Interview With Julie Deane

What are you up to right now Julie and what excites you about the next 12 months?

It’s a good question and one I’ve been trying to figure out! What I would say is that many people and women in particular are concerned about the impact of taking a career break. Before I started The Cambridge Satchel Company, I was home being a full time mum because I’m not brilliant at multi-tasking – I like to focus on one thing at a time!

I was fortunate enough to be able to take that break and be with my children, Emily and Max when they were very little. I was at home for 8 years! But because I like to be busy I was volunteering everywhere. I was the village busybody! Although I was involved in a lot of things, I was on a career break which for me was no bad thing. People can get concerned that if they take a break it might not look good on their CV. Before the pandemic a break was perhaps seen as a red flag but now there’s more appreciation for the value of space and flexibility.

When I founded Cambridge Satchel, I was ready. I was able to focus and make a good job of starting it. I did that CEO role for 14 years – right up until the end of last year. But at the end, I needed time to decompress. It’s hard to just stop thinking. I couldn’t just jump from one intense role to another one. This has been a time to improve my health. I’m in a good healthy state and its given me a chance to do those things that I’ve always wanted to get around to.

It’s taken a while for me to realise that I don’t have to do things in a rush. I can take time and talk to the people I was close to in my career. To put time aside to give back to an incredible group of people who supported me and do that in a way that does justice to the amount of respect I have for these people.

I’ve always identified myself as a Mum first and the owner of two large dogs! But I was also Entrepreneur in Residence at The British Library for a long time and a judge for The European Business Awards as well as being on the advisory board of Cambridge Judge Business School and Fitzwilliam Museum Enterprises.

What’s really nice now is having the space to think about things that are important to me. Sustainability for example. I am worried about how the world’s resources are being depleted and how we could do things better. I’ve been meeting a number of startups in this space and that’s been really interesting.

When there is something that comes along that I want to go after, I’ll have to narrow my focus. Earlier this week I was lucky enough to visit some factories in Coventry and Birmingham, looking at items being made as heritage businesses and appreciating the level of craftsmanship. I do still love seeing things being made can imagine being drawn back into that world, but I’m appreciating the chance just to take a breath. Because once I say yes to something and jump in, the focus is back on!

Looking back, what inspired you to set up The Cambridge Satchel Company?

Entrepreneurs come in all sizes with different motivations. Mine was clear and straightforward. I wanted to send my children to a great school. For a variety of reasons, the state school option was no longer working for my children so I decided to send them to a private school in Cambridge. When I found out how expensive they were though – I was flabbergasted! I was a stay at home mum and we had never budgeted for private school. I set myself this goal of generating enough money to raise the school fees within 10 weeks. I started with £600 and the idea of starting something that would pay the school fees. According to Google this counts as a Moonshot! I developed an Excel spreadsheet with 10 ideas and what startup money I would need and whether it was sustainable and what would happen if I died of a heart attack during the process! It seemed like the most logical way of doing these things. The idea of supplying satchels was there.

I had this hatred of poorly made school bags where the zip would break and they would fall apart. I had a well made satchel at school and I got it into my head that I wanted my children to have satchels. So I came up with the question – how can I get things to a stage where my own children would welcome satchels in their lives? I spun a line that linked the satchel style to the Harry Potter/Hogwarts school uniform. But then I couldn’t find a school satchel anywhere. So that was why the satchels were on my list of ideas to raise funds. I designed a logo and a graphic of a bicycle using Word Art, Cambridge is known for all the bicycles so this made sense to me. Logo done! It was just simple. I had clarity of my goals and that made things straightforward. I thought other parents might want these bags for their children too.

But mostly my attention was on who would be buying and why they would be buying. I looked at my customers to understand who they were and contacted them myself with questions to get as much feedback as possible. I gathered testimonials and put them online – to make the buying experience less scary for customers. I think the tone of voice spoke to people in a way they could relate to. It was just very honest. In fact when I was building my business in Hong Kong, I asked my customers living there what they thought about certain retailers and their location and I gained great insights – with the help of the crowd via social media.

Admittedly it was a lot easier as a startup – just me and my mum. A lack of cumbersome administrative layers. I could just make a decision and immediately act on it. It was very hands on and very low budget! At Christmas, I even invited customers to collect last minute presents from my kitchen if they’d missed the posting deadline. The early days were an incredibly happy time for me.

You are a proven female entrepreneur with a great story to share - what advice would you give other young budding business leaders?

I was very fortunate that when I started in 2007 – social media wasn’t as established, nowhere near as commercialised. No one wins a race looking over their shoulder, so don’t be put off by what’s going on around you. Imposter Syndrome is such a negative force.

Also don’t ask for too many opinions – these can just put you off doing anything. Advice can be discouraging and often not objective. Research to help overcome a challenge but avoid using this as a means of procrastination.

Think about ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ You often realise that by doing this exercise – the outcome is not that bad Another piece of advice I have is that when you are very close to realising a positive result, don’t give up. Try again another way. Another small push along that route will often get you there.

I was asked by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron to conduct a review of Self Employment in the UK. Unsurprisingly I found that one of the biggest issues faced by the self employed is a sense of loneliness and isolation. So I looked at libraries. Places that are comfortable to work from with a sense of community.The Business and IP centres within libraries are wonderful, objective and accessible. So my advice is to encourage those starting out in business to see if their local library has a Business and IP Centre, most of the main ones do.

Julie Dean is a supporter of our online exhibition It’s A Long Story. It’s A Long Story is designed to take visitors on a rich and inspiring digital journey celebrating the long lasting, circular, repairable, upcycling and recycling qualities that leather can offer.

It's A Long Story helps people re-think about the role of leather in a sustainable future. What other features of natural leather would you like to highlight for consumers?

I’m very committed to the areas of conservation and sustainability. I hate single use plastics and things that are going into landfill. Leather is a natural product. The leather we used to make the satchels at Cambridge Satchel is a by-product of the meat industry. I believe there will always be a meat industry and surely using every by-product makes sense.

If a leather strap is chewed by a dog – you can repair and replace it. And indeed leather products often look better with age. I have a 14 year old satchel that has aged in a way that looks loved and valued.

I have photographs of the satchel being in different continents with me. There’s this incredible continuity and long memory of my wonderful and long lasting leather satchel.