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  • 15 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Kitchen table business

Updated Wednesday 31st July 2013

Julie Deane, founder of The Cambridge Satchel Company, discusses how her business grew from the kitchen table.

Talking to Fiona Ellis-Chadwick, founder of The Cambridge Satchel Company Julie Deane describes the origins of her business and says a methodical, not a mystical, approach contributed to its success.

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Julie Deane and Fiona Ellis-Chadwick were talking after a recording of The Bottom Line.

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JULIE DEANE

I’m Julie Deane and I’m the founder of The Cambridge Satchel Company.

INTERVIEWER

Julie, could you tell us, we’re all fascinated about business success and The Cambridge Satchel Company has gone from a, with a £600 investment around your kitchen table to a multimillion dollar business, can you tell us how did you achieve that?

JULIE DEANE

I think that from my point of view it’s a bit of a myth to say that there’s a light bulb moment. You know, you’re very lucky I suppose if you do get a light bulb moment, but I just needed to make money to get my daughter out of a bad situation where she was being bullied at school, and so it was very methodical. I went home after I’d promised her perhaps rashly that she wouldn’t be going back to that school again, which sort of set a deadline for me, but I went home and I made a list of ten things I could do to make school fees, and being a bit of a nerdy person I made the list on Excel and had the columns going out, how much money I’d need to start each idea. How each idea, how scalable it was, what would happen if I got run over by a bus, and how likely it would be for the money to come in the frequency I’d need for school fees. So it was just very methodical; it wasn’t really, it’s not very mystical.

INTERVIEWER

And when did a turning point come when you really knew that this investment was actually going to grow into a sustainable business?

JULIE DEANE

I think that for the first don’t be looking round for people to tell you what a good idea it is, because I think you’ll just be wasting your time. You’ll have somebody hopefully, like I have my mum that says oh yeah that’s brilliant, you can do it, of course you can do it. But you’ll have lots of people saying oh no well if it was a very good idea somebody else would have done it already, or no I don’t think that’s a good idea, because they haven’t decided to do it themselves, and so you have to be very tenacious. You have to sort of keep on and on and on and not give up because things will go wrong. You know, they’ll go wrong in small ways and they’ll go wrong in spectacular ways that mean high court lawsuits and things along the way. But you just have to know I think what’s very very important to you and to keep on with that. And so for me it was very much about the reason I’m doing it is for my family.

So that means that I still pick my children up from school most days. I take them to school each day. It’s not that I wanted to make things better for them by having a better school but then they have an absentee parent. I know what’s important to me. You know, I love my dog to bits, and so that really limited the choice of where I could have an office because he had to be allowed in it, and we have two shops now and both of those places partly were picked so I could take Rupert with me. But the big thing about having your own business is it should be your own business, and that means that you know what’s important to you. And some things are more difficult but then you need to realise what is a privilege. You know, it’s a privilege to work with my mother every day. It’s a privilege to have my dog snore under my desk and people on Skype think that it’s me. But it’s something that is only possible because it’s my business.

So I think from day one you have to realise that it’s not just about the money and it’s not going to be easy. And then hopefully there will be a moment, I remember my husband saying when you sell 10 bags a day you really should get some help with packing. Because I was doing the accounts, I did the website, I did the photography. You know, me and my mum would take all of the bags to the post office every day. We’d stand in a queue with 27 parcels and everybody would hate us. And so it’s a very very slow process, that didn’t feel like I was ever going to get to the point of when he said 10 bags every day, 10 every day, including weekend days, and now we make over 900 bags a day in the UK. But it’s quite a blur. I remember the point on the second Christmas when he made what actually looking back on it was a fairly fair point because he couldn’t get, we had so many boxes of satchels that you couldn’t get from the kitchen to the bathroom unless the boxes were arranged in a way that the dog couldn’t get to the back door to go out.

So there was no way that we could all go to the loo easily, and that probably meant that there were too many boxes of satchels in our house, but I kept my overheads really really low. And then he sort of suggested that maybe it was time for me to move the business out of the kitchen and sort of being the very low risk taker I sort of said well I think you’re right, obviously what I need is a shed, so I need a garden building to put some of the boxes in. And we were at the garden centre looking at sheds when my phone had been set to beep if we had an order on the website, and on a Saturday usually there’s be about three orders, and the Saturday that we were looking in the garden centre at these sheds it was going beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep – and I thought no, somebody somewhere in Devon, I don’t know why I thought Devon but I thought Devon, somebody in Devon has placed an order and they’ve filled out a field wrong and now my £19.99 a month website is spiralling out of control and it’s just giving me all these alerts. But when I went back it was actually we had 72 orders that day, and they were all different names, and they were all for different things. And my husband just turned to me and he said maybe you might need more than a shed. So that’s certainly a big moment.

INTERVIEWER

That sounds like that was a tipping point at which point it was…

JULIE DEANE

Well it’s a tipping point but you’ve got to be careful about what you think is a tipping point. There’s never going to be a moment when you feel safe, at least for me. I’m a very cautious person. And so he sort of obviously thought it was a tipping point, but I mean that could have just been a Christmas-hype. And so we said okay but if it’s still like this in mid-February then I’ll decide whether to go for an office or a shed. And I think it’s always a good idea to keep your feet on the ground and not think this is it, I’ve made it so let’s lease a huge building on a 20-year lease with no break clause.

INTERVIEWER

It sounds from what you’re saying that you’re quite a risk-averse person which is quite unusual perhaps for an entrepreneur. Do you think that’s something that’s inside of you or is that something that you’ve learned?

JULIE DEANE

No, I think it’s just don’t take a risk if you don’t have to. You know, don’t take a gamble with your money and in my case my children’s school fees if you don’t have to. And for me at least the internet means that often you don’t have to. You know, you don’t have to have a big budget for market research and pay thousands of pounds for people to stand outside Asda with clipboards and ask people who’d never buy a satchel anyway what colour they think I should go for next. You know really it makes no sense, it makes no sense. So it makes far more sense to contact a fashion blog and say to them, let’s do a competition, let’s ask people to take a look at the range and say what colours do you like, what would you put in it, what would you wear with it, where would you go, and then add the question that you’re really interested in, what colour would you most like them to add. And by doing it that way when we first branched out and we had our first bespoke colour, and you’ve got a minimum dying batch of 500 square foot, so that’s a lot of satchels if you pick a really hokey shade.

And so we ran this competition with an American blog, and we got so many responses and very luckily 80% of them said Kelly green was the colour that they want, which is what American people apparently call an Irish shamrock green. And so don’t leave it at that, then I just emailed every one of them and said congratulations you’ve picked the winning colour and being you’re one of the people that suggested this, would you like to have one of the first batch of satchels in this shade? And so actually when the leather got dyed there was no risk because we’d already sold all of the first batch before the leather was even dyed.

INTERVIEWER

One last question, you have two young children.

JULIE DEANE

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

Are they [are] 10 and…

JULIE DEANE

Well no they’re, Max is 11 and Emily was 14 two weeks ago.

INTERVIEWER

Okay. And they budding young budding entrepreneurs?

JULIE DEANE

I don’t like the word entrepreneur because to me an entrepreneur is somebody who starts up a business they don’t care about based on a business model to make money, to take venture capital funding and to exit after three years and that’s a soulless business. So they both love the business, they’ve seen it grown from the kitchen from nothing to being in all of the shop windows, Bloomingdale’s in New York during New York fashion week and our logo over taxi toppers in New York, and it’s taken them to Dubai and it’s given them amazing experiences. They love the business but they’re very different.

So my daughter is very very methodical. She will help out in whatever way she needs to. She’ll sit there and she’ll do hundreds of FedEx labels. Little fingers are really good at typing. I didn’t really say that, that’s not like child labour or anything. But she’ll pack, she’ll trim, she will do anything to be helpful, and she’s very interested in the mechanics of the business. My son is more of a schmoozer I think. He’s very, he loves interviews; he’s not rattled by anything. And we did a big event in New York not last February the February before for New York fashion week when we invited along a lot of the bloggers who had really made it possible for my business to take off, the ones that had supported me from day one, and we invited them to this place that looked very much like a kitchen. And we had tea and cakes and things and I just wanted to say thank you to them because they weren’t really very likely to come to my kitchen in Fen Ditton but I could at least have somebody else’s kitchen in New York and say thank you.

And so my son was there, he was about nine, nine or ten at the time and he had his little suit on. And he turned up and I was saying goodbye to somebody in a taxi outside and he came out and he said I’ve sold about seven he said in there, is that kind of where you pitched it or should I get back in there? No, it’s supposed to be a thank you event; you’re not supposed to be selling bags. So they’re really really different but they have amazing skills.

INTERVIEWER

So it sounds like your son’s going to be a business leader in the future possibly.

JULIE DEANE

Well I think…

INTERVIEWER

Business leader in the making.

JULIE DEANE

He certainly has the charisma for it but he’ll need a team behind him to back him up.

 

 

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