“When my children went to school I wanted to buy them a traditional satchel, like the type I had when I was young. But I couldn’t find any.”
She was keen not to return to corporate life after having children and had been looking for a business that could “be enjoyable, make money and be easy to scale up if it was a success”. She decided to set up a satchel- making firm in 2007 to sell bags online, to local shops and, “hopefully, win a contract to supply a private school somewhere”.
However, finding a manufacturer proved difficult. “I was getting expensive quotes for luxury, designer bags, but there was no way that I could sell them to school children and make a profit.” Deane eventually found a private school in Scotland where satchels were compulsory and tracked down the uniform supplier. “At first he didn’t want to tell me where he sourced his satchels, but I kept pestering him until he relented.” Deane met with the manufacturer and spent £600 getting prototype bags made up. “When I saw them I was delighted. They were exactly what I wanted.”
Deane returned to Cambridge and began working on a website for her new firm, The Cambridge Satchel Company. “I bought some books on the internet and taught myself.” She then kitted her children out with the satchels and took pictures of them in the picturesque university town. Once the site was up she paid for sponsored advertisements so that her products appeared when someone searched the word ‘satchel’. Sales started trickling in and soon she was ready to order her next batch.
Deane’s breakthrough moment came out of the blue when pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor rang to make an order. “To have a famous musician carrying our bag was a massive boost.” Orders soon came flooding in. “She was very good and always told magazines that she got it from us.” Deane realised that fashion could be a lucrative new market and started targeting fashion blogs and websites. “I gave them free satchels to give away in competitions, but to win people had to tell us about themselves. It raised our profile and it also helped us learn about the type of people who were interested in our satchel.” She began producing bags for women in bright new colours. By 2010 sales had passed £500,000.
The next step was to persuade fashion boutiques to stock the satchel. Until then the bags had been available in local gift shops. But the satchel’s increasing popularity helped Deane sign deals with high-end stores, such as Harvey Nichols in London and Bloomingdale’s in New York. Sales got a further boost when her satchel was featured in the London and Milan Fashion Weeks. With orders booming she had to find new suppliers as the original manufacturer couldn’t handle the demand.
In 2010 disaster nearly struck: copycat satchels appeared with one supplier offering the identical satchel. “I felt angry and betrayed.” Deane has since opened her own factory and started court proceedings. Over the last three months, she has sold £3m worth of satchels and expects sales to hit £10m in this financial year.