Hill and Ellis Cycle bags founder Catherine Ellis
Catherine is a TV Producer/Director turned entrepreneur, now selling beautiful and stylish cycle bags produced by her company, Hill and Ellis.
Catherine studies History of Art at the University of York and Sculpture at St Martin’s College. Subsequently, she went into television, working for Endemol and TalkBack Thames before joining ITV in 2010, where she was both a producer/director for many years.
She was taught to ride a bike by her grandparents (the company was later named after them) and has remained an avid cyclist ever since. She has cycled from London to Paris with little but a set of hair straighteners and a pair of heels for her arrival and still cycles around London for pleasure, including the Dunwich night ride. A bike has been her vehicle to commute for twenty years now, and she loves it. Cycle bags, however, have been a different matter.
In her TV days, Catherine commuted to work by bike as always. The downside was the cycle bags available, which were less than glamorous and made of either black nylon or PVC. The cycle bags were practical for the journey but totally failed to live up to the destinations. Matters came to a head when Catherine, her cycle bag, and Ant and Dec shared a lift. She was due to start work with them on a programme called Red or Black. They were incredibly smart, all suited, and Catherine hated carrying this awful bag and felt hugely self-conscious.
Catherine decided enough was enough and designed her own. She then made up a few cycle bags for her personal use. By pure chance at that moment, a friend was taking a trip to see manufacturers in India as they had just opened a bag department. Catherine went along, designed a collection of panniers with the design team out there, and brought some back to the UK.
She then spent four or five months cycling around every day with these cycle bags on board. To her delight, she found other cyclists stopped her to ask where they came from. Catherine realized that in true entrepreneurial terms, she had spotted a problem that needed a solution.
Starting Hill and Ellis’ cycle bags:
Hill and Ellis was born from there, with Catherine investing £4,000 of her savings. Ever since, they have been designing stylish cycle bags and panniers for commuters, who benefit from the combination of practicality and style. The cycle bags have to be hardwearing, have plenty of space for laptops and other essentials, clip-on and off a bike quickly, and have a locking device.
On her return from India, Catherine started with a web site and going round cycle shows. She also took a stall in Broadway Market, near Hackney, through a freezing winter. She went to the Wilderness Festival, Country Living Show, the Wealden Times, and the Eroica Festival near Derby, where all the bikes are vintage and riders come in tweeds. The shows all provided invaluable face to face contact with customers so that Catherine got to know which shapes, sizes, colors they liked best.
Early on, Catherine went to see the newsreader, Jon Snow, to offer him a cycle bag, hoping he might mention it on social media. He loved it and insisted on buying it from her and has remained a customer.
Catherine’s cycle bags are largely aimed at the top end of the market and can even be personally engraved. As with all quality products, the difference is in the beautiful workmanship and detailing. The range started with a leather satchel but has a broad range of handbag bags, different style satchels, and canvas tote, panniers, and more. The names are unmistakeably English – Brompton, Percy, Oscar, Winston, and Earl.
The cycle bags have been featured in Vogue, Esquire, Grazia, Esquire, Time Out, Wall Street Journal, der Spiegel, and Times Style.
The cycle bags and satchels are mostly made in a factory in Hackney. It is near the Hill and Ellis headquarters and uses traditional processes. Some bags have been manufactured in India, but Catherine is hoping to resource these from a new supplier in Portugal, where her wicker bike baskets already come from. The nearer the manufacturer, the eco-friendlier is the process.
Finding the right manufacturers has been Catherine’s biggest challenge. She wants to move from India to Portugal so that she can visit more in person because of this.
Catherine explains that it is tough to get manufacturers to invest in you when you are small or take you seriously. They know you are not John Lewis and going to buy thousands at a time. But your reputation is still in their hands. Bad quality from them could finish your reputation and business, so it is a giant leap of faith.
There have been high points along with the challenges. Jon Snow’s enthusiasm for the cycle bags was one; a Norwegian stockist who placed an early order for 110 was another. They were in Vogue soon after the release of their British satchels.
Catherine received samples from her new Portugal supplier just as we spoke, and seeing their quality was another exhilarating moment. Catherine says in the early days, she would receive green when she had asked for purple.
Catherine has always been passionate about the environment. She was a vegetarian for many years, and cycling is part of her belief system. It is the greenest way to travel apart from walking, and more and more of us are getting on our bikes.
Alongside many fashion companies now, Hill and Ellis are championing sustainability. They argue that by making quality products that last, they contribute to reducing waste.
Hill and Ellis work with Ecologi so that for every bag sold, a tree is planted. The current project is re-growing mangrove forests in Madagascar. Mango trees are especially good at carbon offsetting. As a result of working with Ecologi, they have become a climate-positive company. Seeing the effects of this is something else that Catherine finds very exciting.
They are working to become 100% plastic-free and package all their orders in recyclable cardboard. Packaging bags are ethically produced cotton, and the outer protection is biodegradable to the point where they can be dissolved in hot water and drunk.
Leather is a re-cyclable material, but they also have a vegan collection made from cotton with an impressive silicon waterproofing, chosen after speaking to Greenpeace about the most eco-friendly ways to water-proof canvas. Paints used on the baskets are all water-based and virtually solvent-free.
Sustainability is an ongoing project for Hill and Ellis. As technology improves, they will add more recycled materials and aim to create a circular life cycle for the products.
Undeterred by challenges, Catherine is full of plans for the future, in addition to moving some of her supply chain. They have three new ranges, coming out in 2021 and one is a new venture, a collaboration with a scooter company.
She looks forward to growing more trees, steady sales growth, and encouraging more people to get on their bikes with beautiful but practical cycle bags.
Catherine’s advice to others:
Catherine was incredibly generous in chatting about her experiences and what others could learn from them. It came as little surprise that she started with wisdom around selecting manufacturers, having had such a challenging time nailing this with the cycle bags.
Catherine says to view any prospective manufacturer as you would a date. You need to sell yourself to them while at the same time ensuring they are the right people to build a lasting relationship with. Equally, if it doesn’t work out, never be afraid to change.
You need to recognize that you might be their smallest customer and if they get a huge order, they could be tempted to push you to the bottom of the list. You are looking for such a strong relationship that this won’t happen, or that they will at least work with you on it.
It is also crucial to have fantastic imagery. Catherine explained that she was bootstrapping hard when she started and was determined to do the photography herself. In reality, leather reflects light, making it extremely challenging to take pictures of. Some of the bags are too big to photograph without photographic lighting. Without this lighting her snaps looked homemade and the quality of the product didn’t come across, but she says it took her time to accept she needed a professional. In the end, she invested £1000 in photography and it lead to more sales and press attention. Without investing in photography this wouldn’t have happened.
Catherine’s next advice is to meet your stockist as much as you can in person. When that isn’t possible, use the phone a lot. Companies are inundated by emails, and using the phone will move you up the list. People also remember you when you lift the phone, and it helps you to build that vital relationship.
Don’t overlook the packaging. It is hugely important now and a great way to get your customer to believe in your company. There is no point in having a great product and sending it out in a tatty box. Hill and Ellis use canvas bags and tissue paper, and of course, the re-cyclable element is vital too now with this. It will only become more so, so anyone starting out now would be best to set everything up that way.
Finally, Catherine says it is imperative to know your numbers. We all mean to look at them regularly, but they are often the thing that gets left. However, numbers and metrics of all descriptions can make the hugest differences. Catherine cites Julie Deane, founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company. Catherine says that one of the reasons they found success so fast was her clever use of data. She was continually watching her web site and web analytics and finding the right bloggers who impacted their sales. Knowing your numbers (from finances to web data) can be the difference between success and failure.
If you are passionate about the environment, you might be interested in an Australian entrepreneur’s story. Cathy Earle is also selling goods while combining them with a passion for the environment.