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Ep. 41 - Mission-driven E-commerce: What it is and how it leads to success with Stephen Carl

Stephen Carl is the owner and founder of Needle Movement, an e-commerce strategy company that advises retail brands on how to achieve sustainable digital growth and profitability.

Stephen decided that his true passion was “e-commerce for the rest of us”—to empower emerging brands by passing them the same playbooks he’s learned over two decades of directing e-commerce inside larger companies.

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • [1:08] The power of “niching down” and choosing your audience
  • [1:41] Committing your store towards a movement/a message
  • [2:03] Having a message and speaking your target audience’s language
  • [2:52] What made Stephen passionate about “mission-driven/sustainable commerce”
  • [3:28] Stephen on being a vegetarian as a personal movement
  • [5:07] What separates purpose-driven brands from others
  • [5:42] Brands are becoming “more human”
  • [6:11] Values, instead of features, to make a brand distinct
  • [7:33] Consumer shopping patterns are changing
  • [8:15] What did Tom’s, Everlane and Allbirds contribute to mission-driven commerce
  • [9:30] Bombas socks: mission-driven brands can contribute to success
  • [11:38] Mission-driven commerce requires a different mindset
  • [12:06] A brand’s mission as an investment
  • [12:55] Having a community is a necessity for brands
  • [13:16] Stephen on the longevity of mission-driven “trend”
  • [15:13] Values are changing the corporate mindset
  • [16:02] Sponsor: https://www.simplr.ai/honest
  • [16:47] Benefits of a mission-driven business
  • [19:14] Pura Vida bracelets: Another successful mission-driven brand
  • [20:51] Mission statements are easier for marketing than company goals
  • [21:17] A brand’s mission is the perfect call to action
  • [22:12] Purity and perfection is the enemy of a mission-driven brand
  • [23:30] Implementing a mission-driven statement requires transition
  • [23:45] Marketing strategies for a mission-driven brand
  • [24:54] The importance of copywriters for a brand
  • [25:22] Instagram’s audience is already looking for mission-driven brands
  • [26:25] Mission-driven content is popular on YouTube
  • [26:46] Mission statements foster a strong customer loyalty
  • [28:21] Mission-driven principles really help in creating content
  • [29:00] Chase: “You don’t have to be a Tom’s”
  • [29:21] Helping out has always been a movement for companies
  • [29:41] The implementation of how companies help out is changing drastically
  • [30:12] Mission statements, instead of unique selling propositions before checkout

Resources:

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Transcript:

 

Stephen Carl  

So a great way to have a following is by having strong values that the shopper can immediately favor over others.

 

Annette Grant  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce where we are dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners.

 

Chase Clymer  

I'm your host, Chase Clymer

 

Annette Grant  

And I'm your host, Annette Grant.

 

Chase Clymer  

And we believe running an online business does not have to be complicated or a guessing game.

 

Annette Grant  

If you're struggling to scale your sales, Electric Eye is here to help. To apply to work with us. visit electriceye.io/connect to learn more.

 

Chase Clymer  

And let's get on with the show.

 

Hey, everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. 

 

This is the second time that I've had this guest on the show because the first time, I, unfortunately, ruined it. 

 

So anyway, let's welcome to the show today, Stephen Carl from Needle Movement. How are you doing today?

 

Stephen Carl  

Doing great. Thanks for having me, Chase.

 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So in the first episode, it was actually quite a bit different than this one. Which actually, I think, is something we should just talk on a little bit about. The power of niching down and choosing your audience.

 

Stephen Carl  

Yeah, definitely. And in some ways, it speaks to... I believe last time, we talked about how change is so rapid. And this is proof to that point. 

 

Because last time, we were focusing on digital strategy and the many things that Ecommerce brands are doing. And this time, we're going to focus on a niche of mission-driven Ecommerce and sustainable Ecommerce, because it's such a timely topic right now.

 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And it just goes with just the concept of, you just gotta make the choice. You got to make the decision, you gotta make that movement. 

 

The choice is either going to be fruitful or not. So, fail fast and learn from it. I'm not saying that you're gonna fail from this decision, but it goes with the mindset of, you just gotta make those choices. You gotta keep moving forward.

 

Stephen Carl  

Yes. So going into a niche, there is a saying with companies that brands should really focus on something. 

 

When you're talking to everybody, you're saying nothing because it doesn't... Right now, shoppers are looking for authenticity and for you to speak to them. It's not about you, it's about them. 

 

And if you're not speaking their language, then your message isn't going to get through. And that's the problem with having a global market that's more generic.

 

Chase Clymer  

Oh, absolutely. So if I can, what happened in the last couple of weeks? And probably it was probably happening before we even had our first conversation. What led you to this decision?

 

Stephen Carl  

Yeah. I guess the decision is that my company, Needle Movement, is digital strategy services mainly for Shopify stores and for Ecommerce brands and I'm transitioning to better serve mission-driven and sustainable brands.

 

Chase Clymer  

Now, does that resonate with you more on a mission-level for yourself, personally?

 

Stephen Carl  

I do have some experience with it on a personal level. I am a vegetarian. And...

 

Chase Clymer  

Is that a mission? 

 

Stephen Carl  

There is a mission element to it. But being a vegetarian just makes you mindful. A lot of it goes back to that Peter Drucker quote: "You can only improve the things that you measure and think about." 

 

So I've been... I was a pescatarian 5 years ago and then, a year and a half ago, I transitioned to becoming a vegetarian. And it's a journey. I think that's what I've learned. It's not something that happens. It's not a cold turkey thing. 

 

And I think that we're taught to believe that changes happen instantly. I think it's just a gradual change that you... You find better options. For me, my choice to be vegetarian was about health. Just putting more vegetables in your body is a good thing. 

 

There's some belief in terms of meat, that meat consumption is leading to some environmental impact and then there's just animal welfare. 

 

And it goes to simple things like being a dog dad that you just become a little bit more mindful of the choices you're making. And it's just a... It's really a personal thing.

 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And so, with all of that weighing... Not weighing on you. It's a fantastic choice. With that in mind, it helped you with the decision to get into this... At which I wholeheartedly respect and adore getting the sustainable and purpose-driven brands. 

 

Stephen Carl  

Right. 

 

Chase Clymer  

That's an amazing space to be in. So getting into that,  let's get down that rabbit hole. So, with that in mind, what do you think is a different-scene factor? That's not a word. 

 

But (laughs) what's segmenting these types of clients and these types of customers and these types of businesses from the pack? What's really setting them apart?

 

Stephen Carl  

It goes along with the changing focus of consumers. We're not talking about all consumers. I think there is a segment of consumers, particularly millennials. --and let's just say under the age of 50-- These days brands are... they're not just stores anymore. 

 

We run Shopify stores, but it's very important to think beyond it. And there's nothing closer to that than... Brands are like humans. 

 

Look at the names of all these companies. You got Casper, that's a name. You got Warby Parker, which sounds like a rich kid. You got Oscar, which is a healthcare company. You got Andie, which does swimwear. 

 

So, brands are really trying to come across as you humans. One of the reasons is because the consumer has so many places to shop. So whatever product you're carrying, that consumer now has 100 options. 

 

So, how is your brand going to differentiate itself from everybody else? I think in the past, there used to be a lot of and there still are stories about features, and benefits, and performance. 

 

But what brands are doing out also is incorporating their values because consumers are interested in social responsibility. They want to see their dollars going to a good place. I think in the past, a lot of people used to scream about boycotts. 

 

But now there is this sense of, the consumer votes with their dollars. And they want to support... If a consumer finds out about something that they're not as strongly aligned with, they might make a decision to say "Hey, I have 99 other choices to buy this product. I'm going to go with that choice." 

 

Having a mission and having just a different purpose... In Ecommerce, there is a motivation to make money. And it's all good.  

 

We're in this system and we all need to do that to support ourselves, and to support our families, and the people around us. 

 

I think what's really awesome about this mission-driven trend is that companies are saying, "Hey, I can make money. But, wow, I can also help people in the process. I can address these important things that are affecting my community as a whole." And I think that's where the shopping patterns are changing because... 

 

Let's just say 10 years ago, people were very discount-driven. And the stores were very discount-driven. And we see it sometimes in email messaging, where you have brands that are hammering away at discount messaging every other day. 

 

That is a strategy and it can work for some people. There are different segments. But I think, sometimes, that can dilute the value of your product and you lose that opportunity to really say something about what your company is, and what you stand for, and how you're different from all the other products.

 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. That resonates so well. So with making that choice as a business and going down that path --I know there are some amazing examples out there like TOMS, Everlane, Allbirds-- 

 

What do you think those companies have done that obviously paved the way for this mission-driven movement? What are some of the things that they have done to help out?

 

Stephen Carl  

Well TOMS, they set up the business model. TOMS did the One for One Ⓡ strategy. It's something that you still see successfully done all over the place. I think what's nice about the mission-driven trend is that... 

 

I know what people are saying out there, like "Yeah. I want to do more, but I got to make money. How am I gonna make money doing this?" It's like, oh, that'd be really nice if I could do that but (laughs) I don't know how that would work financially. 

 

And now we're seeing a lot of evidence of some really eye-popping numbers that are coming from these businesses. So, TOMS invented that template of One for One Ⓡ where it's like, you buy one shoe, we'll give it to a person in need. 

 

But, look at other companies that are doing it as well. Warby Parker did the same thing with glasses and that company is doing very well. 

 

Here's one that's fun, Bombas. Bombas is selling socks. And so this brand that is selling socks, and is doing buy one pair of socks and we'll give it to --I think, they target homeless shelters-- but that brand made $102 million last year

 

So how many socks are you selling them? So it just dispels that concern --I think-- that people have that doesn't... it might not be as effective. It'd be nice to do but I don't know if it's viable as a successful business. 

 

And the reason why those brands are really successful is because they're able to... 

 

When you see messaging on the product pages, on your selling points that just drills that point home, people say, "Well, I could buy socks anywhere, why don't I just try to help someone buy socks. It's not that much more. I can do this. And it's viable." 

 

Everlane started as a brand that was about transparency with factories and it's slowly evolving into a more environmentally-conscious brand. And they're not doing it out of the woodwork. 

 

They're doing it because they see that there's a segment of the population that is very moved by... For the past, I'd say, 3 years, there's been a lot of word about how the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. 

 

And the call out is, where were your clothes made and what are you going to do? So Everlane saw this point of people want transparency because they want to know where their products are from. 

 

And they want to know they're made well, and they want to know that they're made... They're not just made in a small Asian country where the wages are not sustainable for that person.

 

So it speaks to the quality, the transparency and Everlane does it in a way also that it's not so expensive to do it. They're not selling pants for $200.They're selling it for, I believe it's like under $80, to buy. So it's viable for a consumer.

 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. I think when you're talking about --maybe not just the One for One Ⓡ model-- but all of the models where you're giving to a cause, you're causing a change in the world, I think it takes a different type of mindset to run a business like that. 

 

And I know that some people would look at it originally as a cost and that's the worst way to view it. It's more of an investment, I believe.

 

Stephen Carl  

Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. Because it's... In some ways, your cause is a marketing investment. Think about, if you don't have differentiators in your business, then it's just going to be much harder to sell your product to a lot of people.

 

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. What's the difference between you and Amazon? Do you know what I mean?

 

Stephen Carl  

Yeah. And you're going to have to, So there's a lot of costs that are going to go into the inefficiency of ads and how much you're going to have to pay to acquire a customer. 

 

So you're absolutely right, that it's an upfront investment that actually should reduce or it definitely has the potential to reduce your marketing costs over time. Because done right, you'll have a better funnel for sales. 

 

Community is so important these days, too. So when people believe in something, they're going to tell their friends, and they're going to tell their family to do it. 

 

So, instead of having to acquire people one by one, now you have this active community, you have people doing the job of marketing for you.

 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So let's get to like a harder question here. With this, --I don't want to call it a trend but it's definitely very popular these days-- Do you think it's going to stick around or you think it's going to pass? What's your opinion on that?

 

Stephen Carl  

Okay. Well, I've been in Ecommerce since 1998. So I've seen some trends come and go. I believe that there is a segment of this audience that continues to move further in the direction. 

 

You look at terms like... I just noticed, even the term "fast fashion" where I remember when it was first said or when I first heard it, which was probably 6 years ago, and it wasn't a bad term. 

 

But now when I hear it, it has more of a negative connotation. And you just sit back you're like, "Wow, 6 years." First, it was like "Wow, these companies are so efficient in their operation." And now, people don't look at it the same way. 

 

But I think this trend definitely has legs just because if people are buying products based on that belief and if values are very important to branding, and people keep supporting these companies, then the trend will still go, the trend will stay. 

 

And we're seeing just... There are just so many different examples of it. you Now, so many companies... You're even seeing the giants like H&M and Amazon, putting out statements on sustainability, saying, "By this year, we're going to have totally sustainable fabrics." 



And Amazon recently released a statement about carbon-neutral shipping. I think they gave themselves a lot of time (laughs) but... So, everyone is addressing it which shows you how much... They wouldn't be addressing it if it wasn't a strong trend. 

 

There's something that happened last week, which was really interesting. There's an organization called the Business Roundtable that includes about 200 CEOs, including Jamie Dimon from Chase

 

And they issued a statement that the purpose of a corporation should not only be about shareholder value. It should address workers, it should address the community and it should address (the) environment. 

 

Now, these are only words, they're not concrete actions, but you're seeing a very large shift in the corporate sector. 

 

And I'll tell you, that would never happen if it was only a few consumers that were doing it. They're seeing shoppers that have a lot of options and that are showing, in some instances, the ability to shop differently based on following their values.

 

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Chase Clymer  

So if this is something that I want to do within my business, what are the benefits that are going to be in it for me?

 

Stephen Carl  

I can see 2 benefits from it. The first benefit... I think it can benefit a company in a wonderful way... And I think we've all worked inside the Ecommerce development chain. 

 

We're building websites, we're building marketing solutions, and we're motivating the people around us to do this. 

 

And what I've seen from mission-driven brands is how you get extra motivation when there's another value besides "Hey, we want to hit a million dollars this quarter. That's our goal. Everybody's got to work towards this goal. It's a million dollars. Let's do it, people." 

 

But let's just say you have this goal of money, but you also have a goal of "Hey, we're going to hit a million dollars and when we hit that, we're going to help feed 1000 hungry people." 

 

Then your staff and the people around you have this extra impetus, and extra motivation and they can see that impact in a very concrete way besides just "I'm getting a little more in my paycheck." So I think there's that value. 

 

Employee retention is a huge thing now, too. People just hop and skip to different positions all the time. So that's one way to really keep you... 

 

By differentiating yourself as a company, and having those people that work with you take part in that, it gives them an extra motivation to stay and keep working on it. 

 

So that goes to the company side, the motivation. Because I think everybody... With this transition with my company, I think it's about helping mission-driven brands, but it's also about the curious brands too. 

 

Because I know there are thousands of companies out there that are saying, I would love to do this, but I don't think it's... But I want to see that it's tangible and easy to do. 

 

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. How do I do it?

 

Stephen Carl  

It's not impossible. I'm not going to lose my shirt doing this. So I guess, going to value that, there are plenty of examples of companies that are making 10s to 100s of millions of dollars with a mission-driven component to them. 

 

We can go down the list but it's like, Everlane. Another one we didn't mention was Pura Vida Bracelets. Pura Vida Bracelets sold $68 million last year. 

 

They were just bought by Vera Bradley. They are a very popular Shopify store. They're so good at marketing. I always look at them as an example. 

 

They created this mission of sourcing artisanal little bracelets that are made in Costa Rica and supporting that community there and supporting local artisans. 

 

(Their) bracelets are not expensive but they have one of the largest brand ambassador programs I've ever seen. So it just speaks to the power of when people believe in the product and can do it then you can make a viable business around it. 

 

These days brands are not stores, brands are people and brands need to have the following. So a great way to have a following is by having strong values that the shopper can immediately favor over others. 

 

Maybe five years ago, there wouldn't be an Allbirds and Everlane would be a smaller company. But now it's realistic that companies can achieve sales goals and mission goals together.

 

Chase Clymer  

I just want to go back to the point that you made about setting goals and getting the buy-in from your company and from your employees. 

 

That's obviously like an amazing opportunity within your business. But on the other side of it, it's so much easier to create marketing messages around, "We're going to help X amount of people with this problem." 

 

Instead of going "We want to make a million dollars." No one can make a marketing campaign around that. If you flip it and you're like, "Oh, we're going to help X amount of people." That is an amazing marketing campaign right there.

 

Stephen Carl  

Yeah, exactly. And think about your email signups. Instead of getting 10% off, just say "Sign up for email, and we're going to do this when you sign up for email. We're going to help this cause or we're going to do something positive." 

 

Or "Every time you make a purchase, we do this." And then think of that message on your email signup, on your product page, in your checkout. In your checkout, that point where people add to cart but they don't go forward, think about it as part of your shopping cart reminder. Abandoned cart notification. So, yeah. I'm with you. The messaging there, it can go all-around 360 your marketing messages as a call to action and close sales. 

 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. 

 

Stephen Carl  

The other side of it is, I do think that what's nice about sustainability and what I found just on my journey of pursuing a different diet is that, I think purity and perfection is the enemy of all this. 

 

People think, "Oh if I'm going to become a vegetarian, I have to do it perfectly." Or "If I'm going to become environmentally conscious, it's all or nothing." And it's really just a journey, and everyone fucks up at some point in that journey or does something. 

 

Nobody's perfect in this. It's just about assessing it and just constantly improving from what you did the day before. And I think, sometimes, with these options, people take that all or nothing or purity mentality to it, when it doesn't really have to. 

 

If you're 75% better than you were last year, that's amazing. And that's something that your company can build on. 

 

And that's why a lot of companies now are just putting together a roadmap and saying, "Hey, we're trying to get better but we're setting this date of when we're going to set in these initiatives." 

 

So it's not something that someone has to do in 24 hours. You can set yourself up for a transition and prepare. Prepare the company and prepare the consumer. And shoppers like that journey too, because you're sharing it with them.

 

Chase Clymer  

So if we're going to go down that rabbit hole, and we're going to start to do this within my company, how's it going to affect my marketing and what are some other ways that this can build up my marketing strategy?

 

Stephen Carl  

We all know that paid marketing can have great value. But with limited budgets, it's good to really bolster your organic and have it there so that you can get customers at a low acquisition cost. 

 

And then once you figure it out, when you figure out that message that really hits people and converts, then you can amplify it through paid marketing channels. With organic marketing, I think it's about coming... 

 

On the brand side and content, you need to develop your story and what's going to separate you from everybody else. And that can be product elements, but it can also have mission-driven components to it as well. 

 

What are the five bullet points? And it's not about you, it's about how it will impact the consumer. And then once you have that message down... I think a lot of brands need copywriters just to articulate that vision better to a consumer. 

 

So I would recommend, with your brand strategy, bring in consultants and professional or two to help you carve that out. Then when you get into the marketing channels, email, Instagram, website, SEO and YouTube. 

 

With email... Well, actually let me go to Instagram because I think Instagram is an important one here. Instagram there are already flocks and people that are hungry for these products. 

 

There are communities out there of influencers that are looking for ethical products, sustainable products. So one tactic is to dive into hashtags

 

Lookup a hashtag like #sustainablebrand, #ethicalbrands or #consciousconsumer. And there you're going to find an organism: there are brands, there are influencers, there are providers. There are Shopify providers, even in these niches. 

 

What's nice about it is that they're, they're trying to lift the entire community up. And that's what I really like about it. When we talk about following that, you want to have people do the marketing for you and people who want to help you out. 

 

So, Instagram is a place where you can find a lot of consumers that you might not have known how to locate before. Another option is YouTube. YouTube has a lot of content. I would look at influencers in the YouTube space because some of that mission-driven content and sustainable content is very popular on YouTube. 

 

And it's actually one of those niches that's not as explored or channels that are not as explored as others. The idea is we all talk about customer loyalty and how important it is because we don't want to have one-time customers. 

 

The whole key is like, "How do I get returned shoppers? What should I do?" And I think sometimes we look at the tactical component of it. And we talked about email marketing, and what I have to do post-purchase. 

 

So now that you have this brand content that you have, you can communicate that message. And you might not have to offer a discount to get someone to come back again. 

 

It goes into that marketing funnel because now you have customers that are returning because they believe in your product, and they want to support your product because they're hearing about your product on Instagram, they're following the email, they're looking at the website and they're looking at the progress, the positive progress that you're making. 

So it makes it easier for them to come back and return as customers. And for marketing expenses, I think, as business owners, wouldn't it be great... 

 

We saw last year that everybody was flocking or a lot of brands were flocking to Facebook and Google just because everybody was talking about how Facebook ads for the way to get new customers. 

 

And those tactics still work, but I think that if most business owners were given the choice they would rather help a community out versus helping Facebook increase their ad revenue dollars.

 

Chase Clymer  

I think that one of the big things that a lot of our listeners struggle with is coming up with concepts and ideas for their marketing, especially with their email marketing. I see a lot of people just defaulting to the standard sale blasts. Like, "We got a sale! We got a sale! We got a sale!" 

 

Stephen Carl  

Right.

 

Chase Clymer  

So this mission-driven concept, it almost writes your marketing for you. You have so much more to talk about. And I think that that's amazing. 

 

It'll help a lot of the brands that are kind of in that space where it's stuck. And another thing to consider is you don't have to be a TOMS where you're One for One Ⓡ. You can give back in lesser parts and you're still doing good as a whole.

 

Stephen Carl  

Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it's not all or nothing. You're not becoming a Buddhist monk (laughs) by getting involved. I think charity has always been a big portion of the market. I think it's just, its execution is changing. 

 

I remember five years ago and the fall would hit, and I would hear a couple of brands talking about "Oh, Thanksgiving's coming. I have to think about a charity that I'm going to donate to or a charity drive." So it's always been in our DNA. It's just changing now where "Hey, instead of just doing it for Christmas, why not just incorporate it?" 

 

Yeah, it does give you a lot of free content. The whole point of sales is to persuade people to buy. It's to give people that little impetus to say, "I'm getting a huge value here. I'm ready to take the leap and I'm ready to place that order." On product pages, there's this. 

 

There's a lot of smart strategies out there about unique selling propositions that were right under that add-to-cart button, you're putting 3 different reasons why that customer should buy. And it can totally be a free shipping message. 

 

That can be powerful. Some of this content can also fit into that where it's along that that buying process and the decision making, you're just reinforcing that "Here's what we're doing besides the price of the product." 

 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing all these insights. So if people are picking up what you're putting down, how can they find you online if they want to know more about all this?

 

Stephen Carl  

I'll make it super easy. So my company's name is Needle Movement. As in move the needle. 

 

And you can reach me at hello@needlemovement and (I'm) just totally curious to hear everyone's thoughts and experiences on it. And also I'm happy to offer digital strategy tips to people that reach out. So hello@needlemovement.com

 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. Thank you so much for joining me again. 

 

Stephen Carl  

(laughs)

 

Chase Clymer  

And I promise not to delete this one.

 

Stephen Carl  

(laughs) Fair enough. Hey, it was fun the second time as well. 

 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. Thank you so much. 

 

Stephen Carl  

Thanks, Chase.

 

Chase Clymer  

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.

 

Annette Grant  

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