. “I needed to make my children’s lives better and I had a limited budget with which to do it: £600. It qualifies in
“I made a list of ten things I could do to cover the school fees, ten business ideas and ranked them on variables such as start up money, cash flow and continuity should I be run over by a bus. Reviving the classic satchel came out at the top and so I cracked on with each task in an efficient and logical way. There was no lightbulb moment, this was about hard work and analytical reasoning with loads of passion to keep the energy and drive. I created the name and logo in under an hour, when you are on a mission there’s no time for dithering.”
Julie Deane read the book Guerrilla Marketing and embraced the idea of reaching customers in multiple ways, from low-cost flyers to finding them online.
“I was the queen of the free directory listing,” Deane said. “I used every local resource and I would aim to send out 300 emails a day–to fashion editors, lifestyle editors, bloggers, local papers–you name it, I was pestering them. The first sale to a non-relative or friend came from a lovely woman in Scotland. She had been looking for a traditional satchel and my pay-per-click and SEO efforts got me noticed. All that time coding and writing the first website, mentioning satchel in the text, photo descriptions, metatags (it was all a little different then) paid off. The web crawlers or spiders had found me, thank goodness.”
The company now sells accessories in over 120 countries, and has closed $21 million in funding from Index Ventures. All Cambridge products are made in the UK, ranging from backpacks and classic satchels to small leather goods. Counting Diane Kruger and Zooey Deschanel as fans, the brand has also collaborated with designers Comme des Garcons and Vivienne Westwood.
Ethical sourcing is an important part of The Cambridge Satchel brand, so much so that Julie Deane started her own factory.
“I know exactly where and who is making the bags,” Deane said. “My factory is in the heart of England, and building that manufacturing base is something I’m very proud of. Even when I had a 16,000 bag backlog, I fired an unethical manufacturer rather than work with him – imagine, 16,000 bags on order and firing your manufacturer. I decided the only option was to start a factory, even though I had zero manufacturing knowledge. Never let others tell you it can’t be done, all you need is enough fire in your belly and that man gave me plenty.”
For Deane, as the company evolves, the growing pains keep coming.
“Different stages have brought different challenges, luckily they all don’t come at once,” Deane said. “At the start there is the challenge of getting noticed, then filling demand when supply chain fails. As the business becomes more international there are foreign exchange issues and duties and taxes. Logistics…don’t get me started on that one. The biggest challenge for me is whatever happens to be staring me down at the moment – as once the problems are overcome they can be archived. Right now, it’s keeping the brand culture tight as we scale and learning to be an effective CEO. I am not a natural communicator, I love writing and talking, but when I’m doing something I become like a bloodhound – head down and assume everyone else is entirely up to speed (and telepathic). How to keep everyone in the loop as I charge forward, that’s something I’m trying to get better at.”
Still, having her own brand is liberating, giving Deane flexibility to work with her mother and be there for her children, while building a brand she is proud of.
“I love the freedom to do things my own way, from including my mother in the business every day, and being able to work with her and picking my children up from school, which is still really important to me,” Deane said. “We make fantastic product, our craftsmanship is superb, we only work with people we admire, sell to shops we are proud to be in and speak to our customers in plain English with a twinkle in our eye. We have fun, we do things differently and we don’t follow the rules. Our prices are kept low to make it possible for normal, hardworking people to buy the exact bag that Alexa Chung, Taylor Swift and Suki Waterhouse choose to carry–not a copy, the exact same bag. When did it become normal to pay over £1,000 for a bag? How can one handbag cost more than I had to found my entire business? The world’s gone mad.”
There is plenty of growth on the horizon for The Cambridge Satchel Company, from opening new store locations to new collaborations and products.
“We are very excited to be diversifying our offering – we have bags for people of all ages, men and women – as long as they have an appreciation for style and design then they will find something in the range to be excited about,” Deane said. “Keep watching though as there are some unexpected new additions coming before the summer.”
As for sharing her story, Deane hopes to inspire others.
“I hope to be able to spread the story far and wide so that others who haven’t been lucky enough to have someone constantly in their corner encouraging them can read or hear about it and think ‘I’m going to give that a go!’ because only you can change your life. There, I’ll get off my soap box now!”
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