Julie Deane, Founder, The Cambridge Satchel Company & Star of the New Google Chrome Advert

The NextWomen September Food & Fashion Theme.

We absolutely love the story of Julie Deane, who founded The Cambridge Satchel Company in 2008 and has since grown her business to an almost £12m turnover and 70 employees. Her satchels are now sold in 100 countries worldwide.

The icing on the cake is that Julie has recently been selected to star in the new Google Chrome advert, which is currently being shown on television and cinema and being promoted via social media. Google chose Julie for her amazing entrepreneurial spirit, the success of her brand and the role that the internet played in the success of her business.

The 60 second advert, which can be seen at the bottom of this article, tracks Julie’s business journey from sourcing UK manufacturers, to liaising with top fashion editors and engaging with big name celebrities who have since become both fans and advocates of the brand.

Julie's quirky, colourful leather satchels, modelled on the 1970s original, have been carried by everyone from Zooey Deschanel and Alexa Chung to Daniel Radcliffe and Russell Kane, and even the cast and crew of Mad Men. They have also featured on Gossip Girl. The brand collaborates with prestigious designers and retailers including Comme des Garcons and Christopher Shannon, further securing its role and international acclaim as the ‘Brit “it” Bag’.

Julie founded The Cambridge Satchel Company at her kitchen table in 2008 with just £600.

The inspiration for the company came from Julie’s love of an old satchel she had as a child and her desire to find a similar version for her own children when they started school. When Julie discovered no one was producing traditional leather satchels she set about designing and producing them. Since then she has sold them online and created a global fashion craze. 

Julie is committed to preserving British manufacturing and all of her products are carefully handmade to order in the UK. Her team ships all internet orders from an office in a village just outside Cambridge to countries around the world. 

An unlikely fashion entrepreneur, Julie graduated from Cambridge in 1987 and worked as a chartered accountant at Deloitte before returning to the University, where she was the Fellow for Development for her college, Gonville and Caius. Before starting The Cambridge Satchel Company, Deane, who founded the business with her mother Freda Thomas, was a full-time mum. 

We spoke to Julie about the transition from kitchen table entrepreneur to leader of a 70-strong organisation; about the vital role that bloggers have played in the success of her business; and the moment she realised her company was taking off.

TNW: Tell us about how bloggers were instrumental in getting the word out about your product. How did you approach them and what impact did they have?

The bloggers have been vital in getting our business off the ground, they are influential - millions follow them and read their opinions.

I was very honest with them and told them why I was starting Cambridge Satchel (to make school fees to get my daughter out of a bullying environment at the local school), I told them all about the bags, sent photos or samples and asked for their support if they liked them. I ran competitions with them and generally did everything I could to get noticed - there wasn't a blogger or fashion editor I didn't contact.

TNW: Your company has grown from a kitchen table operation to a 12m turnover and 70 employees in 4 years. What would be your advice for entrepreneurs looking to scale their business?

We have grown incredibly quickly, there are growing pains but standing still wasn't an option as there are so many imitators waiting for an opportunity.

I would say that I have been too hard on myself many times along this journey - wanting everything to be perfect and to run like clockwork, there are several stages, several levels - each with its own set of challenges. The systems you put in place now won't last you for ever, be prepared to change them and to constantly evolve.

Julie and her Mum FredaTNW:  How have you found the transition from being a kitchen table entrepreneur to leader of a 70-strong organisation?

JD: Sometimes I feel that it's easier now, I have so many very talented people who care passionately about the business, it's not just me and my mum trying to make every decision and having our fingers firmly crossed that we've made the right one. Other days the size of the organisation, setting up a factory, managing the IP protection, fighting cyber fraud sites… there are many distractions and complications but seeing the whole picture is very important. At the end of the day it's still me at the school gates, my family keeps me grounded. 

TNW:  Was there a defining moment when you realised that your new company was really going to take off? 

JD: Yes, after about a year a Cambridge Satchel was included in The Guardian's Christmas Gift Guide - the sales that day and the visits to the website were so much higher than we had ever had, that was the moment I felt the business was going somewhere.

TNW: How has your experience as an accountant helped you to found and run your own company?

JD: When I was training I had no idea how helpful that knowledge was going to become. Being an auditor and seeing so many businesses, how they ran, what they struggled with, the experience has proved invaluable. I was able to manage the business effectively for a long time without the need to employ anyone and that helped do what I needed to do - make money for the school fees. 

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?

JD: In 2010 we needed more manufacturing capacity. I had never used a noncompete or NDA  and I now realise that I had been exceptionally lucky in coming across manufacturers who had good ethics and integrity.

Then the bad apple surfaced and I saw a rival brand emerge, from the very people we had given our patterns and designs to. It could have knocked us for six but we decided to make a stand - to bring a High Court action and to start our own manufacturing facility.

Our factory has grown and now makes around 600 bags a day, the team there is very skilled and hardworking and their efforts have led to our rapid expansion. It's important to not give up, to not feel sorry for yourself but to fight for your business and you will both emerge stronger.

TNW: Do you believe it is better to find customers then funding or vice versa?

JD: Yes, this business was started on a budget of £600, we have never borrowed or gone overdrawn. We are self sustaining and that helps me sleep at night.

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

JD: I would recommend having a go, taking the chance as there is so much to gain.

The web has brought the world into the home and means that it has never been easier to start with very low overheads. Don't take risks you're uncomfortable with, and trust your instincts.

TNW: What is your top tip for balancing motherhood with a career?

JD: My family come first, I know what I need to do to make sure I don't feel guilty and those things are non negotiable. I take and collect from school, if I get stuck somewhere and can't make it then someone from the office will go with my mum and pick up the children. We eat dinner as a family, sitting down together and discussing our day. Naturally there will be occasions when we can't all be there but it's not often. I need to keep my priorities straight, I am replaceable in many aspects of my life but not in my role as a mother.

TNW: What is one lesson about leadership you learned from a boss or mentor? 

JD: That you aren't expected to know everything and you're a fool if you pretend to.

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders? 

Don't think of yourself as a woman leader - you are a leader, do it your way, don't start thinking you are at some kind of disadvantage.

Watch the new Google Chrome advert starring Julie here:

Sign Up to our Newsletter

So you enjoy The NextWomen. Why not sign up to our monthly newsletter?
You get a Letter from the CEO :-), the chance to catch up with the best of our recent articles - and some extra things we throw in once in a while.

We try hard for smart reading.