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An innovative startup story: from dog sitting to designing the bag that can do everything.

An innovative startup story and unusual product development journey can be heard in the latest episode of podcast ‘Changing Careers’, hosted by Cambridge MBA Executive Director Conrad Chua.

Woman walking through Cambridge with her postbox handbag

New Zealander Jacquie Gilbert graduated from the Cambridge MBA in 2014 and it was almost three years later that her unique product came to market. What started in the classroom as a simple project led to three years of design and development that saw Jacqui and her Chief Operating Officer source designers and artisans from across Spain, Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

Jacqui Gilbert (MBA 2013)
Jacqui Gilbert (MBA 2013)

A lucky break came when her very first client was stepping out of a taxi, a writer from Vogue magazine approached her exclaiming, “Oh my goodness that bag is so beautiful, where can I get one?”. This resulted in the international exposure the company needed with an article published in the global magazine.

Jacqui did not just want to solve a problem but also to create a uniquely designed and engineered, high-end handbag and backpack combined that was not currently available in the market place and meet a need that Jacqui felt had been overlooked. Jacqui herself wanted a multi-function bag that she felt would give her personal credibility in the boardroom or any client facing situation, that was easy to travel with, that not only looked beautiful but was also functional – without it being so heavy that it would damage her spine and affect her health.

With a personal background in consulting across the traditional large corporates from Vodaphone, Google and KPMG, Jacqui came to her MBA in Cambridge with no such ambitions to start her own company or to create a new product in the market.

Bitten by the bug of the innovative Cambridge startup ecosystem her idea for a functional and aesthetic bag that would meet a perceived need in her own industry of consulting, led to the formation of the company C1209. The name C1209 comes from the history of University of Cambridge, which was itself founded in 1209. As a brand the name embodies a sense of history and quality but also positions itself for innovation and change. “Which is really what we are about. We’re about taking beautiful historic quality in both science and design and combining it with a modern innovative edge.”

A bag that can do everything

“A problem I thought would be simple to solve, I was told could not be done. People had been trying to solve the issue for generations and nobody had done it. The suppliers we approached initially said, ‘so, what you’re asking for us to create is a miracle. If it was easy it would’ve already been done!’.

“But naivete worked in our favour in the end. I had no manufacturing or design background to build the product development on. We patented a clasp that enables the bag to convert seamlessly from handbag to backpack, the conversion technology is unique and as a bag it has a lot of science behind it.

“We wanted to make a beautiful product that people would cherish for the rest of their lives”.

Jacqui sourced a designer who was working for Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton and without the means to pay the same price for her design skills as the big global brands, like all startups they offered to dog sit for her!

Keen to solve a problem that had innovation as well as engineering at its heart, the designer was happy to tackle the problem in exchange for her dog sitting offer. The bag was a novel idea that hadn’t been done before and she was up for the challenge.

Forbes magazine had also published an article saying that fashion as an industry keeps innovating around aesthetics but that there was a lot less innovation around functionality. C1209’s bag is different as they have worked with engineers and designers to tackle the functionality first and foremost. Investors as well as suppliers have been keen to work with them because of this unique business standpoint which was radically different from those who had been working in the fashion industry to date. Their custom-designed clasp is top of the range and had never been used on a bag before, so they really felt they were bringing something new to the marketplace, combined with the high-end leather and production design sourced across European artisans.

Innovation will always attract attention and more recently UK magazine Marie Claire has described the bag as a “cult brand loved by city professionals”.

Being based in Cambridge as MBA graduates they also had access to a large University of Cambridge alumni network and one key innovator and speaker was Lord Bilimoria who developed the global brand Cobra Beer.

Lord Bilimoria talked about an element of their success, as well as competitive advantage, came from being able to do every single part of the process themselves at any time. So, when the delivery person rings with an issue the Chief Executive can talk them through the process as they too have the experience themselves to draw on. As a startup, C1209 also made sure they understood every part of the production process. “We offer a full delivery and packaging service as well, as we truly love what we have made, and we really want our customers to experience that joy as well.”

The future for C1209 involves the evolution of the initial design, so they are now in the process of developing a midi-sized bag, as well as a smaller version to offer more flexibility for those whose office life doesn’t entail carrying quite so many files and laptops around with them from place to place.

So the bag, as the Vogue article says, really is ‘the office bag that would get you through the working week’.

Conrad Chua concludes, “A dash of naivete together with fierce determination can make the impossible a reality”.