Welcome to Mamamia’s brand new initiative, #LadyStartUp, to showcase, support and promote businesses started by women.
We’ve heard the incredible success stories of Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. But what about the women who are defying the status quo and creating their own opportunities? Across this series, we are going to share with you the stories of ordinary women who are doing extraordinary things.
Like most women, Julia Dobson is an excellent multi-tasker.
We found this out when she sent us an email, after flying from London to Perth, with two small children, plus a whole stack of business books she intended on reading. (Hint: it ended up being a case of watching the movie, Boss Baby, helped with a couple of G&Ts.)
Julia and went to same high school as our co-founder, Mia Freedman, where she was the year below. Now, she is based in London and launched her own designer handbag line, Village England.
She has spent the past fortnight touring Australia, from coast to coast, with kids the whole way.
We don’t know how she has done it. Before we tell you any more of Julia’s story, you can read it from her, right from the beginning.
What is Village England? How did you start in Australia and now end up in London?
Julia: I left Perth with five weeks of unpaid leave from my finance job back in 1997. I started at a fabulous ski resort in France and just kept saying ‘yes’ to things in Europe. The first job I accepted was at Bally in Switzerland, which was only because I’d never been there. But, this started my career in fashion, first working in finance and product management.
Turns out, I love product and went onto work for Louis Vuitton, Moet, Hennessey, CELINE, Acqua di Parma.
After six years of high luxury and all the perks of working with the brilliant people within the larger LVMH Group, I started to think about moving back to my first love; handbags, and doing my own thing.
I’d had my first son, which does rather put your feet on the ground and I also started to think about women who live in the real world. After all, there are really not that many people who spend $5000 on a handbag that will need to be replaced by next season’s “must have”.
I started to think about what I would actually spend my hard-earned money on, which delivered on my style and love of gorgeous materials, but was practical enough to support my busy life and all the roles I play as a woman.
I didn’t understand why there was nothing that was gorgeous and well-made, at a real world price. So, I decided to make what I wanted to wear. Leathers I love, designs I love, and pockets, zips and straps so that it’s a joy to wear. Care and attention at every stage of the production. Something that I would be proud to put my name to.
One of Julia's beautiful bags. Image supplied.
MM: Why do you think so many women are starting their own businesses?
Julia: Because we can create the companies we want to work in, with the culture and the flexibility to make work/life balance a little easier. We’ve proved that we can compete with the boys in any company, but that whole family thing makes life tricky. Despite all the talk about work/life balance, it is still a nightmare for everybody.
Stepping out of the corporate environment has allowed me to hire outstanding staff, who can give their all at work, but I can also make sure they have the time and energy to give to their families.
MM: What's the biggest mistake you've made in starting your business and the smartest thing you’ve done?
The smartest thing I’ve done is all the mistakes I’ve made. I came from the industry, I knew a lot about brands and how the industry works. But there was so much that people used to do for me. I hired well for some parts (and replaced them sometimes), but I asked for help a lot and learnt through trying.
Some specific mistakes, I’m on my 3rd website – the first two were incredibly expensive and didn’t work. By the time we did our third, we knew some fantastic people and knew what we wanted.
I booked several pages of advertising in glossy magazines, because that’s what I used to do at LVMH. They were hugely expensive and didn't really deliver the tangible results we were looking for. Yet, there are tonnes of things we got right with online marketing – a great medium where by you get clear results as to what works and what doesn’t.
Scroll through to see more from Village England. Images via Instagram. (Post continues after gallery.)
And to make sure you look up and see how far you’ve come from time to time. That always surprises me.
MM: What can you recommend to women who might want to get their own hustle going?
Julia: Start. Just start.
Start with getting your plan together, and a budget of what you think it’s going cost. Both will be wrong, and will sit somewhere between over-optimistic and downright deluded. But you have to do one.
You can tell people about your plan, and they’ll tell you why it’s stupid and why you shouldn’t - it’s true that most businesses do fail! You need to listen because they cared enough to give you advice and they may see an angle you haven’t. But don’t let what they say put you off.
Sharing your plan will be your first experience of pushing through despite adversity, which is just what it’s like running your own business. There are endless obstacles to overcome.
What these people don’t know is that even if you do fail, you will have learnt so much, especially about being brave, and met so many brilliant people. It will have been worth it.
Once you start, you might find that the market you thought you were targeting hates your product/doesn’t exist/isn’t viable but this opportunity over HERE looks far more interesting (the often mentioned, “Pivot”).
MM: What's the biggest misconception you had about starting your business - how is it different to what you'd imagined?
Julia: I thought it would be easy. I was pretty conservative with my budget but I now know everything costs three times as much as you think it will and it will take three times as long.
It will certainly take 5-10 years to get going, not 3-5 that I expected.
Everyone I know who has done this has spoken about how hard they work to launch, but then realise that wasn’t the hard bit. That is just how hard you need to work everyday. It’s a grind, at a sprint pace.
To promote your business, it really helps if you are a massive show off. I’m not, naturally, and the self-promotion part of the business I really don’t find easy. If I could, I’d let the bags speak for themselves, which they do, when you use them. But if you want the massive editorial spreads, like we’ve received in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, you really need to draw attention to yourself.
MM: Why do you think Village England has grown so quickly, and so fast? What’s it providing for women that they didn’t have before?
Julia: All we ever wanted to do was to create gorgeous bags, great design, and details that you’ll notice when you use the bag. And, at a real world price.
We deliver a significantly better product with greater attention to detail, at a reasonable price, in a market that is awash with brands which charge an awful lot of money for not very good quality.
More than 20% of our sales, every month, are from returning customers, so we’re clearly doing something right.
The American market like the Englishness of what we do, and they love the emails we send out. We send our emails about things we find interesting, not pushy sales emails – and I can’t tell you how many people write back every week. Love it.
I’ve heard from our customers that they acknowledge each other when they notice another Village England bag, which makes me explode with pride.
MM: What does your personal life look like? Who are the important people in your life and work?
Julia: I have two gorgeous boys (five and seven) and a husband, who I love and want to shoot in equal measure. Until he quit his incredibly demanding job three weeks ago, Mr Dobson worked away from London, which was good (I could work late, eat what I want) and bad (not brilliant, practical help).
We have a fantastic nanny who is more a housekeeper/surrogate mother (for me)/ grandmother (for the boys). I think we all agree – if you have a good childcare solution you can relax and concentrate at work.
And my team - all the people who work with me in the Village England office, suppliers, industry folk who give up their time and knowledge (or best gossip), when I ask. I’ve never had a problem finding someone to open a door for me. We only work with people who share our values, so I guess that’s the key (I like helping people too).
I have the usual issues, which come with living away from your family and having a pretty small support network for when disasters strike. One of the worst was taking a call from their school when I was in New York, “The boys are fine but no one has come to collect them.” Thank god for my brilliant team in the office and Uber. And gin.
MM: How much sleep do you get every night?
Julia: I’m pretty good at getting to bed at 10pm each night. Normally, with stuff I want to read and my notebook to plan out actions, or for when I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something.
Listen to our special podcast with fellow #LadyStartUp, George McEnroe, from Shebah. (Post continues after audio.)
MM: What are your non-negotiables?
Julia: Hmmm. This year, all of it has been negotiable. With Mr Dobson away, and so much going on with the new collection, new factory and brand re-launch, the priority was survival.
His job was enormous, so he was constantly working on the weekends which meant I couldn’t catch up where I needed to. I didn’t realise how bad it was until we discussed him quitting, and it was like discovering you were in a black cave only when a chink of light came in. I’m now re-thinking my non-negotiables and in due course will inform Mr Dobson!
MM: Since we’re in the #LadyStartUp spirit, which Lady Startups do you recommend? Who should we be looking out for?
Julia: Some fab women I’ve met doing awesome things:
Amanda Thomson – Skinny Champagne (sugar-free champagne. It’s practically a health drink)
Lydia Maurer – Phylyda (fashion forward swimwear from a designer with incredible pedigree - for ALL body shapes)
Suzanne Ellis – Luna and Stella (jewellery and lockets for mothers and daughters)
And for further inspirational female role models, my friend Fiona’s digital magazine is always a fascinating read:
Fiona Tatton – Womanthology (digital magazine – championing female role models, particularly in STEM – Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths)