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Podcast Episode 14: Marketing From 30,000 Feet – The CEO’s Perspective

Unsure of your CEO’s role in marketing and the metrics they’re really looking for? On Episode 14 of ONNAMP, our host Will Davis speaks with CEO and Founder of Think|Stack, Chris Sachse, to discuss how he views marketing within his own company and how a rebrand helped reinforce Think|Stack’s mission.

Listen to Episode Fourteen: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher

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Episode Transcript

Disclaimer: The below transcript is AI-generated. It may contain errors and not translate verbatim to the podcast episode.

Will Davis: Welcome, with me today, Chris Sachse, CEO and founder, Think|Stack. Chris, great to have you here today.

Chris Sachse: Thanks for having me.

Will: So we always like to start a little fun fact, Chris. Tell us something about yourself people may not know.

Chris: So I always wanted to be a marine biologist. I started scuba diving at the age of 12, which was difficult because you had to learn all of the scuba diving tables and metrics, and math wasn’t my strong point at that point in my life. But, yeah, I’ve been scuba diving since I was 12 years old and still kind of wish I could do it, although I’ve never been very good at science.

Will: Oh, there you go. So math, science, and a life under the sea. But that’s kind of taken you to a different technical area, which is your work at Think|Stack. So tell us a little bit about Think|Stack?

Chris: Sure. So Think|Stack was founded eight years ago. We are a cybersecurity and infrastructure business that serves credit unions, banks, healthcare companies, anyone that has highly regulated needs. And we work with them to help build infrastructures and cybersecurity platforms that are ready for the future.

Will: Definitely a hot topic these days. I know folks have been focused on cybersecurity for really the last decade or so. But the last few years, that’s really heated up and a place you’ve gotten into. But you come from a little bit of maybe a non-traditional background when you think about kind of cyber and technology and IT. Tell our audience a little bit about that.

Chris: Sure. So my background has been more of an entrepreneur, not so much a technologist. My first company endeavor was in the trucking space. So did tractor-trailer sales and various other services within the trucking industry. And that really allowed me to learn how you sell package services to businesses that are not in a particular area. So, in other words, we would sell a truck, a trailer, a driver, a maintenance package to a deli company because trucking is not their expertise, deli is. So, along the way, I had an opportunity to join a small tech startup and was able to take the same business model into technology. So, if you were to go into a bank, financial services is their expertise, not technology and cybersecurity, so how do you package that together with the products and services that you need, and then allow the expert to do that, so we serve banks and credit unions who are experts in their field, and they allow us to package the cybersecurity and infrastructure services and products that they need and allow us to focus on that while they focus on what they’re good at.

Will: So that’s interesting, whether it’s trucking or cybersecurity, really thinking about how do you keep focused on your own businesses expertise and then outsourcing other things, whether that is, you know, trucking, or cybersecurity, or folks like us who do marketing, or outsource sales, or whatever that, you know, CPA. So, really, the focus is on helping businesses stay true to their core and augmenting things where they may not have the expertise with some outside experts.

Chris: Exactly right.

Will: Very cool. So, you know, how did that all start? What made you jump from trucking to technology?

Chris: So trucking is a sleepy industry. I enjoyed it. It continues to grow. If you look at online retail, trucking is one of the hottest industries that we have. And it’s an industry that, frankly, people don’t pay very much attention to. That having been said, it wasn’t as glamorous as maybe some other industries, I did a lot in the trash business and some other things. And at just at some point in my life, I said, “Is this what I want to do forever?”

Will: Tony Soprano did a lot in the trash business and that worked out well for him.

Chris: He did. Yeah. No, and I have nothing against it. In fact, the people in trucking were awesome, and theres many circumstances where I missed the families and the people that were involved in trucking. But I wanted to get into something that felt more future proof for me. And so technology was more of a vertical that I thought I could see myself in for, you know, 30 or 40 years.

Will: Cool. Yeah, and our audience can’t see this, obviously, but Chris is currently wearing a shirt that says “entrepreneurial spirit” and has a light bulb on it. So, definitely just hearing about some of your background, that’s a great embodiment of the way you’ve approached things.

Chris: Absolutely. And that’s part of our culture at Think|Stack. Today, in fact, we did a session on how do you take ownership inside of your own job for our company. So we shut down the business each year for a week, and we do a series of training workshops, and one of those was on the continued use of our values. And one of those is that entrepreneurial spirit. So as each and every individual is working with our client, understanding that they have the freedom and the rights to think of that interaction and their job role as their own company, how would they structure that interaction, how would they make sure that client wants to work with them and give them the freedom to build a system that works for them within the constructs of our businesses, is really important.

Will: Very cool. So that whole kind of revisiting things for a week and kind of shutting down the business leads me to think about different ways people approach business thinking, which of course gets me to one of the topics we want to talk about today, something you’re passionate about, which is design thinking.

Chris: Yeah, absolutely. So when we…in fact, this goes back to my days in trucking. When I first started working in trucking, I found a client who hauled trash. And one of the first things we did, which was pretty exciting, was to go in and look at what that entailed. So I went to the landfill, and I watched them pick up trash, and I watched them haul that and looked at the interaction that the truck driver had with the landfill and tried to really put myself in the shoes of that driver and that individual. And we then took that story back to the trailer manufacturer and came up with some innovations to the trailer that allowed them to improve how much they were able to haul, improve their profitability, and then allow this client to buy trailers from us into perpetuity.

So what I didn’t realize at the time was that that was design thinking. You know, it started with looking at the customer, who in this case was the truck driver, and we were looking for ways to basically journey map the process, to understand what it looked like, and find ways that we could improve on some of the issues they were having, which was speed to load and weight. And so, really made that a part of our ongoing practice, and that’s how we helped clients in the trucking business.

And then when I got into technology, I was a non-technology person. So I don’t understand all the nomenclature and the verbiage that people were using. So I forced the engineers to leverage a process of looking at the map, so using journey maps as a way to communicate how data flows through a network, look for opportunities there. So was able to translate that same way of thinking into the technology practices that we have. And now, the funny part is this spinning off to become a completely separate focus. So we’ve become so good at design thinking that organizations that work with us want us to teach them how to design things so they can leverage that in their own organizations.

Will: That’s really interesting. And for those who don’t know as much maybe about design thinking, can you summarize that approach quickly because I think that will help people understand some of what you all do?

Chris: Sure. I mean, the quickest way is just say human-centered design. So there are lots of different stories about who invented design thinking. Most people think of David & Tom Kelley, the founders of IDEO, is kind of the ones that really brought it into the mainstream. But it was a terminology that was leveraged in architecture very early on, which was people were building functions into buildings, but not thinking about the human interaction of that function and finding that by leading only with function, you were often not thinking about how that was going to interact with the human being. Like, an easy visual is if you created a sidewalk in a courtyard, you’ll often see the pathways where people find the most efficient route, and that’s where all the grass is dead because, you know, the sidewalk didn’t follow that same path. So forcing yourself to think about that before you build the sidewalk is really important. So it really goes back to that human element of design in a process or a product.

Will: I mentioned that’s pretty powerful in your business too because as you said earlier, coming into it as a non-technologist, I imagine your clients can relate to the fact that you’re thinking about it more from kind of a business and human interaction standpoint than ones and zero standpoint.

Chris: Absolutely. Now it’s starting to change, but most of the people in organizations that we’re working with who are making the ultimate decisions are non-technologists as well. So this gives them the ability to feel more comfortable about the decisions they’re making because they understand the outcome in the terms of the human experience.

Will: Very cool. And we talked about this a little bit off air, but I can imagine as you first started doing this and going to market, it might have been a little confusing. You said you’re talking to non-technologists, you’re talking to people that maybe have not gone through a process like this before. So they hear the word design, and they think maybe marketing, or advertising, or architecture..

Chris: I wish I could tell you that we’ve perfected the answer to the question, but I don’t think we have. But I’ll tell you the way that we’re grappling with it right now is to lead more with our services, so explaining to people that we are a cybersecurity company, explaining that we’re an infrastructure company. And then later on in the process, hitting them with, but the way that we differentiate ourselves in that area is that we use design thinking as a way to deliver our services. When we led with the design thinking, it destroyed the conversation. So we’ve had to flip the script a little bit and have that become the differentiator as we continue our conversations as opposed to the lead.

Will: That’s interesting. Yeah. And you think about, okay, this is our differentiator, it feels really important, it feels really valuable, we want to get it out there quickly, early in the conversation, but too early it seems to maybe cause a little more confusion, they don’t know what you do, which is invaluable.

Chris: Exactly.

Will: Cool. So we’re talking too about an example of some of the kind of confluence of design thinking and creativity, and you mentioned an example related to UC Berkeley. I think it’d be really, really cool to hear about that.

Chris: Yeah, sure. So this is starting to become a topic with a lot of Art and Design University. So MICA locally and UC Berkeley, people are looking at how impactful cybersecurity and data privacy are in our lives, and how do we represent that through art. So UC Berkeley has a contest right now going on that is looking for representations of cybersecurity in art, and somebody brought up this context of journey mapping. And where that fits in is, you know, while we’re certainly not artists, what we’re looking at is cybersecurity impacts every human experience, and we need to find the right balance of cybersecurity friction with the ease of use in technology. And art, and journey mapping, and design thinking can be a great way to represent that.

And I think it’s so topical. I mean, think of, you know, all the Facebook penalties were just announced with their data privacy, and we, as a human race, relies so significantly on the apps that we use and we give so much of ourselves, but thinking about the consequences of what we’re giving and always balancing ease of use and this great functionality with where does that start to make me feel uncomfortable? And I think art is a really interesting way to represent what we’re going through as a society right now. So, yeah, so that’s something that we’re looking at to try to partner possibly with the local artists to see if we could join that conversation.

Will: Very interesting. And you touched on a subject that, you know, both marketers and security folks look at which is data and privacy, and how much are you exposing, and how targeted can you get. So, as marketers, it’s sort of a blessing and a curse that we can really, really laser focus on, particularly online but also offline, you know, a certain type of persona, a certain age range, a certain income area, a certain level of interest, and you can get, I mean, downright creepy with the ability to target and serve ads to people. But at the same time, at what costs to sort of their experience and their comfort as a user, and there’s a trade-off there, right, too because the flip side of that, people throw up their ad blockers and don’t want to see ads at all, but then the internet stops being free.

So, you know, there’s a whole lot of friction in those different areas to say, you know, would you rather have irrelevant ads or relevant ads? I’d probably rather have relevant ads. People want no ads, but that’s not realistic unless you want to pay for all these services. So there’s kind of that tipping point of security, privacy, what you’re willing to exchange, and to me, that also aligns to some of the conversations you and I had about things like banks. So you can make the most secure bank in the world that no one can walk into. That’s not very user-friendly, so what are the sort of security exchange points you’re willing to give?

Chris: Yeah, I think friction is the keyword there. So I attended a class at Stanford. Stanford is doing a tremendous amount of research around friction, and, you know, where is good friction, where is bad friction, and where is the right balance? And one of the stories they told that really resonated with me was about Coinstar. So, you know the machine that you go to the grocery store and you dump your coins in. When they originally developed that, they are able to count the coins almost immediately. And so people were dumping the coins in, and it would come back, and it would say you’ve dumped in $100. But it did so so quickly that people didn’t have trust in the machine, that there was no possible way it could count this quickly. So they added like a 17-second delay into the software that was not needed whatsoever but that forced people to think about it differently and said, “Oh. Okay. This thing must be counting my coins very accurately. It takes a little bit of time to give me my results, and so now I trust the deliverable.”

Will: That’s wild.

Chris: And, you know, when you think about banking and financial services in particular, and you think about them being delivered digitally, there have to be some pieces of friction. We’re all smart enough to know that we want cybersecurity and data privacy, but we don’t want it to completely impact and derail the experience. So you have to find the right balance of giving them enough friction that they feel like you’re taking care of their data, but not so much that it becomes an experience that is too time-consuming.

Will: Yeah. That’s really interesting to sort of create that, “Okay. This thing is moving too quickly, it can’t possibly be right, so we’re going to insert that delay into the software itself just so people have a better kind of human experience.”

Chris: Yeah.

Will: That’s pretty wild. So jumping around a little bit because, you know, a lot of people listen to this to hear about marketing and kind of different perspectives on marketing, I love to get the take of marketers in the trenches, but also kind of CEOs who say, you know, from 100,000 feet, what should we be doing? So how do you guys market Think|Stack?

Chris: So the biggest way that we market Think|Stack today is through workshops and events, getting out in front of people as a service industry. Our product is our people, and we have great people. So how do we showcase our people in the most effective way? And, for us, we have found that events are really a great way to do that. So we will often conduct small and large group workshop settings within very specific industries that we serve. So we’ve been narrowly focused on our vertical industry, which has allowed us to create in-roads with a lot of different associations within the credit union and banking industries, which gives us the audiences necessary to deliver really good content. So we go and do our…we have various different workshops, but we go do really fun, unique workshops with those industries, and we tend to find people gravitate to us towards there. And from there, they can be really great opportunities where you have existing clients that are attending the workshop, introducing you to new prospects. So that’s been a really good method for us.

Will: Great. Yeah. And you were talking earlier before, you know, one of the challenges I think every business goes through is creating content because content is whether it’s workshop content, that’s one type of content, written content, audio, podcasts, videos, all that kind of stuff, that’s really kind of the fuel for marketing. And you had mentioned to me that you guys started blogging actually because a client told you you needed to, which was really interesting.

Chris: Yeah, so the workshop piece itself is great to find one or two people. What the workshop marketing approach lacks is the ability to find people that are buying our services today. So there are…I know, people that are buying cybersecurity services in the industry that we’re not meeting at these events, and we’re missing out on those opportunities because, frankly, we haven’t done a great job of marketing ourselves outside of these grassroots process that we’ve leveraged. So we’ve been looking at ways to create more content to broadcast that out through the various different channels that exist. But, yeah, getting people to write content in our organization that they feel comfortable with distributing is very difficult. And having that become a consistent process on an ongoing basis is next to impossible. But, to your question, we had a CEO that said, “Man, you guys are doing really great work, you have really interesting stories to tell, can you please start creating some content and sending that out in some vehicle, so that we can understand what you guys are up to in between the visits that we get from you that are quarterly or in some cases annual?”

Will: That’s really interesting. And as you mentioned, that can be challenging within an organization. I like to make the analogy of joining the gym versus going to the gym, really easy to join the gym, but when it’s 5:30 in the morning in January, and it’s cold, and you got to get out of bed, or you could just roll over and maybe get another hour of sleep, you know, that sort of commitment and regular piece is a lot more challenging particularly because everyone in the organization has a full-time job that’s not creating content in a structured manner, at least.

Chris: I guess they hit the content snooze button. Yeah. I mean, we have a marketing person who helps us build a content calendar. We make assignments, people pick topics they’re interested in, but when it comes down to it, you always have a client need, in the way you always have some other trip or workshop that’s in the way. And so finding a way to manage creating that content on a consistent basis has been really a challenge for us.

Will: Yeah, not unlike a lot of businesses. So I always like to get CEO’s perspective on marketing too because as we sort of live in our marketing world, it’s nice to get out of the bubble and we try to do that a lot. But, you know, as the CEO, what do you measure? What metrics are important to you from a marketing perspective?

Chris: So from a marketing perspective, right now, most of our metrics are focused on either monetary dollar, so what are the dollars that we’re spending on our various different marketing activities and what are the returns that we’re getting in there. So we have a lead qualification process, and we look at specifically how many qualified leads are we getting out of each individual event for the most part because we’re still primarily event focused. So we will measure that. And, you know, what we’re seeing recently…for our services, there are often long-term contracts and one of the challenges of measuring these various different forms of marketing that we do is that in many cases, there are two and three-year sales cycles.

So we will meet someone at an event, they will express interest, we will continue to communicate with them for potentially up to two years until they engage and sign any meaningful contract work with us. So being able to have those metrics last, frankly, beyond accounting calendars can be somewhat difficult and challenging. And also for us to truly evaluate the impact of a particular event is difficult. In a calendar year, when you’re hoping to plan, should we do this event again next year? I don’t know, because in three years, this may have paid off really well, so those are most of the things that we measure, what we’re starting to do more with our blog and some of the just basic Google Analytics and page visits as we redesign our website and some of the social media pieces that we’re working on.

Will: Yeah. And that’s always tough, you know, in a long sales cycle business to say, “Okay, do we write a check to go to this event? Again, do we sponsor something? Do we do this workshop when we don’t know necessarily, you know, the two to three-year runway before we might know if that worked or not?”

Chris: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So, yeah, that’s one of our current challenges. Yeah, I mean, that’s something that we’re talking about quite often, and then also finding that balance, right, of… So those are the things that we’re doing that are long term, what are some of the other activities that we can begin doing that may deliver more short term results. And so we’ve recently seen some success. We’ve outsourced lead generation to a cold calling email service business, and they’ve been delivering more consistent results so where they’re identifying people who are in the act of buying, and they’re getting us into that short-term sale cycle. So it’s a short runway for us to look at, but so far, so good.

Will: Yeah, and I think that’s important too, for businesses is to understand, okay, the face-to-face workshop is going to be high touch, it’s going to be high value, it may be longer sales cycle, but it’s also hard to scale. So what are the other things that you may say, “We may not get face-to-face as much, but we can scale it more?” So, as you talked about outsourcing things, kind of like your business models and it comes back around.

Chris: Absolutely. Yeah. And we’re constantly evaluating those, you know, what is the right balance of all of those different activities.

Will: Yeah. I think that’s critically important too is saying, “Okay, you know, we’re doing a few things, which ones are performing? Which ones do we need to maybe pull back on? Which ones do we need to scale up?” Shifting gears a bit, you guys went through a rebrand a few years ago. So before Think|Stack, you had another name, what kind of prompted that whole rebranding process and if you want to kind of talk about how you did that?

Chris: Sure. So it was a far more internally focused branding shift than it was externally focused, meaning the driver behind the name change was employee-driven, not customer-driven. So, for us, what we found, and I think this is pretty typical of most startup businesses, is we got to about year four or five, and we had seen a fairly consistent turnover. We had had a core group of employees that started with us. But, for the most part, we were seeing a lot of other people come and go, and we were trying to understand better, you know, why that was happening. So the first thing we did was analyze the culture, analyze some of the feedback that we were getting from our employees, and the biggest piece of feedback that we got was a lack of understanding and clarity about where we were headed into the future and what type of people we wanted to bring in.

So we needed to fix the story. You know, when you’re a startup, everybody kind of just joins around the mission of growth, and you didn’t need to spend a lot of time figuring out how to tell your story. But as we were scaling the business, and bringing in new people, and bringing in new leaders, we had to have a more consistent story. And we just found that our name and our brand really had nothing to do with our story and where we wanted to go. So we took an opportunity that…so the process I thought was pretty cool. It was very collaborative. So we hired a firm to help us, but we started with our employees. So before we did anything, we asked all of our current employees to go through brand archetype sessions, brand personality sessions, and really participate in that to think about who we are, what makes us great, who we wanted to be, we talked to our clients about some similar things, and then we brought all that information together and started to look at some brand names and some stories that would fit the feedback that we got from our clients and from our employees.

So it was really a collaborative session. It wasn’t like I sat down with the firm and, you know, I just said, “Hey. Here’s our new name.” It was something that the employees really rallied behind because they helped create it. And so it became part of our story. And since that time, we’ve had almost 0% turnover. And we’ve continued to really grow a really strong culture inside of a space that is typically not…you’re not finding that in technology and cybersecurity, you’re finding a much higher rate of turnover, but I think our brand and our culture are really to, you know, give them credit for that because I think that’s been a huge driver in terms of why we’ve been able to be successful.

Will: That’s great. And it sounds like you applied some of those design thinking concepts to your own…

Chris: Absolutely.

Will: …approach of rebranding, which, you know, as someone said to me recently drinking our own champagne, which is way better than the old eating our own dog food.

Chris: Yeah. I mean, who drinks Kool-Aid? So I guess that’s Rosé today. I don’t know.

Will: Rosé today haha. There we go. So, jumping back to some of the marketing stuff, are there companies that you look at now that you think are doing a great job with marketing, particularly content, whether it’s in your space, or a different vertical? Just companies where you go, “Wow, I really like this thing they did,” or something they do consistently or…kind of who stands out?

Chris: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think in our space, I’d probably tell you some cybersecurity firms that you’ve never heard of. At a big picture, what I like in the cyber…if I look at cybersecurity marketing in general, what we see with cybersecurity marketing for most firms is that it’s fear-based. And that really bothers me. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t identify the fears that we all have around cybersecurity and breach, but I don’t like when we exploit the feelings of cybersecurity fear and try to leverage that into selling a product. So what I’ve really liked is seeing people that are just better storytellers, and that’s hard in cybersecurity because most people don’t want to share their experiences about breaches with the public.

So, you know, trying to find effective ways to tell some of those stories can be challenging. But I think the storytelling method has been the most effective. So there’s a couple companies that I think have done a good job of making the data and the stories generic through animation, and through small videos, and using humor in cybersecurity to demonstrate how they fit in as a service offering, you know, to those companies. And I think that has been a pretty powerful piece. And then probably the other piece, there’s a couple people in the credit union space that do a really nice job of this, more around digital transformation. But there’s a group called Best Innovation Group, there’s a group called CU Engage, who I think do a really great job of leveraging LinkedIn to create groups to have meaningful conversations in some cases that are semi-private, that allow people to maybe express their fears about cybersecurity in a forum that they feel is somewhat confidential and be able to tell those stories and find solutions to fix those things. So like these semi-private groups.

Will: That’s really interesting is kind of serving as that forum or kind of facilitator for those conversations for folks in the industry.

Chris: Yeah. And so we’re trying. So we’ve tried to emulate that. So some of the examples we’ve seen are more based on member experience in web content and things like that. So people, again, are a little bit more open to share, whereas with cybersecurity, we continue to be, rightfully, you know, a little hesitant to share, “Hey, I’m a financial institution, and I just had this breach.” But, you know, how can we give people a venue to at least share their fears and understand different ways to solve those problems? So we’re balancing that. We have a LinkedIn group right now that we’re trying to get people to open up a little bit. So far, people haven’t been all that willing to share. So we’re looking at some different methods for that.

Will: Yeah, that’s very interesting. A couple minutes we have left. Technology in marketing, what tools do you guys use, what could you not live without, and maybe what’s overhyped too? Wow, that was a three-part question.

Chris: Yeah. No, that works. So we’re a Salesforce shop for our CRM. We use MailChimp to do, you know, a lot of email stuff that we blast out. We had dabbled with HubSpot for a while. I think it was a powerful tool. Frankly, we weren’t ready with any of our marketing infrastructure to leverage that. I think someday, if we got a little more serious about our web marketing, that would be a really useful tool. But, today, we don’t have the resources to do that.

Will: Very important to recognize that, by the way. A lot of people, you know, keep investing in it, and then they blame the software when really maybe it’s not the software, it’s just you’re not ready. So, yeah.

Chris: I think the overhyped one, and I’m sure this is different for different industries, I’m sure there are industries where it’s relevant, but the chatbot thing, frankly, it’s getting annoying. And so we tried it out for about six months, and I think people are pretty familiar with the types of responses that you can create, and I love the people who sell it, and they call it, “AI and machine learning.” I mean, you’re just creating an if this then that, you know, scenario-based conversation. And it’s just not all that meaningful. So, to me, if you’re going to have chat then let’s put a person there, you know, I…so, again, at least for our industry, that’s a little more service-driven, a little more high touch, you know. I think maybe if you’re selling a product that could be a useful tool. But, for us, we tried it for a while, and it really didn’t work at all.

Will: Interesting. Cool. Well, I always like to ask people as a closing question, just kind of a perspective thing, which is, you know, what would the Chris of today give as advice to an early career Chris? You know, what’s the one thing you would say, “If I got in that DeLorean and hit 88 miles an hour and went back in time, I would tell Chris, this thing?”

Chris: I have a long list of those things. But what I’ll say is probably the importance of culture, you know. And I think this is very true at least in the startup stage, which is most startup entrepreneurs are focused on the product or the service that they’re delivering, and they assume that the culture will come along with them. And the reality is that’s not true. Culture takes a tremendous amount of work and intention. And if you can do that, and you can do it early on, it’s something that can scale with you. It’s way more difficult to do that as you’re, you know, in the middle of growth and you’re in the middle of serving your clients. It becomes very difficult to, you know, slam on the brakes, hit pause, redesign that and try to implement it. So being intentional about that from the moment you start I think is something that I wish I would have done earlier on.

Will: Very good advice. Well, Chris, thanks for joining us today, really great to talk.

Chris: Yeah. Thanks for having me.