How school bullies led Julie Deane to create a multi-million pound firm

Finding out your child is being bullied at school can be a horrible experience, especially when the only other suitable nearby school is private and you don’t have the money to pay the fees. But for Julie Deane, this exact situation led to the foundation of a multi-million-pound company.

In four years Julie Deane has gone from stay-at-home mum to international trendsetter, while her company has gone from a kitchen table to sales of more than £1 million a month. And it all started with a list…

“It was awful when my daughter was being bullied [at school] and I thought ‘how can I fix this?’” Dean explained. “I saw a great school for her and needed school fees.”

“It gave me passion and energy and a purpose, and that’s what you need to be driven, rather than just thinking that you’d like to be an entrepreneur.”

Deane sat down and wrote a list of 10 things she could do to raise the money to send both her children (Emily and Max) to a different school and escape the bullies.

Both children were reading ‘Harry Potter’ at the time and asked if they could have leather satchels like the wizard; “make satchels” was duly added to the list and The Cambridge Satchel Company was born.

Cambridge satchel

How she got started

With just a £600 seed fund, the kitchen table to work at and her mother - Freda Thomas - as her business partner, Deane set up her business. Unlike other entrepreneurs, Deane is very risk adverse. “I’ve never borrowed money,” she said. “We still own 100% of the business. I’m not a huge risk taker as you don’t need to be.”

She first struggled to find anyone who bought into her vision, or who could make traditional satchels, but she kept going – eventually finding a company in Hull that still had all the original 1970s equipment to make them. Not convinced they would be a big hit, the firm still made six samples for her.

She made the company’s website herself from a £19.99 template, while her children’s classmates modelled the bags for photos for the website. The six samples took weeks to sell. But all the while Deane was busy publicising her business, telling her story.

Much of this was done online. Deane contacted people who bought her satchels and discovered a world of fashion bloggers that she didn’t previously know existed. She contacted them and they loved the satchels and turned them into something of a cult hit. Although the initial samples were brown and black, one customer requested a red satchel and Deane decided to make the bags in an array of colours – a decision that proved to be a success.

Cambridge Satchel Company Fluorescent Batchel

We’re going to need a bigger shed

A key turning point in her company’s story was when ‘The Guardian’ included the satchels in its 2009 Christmas Gift Guide. She got 74 orders in a day.

“We were still working in the kitchen at this point and I’d get five or six orders every Saturday. There were boxes everywhere and my husband said we needed more space – so we went out to buy a shed,” Deane explained.

“As we walked around the shop my mobile kept pinging – I’d set up a notification every time the website got an order. I got home to a screen full of orders, all different names for different satchels. I thought ‘maybe a shed isn’t big enough’.”

Meanwhile, word was spreading fast on the internet and celeb trend setters including Sophie Ellis Bextor, Alexa Chung and Zooey Deschanel were spotted out and about with the satchels.

Just before the Olympics in July 2012 ‘The Today Show’ in America chose the Cambridge Satchel Company as one of three UK businesses to profile. The prime-time plug led to a new rush of orders.

“We were over-run with traffic and the website crashed, but it was a good dry run,” said Deane. Another key push was when Google – whose adverts had previously featured the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga – instead profiled her company as an example of the power of the internet. It resulted in a new rush of orders.

“By then we had built a website that could cope,” said Deane.

Success made in Britain

In four short years the company has become a runaway success. Despite increased demand, selling satchels to 120 countries, she’s keeping her business in Britain. "I'll sell to China, but we're making it in the UK," she said in a recent interview.

Currently some 900 bags a day are being produced at its factory, there are sales figures of £1.3 million a month, 84 direct employees and she’s working with five UK manufacturers.

The satchels have appeared in the window display of Bloomingdale's in New York, are sold in places like Harrods and Selfridges, and there’s even a dedicated shop in London’s Covent Garden.

The only setback was a legal dispute with one of the company’s manufacturers - who started a rival company, Zatchels, supplying near-identical products. Deane won a court case over the matter, stopped using the firm’s services and set up her own factory in Leicestershire. She even hired some of the staff from the old manufacturers after they left, annoyed at the actions of their former employer.

As for advice for other budding entrepreneurs, Deane said success can’t be found in business books alone, as the challenges faced by new businesses can be very specific.

“We had a big issue with how to send out bags without standing in the queue at the Post Office and how to get a better postage rate,” she said. “We found a consolidator who takes on small accounts and negotiates with parcel companies such as DHL for a good rate. It transformed things and it’s something the business books won’t tell you.”

So what’s next for the Cambridge Satchel Company? A new factory is in the offing, three times the size of the first one, a men’s bag collection will be launched at the Pitti trade show in Florence early in 2013 and Deane is also busy preparing for London Fashion Week in February.

It’s all a far cry from writing a list at the kitchen table.