Nona Lim is the founder and CEO of Nona Lim, a manufacturer of direct-to-consumer fresh Asian foods, such as bone broth, soups, and noodles.
While running one of the first meal prep delivery services in the US, she became interested in the philosophy of “food as medicine.”
After a couple of strategic pivots, Nona ended up with her current eCommerce model. There are several unique and interesting challenges associated with running a fresh food-based business online.
Nona shares her personal journey, as well as some of the strategies she is using for customer acquisition, and the importance of being agile, and adapting to change.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- [1:45] Using Shopify and eCommerce for a food-based business.
- [6:18] How innovating outside the box adds complications
- [8:07] Creating products for the lowest common denominator
- [11:55] Shipping food as an eCommerce business
- [14:20] Having a retail presence to boost your online business
- [15:32] Customer acquisition strategies
- [24:30] Being agile and being willing to make mistakes
- Learn more at https://www.nonalim.com/
- Instagram: instagram.com/nonalimfoods
- Twitter: twitter.com/nonalimfoods
- Start a Simplr free trial: simplr.ai/honest
- Are you a maker, crafter, or small manufacturer on Shopify? Get easier production scheduling & inventory management with Katana. You can try it free for 14 days. By using the promo code “HONEST” you'll get 30% off your first 3 months of paid subscription! Sign up at Katana’s website here: www.katanamrp.com.
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And that's the thing. Things evolve so quickly that something that might be fit for the purpose two years ago, is totally outdated and lacking in best practices today.
Welcome to Honest Ecommerce where we are dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners.
I'm your host, Chase Clymer
And I'm your host, Annette Grant.
And we believe running an online business does not have to be complicated or a guessing game.
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In today's episode of Honest Ecommerce, we welcome Nona Lim, founder, and CEO of Nona Lim, a manufacturer of direct-to-consumer fresh Asian comfort foods like bone broths, soups, and noodles based in Oakland, California.
All right everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Honest eCommerce. I am your host, Chase Clymer. Joining me, is Annette Grant across the table.
And then across the country, we are joined by Nona Lim, the CEO, and founder of Nona Lim. They manufacture fresh, Asian comfort foods like bone broth, soups, and noodles.
They're over there in Oakland, California. It's got a really unique business model and they're actually using Shopify to succeed with this. It's awesome. Welcome to the show, Nona.
Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited.
Awesome. Yeah. I mean, it's always fun to see how businesses are using Ecommerce in a more traditional business model, especially with food.
So, I guess, just give us a little bit of background of how you started the business and what inspired you.
Sure. So my background is that I grew up in Singapore. I actually spent a number of years working in London, in management consulting and software consulting during the dot-com boom. So that's quite some time ago before moving to the US.
When I first moved to the US, I was actually a competitive fencer and decided to start a business on the side.
It looked very different from the current iteration today. In fact, the first business I started was the very first meal kit delivery business in the US before the current incumbents. That was back in 2006. And we pivoted a couple of times before we got to the business today.
But you know, back in '06, life was very different then. I think that was before Shopify existed.
That was before social media existed and everything had to be custom developed. Now I can talk a little bit more about that too.
I want to go back. Two things that you said. Number one, you are a professional fencer. Is that correct?
Yeah... I would say, a competitive fencer. (laughs)
Ah. Okay. (laughs)
I wasn't getting paid for it.
(laughs) Right. Maybe there aren't very many fencers that get paid. And then so you were the first online meal delivery?
That is correct. I think we created that category way back in 2006 because nobody else did it then. And that was a little bit too ahead of my time.
So were you shipping across the country at that time or just delivering door to door, but they would order online?
So actually, I first started with just the Bay Area. So it was really an experiment on the side. So I built a very simple website with no real database.
So I created the whole concept and made a subscription based on all those different meal kits. It was just in the Bay Area.
And also we were creating things that were gluten-free, dairy-free, sustainable, organic, grass-fed beef.
And then we created a first food-based detox program as well --in about '08 or '09-- and that was national.
Pioneering lots of things then. So the first sites, too. Were you building them or were you having developers help you with that?
Oh, I had to hire developers to help me build that. And even then, it was really challenging because what was available in the marketplace then, did not have the concept of a meal kit subscription.
Usually, when they had a subscription, it was buying exactly the same product on a cadence. Whereas this was more like, subscribe to a meal plan, but you could change up what is in your meal plan.
The concept of our detox program was literally like a one week, two-week or three-week program, where you could have a vegetarian option or non-vegetarian option. And there were two deliveries a week.
So a lot of these were just very custom, there was nothing really that you could just buy off the shelves. And so that made it expensive. At the same time, I didn't go out and raise... Well, I made a lot of mistakes.
I think along the way, one of the mistakes was that when you're launching something as innovative as that, you really need to go raise millions and millions of dollars so you can really build the backend of fulfillment and have enough money for customer acquisition.
By that time, I was really doing it. Just testing out for the concepts and ideas. So, I was a bootstrapping it so that didn't give me a lot of resources to work with.
Gotcha. I want to talk about how... Subscription is hard to do and you kind of hit the nail on the head there. That you...
Even with today's modern subscription software, when you are doing something that is just a little bit outside of the box, computers don't understand that just a little bit. They only do exactly what you tell them to do.
And so when you start adding variants and options and making your subscription different than what it's built to do, even though it seems like a little bit of change... Computers are dumb.
You really got to think about what your subscription is going to be. When you're selling the same thing over and over, that's super easy to set up and do.
But once you start talking about mixing and matching and start to add in like "Oh, they get the box and then they choose what they want." Oh, man. You're opening up a giant can of worms.
So it's just something to consider when thinking about a subscription model. The further and further away you get from the same thing every month, the more difficult it gets.
Absolutely. There are just complications on the frontend with technology and then the complications on the backend with fulfillment. Right?
Whether you have your own in-house fulfillment team, doing the pick and pack or whether you outsource to a third party fulfillment center, the more exceptions to the rule create a lot more opportunities for mistakes as well on the backend.
Absolutely. So let's go back in time though. So you started the business originally, was it called Nona Lim back then?
No. It was called Cook! SF. So it was a totally different name because the whole concept was about the fact that you can cook. So (for) Cooksf.com, we had a meal kit delivery. You would get your meals once a week.
It had lots of amazing choices like wild Alaskan salmon with a miso dressing and gluten-free soba noodles and some bok choy. So it's very, pretty high-end.
Another thing that I learned, which is you really have to go for the lowest common denominator.
I was creating meals towards things that I wanted to eat, things that you would get in the restaurant in the Bay Area. But that's not necessarily mainstream. But that's what we did.
And then the detox program was based on the elimination diet, so you took up all of the common food allergens. And then what happened was that the soups that we had --soups and broths-- was less on the detox program.
And we had customers who lost a lot of weight during the detox program. Their cholesterol dropped, triglycerides fell, they were... Literally, some of them went off medication. So it was really impactful but very niche.
They will say to me, "You know, I love the program but I don't want to be detoxing forever." Which makes total sense to me. Neither do I. And so they said, "What are products that they could easily buy in stores?"
And the soups (and) the snacks on the programs, those were the ones that we packaged. And that's how we launched into retail back in about 2012. And that's how we got started.
And by 2014, by then, I quit fencing. I've decided that. I almost made the London Olympics in 2012. We missed about one point. I got pretty upset.
Quit fencing to focus on the business. And in 2014, we shut down all of the online meal delivery programs and focused on retail. And then the Nona Lim brand was born in 2014.
So I've got a question there. You said that you are splitting your time between the competitive fencing and the business.
So do you feel like once you went all-in on the business, did you see a significant increase in productivity?
Oh, absolutely. (laughs) Absolutely. Yes. My mama was... She had this metaphor that a knife cannot be sharp on both ends. You have to pick one or the other.
For years, I thought I could do it. But suddenly, when I gave up fencing to focus exclusively on the business, I definitely saw a lot more momentum in the last four or five years.
Yeah, I think that it took me, myself a long time. At one point, I had like five odd jobs and it was like, "Cool. I don't have a real job."
But yeah. I definitely appreciate the focus these days. And I tell everyone else, "Just do what you're really good at. And then you'll see results with that."
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Now you talked about how you went from this meal kit delivery service and then you pivoted and now you've got Nona Lim as it is today. You're producing these broths and you're shipping them.
How do you do that as an Ecommerce business? That sounds like something a restaurant does like? How'd you do it? You're being very innovative, so walk us through that.
When we went into retail, we actually turned off the resources around Ecommerce for a few years because of all the challenges associated with it. It is a fresh product.
So you have to ship it (with) temp control, which is very difficult to ship across the country. And it is broth. It is a lot of liquid and they are heavy.
So you add the ice packs for that, add temp control boxes, add your products, shipping becomes really really expensive. So for...
I would say that since we launched the brand Nona Lim, for about three to four years, we were focused really in a brick and mortar, in-store strategy. So we're really going after the retail channel.
And a lot of that has to do with us finding a fulfillment partner that actually has five warehouses across the country that's temp controlled and could ship by ground across the country in two days or less.
Now, that meant that we didn't have to pay the exorbitant shipping fees and still be able to get the products to our customers in a timely fashion and in good condition.
So I think that was really the most important thing which is to sort out the backend.
Once we were able to get that going --and we use Shopify for that-- we integrated our Shopify directly with their system.
So the orders will go through automatically and it wasn't a manual process which meant that it could be very scalable.
Because otherwise, there is no way we could offer free shipping on Amazon and get products to our customers across the country in a cost-effective way.
And with that as well, we actually were able to integrate Amazon with Shopify, which was then already integrated with our fulfillment partner so that everything would flow seamlessly through.
Impressive. Very impressive. Question. Do you think that being in all the retail locations prior to launching online has helped your success because people have familiarity with your brand?
I think, for me specifically, yes, but I don't think it's necessary. We just did an online survey of our customers and over 80% of them first saw us in a store, and then they were interested to find out more about us, and that's what happened.
So yes, it definitely helped us a lot. But I think you have a lot of other examples like Bulletproof or Soylent or a lot of other DTC brands who were able to start purely with eCommerce and online before they migrated into retail.
So I think a lot of it depends on the products that you have, what the fulfillment of that looks like, and then the customer acquisition strategy and where you're willing to put your resources.
Yeah, let's talk about that a bit. So now that you are... You brought eCom into what was essentially a wholesale business, originally --not to belittle it-- but once you brought in that direct-to-consumer component with Ecommerce, how did that change your marketing? What did you guys do? How did you go out and acquire these new customers?
I think suddenly, we're looking at the integrated channel strategy. We do have the retail (side) and the retail (side of the company) is driving a lot of online sales.
But at the same time, to try to get --I was trying to build a funnel of customers coming to us-- I think Amazon is a strategy that we're looking at, for acquisition because the purchase intention is really high on Amazon.
That's one way of getting customers.
And then hopefully, being able to migrate them from Amazon to our website through either a pricing strategy or product selection strategy.
It allows you to build an emotional connection with your customers. It's something that doesn't exist back in 2006.
And so I think that Instagram is such a key channel for all food brands to really build that connection and relationship with consumers. And that's what we're really focusing on.
I think a lot of people do advertise on Facebook. I'm not sure if we're seeing as much ROI on it. It's something that we're testing and looking at.
Absolutely. Especially now. Facebook's changing extremely right now. So we're recording this, 2nd day of May and I just saw yesterday... I caught an article where Zuck is changing everything up it's going more private. So less public and I think groups are going to be a big thing now.
That's going to impact advertising a lot and make my job terrible for a few weeks. So I'm excited to see what happens there. Obviously, I need to learn it.
But yeah, Facebook is a completely different beast than Instagram. And just Facebook and Instagram in general compared to Google --with your search engine marketing is what you're talking about earlier-- it's such a visual medium.
So, I'm on your Instagram right now. You've got like all these sexy photos of food. I'm super hungry. I forgot to pack lunch. So this isn't helping me.
But yeah, you are right. Instagram and this taking pictures of your food wasn't a thing, ever. And then Instagram came along and just like completely flipped the script.
And do you have a team that helps you with your social media?
Yeah, absolutely. So we do have a... We have marketing (team to) help us with that. And not a very big team, a couple of people.
And then we have someone that helps us as well --a freelancer-- on social media who manages a few different brands, who use paper and calls so (he/she) has quite a lot of experience with that.
But certainly, I think that social media is huge for us. Also, we're looking at improving email marketing as well.
Again, a decade ago, the tools a lot simpler, but now with the amount of email automation, customer segmentation or the reporting analytics that you could put into it, various workflows, and there's a lot more than you have available these days to work with than you have in the past.
And a lot of these tools are much more affordable because everything is now on a monthly subscription fee versus a one-time implementation fee. So I think that in today's world, it is easier to build a DTC brand than a decade ago,
Yeah. You said something right there, that was actually amazing. So the fact that like, all these things are subscription...
...I've had people come to me with the wrong attitude about that. They'll be like, "Hey, I want to pay once and be done." And, "I don't like expenses every month."
And I'm like, "Yeah, but then it's your responsibility to fix it when it inevitably breaks." Because everything (that's) digital breaks. It doesn't matter how well the code is.
There's updates that come out, things break. We just had something break that worked in a store for years.
And then Shopify updated some stupid script and we're working on it today. You know, these things always break when they're custom-coded.
That's why I recommend using these apps that are built because it's their problem to fix it when things get updated, not yours. Your price stays the same.
Just, it's there... And usually, the barrier's way less to get into that amazing feature or product.
Like for example, email marketing. When people complain about the price of email marketing, I'm like, "Then you're just not sending enough emails. That thing is well worth it. Whatever you're using, it's worth the price for whatever that app is."
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's just amazing. Two decades ago when you have the first dot-com boom, Ecommerce 1.0, it will cost you almost a million dollars to build one of those Ecommerce websites, right?
And then fast forward 10 years later, it still costs you maybe, under $100,000 to build a custom website.
And these days you know, you're talking about thousands of dollars so you can just shop...
You can configure Shopify yourself. It might not look very good, but you can just get it out of the box for next to nothing for a few hundred dollars or you could hire an agency for a lot less than you could 10 years ago.
So I think that it's definitely made it a lot more accessible in today's context and environment.
Yeah, I actually... So, I love Shopify for that. You can get... You can test your idea and you can make a working Ecommerce store.
You can find that product-market fit for almost no money, it's just your time. And you hit the nail on the head. It might not look good, but that's not what you're looking...
You're not looking to have the best-looking website here, you're looking to test your idea, see if people will buy what you're selling. Product-market fit. That's something that agencies...
I don't think any agency out there will ever be like, "We're going to help you with your product-market fit." And if you find one, let me know because they sound like millionaires.
That's the hardest thing to do is to find the product that people actually want. Once that's done, you can start installing these systems and start upgrading to the branding and then start building out a more robust business.
The first thing you got to do, is the product-market fit and that's why Shopify is great. Because you can just create a store in 15 minutes if you follow the right YouTube video.
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Did you launch this brand on Shopify?
I think that... Not quite. Because I think we're migrating through a bunch of different things. I think once we got away from...
Yeah, once we got pulled (the plug) up all of the subscription services, we did launch it on Shopify.
And to let you know how easy it is, we literally had an intern implemented for us. (laughs)
Oh, I like that. (laughs) No, that's great.
I talked about being cheap and scrappy. So I think we have interns manage our Shopify for a few years when it wasn't really a priority.
Before we then hired somebody who was a full-time person to manage it.
We now are working with some Shopify experts to upgrade and update our site a little bit as we are rolling out a new branding so that we update ourselves with the latest, best practices.
Because our Shopify website, honestly, is probably a little bit dated. It's probably about two years old.
And that's the thing. Things evolve so quickly, that something that might be fit for the purpose two years ago is totally outdated and lacking in best practices today.
Correct. (laughs) I will say everything thing that you've talked about thus far is... The message, we all know about it, but you're actually doing it.
Just starting and getting things going, not being perfect in the beginning. And you've been able to pivot and let things go and test things.
And I think that's... For people that maybe don't have a store yet, get started. It's not going to be perfect.
And like you said, "Hey, let's have some interns work on it." Maybe you have a full-time job and there's a project that you want to get started on, you have to start to see what's going to happen with it.
You can't have that paralysis and just put it out there. I love that you had interns working on it in the beginning and it wasn't a priority, because now it shifted to be the main part of your business.
It's better to just do it, make mistakes, learn from it, and change, than to not do it until you think you have to percent solution.
I think by then, things will have changed and you'll never be perfect ever.
Can you give our listeners some advice? Sounds like one of the biggest challenges for you was finding that third-party distributor to help you get your soup to where it needs to go in a timely manner.
What did that process look like? That had to be a challenge to find the right fit there. The right partner.
I think that's probably the biggest challenge. They are still not a lot of options out there for refrigerated fulfillment by third party companies.
I think that there are more and more businesses these days offering third party fulfillment, but they tend to be shelf-stable.
So I think the first question is really understanding what is the product that you want to sell, especially if it is going to be a food product.
Does it have to be temperature controlled? What is the weight? What is the shelf life? I think that will determine whether you really want to go big eCommerce or direct-to-consumer.
I have a friend who has all these wonderful and innovative tea crystals. They are so light. Perfect for DTC. So, some products are built for it, because there isn't that much logistical barrier to get it there.
So you really have to consider that. And if your product is in my category, I would say, be careful about going all-in on DTC because even with what we have today --five fulfillment centers across the country-- it is still not cheap.
You still have to pay for temp control boxes, you have to pay for dry eyes or gel packs, and the products do weigh something.
So it's very different from shipping something that weighs, I don't know, half a pound of versus ours which could be 20 pounds.
Think about that actually, more than Anything else. Of course, you can think about the fun part, the brand-building part.
How are you going to connect with your customers? What is your acquisition strategy? What is your conversion? Those other parts are really important.
And of course, the usual five forces. Who are your competitors, so and so forth. But if you are going to go DTC, I think, actually thinking about fulfillment is probably a good way to start thinking. About the challenge.
Absolutely. So, I think that... I want to go back to what Annette says. There are going to be challenges throughout your businesses. Just get started. That's all I keep thinking about.
Can you give our listeners... What's something this year that's impactful in Ecommerce that you've shifted or made a change and that has impacted your bottom line?
There are a lot of changes that we're making this year? I'm not sure... (laughs) if we are done yet.
(laughs) Not yet? Right.
We are literally going through a brand refresh. And so we'll be updating our website. Our website hasn't been optimized for mobile, which is a big mistake.
And it's different these days, maybe 40 to 50% of consumers are using their mobile phones to shop.
So I think that will be very impactful for us. Really making sure that the website has high performance is important for organic search ranking.
And that's the downside when you hire an internal, in-house person that is a generalist and you don't get some of those things that could impact your conversion enough.
I think our abandonment rate is pretty high. It's higher than it should be. And so we're doing a lot of things to really optimize our website which should hopefully be done in the next four weeks. And I think that'll be very impactful.
We're going to be implementing a referral program and a subscription program, which I think would be great for customer acquisition as well as retention. We are also going to be switching out our email program as well.
Mailchimp is not going to be integrated with Shopify, I think, in a couple of weeks’ time.
So we are looking to switch it out and put in something else but also invest a lot more time into it to make sure that we have proper customer segmentation, workflow, and more automation. I think that will be very impactful as well.
So those are the things that we're doing, which I think will really drive Ecommerce revenue this year substantially.
Yes, you're nailing it.
I'm sure you're getting beat up with expenses right now but it's gonna pay off. Especially you have a wonderful Instagram following.
If they're clicking on the links, and you're not mobile-friendly you're going to see... Your sales should go through the roof once that mobile is optimized.
Well, here's the thing. You can look in the back into Shopify. And do I do this all the time when I'm talking to people that are like, "Should I make an investment in a new theme?"
And I'm like, "Probably. Your mobile theme's probably terrible and I'm gonna show you how."
And then they're like, "How can you quantify something that is, very... It's art." It's like, "A theme's art." Whatever.
But I can quantify it by the conversion rate and the sales that you're getting from that number. So you go into the backend of your store, you look at the analytics, you break it down by device, and your...
This is what every store is going to see: they're going to see that their mobile is like five to 10 times their traffic and their conversion rate is trash compared to their desktop rate.
And I've seen it as far as the mobile rate is like half a percent and then that desktop is the one that's like making the business be successful.
And I'm like, "Look, if you just fix this problem, --you build your site mobile-first-- because your traffic is on all on mobile, that should be what you're building for first. Ignore your desktop. Build for mobile, and then reverse-responsive."
I don't know. That's not a term. I made it up.
But mobile is way more important these days because everyone's looking at their stuff on their smartphone.
So if you can make that user experience good, If you can take your crappy mobile conversion rate and kick it up 25%, kick up your revenue for your mobile on 25%.
Because it's a direct correlation. This is only math. You're looking at your conversion rate, you're looking at your sessions, and you're looking at your average order value.
And you can see the opportunity within your own business to where to make your investments for like design and UX considerations. It's just all numbers at the end of the day and it's like why like eCommerce because I'm a nerd.
(laughs) No, exactly. Yeah. Because that's some of the things that we're starting to look at.
Because before that, literally, it's just we go and just have an intern, do a website on Shopify, make sure that we could ship products nationally because then that can get us the PR. We can see that we're available to everyone.
And now we're really looking at it as a public channel to drive revenues. And so we're looking at exactly that... Your sessions, your conversion rates, and things like that and trying to fix all those things.
Yeah, and then you were talking about how you guys are gonna make this switch from Mailchimp to something else.
If you guys haven't decided yet, I would just recommend Klaviyo. It's my favorite of all of them.
I second that. And for all of our listeners...
That was the one that we're looking at, and Drip is the one we're looking at. It's between those two at the moment.
Well, we'll talk to you after the show.
I'll give you... I'll give the pros and cons right now, for everyone listening. So, Drip has got some deliverability issues these days.
We actually used to be on Drip as an agency and we migrated off Drip to ConvertKit I actually wrote an email all about this, but ConvertKit is way more for what we do as an agency.
It would not work for anybody that's really doing Ecommerce. It's not built for Ecommerce at all.
Klaviyo was built for Ecommerce from the ground-up. Drip is definitely an older player in the game of automations and if you can dream it, you can definitely build it with Drip.
I've made some crazy stuff with Drip for our business but at the same time, you don't need to be that crazy with these automations.
So, Klaviyo what it offers out of the box and how seamlessly it integrates with Shopify, and just the support, I would highly recommend Klaviyo over Drip.
Got it. That's what we'll go for.
Yes. Yeah. I built my campaigns --in Klayiyo-- and automations and I'm always super pumped when I look and see that I'm making money off of emails that are just set up and have been set up and I never had to touch again. So yeah.
Everybody out there, get on that wagon quick, especially since the breakup happened between Mailchimp and Shopify.
Yeah. Well, by the time this comes out...
Yeah, it'll be done.
Yeah. The break-up will be old news. They might be back together. We'll be following this tech stuff. These tech giants' rom-com for the next two years.
So, let our listeners know. Where can they find you? Where's the best place for them to purchase this? Of course, direct from their site. (laughs)
We're actually doing pretty well with some of the other eCommerce players. Sun Basket has us now nationally, which is interesting. But otherwise in most of the... Hopefully, "in a store near you" is the aim. (laughs)
Another question. What is your favorite product? Chase and I are going to purchase something. What should we purchase? What's your favorite?
Oh... I think the Thai Coconut Lime is just a best-seller and my favorite.
It's kinda like the Oscars for the food industry. We're very excited that we just won it for the Thai Coconut Lime.
Congratulations. And when you just said the name, Chase and I were like, "Oh yeah. We're going to get some of that and have a little soup party." (laughs)
Awesome. Nona, thank you so much for taking the time today. Thank you so much. I just... I can't... It's so unique, the journey and you shared a bunch of awesome stuff for our listeners.
And hopefully, we can circle back in a few months and talk about the new stuff that you did to your store and what's going on with it.
We'll have to follow up after the mobile and you touch everything up. We'll see how the bottom line...
We should definitely circle back and I'll tell you what the impact is on the bottom line. (laughs)
Yeah. Look at that. We just did our first sequel. Look at that.
Yeah, no. That'll be fun. That'll be lots of fun. So take some notes for us along this journey of the upgrades. But, thank you so much. We appreciate your time and then everybody please go to Nona Lim. It's nonalim.com. Buy direct.
We can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing the truth. links and more will be available in the show notes. If you found any actionable advice in this podcast that you'd like to apply to your business, please reach out at electriceye.io/connect.