What Agency Model is Right for you with Jessica Lackey

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In this episode of The Agency Accelerator, host Rob Da Costa dives into the crucial question - What Agency Model is Right for you?

Joined by business and operations strategist, Jessica Lackey, they discuss the importance of reassessing one's role as a business owner and aligning personal and business visions. Jessica shares valuable insights on designing one's role, letting go of control, and shifting focus to higher-value tasks.

We explore different agency personas/options and provide actionable steps for agency owners to determine their desired model and mindset for growth and delegation.

Topics Covered In This Episode:

[02:51] Recognise when your ambitions don't align with your desires.

[03:40] 4 types of persona you can be when running your agency

[05:40] How do you decide what role/persona you want to take in your agency?

[09:15] At what stage should you start considering these questions?

[10:40] Once I have decided on my persona, how do I start changing the agency to step into that new role?

[12:08] How important is mindset in all this?

[18:38] Taking steps to change your role

[21:12] What to do if you feel stuck in your current role

[25:34] How do agency owners continue to evolve their role?

[27:57] Align your personal vision with your business vision. Start with your ‘why’.

[28:50] If you could go back in time and give your younger self, a piece of advice, what would you say?


"Every year you should step away, evaluate what you want for your life and business, and see how your role can evolve."— Jessica Lackey
“50% of the success of your agency is getting the right mindset.” - Rob Da Costa
"Your business trajectory should align with your personal goals. Saying 'not this year' doesn't mean 'never', just a decision for now that is based on everything going on in life." — Jessica Lackey

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 Full Episode Transcription

Rob Da Costa [00:00:00]:

Hey, everyone, and welcome to this week's agency Accelerator Podcast. Now, we all like to think of ourselves as agency owners, but is that actually the right title for you? And what role do you actually want to play in your agency? And what role are you actually playing on a day-to-day basis?

Rob Da Costa [00:00:18]:

I'm Rob Da Costa, and this is the agency Accelerator Podcast. As someone who has stood in your shoes, having started, grown and sold my own agency, I know just how it feels in the ups and downs of agency life. So this podcast aims to ease your journey just a little by sharing mine and my guest's experiences and advice as you navigate your way to growing a profitable, sustainable and enjoyable business.

Rob Da Costa [00:00:42]:

Now, before we jump into today's podcast, I want to tell you about a free Masterclass that I'm running today and next week. It's called Three Strategies to Elevate Your Role and Build a Self-running Agency. And it's going to give you a roadmap to get out of the weeds, shift from underpaid, overworked employee to CEO, systemize your agency and drive consistent growth. During the 60 Minutes Masterclass, I'm going to share with you how to get rid of the eternal freelancer mindset and transform into a hyperproductive and growth-driven CEO. I'm going to help you quickly assess your current position and what needs to change in order for you to create consistent growth. We're going to discuss the hurdles that prevent agency owners from achieving their true potential and how to overcome them. So head over to dacostacoaching.co.uk/ceo-masterclass.

Rob Da Costa [00:01:33]:

That's dacostacoaching.co.uk/ceo-masterclass and reserve your seat for one of the three live sessions I'm running this week and next week. Okay, back to the show.

Rob Da Costa [00:01:45]:

Now, once you're clear about your role, then you can make sure that the right business model is aligned accordingly. All really interesting points to ponder and questions that we are going to answer in this week's episode of the Agency Accelerator Podcast with my guest, Jessica Lackey. So, welcome to the show, Jessica. Why don't we kick things off by giving us a brief overview of what you do today and what got you into that role?

Jessica Lackey [00:02:11]:

Yeah, I'm a business and operations strategist, helping small businesses, and tiny teams, grow and scale their financially and energetically, sustainable businesses. The reason I say financially and energetically, sustainable businesses is because I was trapped in the big corporate machine for many years. I was on the growth escalator, Harvard Business School top tier consulting firm, Fortune 500, and I looked up at the next level of success in every one of those companies and said, that's not me, and I don't want that version of success. So how do I take the skills I've learned and bring them to the small business ecosystem?

Rob Da Costa [00:02:51]:

Fantastic. And isn't it good that you recognised that wasn't for you and did something about it? I think a lot of people end up being trapped in the kind of ambition of what they think they should be doing next. And that isn't particularly aligned with what they really want to do. And maybe they have a midlife crisis or something and figure that out later on in their lives. So I guess that sort of leads us quite succinctly onto what we're talking about today. Because I think most people start their agency, they're sort of entrepreneurial. They've got an idea they are doing absolutely everything to start with. And then as the agency grows over time, unless they're really conscious about it, they end up fulfilling a role that maybe one day they wake up and think, this is not exactly what I want to do.

Rob Da Costa [00:03:35]:

So you shared with me before the interview that there are a number of sorts of personas that agency owners can fall into. So why don't you tell us a bit about what they are and some of the pros and cons of each of those roles?

Jessica Lackey [00:03:49]:

Yeah, so there's what I call the Craftsman type agencies, where you are an agency in name but really in function. You're doing most of the work. You may have someone helping out with some of the delivery and some of the administration, but you're largely doing most of the work. Then you start to move to a more, quote-unquote traditional agency model where you might have someone else doing project management and account management, but you're still retaining the sales, the strategic visioning. You're still retaining most of the creative design, but you've outsourced a lot of the back-end office, maybe not some of the client-facing work with project management, but you're still retaining the strategic direction. Then you have the agencies where you become, quote-unquote, the Rainmaker, where you've got someone that's a creative director or a lead strategist. You've got someone doing sales and your job is big-picture brand building. You're basically the thinking, thought leader, but you're not doing any of the work anymore.

Jessica Lackey [00:04:56]:

But your job then becomes managing your team and setting strategic direction. And then we've got agencies that actually stop doing, quote-unquote, agency work and move into being creator models, where you have a small agency or you have a big agency, but your job is spent speaking, selling books, making courses, teaching others how to build agencies versus actually running an agency. So those are the different models I see the Craftsman, the Pure Agency, the Rainmaker and the Educator model. Essentially, those are all flavours of different agency types.

Rob Da Costa [00:05:32]:


Rob Da Costa [00:05:33]:

And how does an agency owner determine what persona is right for them? And how do they kind of consciously make a decision to move into one of those four different personas that you mentioned? I think a lot of us, and I guess I'm talking from my personal experience here when I ran my agency, that we start our agency with the best intentions. It kind of grows and it grows and it grows. And we're not maybe consciously thinking about that. And then one day we wake up thinking, what am I doing? And this isn't the role that I want to play. So how can we consciously make a decision about what is the best persona type for us? And yeah, I've just been interested in your tips on how to go about doing that.

Jessica Lackey [00:06:16]:

Yeah, you're right. And almost everyone just kind of stumbles into the agency. They look up and they say, well, I've hired all these people and I actually don't like the job I've created for myself because there's a very big difference between the Craftsman, where you're doing all of it and you're like, I wish I could just take a day off. And then there's a big gap towards when you can really delegate all of it to the team and really be the face of a brand versus being in the weeds of an agency and all those steps along the way. We have to decide, do we want to cross? Do we want to pass Go? Do we want to move to the next step up the scale? And I think there are four different questions that we ask. The first one is, what is enough for you? Enough time, enough money? I think there's this perception that as we grow, our finances are going to grow, and that's actually not always the case. Sometimes you can be much more wildly profitable as a Craftsman-type agency versus a bigger agency with a lot fewer moving parts. The second one is, what's the role you want to have again? Like, what work do you like doing? As you move up the scale, your role becomes sales, it becomes partnership building, it becomes team management team hiring team leading and team mentorship.

Jessica Lackey [00:07:40]:

Unless you get to be large enough where you can actually have a GM to manage the day-to-day workings of the team, your role shifts from doing the craft that you might have loved to do to selling and managing a team and running a business that may not be the role you want to play. The third question is, what is the impact I want to have? Because we think, oh, well, I can serve more clients, but if you don't actually get to do the serving and your team does the serving, do you want that kind of impact? Because it's, quote-unquote, bigger scale, but it's less impactful for you as the individual. And then what's the responsibility you want to bear to your clients, your team, and your community? Because when we think about being on a team, we have to have the responsibility to keep the projects coming in. We have to train them. We have to provide career paths. We have to make sure that with our customers, we are providing good quality control. It can't be like, well, if you get this project and you work with me, or so and so you're going to get a much better experience than if you work with someone else. That's a lot of responsibility.

Jessica Lackey [00:08:50]:

It comes with that potential financial trade-off of being able to have a business that kind of runs without you. But there's a lot of responsibility there. And I think those are the four questions that we need to evaluate before we decide, what kind of business do I want to run?

Rob Da Costa [00:09:07]:

Yeah, such great questions. I just don't think many people are actually considering that. So let me ask you, what stage of an agency's evolution should the agency owner start to think about these questions?

Jessica Lackey [00:09:19]:

I really think it's before you hire your first client-facing person. The reason that being is that before then, you might have your project management outsourced. You might be able to handle the back end, but before you put someone else in front of the client, you have to decide in a role that's not just like project management in a real account role, in a real sales role, or real strategy role. Do I want to give up that kind of creative control? Do I want to give up that client relationship? That's the biggest discontinued point from like a step change perspective that we have to evaluate because that's really the point of no return for changing your agency.

Rob Da Costa [00:09:58]:

Yeah, I wish someone had asked me those questions when I was starting out because you just got on with the day-to-day and the world happened and suddenly you wake up and you got 25 staff and you think, how did I get here? So I think that's good advice. Think about these as soon as you can. Now, what happens if I thought about these questions and I've decided that I want to take more of a figurehead type of role or a sales role? I don't want to be delivering all the client work. I want to have a larger impact, but I'm a long way from that. So once I've decided on that sort of persona, how do I go about shaping a business to actually get there?

Jessica Lackey [00:10:39]:

This is all about strengthening those systems. Your hiring system, your team management system, your operation system. It's about downloading, and how you think about strategically leading projects. So it's the work of probably a multi-year journey. I know that sounds that's, like, the least sexy thing I've ever said, but a multi-year journey of stair-stepping your way to that growth, making sure that your client marketing and sales, that you're bringing in enough new business to support those decision points along the way, where you're bringing on team. Because at every step of the way, you are building the plane as you're flying the plane. This means that every time you kind of implement one of those new systems, or bring on someone new, that typically comes with a period of needing to buffer with time and cash. So that's how we say how do we methodically, intentionally go through this journey, bringing on support staff to help us through those navigation points?

Rob Da Costa [00:11:38]:

Yeah, as I say to everybody, you need to have a really clear roadmap of where you're going in order to get to that destination. Otherwise, maybe you'll get to a destination without a plan, but you probably won't and you'll probably take a lot of wrong turns on the way. So having a clear roadmap with actual milestones of how you're going to get there is super important. Where do you think or how important do you think mindset is in all of this? Because well, I won't answer the second part of that question. I've got some views on this, but let me just ask you, how important is mindset in all of this?

Jessica Lackey [00:12:12]:

It's very important, especially depending on where you came from. From an organisational perspective, where at least the organisation I came from, it was politics, it was holding your information close to the chest to get promoted, it was power plays. And that's how most of us were taught to lead and taught to hire most of us. Especially if you built your business with the thinking in your mind being like, my value is my time, my value is me, my value is my hands on keyboard. Knowing that we don't have good models of leadership in a lot of the organisations we came from and knowing that for the first X number of years in your business you've been conditioned to say, my value in this business is me. It's a huge mindset shift and it's really the combination of letting go, but also having a vision towards what my next role is. And that's where having a conscious awareness of the roles and how they shift in the business comes to say, well, if I'm not doing this, and I'm not, quote, unquote, busy doing what I was doing, what should I be doing? As you move up the ladder from this hierarchy, the things you end up doing take up much more white space and are much less meetings booked out on the calendar. You might have times when you have a whole day of nothing, quote, unquote, nothing.

Jessica Lackey [00:13:32]:

Because your job is thinking large, making deals, being present, making connections, and those can't come in like that, can't come in the manager schedule, where it's 30-minute time blocks, it needs to come with a lot of time and space. And if you're not prepared to look at a calendar that's not quite as filled as it was, your tendency is to jump back into micromanaging and doing the work and really clogging up the engine of the business you're building.

Rob Da Costa [00:14:02]:

Yeah, so true. Such good words of advice. And I think if we're sort of honest, a lot of people start their own business because they want control because, in that big corporate that you were mentioning, they didn't have control. There was all the politics to play there were decisions that made that weren't necessarily the right decisions, but they had no control over that. So they start their own agency because they want control. And here we are some way down the line saying, well, actually relinquish control now trust other people to do things because you need to focus on these more alien things that maybe take you out of your comfort zone because you're not used to doing them. But they're actually much higher value tasks in terms of value to you and the agency than actually doing the client work. But we really struggle to let go because we tell ourselves these stories about no one will do it as well as we.

Rob Da Costa [00:14:48]:

No one will do it as fast as me. The clients will want me on their account. And all of these stories that keep us stuck in the I can't remember what you called it, but in the Craftsman sort of role. So I almost feel like 50% of any successful agency these days is a mindset, whether it be about this or whether it be about pricing or whether it be about value or decisions that you make. So that's why I asked the question about mindset.

Jessica Lackey [00:15:17]:

Yeah, but I think we go back to the original questions. You may not want to, quote-unquote, work on your control issues, depending on what your goals are, if your goals are, I just don't want to have another job, and I want to maintain that creative control. I want this to be the permission slip to say as long as you're meeting your financial goals and your time flexibility goals and you understand the trade-offs that come with that model, that's okay. Because there's a big gap between again, the work that is required at that level, the mindset shift the actual sales and marketing, the process documentation and almost the adherence to process. When you're a Craftsman, you can get away with a lot of fire drills. It's on you. You can get away with a lot of things that are a little more flexible. When you have a team, you need to work in more structured, streamlined ways for the benefit of all.

Jessica Lackey [00:16:13]:

And some people don't want to do that. And so I actually see a lot of people who have scaled up and have decided to descale because they got to the point of, well, actually, I don't really like the scale version of this. I prefer the Craftsman model. And so they scale back down. And I think it really depends on, again, your personal decisions for how you answer those enough questions to say, do I pass this checkpoint? Do I pass Go? Or do I make this as sustainable as possible at the level I'm at, knowing that I don't really want to grow much further than us? That's a choice that requires immense you have to take a step back from social media and take a step back from all of the narratives that, say, up into the right growth. We don't, as a society have a real celebration for stability and sustainability at a given level. It's like, well, you must keep growing, you must keep adding.

Jessica Lackey [00:17:07]:

It's hard to step off that escalator.

Rob Da Costa [00:17:09]:

Yeah, I think that's perhaps one of the most important points that listeners should take away from what we're talking about here, and that is that there's absolutely no right or wrong way of growing your agency and no one except for yourself is judging the success of your business if you don't grow 20% year on year. I think the only failure is when you create something that you have no passion for and you end up hating and resenting it. I think success is determined by you achieving the goals. And those goals could be growth, they could be flexibility and freedom, they could be money, they could be time. So it's just so important to understand that. And like you say, we are bombarded with stuff telling us that if we don't grow by 20% year on year, we're not successful. And that's just not true. Sometimes we almost have to learn that lesson by doing that, to realise, no, actually, that's not what I want.

Rob Da Costa [00:18:03]:

I mean, there are many times I've sat with my clients, creating a vision for them to go away, reflect on it and come back and say, no, I've thought about what we said and that isn't right. And I'm going, Great, that's a good result then, because you've saved yourself the pain of going there to realise that actually you don't want to be there.

Jessica Lackey [00:18:24]:

It's a mindset shift. That's almost the biggest mindset shift, for sure.

Rob Da Costa [00:18:28]:

Yeah. So if there's an agency owner that's nodding their head to everything that we are saying, but they feel really stuck wearing multiple hats that they don't particularly enjoy, is it simply as going back and asking those questions again? And what steps can they take to start shifting their role, to be better aligned with their desired sort of persona?

Jessica Lackey [00:18:50]:

If they're at the level that they are at and they like where they're at, they're just overwhelmed. This is an opportunity to step back and say, how can I be at this level knowing that I'm not moving to the next level because I don't want to? What can I do to ease the burden on me and the team I do have? This is where we look to cultivate resilience. Maybe it's not hiring a full-time person, but it's investing in templates and tools and processes and documentation, even just for you and the team you have, versus thinking about hiring somebody else. It's about maybe if I feel trapped in all the roles and I don't feel like I have flexibility, maybe it's at that level you're at changing the projects you work on, changing the pricing, moving towards a more productized type of service or where there's less revision. So I think it's looking at the model we're at and saying how do I create that more time flexibility, that decrease in mental load and the mental and emotional load from the processes I am running as if I were to bring someone on, but I may not actually bring someone on full time to do that. Or I might bring on contractors or collaborate with other partners. But I think preparing for the next level, even if you don't want it, is actually the way to create that resiliency in your business because you make the implicit explicit and everyone who's involved gets much clearer with what the next steps are at every step in the process. So at least you might be doing all the roles, but you don't feel the burden of having to remember every detail and put it all in your brain and on your shoulders at all times.

Rob Da Costa [00:20:30]:

Yeah. And what happens if someone is stuck in a role that they don't want to be in, but they just can't see the wood for the trees? They're stuck in the weeds. They're probably nodding their head to everything that you're saying, but they're probably also thinking, yeah, Jessica, that's great, but you don't understand me and where I'm at, which I hear all the time. And of course, everyone likes to think they're unique, but the reality is that we're not, are we? It's this common problem now, making decisions around, changing them. And of course, sometimes those decisions are really hard. So what would you say to somebody who's stuck in a role that they don't particularly want to do but can't see a way out of it and they'd like to apply what you're saying but they just don't know where to start?

Jessica Lackey [00:21:09]:

Yeah, I think the first question is again, are we moving up? Are we moving kind of toward up the ladder to that rainmaker-type mode? Are we moving back down the ladder or are we being sustainable? So that's the first question. It's are we moving up? Are we moving down? Down seems like a failure point, but really it's actually no, I want to go back to picking up some of the work that I used to want to do and then it's looking even within those kind of progressions to say what is the work I don't want to do? Really? What is the work that I don't want to do? And maybe it's because I want to be a rainmaker type, but I don't trust anyone to do sales. So do we hire a different kind of sales resource? Do we do more shadowing and job mentorship? Do we craft our roles so that we spend more time building trust for the roles we want to the things we want to maintain control of and are nervous about it? How do we partner with who we bring on to do that? Or how do we bring on maybe more senior level experts that kind of come with some trust built in to say, let me take the load off your shoulders for the areas where you don't want to be doing it anymore, but it's not your zone of genius. How do you have someone help you pick up the load? I think one of the mystics I see with a lot of people is they say, well, I only have this amount of money and so I'm going to have to bring on someone more junior than I'd like. And that means I'm going to have to do more giving and more training and more mentoring. And I would say, is that the only option or do you invest in a more senior resource that actually can free you up more quickly? What would be the alternatives from a financial planning perspective to bring on someone who can help you more and can build trust faster? What would it take to bring on to invest more in those resources that we bring on?

Rob Da Costa [00:23:06]:

Yeah, it's so true. And again, I want to overlay the mindset here because I think sometimes we hire more junior people because they're not threatening to us. And yet we all know that at the end of the day, we need to bring in people that are challenging, that have got different experiences from us and so they bring something fresh to the table. But we sometimes, as agency owners, don't like that challenge, so we don't do it. So that's another reason to really do a bit of soul searching and think who's the right person to hire. And of course, in this day and age, it's not just a full-time employee or a freelancer. There are so many versions of that in between. So if you can't afford that senior person full-time, you probably can afford them two or three days a week or part-time or whatever.

Rob Da Costa [00:23:49]:

So just look into all of that.

Jessica Lackey [00:23:52]:

I serve as a fractional COO for some of my clients and they hand things to me that they are like, I've never been able to hand this to anyone on my team before and I didn't even really have to hand it to you. You came and grabbed it from me in an appropriate work context way. But I was like, well, I'm seeing what needs to happen and I'm taking the initiative in a way that you don't have to tell me how to do that because I come from a senior type of employment. And the only good thing that happened during the Pandemic was the rise of fractional work because everyone was at home and able to work remotely. And so you can get a fractional seasoned team leader that you may only need a couple of days a week or just one or two days a week to really turn things around versus having someone more junior full-time on your team.

Rob Da Costa [00:24:41]:

Yeah, it's funny, I was having this exact conversation with one of my private clients this morning about who their next hire should be. So, yeah, think about this. And I just want to say this sounds like a kind of banging the drum for you and me, but getting some external help on all of this is super important because sometimes it is really difficult to see the wood for the trees. So having somebody who's asking you these challenging questions and giving you the space to really consider what you want is super helpful. I'm old and grey and I still have my own coach, and I have done pretty much the whole time I've been running this business for the past 17 years. How do agency owners make sure that their role continues to evolve as the business evolves? And obviously, maybe that means that their role needs to change because the business needs something else. How would they go about reassessing that and how frequently should they reassess it?

Jessica Lackey [00:25:34]:

I believe that you should be redesigning your every year. You're redesigning your role every year, sitting down, stepping away, stepping away from the computer and stepping even away from your team. And I would do this with you. And then I would do this if you have a right hand, I would do this with your right hand, be it your chief of staff or lead project manager, something like that. Someone who's in your business with you. But you do it first, step away and say, what do I want for my life? What do I want for this business? What is the next year? And if I were to set aside all of the expectations that are layered onto us, how do I see this role evolving? And am I ready personally, professionally, and energetically, to make that jump this year and know that in your core and then share that with the rest of your team as related to a yearly strategy and action plan? But a lot of times we also think about we talk about this in terms of the business. It's important to really get clear on personal. Maybe this is your last year with the kids at home before they go off to college, for example, and this is the year you're like, I'm ready for the next jump, but my kids are about to leave the house.

Jessica Lackey [00:26:52]:

I don't want to do that this year because I know that's going to be more time and effort and I'm not interested in doing that or my kids are young and I want to spend that time with them. I know I keep using kids, but we have elder care. We have maybe you're training for a crazy marathon and want to focus your non-business time on that. So each of these changes through each of these business trajectories has to be done in concert with your life. And just because you say not this year, doesn't mean it's not never, it just might be in the context of everything going on in my whole life. What is the choice I want to make about my business growth and how do I want to change my team and the organisation? But it's about being intentional, which I love, December, January, time, not to start new goals, necessarily, because it's not seasonally relevant, but to really go inward and to reflect on what the shape of my business for the coming year and how do I want it to change.

Rob Da Costa [00:27:57]:

Yeah, another really important point to pick up on, and that is that your personal vision needs to be aligned with your business vision. We are all human beings and we need to align our whole self to our business. And so you can't always separate your personal vision. You shouldn't separate your personal vision from your business vision because they have to be aligned. They can't be completely in opposition to each other. And it's the old sort of why, what, how, isn't it? Start with your why, then work on the what and the how, but don't start too many people already in the what and the how, which is the weeds, and that's being pulled in 20 different directions by clients and staff, but not by your own personal needs. So start with your why. First of all, let's wrap this up now because I'm conscious of time.

Rob Da Costa [00:28:46]:

So let me ask you the same question I ask all my guests, which is, if you could go back in time and give your younger self, just starting out in business, a piece of advice, what would it be?

Jessica Lackey [00:28:57]:

It would be written as frequently as you can, at minimum every week. Because as business owners, we do, even if your agency has nothing to do with the written word, that's how you put in practise, the thinking that you do around who you want to be, what's important to you, what's your vision for the agency, what's important to your life. And writing is the best way to do deep thinking, in my opinion. And I don't think I was writing for social media, and so I didn't get as deep as I did by writing for me, writing long-form pieces about how I thought about the world, how I thought about business, how I thought about my role. That seems like a luxury, but I would say take time every day to write.

Rob Da Costa [00:29:47]:

Such a good piece of advice. And you know what? I'm just trying to see what episode this is, but we're nearly at episode 200 and I've never had that piece of advice before. So that is great. Well done. Thank you for a great piece of advice as well. Thank you for sharing that sort of wisdom. It's just really good practice to sit down and put the pause button on and reflect and think, I think, isn't it in our life and in our work? Now, Jessica, if people wanted to find out more about you, where would be the best place for them to go?

Jessica Lackey [00:30:15]:

They can go to my website. Jessicalackey.com, welcome. It has a link to my weekly newsletter, a link to my services, and a quiz to help you decide, more broadly speaking, what stage of business you're in and what you should be focusing on in that stage.

Rob Da Costa [00:30:31]:

Great. Well, that's really good. That's a really good resource. So I encourage everybody to head over there. I will put the link in the show notes and just wanted to say thank you for joining us. I've said this many times, but I always know when I've had a good guest on the podcast because we sort of run out of time and the half hour flies by and I've got lots more questions to ask, so that's always a good sign. So thank you so much for giving up some time today and sharing your wisdom with our listeners.

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