Julia Dobson, Entrepreneur and Co-founder of the Village England handbag brand on the ‘right’ time to start a business and learning to enjoy the struggle

Julia Dobson

Julia Dobson worked for the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Group for six years in roles including UK and Ireland Managing Director for Acqua di Parma and UK and Ireland Country Manager for Celine. Julia left LVMH in April 2012 and went on to co-found the Village England handbag brand, having launched its first collection in Autumn / Winter 2013. She lives with her husband and two sons.

Julia Dobson

An amused Julia Dobson

“…I think it’s a tough time for any working mother, and it’s not like starting a business is going to make you any more tired now is it?!…”

I was asked recently why we started a business in one of the most competitive retail sectors exactly at the time I had my second son. For the first time I gave it some thought, and put in those terms I would have to agree, why would you?

Starting a business will change your life

Starting a business, like getting married, starting a family, or having a second or third baby will all change your life. Life-changing events seemingly always require a journey via various serendipitous events leading to a conscious decision, but I wonder how much unconscious emotional preparation is made in advance.

Baby boy

Eddie (Knevett – Co Founder and all-around nice guy) and I had been friends for many years.  He had been the Head of Accessories at House of Fraser when I was the UK boss of Celine and we had a pretty good working relationship based on shared values and a similar approach to business. Once or twice we’d joked over a glass of wine about starting a brand, but certainly nothing serious.

After a successful re-launch of Celine, I moved into the beauty sector to broaden my experience in luxury. I realised quickly that whilst it was an interesting learning experience I was a fashion girl. Then I discovered I was pregnant with baby number two which is never a good time to be looking for another role.

During a lunch with Eddie, the conversation inevitably turned to starting a brand and I found myself giving him my best “how about it” speech. He pointed out I was pregnant, and might be a bit busy for a while.

Anyway, women had babies all the time…

Undeterred, I reminded him that we had both worked with so many wonderful people that were also incredibly good at what they do that we could easily put an amazing team together, and anyway, women had babies all the time.

Starting a business appealed to both our egos and we kept chatting. We discussed the market, market dynamics and structures. Eddie taught me about the world below high luxury. For him if he was going to do anything it would be handbags around £200-£300 and I nearly fainted. Celine purses cost more than that, and I just didn’t think that we could produce beautiful bags that cheaply, nor who on earth would buy them.

A woman who loved fashion

But then it struck me, I was a women who loved fashion. When I started my family my attitude to style had not changed, my desire for high quality had not changed. What had changed, and changed dramatically was my priorities and my attitudes towards spending money.

Now out of the industry with no access to clothing allowances or staff discount, I questioned what bag would I buy?

We walked through all the major department stores together and we found very few new brands.  The clear category winners in this £300 market place were the very shiny American brands (Kors, Jacobs, DKNY). Where was the strong English counter? At this stage. Radley was having a bit of a wobble, and Mulberry was far more expensive and were on their march upwards. There seemed to be a gap.

With a newly discovered ability to simultaneously type and breastfeed, things kicked up a level…

It was about this time that my second son was born and Eddie and I were really emotionally engaged with the idea of starting something. On maternity leave and with a newly discovered ability to simultaneously type and breastfeed, things kicked up a level. Skype too is handy for discussions, whilst protecting your modesty.

Creating the brand concept was relatively easy – we were clear on our competitive environment, positioning, target audience, and design influences. Defining our brand values was especially easy when you own it, we had a luxury attitude towards product – the product needs to be everything, it needs to be beautiful AND work for a real life, the quality of leathers and manufacturing need to be excellent but delivered at a real world price.

Doing the right thing

The name Village England fell out of our personal attitudes towards community, doing the right thing, wanting to slow down and make things, grow things, help out the neighbours and belong.

Village England wallets

My first business plan was destroyed by everyone I showed it to. A stellar sales trajectory supported by massive marketing budgets (one of the few quotes from friends polite enough to be repeated is, “Oh look Jules, year six you need a £6.2m overdraft between July and September. That should be easy to secure…”).

My husband, although supportive, was most horrified and pretty blunt.  He was pretty brutal with pointing out the risks (extreme) to our family and consequences (catastrophic) if we actually followed my plan, even if the money required to launch was available (which it wasn’t).

I think this is the point we really got serious. A second and third business plan was written with FAR lower sales and zero marketing spend beyond essential. We started our prelaunch activity – we ‘roadshowed’ the brand concept to buyers (to ensure attendance at the first showroom and to consider us when they planned space and budgets).

We would never have achieved this without credibility and historic relationships

We met with manufacturers to negotiate smaller orders than they would normally accept. We would never have achieved this without credibility and historic relationships. The first samples too were great. Eddie really delivered some gorgeous bags that I would have been happy to sell at double the price.Village England handbag

And now suddenly here we are – proud owners of a bouncing baby business going into its fourth season and stocked in Anthropologie, House of Fraser, Fenwick, Elys, Jarrolds and a bunch of fabulous independent boutiques and chains in the UK and Europe with sales higher than planned.

We got a few things right…

Village England catalogue shot

It seems we got a few things right. My husband remains involved – our Voice of Reason. As payback for driving that massive cut in spend we cast him and the children to model in our first two seasons ‘lookbooks’.

The question I started with is when is a good time to start a business. Objectively it’s a question of your situation, capital reserves and attitude to risk. I don’t remember the moment that I actually made that decision, but I do remember when reality hit and I got serious.

Having small children has improved my professional life

In many ways having small children has improved my professional life. There was a long period of time I really resented stopping to do childcare when I couldn’t get through the workload, and hated myself for being such a poor mother.

The decision to forgive myself, enjoy the start of this business and most of all to enjoy the time when the boys are little has been the making of me. And yes, I have done a bedtime story with a glass of wine in one hand when it was all a bit much and yes, the laptop opens back up as soon as they are in bed.

Was it a good time when they are so small? I think it’s a tough time for any working mother, and it’s not like starting a business is going to make you any more tired now is it?!

Here are some things I’ve learnt that have really surprised me:

There is a wonderful, amazing community of people who are involved in running their own small businesses

The support from this community is incredible, and everyone is very happy to share knowledge and ideas on how to survive. I had never seen this level of generosity in corporate life.

If you’re brave enough to start a family (honestly, who’d have children based on facts), you’re brave enough to start a business

Similarly challenging, similarly exhausting, similarly exhilarating and wonderful and the best experience you could ever have.

As an entrepreneur, you have to (learn to) enjoy the struggle

If you want to know what it’s like, go and hike up a mountain. Your legs will burn, your lungs will burn, all you’ll see is the path where you are putting one foot in front of the other.

But once in a while you’ll find a moment to stop and look about. The view is amazing and you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come. Then, you’ll get to put your head back down and carry on putting one foot in front of the other.

It is incredible how much work you can get done without the big team

Once you take out all the “OK this is our strategy, this is what I need you to do, no that’s not what I meant, I mean more like this, yes that’s better but you still need to think about this, yes good well done”, plus all the meetings, “how was your weekends”, performance appraisals, etc. etc., two hands really can do a lot. The trouble is being able to get distance from it.

Choose a business partner carefully

I got lucky with Eddie – he is amazingly good at what he does which is important, but better is our working relationship, which is supportive, challenging and always thoroughly enjoyable (the level of insults thrown around is pretty outrageous, and unfortunately for me Eddie is the master of the one-liner).

There is no way of testing this without working with someone and relationships do break down, so trust your instincts and make sure you know what you’re putting at risk.

Village England logo

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