‘When Lachlan calls, you answer’: Inside this Murdoch-backed luggage giant


Sex toys or suitcases? That was the question facing Athan Didaskalou and Richard Li when tossing up business ideas in 2018. Fast forward five years and the Melbourne mates have created one of Australia’s most sought-after luggage brands, July. Here’s how they pulled it off with a little help from the newly appointed News Corp boss.
(L-R) July co-founders Athan  Didaskalou and Richard Li
Key Takeaways
  • July co-founders Athan Didaskalou and Richard Li looked for the right market opportunity, rather than their personal interests, when deciding what to invest in.
  • July has been named as the exclusive supplier of the Australian Olympic Team’s bespoke luggage for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
  • Design and innovation has been a key part of July’s success.
  • Billionaire businessman Lachlan Murdoch is an investor in the company.
  • Learning to pivot during unexpected tough times has been crucial to the brand’s success

July co-founder, Athan Didaskalou, jokes that he never dreamt he’d be a travelling suitcase salesman – yet that’s exactly where he finds himself today (albeit a very successful one). Five years after starting the design-led, global luggage business with friend Richard Li, the pair are relishing in the company’s global success.

It’s been a whirlwind, with plenty of ups and downs, Didaskalou says. July’s growth was impressive after launching in 2018 and attracting funding of $10.5 million, including investment from high-profile business leaders such as Lachlan Murdoch. But the pandemic in 2020 hampered the company’s growth plans, forcing Li and Didaskalou to pivot – making drink bottles and other products to tide them over when demand for luggage and travel products plummeted.

“I never thought I’d be an international travelling suitcase salesman, yet here I am.”

July co-founder Athan Didaskalou on his unconventional journey to success

Today the business has returned to its pre-pandemic growth, with five physical stores (another two are set to open this year), partnerships with international hotels and a burgeoning online sales presence.

Image: July

“We’ve just signed a lease to open a store on Crosbie St in New York City and it should be open by October,” Li says. “We’ve also signed a retail partnership in Selfridges in London too.”

Li also told Forbes Australia that July has been named as the supplier of 1,000 suitcases to the Australian Olympic team for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

The name, July, was a simple concept, according to Didaskalou. It’s the most common travel month globally, with many travellers heading to Europe for the summer. “It’s the month you’re either travelling or wishing you were travelling,” he says. “When we thought of it, we couldn’t quite believe our luck that the business name was still available.”

“When Lachlan calls, you answer”

Attracting the investment of billionaire Lachlan Murdoch in 2019 happened almost by chance, Li and Didaskalou say. Murdoch was a friend of friends and called the pair to invite them to lunch at his house.

“When Lachlan calls, you answer, right!” Didaskalou says. “We had a lunch with him and Siobhan McKenna who ran that fund.”

Following the lunch, Li had a call from a customer who was having trouble with the lock on her July suitcase. The pair left Murdoch’s house in a cab and headed to Western Sydney to help the customer with her lock.

Lachlan Murdoch (right) was an early investor in July. Image: Getty

“Rich fixed the lock, the lady was wrapped and took a photo of them and posted it on Instagram. As it happened, the lady whose lock we fixed was the sister of the chef at Lachlan’s house and she said: ‘you wouldn’t believe it, I just cooked these guys lunch?’ The story obviously got back to Lachlan and Siobhan…and the rest is history.”

The pair say Murdoch and his team have been “fantastic support”, especially through the pandemic when times were tough. “They’ve continued to support us, they helped us get through COVID in particular and we can’t thank them enough.”

The idea was born over coffee

Li and Didaskalou met at a Collingwood café and both worked in offices close by. At the time, Li had a furniture business where he sourced products from China and sold through e-commerce site GroupOn and Didaskalou was running a co-working space and selling coffee internationally.

“I was selling coffee in China at the point, and Rich was like: ‘what the hell are you doing over there?’ We would just bounce ideas off each other and we always got along really well. We are similar but opposites in many ways. ” 

“We were tossing up ideas and Rich had the knowledge of what was selling well at the time. It was sex toys and Shellac nail kits. Suitcases was another thing that was an option.”

“Rich had the knowledge of what was selling well at the time. It was sex toys and Shellac nail kits. Suitcases was another thing that was an option.”

Athan Didaskalou, co-founder July.

The pair looked into the sex toy market, but Didaskalou says it was “hard to differentiate” from competitors. “It was also hard to go into that market as two straight men. Probably not the most ideal scenario. Also from a product level, if you strip the branding away, they all kind of look the same.”

“I feel like there’s a false narrative sometimes with startup guys like: ‘so I fell over my shoelaces one day so I started up a shoelaces business.’ It was less like that for us, and more like – we are product solvers and we like challenges. We wanted a challenge we could fix…like a game.”

“When you look at suitcases, once you start scratching the surface, there are no competitors. There’s one guy, one brand that does it all. All the same stuff, it’s difficult to make.”

July's store at QV Melbourne

Li eventually “dropped the idea of suitcases” at Proud Mary Coffee in Collingwood.

“He said: ‘hey, what do you think of luggage?’ I was taking my father-in-law to the airport later that day and asked him what he thought of luggage. He spent 10 to 15 minutes talking about how much he loved his suitcase. He was passionate about it and it showed me you can really fall in love with a particular brand in this category,” Didaskalou says.

The next six months was “all in” for brand and product development and market research.  

“It was an underserved category. Before July, if you wanted luggage it was always the third or fourth floor and in a corner of David Jones or Myer. Nobody looked after you when you asked questions. There were three or four colour options. We wanted to change that,” Li says.

Innovation is key

Li says a key focus of July is to “fix the problem” that travellers complain of with other luggage brands.

Some of the issues that July has sought to “fix” with its suitcases is warping and damage caused to luggage during the travelling process and the quality and ease of use of suitcase handles and wheels, Li says.

July’s newest suitcase, the CarryOn Pro, has design features such as an inbuilt, accessible laptop sleeve and an in-built charger, so travelers can stay connected at all times.

“One of the things we identified through research is that when people travel, they use their phone more than they normally would. The phone will only last half a day. That’s why we thought, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have an electable battery inside the suitcase to charge your phone and laptop on the go?” Li says.

It also offers personalisation of luggage, from colours to printing names on suitcases.

“Identification of your luggage on the carousel is a big deal. It changed the business for us.

“Suitcases are like ice-cream shops. It’s fun. You’re never board in a July store – there’s colour, personalisation – you’re already thinking about your holiday,” Didaskalou says.

The company is focusing on innovation and new product lines, while continuing its international growth strategy.

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