The Incredible Success Story of The Cambridge Satchel Company

June 22, 2017

At ChannelAdvisor, we just love a great retail success story. Last month, Catalyst Europe was the place to hear inspirational stories such as the one of The Cambridge Satchel Company, the UK’s iconic brand of leather satchels. Julie Deane built her company from an idea that started in her kitchen with just £600. Less than 8 years later, her business is now worth over £40 million. As our second speaker at Catalyst Europe 2017, Deane talked us through the journey of The Cambridge Satchel Company, the lessons she learned along the way, the company’s international success and ways retailers can stand out as a small brand in a crowded marketplace.

It all started when Deane found out her daughter was bullied at school. Determined to change her children’s school, Deane had to get creative to cover expensive new school fees. Believe it or not, she didn’t know how to start a business — not even the first steps. Although she recalled there was ‘no light-bulb moment’, Deane shared with Catalyst attendees how she created momentum: ‘I made a list of 10 things I could do to pay school fees. Things I had looked for and couldn’t find, thinking maybe other people were looking for them too.’ The process turned into one simple idea: creating leather satchels for the school children of Cambridge. The Cambridge Satchel Company was created.

Deane went on to find a logo for her company and found it fast (in about 45 minutes!). “Why spend lots of money if you don’t know if your business is going to succeed or not?” said Deane during her session.

But how to source products? Deane couldn’t find anyone who made satchels in the UK. Finding a supplier was difficult, and ‘finding a manufacturer you can trust is even harder’, as Deane explained. To get her new business started, she made a prototype out of cereal boxes. Artisan bag makers charged about £200 for a bag, and Deane simply did not want to waste that much money.

Deane shared several key lessons at Catalyst Europe 2017. One of them was the importance of nagging. In Deane’s own words: ‘I finally found someone who supplied school uniforms but who wouldn’t let me know who made his school satchels.’ She phoned him every 35 minutes to get the answer. In that case, persistence was key. Deane didn’t shy away from asking about their satchels and colors and went on to score her first deal: the supplier-made The Cambridge Satchel Company’s first four bags. So what is the takeaway for brands and retailers here? Be relentless.

Deane strongly encouraged new brands to use the Google advertising option, and create great relationships with bloggers and their readership. This strategy worked for her satchels, and a competition on the What I Wore fashion blog even lead to inspiration for new models, as requested by readers.

Deane had interesting advice on beating the competition. As a brand-new, small business, The Cambridge Satchel Company didn’t have a big advertising budget, so it was essential for its CEO to think smart. Getting creative turned out to be Deane’s key to success. The lifestyle magazine Elle rang and wanted brightly colored bags. Deane brought them the brightest version she could make: fluorescent. To advertise her new brand, she then lent bloggers the fluorescent bags to wear during that year’s New York Fashion Week. Each time the lights went down, the bags popped out of the crowd, making them the street style trend of Fashion Week.

Of course, The Cambridge Satchel Company ran into obstacles but Deane kept precious takeaways from each experience. When the entrepreneur trusted a dishonest manufacturer, Deane made sure all future supplier agreements were watertight. Her advice? Make the most of what the British Library has to offer, from agreement templates to databases and help with IP registration.

The Cambridge Satchel Company is now a handmade-in-Britain phenomenon, employing more than 100 people and selling to over 120 countries. After initially leasing its sewing machines five years ago, the company is now one of the biggest handbag manufacturers in the UK, producing 15,000 bags a month. In January 2014, the company raised $21 million from Index Ventures, an investment being used to strengthen the management team and recruit digital talent to boost the company’s profile as an internationally recognized brand.

When it comes spreading brand awareness, Deane had one tip for brands: ‘You don’t need a PR company with a massive retainer. Just call the media and be authentic. Don’t be too nice and don’t take in too many opinions. This is your company and you know what you want.’

Want to read more insights from our Catalyst Europe 2017 speakers? Read the rest of our #CatalystEU recaps here.