How Mom Julie Deane used Google to build a global fashion brand


Julie Deane founded Cambridge Satchel Company in her kitchen in 2008, with her mom at her side. “It’s one of those business that was started out of necessity because I needed to make school fees for my daughter, who was being bullied at school,” says Deane. “I made a promise to her that I would move her to a place that she could be really safe and happy. Once you make a promise to your children, there’s no going back.”

So she developed a few ideas for companies she could start with a budget of £600, one of which was a satchel company. Now, people scoff at the idea of starting a company on such a shoestring budget, but Deane maintains, to this day, that “it seems a perfectly reasonable amount to give something a go with,” and that you can get a sense of whether something has legs or not without getting in too deep.

Once she decided on satchels, Deane sat down at her kitchen table and started Googling handbag manufacturers, leather goods manufacturers, leather suppliers, saddle makers and anyone who would cut leather and make things from scratch for her. She “hammered” the Internet to make sure nobody else was doing it — a process she now knows is actually called competitor analysis. When she determined that her venture was unique, she’d drive to the tanneries and manufacturers to get them on board.

She found a leather supplier and got to work on a prototype. With a product in the works, she then set out to build a website. “I didn’t know very much about websites at all,” says Deane. “I thought, ‘It can’t be that hard, there must be a course on the Internet.'” She found one, and she spent two nights taking a course and then made the website on the third night.

“At this point, most people have access to the Internet, and it’s all there,” says Deane, who now speaks to students about entrepreneurship and bootstrapping. “I tell them, ‘You don’t need to pay someone else to do your web design and SEO and AdWords campaign’ … it’s lazy.”

Deane put herself on every free online listing she could — from the Yellow Pages and mom blogs to Etsy and eBay. “I read this book called Guerilla Marketing, and it says you need to try multiple avenues of marketing, and if people see your name enough times, then they’ll get curious enough to look you up,” she says.

As she started selling chestnut, dark brown and black satchels online, Deane engaged her customers. She’d ask them to send a photo of them with their satchel and to write a testimonial for the site if they really loved the bag (and to send it back if they didn’t), thinking a solid review could lend her fledgling business credibility and encourage other people to buy. A few of Deane’s early customers mentioned their love for fashion blogs, which opened a world of opportunity to Deane.

“I couldn’t believe how frequently people would be checking these fashion blogs!” Deane says. Whenever a customer mentioned a go-to fashion blog, Deane sent the blogger an email, telling them about Cambridge Satchels and sending a photo, in hopes of a shout-out. She would tell them, “I can’t send you free samples — maybe in a year’s time if it goes well, you can have one, but in the meantime, here’s a photograph!”

When the leather supplier worked on a project with red and navy, Deane had some colored satchels made. She had refrained from bespoke colors before, since she minimum order would be six month’s worth of sales — “If I’d picked a dud of a color, that would not have been good news for the school fees!” Deane says the red and navy brought about a “lightbulb moment” for her. “The minute I had red and navy, those really took off, and it became very, very clear that the way forward would be through different colors.”

Over the years, Deane aggressively worked with fashion bloggers and prominent fashionistas, sponsoring giveaways and gifting satchels, which yielded organic buzz. Over the years, Cambridge Satchel built strong relationships with these bloggers — even asking them what color satchels the company should make next — and these relationships enabled the brand to skirt traditional advertising. Fully embraced as a fashion obsession, Cambridge Satchels grew thanks to social media and word of mouth, especially via blogs.

In September 2011, Elle UK reached out, inquiring whether Deane could produce a brighter satchel for inclusion in an upcoming fluorescent trend piece. Always one to capitalize on a new opportunity, Deane produced these satchels and sent them to bloggers who were attending New York Fashion Week. “When the lights at the shows went down and the people started taking flash photography, the satchels really popped,” says Deane. “So we got noticed, and the New York Times and the New York Post called us the ‘street style of New York Fashion Week.'” (And of course, the fashion bloggers gave Cambridge Satchel widespread press online, too.)

The success of Fashion Week in 2011 beckoned Bloomingdales and Saks to bring the satchels to Stateside, where they were put in the window and dubbed “The Brit It Bag” during Fashion Week in February 2012. “That was a big moment for us, when we really got noticed,” says Deane.

This new trend didn’t go unnoticed. Just a few months after Fashion Week, ad agency BBH contacted Deane. They asked for facts and figures about the business and the whole story of how she started it, because Cambridge Satchel was being pitched as part of a large media opportunity. “I had no idea what they were talking about, or who they were talking to, so it was making me feel really worried!” recalls Deane. After signing a large NDA, Deane found out the client was Google, and it was looking to do commercials for its “the web is what you make of it” campaign. Cambridge Satchel was a perfect fit, and after Deane went to London with meet with the client, she had herself a high-profile television spot.

“Julie saw the Internet as a key to her success,” says Rich Pleeth, Consumer Marketing Manager at Google. “That’s why we built Chrome — to provide people like her and businesses like this with the richest and best web experience across all devices, combining speed, simplicity and security.”

Deane had built great momentum for her burgeoning business through the web, and more specifically, Google. “Right from the moment of trying to source everything from my first suppliers — thread suppliers and rivet suppliers and property for the factory — up through the AdWords and the analytics and Google Translate (for foreign emails), we do use all of those things, so to be able to be part of something that’s a very honest version of exactly how Cambridge Satchel started, I was very comfortable with it, it wasn’t a stretch at all,” explains Deane.

The ad ran in the UK and Ireland in late September and early October, then again from December 17 through 31.

“I’ve gotten so many fantastic emails about it,” says Deane. But more than that, she’s seen traffic and sales increase exponentially thanks to the ad, which ran on TV but also has surpassed 5.3 million views by YouTube’s global audience.

While it’s hard to pin down exactly how much web traffic and sales are attributable to the Chrome ad, Deane — being a numbers junkie — has tried quantifying the ad’s effect. Total sales from September through December 2012 more than doubled over 2011. But in the UK alone, sales increased a whopping 400%, and the commercial has to be responsible for some of that lift. And if you look at the Google Analytics reports of Cambridge Satchel’s web traffic on an hourly basis, there’s a big spike every time a commercial airs.

As if Google hadn’t been generous enough, the company incorporated Cambridge Satchel into a live experiment during IAB Engage 2012, when Mark Howe, Managing Director of Agency Operations Europe at Google, did a Hangout with Deane, who had Google pros at her office boosting her SEO, improving analytics, setting up a branded YouTube page, optimizing her site for mobile and upping her social media strategy.

“It has been proven that companies which build their business online grow their business at four to eight times faster than those that don’t,” says Pleeth. “The Internet has given them a global reach they would never have otherwise.”

Today, Cambridge Satchels are sold in 190 outposts in 100 countries, and the company does more than £8 million in annual sales. And all Julie Deane set out to do with £600 was make enough money to cover her daughter’s tuition.

During London Fashion Week, Deane opened her first brick-and-mortar location in London’s Covent Garden. It’s a two-story space, and the entire lower level is devoted to the web-savvy cohort who made her famous — fashion bloggers.

“I really feel very strongly that the bloggers are the people who started my business,” says Deane. “They’re a group of people who don’t have offices, and you’ll see them at New York and London Fashion Week sitting in Starbucks writing their pieces.” But now, at least in London, these bloggers will have a home base where they can write stories, make a cup of tea, browse the web, socialize and, of course, charge their phone so they can tweet and Instagram the next big thing. “I’m really excited about the lounge because it feels like a tangible way to thank the community that has helped me so much,” says Deane.

Lessons Learned From the Julie Deane School of Entrepreneurship
•Take risks.

•Be resourceful — DIY as much as possible.

•Know your audience, how they behave and where they spend their time.

•Don’t give your product away or sell it short, but strategic gifting can go a long way.

•Seize opportunities.

•Engage your fans, offer them a stake in your company.

•Find valuable brand partners with whom to run competitions and giveaways.

•Be authentic — Julie tweets about her dog, Rupert, which humanizes the brand.

•Embrace the web and the platforms that live on it.

Thanks to SRW for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.