Business

How Harry Potter inspired a £13m school bag company

Julie Deane Image copyright John Phillips
Image caption Julie Deane, founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company, set up the business in her kitchen

When Julie Deane was looking to start a business to help pay her children's school fees inspiration came from the Harry Potter books.

Mrs Deane was a full-time 41-year-old mum back in 2008 when she found out that her then eight-year-old daughter was being bullied at school.

She and her husband were immediately determined to move Emily, and brother Max, then six, to another nearby state school as soon as possible, but found that there were no spaces.

So instead they decided they had no choice but to send their son and daughter to a private school instead.

In order to pay the fees, Mrs Deane decided to set up her own business, which she would run from the family home on the outskirts of Cambridge, in East Anglia.

So an accountant by trade and former profession, she sat down and thought about what she could do.

"I'm a very logical, nerdy person, so I took myself to the computer... and made a list of 10 things that I could do to meet the school fees," she says.

Image copyright Cambridge Satchel Company
Image caption US singer Taylor Swift is a fan of the company's satchels

Mrs Deane ranked all of her ideas according to their potential for growth, their start-up funding requirements, and how quickly they would make money.

The winning idea was to set up a business making satchels - old-fashioned, leather school bags.

Mrs Deane was reading the Harry Potter books to her children at the time, and she wanted to buy them both the satchels she imagined that the young wizard and his friends took to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

But she said she soon found out that such satchels were actually very difficult to buy - she couldn't find anyone who made or sold them.

Realising that she could fill this gap, in 2008 Mrs Deane launched the Cambridge Satchel Company from her kitchen table, with just £600 of savings.

Today the company sells satchels and other products in more than 100 countries.

The company makes all of its bags in the UK.

Its satchels are owned by celebrities such as US singer Taylor Swift and UK presenter Fearne Cotton. And it has an annual turnover of more than £13m.

'This is incredible'

Back when Mrs Deane launched the business, she decided that she would - at least to begin with - outsource the manufacturing of her designs.

Continuing her research, she finally found a small UK school supplier who sold a small range of satchels.

Image copyright Cambridge Satchel Company
Image caption In recent years the company has expanded the range of satchels and other products it sells

She asked him for the name of his manufacturer. "But of course he wouldn't tell me," she says.

So Mrs Deane used a healthy dose of ingenuity, and repetition, to get her answer.

"I phoned him every 35 minutes, asking him another question, driving him insane," she laughs.

"He just, in the end, snapped. He gave me the name of his manufacturer."

Getting the first batch of satchels made by the Leicester-based outsourcer, Mrs Deane says she read books on guerrilla marketing, and started to regularly email fashion editors and bloggers.

Orders soon started to flood in, creating challengers for the young business, which was still based in Mrs Deane's kitchen.

"After about a year, little over a year, my house was so filled with boxes, absolutely filled with boxes."

Image copyright Cambridge Satchel Company
Image caption Julie Deane with her mother Freda Thomas, who continues to play a key role in the business

Mrs Deane realised that she desperately needed extra storage space, but being "very risk adverse", she says she didn't want "to leap into a business premises".

Instead she decided to buy a shed which she would put in the back garden, where she could keep boxes of satchels.

"I remember going to a garden centre close to Cambridge, and looking at these sheds.

"And my phone was pinging. And it was pinging, and it was pinging constantly."

Mrs Deane assumed that the pings indicated a problem with her homemade website, but when she got home she found that it was filled with hundreds of orders.

"I was just gaping at it," she says. "I absolutely couldn't believe it. And it turns out it was because the Guardian [newspaper] had put one of our red 14-inch satchels in the November Christmas gift guide.

"And I thought, 'my gosh, this is what a real business looks like, this is incredible'."

She decided she needed a bigger storage facility than a shed.

'Heck of a journey'

From the very beginning the company was very much a family affair, with Mrs Deane's mother, Freda Thomas, being an integral part of the business. As, in fact, she still is today.

Mrs Deane's children have also helped out.

Image caption At the start of last year Julie Deane accepted outside investment for the first time

Back in the company's chaotic early days, when it had thousands of satchels on back order, as positive publicity fuelled orders more quickly than the company could fill them, daughter Emily helped send out emails to assure people that they bags would be on their way.

But if struggling to meet orders was the business' first problem, a much bigger issue arose back in 2012 when Mrs Deane took legal action against what she saw as a copycat producer. The dispute was eventually settled out of court, with the Cambridge Satchel Company being paid an undisclosed sum.

Since 2011 Mrs Deane's business has its own production facility, based in the the Leicestershire town of Wigston. And its range of products has expanded beyond satchels to include backpacks, wallets, and even mobile phone cases. The satchels themselves range in price from £55 to £285, depending upon the size and the leather quality.

Meanwhile, the head office has moved from the kitchen table to a business park in Cambridge, and the company employs more than 100 people.

Image caption The Cambridge Satchel Company's flagship shop opened in Covent Garden in 2013

In addition to global sales via its website, the firm's products are sold at third party stores around the world, including Harrods and John Lewis in the UK, and Bloomingdale's in the US.

The business also now has four of its own brick and mortar shops in the UK.

Until last year, Mrs Deane had expanded the business without any outside investment, but in January 2014 she secured £14m from global private investment firm Index Ventures, to help fund the Cambridge Satchel Company's continuing overseas expansion.

Mrs Deane says: "It has been a heck of a journey, a heck of a journey."

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