Dotty Winters gets some top business tips from Cambridge Satchel Company founder Julie Deane.
Seven years ago Julie Deane made a decision to throw herself into a world where few things are certain and you have to keep your wits about you. She dropped a successful career in academia to start her own business, the Cambridge Satchel Company.
Deane graduated from Cambridge University in 1987 and worked as a chartered accountant before returning to the university. She’d already smashed a few ceilings on the way, becoming the first female registrar in her college in its 650-year history.
Then, she stopped work to stay at home with two children. Though she loved being at home with the kids, Deane admits that, “the effort of being fun, exciting and energetic every day was harder than I expected.”
She’d pick them up from school and, hearing their tales of their day away, realised that she missed those things. “I think I was a little jealous,” she says. “Their world and experience had changed and they were so excited about the stuff they were learning and the friends they had made.” They’d outgrown her: “I’d made my last set of Play-Doh vegetables. It turns out Play-Doh was interesting to me for longer than it was for the kids.”
But on cue, a challenge presented itself in the unwelcome form of a pretty rough patch for her daughter, who was being bullied at school. “It was horrible to see how much it affected her,” says Deane. “It felt like an impossible situation. I was a governor at the school, I knew all about the anti-bullying procedure but it wasn’t helping her. School shouldn’t be a place that anyone feels miserable or helpless.”
Watching her daughter withdraw and struggle caused Deane to make a grand promise: she assured her daughter that she would move her to another school where she could be happy. They lived in the catchment area for just one state school, so this promise would mean moving both kids to a private school and somehow raising the £24,000 that would require.
Deane had exactly £600 to invest in making this happen.
She didn’t approach entrepreneurship with a burning desire to do something specific: “I didn’t have a lightbulb moment, at all; this was never about that.” Instead, she made a list. She created an Excel spreadsheet of 10 ideas for a business: things which she didn’t think already existed, or things which were available but that she thought she could improve on.
“‘I learned it all from my mother,’ Deane says. ‘She is someone who never waits around. If something needs to be done, she gets it done.'”
She carefully tested the list: were the ideas possible on £600? Were they scalable, and could they be done in a way which left her free to look after the kids when they needed her to? Satchels won.
Four and a half months later (one school term later than she’d hoped), Deane and her mother stood in the changing rooms at John Lewis, watching the kids try on the uniforms for their new school, and wailing tears of pride, joy, surprise and exhaustion. “I’m not sure the sales assistant knew what to do with us,” she jokes, “She could never have known what had gone into that moment or how much it meant to all of us.”
The Cambridge Satchel Company now has 150 staff and a turnover of £13m and numbers Taylor Swift among its fans.
Looking back on a whirlwind few years, Deane is very clear that ideas aren’t the key to success. Having enough of the right motivation is the secret to making a business happen. “If I’d just wanted a bigger car, I couldn’t have put myself through this. I would have given up when I realised how hard it could be.”
She didn’t have an address book stuffed full of useful contacts. “You just don’t need those things. They aren’t any substitute for just getting started.”
It’s clear that Deane did have some big advantages: a logical and pragmatic approach, a huge motivation to make it work and a mother who had taught her everything she needed to know about “just getting things done.” And she is at her most effusive when she talks about her mother: “I learned it all from her,” she says. “She is someone who never waits around. If something needs to be done, she gets it done.”
The Cambridge Satchels journey has brought some real highs. An OBE for Julie’s services to entrepreneurship, tea at Downing Street (“that felt really surreal”) and official engagements overseas. It’s also been a journey of non-stop terror.
Growing businesses are never safe, or comfy: they provide flexibility and choice, but rarely security or days off. Deane entered the world of business without a background in it. She freely admits that she was initially too trusting and had to learn the hard way about the importance of contracts and confidentiality agreements. This led to her getting her fingers burnt a couple of times but it’s a mistake she won’t make again.
Interestingly, the most important piece of advice she’s ever been given doesn’t come from one of the many champions of industry or world leaders that she’s met along the way, it comes from “an old woman who lived across the street”. Her neighbour told her, “Don’t put it down, put it away.” This simple mantra, to deal with things instead of putting them off has seen Deane through seven years of dramatic business growth.
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Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.