April 05, 2023
In this episode, Brock speaks with Christian Ruf. Christian is a former Army helicopter pilot and now operating a home services business. We talk about what we can take from aviation and how to apply that in our lives. We talk about why ETA or entrepreneurship through acquisition may not be as sexy as most make it out to be. And we talk about an interesting business he's starting, jumbo mail, a new take on direct mail.
(01:48) - Hot yoga, a quick trip to Iraq, and finding what you're capable of (11:05) - Why developing a team is the most important thing we do in the service and how to do it (14:03) - Building a team outside the military with aviation principles (18:43) - What prep school, college, and the military have in common (25:56) - Structure after the military and building confidence in uncertainty (29:08) - Unlimited potential after the military and the requirements to pursue it (33:25) - Operating a home services business under a PE umbrella (35:41) - What is so sexy about ETA? (42:19) - Establishing SOPs in business vs keeping creative options open (49:50) - Starting a direct mail business off Twitter (55:33) - Economics of direct mail (01:07:31) - Riffing on domain ideas
The Scuttlebutt Podcast - The podcast for service members and veterans building a life outside the military.
The Scuttlebutt Podcast features discussions on lifestyle, careers, business, and resources for service members. Show host, Brock Briggs, talks with a special guest from the community committed to helping military members build a successful life, inside and outside the service.
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Brock Briggs 0:00
Hello and welcome to the Scuttlebutt podcast. I'm your host, Brock Briggs. And each week, I bring you a conversation with an interesting veteran. It'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry and everywhere in between. I've had several people recently ask me who my target audiences for this show and honestly, I'm still figuring that out. I enjoyed listening to and learning from new people. And this is more an exploration of the guests unique knowledge rather than only talking about a specific subject. There's lots in this world to learn and I can't be confined to a single subject, which brings us to today. I'm talking to Christian Ruf, a former Army helicopter pilot and now operating a home services business.
We talk about what we can take from aviation and how to apply that in our lives. We talk about why ETA or Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition may not be as sexy as most make it out to be. And we talk about an interesting business he's starting, Jumbo Mail, a new take on direct mail. This is not all I can bring you today though. Every Saturday, I read a free weekly newsletter with content recommendations, episode deep dives and the occasional meme. A few weeks back, I presented some research on why VA disability priority group one has risen almost 3x as fast as the veteran population over the last 20 years. And it's all free. You can check it out at scuttlebuttpodcast.co. There you can find the link to the newsletter as well as YouTube Channel, episode transcripts and more to keep learning. Enjoy this conversation with Christian Ruf.
Christian, I think the best place for us to start today is for you to recount the story of your pin tweet. I was kind of on the edge of my seat reading this story. You had me at hot yoga and Iranian missiles and Iraq all in the same sentence. So
Christian Ruf 2:04
I got you, I gotta open for the good. Yeah, pub's gonna write a book. I guess that'd be the opening line. Really
It’s a great hook
Where do you want to start?
Brock Briggs 2:17
Maybe we'll start from the beginning with some context.
Christian Ruf 2:20
It was December of 2019 right before COVID. And my wife was a month pregnant, we just had everybody to our house for Christmas, which was a complete disaster. And I was like, finally got a break. And I was like, alright, I'm going to hot yoga, flying a lot. I got a lot of lower back pains, so I get a hot yoga class. And so I'm walking into it on New Year's Eve 2019. And thinking to myself, like, I'm gonna leave my phone and my watch in the car. Because this hot yoga studio, they don't like you doing that. But I always do it. Because in the 160th, if you get a text message that has a certain like, combinations of numbers and letters, what have you, you gotta go. Something's happening. And I'm walking in. I'm looking down on my watch. And like, yeah, maybe I'll take it off and also starts going off.
Like, I feel like every time I tell a story, I'm making it up. But it starts going off, the numbers show up. And I'm like, okay, like, let's go. And I was not on call. But when you get those numbers, you have to go up to the compound, get everybody out the door and say, go home, tell my wife hey, gotta go in. And she's like, but you're not on call, right? And I was like, no, no, I'm not gonna call throughout the pregnancy. You know, I'm saying and sure enough, I get in there. And my commander comes to me and because I was a fully Michigan qualified aviator, he's like, alright, you're going rough. Let's go. And I'm like, oh, okay. And so I called my wife I say, so I need you to pack my bags and bring them to me. I'm leaving.
And I don't know where and I can't tell you how long for and then you know, she comes, brings them up. We go have lunch at Chick fil A off the side of the highway. And within 12 hours, I'm in Iraq. Right about that time, we get off the plane, bringing the aircraft out and they've done the hit on the Iranian general that was leading the militia in Iraq and things transpired and all of a sudden, I found myself at the base that got targeted with those missiles. And throughout all that, just wondering, like, what's going to happen like we're about to go into like full on war. Am I coming back? What's happening? And yeah, history shows itself. And that didn't happen. And it was like the most pretty miserable 60 days. And so finally start going home. And I'm wondering, like, I'm wondering, man, am I gonna make it like or make it back in time?
But can I make it back in time for yoga and hot yoga class before I head to Charleston and drive to Hillman and see my wife. And sure enough, I do. And so C-17 lands early in the morning. I hop in my little station wagon, drive the hour back to Nashville and walk into the first yoga class. And realize in that moment that I don't have my mat. I had left my mat I think at the compound still. And I go to the lady, I was like, hey, like, I left my mat. I'm a member here. Can I just borrow mat for the session? And she's like, yeah, that'll be $10. And I'm just thinking of myself, like, do I tell her what just happened? Like do I tell her I literally just, you know, in between classes spent 60 days in Iraq and I'm just like, now just eat this one. So, you know, came full circle and back in the yoga studio paid for the mats. And then, you know, just went on with my life.
Brock Briggs 6:24
One of the tweets that you had in that thread that I thought was really profound. You said we're capable of beating the odds, even if our environments are self proclaimed limitations say we can't.
Christian Ruf 6:35
Yeah. So that happened during the commotion of the incoming attacks. We are trying to get everybody out. And I flew a gunship which is designed to carry more ammo and fuel and just ammo and fuel than like a standard Apache is and they came to me and I'm like, alright, you're gonna go escort these aircraft, aid other aircraft over to this other place as the lonely gunship. And I'm like, okay, great, alone, none afraid. Here we go. And like, oh, and by the way, we need you to put five people in the back. And I was just thinking like, that's like, there's no way like, like, if I will overgrows the aircraft by at least 2000 pounds, which is a limitation on the structure of the airframe, also like what the environment will allow me to take off and land on. And like I didn't have a choice. We had to get those people out.
And so through in the back, I said, hold on boys and we start taking off. And I've got this co pilot with me. He's a really bright, younger pilot, like totally capable. This is his first deployment. Here, we're taken off in this overweight aircraft that like really shouldn't be able to take off. And we do and we start moving along the runway and then all of a sudden, the lead pilot, he's seven aircraft in front of us, realizes doors open and needs to do an emergency landing. And so I have seven aircraft and be coming to like a screeching halt. And it's like, you know, it's like driving a Ferrari around the tracks and trying to stop with no brakes. You don't. And so I just start pulling the guts out of the thing and there's like a computer announcer in the aircraft that tells you when you're using too much power and or you don't have enough power for a situation just start screaming at me.
I think the crew chiefs in the back are like, you know, saying their final prayers and my copilot sitting there like doing the best he can and aircraft is not wanting to go. We keep just like slogging along and you see the ground come pretty close to us. And we just kept pushing and things kind of shut her along and we got through it and all of a sudden we're flying again. And just like, okay, like that was not supposed to happen. You know, the environment, aircraft, everything told me on paper, you know that should not happen. And it did and maybe we got a nice breeze and it did but I just kind of taken that now and thinking like people can tell you're not capable of something.A situation can tell you that you're not capable of it, can hinder your confidence. But like what I took away from that is like if you just push, push, push and your persistence, the worst thing that happens is you fail. And failure is a much better option than quitting.
Brock Briggs 10:00
It's interesting circumstances like that where as a pilot, you're fighting like pure physics, you're not fighting something internal like this is pure science of what this aircraft can hold and whatnot. And sometimes those forces of physics are felt like internally kind of like it feels like we're fighting against something inside of ourselves that is, like, just physically not possible for us to do. But the reality is like there is a much deeper layer there that needs to kind of be unlocked within ourselves. There may not have been many more layers on your aircraft that I'll get into. But internally, we have more than we think.
Christian Ruf 10:42
Yeah and honestly, that situation was huge confidence booster for me. In that moment, like I'd been working years to get to that judgment skill level of an aviator and that kind of showed me that like, okay, I really can trust my abilities. So yeah, we made it.
Brock Briggs 11:05
This question is normally something that I open with and I bring it up right now because it may be this moment, but what is something that you are the most proud of?
In the military or in life in general?
You can do both if they're different
I developed a real love for my guys. And some of the comments that they made when I went when I was leaving, made me feel or realize that my intuition to lead with like kindness and empathy rather than sharp decision making or just like authority, it made me realize that like, I've done the right thing, as far as my leadership style and I've taken that now into the real world, if you will. And yeah, I just think back to some of the comments that they made and just reassuring that I did the right thing.
Brock Briggs 12:30
It's interesting, as a young man watching motivational war movies and playing video games and doing all of these things, I think it's embedded into us that the act of leadership is generally this heroic, you know, valiant thing, this valiant act of you taking a bullet for your comrades or whatever. But the reality is that those circumstances are very, very few and far between. And what a more practical application of leadership looks like is, as you mentioned, of love and deep care for the people that are under you and acting in a way that supports that love and care.Christian Ruf 13:19
Yeah. I think if you asked me, it was the most impactful thing that I did in my time in the 160th, I would say, when we were getting an emergency resupply from the States, I had my wife send over boxes of Chick fil A sauce. And it just so happened coincided that we were like running out of food. And all we had was hotdogs and no buns. And the Chick fil A sauce was a great condiment to dip it all.
Brock Briggs 13:46
That level of creativity, when you are deployed, really goes a long way when you can have kind of some foresight and think about those things that might
Christian Ruf 13:56
Yeah, I didn't get evaluated on that. But everybody was pretty happy in the moment.
Brock Briggs 14:03
Right. I think that that's honestly something that I've seen very common in squadron level work. I guess that the Army's layout is a little bit different. But in the Navy, I worked in aviation, but I worked at the intermediate level where we're working on individual parts and components, not the organizational level where it's the actual aircraft and the handlers and maintainers I guess you would say, crew chiefs on your guys' side. The bond scene within like the squadron level was unbelievable. And the amount of times even on deployment that the pilots would come back and bring pizza for their guys or they'd like go run their laundry to shore when like the ship laundry was backed up or something it just a level of connection that I don't think that I ever experienced or felt elsewhere.
Christian Ruf 15:01
I would say my favorite experience in the 10 years of flying was when I was in 160th. It was actually right before that deployment. And we just had like, we just been hammered the year prior with deployments and training and deployments and training. And then all of a sudden, I saw this like this week on the calendar where there wasn't a lot going on. So we're in that we're, we're based near Nashville, Fort Campbell and my wife's family has a big resort and brewery over in Knoxville. And so I took three aircraft, we filled them with all the dudes. And then we flew to Knoxville for the day. Her family came, picked us up, brought us to the brewery, and brought all the barbecue from the restaurants. And yeah, we just hung out of the brewery and had barbecue and then we flew back and like was that the best use of you know, training dollars and flight hours. No, but everybody just had like, it stands out as my favorite memory.
Brock Briggs 16:07
So if you had to take the lessons from that and try to teach that to somebody, how do you think you would do that?
Christian Ruf 16:15
Good question. I think, okay, so in the business world, I worked in a business that it was a business that was actually trying to acquire and I asked the owner, I said, you know, when's the last time you took everybody to lunch? Do you guys do stuff like that? And he's like, yeah, once a year, we do like a paid half afternoon. And you know, they come to my house and we go out on the lake. And this was a construction business. And I'm just thinking, like, wait, so once a year, you get everybody together, but what are you doing the rest of the year. And so I started because the plan was for me to buy the business. It started every Friday morning, bringing doughnuts and you would have thought I was like changing the world for them. Like, they now had something they were looking forward to, and like a reason for everybody to come into the shop at the same time, other than to be like barked at to like, hey, this is where you're going next.
And I guess the lesson I would try to teach is like, it doesn't have to be something that's huge. That costs a lot of money, takes a lot of time that you know, causes a major shift in revenue, but like little consistent sprinklings of some level of empathy, and a reason to get people together goes a long way. In, in business, and I see that time and time again, businesses touting like, fam oh, we're family or whatever. And it's like, people don't want to hear that. But they do want to be treated that way. So I guess the lesson I would say is like it's little things to, you know, couple boxes of donuts and coffee every week and like a 15 minute session, just kind of let people be s and reflect before they get out. Or if they just want to stay on site and smoke cigarettes with each other like great. I don't think that's the most concise way to articulate that lesson. But that's just how I've seen it lacking or done and in the real world.
Brock Briggs 18:43
Is there something about your upbringing that made that kind of natural or innate to you? I was curious when learning about you and saw that you went to a prep school prior to joining ROTC. And I thought that that was really unique. And I'm curious about that transition from those two different environments. But was there anything specific, maybe other than that?
Christian Ruf 19:08
Yeah, I was actually going to say my fraternity life but when you made the comment, the prep school yeah, it really started then. So the school I went to New Jersey was designed such that as a sophomore and a junior, you live in a house like a real house with 20 other guys. And what ends up happening is you then start eating together all your meals in the dining hall, you start it's kind of kind of like clicky in a bit of doing everything together, but you create that bond where like, okay, yeah, you're going to classes for a couple hours a day and you have sports but you come back to like a sense of family because you've got 20 dudes around you. And every Saturday night, a parent of one of the guys would sponsor a we call it a feed, but it's basically they buy a bunch of pizza or wings or whatever.
And so everybody we would back when you can get Netflix on DVDs maile. We eat a bunch of pizza and we would every Saturday night rent like the worst movie and we would just call it like shitty movie of the week. And we would just sit there and ridicule that movie for a couple hours. And I lost my father when I was in high school. So that really became like my family for better or worse. And then a similar time at the same experience in college. So yeah, I think it stems from that.
Brock Briggs 20:44
It's also intriguing to me that you mentioned being a part of a fraternity in college and then went on to join kind of the ultimate fraternity and that is like the military is kind of a fraternity on steroids and a connection that probably lasts equally if not longer than probably the college fraternity.
Christian Ruf 21:06
The college, like, I think they're texting me right now like those guys. And we talk pretty much every day. But yeah, yeah, just bawling. And maybe that's why my transition was so difficult as they went from setting after setting after setting of that type of environment to like, here's your cubicle. Now go crank out some Excel spreadsheets and that didn't work. So
Brock Briggs 21:31
You were even mentioning before we started recording about the difficulty that you had with the transition. I'm sure that the jump from that very kind of structured, I don't want to say like the joke of like mandatory fun, but it's like kind of mandatory bonding a bit in the military, when you're no longer forced into that it's extremely lonely and you're kind of off on your own. What have you found is helpful to maybe combat that?
Christian Ruf 22:05
Yeah, it's been a huge challenge for me. You know, for the first time in my life, I had to make friends outside of the community that I was already important, a part of like in high school, college and in the military. It was yeah, it was basically forced and the 160th that's a whole nother beast, because I spend much more time with those guys than I did with my wife always been gone always on the road flying, forced into, you know, put in situations where that type of thing mattered now, that's like not present. And I know we'll talk about jumbo mailers later. But really, that has been, for me a massive shift in my kind of happiness as a word, but like, content with what I'm doing. I have like, yeah, I got other guys I'm working with. We share this vision for it and we're executing on it daily. And it's a lot of fun.
And slowly we're really getting into each other's personal lives just because we're like really sharing a strong and shrunk experience together. So yeah, it's been difficult and I'm still struggling to find something just to scratch that itch. Another one is this kind of this underground workout group, it's in most major cities, it's called F3. And forget what it stands for right now. But I got invited to that and you wake up at four o'clock in the morning, you go work out for an hour together outside. And that has been huge. And like today, I missed it because my daughter was sick. And but say it's like probably one of the highlights of my week. This is a common theme there of like doing hard, uncomfortable, miserable things with other people and getting a great sense of enjoyment out of it, or whether it's waking up at four o'clock in the morning to go work out or like working until two o'clock at night to try to send out some jumbo mailers for a power washing company in Westchester, New York.
Brock Briggs 24:32
It certainly builds bonds like no others, that's for sure.
Christian Ruf 24:35
Brock Briggs 24:39
I think that that sense of like community is extremely empowering and necessary when you're transitioning out and I know that I certainly found it difficult to find those people for myself and I think that one of the places that I regularly turn to there's lots of veteran nonprofits and VSOs and all of these other things, but I find myself regularly recommending that people find their place on the internet. And there's a community of people who are interested and down to talk about whatever you want to talk about. You just need to find where they live. And I have kind of like, you know at several points, maybe even gotten in the way of my relationship with my wife. She's like, why the hell do you spend so much time on Twitter? It’s where all my friends are like,
Christian Ruf 25:35
I was going through them this morning. My wife said, are you on Twitter again? I was like, Grace, I've literally started a business off of Twitter. I am going on a trip to Utah with people I met off of Twitter, like, yes, I am on Twitter. So all of my clients are from Twitter.
Brock Briggs 25:56
One of the other things that you had talked about in the difficulty of transition is the idea that you need to like go and take a traditional corporate job or get into a really structured job right after the military. Why is that incorrect?
Christian Ruf 26:15
Well, a high level, there's just a lot of opportunities for people who are not necessarily it doesn't have to you have to be intelligent, but can make decisions, stick with them and execute on them to succeed in business. And whether that's starting something or buying something or partnering with a more successful or an already successful entrepreneur. I know ETA is very popular right now. And I went down that rabbit hole. And I mean, I've had success in so far as like, I had a business to buy, but we decided to move and then I found another business to buy, but I decided it wasn't the right fit.
So now I'm starting a business from zero. And everything that I'm doing comes back to the very basic principles that the military instills in all service members of loyalty, dedication, like executions, making decisions and acting on them. And really for me, it was a lack of self confidence in what I was getting out, self confidence and awareness that I can go do this on the outside. And it took me basically up until this past January to actually act on it and realize it almost simultaneously. The original question was like, sorry, I've gone down the rabbit hole. But the original question was like, what are the opportunities? Like they're everywhere. That for me, it was just a lack of self confidence and awareness, it seemed to shift from when I was leaving a very strong, tight knit community to not having that at all.
And like, yeah, now I have people that chime in and offer suggestions on like, a way to like, I just got a DM from somebody who I've been working with. He's like, hey, you should really think about this as part of your service offering. And I was like, yeah, that's absolutely right. And I know that even without really knowing this person that he has my best interests in mind and as bested in my success, it's really unlimited, man. Like, I think about the business that I've started right now. And it was because I had the confidence to try something. And that was all I needed.So if there's an opportunity out there to get service members that are transitioning and wondering what to do, like, I mean, sky's the limit.
Brock Briggs 29:08
One of the things that popped out at me that you said is lacking the confidence to like make a decision or like to kind of act on something. One of the things the military does really, really well as empowers you to make decisions within your realm. Like you have a very defined area or like lateral limit, as some people in the military talk about that wasn't a navy thing, something I picked up from a Marine, but these are the limits of where you can make decisions and basically anything in that kind of right to wrong. You can own it. When you're out, it's this 360 degree.
Lateral, there really isn't a limit about what you can make a decision on and it's unbelievably overwhelming to move or act on anything.
Christian Ruf 30:02
Yeah. And maybe that's why I have 81 domains is because like, I have all these ideas. And I was like, oh, you know, all these decisions to make, which do I do and which do I go with. And then I finally chose one that I had used and employed. And I was like, great, I'm going to do it now. I was just sitting around. And I was, you know, it's that time of year, we do New Year's resolutions. And while I don't really believe in like New Year's resolutions are great, but I also just like having annual goals and quarterly goals in general. And I was looking back at the last year and I was like, what did I accomplish? And I was like, I don't really, I don't know because I don't really set anything, which is unlike me. And I was like, well, great. Now I'm gonna do like, I'm gonna choose something, I'm gonna do it. Almost serendipitously I saw this thread that resonated with me and I was like, great, let's go. And that's how I started.
Brock Briggs 31:04
There's like a couple of different levels of procrastination. I think I haven't totally figured this out yet. But there's kind of like, an oblivious level where you're not really sure what you don't know. But then there's this kind of level that I've found myself in the last couple of years, which is like one step above that I know what I should be doing kind of, but I'm not acting on it in a way that is aggressive enough. And I've seen a couple of ways to describe it. But a guy that I recently have been learning about his name is Anand Sanwal, gonna butcher that last name, but he's the founder of this company called CB Insights. And he calls it intellectual masturbation. And it's just this kind of like, like this idea of planning. And just like getting the landing page and like getting all of these ideas going and just brainstorming the business model. And it's just advanced procrastination.
Christian Ruf 32:02
It is advanced procrastination, yes. And like, I suffered that kind of still in Nashville and I was working for a healthcare company, I was like, I'm gonna open a painting business. I like painting, I want to do something on the side. So I got the LLC and I got the website and got the logo and the business cards and then I never did anything with it. And so with this new one, I was like, great, let's go. And so I built a website in 15 minutes, I had a buddy do an AI generated logo in about five minutes. I think he actually chose the name. And then I started selling it. And like now I'm trying to figure out like everything else involved with it. And like, it's been amazing. And it's just execution.
Brock Briggs 32:45
It's like we're pushing down the road the hardest part about it is whether it's selling something, whether it's, you know, I want to start a newsletter, like I want to write something first and then like, and then worry about the other stuff. And that's so hard to do. It is unbelievably difficult to actually just like do the thing and not worry about the other stuff.
Christian Ruf 33:09
Yeah, yeah. You do not need an LLC to start a business or website.
Brock Briggs 33:15
But keep an eye on the IRS if they're watching those $600 Venmo payments now.
Christian Ruf 33:20
Yeah, seriously. Yeah, we have all that stuff now. But yeah
Brock Briggs 33:25
Once you get a couple of sales, like go and get your business set up and whatnot, but action first and kind of do the pretty stuff later. How did you end up working in PE?
Christian Ruf 33:37
So I'm an operator on behalf of a private equity firm. They bought a business in New Jersey, this concierge home maintenance, which was similar to the business that I tried to buy in Nashville and we had decided to move instead of buy that business in Nashville just to be closer family. And I just got connected to them. And they said, hey, do you want to do it and help with that? And I was like, yeah, sure. I'll do it. And so I started that in August. And so what that's like six, seven months now, been running that. So my involvement with PE is limited to operating a business on their behalf.
Brock Briggs 34:24
I'm sure that while a little bit dissented or maybe arm's length from the operations of the actual firm, there still requires a and especially to operate a company a large sense of strategic direction of the vision, all of those things. What do you think that you have learned operating that business that has surprised you?
Sell before everything else.
So exactly what we were just talking about?
Christian Ruf 34:52
Yeah, I spent the first three months. They pretty had it like kind of designed where I'd focus on Like the back end of it and setting up the systems and everything and that's actually we were just talking about it earlier of like, okay, what we should have done differently is day one, start selling, selling, selling, selling, selling and then figure out how to manage the back end of it. Because the back end of it's super simple. The selling parts is the hard part. It's very niche-y, concierges home maintenance. So we maintain wealthy homeowners homes, if it's their primary home secondary home. So it's a very targeted type of clientele. And yeah, biggest lesson, sell, sell, sell.
Brock Briggs 35:41
You mentioned earlier that the ETA space is really attractive. And it absolutely is one, I will confirm that ETA, Twitter is alive and well and buzzing. Why do you think it is so attractive? Like certainly the idea of running a small business is not a new thing. But for some reason, the aspect of like, maybe it's the financial engineering of like buying the business is the exciting part. I think, maybe some people who are excited about ETA, maybe kind of delusion about like, what the realities of operating small businesses.
Christian Ruf 36:20
Yeah, operating is hard. But I'll tell you zero to one is pretty difficult. Starting a business from zero and getting it to one is even with what I'm doing, both in like starting this concierge home maintenance business from zero. And getting into one and also starting the jumbo mailer thing and getting it to one, it's hard. It's very hard. So if you can come in a business that's running and maybe has like a 25% solution on systems or is already generating enough income to pay for its employees. And then you can kind of tweak the things it's similar to like going from taking command of a squadron or platoon like things already going. Now you're just the new figurehead. And while you can influence its efficiency and the achievements they have, like, you're walking into something that will probably just run even if you're like still just trying to figure it out. So
Brock Briggs 37:25
I've had several people on in the past talking about like the financial end of like acquiring a business. I'd like to talk to you about kind of like the operational. And like, maybe it would be good to start out with knowing how to know whether you're right to do that. Like, I think that on the surface, especially me coming from a finance background, I maybe have a little bit of an inflated ego about oh, you know, just the margins or this will drive them to this like, in reality much more difficult. How do you know if you’re right for ETA?
Christian Ruf 38:12
Well, I think it depends what industry you go to, but at least in the industry that I operate right now, are you ready to get a phone call at 11 o'clock at night with your single and only employee crying because his, you know, ex wife won’t let him see his son and he doesn't have any money and his place he's staying at is up in 30 days. And now you need to try to figure out a way to find a new place for him to live in.
Brock Briggs 38:42
It sounds like you're definitely not speaking from personal experience.
Christian Ruf 38:46
Definitely not. No, I mean, that's like yeah, that's it like getting customer calls and like going and you know, changing Dorsey's dryer vent filter because she can't figure out the work. That's the easy part. Right now, we're renovating my father in law's restaurant. And you know, that's, you know, it's construction. So it's always like, there's always challenges but yeah, then the hard part is like, do you have the empathy to step in and take care of people who you really don't have much of a personal relationship to but they need you just as much as you need them. Like, I don't have a finance background, so I can't speak intelligently on that. But, you know, if you're going in acquiring a, you know, $4 million a year dumpster business like there's a good chance like, you'll probably be okay if you don't mess things up too much. But if you haven't led people and dealt with the emotions of leading people, it's a challenge.
Brock Briggs 40:01
I see a lot of former military officers going into this space. And I think rightfully so, you're talking about what I'm hearing you say is like, your ability and capacity to handle people in a way, which is kind of, in a sense, like what you do in the military. If you are responsible for people, you get to handle those calls from your junior troops that are in jail or like have just done stupid things beyond belief. And maybe they make great fits for this.
Christian Ruf 40:35
Yeah, I mean, like, I guess another thing is, like, I'm actually exploring this. You'll have to have the ability to not only make decisions for yourself, but for your people too. Like, if you haven't had to lead other people, like in the military, it's easy, because most people are trained to, if they can't make a decision to come with options, if they're trained well, like, here's the problem, here's three potential options. This is what I recommend and the commander makes the decision, but in the real world, here's the problem. And that's it. And whether it's a personal problem or work related problem, getting to them to that point where they come with a problem and a couple solutions as well, is a lot more difficult.
Brock Briggs 41:37
We were talking earlier about how our range of outcomes and things that we can do is much wider and broader as a civilian than it is in the military. I think the range of potential things that you can do is also extremely large to match that same kind of opportunity set. There are many things that in the military, there's only so many responses that you can take to this one action. Here, we can do a lot of things
Christian Ruf 42:06
You can. Yes, I love that analogy, man. Let that 360. That's great. Actually it helps put a lot of things into perspective.
Brock Briggs 42:19
Do you think that it's good to try to establish like SOP or I hate that I even just said that but like, establish kind of the rules by which that you're going to operate in whether it's like going into a job? Maybe you're going into ETA? Maybe it is something else? Do you think that that is helpful or is it better to keep your options open?
Christian Ruf 42:50
I think it's helpful to be aware of what your options are. And then I think it's even more helpful to look out and see what your end state is and what that end state looks like. So for me, it's now I'm in a position where I can take my daughter to school every day, if I want and I can go travel and work as much as I want to or as I don't want to and I have the personality that I love to work. So I want to be doing something I really enjoy. So now that you've realized, like all the available options, pick what you think aligns with that end state and go after it. Like set the tone for the person that you want to continue to be or be like I'm working on I guess adjusting my tone or my or my personal motivators. And just go act on it. Like back to like, I have 81 domains. Yeah, I have 81 domains. Like, it does not make sense for me to try to do something with all of them. But I have all these options. And now I'm going after the one that, like I have a lot of enjoyment and it gets me towards my end states. And it brings a sense of fulfillment to me.
Brock Briggs 44:32
You said that you love to work. Do you think that that's a good thing? And I only asked this because I also feel the same. And if you were to ask my wife, you'd probably think it was a bad thing. And so
Christian Ruf 44:49
Yeah, same thing. If you got Grace on the call here she would. She's like the other day she's like your workaholic and it's like, I know I am. So let me. It's a good thing. It's a bad thing, right? It's a blend. So her uncle, my wife's uncle, is a very talented, successful restaurant entrepreneur. And he started Ruby Tuesday's, like the chain, built it. And then it's another thing and I was on a call with him the other day. And it's a Saturday and he's just like, typing away. He's doing some spreadsheets for me. And he's like, You know what, Christian? Some people play golf. Some people play tennis, some people like to ski. I like to work. I just like to do it. And I'm be like, I don't hide anymore. He's in his, you know, he's in his 70s. Like, I enjoy working. And it's okay. And that got me thinking I was like, yeah, it is okay. Where it's not okay is when it gets in the way of everything else. It's just like everything, like I couldn't really like to mountain bike.
And I do really like to mountain bike, but I won't go mountain biking if my daughter wants me to take her to the beach. And I have had a hard time and I'm really working at creating that barrier between my obsession to work and like family. Whether that means like, I come home at like five every day. And I put my phone like upside down. I put my personal phone upside down the counter. I have to keep my work on in case a client calls. But I tried to create that separation. And just for those couple hours, I'm trying to be as present as I can with her and then she goes to bed. And if my wife and I decide we want to like watch a show whatever we do, if she wants to watch like, whatever series she is and I'm like, I gotta do some like data analysis for these mailers, I go do that. So I don't think that wanting to work a lot is a bad thing. I think that not having a way to separate yourself from it like anything else is. It's particularly difficult right now, trying to start something. It's exhausting. But it's also a lot of fun. It's also an incredible amount of fun.
Brock Briggs 47:25
I think that that is a tremendous challenge, starting something from scratch, not only while you're working, but then also in light of the conversation that we're having right now talking about your family. If you're working like nine to five at your regular corporate job or whatever. Normally the time that you'd be working on your startup is maybe five to nine in the evening or whatever. But that's family time. So then you start to see the sleep wane a little bit. And no, maybe the diet not as good. And
Christian Ruf 47:56
Well, the number one hack number the two hacks I've had to this is we moved from like a single family home in Nashville that had a yard and beautiful landscaping to a like apartment villa in an HOA where I don't have to do any landscaping, I don't have to do any lawn care. And by the way, my in laws own four restaurants that are within a five minute drive of our house. So I don't have to do any chores, have to pay for it. And we just run to the restaurants whenever we want to grab food. So I figured out a way to like introduce a little bit more time. But it's definitely a hack.
Brock Briggs 48:39
This is like all resonating so hard. I have had this conversation with my wife several times. We bought the house that we're in. This was our first home purchase a year or two ago. And while I have really enjoyed having the best looking lawn in the neighborhood and learning I'm not a handy or like a maintenance person, I really enjoy working with my mind but my hands. And it's been a good fulfilling challenge to work on those things. And as we're talking about her getting out of the Navy, we've talked about where we want to live and I'm like, you know, I wouldn't fight it if we want to move to an apartment. Like, I really wouldn't. The money will save, we'll put that into retirement or go buy a rental or a couple of weeks or something. And there's an unbelievable amount of time that is required to maintain a home.
Christian Ruf 49:33
Yes, it is and that's why concierge home maintenance is such a good thing because some people just don't want to do it at all. But yeah, now it has been a huge help.
Brock Briggs 49:50
If we're going to talk about Jumbo mailers, we need to start with the origin of this idea. Not that direct mail is something that's new. But where did you source the idea that you needed to start this thing?
Christian Ruf 50:08
Twitter. I was looking for a way to market my home service business and a guy on Twitter, John Metzner did a post about sending letters with golf balls inside bubble mailers to business owners for like to try to find businesses to buy. And I thought, wow, I should just do that for the customers I'm trying to acquire. And so I did that. I've found a community near me, it's on a golf course, super wealthy homes. So I got some data, figured out all the names, addresses, yada, yada. And I sent them handwritten notes with a golf tees and covet and in custom divot fixtures inside to try to elicit a response. And my biggest mistake was not putting an offer inside. I just wrote a note that said, you know, we'll fix, you know, you fix your divots, we'll fix your home. And then I gave our offerings.
And what happened was of the 400 that I sent, I sent them the same day that I launched my website. And within three days, my website traffic with like, really no SEO, no Google my business page went from 11 to 160. And like, I didn't have a good, like, our website didn't have a good like lead capture on it. And I got some calls, I got like two or three calls out of 400, which is close to 1%. But these calls that came in, you know, they're $35,000 yearly contracts or $250,000 like lifetime value of customers. So it's like well covered the cost of sending 400 of these out. And I shared it with the other guys who are kind of in my cohort of doing this. And they're like, yes, it seems like a great idea. And then on December 28, mobile home park guy, another Twitter guy, did a thread on if you want to start a business, someone should do this.
And he outlined how you would create a chunky mailer business. And I was like, yeah, somebody should do that because I'm so sick of having to stuff these things myself. And I would just pay for the convenience for someone to send them out on my behalf. And then I realized that I should be that person. And that same night, I bought several domains. I went with jumbo mailers. I created a card website in like 15 minutes. And I just messaged him, I said, alright, it's on, let's do it. And I think I just started talking about it on Twitter. I'm sending it to people. And I started getting really positive feedback. And so I just kept going with it. And now we're 60 days in last week, we closed probably about $30,000 in sales. And we did a test to get an open rate and we got 90% and now we're doing a kind of a controlled test on response rate. And yeah, it's taken off.
Brock Briggs 53:33
That is absolutely wild. That is so cool in such like a niche kind of idea. Is the idea of sending a like large piece of mail trying to elicit a response that they're not going to throw away the packaging or that it sticks out in their stack of mail.
Christian Ruf 53:59
Everybody opens package. I sent 50 of them to friends and family before like publicly said I was doing this and so it was just a man just look like this metallic mailer with a label on it. And a postcard on the inside, I wrote and now it said hey, it's Christian. If you get this, this seems really dumb, but please take a picture and send it to me. And the only people who didn't send me a picture of it we had the wrong addresses for, so everybody opened it. Even my fraternity brothers who knew I was doing this like they opened it and I'm like, oh, oh, okay. Oh, you got me. That's like yeah, I know, reopens package. So
Brock Briggs 54:36
That is so cool. Who were the first people that you sold this to? You said you had 30,000 in sales in the first month.
Christian Ruf 54:44
Yeah, first 45 days home service businesses, realtors, car details, I mean, car detailing company in Minnesota pressure Washington guy in New York City, a roofer in Colorado, a line striping company in Texas, pest control Realtor in California, real estate private equity firm, a land buyer in New Jersey. I mean, like anyone who's trying to get a message someone and wants to get out from behind the noise that is cold emails and you know, SEO. Yeah, it's applied to industries all over the place.
Brock Briggs 55:33
I'd love to talk about costs, if you don't mind me getting into that. Is that okay?
What is a service like this run, I'm assuming that you've got maybe tears or different packages that you can offer. I'd love to hear about what the cost is to the customer, what it costs you and then we can kind of take it from there.
Christian Ruf 55:57
Yeah, so the cost to the customer right now is $2.87. And
A mailer. And we have one right now we have one offering, because we're just trying to hone like our I guess, MVP, if you want to call it that. So right now it's a five by eight mailer with a double sided four by six postcard in it. And the cost includes the wall design, it will print it will find your the addresses and the data for you based off of what our demographics you're trying to go after. You know, we'll process it and we ship it out. So it's yeah, all in $2.87. We've had some that fluctuate, where they want to add like heavier, bulkier items in it and then that just drives the size pricing and the postage pricing. But the competitive advantage is that we have a contract with the USPS that allows us to get postage for a fraction of the retail cost. So if you were to go do these on your own to be $4 each and postage and we have it down to less than $1.
Brock Briggs 57:07
Wow, how did you negotiate that?
Christian Ruf 57:11
It is a huge pain
Brock Briggs 57:13
A lot of haggling?
Christian Ruf 57:14
You know, a mobile home park guy in his thread said the most difficult part about this process will be getting this permit from the USPS. And I thought how hard could it be? You spell a couple of forms. It has been a huge pain and it's still a huge pain. USPS is probably the most poorly run business in the world. And like, you go to one clerk and they give you this rate for postage, you get another clerk and they give you another and luckily I made somebody really happy one day and we got a really good rate. So, yeah.
Brock Briggs 57:53
Were there contractual agreements that you needed to like send X amount of products with them to secure that rate?
Christian Ruf 58:01
Yeah, it's a minimum of 250. And so we set our minimum send is 400. We have a warehouse in Texas that does all this. It kind of coincides with the E-commerce business that my business partners have. At first, it was my wife and I'm stuffing them. And then we got sick of having I literally had 5000 bubble mailers at my house at one given time with another 5000 on the way and I diverted this to the warehouse when I realized that the only possible way to scale this is to have that element in place, so.
Brock Briggs 58:42
It's probably a really good sign for maybe early signs of product market fit when you're having to worry about scaling because of demand, like within 45 days. That's a really good time.
Christian Ruf 58:56
Yeah, like we had a conversation last week of getting a sales rep. And we were getting a sales rep because I can't do it all anymore. Like last week, I was having five to eight conversations a day with people who wanted to do it. I would say about 90% of the leads that come through the website turned into a phone call and of that portion 80% convert into clients. So it's pretty good. And it's all from Twitter. All this is from Twitter. We have not had a single customer from outside Twitter yet. And so we just keep asking ourselves the question, what happens when people outside Twitter are aware of this offering because there is no one else in the United States doing this, so.
Brock Briggs 59:55
That's like I said another really good sign when nobody’s doing something.
Christian Ruf 1:00:01
Or it is really a bad sign, right? Like it could have gone either way. But luckily for us right now, it's a good one.
Brock Briggs 1:00:09
I didn't ask this before, but you said that it costs in the neighborhood of $2.80 per mailer per customer, what is the costs look like for you? What were you needing to like commit to with the E-commerce warehouse to like stand this up?
Christian Ruf 1:00:25
So what we needed to commit to them was a set price on fulfillment. So we pay them a set fee per item for fulfillment. That's I guess that's how most ecommerce works and I shopped around, and luckily, ended up being that mobile home park guy has an E commerce business and it just was a good fit for us to do it together. The cost for us is the margins are pretty low. But it's more of a I think they're at like gross margins, I think are right now 48%. So not terrible, but I mean, it's really, it's a volume game.
And having created this in a home service startup and recognizing that home services are going to get a lot of value from this, we decided that the more value at a competitive price that we can provide, is going to keep our customers happier in the long term. And we want to keep a customer for life. Rather than try to like make a huge amount off of like the first sale. And they're already seeing that value, because of the response rates they're getting. And we're seeing the value because, like, the leads, the people keep coming in people are now you know, people are now referring to their friend’s stuffs.
Brock Briggs 1:02:11
I mean, near 50% gross margins for a physical product is pretty wild. So I think that that's
Christian Ruf 1:02:18
Okay, I mean, honestly I don't. I'm used to selling services and labor, not like physical products. So great. So I'm now learning every day. Sounds like I'm doing something right.
Brock Briggs 1:02:33
Well, I might, somebody might annihilate me when they hear this and maybe say that that's really bad. But in my head, I'm like, well, thinking about the infrastructure that's required for physical products. And I know that like FBA stores and like E commerce generally is like not anywhere near that. So and this is like, I would probably put this in a similar basket where you're like having to outsource I'd like three PL like services
Christian Ruf 1:03:05
Well, what may end up happening is us absorbing a larger warehouse. So like those margins may deteriorate. But yeah, I mean, right now, I mean, people pay $1. There's a company out there that does direct mail, just regular direct mail that charges anywhere from $1.29 to $1.99, a postcard. And on top of that, they charge 200 to $1,000 a month just to use their service and they work with home service companies. And I'm just thinking, you're doing this spray and pray method of just like sending to everybody in the community and 80% of them might not be your ideal customer, you're spending all this money and what type of return are you getting?
And so we took the approach of we don't use spray and pray. We're going to use data to find your ideal customer. Like if you say I want to find every 55 year old female lawyer that is single and has a dog lives in a townhouse and has eyeglasses we can find that if that's your ideal customer if that's your avatar like your message is only going to go to them. We're not going to end up sending it to the you know 33 year old couple expecting a new baby and they have contacts instead of glasses. So that's where this gets fun. Working with home service companies or really anybody to figure out okay, who is in fact your ideal customer and how can we target them and them only?
Brock Briggs 1:04:45
How and what kind of data are you using to help narrow that down?
Christian Ruf 1:04:51
There's all these different, dude, it is freaky. There's all these different services out there. I know like some real estate investors use prop streams. We use a combination of data aggregators and real estate data through a variety, I think, like I think we have four different services right now that we subscribe to. And then we can overlay those parameters to reach that ideal customer.
Brock Briggs 1:05:23
One of the things that I think is interesting about this business, too, is, obviously you've got a really good start on it. And thinking about the total addressable market, I mean, there's, like the lead gen is something that will, has always been and will always be a really, really critical factor. And you're able to play your industry agnostic. And I think that the really the only thing that changes in lead gen over time is like what's in style for what works, you know, whether it's Facebook advertising, you know, maybe it's direct mail postcards or this is kind of like another variation of that. That's super interesting.
Christian Ruf 1:06:06
I had a call this roofer on Saturday. And he said, you know, I spend so much money on SEO and email campaigns and SMS texting and hearing you guys do this, is a breath of fresh air for something that I know that if I put $1 into this, I'm gonna get three, four $20 out of it. I can track the return. If it doesn't work, I know it's because I didn't send the right offer or we weren't sending it to the right. audience. And he, like we kept talking, we talked for like an hour. And he's like, you know, Christian, like, I know, it's not sexy, but you are in a growth industry. It's like, I guess, like, yeah, email has a 17% open rate and like we have a 90 and it's mail.
Brock Briggs 1:07:03
Right, you're predating the newsletter here. And people are talking about their 50% open rate on their newsletter like this is the new subscription newsletter
Christian Ruf 1:07:12
Yeah, I'm gonna do a newsletter, but it's gonna go to your home.
Brock Briggs 1:07:15
I love that. That's super exciting. And I imagine there's a lot of work to do in the early days here as you guys figure it out. But like I said before, those are good problems to have.
Christian Ruf 1:07:29
Yeah, good problems to have. Yeah
Brock Briggs 1:07:31
I want to kind of start to wind down the conversation with a funny and interesting topic. We need to figure out what you're going to deal with smokedporkbutts.com and maybe some of your other domains.
Christian Ruf 1:07:48
So of my 81, I think that's probably my favorite. And I think it was just one night just seeing if it was available and it was available. And I was like, how has no one thought that like it just fun. I don't know anything about SEO, but it seems like from a like, a website, a niche website creators perspective, that would be a good one. So I've got it available. I would love to do it. Do some with someone I don't have the time to. I don't know what would you use for?
Brock Briggs 1:08:25
So when we first started talking, what my first idea was, is that you need to kind of go my first like inkling of what I was thinking was all of the guys on Tik Tok that like do recipes like there's the cooking on the Blackstone guy. Do you know who I'm talking about? He's always just the weird little freaking out thing he's kind of this older guy. He's like having a beer just kind of being cool dad energy, whatever. So I thought of him. And then I also thought of this other old man who's got this big gray beard. These are all video format and so but all kind of like dropped back. This old man who wears like overalls, big gray beard.
And he's like, got this super monotone voice and he's just like, first you take this and then you add some salt and pepper and it's like it's always like this obscene amounts of whatever seasoning and shit is going on. It's just like, oh 25 pounds of butter like pouring it in there. Like it just is so obnoxious. I'll have to find one and send it to you but one he looks ridiculous. And so it's like kind of draws you in to his voice is like kind of annoying, but you're just like, why is he talking like that? Three, the overalls and what he's wearing. He also has this like a wrist guard that looks like it would put like 50 caliber bullets in it, but there's like hot sauces in it. And it's like all of these different sauces like this guy is a cooking machine.
Christian Ruf 1:10:01
Is this on Tiktok?
Brock Briggs 1:10:02
Yeah, I think so. So I think that that is actually and that guy, he did some type of like, he has gotten really big or whatever, but he actually made his own sauce. And I think that that's a product that you can buy now. I think that that is the direction that you want to go though, like, either take submissions on, like different recipes and then you just like show them cooking or like, everybody loves those like videos where you open the smoker and it's like, the meat being cut up or whatever, like it's kind of like a satisfying video to watch. So I think that there's a video angle to this that you're going to need to play. Maybe competitions for like best rubs, that would probably be really interesting like a go buy like every single rub in Winco or whatever your local grocery store is. And then like, buy 50 pork butts or something and you smoke all of them and just do like a taste test.
Christian Ruf 1:11:04
So I do have a trailer smoker that I can do 20 on so we can do 20
Brock Briggs 1:11:11
There you go. Yeah and if you're like obviously that would be a lot of meat and so you couldn't probably feasibly do that to yourself but if you have like a single smoker or maybe just use the trailer for that, but like go buy all the different rubs and then just start like a review channel. And then like do it talk about, I know nothing about just smoked anything. I've just my dad is really good at smoking meat but
Do you have a smoker yet?
No, I don't. If you're trying to pitch in, you know, I do have a baby on the way
Christian Ruf 1:11:44
Yeah, it’s easy to turn it into a dad news, man, you gotta like
Brock Briggs 1:11:49
I saw this really funny meme that there's two things that you can get into when you're like a dad. You can get into like World War Two history or smoking meat. And so yeah, that's the one.
Christian Ruf 1:12:01
Maybe that's the thing. It's smokedporkbutts.com dad smoking meat.
Brock Briggs 1:12:08
There you go. Yeah, I think you have to do reviews of all the different rubs do like a video a week you're gonna have to commit to eating just so much smoke pork, but
Christian Ruf 1:12:21
I have zero time but yes. All added to the you know, like going back to like, you know, the 360. Like, I'm trying to choose my little lane right now to kind of like hone in on and so will rent the restaurant. we're renovating. We are adding a smoker too. So maybe that'll be a yeah, maybe I can tie that in somehow.
Brock Briggs 1:12:42
Yeah. Get go to one of the whoever the cooks is over at this thing. Find a cook with like a really wild personality. And like, either have them do it like do a different one a week or whatever like that. And then anyway, long game is like after you've tried 500 different rubs, then you launch your own. And then you'll have kind of the report and whatever. And
Christian Ruf 1:13:08
I do have one. I do have one. My father in law, he used to have smokers and all of his restaurants got rid of them without bringing him back. So maybe that's it. All right.
Brock Briggs 1:13:19
Well, it's the direction I would go.
Christian Ruf 1:13:22
Yeah. it's too early for me to quit Jumbo mailers. But yeah, I mean, the like, smoked pork isn't I don't think it's going anywhere.
Brock Briggs 1:13:30
Oh, it's definitely not.
Christian Ruf 1:13:32
You gotta get a smoker, though.
Brock Briggs 1:13:34
I know. I've been sleeping on the smoking thing. I think that that's probably for a couple of reasons. One, just being like, my wife will probably have two bites of it. And I will just like I did a, I'm part of like a veteran group thing. And we had a handful of people over at the house. And I did a big one in the crock pot because I don't have a smoker, it turned out good. But then this whole big 20 pound thing like, you know, we didn't even eat half of it. And then I had half of it go to waste. And it just yeah
Christian Ruf 1:14:12
What I ended up doing is, whenever I smoke, I'll do a bunch. And then we just grab big tin foil trays from the restaurants, whatever and we'll make a big salad or we'll make a big thing of macaroni cheese or Black Eyed Peas. And then we just bring them to all the families around us. Especially in Nashville, we do that because there's a lot of COVID babies on our streets. So like everybody was our age and had a baby and so we would just like distribute barbecued everybody.
Brock Briggs 1:14:43
There you go. That's a nice neighborly thing to do.
That was nice.
Christian, this has been a ton of fun. I've really enjoyed chatting with you and getting to know you. If you had one piece of actionable advice for a service member or vet that we can go and implement in our lives today, what do you think that would be?
Christian Ruf 1:15:05
Yeah,if you have an idea that have conviction on, just start.
Go make some sales?
Yeah, just start it and like most businesses or ideas don't cost a lot to start on.And yeah, failure is so much better than quitting.
Brock Briggs 1:15:24
It sure can help guide your next decision and you don't know until you try.
What can me and or the listeners do to be useful to you? You want to send them to social media, Jumbo Mailer?
Christian Ruf 1:15:39
I'm on Twitter. Twitter is the only one I'm on right now. And if you just search Christian Ruf, my handle is @pinpulleddrmf and yeah, that's where I'm spending a lot of my time recently.
Brock Briggs 1:15:59
And if you have the need for home services or jumbo mailing, reach out.
Christian Ruf 1:16:07
Yeah, you know, come reach out to us. If you want to send some and you don't have a use case for 400, I'll teach you how to do it and not spend $4 a piece on postage. Happy to do that.
Brock Briggs 1:16:21
Awesome. Christian, I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much.