The Cambridge Satchel Company founder Julie Deane turned £600 into a bag business boasting £12 million of sales a year. But, she says, her first foray into fashion started with just one wish: to send her kids to private school. Fast-forward a few years, the former stay-at-home mum has now not only created a much-coveted design, but also bagged herself an OBE. Here, she shares her advice:
Never expect anyone else to solve your problems
There was no eureka moment when starting The Cambridge Satchel Company in 2008 – it was needs-driven. I needed to raise enough money to send my two children, Emily and Max, to The Perse School in Cambridge. But with fees of £12,000 a year per child, I had to come up with a big idea – quickly. My mum, Freda Thomas, and I drew up a list of different ways of making the fees. One idea was for a bag business, after I was unable to find school satchels for the kids.
Urgency is a great motivator
I mocked up a satchel from two old cereal boxes and took it to a manufacturer, saying, ‘This is what I want.’ They agreed to make six bags and things moved quickly from there. I learnt to code and built our website over two days. From germination to launch, it took just two weeks as I had a deadline to meet: the looming school year.
Work with what you’ve got
Eighteen months later, we were supplying Urban Outfitters in the US with bags, directly from my kitchen table in Cambridge. Their buyers wanted to see our showroom and I had to admit there was only the spare room.
It helps to be cautious at the beginning
We didn’t get an office until 2010; I didn’t want to take on a lease until I felt confident that our first year of £17,000 sales wasn’t a one-off. Eventually, I found premises with a short lease. It was just me, my mum and one employee. Now, we employ 155 people.
Sometimes it pays to get out of your comfort zone
After I encouraged US bloggers to carry our bags at New York Fashion Week in 2010, orders of 14,000 bags were coming in. I only had four manufacturers producing 150 bags a week, so I found a bigger one, but then discovered it was making copycat bags. I had no choice – in 2011, I started my own factory.
Don’t lose sight of your original goal
I remember looking through an early customer list and spotting the name Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ but I get just as excited when I see somebody on the street with one. And when we get sent photos of children on their first day of school with a satchel, it’s unbelievably lovely.