Catherine Langman:

Well, hello there. It’s Catherine Langman here back with another episode of the Productpreneur Success Podcast. And today on the show, I’m actually going to be sharing some more about my own business journey that really speaks to some of the fears and anxieties that are pretty common. I’m sure we all experience these, and I know that I certainly have, and so I just wanted to share that side of my story. It’s very easy I think for all of us operating in the online world to want to stick to the highlight reel, all of the glossy highlights and the positives from our journey, and not speak to any of the difficulties along the way and to keep those fears and anxieties a little bit more private.

So I’m going to speak to that today and really talk about this fear that I think a lot of us have, what if I fail in my business? So I wanted to start this story maybe just from, I don’t know, just why did I even start my product business in the first place? I feel like I probably always had some entrepreneurial tendencies. I remember when I was a little kid, I used to create these little shops and be making products and artworks and food treats and things like that, and I’d set up a little shop at the front fence and be trying to flog stuff off to my neighbors as they went past. And I’m pretty sure I roped my youngest sister into this as well. I’d be instructing her, “We need to do this many pieces of artwork. We’ve got to do these drawings and these paintings, and we’re going to make these chocolate treats,” or biscuits or whatever it was. And then I’d rope her into doing these shops at the front fence as well, which is hilarious.

Of course, I did go on to university and followed the conventional career direction, and that came to a bit of a stop after I had my babies. They’re not babies anymore, they’re teenagers, but at that point in time, my career had been in advertising and design agencies and working with lots of different clients. And it was a pretty good career, I was living in Sydney, and then I had my first baby and I went on maternity leave and fully anticipated that I would be going back to work. But as it transpired, I managed to fall pregnant again before that maternity leave was over and so I wouldn’t have been able to go back to work for very long. And my boss at the time was not at all supportive of having part-time or flexible work opportunities either, so basically he’d said, “Catherine, it’s full-time or nothing.”

And I thought, well, living in Sydney, there’s long travel time to get to work and get home and if I have two babies, there are going to be two babies in childcare, which is expensive. And then I would never really see them, because I’d be either driving to work or at work or driving home from work all day. And so I made the decision that, well, it felt like I was backed into a corner really, I had to give up that career for a short while. And so I had my babies and I don’t know that I necessarily expected that I was going to start a business after that. But I guess I always had a bit of an example from my own mum who was very entrepreneurial herself and managed to create this career for herself that was really around the five children that she had. So my mum, she initially lived in a country town with her first husband, had three children, and they had three businesses.

And unfortunately after, I don’t even know how old, I think my older sister Margaret, her third child was about five, and her first husband died, and so she was left with these three kids and three businesses at a time in life, a time in a past era where women weren’t really allowed to own property, we weren’t really allowed to own businesses. But just by default, she ended up a business owner and a property owner. So she was a bit of a trailblazer by accident, I suppose. Anyway, she ended up selling two of the businesses and she kept the third one, which was the most profitable. It was a shoe store. And she used that business and the overdraft on that business to buy a house in the city, and she moved her family to the city. And then she decided she was going to retrain into another career direction that she was going to be a bit more passionate about and enjoy a little bit more.

But she kept that business and operated that from a distance. This is well before the internet was in existence or anything like that. It was pretty amazing what she did. And so she was able to buy this house and then she owned the house outright and sold the business and funded her future existence with her children. And then, of course, met my dad and had two more kids. So I had this example of a mother who just was like, “Well, to hell with you then.” I mean, not that my mum said that, obviously, you don’t say that when your husband’s died, she did this out of necessity. But for me, it was like, “Okay, well, if I can’t, because that man over there is going to stymie my career, what can I do? I don’t want to be left behind with my career.” I worked pretty hard to get to that point.

So ultimately I decided to go into business. I felt, surely there’s a way to replace that professional income, my wages, and do it in a way, like my mum had, that was a bit more flexible around having children. So I went into business with a friend who had been hand-making products for babies that I’d been using and loving, but she didn’t know anything about business or about marketing, and so she was looking for someone with those skills, which, of course, I had. So we started the business with a very low commitment in terms of financial investment. I don’t think either of us had much in that regards anyway. And the way that we got moving was with the handmade products made in small batches, a quick website that we’d done ourselves, and really we were looking for that minimum viable product stage of business, so that version of the product that had just enough features to be usable by early customers who could then provide feedback for future improvements, which, of course, we did go on to bring some of those design improvements into things down the track.

But we were also looking for a bit of a marketing formula that would convert sales at a profitable price. And I guess, we were both mums, we had two similar aged boys each, and we were wanting to run this online in a way that was really flexible. And so we were really keen to adopt the whole e-commerce model. And I remember at that point in time was probably the first hints of fear getting in the way of things a little bit. I remember I was just wanting to get started in this business and was trying to sell the idea to my husband and get him on board, and he was fine with it, but his mother was not so keen on the idea. And I remember distinctly she said to me at the time, “Catherine, you really should just be grateful with what you’ve got, the income that your husband’s making and you should just make do.” And fortunately, she’s gone on to become one of my biggest cheerleaders over the years, so I don’t hold a grudge against her for that comment.

But at the time, I just remember thinking, “Right. Well, I’m going to prove you wrong, aren’t I?” And then at a similar time, I’d been telling family and friends and announcing this new business, and my former boss also made some comments at the time about how unprofessional it was to run a business from home and, “You can’t do that. You’ll never get anywhere.” And really those comments did get under my skin and it did raise those fears and insecurities about whether I was making a stupid mistake and maybe it would never ever work. But I did move forward and we did move forward, and I guess, once we did have that proof of concept, and it didn’t take long really, and proof that there was consumer demand for the products, so after that, what we actually did is we took that evidence that we had and those performance metrics, not that I knew terms like that back then, we took all of that data and information to the bank and managed to get a $20,000 micro-business loan.

And we also found a manufacturer who could mass produce those products for us, because it was pretty obvious, there’s no way you’re going to scale a business if you had just had one person sewing and one person marketing. That was not going to get us anywhere fast. So that’s what we did, and I guess that really catapulted the business into the world. But, of course, I’m only human and taking that financial risk definitely tested my confidence and resolve. I think it’s hard not to think about, what if this doesn’t work and what if I lose it all and will I be okay and will my family be okay? And I think the only thing that really helped me pass those fears and anxieties was to really keep focusing on the positive evidence at hand. Customers were buying and loving the products and more customers were contacting us and wanting to buy from us, and I guess up until that point, with hand-making stuff, you only had what you could make. So there was always more demand than we could fulfill.

So that was all very positive, and I think it was just I had to keep looking at that evidence in front of us and use that to build confidence and take those necessary steps forward. And I think beyond that, what really helped us get off onto a good path of growth was not just investing in the product, but also investing in some of the marketing related assets, like professional photography and a much better looking website, so something that was really going to look more professional and was designed to convert at a better rate. And then, also, we did probably the biggest marketing expense that, really, it was a huge investment at the time, but really got us off to a good start, was exhibiting at some baby expos around Australia. And that really gave us a big boost in brand awareness, but also being a product that people really needed to see in person and be educated about how it was working. These were reusable modern cloth nappies or diapers, as you might call them.

And so we didn’t have a shopfront, so we really needed to be able to get in front of our customers. These were very new products in the marketplace at that time, so it wasn’t something that people were familiar with. And so that was that way of getting that education off, education happening, in the marketplace. And things really did start to take off after that. And I guess, as I said, I initially went into the business to replace my professional wage with more flexible work conditions, but I soon started to have much bigger ambitions and really it wasn’t just about being able to make more money for myself and my family. I’m sure that was part of it, but truthfully, I wasn’t overly motivated by that. It was more like I was really motivated to create some measurable, positive change on the environment, decreasing the amount of disposable single use waste that was going into landfill. And so that was a huge part of what was motivating me. But it was also around creating flexible work opportunities for other women, other mothers specifically, whose careers had been thwarted after having children.

And so I was able to grow a team, almost all women, not all women, but a lot of women, and we got up to about 35 sales consultants who were working with us and our team operating in the warehouse as well. And that was incredibly satisfying. And as I record this, it’s actually International Women’s Day in 2021, and it’s sad. There’s been a report released today, and I just heard about it this morning, showing that the wage gap between men and women, and this is in Australia, but presumably it’s been similar in overseas locations, that wage gap, in Australia, it had been about 13% in the past, that women earned 13% less than men with all variable factors taken into consideration, but that wage gap has actually worsened this past year as COVID lock downs probably impacted, I guess, industries occupied largely by women, and I assume probably many of the mothers in our communities, but also taking a step back from work so that they could take over homeschooling duties and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.

But this lack of financial independence or wage parity between women and men is a big part of what really does still drive me today and why I’m such a huge advocate for women starting e-commerce businesses. E-commerce is such a hugely scalable business model and it does have enormous financial upside, but it can also be operated in a way that’s very flexible around everyday life. But, anyway, back to my own journey, of course, it wasn’t smooth sailing after that initial kick-starting with that business loan and getting a manufacturer, all that stuff. I think it’s easy for some people to look at somebody else and think, “Oh, you’re really successful. You must have had all of these opportunities and it must have been easy for you,” and blah, blah, blah. It’s not like that. Of course, it wasn’t smooth sailing. I don’t think life or business ever is for anyone.

I think that as you go through and go on with business, you just get a little bit more okay with not letting problems get to you. We definitely had things like production issues, shipping issues, and as we grew, we had staff issues and differences in opinion about how we should run and grow. You name it, I’m sure it probably happened. I think one thing I definitely learned the hard way was, how do you switch off? How do you manage the stresses of running your own business? I’m probably a little bit of a stress head anyway, but as an entrepreneur, it’s really hard not to take any issues personally, and it’s really hard to pace yourself and not feel like you need to be working all the time for fear that you’re going to miss out on the next sale or the next big opportunity. So I don’t even remember what it was that really triggered that mindset for me.

It’s quite a long time ago now, but I think it was a bit maybe the advent of social media and you definitely feel more switched, like you’re connected all the time and customers are messaging you late at night and on weekends. And eventually I just got to the point where my kids are getting a little bit older and they’re playing weekend sport and I was like, “I started this business so that I could be more flexible and be around with my kids more. What am I doing? The world’s not going to come to a crumbling halt if I don’t answer this message on the weekend.” Business hours are business hours, so I did make that decision and the business kept growing and it didn’t grind to a halt just because I wasn’t on it immediately. So that was a pretty big step for me anyway. So some of you know, that particular business, I got to a point where I achieved what I could, and in 2014, mid-2014, I sold out of that business. And then I returned to my roots, I guess, as a marketing consultant.

I started my own digital marketing agency and also my online education platform. I reckon probably over the last 20 something years since I started my career in marketing, I’ve probably worked with, I don’t know, hundreds, maybe thousands of brands and e-commerce retailers. I’ve definitely seen some thrive, some of them growing super fast and some of them at a more steady pace, and I’ve also seen some go absolutely nowhere and completely fizzle out. And I’ve seen some businesses fail, fairly spectacularly, a bit of train wreck business. I think probably I would describe my own business growth as a steady pace. That’s what I felt like I could manage in the way that I’m happy to work, but what I’ve observed about the businesses that really don’t take off and just fizzle out, and I want to speak to this because I think this really does tie in with this fear, what if I fail in my business?

And so the ones that don’t take off and just fizzle out, what I observe is that they’re just really starved of the right inputs that drive growth. Of course, there definitely are the occasional business that get off the ground, but there’s just no demand for the product. But I’m not talking about that sort of situation. If it is a good product and customers do want it, but the business does not really take off and it just fizzles out generally it’s because the business has been starved of the right inputs that drive growth. Money, to an extent, although that’s often less critical to success than many people think. Testing your marketing to get to the right formula for attracting and converting customers is one thing for sure, but then the confidence to go for it after that, it’s a bit like buying yourself some beautiful pot plants but then not giving them any water or sunshine because you’re afraid you’ll stuff it up.

And I do think that, that confidence is probably the most important ingredient, and I think it’s finding the way to have confidence in your own abilities to figure stuff out that you don’t know yet. But also the confidence that things will be okay even if we do stuff something up and we do feel like we’ve got egg on our face or we’ve failed at something. I definitely think that fear of failure holds so many of us back from actually taking the right or any steps forward in our business. But what about the ones that do grow big and then have a spectacular downfall? Why does that happen? The fear of that happening, the fear of losing it all and letting other people down, I’m sure that that’s probably the biggest contributing factor to our lack of confidence in the early stages. I’d certainly be interested to hear from you listeners as to what you think, what your fears are and anxieties and overwhelms and all of that stuff.

But I wanted to say, I actually have seen this happen too. I’ve certainly seen it from the outside looking in. You read stories in the media, et cetera, but I’ve actually seen it in more detail than I really care to think about. But I’m going to share this story with you anyway, even though it is not the nicest thing for recollection for me to think back on. So my husband, my wonderful supportive husband, he’s a pharmacist. He used to work for his uncle who owned a national pharmacy and medical center business. It had been about a $65 million a year operation. It had multiple locations all across the eastern half of Australia. I don’t remember how many locations they had or how many staff or anything like that. But, unfortunately, my husband’s uncle had pretty much been too ambitious and expanded too quickly, taking on enormous amounts of debt. And I think a lot of businesses did at that point in time because interest rates were really, really cheap. But they also negotiated really extraordinarily long payment terms of 120 days with their major suppliers to fund to help fund their growth.

So they had a lot of bank debt and they had credit from suppliers, but there was significant growth. They grew enormously in that time, but it just wasn’t quite enough or profitable enough to ultimately fund that debt or repaying that debt when the interest free period came due. And then the suppliers also called in those payment terms, they wanted to reign them into the regular 30 days. And it all went under. This huge business that had so much turnover, all this staff and everything, and so his uncle actually lost everything he owned, all his personal property and assets as well as all the business. All the employees lost their jobs. They didn’t just lose their jobs, they lost all their holiday leave and Superannuation and other entitlements. And being family, it transpired that my husband, I think his uncle had been taking advantage of my husband being family, and so he actually hadn’t been paid properly for years. He didn’t have any Super paid to him, all of this stuff.

My lovely, trusting husband hadn’t really asked questions I suppose. And so we were definitely severely impacted by that collapse. So I’ve seen this happen from the inside, and really the biggest thing that I can say in that scenario was that he was too greedy. He took on way too much debt in the hopes of growing, expanding really, really quickly, but really it just didn’t work. And so I guess, what is the sweet spot for that long term sustainable and profitable growth? Because, obviously, no one wants to go through that scenario. And I will say, look, we’ve come out of it out the other end and the sun does keep coming up in the morning. People forget that this has happened and you move on with your life. So at the end of the day, I don’t know that we necessarily need to fear failure, but I certainly think that we want to make sure that we avoid that scenario in the first place, but avoid it in a way that doesn’t stop you from moving forwards in your business.

So what is that sweet spot for long term sustainable and profitable growth? You really do need to give your business some oxygen and invest some time and money to get that proof of concept and to get your marketing converting profitably, and then to scale up at a sustainable pace. But not get too greedy and expand beyond your means. Just like you don’t flood your pot plants with too much water or too much sunlight. So there you go. That’s what I have for you today. It’s a bit of a personal story today. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Certainly, if you would like to join in more conversations with me and my community and you’re not already a member of my Rockstar Productpreneur Facebook group, I would love to see you join in there. You can get in there at And I look forward to being with you again on our podcast next week. Bye for now.