Julie Deane Interview

Julie Deane OBE speaks to IPSE's James Gribben about how she wants her self-employment review to make a difference to the 4.5 million people who work for themselves

In 2008 she was a full-time mum who decided to start up a business on just £600 to pay for her children’s school fees. Was it a daunting experience? “The fees needed to be paid so I needed to make the company work. My dad was self-employed and I grew up in a household where it just wasn’t the norm to have a 9-to-5 job.”

Her business, The Cambridge Satchel Company Limited, is now a Made-in-Britain worldwide phenomenon employing more than 140 people and selling to over 120 countries. In December 2014, Julie was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, receiving an OBE for Services to Entrepreneurship. For someone whose business became a dramatic, almost overnight success, I asked Julie what support she’d had in the beginning. For Julie, it was all about getting the basics right.

"My business needed very different things when I was starting out compared to when the company grew. In the very early days I went to a business breakfast with lots of much bigger businesses and the challenges being discussed just weren’t relevant to me. What I needed to find out was how I could get a courier to come to my house to collect products for delivery and not charge an arm and a leg. So much of my day was spent standing in local post offices in a line with armfuls of packages. It’s the very practical issues like that, that consume vast amounts of your time.

“All my satchels were wrapped in brown paper and string. I’d buy the paper from the post office too as I wasn’t big enough to get a bulk discount. Figuring out how to get decent packaging was an early challenge. At the start it was about the nitty-gritty practical concerns, like how do you take card payments over the phone. It wasn’t about protecting my intellectual property in Asia – that came much later.”

Receiving a very important phone call

A review into how the self-employed can be better supported was one of IPSE’s main requests of all the political parties ahead of the 2015 general election. In July 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron asked Julie to take the lead in making this manifesto pledge a reality. 

In 2008 she was a full-time mum who decided to start up a business on just £600 to pay for her children’s school fees.

So how does the owner of a successful self-made company get to head up one of the most significant business reviews in many years? Even though Julie had met the Prime Minister on trade delegations to China and had won numerous awards for the astonishing success of her business, the appointment came as a bit of a surprise, albeit a very pleasant one. “I had a board meeting on 30th June and somebody came through to say there was a phone call for me. When I started explaining that board meetings shouldn’t be interrupted for a phone call, the penny dropped that this was one call I would want to take.”

IPSE wants the review to be as wide-ranging as possible, and ever since its announcement the scope of the review has been growing. It now includes items such as:

- Uncovering the information and advice available to those starting out and assess the difficulties faced by those beginning self-employment.

- Providing policy suggestions for those hoping to maintain and grow their small businesses, taking into account mortgages, pregnancy, parenthood and retirement.

- Looking at the support available for those running and growing a business, including shared working spaces, mentoring and networking schemes.

Practical advice

I asked Julie if the review will look at the way people who work for themselves are taxed. “If there’s a large groundswell of opinion on a certain issue I will feed it back [to the Government], but taxation issues aren’t within the scope of the review.” For Julie, at the end of the day, it’s all about practical support. 

“This review will encompass not only legislative issues, but equally as important it will look at practical issues. I want to be able to come up with recommendations that will make a difference. I don’t want this review to be an academic exercise that won’t change anything. I’m spending a lot of time on it and there are a lot of really talented people supporting me with it. I don’t have time to waste and I want to make it count.

“It’s really important to get a clear view of who the self-employed are, because ‘self-employed’ is too much a tax term. I would think of myself as being self-employed, although technically I’m an employee of The Cambridge Satchel Company Limited. But I’m a business owner. I very much want to be able to reach the diverse group that would describe themselves as business owners. You have farmers, taxi drivers, artists and barristers, to name a few. They are all self-employed. It’s not just tech start-ups. We need to hear back from as many sectors as possible and it goes beyond the tech-savvy. It’s very easy to sit at home grumbling about how things could be done better but this is your chance to have your say. I want my review to reflect the views and concerns of those who are in the thick of it; working it out on their own and trying to do something positive for themselves and their families.’’ 

You have to be absolutely passionate, because that drives you when things are hard.

What advice would Julie give to budding entrepreneurs, those people who will be building The Cambridge Satchel Companies of tomorrow? She is adamant that one thing is more important than all the other factors – passion. “You have to be absolutely passionate, because that drives you when things are hard. I’m not a massive risk taker.” Julie was also very clear that if you’re thinking of starting a business, you can ease yourself into it.

“Cambridge Satchel was started on £600 – I didn’t have to re-mortgage my house or take out a lot of debt. I didn’t do anything that would make me too scared to throw myself wholeheartedly into the business. If your business is going to be building wind turbines, then £600 probably isn’t going to crack it. But, for a lot of people, you can start in a low-key way and see if it takes off before putting all your eggs in one basket. It may be that you can dip your toe in the water and start a business in your spare time.”

Working together with IPSE

We finished by talking about the role IPSE will play in supporting and contributing to the review. Over the past few quarters we’ve been gathering evidence from IPSE members in regular surveys. We’ve asked about issues ranging from pensions and getting a mortgage, through to the practical challenges of setting up as self-employed. IPSE will collate views from our members and share them with the review. Julie is grateful for the support, but she wants to hear from individuals too.

Input from organisations like IPSE is incredibly important. You have a great membership base that we want to hear from as part of this review.

“I’m so, so grateful for the support of IPSE. Input from organisations like IPSE is incredibly important. You have a great membership base that we want to hear from as part of this review. IPSE are in a great position to put forward the views of your members but I want to hear from everyone. Individuals are more than welcome to send in their views. The more people we can involve, the clearer the picture will be. I want to hear back from people on what their top three burning issues are, and often people are much more comfortable speaking to their membership organisation that can then forward on their views.” 

Julie’s final words to me as we wrapped up our conversation were typically to the point: “You lobbied for this review, and this is our big chance to make a difference. Who knows when the opportunity will present itself again? We need to make it count!”

The finished report can be viewed here