Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m William Scott Forshaw and I am the founder and CEO of Maxwell-Scott. Maxwell-Scott is a British-born luxury leather goods company for the refined professional seeking timeless design and high-quality craftsmanship. As a brand, our ethos is to support slow fashion by creating impeccably-made leather pieces for our customers to cherish and pass on through the generations.
As such, we handcraft our products from the finest vegetable-tanned full grain leather in Tuscany. This antidote to fast fashion with a focus on workmanship and only the finest materials began when I noticed that some of the professionals that I was working with would carry a plastic bag to work every day. It was then that I noticed a gap in the market to supply corporate London clients with high-quality, functional briefcases. So, in 2002 I launched Maxwell-Scott.
Unsurprisingly our flagship product was the Paolo3 - a classic 3-section leather briefcase with an Alce cast alloy lock and detachable/adjustable shoulder strap. It remains one of our best-selling briefcases, and though it has been revamped several times, the functional design and timeless aesthetic prevail. For me, it is an example of where I started the brand and how far it has come, consistently being refined and improved.
The Paolo3 also perfectly fits our target market. I began the company to sell to my peers in a corporate London environment and these remain the customers that I am most focused on. In essence, we look to target AB degree-level educated professionals with an age bias towards 35+. I also believe that our customer lives (or lives near to) large urban areas, is in a relationship and has high disposable income. This means that they understand the craftsmanship within all of our products.
Since 2002 we have grown our range of products, expanding our line of briefcases and entering into new types of leather goods including women’s purses, luggage bags and accessories.
We are now taking 400,000$ a month across websites in the UK, US, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Australia. Moreover, we are gaining recognition in the market. For example, in 2017, we became official suppliers of Saracens Rugby Club who play in Premiership Rugby, the top level of domestic rugby union in England.
Plus, last year we were nominated for Drapers’ Accessory Brand Of The Year which was a true reason to celebrate. I am so immensely proud of the progress that the team and I have made and know that there is so much more potential for growth.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After university, I attempted different jobs but nothing seemed to suit me and I saw no career potential. After I had been made redundant from the advertising industry after only 12 months, I knew that I needed to refocus and find a path that I felt truly passionate about.
It was on a holiday to Italy that I realized that those plastic carrier bags and poor-quality briefcases, that I had seen my corporate colleagues carrying, were an opportunity to offer a better option.
The hardest part of designing any product is working out exactly what the customer wants and needs. You can design a product which you think is amazing and yet, your audience is not as receptive as you thought.
In fact, my mother would bring back leather handbags from her trips to Italy to sell to her friends and so, Italy seemed the right place for me to manufacture exactly what I had in mind. My mother also conceived the company name - Maxwell-Scott - a mix of mine and my brother’s middle names.
With little expertise, but a significant sense of exactly the quality product I wanted, I searched tirelessly for the right factory, finally settling on a family-run factory in the heart of Tuscany.
Here, in Italy’s traditional leather industry, the Maxwell-Scott artisans now handcraft each briefcase, handbag, holdall and smaller accessory. Their knowledge and workmanship forms the crucial foundation to Maxwell-Scott. In fact, each piece has a 25 year guarantee which was an absolute imperative for me as I design accessories to last a lifetime - it is a testament to slow consumerism.
Going straight to the consumer
In the beginning, I sold my briefcases where I had originally spotted the problem. Therefore, I would sell in receptions and cafeterias or would hire a meeting room in the office buildings exactly where my target market worked day in day out.
The success of the first two years operating under this method meant that I had the money to expand to do exhibitions as well as having stalls at Cheltenham Racecourse, Burley and Badminton Horse Trials.
This is exactly where I found professionals with high disposable income and, as such, it felt the correct fit. It was hard, demanding work though as, at the peak, I did 50 shows a year with my wife, Charlotte.
Pivoting to ecommerce
After years selling straight to the consumer, I decided to pivot into an ecommerce brand and launched the website in around 2008.
This was a truly crucial moment for the brand and has dictated the future of the company as we know to focus on online sales. There have been two more important turning points for the brand. Firstly in 2012, I moved the business from London to York in the north of England.
I decided to take the plunge because I had a young family and wanted a change of pace, moving back to Yorkshire where I had grown up. It was certainly the right choice, personally and professionally. The other decisive change was the rebrand in 2015 which set the company onto a new, better, trajectory.
It has, in general, been a large and continuing learning curve thankfully with very positive results.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
First and foremost, the hardest part of designing any product is working out exactly what the customer wants and needs. You can design a product which you think is amazing and yet, your audience is not as receptive as you thought. Therefore, for my first briefcase, the process of design was truly thoughtful.
The biggest lesson I have learnt: Trust your own ability and make confident, measured decisions.
With only 6000$ to start my business, I visited over 100 factories/tanneries in Italy in order to source the finest materials and workers to build my vision. The leather was the hardest part of the production process to locate because I wanted only the very best. This meant finding truly decent leather - that is to say, full grain (the topmost durable part of the cowhide) and vegetable-tanned which is environmentally friendly and reveals the natural grain of the leather, allowing it to breathe.
When I found the perfect factory I established a process in which I would sketch on a piece of leather a design. Then, I would give this over to the factory to copy. It was relatively simple once I had put the foundations into place and each design was considered.
Nowadays the process is more complicated and passes through a series of different employees. Firstly we look at different personas that we are trying to target and the gaps in the products that we offer.
Also important to consider are brand expectations and the direction for the future so that we maintain a loyal consumer base. Then we involve designers, production managers, and the factory manager in order to flesh out ideas before sourcing materials. Unfortunately, this part remains the hardest step as it is still difficult to find materials which match brand expectations.
I am very particular about only using the absolute best. Next, we use prototype upon prototype in order to edit the product with the factory until it is perfect. Lastly, now, we use photographers and stylists to shoot ideal images of our products.
As an ecommerce site, this is a crucial step so that we can quickly translate to a possible customer the aspirational nature of the product as well as the quality. It is a much longer process but again, highlights how far Maxwell-Scott has come.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Initially, I started by selling directly to corporate customers in and around Canary Wharf, London’s financial district, and then at exhibitions which helped to fund investment in the website before it became a viable option as the main arm of the business.
Sales when I was selling to corporate customers were around £25,000 a year tops. I had simply been handing out business cards as I went along and so, for the future of the business, I decided that I needed to have a back-up. The decision was between printing a brochure or creating a website - a website was cheaper. Therefore, I built the first Maxwell-Scott website myself as a simple online brochure for existing clients. It was then all about little steps. For a while, I was developing the website more and more, just by myself at home, as it was better than the appointments which had been important in the early stage of the company but were now fizzling out.
I continued to develop the website at home until I hit a ceiling in regards to design and then I got a friend of a friend to redesign the website for me at a very low price. There were no agencies involved. In the very early days, I didn’t expect new customers to visit the site and spend several hundred dollars without touching the products. However, as I began to get purchases, this provided me with the confidence to know that an e-commerce brand was possible. It seemed the best path to follow in order to grow in the future. And so, quite organically I moved from appointments to exhibitions to a website over the first 5 years of the business.
The biggest lesson I have learnt: Trust your own ability and make confident, measured decisions.
I financed the business from a 5000$ overdraft and have, since then, no finance or investors other than previous bank loans. It has just been organic growth over the past 10 years online in this regard as well. Consequently I believe that you shouldn’t listen to people who think that they know better because they have more experience. You will always know your own brand better than anyone else, and this will always give you the edge. I’m not saying it isn’t still extremely important to listen to others in your field and absorb as much information as you can, but ultimately be confident in your own decision making.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since the launch of Maxwell-Scott the key to attracting and retaining customers has always been building relationships.
I believe that it is crucial that customers feel connected to the brand which can be achieved through many channels. For example, we make sure that our social media pages are updated and checked multiple times a day in order to offer insight into the brand and a point of contact with the consumer on a daily basis.
Moreover, we use Dotmailer for weekly emails which is starting to segment heavily.
We have recently seen a very positive response to our 2018 Christmas Advent Calendar campaign which incentivized customers to visit the site via a daily email throughout December.
I have found that it is important to bring customers back with great content, the email newsletter and improving our product array and collections.
Also significant is the links built to the site via as much press coverage as possible. I think that a lot of people skim over this area, or add it further down the list, but from day 1 I have focused on this avenue to increase consumer awareness.
This is why applying for awards such as Drapers in 2018 is a positive way of improving press traffic to the site as we are recognized for our skill. As a consequence, I consider networking and relationship-building with journalists, bloggers, and PR teams a vital part of the company. This is how we have received some of our bigger press features. We have now been featured in British GQ, The Telegraph, The Independent and The Guardian - all UK press outlets which are apt for our target market. Each feature has been achieved through our relationships with journalists as well as concise and effective press releases. It is all about getting your name out there.
Amazon is also an interesting tool that we use. They have 50+% market share and so, it cannot be ignored as a vital platform through which to expand brand recognition and build trust.
Initially, I was skeptical but it is essential. It is a great platform for brand discovery for new clients as the keyword search is so well honed on the site that you can, if well done, present your product to so many more possible customers.
In 2019 we are starting with an Amazon account manager, as well as heavily investing in Prime and FBA (fulfillment by Amazon). Hopefully, this will be an area of considerable growth over the next couple of years.
In terms of others ways to attracting and retaining customers, we spend a lot each month on Google ads.
This means that we can specifically target those who are searching for products like our own which increases the conversion rates. We target keywords which are very specific which means that we use long-tail keywords. A long-tail keyword is a keyword phrase that contains at least three words and this way we can heavily target our demographic. There are pros and cons to using this method. One positive is that a long-tail keyword such as “luxury handcrafted men’s leather briefcase” can convert very well as it is highly reflective of what our consumer is looking for. However, the problem is that such a set of keywords does limit the number of searches that we appear in. We aim to find the balance between specificity and generalisations. Long-tail keywords though do allow us to aim at the right level with consumers which we try to enhance further by using negative keywords such as cheap or discount which run in the opposite direction to the products that we sell at Maxwell-Scott.
Google Ads has certainly been an uphill struggle as we have had to develop the skills to deal with this in-house. This is difficult and time-consuming but does mean that now, when we do employ an agency, we understand exactly what they should be doing and can check their work thoroughly. At the moment we have weekly meetings with the agency that we are using so that progress can be continually monitored.
Google Ads is a very competitive platform, with many barriers to doing it well, but it can be a great source of income if you get it right. I would suggest doing research into agencies from the very beginning as trying to do Ads yourself requires a very long learning period.
To accompany this as well we will be starting a wholesale campaign in 2019 to build the brand further in both the UK and Germany.
Again it is about building relationships through as many avenues as possible. After all, though, you need to believe in your product. It is easier to sell something that you love.
Our 2018 Christmas With Mr & Mrs Maxwell-Scott Campaign
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We have had rapid growth over the last 3-4 years and are growing 20-25% year on year.
This means that we are profitable and therefore are looking ahead to the many possibilities open to us in the future.
Currently, on AdWords, we look at a 4-1 return (seasonal changes) spend over 500,000$ a year which means that for every 1$ that we spend we want a 4$ return. We have also just started Bing which may be 5-1 moving forward where hopefully we will be gaining a 5$ return on every dollar spent.
We also have a conversion rate of around 1.5% with 50,000 email subscribers and 8,000 Facebook followers (across multiple accounts). Nonetheless, I think that trying to reach large numbers with social followings is pure vanity - as always for me, it is all about the interactions, conversations and engagement.
Always listen to others but be confident in making your own decisions. If you are starting a business it has to be in an area that you feel inspired by and so the business is you. If it feels like the right thing to do then have conviction.
The distribution of our sales is as follows: 50% through our websites, 40% through Amazon and other marketplaces and 10% through corporate and wholesale. This however may change in the coming year as we are hoping to expand corporate and wholesale sales. In fact, we are pushing heavily into wholesale in 2019 and just employed a Commercial Director to aid growth and help with strategy. Additionally, our sales on Amazon should improve as we are beginning an account management programme with the aim to add 50% more sales in the next 12 months.
In the short term, we have recently doubled our office spaces and will, therefore, be able to achieve much more in-house, including photo shoots. Ultimately though our long term goal is to become a household name. As with everything that I do I remember that the end goal is always to achieve this ultimate aim:
Our vision: “To become the most loved British bag manufacture in the world”
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the most advantageous things that I have learnt over the years is being able to understand the difference between good and bad agencies. Initially I wasn’t able to do this and unfortunately, digital agencies vary so much in abilities.
It has taken a lot of time to learn all of these channels in detail in order to get the best out of online marketing. Now I know that it is very important to set expectations and stick to them. If then the agency does not work out over a set period of time, it is time for a change - no excuses.
Furthermore, recruiting the right people is fundamental to building the foundations of the business. This way you can spread out responsibilities within the company which is key as trying to do everything yourself will limit your ability to grow. I love control and getting my hands dirty so this was a difficult transition. But, older and wiser, I now wish that I had done this sooner.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I love Google Analytics. This is because it provides so many insights into the customer, such as buying behaviour patterns, preferred devices, peak times for users etc. It is, therefore, hugely useful for spotting problem areas and focusing on creative/development resources. Google Analytics is always my first port of call if I want to understand my customer better or find ways to improve the service that we offer so that it is tailored to the consumer.
Nevertheless, there are other platforms that we use throughout the business. For instance, we have built a few of our own bespoke report systems to supply us with exactly the data we need. Plus, we have employed a few impressive freelancers from Upwork, a global freelancing platform, which is useful for expertise on small jobs.
Then, there is Trustedshops for reviews which is influential because it increases consumer confidence as an additional supportive reason as to why the quality of our products can be trusted. The customer purchasing experience itself is efficiently handled using Shiptheory which automates our shipping process. We aim to be as efficient as possible for the client and this serves us well.
Lastly, of course, we use social media platforms to connect with our audience. Due to the fact that we are an international brand we act under multiple Facebook and Instagram pages in order to tailor the content to the language/culture of the country. The same can be said for our approach to emails, for which we use Dotmailer. I feel that this is essential in order to ensure that Maxwell-Scott is both aspirational and accessible for each of the markets that we serve.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Safe to say a business and young family leaves little time for books and podcasts. To me, it is paramount that I listen to my gut instinct in business, whilst surrounding myself with the best people, and then am present at home with my wife Charlotte, our two children and the dogs.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I have three key pieces of advice:
Firstly, always listen to others but be confident in making your own decisions. If you are starting a business it has to be in an area that you feel inspired by and so the business is you. If it feels like the right thing to do then have conviction.
Secondly, employ the right staff. When you are just starting out it is often a one man band where you will be doing everything from marketing campaigns to customer service to shipping. However, the time will come to grow your team and finding the right people is essential. This can catapult you to where you want to get to next.
Thirdly, don’t neglect the data - these insights can give you the confidence to make the right decisions.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for the right staff. I have CVs landing on my desk everyday which is always exciting as I enjoy discovering new talent - and yes, I have employed someone by just reading a speculative CV. It all depends on the candidate’s being right for the company with the potential to instantly add value.
Currently, I am searching for a French E-commerce Executive in order to grow the French market which is very promising and a PR Executive to support our growing teams. We focus a lot on producing content in-house which consequently means that another member of that team who focuses solely on creating PR connections would be really useful. Personally, I love employing graduates and training them up from scratch. This way I can instill the right mindset, before being tainted (bad habits) by another company/agency.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website US: https://us.maxwellscottbags.com
- Facebook UK: https://www.facebook.com/maxwellscottbags
- Facebook US: https://www.facebook.com/maxwellscott.us/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/maxwellscottbag
- Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/maxwellscottbag/
- Instagram UK: http://www.instagram.com/maxwellscottuk
- Instagram US: https://www.instagram.com/maxwellscottus/
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/maxwellscottbags
- The Journal US - https://us.maxwellscottbags.com/journal/
- The Journal UK - https://www.maxwellscottbags.com/journal/
- William Forshaw, Founder of Maxwell Scott Bags Ltd
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