Building an idea from your kitchen table and turning it into a boutique international brand with presences at stores like Bloomingdales is no easy feat. It takes determination, planning, and a little ingenuity. Meet Julie Deane. She was a stay-at-home mom and started the Cambridge Satchel Company to get her daughter into private school to avoid the bullying of her public school classmates. That was five years ago. Since then her business has been growing by leaps and bounds. I sat down with Julie to discuss her business, her brand, and her future.
Don: In the beginning you came up with a list of 10 ideas to raise money to get your daughter into private school. What made you think selling a brand of vintage-inspired satchels would work?
Julie: I had been looking for four or five months before I started the business for satchels because I don’t like this whole throwaway society. The whole approach to not caring or respecting a product because you are going to throw it away bothers me. I really do not like it. My children were going through the stages of wanting a school bag with some sort of motif on it, such as High School Musical. They would like it one year, then the next year they wouldn’t like it so they would want a new bag. The whole way these types of things get labeled gives them a really short shelf life. There is also the aspect that I like things to look clean, tidy, and smart for a long time. School bags today are made out of nylon and they look all scuffed up and are hard to clean, making them grubby looking. I kept thinking about when I was in school having a leather satchel and it looked as good on the last day as it did the first day. It was my school bag for the whole way through. It was not labeling me with trying to tell the world what I liked at the time; it was just a really good bag. I wanted my children to have something like that. They were reading Harry Potter at the time so to connect to them I said “Oh my gosh, Harry Potter. I am telling you that is a boy that would have had a satchel with that Hogwarts school uniform.” That is when they decided that is what they wanted. When I tried to get them a leather satchel they just were not being made at that time in the UK. To me that was such a shame because it is a lovely, clean design. That is why it made the list.
Don: That is wonderful. It sounds like you really just found a niche and focused on your passion.
Julie: Yes. Actually, I grew up in South Wales and lots of people close to us worked in the coal mines. There was a period in UK history where we had Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and she shut down the mines. So many people lost their jobs and whole villages just became really sad places with houses worth very little. To grow up experiencing something like that gives me a huge love of manufacturing and bringing these manufacturing jobs to the UK. It is especially rewarding being able to meet the people making the bags.
Don: What would you be doing if you had picked something else off your list?
Julie: I know exactly what I would have ended up doing if my family and I still lived in the United States. I am an obsessive gardener and I have a really nice little British-English garden. It gives me a huge amount of enjoyment. When we lived in the U.S., I thought, “So many of these houses do not even have a fence between them and their neighbor. They are not claiming their space or making it their own.” I was always so passionate about how much more beautiful those lovely houses could have been if the outdoor space reflected the people inside the houses. With that in mind I would have had some sort of landscaping type of company in the U.S.
Don: Wow. That is obviously very different than creating satchels, and probably less lucrative.
Julie: I don’t know about that. If you are good enough, you can do more than just dig a border and put in a few plants for people. If you are doing more than just lawn and garden maintenance by creating this wow factor around that house, I think that could be a fantastic business.
Don: That sounds like a testament to the passion you have for your ideas. So, other than getting your daughter into private school, what has been the second most rewarding achievement of starting this business?
Julie: That is a really easy one because without realizing it, one of the best things that’s happened because of this business is from day one my mum has been really involved. She has helped with everything from choosing new colors to packing the bags to helping me take them to the post office. She has been there every single day. Maybe even more important, the thing it has done for her is give her a new lease on life. She is in her seventies now and she has been given opportunities to do things and actually participate in life instead of staying retired, sitting and watching television all day. People go downhill if they do that.
Don: That is great that you are so close with her and let her get that involved in your business.
Julie: About a year ago, my mum and I won the Red Hot Women award for Red magazine. My mum said, “Oh my gosh, I’m a red hot woman and I’m I my seventies. How about that?” We have also been invited to have coffee with Samantha Cameron, spouse of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, at 10 Downing Street. To be able to do something like that with your mum…it is really getting so involved in life, taking a chance and really throwing yourself at it with a passion instead of doing just enough to get by. Those are the moments that make it worthwhile.
Don: That is absolutely amazing. This is definitely an inspiring story. The majority of people would not let their parents get involved so closely in a business like this. It is great to hear that it is still happening.
Julie: Yes, she is brilliant. When people get to a certain age, many would rather not leave the workforce and have an enforced retirement. Some may very well want to take it easy or travel but for my mum that would have been an absolutely awful thing. She is so sociable and brings so much to the company that by shutting her out we would have been much less of a business. We would have been the ones missing out.
Don: That is really wonderful to hear. You have created such a lucrative business based solely upon satchels. Do you see any brand extensions in the future?
Julie: Yes, we have a new shaped bag and an absolutely beautiful clutch bag that we showed for the first time at the shop opening last month and it was very well received. We need to look at interesting ways of getting better yields from the leather we use for the satchels, and with that in mind, smaller leather goods may make a lot of sense. We are proud to have acquired a fantastic new colleague who will join the team very soon as a product developer.
Don: Does your daughter, Emily, show any interest in the family business?
Julie: Actually yes, she is fantastic. She is 13 now; she was 8 when this business started. The thing about Emily is that she knows that this business was set up to help her and she has never forgotten that. Every school holiday she comes to work with me to get involved and help out. She is amazing. She can answer customer service email, she will help out with the mailings, she can do inspections and many other things because she’s been involved since the very start. I do not think there is anybody that I have met outside of my mum who can take a satchel and look at it with such a critical eye and within seconds say if there is a fault or any sort of flaw in it.
Don: It sounds like your daughter is very grounded and shares a lot of the same traits as you and your mother do.
Julie: Emily has the best elements of everybody in our family. She has my husband’s patience, my love of the business and analytical way of looking at it, and she has my mum’s good nature. She has been blessed with the best traits. Then we have my son Max and if there is anybody who was born to be in PR and brand representation, it is him. He could sell a satchel to anybody. We did a thank-you tea party for the bloggers last February in New York at Alice’s Tea Cup. As I was saying goodbye to somebody outside my little boy came out with his little suit on and said to me, “I’ve sold 5 bags to the bloggers, is that sort of where you were pitching it or should I get back in there?” [laughs] I said, “No, it was supposed to be a thank-you tea party, you weren’t supposed to be in there selling bags.”
Don: That is very cute. So with that, where do you see yourself and the business in the next five years?
Julie: Google decided to make us the face of Google Chrome for the UK and Europe and because of that I get an enormous amount of email from all sorts of people. Most of them want to start their own business and ask me for advice on certain ideas. I also go to quite a few schools speaking to those with an interest in starting a business and answering their questions. I really like being involved with that and doing that kind of thing. I think the big challenge for Cambridge Satchel Company is to continue to build a team with really strong skills. When you grow a new business so quickly it is very hard to maintain a team with a strong framework to keep pace with your growth. It is trying to grow the business while still keeping the culture that we have.
Don: Now you said they made you the face of Google Chrome for the UK and Europe. How did that come about?
Julie: Google heard the story of how I started the business with just £600 (roughly USD 906), never having borrowed or having investors. It was simply based on my story of me doing everything from the kitchen table on the computer. It was all done from home from finding manufacturing, contacting bloggers, getting photos up on the website, and everything else. It shows what can be done online. They really liked the story and it fits in well with their slogan, the web is what you make of it. Today, it has over 4.7 million hits on YouTube with just six months in, so it has done really well. This is fairly new. It was only in September 2012 they launched the video. Our U.S. website launched a couple of weeks ago. We’re just about to move into a new factory as well so it all seems to be happening at the moment.
Don: Keep up the momentum! What advice would you give to other stay-at-home-moms (and dads) with an entrepreneurial spirit who are thinking of starting a new brand or business?
Julie: I don’t care what anybody says, it has never been easier to start a business than it is right now. Mainly because of the Internet and so many free resources available. Most people nowadays, even if they do not have Internet access in their homes can get it through a community center or local resource. It is accessible, so there is really no excuse. Stop reading the books. People need a deadline of some kind. For me it was the deadline of the school summer holiday so I needed to do it quickly. The key is to stop waiting until you think you have time and just get on with it.
From its founding at Julie Deane’s kitchen table in 2008 to the multi-million-pound business it is today, the Cambridge Satchel Company is still the same company that bloggers and fashionistas originally fell in love with. Julie has stayed amazingly grounded after the numerous awards and press. That is what makes her brand so amazing. She puts her whole self into the company and produces a good, honest product. Julie Deane leaves us with this great thought that challenges us to get up and start moving with our ideas: We will never have enough time. And what exactly is enough time? Julie started her business in the time her daughter was off from school in the summer — talk about motivation!
Don McLean, MBA is an account supervisor at Airfoil Group, an independent marketing and public relations firm serving tech companies and innovation-centric brands with offices in Detroit, New York and Silicon Valley. Follow Don on twitter at@mclean_don.