LAB Neda Sahebelm Podcast Transcript

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Neda Sahebelm: [00:00:00] With scale, we want to achieve more, but without substantially increasing more. So in fact, there's a school of thought with scale, and it's this idea that you add something, you remove something else. So you're maximizing your outcomes while staying limited and lean with your input. The trick though, is doing this without compromising quality.

Amardeep Parmar: Today, we're talking about how to scale your business without the caps. We're going to first of all, just define what does scale even mean. Then we're going to go into why founders are scared of scaling. What's the stresses that sometimes come with it. And what's the reality of being a founder of a scaling company.

Amardeep Parmar: Then we're going to go into the chaos framework of how do you deal with that? How do you actually manage this? Then we're going to dive deep into that framework and look into some of the problems that sometimes founders might struggle to deal with in terms of finding the right cultural fit as they scale their business.

Amardeep Parmar: And how you deal with that. Today, we'll [00:01:00] have our expert with us, Neda Sahabelm, who's worked at multiple massive companies and helped them grow from the early stages to the latest stages. So she was at Fox, she was at NatGeo, EMA region, right through to Disney Acquisition. Most recently, she worked at EdTech Unicorn Multiverse from their pre seed to their Series D.

Amardeep Parmar: She comes from a working class background, so she understands many of the frustrations, many of you might feel as you're trying to scale your business. So let's get into the episode. So Neda, we're going to get into how to scale without all of the chaos. But I think first we'll need to define what does scale actually mean?

Neda Sahebelm: Yeah, I mean, scales tossed around is a word for growth, but I think there's a fundamental difference. With growth, we are prepared to add more, to achieve more. With scale, we want to achieve more, but without substantially increasing more. In fact, there's a, a school of thought with scale. And it's this idea that you add something, you remove something else.

Neda Sahebelm: So you're maximizing your outcomes while [00:02:00] staying limited and lean with your input. The trick though, is doing this without compromising quality. 

Amardeep Parmar: Yeah. And looking at that. So a lot of people, a lot of people may be scared of trying to scale because they're worried about everything that comes with that, it dramatically increases the pressure on you in some situations.

Amardeep Parmar: And are they right to think like that? Are they right to think in many cases that scale done to come with chaos? 

Neda Sahebelm: Yeah. If you see your business as a ship scale is like the first major storm that you might be going through. Um, I think it is viable to see it a stormy weather. I mean, if we look at some of the stats, a majority of startups will fail trying to attempt scale.

Neda Sahebelm: So 60 percent fail between preceding Series A and 35 percent of Series A startups will fail before reaching Series B. So founders have a lot on their minds as it is, and it can be difficult to know where to start with scale when you have funding coming in. Um. I think something that I always want to like pause and celebrate for founders is that what got you to [00:03:00] Seed or Series A is exactly what you needed to do.

Neda Sahebelm: There should be a moment to celebrate that, um, to validate the achievements because it's no easy feat. And it's not like as soon as you achieve that you need to be thinking about scale. What you should start to do or start thinking about is temper with the reality that what got you here won't necessarily get you there and you will need to say symbol.

Neda Sahebelm: Uh, you will need to stay nimble to succeed. I want all founders to find fun in scaling. I think it's gonna be their most stimulating challenge yet, but it is doable. 

Amardeep Parmar: And I  think we mentioned there as well, it comes down to there's a different skill set in some ways of what gets you to a certain position.

Amardeep Parmar: This is what then takes you further and trying to do things in the same way as what got you your seed or your series A might not be what actually gets you to where you want to end up in the long term. And when people at that kind of inflection point now, okay, we've got the basics down. We've got the 0 to 1 done, but now we want to get[00:04:00] 

Amardeep Parmar: a lot further, how should they think about that planning and long term goal  setting?

Neda Sahebelm: It's a really good question. I think with scale, people kind of approach it going again, what got me here could get me there. So when you're in that scrappy startup space, you're not thinking about things being snazzy and that's absolutely fine.

Neda Sahebelm: Everyone's jumping in, they're doing different tasks. They're kind of all hands on deck and that works really well for also building the camaraderie and the excitement around that major funding milestone. But it's exactly, as you said, you use the word structure in there and scale doesn't have to be chaotic, but you've got to think differently.

Neda Sahebelm: You've got a forward plan, you've got to be structured and you need a hell of a lot of optimism. Um, something that I always get people to think of first when it comes to scale is what is the long term goal? So you've achieved the serious funding now, or you've maybe bootstrapped. Are you trying to fund because you want to be the next big unicorn?

Neda Sahebelm: Are you trying to eventually be acquired? Are you just trying to keep the business [00:05:00] thriving for now? Um, I think ultimately I, I know this is very much thinking long term, but the ideal exit strategy for that founder is really imperative for deciding what the scale strategy will be as well. So that's always the sort of first go-to question I think of when people start to plan for scale.

Amardeep Parmar: And I guess for some people, if they're in the early stages, maybe they haven't given it a lot of thought about what is the ideal exit strategy for them. How do they go about thinking about that as well? Is the ideal path for them?  

Neda Sahebelm: That's a very loaded question. Because I think it truly depends on the ambitions of the founder.

Neda Sahebelm: Ideally, they will have thought about this at the start. You know, they'll know if they want something that's really going to be the next big unicorn we're talking impact across a lot of different borders, but it does ultimately come back to their level of control. Do they want to stick around for that journey?

Neda Sahebelm: Or are they quite happy to build the initial blocks and have someone then acquire it [00:06:00] and give it to different leadership that can scale that impact? It really depends on how much stake they want in the game. It's a hard question and it's one that doesn't necessarily have a linear answer for founders.

Neda Sahebelm: But what I will say is having an answer to that question will set up how you solve for tomorrow's problems in your scale strategy, rather than being scrappy and just thinking about, I'm just going to take whatever comes at me today. 

Amardeep Parmar: And  I guess, do you find a lot of people when they start scaling, they, they've already started doing it and then they realize that they don't know what they're doing and the chaos sets in.

Amardeep Parmar: And once the chaos has set in, it's then hard to steady the ship again, right? Using your metaphor from earlier. And what can they do at that early stage of the inflection point? So they've, they've worked out what the long term goal is. What's the next step to make sure that that past their long term goal isn't chaotic and isn't them being pulled in every different direction?

Neda Sahebelm: Yeah, that's a [00:07:00] great question. So part one, you know, they, is it easier to think about this in the early stages? Versus further down. Yes. I've absolutely been in environments where I've seen the most well intentioned, exciting missions out there try to do things in the same way that they've been doing before.

Neda Sahebelm: They haven't been nimble enough. They haven't been agile. They haven't iterated. Or they've solved the wrong problems. So they've tried to expand by adding loads of headcount or kind of just throwing money at the problem. It's great if you can do that, but that's not setting you up for longevity or sustainability.

Neda Sahebelm: So undoing the damage of that, especially from like a product people or process lens is going to be a lot more time consuming, expensive, and stressful than thinking about it early on. Obviously, not everybody does think about it early on, but I've got a system or a playbook that I've used quite a few times [00:08:00] in every team that I've scaled.

Neda Sahebelm: Uh, and ironically, it's called chaos, which I did on purpose. So K A O S. And whenever I go into a new team or a new division, new department, and I think what needs to be done, this is my audit mantra, to really think about where should I put my energy? So Kaos, K A O S stands for keep, automate, optimize, and Scrap.

Neda Sahebelm: And I look at it from a product people and process lens with founders thinking about right. Let's really look at the lay of the land in these three domains. What are you going to keep? What are you going to automate? What are you going to optimize? What are you going to scrap? That's why it's really helpful to know also what that long term goal is, because if you know you want to go for a big chunk of funding, you may get really tempted once it comes in to just start throwing money at really cool, shiny things.

Neda Sahebelm: But actually, if you've thought about what you're gonna keep, automate, optimize, and scrap, that's a great accountability measure to actually go as you would according to your plan once the very tempting money does [00:09:00] come in. 

Amardeep Parmar: Hey everyone, I hope you're enjoying this episode so far. The BAE HQ has a podcast, but we're so much more than that.

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Amardeep Parmar: If you want to help us out, the best thing you can possibly do is sign up to our newsletter and share it with your friends. So that's enough from me now, let's get back to the show. 

Amardeep Parmar: So looking at those three different domains there, how would you apply in those different domains? Could you give us even some examples over there from real life or hypothetical ones?

Amardeep Parmar: To show you like how this could benefit from the listeners. 

Neda Sahebelm: Yeah,  absolutely. So let's take them one at a time. Uh, with product, you always want to keep an eye on product market fit at all times. So through each stage of growth, you've really got to think, is my growth, you know, going to extend a region? [00:10:00] Do I want a different size client?

Neda Sahebelm: Am I going from small kind of boutique firms as my clients to major enterprise clients, you need to stay agile and keep testing and iterating that product to match those needs. What works in the United Kingdom doesn't necessarily work in the U S which doesn't necessarily work in Turkey and the Middle East and so on and so forth.

Neda Sahebelm: So it's important to stay really open to feedback and constantly be talking to your end user for product. In that sense, when you think about what you're going to KAOS, keep automated optimized scrap, you may decide actually now is the time for a really senior product person to move into a role where they are looking at

Neda Sahebelm: everything from aligning your go to market strategy to your delivery team and being that middleman, creating great KPIs and structure around that so that you can achieve success. That's one example. With people, you might be going from a flat structure, which has, you know, an ideal culture. Everybody feels aligned.

Neda Sahebelm: Everybody's all about the mission. [00:11:00] Everyone jumps in to support but at scale who’s tracking your KPIs?

Neda Sahebelm: Who is owning and communicating certain responsibilities and milestones? Who becomes your leaders? Do they have the training to be your leaders? Who are your individual contributors? Are they super clear on what their output is? There's ways to maintain an excellent culture, particularly remotely. So I don't want to put anyone off from that.

Neda Sahebelm: But it's really necessary to build out structures that are needed to sustain your growth. And that's kind of the big ticket item I've seen fall with scale is we really want to hold on to some elements of culture. But at scale, things change, people's expectations change, and the reality is you will see a lot of people exit at those different periods as well.

Neda Sahebelm: And that's okay. That's natural churn. The other thing with people is hiring just has to be more robust at scale. You really need to ask yourself is adding more headcount the solution to things? Um, is it time to hire a critical headcount, like a member of your SLT to start building out the other divisions and [00:12:00] functions?

Neda Sahebelm: Do you have? This is really important from a DNI standpoint, but do you have inclusive hiring practices and are all your leaders trained? In what those look like, because with scaled opportunity also comes scaled liability, and it's really the time to make sure that you're doing the best you can buy the candidates in that hiring process as well, because the alternative is often enough to close your business down. For process,

Neda Sahebelm: I think it's important to build as you intend to go on. So I've said it before. You want to try to solve tomorrow's problems today. If you can, it's time to think, is it, you know, the right time to outsource and use your funding towards new systems, where can you reduce the need for more head count by automating and optimize, uh, optimizing existing processes.

Neda Sahebelm: This is the time to throw money at the snazzy thing. If it is really going to set you up to improve your people's workloads and experiences working there, but also minimize the amount of manual [00:13:00] work that you guys are doing. 

Amardeep Parmar: So one of the things I want to pick up on that you mentioned is about how, as you scale, the culture will change, and some of the people that were right at the beginning won't be right later on.

Amardeep Parmar: And I think that's difficult for many founders because they try to create a culture of it being a family. But with family, you're family forever, right? And I've seen the example of it being more like a team. Right where you're on a team, like a sports team, right? So you're all working together, but people know that if you're not performing, if you're not a fit for the current system, then you're going to move on.

Amardeep Parmar: And there's generally not any hard feelings about that as well. How have you found that experience of where you're trying to scale out and you can see the culture has to change? How do you manage that side of things? Because I think that's something which I guess early stage founders are quite worried about.

Amardeep Parmar: Like, how do I not come across as the bad guy here? 

Neda Sahebelm: Yeah, that's a really excellent question. And there was a post recently on LinkedIn by Julie Zhao, who wrote Making of a Manager, which is a book I would recommend to anyone starting their leadership journey. [00:14:00] Um, yeah, I would never refer to your team at work as a family.

Neda Sahebelm: And I think any founders who do that need to pause and really think about what they're offering. Family is great in that it offers a sense of support. It's a network, et cetera, but it's important to distinguish that you are not intrinsically valuable to your employer, just by existing. It's an exchange and there are expectations that you need to uphold in your performance and in your behavior.

Neda Sahebelm: Family will have a very different way of supporting you through difficult times than an employer. And even if you have the best time at your company and you love your colleagues, you've got to remember that they are not your family. The complete opposite end of being like, Oh, it's just my employer and I don't really care.

Neda Sahebelm: And it's just a job is also not useful for that culture and definitely will fall at scale. So you're only as strong as your weakest link at the end of the day. And if you've got a lot of people who are going in and trying to fight the mission as a team. That person who's like, [00:15:00] I'm just going to put in 20 percent is setting the bar for a different level, right?

Neda Sahebelm: So I like that you've used the analogy of Mara of, of a sports team, right? If you're playing football and you've got everyone trying to get that ball closer and closer to the goal, you throw it to one person. Then all of a sudden they just kind of dropped the ball or they're like, I don't want to take this.

Neda Sahebelm: No one's scoring a goal. No one's winning. Um, so I think when we think about who needs to stay and go at different cycles of growth, there are some people who absolutely live for that jumping in. Things are scrappy. We're doing it from scratch. We're all in it together. And there are some people who cannot thrive with that lack of structure, their best set coming in to implement that structure around your seed, your series A, your series B, you know, when you move even past that, there's some people who really prefer that sort of corporate structure where things are more clearly defined and they're making existing things better.

Neda Sahebelm: So you may have at the start, [00:16:00] your biggest idea generators are your people who love to live in that scrappy system. And that's great, but we also need to be compassionate as leaders to what is going to help people thrive. And sometimes that isn't a different stage of growth. And that's the kind of time where you decide with that person again, in a very compassionate way, if there is still an opportunity for them to thrive in this new climate, or if actually it's time for them to go and find somewhere that they can.

Amardeep Parmar: And like, obviously, as you've scouted at different teams in the past. Not everything could have gone perfectly, sometimes you've joined a team that's scaled, has that chaos already. If somebody's listening right now where they haven't done the thing you've done at the beginning of setting the long term goal and think about the chaos method early, what have you done in that scenario where you've come and tried to essentially clear up somebody else's mess?

Amardeep Parmar: That somebody's come into what, what could you advise somebody to do that in terms of applying a structure where it's already chaos? 

Neda Sahebelm: Yeah, I'll give a good example. 1 of the teams that I, um, went into had an [00:17:00] employee engagement and PS score of minus 5. They were not happy. And I think it's crucial that you take a moment as a leader to think about how you're going to show up.

Neda Sahebelm: If we go back to that analogy that this is a ship, we're going through a storm. Your people are going to want to see that you are navigating this choppy waters or not. And it's calm waters ahead. They're not going to want to go, Ooh, like, how's this going to go down? And oh my God, my leader is so panicked and stressed out and this and that.

Neda Sahebelm: That's not going to make anybody feel steady on that ship. Right. So what I did in six months to bring that team's MPFs up 68 points to 63, um, couple of things, I first started out by really thinking about what I value as a leader and turn that into a common language. I put that out there on, uh, for, for the team.

Neda Sahebelm: I showed it to them in an all hands. We put it as the home screen of our notion board. It became the mutual [00:18:00] language that we all used and set the expectation for how we're all meant to treat each other. I also had to do something really difficult was, which was, I knew that there were people in the team who are not contributing positively to the culture, and I think they knew that too.

Neda Sahebelm: In that moment, I could have made a decision to really bulldog and just let people go. But I thought that would be catastrophic to the rest of my team who are putting in the work and want to be there. It would set the tone that you never know if you're the next person who's going to be leaving. So in my spirit of always having a transportation analogy, I spoke to the whole team and said, look,

Neda Sahebelm: we're on a trade and that train is going somewhere really exciting in the next year. I'm going to give you guys until the end of the week to decide. Do you want to hop on that train? In which case you've got my backing. We're going to make sure you're successful, but you've got to contribute that right back to the team.

Neda Sahebelm: Or do you want to stay at the station? And [00:19:00] that's okay. Do you want to opt to decide? Actually, this isn't for you anymore. And you're going to come to that decision yourself. I felt like that was a much more compassionate way. And all the people who needed to get that message did get that message. There were some people who felt, you know, incredible performers, great potential, wonderful people, but who had felt this just wasn't for them anymore.

Neda Sahebelm: And the feedback from my team, the ones who decided to stay was that it felt great because actually they were excited about what we were doing again. And there weren't people in those rooms kind of winding them up or making them feel jaded. So yeah, in six months, I managed to get that team from minus five employee engagement MPS to 63.

Neda Sahebelm: Um, and, and really the way to do that, I think, is to, in every case that there's going to be panic, listen to your people, know what you stand for, use a common language, remind them of what matters and most importantly, just do not ensue panic. It's unnecessary as a leader. 

Amardeep Parmar:I [00:20:00] think  a huge part we mentioned there as well as about how well you're able to set the expectations and

Amardeep Parmar: it comes from both sides, right? Because if you show something exciting and people are like, yes, I'm on board, I'm definitely going to do this and they didn't quite follow through. It's way harder to deal with that. Then, like I said, if you ask them right at the start, here's what I'm going to expect of you,

Amardeep Parmar: if you're not ready for that, then it's better for you to say no and leave now than to try to do something which you're not really engaged in. And it creates more problems. And I think it's good if more people are kind of aware of it's actually better sometimes to leave. Then to try to force something to be different to what the direction of things are moving in.

Amardeep Parmar: And if you're moving things towards exciting path, everybody's working together. If you don't want to be a part of that, you're not going to work with other people. You're actually doing the company a service and your teammates service by going somewhere else where it does fit the culture that you want to have better.

Amardeep Parmar: And that's, I think, balance sometimes of how much you [00:21:00] fight or do you want to change the culture if as an employee, or actually you just go to a place where they align with your values. And same way to think what you said there is about values, right? And as you built that team up now, and you changed on the NPS score, what were some of the tech highlights for you along that journey?

Amardeep Parmar: Like from seeing how people adapted to destructors being put in place, like if somebody is now motivated to put in place, the chaos you said, hype them up, like, make them feel good about what they're about to embark on. I had to use the embark there just to keep your analogy going. 

Neda Sahebelm: I love it. I love that.

Neda Sahebelm: And I'm going to, I'm going to go back to the analogy. So look, if you ask somebody. Do you want to go on this cruise ship with me? And they go, well, where's the destination? And you say, we're going to Croatia. If they're like, you know what? I've been to Croatia many times and I think I want to go somewhere else on this holiday.

Neda Sahebelm: At least they have clarity to [00:22:00] say that that is what they want to do. You've given them a really clear direction and they've decided it's just not for them. But then you've got some people who are like, I've never been to Croatia and that's really exciting to me. I absolutely want to spend my holiday on this cruise.

Neda Sahebelm: And those are the people who stick around and stay. I think my biggest highlights from turning that team culture around was it's no easy feat to have an awesome remote culture. And by then that team size was 110. So when I joined that team initially, it was 50 and then became 110. It was incredible. Like, you know, we had, I had a weekly office hour where people were coming in and asking questions, being really honest about what's on their minds and having access to me as the senior leader in that team to hear them out, think about how we remove blockers, get them back on track.

Neda Sahebelm: And validate, like, whether that's a concern that actually, yeah, you're right. That's a huge blocker and we need to target that ASAP. Or, look, I know this is a blocker, but I want to be honest with you. [00:23:00] It's not something that is going to be looked at now. It's going to be looked at in six months to a year.

Neda Sahebelm: And at least again, that, that really tells them the direction things are going. They can constantly reassess for themselves. But just having that assurance, that accessibility to me, meant that people stuck around because they believed we were in direction of calm water. They didn't think they were in a storm and things weren't as chaotic as they felt it might be in their minds.

Neda Sahebelm: I think another um, really big highlight was I coined this sort of term in my team. It was one of our values and it's called feeling, start, facts, finish. It's like my absolute favorite tagline. If you haven't noticed, I love a tagline. Um, but feeling, start, facts, finish. And this became a language in which the whole team spoke to each other.

Neda Sahebelm: So before we're talking quite emotive language, frustration, upset, nervousness, and it was coming a lot to me. And I sort [00:24:00] of realigned that actually it's okay to have feelings. You should have feelings. They are a prompt for something bigger, something that might need to be addressed, but air out those feelings with your manager or with a colleague in a really constructive way, thinking about all the solutions that are possible and then bring me the facts.

Neda Sahebelm: And it made things so much more efficient because you had people coming into one to ones with me or an office hours, just being like this is costing me this much time and this much thought and this much X, Y, Z. Like, how can we get rid of this? Or I've got an idea for how we can make this even better.

Neda Sahebelm: And it was so easy for me to just filter and yep, this is a priority. Okay. This one, maybe six to 12 months. Okay. And constantly tell my team, yep, this is how we're rejigging the navigation. This feeling start, facts, finish became like a tagline everyone would use and use as an accountability measure for each other, which was great.

Neda Sahebelm: They'd be like, okay, you're in your feeling start like, get it out, vent, did it up, right. How do we now get to fax [00:25:00] finish? Um, so yeah, that became kind of one of my favorite cultural taglines and mantras in the team, and it really changed how people communicated upward, downward and side to side to just make it so that there wasn't any tension or

Neda Sahebelm: toxicity that wasn't being spoken about in the team. 

Amardeep Parmar: So thanks so much for coming on today and sharing your wisdom with the audience. We're going to move to  quick fire questions now. So first one is, there are three British Asians that you want to spotlight that you think the audience should be paying attention to?

Neda Sahebelm: Ooh, great question. I come from a working class background and I'm a woman of color, so I feel like it would be remiss of me not to shout out Dimple Patel, uh, exited CEO of Trouva. She's got an amazing story, one of my idols, so absolutely have to put her on that list. Speaking of, um, working class background founders, also have to shout out, uh, Nilesh Dosa.

Neda Sahebelm: He started something called I Can, You Can Too, and every time I speak to Nilesh, I just get a buzz of [00:26:00] energy. Thinking about giving back to the communities that we grew up in. And I think the third one I've got to shout out is my former colleague turned friend, fellow old multiverse coach, Richard, uh, Richard Ng, who started GreenworkX.

Neda Sahebelm: And that's putting, um, people into roles and closing that. Digital skills gap, but specifically for climate change. So those three absolutely deserve a shout out. If you don't follow them already, please do. 

Amardeep Parmar: So as you know, I'm already big fans of all three of those people. So next question is if people listening right now, love what you said here, they want to find out more about you and more about what you're up to, where they go to?

Neda Sahebelm: Yeah, absolutely. So after a really buzzing career of scaling a couple different places, I mentioned Fox, NatGeo, Multiverse. Um, I've gone off to open my own business called Keshty, which translates to ship in Farsi. So if you've been catching along with the ship related metaphors. This all brings it to light and really [00:27:00] the mission is to gear up underrepresented founders for an exciting journey through scaling their business.

Neda Sahebelm: Storm not required. I feel like I need to say that you got to set scale, set sail for scale storm, not required. Um, best way to find me is on LinkedIn. You can find everything you need to there about how to connect with me, how to work with me. Um, but most importantly, I think after this really exciting journey that I've had all these years and through many different funding rounds, I'm so excited to pay it forward and work with amazing minority founders who I appreciate don't always have the affordance to make a mistake when it comes to scale.

Neda Sahebelm: So I know the risk is higher and I'm here to help you sleep at night. 

Amardeep Parmar: So the, your LinkedIn will be in the show notes, but anybody who wants to connect with you, is there anything you're looking for help with right now yourself who the, audience reach out to you to maybe help you?

Neda Sahebelm: Absolutely. I am really big on this idea that your network is your net worth.

Neda Sahebelm: I love building relationships with other minority founders, [00:28:00] especially coming from a working class background, um, coming from an ethnic minority, women, et cetera. I've had the pleasure of working with a lot of different groups of people in my time, and I'm so excited to help them get a seat at the table.

Neda Sahebelm: I think diverse voices are so important, and we don't see a lot of them particularly backed by VC. It's quite a big thing, um, that a lot of research has gone into a lot of time and a lot of reports. I, like I said, I really just want to be able to help. Minority founders get it right the first time and help them sleep at night.

Neda Sahebelm: So if you know of any minority founders or you're one yourself who could benefit from connecting with me, I would love to get to know you. 

Amardeep Parmar: So thanks  so much for coming on. Any final words to the audience? 

Neda Sahebelm: Just  shout out to you, my, my good friend, Amar. Thanks for doing this. Always, uh, escalating the voices of British Asians out there.

Neda Sahebelm: And we love the BAE HQ at Keshti. So whoop whoop. Thanks for having me on.[00:29:00] 

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