From idea to global brand: the Cambridge Satchel Company
Julie Deane is the founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company. She revolutionised the UK bag industry with a range of traditional British-made satchels, updated for the modern wardrobe. Beloved of style icons, magazines, and the public, the satchels are already iconic. We asked Julie a few questions about how she went from £600 and an idea, to a global brand.
Creating the satchels was one of 10 ideas you had for a business – what was it about this idea that stood out, and where did it come from?
When I came up with the ten ideas, the ones I chose had to be things I was passionate about, because I knew I’d have to devote a lot of time and energy to them. Secondly, I had to look at them practically. What would be the maximum potential size of the business, what seed capital would be needed, what would the cashflow look like? I needed to make money for school fees quickly, and so it needed to be an idea that would be profitable fast.
What was the first step you took to start putting the idea into motion?
Back when we started, it wasn’t easy to just go on the internet and launch an ecommerce site. Now it’s fantastic as there are so many tailor-made sites where you simply upload the copy and get started quickly, but I learnt to code and did it myself. The original site didn’t look great, but it did the job!
What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome initially?
There were two big hurdles. The first was to find a UK manufacturer, which was very difficult. There’s no centralised database of UK manufacturers, which make it tricky. I drove all over the country meeting with potential manufacturers, and most of them either couldn’t do it, or couldn’t do it for my price. Our second hurdle was working out how to get noticed – how can you make a loud enough noise in a crowded online space?
How did you validate your idea?
I always firmly believed in the potential of the product. I wanted a quality satchel and had looked for a long time, but was never able to find one. I knew I couldn’t be the only person looking, and so I spotted the opportunity…
What made you decide to keep the production in the UK, and was this challenging?
We needed a prototype, and it’s far far easier to work with manufacturers who you can deal with face to face. A satchel is a really British product – and it makes sense for a British product to be made in Britain. I wasn’t going to bulk-buy 1000 units from China and wait five weeks for them to arrive. Rather, I needed a manufacturer who I could be in touch with regularly and build a close relationship with, enabling us to make changes to the product and replenish.
What was a huge breakthrough for you?
We took a call from Italian Vogue – it was our first magazine photoshoot, and we had no idea how they’d discovered us. Dream moments like that are amazing, but when they come along there’s the sense that it’s almost a prank! I got a call from the fashion editor of the Daily Mail, and was convinced it was a friend. At the time we were only selling a small number of the satchels, and I had no idea how they discovered us. It’s so fantastic when you realise the opportunity is bigger than you first thought it was – that you’re on the radar of some exciting people.
You’ve partnered with other designers & diversified the bags on offer, bur retain a really strong brand identity – what are your tips for this?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of putting your name on anything, once you’ve had success with one thing. However it’s arrogant to think that off the back of one product you’re a brand – I’ve worked hard to build a brand, rather than assuming I’ve just got one. Whatever new designs and products we create, we keep consistency. Signature parts, our logo, the shape of the buckle – these all help give a visual identity that links in people’s mind. In our early days, it would have been easy to agree to make a product without a logo; but if you do that you just become a manufacturer, not a brand. Don’t waver, and remain determined.
Any tips for startups trying to come up with the next great idea?
Don’t overcomplicate things. My idea was simple: I wanted to bring back the satchel, because it was a bag that didn’t deserve to be forgotten. The more simple, the better.
I’d also recommend doing as much yourself as possible in the early days, to lessen risk. Risk makes you more frightened, and fear makes you less likely to go for it and create something.
The Cambridge Satchel Company have teamed up with the government to learn more about the problems small business owners face when scaling up. Make your voice heard and answer the survey today: bit.ly/SEReview15