When you run a small business – especially a retail business – it can feel very much as if a tiger has not just come to tea, but moved in. It’s always hungry, often unpredictable, and it makes you feel a little, well, nervous.
Luckily, Catherine Erdly is an expert in taming tigers, and in this week’s conversation she shares with me some of the ways in which she helps small retail businesses do the same (and why that matters for everyone).
We also talk about why the tiger is such a powerful metaphor, and how to write about difficult topics in an accessible way.
Catherine’s site: https://www.resilientretailclub.com/
Catherine on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/resilientretailclub/
Alison on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bookstothesky_/
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge April 2023: http://proposalchallenge.com/
Power Up Your Writing workshop at Gladstone’s Library: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/power-up-your-writing-workshop-tickets-600773689277
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: I am here today with Catherine Erdly, who is an award-winning small business retail expert, podcast host, speaker, and writer. Named one of the top 100 retail influencers in the world, she’s worked with some of the biggest names on the high street, and now she helps small and startup independent businesses and brands to grow their sales, manage their stock, and improve their business resilience through consultancy and her membership group, The Resilient Retail Club.
She’s the host of the Resilient Retail Game Plan Podcast and the author of Tame Your Tiger: How to stop your product business eating you alive, which is such a great title.
We can see the book behind you there, Catherine. It’s wonderful.
Welcome to the show, first of all.
Catherine Erdly: Thank you so much for having me.
Alison Jones: It’s really good to have, it’s always lovely having a podcast host, a co-host. So, it’s really good.
We’re going to have to start by talking about the tiger, aren’t we? So, it’s such a great title. Tell us how it came about and what it was all about.
Catherine Erdly: Well, I mean I think I really have you to thank for the tiger because when we first were discussing the book, then it was originally going to be called Resilient Retail, which of course fits with the name. It’s actually, I have that phrase trademarked. So it’s my business name and the original book was going to be more of almost like a thesis about how you make money in product businesses.
And what became apparent after we’d been talking and after I’d been thinking about things and reading lots of business books, was actually I wanted it to be more practical. And I wanted it to be the kind of book that I could hand to somebody if somebody came to me, which they do fairly often, and say, you know, I’m trying to figure out how, you know, my sales have been growing, but I don’t seem to be making any more money. Why? What’s going on?
I can almost say, right, here you go, here’s the book, read it and hopefully you can self-diagnose by going through the process. So once I’d figured out it needed to be more practical, you were the person who said it needs some kind of hook, it needs something to kind of make it more accessible, because ultimately the book, which is aimed at anybody who sells products, so that could be online, Etsy sellers, Shopify, website owners, people who sell at markets, people who sell in shops, who own their own shops., You know, anybody basically who sells products that they’re passionate about. So if you curate or create products you’re passionate about, then the book is for you.
And typically, very, very broadly speaking, the type of person who is passionate about their products tend to be very creative and, you know, extreme broad brush generalization here, but people who are creative tend to have less of an affinity towards numbers.
So therefore, I was starting kind of, not on a back foot exactly, but I was starting with a book about numbers for people who maybe don’t necessarily think of themselves as numbers people. So, the accessibility, I think was really, really important. And also almost slightly speaking their language, you know, and I love the title, the love the cover, the cover’s perfect because it really sort of is creative looking and it’s interesting and it doesn’t look like a sort of stale book about numbers. It looks like something that might be on their wavelength.
And so the idea of the tiger, I think I just was playing around with some different metaphors, different things that kind of worked. And one of the things that really jumped out at me was this idea of the tail. So the tail is your unproductive stock, effectively, and the more unproductive stock you have in your business, the more likely it is that your business is cash hungry and makes you feel nervous, aka a tiger business, as I’ve likened it to. If you’re sort of sitting there with this beast and you’re like, wow, you know, I’m slightly nervous about this. I’m not really sure what’s coming next, and I feel like it’s got a lot of demands and I want to make sure I meet them, but I feel nervous. And that means you’ve got a tiger business or that’s a sign that you’ve got a tiger business.
So the tail, the idea of the tail, this unproductive stock, so the bigger the tail, the bigger the tiger. So the more money you have tied up in your unproductive stock, the more likely that your business is this type of tiger business because you probably don’t have great cash flow. Your profits are being hit and all the rest of it. And that’s was kind of the start of it. And then I started thinking, right, well if that’s the tail, the other areas I want to talk about, you know, how do they fit in?
So then I came up with the idea of the bite, which is the bite that your costs are taking out of your sales. So that’s your profit margin. And then your stomach. So how much are you feeding the beast? What are your fixed costs compared to your sales? And then there was the Tiger . It all kind of felt, it all kind of came together.
Alison Jones: Yes, and it’s such a great example of how you can take something, I don’t want to say abstract. I mean it is, it’s very practical, making money online.
Catherine Erdly: Yes.
Alison Jones: There’s a sort of dullness inherent when you get to the very literal bit and it’s difficult for people to look at full on, isn’t it?
You know, just how much money is getting sunk in here and how even when the sales are growing, the costs are going up in a straight line with the revenues. And when you make it into a tiger and you give people a different way of looking at it, a more playful way in, it’s just so much easier to sit down and look at that and to think what that means for you. And you can sort of say, oh, of course this bit of my tiger is a particular issue, you know.
Catherine Erdly: Yes. And sometimes people say to me things like, well is it still valid if I think the tiger’s already eaten me?
Alison Jones: I think it might be too late to tame this tiger.
Catherine Erdly: But I think it’s resonated. I think a lot of people have gone, yes, that’s me, I’ve definitely got a tiger, but I think it’s already eaten me. And I think it did help it to be playful and then also meant I could do things like have some lovely illustrations, which I worked with somebody I’d commissioned off people per hour and she’d created these lovely drawings of various different characters. So the other thing that I felt was important to make it more relatable, was that I wanted to have case studies that then to be, yes, beautiful.
Alison Jones: If you’re watching this on YouTube, I’m just showing you one of the lovely chapter illustrations of somebody looking rather startled at just how big their tiger’s bite is.
Catherine Erdly: It’s great. I love it. The facial expressions she drew for the people were just brilliant. And I think that that really helped too. And so I had these three case studies. I had Salma the Shopkeeper who was somebody who ran an independent lifestyle boutique, had Emmanuel the Ecommerce seller, so somebody who was selling other people’s products online. And then we had Irene the Illustrator, selling her own products through wholesale, but also online.
And they broadly were kind of an amalgamation of probably hundreds of people that I’d spoken to and worked with. So I was able to pull sort of little bits from experiences and the way that people talked about their businesses and the way that people felt about their businesses, because I really do believe that even if you can’t say for sure okay, well my in margin has dropped because prices have increased, you probably have a feeling of something that’s going on and that almost can help you hone in on where these issues are.
So I wanted to write these case studies, in their own words, as a story so that when people were reading them, even if they were like, what is Catherine banging on about tails and teeth and all the rest of it, they would read the person’s description and when they talked about some of the challenges they had and some of the ways that they applied the tools, and then they would get there like, oh, right, okay, yes, that sounds familiar.
So it was trying to very much make it something that people really related to and also understood that if you are selling online or if you’re selling in a shop, you’ve got different challenges, but they’re not, the fundamental underlying principles of how your business makes money remains the same for product businesses, whether or not you’ve got a shop or a website or a combination of multiple channels that you’re selling through.
Alison Jones: I mean, it has been so disrupted and democratized this sector hasn’t it? If you think about it, 20, 30 years ago nobody was selling anything online unless they were a retailer. And if they were a retailer, they had a warehouse and the apparatus that you needed to be a retailer and the expertise in retail that you needed, all of that’s gone away.
Anybody can set up a shop now and anybody can make all these mistakes for the first time without realizing what they need to know about inventory control and profit management and, you know, all the sort of technical stuff that you’re talking about.
Catherine Erdly: Absolutely. And I think that’s what’s so wonderful and what I absolutely love about it. And I think I was reflecting on my ‘big why’ this week, you know, this kind of idea of why you do what you do. And I think for me it’s, I worked in big retailers for 17 years and they’re really some very, very toxic practices, toxic workplace cultures.
And I think what’s so wonderful and beautiful about small businesses is that so many people who start small product businesses, they’re doing it because they want to do something better. They’re concerned about the materials that they’re using, they’re concerned about how the products are being manufactured.
I talk to people who, you know, source wool from hand spun for them in Scottish factories and reviving craft techniques that have kind of died out and all these sorts of things. It’s so, so passionate, so heart led, but what they don’t have is that kind of rigor and expertise, because why would they have that?
A lot of people, I’d say a lot of people that I work with, they may have done a professional job previously. They may have worked in marketing, PR, I’ve worked with people who used to be teachers or lawyers, worked for the council, all these different things. And yet at some point they were like, okay, I really want to embrace my creativity and I’m going to start a business.
And you’re right, they can in a way that they couldn’t 20 years ago, even possibly 10 years ago, I think probably 10 or 15 years ago, you would’ve been looking at something around 10,000 pounds to get someone to create a transactional website for you. It probably wouldn’t have been that great, it probably would have been super expensive to maintain. You’d have probably had to get the team to check, make any changes that you wanted to make. Nowadays, you know, 20, 30 pounds a month, Shopify website, drag and drop, upload your images. You know, it is hugely democratized and I think that that’s really exciting. It means that people can create stuff very specifically for a very niche specific customer in a way that probably John Lewis couldn’t.
I was talking to somebody on my podcast a couple of weeks ago who created a shoe brand for women with size feet eight and above, UK size eight and above. And again, that’s something that, how would you even have done that? You know, you could have done it 20 or 30 years ago, but it would’ve been much harder because the reach of how you reached out to all these different people would’ve been much harder to do.
So, yes, it is hugely exciting. And I’m just, I love being part of it, you know.
Alison Jones: Yes, and the relationship, the knowledge of the sector and the relationship that those small, niche retailers can have with their customers is the thing that is going to have to differentiate them because they can’t match the range and the convenience of Amazon, can they? I mean, bluntly, that’s the sort of elephant in the room if we’re going carry on the jungle metaphor, you know.
Catherine Erdly: The jungle with the tiger. Yes, absolutely. And there is this phrase, you know, what can Amazon not do? And a lot of small businesses think like that. Although interestingly, I remember Jeff Bezos once famously said, nobody’s going to want things to be more expensive and arrive more slowly, and, you know, so that was behind their sort of relentless drive for speed and price.
And I actually think that that’s not, that’s missing some of the nuance. And I think that is where small businesses step into the gap, is that there are plenty of people who would actually rather know that the products were produced in an ethical way, that doesn’t damage society and the planet and are prepared to wait for them rather than insisting that everything comes tomorrow.
Alison Jones: Yes, let’s hope so.
Catherine Erdly: I hope so.
Alison Jones: I want to talk about the writing as well, Catherine. So we talked a little bit about the metaphor and how you kind of almost shifted a gear when you found that and things started to fall into place. So that’s really interesting. We’ve also talked a little bit about the stories, so you’ve got kind of a frame, you know, and a big idea that allows people to access the content.
You’ve got the stories that that catch people’s imagination, they’re very relatable and so on. What else did you notice as you wrote the book? Was there anything that particularly surprised you or that brought you joy as you wrote, or that frustrated you?
Catherine Erdly: I think for me what was joyful about it was actually creating a long form piece of content, that had a structure that went from start to finish. And the reason that’s quite joyful is I also do quite a lot on social media. I’m on Instagram, for example, and Instagram, you know, a reel might be six seconds, so you can say one thing, or it might be 15 seconds, 30 seconds.
And so you get used to this almost like chopping it, chopping it up, chopping up, micro-learning they call it.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Catherine Erdly: Which I think is great and has a real place of connecting with people. But I think that the joy of the book is that you start, you have a structure, it’s in depth. I felt like I was able to explain myself in a way that potentially if I spent an hour or two with the client, I could explain it all, but to actually write it down and to know that you could give it to somebody and that they could actually sit and read it and absorb the information that I wanted to put across. Not in a sound bite, you know, not in a even a 20 minute podcast episode, but over a longer period of time, it almost is like you are able to speak without being interrupted, if that makes sense.
Alison Jones: And it’s the top quality version of the talk that you would’ve had with a customer for an hour, isn’t it? That’s the other thing is that A, you can now say to somebody read this and then let’s talk about the specific things we need to, because they’ve got it all there, but also, I don’t know about you, but you often, you come away from a call going, oh, you know, I should have told them about that, or I never thought about.
Whereas actually you have the time and space to organize it in the best possible way, to communicate it really clearly and succinctly in a way that makes sense, as you say, as part of, I mean, I think long form content, it’s one of those things that people are almost, as you say, moving away from these days as they go more towards reels and TikToks and all the rest of it. But there’s something very important about our ability to produce and consume it I think, you know, for us as business leaders, but just as people generally.
And I do wonder, I think there’s a lot of discussion around the future of content and so on, but I think the fact that people binge watch box sets as well as watching reels gives us hope that there is kind of room for a whole ecosystem of content for different purposes.
Catherine Erdly: Yes, definitely. I completely relate to that. And I think as well, and you talk about the importance of being able to produce it, because actually what it did do as well, was it really made me say to myself, what am I trying to say? What am I saying are the fundamental key things you need to look at?
And even some of the ways I did calculations, like for example, one thing that I spent probably far too long agonizing over was at which point you look at the postage, so is your postage part of your, what I call an in margin, so when you’re selling something, the margin that you calculate that you will generate when you make that sale. Or is it your out margin, which is looking at what actually happened? So it’s a historic number where you go back and look at a month that has gone past and say, well, what was my actual margin? And I was, I don’t know, I think I wrote one version where I put the post calculation in one place and then I moved it again.
But it meant that I really did have to sort of sit and have, you know, a think, quite a long think about what am I trying to say? What are the formulas that I’m trying to, that I think people should look at? How often do I think they should look at these things? And it was almost like, like you say, all the advice I’d given, and I’m so glad I did it four years into my entrepreneurial journey because I think if I’d written it at the very beginning, it would’ve been fresh off the corporate world and it probably wouldn’t have made any sense, but it was really tempered and honed by conversation after conversation after conversation with small business owners. So I knew the words that made sense to them and the words that didn’t. I knew the way that they thought about their businesses and maybe their way their mindset played on things, you know, how they thought about themselves as business owners.
So I was able to very much almost like sum up all of that experience and that advice that I’d given, but as you said, it made me say, right, well, I know I told that person that thing and that, you know, and obviously it was fairly consistent, but there were definitely little things where I was like, okay, what is the definitive answer?
Yes, yes. What’s my definitive answer?
Alison Jones: You can’t hide, can you? You really have to clarify your thinking because there it is in black and white, on a shelf forever.
What’s been the outcome? You know, how do you use it in the business now? How do people respond to it? What difference has it made?
Catherine Erdly: Well, I think it’s, you know, it’s still fairly early days. It’s been out about a month now. It’s been a great way of talking to people about what I do. I think lots of people, even people I’ve worked with over a period of time have read it and kind of gone, oh, right, yes, yes, I get this. You know. I love it that sometimes people have quoted it back to me. They say, oh, well, you know, you said blah, blah, blah, and then sometimes I have to be….
Alison Jones: Did I?
Catherine Erdly: But actually last night I had a really great example. So in the membership group, The Resilient Retail Club, we have about 300 members, and so they’re all people who run, small product businesses of various different types.
And we have this monthly planning session. And in this planning session, we get together, it’s sort of a group Zoom session. There’s a template people go through where they look at the month previously and then they look at the month ahead and make a plan. So it’s kind of like a pause point in the month where you can do that sort of take stock as it were, and then make a plan to go ahead.
And I always ask the members and say, what’s your big win for the month? Like, what’s your top thing that, you know, what was the most exciting thing that happened or the thing you’re most pleased about and somebody said to me, I read your book and in the book you talk about the importance of your profit margins.
So I go through how to calculate them all and then I have a list of suggestions if things aren’t as great, you know, they don’t look great. Like what can you do? Including things like talking to your suppliers. And she said, you know, I ran my profit margin. It wasn’t a great number. I sent an email, you know, inspired by the book, I sent an email to the supplier. I asked, what can we do about this? And immediately they came back and made me a better offer. And I think for me, you know, that’s one product in one business, but it’s like that sort of thing, that was the dream with the book, was that this is not just a sort of theoretical book. This is a book that makes a difference to people’s businesses.
And you know, a small tweak like that over time, over multiple suppliers. And also just getting business owners thinking in that way and looking at ways that they can improve their profitability. It will make a difference over time. So I’ve had really lovely feedback and lots of people sort of saying, oh, this is the book I wished I’d had at the beginning of my journey maybe, or it answers a lot of questions and you know, that is very, very rewarding for sure.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. And when you see people making, I would just say it’s a small change, but the fact that they felt empowered rather than just hopeless at the fact that these numbers were so awful.
Catherine Erdly: Yes, exactly. Yes.
Alison Jones: So, you know the score, Catherine, I always ask my guests for their single best tip for somebody who’s kind of at the outset of writing their business book, rather than a month post publication.
So what would you say?
Catherine Erdly: Well, I think be prepared for there to be a point where you just think it’s terrible.
Alison Jones: That’s such a good point.
Catherine Erdly: Because I was not quite prepared. I mean, I’d say generally speaking, I found the writing process really, really enjoyable. I kind of miss it now, and I’m already thinking could I, definitely, there’s definitely other books for sure.
It’s addictive, I can see that and carving out that space and having that time and head space. You know, I did find it really, really enjoyable and I really thought that it was a great process. However, I do think, especially for me, the real crunch point was before I’d submitted my first draft because I just got to this point where I think I was in my head too much.
You know, you spend a lot of time thinking about the right order of things and where you calculate postage and I just got to this point where I was like, I have to submit it because I can’t tell, I think it’s probably dreadful, but I just need someone else to either look at it and confirm it, or say it’s actually not dreadful. Do you know what I mean? But I felt completely paralyzed. I was like, I have just got to submit it. And I think I was originally intending to do more editing on my first draft. I knew it was pretty rough and ready. But I just got to this point where I just felt, I just got myself in a tizz basically, for want of a better word.
I’m sure that’s not the technical term for it.
Alison Jones: No, that’s pretty much the technical term. And just for clarity, for anybody listening who’s worked with traditional publishers, traditionally you would just submit the book. That would be the manuscript. It would go in to copy editing. So you are talking about the development editor stage here.
Catherine Erdly: Yes.
Alison Jones: The beta draft which we do because we’re working with people who aren’t professional writers. Yes, and it goes to beta readers at the same time.
Catherine Erdly: I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if I’d have just had to submit it for copy editing. Because actually then the Beta editor came back and said, this is great. I mean, they obviously had feedback and they pointed out the parts that I should have polished off. But I just got to the point where I was like, I just have to submit it.
But I think it kind of slightly took me by surprise. But I think anytime you do something new, or maybe it happens every time you write a book, I don’t know I can’t say, I’ve only written one, but it’s just this thing where you just almost need that external input.
And actually, I think that was also a really positive thing about the process was getting that external input and having someone else look at your work and actually, you know, getting the beta readers to submit their feedback was really useful because again, when you write a blog post or record a podcast, people don’t often come back and go, oh, you know, when you said that, is that actually what you meant? And then you kind of go back and amend it, you know? So, like you said, this is the best version of the advice that you would give, especially when it goes through that process and that polishing process, then you can feel really good about it.
I’m pretty, you know, I feel like this is the best it can be because other people have read it and it made sense to them, and it definitely helped with the confidence of letting it out into the world.
Alison Jones: Yes, and you can say that now at the other side of it because you know the outcome, but you are right at the time, it involves, and I’ve written way more than one book, and I can tell you every single time you go through the, this is absolute tosh stage, you know, and generally it isn’t.
Catherine Erdly: Or why would anyone read this.
Alison Jones: Exactly. This is all self-evident
Catherine Erdly: Yes. yes, it’s so obvious, but of course it’s not.
Alison Jones: It’s not, no.
Catherine Erdly: So I suppose, yes, that would be my tip. Don’t be alarmed if it happens. As you said, I’m sure your book is wonderful. I just definitely was not mentally prepared for that.
Alison Jones: Yes, well I think that’s the thing, isn’t it? What’s the difference between somebody who thinks their book is tosh and it is, and somebody who thinks their book is tosh and actually it’s brilliant. Hard, except that you have to get that external check and validation. I think that’s the only way you’re going to know.
Catherine Erdly: Yes. There’s a great phrase I love, which is, you can’t read the label from inside the jar. And I think that…
Alison Jones: …that’s a great phrase. I don’t even quite know what it means, but I love it.
You’ve got to get outside.
Catherine Erdly: You’ve got to have an external perspective, you are in the jar.
Alison Jones: Yes, yes, just too close to it. I love that.
Catherine Erdly: I’m mixing my metaphors now, but anyway, yes,
Alison Jones: Yes, we’ll work a tiger in there somehow. Brilliant.
And if, so you’re not allowed obviously to recommend Tame Your Tiger, I think we’ve probably done a fairly good job of that, but, is there a book that you have particularly enjoyed, a business book or any book that you think that people listening should have a read of?
Catherine Erdly: I, well, I’m a big fan of Mike Michalowicz. I’m sure you’ll probably, this probably crops a lot.
Alison Jones: Toilet Paper Entrepreneur. That was his, one of his ones, wasn’t it?
Catherine Erdly: Yes. Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, the one that really made probably the most difference to my business and I still continue to recommend people is called Profit First.
Alison Jones: That’s it.
Catherine Erdly: And I mean, he’s written other ones. I also highly recommend The Pumpkin Plan and Clockwork, both really good books.
He is good at making it simple, but Profit First, I think when I thought about writing my book, not that I would ever, I don’t you know, I think Profit First is just great because it does really transform people’s businesses. And for me, when I wrote Tame Your Tiger, if you’d asked me what’s the dream?
I would say I’d love people to be recommending this in the same way that I would recommend Profit First. Almost like, you know, when people are like, read this book.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Catherine Erdly: It will change how you look at your business. And yes, so that for me is I’d say, probably the business book I recommend the most.
And also just, fun fact if you like audio books, I think he’s actually a really good audio book reader because you know…
Alison Jones: …some aren’t…
Catherine Erdly: …and yes, he’s quite fun.
Alison Jones: I heard him speak actually, he’s very engaging.
Catherine Erdly: Yes, yes.
Alison Jones: Yes, Brilliant. Great recommendation. Thank you. And just as a complete side note, it’s interesting that the one I remembered first, even though I think it’s not as big a book, is Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, just because it’s got that amazing kind of visual picture that it conjures up in your head where you’ve only got two sheets of toilet paper, you’ve got to make them count. That’s the kind of premise behind that book. It’s up there with tigers, isn’t it? Brilliant.
And Catherine, if people want to find out more about you, more about Tame Your Tiger, more about Resilient Retail, where should they go?
Catherine Erdly: So you can head to my website, resilientretailclub.com, and I have links to the book, to the club, everything else, all about me. Otherwise, I am most commonly found on Instagram @ResilientRetailClub.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today. Really enjoyed talking to you.
Catherine Erdly: Thank you for having me.