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Compassion and Community as a Strong Brand Foundation with Suzanne Lerner - Honest Ecommerce Ep. 140

Suzanne Lerner, co-founder and CEO of contemporary fashion and lifestyle brand Michael Stars, is an activist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. 

Under Suzanne’s leadership, Los Angeles-based Michael Stars, the company that she co-founded with her late husband Michael Cohen, has evolved into a collection of beautifully designed fashion essentials. 

One of the first socially responsible apparel brands, Michael Stars has always ensured fair wages and was an early innovator in local sourcing and manufacturing. 

The company also recently received the Southern California Apparel Social Responsibility Award from the Los Angeles Business Journal. 

Suzanne’s activism and philanthropy focuses on funding grassroots and community organizations that are building critical pathways to gender and racial equity. 

She invests in communities both domestically and internationally through personal grants, impact investments, and the Michael Stars Foundation, which she and Michael established nearly 20 years ago. 

She is a frequent contributor and speaker on running socially-responsible businesses, women entrepreneurs, and encouraging the next generation of leaders. 

She serves as the vice-chair of the Fund for Women’s Equality (ERA Coalition) and as a board member of the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Foundation Board of the ACLU of Southern California. 

She is an advisory board member of Prosperity Catalyst and Children Mending Hearts and a member of Women Donors Network (WDN), Women Moving Millions, and the Women at Sundance Initiative. 

An avid supporter of documentary film, Suzanne was an associate producer of "The Fight," winner of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. 

She received the “Woman of Vision” Award from the Ms. Foundation for Women and was recognized as one of “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews and as “2020’s 25 Most Influential Angelenos,” by Angeleno Magazine. 

She resides in Manhattan Beach, California, New York City, and Mykonos, Greece with her #feministpup @ms_simba 

For more information visit suzannelerner.com 

In This Conversation We Discuss: 

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [01:16] Starting in the 80s vs starting today
  • [04:03] The retail landscape over the years
  • [08:15] The images reflect the brand
  • [09:54] The importance of deadlines
  • [10:17] Rebranding can lead to wins
  • [10:43] KPIs that are important
  • [11:21] Don’t compare conversion rates
  • [12:48] Why Suzanne made her choices
  • [16:15] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
  • [16:35] Sponsor: Mesa getmesa.com/honest
  • [17:29] Sponsor: Rewind rewind.io/honest
  • [18:04] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.grsm.io/honest
  • [19:33] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [20:59] Suzanne’s activism and philanthropy
  • [28:00] Compassion in difficult times
  • [29:43] Suzanne’s advice for people starting out
  • [31:19] You’ll gain more than you lost, whatever happens
  • [31:55] Where to find Suzanne

Resources:

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 Transcript:

Suzanne Lerner  

If you find yourself at a roadblock, there's going to be a way around it. Try to think from a consumer’s point of view.

Chase Clymer  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

Let's get on with the show.

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. 

And today, I'm welcoming to the show, a guest I'm super excited to have here. We already got started talking and we had to stop ourselves because we were just having so much fun. 

Welcoming to the show, Suzanne Lerner. She is the co-founder and CEO of Michael Stars. This brand has been going on since before I was born. 

She's seen this thing go through 3 decades and she's got an amazing story. Welcome to the show. How are you doing today?

Suzanne Lerner  

I am so fine, Chase. Thanks for having me. Really excited to be on and have a conversation.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So I guess let's just go back to the beginning to the founding of the brand. 

I think honestly, just starting a brand back in the 80s is probably just a world of difference than what it's like today. So can you tell us about the inception and how kind of things "got started".

Suzanne Lerner  

I actually think things could have been a lot easier in those days. I had an independent showroom. 

Started my career traveling around the world and ended up getting involved with an Indian woman in New Delhi and started a little clothing company. Moved to LA and within a year and a half, I was out of business.

So I just had already found myself in the fashion industry. So I got a lot of different jobs. I learned a lot from every job I was in and in 1983 opened up a wholesale sales repping showroom. 

And in 1986, I had this little showroom and this very cute guy walked in the door with a South African accent. And he had these screen printed t-shirts. And he said it was called Michael Stars. 

And within 4 days we were on our first date. Within 10 days after, I was repping his line and I was very involved in the merchandising. And that's how we started. 

There were just unisex blanks, which I know everybody's starting out in the business now there's so many direct-to-consumer sites that have that. And that's how we started out. And they just took off. It was insane. 

Buyers just walked by my little showroom and we just flew. And within a couple of years things got tough. 

So we started doing garment dyed t-shirts that did not have screen prints on them. And that's how we started and we  created the one size t-shirt for women.

Chase Clymer  

That's amazing. It's just that life is serendipitous. And the people that you meet along the way can really make a large impact on your life. 

I believe the guy you met in your showroom made a larger impact on yours, right? 

Suzanne Lerner  

Yeah. Michael Cohen. We were married, he passed away 6 years ago. But we were married for over 30 years. And we lived and breathed the company. Basically we talked about it if we were not into 3 ways. 

But that was like the 3rd person in our bed every night that we talked about it and wherever we went. We used to do screen prints. 

We had a second home in Mykonos, Greece and we used to sit there and be on the beach looking at screen prints. 

I would always have whatever dining room table/house I was in. It was covered with colors with color cards, because we were also known for our broad range of colors.

At one point we did 32 colors, which is crazy now. We do 18 [colors] now, but it was our passion. And I think that's what drives your business then it's entrepreneurs. That's what you are.

Chase Clymer  

That's an amazing story. So I guess what, what like stands out to you through the years of how the landscape changed with having a retail fashion brand and the rise of Ecommerce.

Suzanne Lerner  

Yeah, we were early adopters. I think we're still trying to figure it out. I think we were... It was the early 2000s, maybe 2001 or 2002. We started an Ecommerce site. 

So we had a little... It was a little business. Our big business was wholesale for many, many years. And then we start seeing the landscape changing. 

We weren't quick enough to get on new systems. We didn't... Shopify didn't exist. We went to Magento

We tried all different types of Ecommerce sites. And then we ended up Shopify about 4 years ago, but at that time, the landscape had changed. People going out of business, the specialty stores really couldn't afford the rent, the big department stores basically have you sold your soul. 

So we really cared about our specialty stores and they cared about our consumers. So over the years, we had 12 retail stores ourselves that we ran. 

But we began to see how the importance of Ecom and influencer marketing was starting to happen. And not just Facebook, but we just started seeing the opening rounds of Instagram and sites like that. So we decided to put more energy into Ecom. We made it a mission. 

We got on Shopify a little over 3 years ago, which was a big process. And we got a new digital marketing company that reflected more of the consumer base that we had. 

We had a great one before, but it just didn't target our consumer as well as it could have. And we decided to invest in it. 

So I was my own VC, I invested some of my savings. I didn't want partners. I didn't want a bank. I didn't want anybody telling me what I wanted to do. 

So we grouped together as a team at Michael Stars and we've been doing it together. Business has been steadily increasing. So along with that is inventory levels, how do we buy, what do we end up with in the end... 

But continuing to keep our wholesale business alive. And last year, when the pandemic hit, it obviously changed the whole landscape. And I stayed home instead of traveling. And we started making masks 1 week into the lockdown. 

And our business in April just blew up because we had masks which we gave away half and then the other half we sold on our site. And we had a lot of work from home clothes, a lot of loungewear at the time. So we were perfectly positioned at that moment. 

We were always casual but the customers just loved our products. So our business increased-- in 2020-- 95% online. So it was a huge jump. 

So I invested in more marketing, more digital marketing. And our business was planned at a 35% increase this year, we are running year to date at 60%. But it's a combination. 

It's the influencers. It's the authentic influencers who love our product that want to talk about us. I think it's what we've done for social impact and our philanthropy and activism, informing people of what's going on in the world and getting them to sign on to it. 

And then we have an amazing art director that started with us 3 years ago. So we retooled the site. Our images are... Our models are intersectional, our imagery looks really fantastic. 

We included social media on our Ecommerce site. So all in all, it just exponentially improved. And customers found us.

Chase Clymer  

That's amazing. You shared so much and there's 3 things that stand out to me, and I'll try to remember them in order. 

So the first one that you brought up was Shopify didn't exist and then 4 years ago, you made the transition and it was a larger project than you necessarily anticipated.

Can you share a little bit more about that? I want to show the audiences [that] when you get to a certain size, the switching costs are more than just like the cost per month of the server.

Suzanne Lerner  

Yeah, it's not just the server. It's Shopify itself. It was thinking about how we're going to rebrand it. It was all the work entailed to retool it completely and reskin it. 

We wanted a different look completely, we wanted it to be easier to shop, we wanted our imagery to be better. And it all came hand in hand. And we couldn't use our old imagery because it didn't reflect our brand and it impacted sales. 

So the nicer something looks online, the better. I still look through it. And all of a sudden I catch an image that I don't love that ended up on the site. And I just quickly call people and say, "You know what, let's switch out the image." 

So we do our best to really make sure the image reflects the brand. And that's a hard thing to do. 

You've got to find the right photographer who can do it. You got to decide if you're gonna do flat shots of the product or you're going to do it with a model. 

We still do a lookbook 5 times a year, which is a heavy expense, but we love the way it looks on our site. We want our landing pages to look good. 

We want to really reflect who we are and the women that we sell to. So yeah, it took a lot of work. And it's a lot of strategy and planning and you better be there for the meetings. 

And when they tell you to be on the calendar, you have to make a decision by a certain time. Sometimes that's hard to do, because you don't know what to do. 

But you've got to go with your gut. A lot of it is just going with your beliefs. Really think as your customer does. 

You can do all the data in the world and statistics and look at a Listrak and "Oh, this is the age of our customers." But you've really got to know in your heart who it is.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. The one thing is... When we're doing big projects, big redesigns like that we... 

From the get go, we go like, "Honestly, a delay by one day on your end is probably a delay of 2 days on our end." It's like that's why those deadlines are so important. Just because... 

We all want to get it done because you're putting so much effort into the thing. You want to see it at work. 

Suzanne Lerner  

Mm-hmm.

Chase Clymer  

And then, what we find is... Honestly, rebranding or redesigning a website and having it done by a UX team that knows Ecommerce to the results that are fantastic, just doing that really, honestly, helps people get amazing wins. 

You were talking earlier, before we got on about how your conversion rate is something that you, not necessarily to brag about. But you guys think you're in good shape there.

Suzanne Lerner  

I said to my director of Ecom... I said what is a good conversion rate? There's a lot of companies that sell for 1. And we've been running for the last 18 months over 3 on average. So we're really getting a response. 

Chase Clymer  

That's a loaded question. 

Suzanne Lerner  

And that's incredible. We're excited every AOV has gone up. The number of people that check out our site. Yeah, it's super exciting.

Chase Clymer  

Those are the 3 numbers that our agency cares about: Sessions, average order value, and conversion rate. 

That's what we tie every project back to is those 3 numbers, it's like, are we gonna impact those things? Those are North Stars on all the projects. 

But yeah, going back to your question. What is a good conversion rate? Honestly, it's very specific to the brand itself. It's like, "How expensive is your product?" 

If you had a luxury product, you're gonna have a lower conversion rate. You got a few products versus a marketplace type setting, your conversion rates are gonna be lower but your traffic might be higher. There's all sorts of things. 

So asking what is a good conversion rate is the wrong question. And it's like, often people try to compare their conversion rate to their store and they're niche to someone else. 

It's not a good activity. They’re so much different and it's just not worth it.

Suzanne Lerner  

Yeah. I guess compared to those fluffy dog beds that are flying out every single purchase. I have 3.

It's very different than buying a white t-shirt or buying a gauze dress. So perhaps it's the contemporary fashion market that runs that 3 is really great at.

Chase Clymer  

I think, yeah, fashion, definitely... Well also think about a little bit more industry of  impulse buy versus something that you're going to put some research into. 

And often that does translate over to price points as well. But there's just so many factors that go into it. 

So I guess [for] anyone that's listening, and they're getting caught up and  concerned like "My conversion rate isn't as good as my competitor." It's just that's not the activity to worry about. 

It's like, "Okay, just worry about yourself, how can you make yours better?" Okay, so the second thing that I wanted to ask you about... 

And again, we had a great conversation before this (laughs) --before we got on this podcast. You mentioned that you reinvested back into the business yourself. You didn't take on any partners. And you also had a bold stance earlier that I 100% agree on. 

You don't need to sell your company. That doesn't have to be your end goal. So let's talk about just the business side of things and why you've made some of the choices you've made.

Suzanne Lerner  

I've just had an innate feeling about fashion and business. I worked as a secretary when I was in high school.

I worked for a lot of companies' temps and then had those years of working in the apparel industry. So I just had a real feeling about what I felt I wanted to do. 

But really, every day, I just go forward with new ideas. I wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning and I just go forward. Sometimes I make the wrong decision. But I'm making a decision. 

So I just go for it every day, putting one step in front of another and try to factor in my team as much as possible because they have better ideas than me, especially for the younger people out there. I am learning so much. 

I'm learning all about this drop business of special items being on drops. And we have an exciting, exciting new initiative that we're working on now which depending on when you're putting this out to the public, I can probably talk about it now. 

But we started with these screen printed t-shirts in the mid 80s. And I just went back to find them. 

And I'm seeing now a lot of things in the 80s happening, obviously people loving screen printed t-shirts. And we decided to go back and do it as a drop, just direct-to-consumer. 

And we have an old food truck, we've converted to a tee boutique. And it's going to be traveling all around Southern California along with partners like coffee shops and farmers markets and boutiques that we sell to. 

And it's really... I'm going to be happy if it takes off. But if it doesn't, I'm looking at it as a brand opportunity for people to rediscover the brand. You know, we do business with the box people. 

So we do a lot of business which is Stitch Fix, which is a really great business. We built it over the years. So some of you who have that capability. They're great people to work with. They've been wonderful partners. 

And what I realized was it was branding. Not only being able to make money on a wholesale level, but the amount of customers that are  rediscovering this brand.

We're almost 35 years old, how do we get people to understand where we're "with it", we're "on trend", that our quality lasts forever, that we're really sustainable, that we care about the issues they care about.

It's through those types of boxes that they'll get on our website and read about what we're doing. 

And it's funny because some of our customers are like, "Oh my god, Michael Stars! I love that brand! They're still in my closet. My daughter went off to college and raided my closet and took half a dozen of my t-shirts." 

So I said, that's the true --for me-- definition of sustainability. Because fashion ends up in landfill and fast fashion especially. 

So trying to impart that concept of that you might pay a little bit more, but you've got your t-shirts for 20 years.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, that's something that I always struggle with. Finding the perfect men's blank is probably a struggle that most male listeners are probably experiencing right now. I'm a simple guy. I just want black t-shirts, but heck, I have yet to find one that'll last. There's a lot of competition out there. 

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Chase Clymer  

And then the final thing that you said during that long discussion was about the philanthropy and we touched on a little bit here, but I really want to highlight it now. 

So you guys have done an amazing thing over there. The floor is yours. Let's talk about it now.

Suzanne Lerner  

Oh, we started a long time ago. I was always a political activist in high school. I did reverse busing back to an intersectional black high school and spent almost 5 years traveling around the world. 

So I met so many different people. I learned about so many different cultures and realize that we're all the same. It's just where we're born.

And so when I came back, Michael and I talked about it. This is actually well after I came back. 

But we talked about what we wanted to do to make a difference. So we thought about our customer base, which was women and young women. And so we wanted to reflect that [on our brand]. 

So we started funding, Women Thrive, which was an organization that I was sitting on the board of that helped train women and advocacy around the world in the global south. 

We started working with Step Up, which was a mentoring organization. 

We worked with Joyful Heart, Mariska Hargitay’s organization about survivors of sexual trauma. 

So we wanted to really relate it to our customers. And so we did that. We used to see things in the newspaper. I'd clip them out, and we'd write a check. 

And then we decided, we really thought we'd want a foundation. So our foundation is over 15 years old and the goal was to reach these women, and to help people understand it. 

We were doing it privately. When a crisis would happen, if there was an earthquake or whatever, we would get involved. 

Personally, I was involved. I was going to Haiti for 11 years and, and traveling around places to hopefully make a difference, traveling internationally. But the company, people didn't know. 

So when social media really started taking off, we started thinking, "What can we do?" I have to say, a couple years back when there were problems with reproductive choice in Georgia. 

I always really tried to be very nonpartisan, because I believe that I really believe in bipartisanship. 

But I woke up again the middle of the night and thought "I can't do this anymore." Myself as a person really cares about issues and cares about racial and gender equity. And then I couldn't keep silent on Michael Stars anymore. 

So we started posting and started talking more about the issues. And the response was unbelievable. And I began to realize that my people were out there, but they didn't know what we were doing. 

And we did have a few detractors. But what's interesting was our own consumer base and community wrote back to those people. 

So there were exchanges on Instagram that we didn't even get involved in. It was people supporting our vision that were our consumers. 

So I'm sure we lost some customers. But in the end, it's what I felt like was the right thing to do, trying to build this community who are empathetic and compassionate, but might not know where to go, might not understand that there is even an issue, like childcare. 

A lot of our customers know it, but some of them really don't and what the world's going through. 

So I wanted to bring those issues to a head and also talk to them about these small grassroots organizations that are so important, because I do believe the change happens from the ground up. 

And a lot of these are so small people haven't heard about them, and want to give them an opportunity to  shine and get to know them. 

So last December 2019, I sat on the board of the ERA coalition, which is trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed in this country. So if anybody doesn't know, no we are not in the constitution and they're not equal rights. 

Gloria Steinem and I talked and said "Let's do something to support women of color, building voter registration." 

So there were 3 organizations we chose and we shot a video the day before. I was rushed out of New York. Lockdown was a week later. 

We shot a video and we ended up in July promoting it with a t-shirt with Gloria's Icon image. and by then I was making masks with this really cute Gloria and Vote imagery on it. And we got millions of hits and viewers from it. 

So those 3 organizations got known more, people understood what we stood for, and I think it helped make a difference in our business. 

And every angle you come to from the business, you have to have the right product, you have to have the right imagery and you have to stand for something. 

You have to have a mission and a belief system that shines through the product, because that's what people care about buying. 

I did have somebody who said to me, "I never knew. If I had known that you were this involved with gender equality and helping women, I would have bought more of your t-shirts." 

So it really does, the company does reflect you. And that's how I think people have to think about it every day.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, I mean, I think it's something that... I bet people also want to tow the line, they want to stay in-line, I guess, is what I wanna say. 

A very famous example of this would be Michael Jordan, back in the 90s and the famous quote, like "Republicans buy shoes, too." because he wouldn't come out and support or against. And that was his choice.

He didn't believe himself to be an activist and that's the way that he wanted to do it. 

But with you, your choice was, "I'm going all in on this." And it actually gave a deeper connection to your community and you came out ahead with it. 

You guys are doing fantastic things and the relationship that you have with your customers is now better because of the choices that you make. 

So that's what I want to highlight here is just be your authentic self.

Suzanne Lerner  

Totally true. And I want to say it's not just your community online, it's your team in the office. We have 106 people. We're 84% women. We're completely intersectional. 

And they care as much as me. And we just hired a new priority on board, a Senior Vice President and these people come on board because of who I am, what the company represents, and they don't want to work for big corporations anymore. 

They want to work for companies that will make a difference. So it's even within your hiring once you get big enough to start bringing people on board, you're going to be hiring the people there have as much passion as you; Not just your product, but how you think. 

It helps form that community within your office every single day.

Chase Clymer  

Oh, yeah. The company culture. Everyone that works at our agency, different walks of life and all that stuff.

Our belief systems are pretty uncommon and what we all are passionate about, and the type of work we want to produce, the type of businesses that we want to work with, and just what we want to work on and put out into the world, everyone's aligned. 

And I think that's the only way to really build a long term business is just making sure that... It's not necessarily the sense of a family. 

I think that gets taken a little bit overboard at times, because there's a lot of stuff I've seen out there, people taking advantage of you because they "Oh, we're a family."

But it's more like being aligned with your incentives and what you guys want to do together. It makes it just so much fun. More fun. It's literally more fun to work with people that you agree with.

Suzanne Lerner  

Values aligned. Funny story, my husband loved the people that work for us. And we've got too many employees and business got tough.

I think it was maybe 2009. And we had to lay-off a lot of people. It was the most difficult thing because we were so inflated with people because we didn't ever want to fire anybody. 

Nobody ever wanted to leave. And we loved everybody. We literally did. We still have people who have been working for us for like 25 years. So it was the hardest thing ever. 

And every time we have to go... In a period of a company, we probably had 3 big layoffs over 30 years. It happens. Your business shifts. 

You can have great business and then things get tough but you have to survive it. The people that we had put on furlough... It was so hard. 

And they were sympathetic to me, because they knew how tough it was for me to make this decision. It was so unbelievable that they were compassionate towards me and I was having to fire them and let them go. Not fire but just to let them go. 

So it's just it really is who you are every single day. And sometimes you're grumpy like I was yesterday to some people. 

And I've sent an apology because I recognize in myself who I am. Because you have so much drive and passion that sometimes if you don't see something the way you want it, you could lose it. 

Because it's like you need something and it's just not the right way to behave. It isn't like a scream and yell but frustration. Frustration comes through. 

So you have to really, really dig down and see yourself and understand the issues you have personally that they're going to reflect on your company.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now before we go, is there anything that you want to share with our listeners that are thinking about getting started or they've just gotten started with their journey into building a brand or getting into Ecommerce.

Suzanne Lerner  

First of all, get your plan. You really need almost a 3-year plan to think about how you're going to run your business. What if you succeed? 

And then figure out the items you're going to have, believe in them, test them on friends. But you better have the next item down the road. Because it's a continuation of products.

So to be long lasting, that's a really key item that I think you should think about. And I think you could do it yourself. It's just how hard you work. And it is really living and breathing.

No, there's no vacations. There's no, "I think I'm going to go off to a coffee shop for 2 hours." You're really tethered to your business, but it should bring you joy. 

And that's what I want to talk about in the end is being joyful, being happy, being able to have a company that has that in their DNA. It just makes it better for everybody. I

It makes your life better and everybody around you and people pick that pick up. 

So I would say good luck on your journey and just keep sticking with it. If you find yourself at a roadblock, there's going to be a way around it. 

Just try to think from a consumer’s point of view.  

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. That's amazing. It definitely is. Just find something... I think entrepreneurship is whatever excites you and makes you happy. 

Just double down on it and you'll find a way to make it profitable.

Suzanne Lerner  

I agree. And I have to say even if in the end it doesn't work, you've gained more than you've lost from the whole thing. I have been fired from jobs. I have had products and companies have gone out of business. And very luckily I've had those experiences. 

It just helped Michael Stars survive, because that was my background. So having other jobs, having a second job, networking, constantly connecting with people... 

I go on LinkedIn and if I find there's somebody interesting, I link in. 

I learned so much from other people. So keep yourself open to new opportunities and new relationships.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming on today, Suzanne. If anyone is curious about the products go to michaelstars.com. Click on the about page to learn all about the philanthropy that we were talking about before. Any parting words before we go?

Suzanne Lerner  

I don't think so. (laughs) Chase, have a great day. Thank you so much. 

Chase Clymer  

Have a good day, everybody. (laughs) 

Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. 

We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes. 

Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have. Make sure you subscribe, leave a review. 

And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.