Julie Deane OBE

Posted on 28 November 2020

Julie Deane OBE is the Founder & CEO of The Cambridge Satchel Company.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss. Jazz Shapers is where the shapers of business meet the shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues and our guest today, our very last Business Shaper of the season 2020 is Julie Deane, Founder and CEO of The Cambridge Satchel Company inspired by traditional British leather school bags from years gone by. Self-proclaimed unlikely fashion entrepreneur, Julie Deane worked as a Chartered Accountant before returning to her University of Cambridge to become the foe for development for her college and the first female registry appointed to that role in its 650 year history. In 2007, Julie wanted to raise the money to move her 8 year old daughter to a school where she would thrive and be happy and inspired by her own old-school satchel, Julie came up with an idea to make traditional leather satchels for the school children of Cambridge. As she says, “I’ve always been a great believer in thinking ‘what is the dream’ and then I will find a way to get there.” Creating a mock-up from two old cereal boxes and building her own website using self-taught coding, Julie launched The Cambridge Satchel Company in a fortnight with just £600. The business is now a Hand Made in Britain worldwide phenomenon, employing more than 130 people and selling to over a hundred countries. Julie is committed to preserving British manufacturing and despite enormous pressure to satisfy demand with an overseas production model, she has ensured that each stage in producing every bag sold has taken place on British soil. Hello, it’s very nice to have you here with us.

Julie Deane

Hello. 

Elliot Moss

I must say for the first time in our 9½ or 9¾ year history we are doing this over the Internet, we are not in the same room, at least not physically but that’s cool.

Julie Deane

No but we are on the line.

Elliot Moss

We are on the line, down the line.

Julie Deane

On the line.

Elliot Moss

On the line and I have been listening over lockdown like many people to the brilliant Louis Theroux and I always was amazed that he managed to do it seamlessly except he didn’t, what he did say was ‘okay that went wrong and we were off for an hour and now we are back on’. Now of course the truth is Julie, we’ve had a few hiccups before we got here but that’s what makes life, life.

Julie Deane

Definitely and none that I saw.

Elliot Moss

None that you saw. You are so sweet. And of course for you, you came to your business to address a specific issue which wasn’t necessarily I’ve got a burning, burning passion to become involved in the world of making bags? 

Julie Deane

Exactly and I think that that’s what made it easier for me because it was easy to see what I was trying to do and what I needed to do and that was basically just make school fees so that my two kids could go to a really lovely school and there were enough limiting factors on there, you know, I knew that I had a starting fund, seed capital let’s call it, £600 and I knew that I needed to make enough to send two children to a private school which is really expensive actually, private schools are really expensive and I…

Elliot Moss

I can empathise, I am empathising with you four times over.

Julie Deane

…and the length of the school summer holidays and so when you put all those things together, apparently that’s what qualifies in Google as a moonshot but luckily I didn’t know it was a moonshot because that sounds like something that is going to be really, really hard to do.

Elliot Moss

And why the satchels, how did that? Why the cereal boxes, why that versus some other mad cap scheme?

Julie Deane

I had no shortage of mad cap schemes up my sleeve but I thought that I needed to just limit it just to a list of ten things I thought I could do to make school fees which I did on an excel spreadsheet because that’s sort of the way that everything was done.

Elliot Moss

That’s the way accountants think, they think through spreadsheets.

Julie Deane

Yes very easy because you’ve got columns and all kinds of things.

Elliot Moss

What were the other nine? Give me a couple of them that didn’t make the cut.

Julie Deane

Oh my gosh, no, no way because if this all goes pear shaped, you know after this virus, there’s a book in the pipeline so, and so I needed to make school fees, let’s have ten ideas and satchels were on there because I was really fed up of being dragged down to Sports Direct to get another kind of like school bag that often then either it would go out of favour, you know, High School Musical ‘oh I like it, no I don’t like it, I don’t want it anymore’ or things with zips that don’t last or they just don’t last and my school, my school satchel was one of those brilliant things that you don’t have to think about because it was just there every day for about nine years and it always just did what it was supposed to do.

Elliot Moss

You are going… I am going to get one of the other ideas out of you before the end of the programme, I’ve got to. It’s my mission now, you are going to have to either throw me off with a lie or feed me something but anyway we will come back to that. So when you started making something you’d never made before, how did you take it from the cereal boxes to actually first concept? How did you get someone to make it I guess?

Julie Deane

The trouble was in my head, and this is a recurring sort of issue that I seem to have, in my head it was so clear and so when I would go and I would go on the computer and find bag makers, leather makers, satchel makers and go down the list and phone them all up and then head to the world of artisan bag makers and these people. I’d go to see them and I’d say ‘I want to you know, have school satchels to sell’ and they’d start coming back with all these crazy things that clearly weren’t school satchels and in my head it was so clear and I was just wondering why they were being so purposely difficult and coming out with things with pockets and fringes and which obviously they don’t have and never had and so I thought ‘ha, they wouldn’t be able to run these ridiculous things past me if I come with a prototype’, you know I’ve seen Dragon’s Den, you need a prototype and so luckily a school satchel is a very easy thing to build out of cereal boxes and brown paper and a sharpie to sort of draw on the buckles…

Elliot Moss

But also…

Julie Deane

…and then present it and say ‘this is what it looks like’ so they know then they are not dealing with any kind of fool.

Elliot Moss

Okay. But also of course the issue and you’ve said this before is that if it is relatively straight forward then in theory people can copy it and people try to copy it and that’s been the intellectual property part of it has been an ongoing fight hasn’t it? I mean you have had to be quite…

Julie Deane

Yeah it has, it’s, it’s been awful I mean from the point of view of there has been all kinds of different levels of copying from manufacturers copying and doing sort of rip-off versions right the way through to, to the more sort of modern version of that which are these people who pop up fake websites or fake domains and we were used for the Google Chrome advert and the Chrome campaign and after that, in that first year we had to shut down 223 fake websites and it was just astonishing you know, people that would either copy our website or just have a website that was entirely different but still, cheeky devils, use our phone numbers and so on. Our poor, you know, Jennifer answering the phone would be answering the phone and being given order numbers that were nothing like our order numbers and you know, alerts going on and it’s a, yeah that’s a really, it’s a tough one to handle that.

Elliot Moss

And just in terms of distraction and that’s a distraction and I imagine that you take this personally as well because it is your business, how do you keep focus on the bigger prize which is running the business when you’ve got, as you called them ‘the cheeky devils’ which is you euphemistically being very polite about people essentially being criminal. How do you ensure that that doesn’t upset you or distract you from building your business?

Julie Deane

I think the one really, really upset me, massively upset me was the manufacturer, you know, that was the one that was truly awful, the most awful and that was because this was somebody that their business was failing and we’d been directed towards them to put business their way because I had a massive, massive backlog of bags to make and the lovely four manufacturers that I had been dealing with and were still dealing with once I took this large one on, I never had any problems, they are truly decent people but the large one, the one that had potential to really take the backlog down was the one that I should have been less trusting of and I think there is an issue when if you meet someone every week and look them in the eye and you sort of feel like you know them and you know that every bag they are making, they are making more from than you are making, you know, you don’t fundamentally see that this is the person who is going to actually use the raw materials you are buying to make copies and hide them in a lock-up across the road but that’s what happened and that’s the one that I found you know, the most upsetting. Well the most upsetting because that might be a bit of an understatement to put it into context, I had to go down and take out all of my leather and that meant stepping away from this manufacturer when I had over 16,000 bags on backlog and there was this strange sort of position that I found myself in when I know that I can’t work with someone I don’t trust, fundamentally that’s not right and there was a minute of sort of indecision of ‘oh my gosh I am taking this leather and I don’t actually know where I am putting it. I’ve got this enormous lorry outside that’s taking it’ but it was made infinitely easier when he sort of turned to me and said, ‘well you’ll be back because you are just a stupid woman and you have no choice’ and I thought ‘oooh, that was the one, that did it’ and so when he left the building I thought well there is part of what he said, you know, I am not a stupid woman and it’s not true that I have no choice but it is true that I don’t know about manufacturing and so I just had to explain to the people working for him that you know I was going to start my own factory which was news to me you know, at that moment, it wasn’t something…

Elliot Moss

As you said it.

Julie Deane

As I said it.

Elliot Moss

As you said it you heard the news, you were the first to hear it. Well done.

Julie Deane

I was it was a slightly out of body experience as I sort of looked down and said did I really just say I am starting a factory with that much conviction and confidence but that’s what I had to do. But it wasn’t in the plan.

Elliot Moss

Good but then it became part of the plan then. That’s what strategic vision is all about. Stay with me to find out…

Julie Deane

It was a master stroke.

Elliot Moss

…it was a master stroke from Julie Deane, my Business Shaper and she is going to be back, she is the Founder of The Cambridge Satchel Company and is often the first to deliver news that she herself has not heard before including setting up her own factory and why not. Lots more coming up from her but right now we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions which can be found on all of the major podcast platforms. Mishcon de Reya’s Tom Grogan and Alastair Moore discuss artificial intelligence and machine learning, their possible application and the key things for organisations to consider when seeking to implement them. All light stuff and very easy to digest, here we go.

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and indeed hear this very programme again by popping Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have a smart speaker you can ask it play Jazz Shapers and there you will find many of our recent shows across 2020 all the way back to 2012 and by the way, next year is our 10th anniversary. But back to today’s guest, Julie Deane, Founder and CEO of The Cambridge Satchel Company inspired by traditional British leather school bags from years gone by and the desire to pay school fees, less not we forget that. So this thing you said to me, I thought it was quite interesting, you said sometimes it’s clear in my head, I’ve got the idea and yet remarkably other people they don’t quite understand what I mean. Is that because you are very clever and sometimes you assume that other people understand what you understand or see what you see and have you got better at helping them understand, realising that there may be an intelligence gap or is it something completely different?

Julie Deane

I think I have just got a slightly strange way of looking at things and I honestly thought everybody had exactly the same way of looking at things and so I just think oh that doesn’t need any explanation or clarification and then somebody would go off and two days later come back you know, looking pleased with something and I think ‘why would you do that?’ you know, ‘what even is that?’ and so I think this is the thing that The Cambridge Satchel grew in those early years very, very quickly and efficiently because it was me and my mum who is very used to me and so things were just approached in a non-traditional and very efficient, just get on with it, kind of way that as businesses grow and scale you find there are accepted ways of doing things which sometimes you know, honestly don’t make sense.

Elliot Moss

And have you managed to find people who over the years have better understood there will be a different approach, that the world through your eyes is just a different world and actually seems to be quite successful?

Julie Deane

I’ve got better at interviewing people because there was a sort of a period where I would just look at things and think ‘gosh they have been doing that for an awfully long time and in a really, really big place and they’ve got great references therefore they must be fine and I just don’t know enough about that’ and now I realise that it is more a case of I know about Cambridge Satchel more than anybody else, is this person going to get on with rolling their sleeves up and not making a fuss about things.

Elliot Moss

Is that the main criteria in the interview? Is like that, is it about the rolling of sleeves up and realising that even if they have had ten years’ experience in a big company doing it a certain way?

Julie Deane

Yes because ten years ago everything was done so differently you know, and so much of people’s experience isn’t actually going to be relevant right now and you know, we would have some very sort of well-paid tech people and you’d think ‘well stop trying to make things so difficult, I don’t actually need scrum masters and sprints’. If I can do something better and faster by just downloading an app for £1.99 and you are going to go off on some project that takes months and involve you know, a strange number of people Estonia, and then present me with something that isn’t as good as my £1.99 app then that’s just annoying.

Elliot Moss

What do you do when you are annoyed? You don’t strike me as a person that gets annoyed very easily actually.

Julie Deane

No I don’t think I do get annoyed that easily. I do get frustrated but you know, I can, I am usually quite easy to get around but I am very, very stubborn and maybe I didn’t communicate something properly in the first instance but that doesn’t mean that the end result is going to be changed in any way.

Elliot Moss

Oh did you hear that, there’s a bit of steeliness coming in right in there.

Julie Deane

A bit of steel, a bit of steel in there.

Elliot Moss

There are bits of steel coming from Julie Deane, is my Business Shaper, she is the steely one who is the Founder of The Cambridge Satchel, CEO too. 

So much of business and so much of leadership is about understand people, joking aside and it is about reading people and it is about them knowing you as the boss and that you may be stubborn and frustrated at some points but you can be I imagine also very rational. What is that leadership style that you tend to adopt and has it changed over time because obviously now as you alluded to earlier, this is a scaled up business, this is not a business on the kitchen table anymore, this is a business which is affecting over a hundred people. So talk to me a little bit about that leadership style?

Julie Deane

I think obviously it did have to change because it was my mum for the first year and a half and then people coming on. What I was able to do and what enabled us to grow very quickly was I could in the early days employ some absolutely wonderful people by being willing to not insist that they were at their desks before 9.00 and remain there until after 5.00 and so there was that whole kind of workforce of, of very talented and skilled women usually that wanted to drop their children off at school and pick them up at the end of the day and if you were willing to accommodate that then they would, they would come and be absolutely fantastic and so that was, that was a great resource and very, very flexible. I think that the important thing for me is that I do like to understand the people that are working for Cambridge Satchel and I feel like I know all of them you know, and I do tend to maybe just go outside and do a lot of meetings outside but that’s just I like that. The Orchard Tea Rooms, they sort of know us quite well I think because we’ve got lots of team meetings sitting in deckchairs with a piece of cake and a cup of tea and mulling over what the next move is because there is no reason why….

Elliot Moss

And was that pre…

Julie Deane

…why you can’t do it that way.

Elliot Moss

And was that pre-Covid or is this during Covid, that’s what you’ve been doing?

Julie Deane

No that was very much pre and at the moment our main office is only open a day a week and sometimes I will go down to the workshops in Syston just outside Leicester and there is enough space there where everybody can be miles apart from everybody else so that’s worked out reasonably well, we can still get stuff done and feel like we are still you know, enjoying each other’s company.

Elliot Moss

And in terms of the business over the last six/nine months, how has it faired?

Julie Deane

Oh it’s… I think we started seeing some real issues in January because a lot of our customers, we have shops in London, Cambridge, Oxford, Bicester and Edinburgh and a lot of those were in tourist areas and you know, Edinburgh we really were very popular with American tourists and in Cambridge it tended more to be sort of Asian tourists there but we could certainly see you know, that people weren’t travelling and so the shops were hit a lot earlier than they were hit when obviously they needed to close the doors. Online we had intended having a new website from the summer time, I wish that we had done that before we done some of the stuff with the shops but you know hindsight and all that but it has been interesting seeing how when people were furloughed we had to go down to such a tiny, tiny skeleton team but we could get things done again very, very quickly with those teams because they did tend to be people that I saw an awful lot and chatted to and you know, messaged and so things were pretty efficient and it did give us that opportunity to take a look at the business and think ‘what do we want the business to look like coming out of this’ you know, how do we prepare for that because it’s not going to be the same as the business going in to it.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for my final chat with my guest today, that’s Julie Deane and plus we will be playing a track from Lionel Loueke, that’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

That was Lionel Loueke with Rocket. Julie Deane is my Business Shaper here on the last Jazz Shapers of the season in 2020, the last of a very strange year and the first virtual one which I mentioned earlier, I mentioned a couple of times. Your business is much bigger than it was when you said ‘I’ve got to get some money in’ and it’s a real business now as opposed to the mad cap one of ten on the spreadsheet. What are the challenges now for you that you worry about the most in terms of this business maintaining its integrity, maintaining its quality, maintaining its sense of pride of being a British manufacturing story and so on? Are there things that are specific to the current situation that have changed fundamentally how you see the future?

Julie Deane

I think that I am hopeful that you know as we have all seen people lose their jobs and companies and businesses close you know, that we don’t take as much for granted that everything just trundles along and so I am hopeful that people will start to, to think ‘oh British manufacturing that’s something I want to support’ you know, that is actually important and we do need to have all sectors up and running in the country and not become too reliant on one thing whether it be tourism or financial services or because you know, we’re having the virus but we’re also you know, Brexit and all kinds of uncertainties, things can change in a way that we wouldn’t have ever thought possible before and so we do need to have a good diversity so that we have strength in that and I think that people are taking that bit more time to think who is it that I am buying for and researching on line the history of some of these brands and I know for myself I have discovered some great little gems of brands that I would never have discovered before.

Elliot Moss

Has it given you time to reflect if the flip side of this had actually, you mentioned wistfully if we had invested more digitally rather than the shops, the physical space, that would have held us in good stead. Obviously people have got very quickly much more comfortable buying stuff on line that they previously would have liked to have felt, you know, been tactile with. Has it been nice in a weird way or have you found it a struggle in this lockdown? From a leadership point of view as well?

Julie Deane

No. I think that it has been a real eye opener, you know, it’s been an eye opener how much you can get done very, very quickly when things are pared right back. I think it’s also been nice to in some way feel like you are being given permission to make some really big changes, you know, let’s look at things and think ‘do we still like the logo. Do we still like all of the bag styles that we’ve grown over the years’ and, and the answer with some of those things is there is nowhere ready for a refresh so what better time to do a refresh than right now, you know, what better time to feel as bold as we were in the early days and I think that there was a period when we were trying to do too many things to just appeal to everyone and when you do that you just become a little less interesting you know, and so to come back to this thought of what do you most want and for me what I would love most is for The Cambridge Satchel Company to be the place that the world’s most interesting people go to for their bags because they care enough about the history of the bag there they are buying, they care about where it is made and how it is made and what we used to make it and so in my mind the way I think about interesting people, it’s those people who, who really love what they are doing. It’s not the world’s most interesting people, they are the ones that get paid the most or they are the ones that have most social followers or you know, all of that kind of thing. It is those people that you look at and you think ‘oh I’ve got the measure of you’ and then after five minutes you think ‘wow you’re doing these incredible things that I’d never ever have imagined’, whether it’s an interest or a hobby or their job or something else that they chose to do and those are the people that I really, really love and would most like to think we make bags for.

Elliot Moss

I like that and that’s a lovely way to end before I ask you one more question and if people are very perceptive you may have heard a little doggy getting off its perch. Which one is that?

Julie Deane

You heard two enormous dogs suddenly wake up and starts sniffing around thinking ‘gosh we’ve been really quiet and good for long enough’ so Barnaby it’s timed to really start stretching and walking about.

Elliot Moss

Well just before they go crazy, thank you so much for your time today, it’s been lovely chatting to you even through a screen. Let me know your song choice and why you have chosen it?

Julie Deane

Okay so I go back to that moment when I was in the factory with that manufacturer having realised the horrible things he is up to and I would like to think that in some small way I could be that Aretha Franklin character in the Blues Brothers when in the diner she really sets a stool out and shouts ‘Think’, so Think is my song.

Elliot Moss

That was Aretha Franklin with the iconic Think, the song choice of my Business Shaper, Julie Deane. A fundamentally different way of looking at the world is how she described herself. Understanding that flexibility is important for her work force of mainly women. A passion for British manufacturing which is wonderful to hear and important to uphold and the big lesson from the pandemic for her was to re-discover the boldness and to be comfortable with refreshing the business and the brand. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, be well, be safe and we will see you in the New Year.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Julie graduated from Cambridge University in 1987 and worked as a chartered accountant before returning to the University where she was the Fellow for Development for her college - the first female to be appointed to this role in the 650-year history of the college.

In 2007, Julie wanted to raise the money to move her eight-year-old daughter from a school where she was being bullied, into a school where she would thrive and be happy. Coming up with the idea to make traditional leather satchels for the schoolchildren of Cambridge, she invested just £600 to get the idea off the ground. The company is now a handmade-in-Britain worldwide phenomenon employing more than 130 people and selling to over 100 countries.

In December 2014, Julie was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, receiving an OBE for Services to Entrepreneurship. In August 2016, she was appointed Entrepreneur in Residence at the British Library’s Business & IP Centre, and in September 2016, Julie became a member of the board at Cambridge Judge Business School (the business school of the University of Cambridge).

Julie is committed to preserving British manufacturing and despite enormous pressure to satisfy demand with an overseas production model, she has ensured that each stage in producing every bag sold has taken place on British soil.

Highlights

I needed to limit it just to a list of ten things I thought I could do

In my head it was so clear

I was it was a slightly out of body experience as I looked down… did I really just say I am starting a factory with that much conviction and confidence?

I think I have just got a slightly strange way of looking at things

The Cambridge Satchel grew in those early years very, very quickly and efficiently because it was me and my mum

As businesses grow and scale you find there are accepted ways of doing things

Ten years ago everything was done so differently

I am very, very stubborn

What enabled us to grow very quickly was I could employ some absolutely wonderful people by being willing to not insist that they were at their desks before 9 and remain there until after 5

[The pandemic] did give us that opportunity to take a look at the business and think ‘what do we want the business to look like coming out of this?’

I am hopeful that…we don’t take as much for granted

Things can change in a way that we wouldn’t have ever thought possible before

What better time to do a refresh than right now, what better time to feel as bold as we were in the early days

What I would love most is for The Cambridge Satchel Company to be the place that the world’s most interesting people go to for their bags

The way I think about interesting people, it’s those people who really love what they are doing

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