Christopher Heivly: Author of Build The Fort & Co-Founder of Mapquest

Episode 420

Christopher Heivly, Author of Build the Fort and Co-Founder of MapQuest, shares the 1,2,3 and 4 of startups and on this episode provides a compass to moving ideas forward more successfully. Chris has been dubbed “The Startup Whisperer” by startup community enthusiasts and I definitely know why. So much great to listen to on this episode. I think you will be glad you listened. Now on #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone, and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started.

Hi, everyone, Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m so excited to have my next founder, co founder, I should say, but also author of an incredible book that you must must get your hands on Chris Heivly, who is the author of build the fort. And also, as I mentioned, a co founder of the incredible company, that many of you are familiar with have used in the past. It’s called MapQuest, really, really interesting story. Chris has been dubbed the startup whisperer by startup community enthusiast. He’s a lifelong entrepreneur, and fellow founder. And he actually sold the company to my former company that I was at as well. So we have that in common a little bit later than when I got there. But it was sold to AOL for over a billion dollars, I think $1.2 billion. So incredible. So Chris is here today to share with us all about his venture, his journey with Mapquest but more importantly, this incredible book that he just wrote his second book called Build the fort, which is, it’s actually build the fourth the startup community builders field guide. And that is very, very cool. So for anyone building a startup or thinking about doing so or have done so, you need to get your hands on this. So welcome, Chris. Thanks, Kara, for having me. Very, very excited. So as I mentioned, in my intro, you have been dubbed a startup whisperer. I’ve known your name for a while, and you were a co founder of MapQuest, which is incredible. You were like the first in that space. I feel. I’m not sure. I mean, that’s what I thought you definitely were. Before we get started speaking about your fabulous book, I would love to hear like, what were the early years for you? Were you always this entrepreneur in the making, tinkering. You know, what, what exactly? Was everybody making big predictions about Chris? And what he would end up doing? I mean, did they nail it? Are there any big bets placed or anything on you?

Chris Heivly 3:04
Only Chris had those ideas of himself. Pretty sure. You don’t care. Like a lot of people our age. I didn’t even know what an entrepreneur was coming out of college and early in my career. I know now that I was very entrepreneurial thinking and a thinker. And, you know, I love to start with a blank sheet of paper that the interesting part about the start of my career is that I was a geography major in college. So I’m probably the only geographer that’s ever been on the show and might ever be. But in the late 70s, and early 80s, I also learned how to write code, which was unheard of at the time. So, you know, in hindsight, when we look back, you know, 40 years ago, what we might see is that when you jam two things together that never been jam together before interesting things happen. So the next 20 years of my journey was about doing that around mostly mapping and those kinds of things. So that’s, that’s really the start of my, my career.

Kara Goldin 4:05
So incredible. So you co founded Mapquest in 1996, the first commercial web map mapping service. Where did the idea come from?

Chris Heivly 4:15
Well, it’s a great story, Kara, because like a lot of things, and especially now today with lean startup and the idea of iterations and experiments, and you continue to kind of pivot to find product market fit. What we were doing is we were in an established old company, we had a map services company, they made maps for National Geographic and phone books and atlases and textbooks and all these you know, publishers, but we were trying to figure out how to make computers make those maps faster. But at the same time, we started to see that maybe there is some things we could be to be a little bit more disruptive, direct to consumer. So for for anybody may be over the age of 30 or 35. Or if you’re longer go ask your parents. What happened Carrie when we went on a road trip, we went to AAA, we got this thing called a triptych, which were kind of really bad yellow highlighted map directions. And so the first thing we did in the late 80s, early 90s, is we went into every auto club at the time, and, and built them a better system that did that. And then that technology morphed into 1993, I was spending a lot of time on the West Coast and started hearing whispers of this thing called a CD ROM that was coming out and every one of our desktops, now we could put a whole lot of stuff. That’s a technical term stuff on those CD ROMs. And so we had the first CD ROM mapping company. Now you didn’t have to go to auto club. Now you could actually get directions right off your own computer. filed a few years later, the internet starting to kind of gurgle. Again, we’re seeing this before it actually happens. And we put up this thing called Mapquest and the rest is history. So we really just followed technology. But we had no fear. And we were probably the smartest math geeks out there.

Kara Goldin 6:07
I love it. So I’m so curious, like, especially when you’re launching a startup, you have this amazing idea, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s the execution of it, and your ability to scale and all of those things and ability to stay in business and not run out of money if, if that is definitely something that it is needed or is needed in the company. But when a competitor comes along, I bet when you were out there trying to talk about Mapquest in the early days, people thought, oh, Rand McNally is gonna kill you, you know, crush you. And the reality is, it’s it’s the little guys, right? It’s maybe even the people that have failed before that are going to come up and figure out the right engineer, whatever it is, but what did you learn about competition and selling over the years that you think? What wisdom would you offer? Well,

Chris Heivly 7:08
Kara, I’ve always been the David to the Goliath. And I’ve never been that impressed with Goliath. And maybe that little edge is what makes us sometimes good entrepreneurs. But, you know, it’s funny, I was just reviewing a pitch deck for a, you know, for a founder that I’m working with, and he has a competitor slide in there. And, and he said, Well, what do you think? And I said, I don’t really care to ever look at a competitor slide. Would I like to know, what problem you’re solving differently? And more uniquely, and, you know, you know, hugely differential than what’s being offered today. Yeah. But I don’t really look at competitors in that way. And I’ve never thought that anybody was really competitor if I thought I had something super unique. And I could do it better, faster, cheaper than anybody else. So I guess, you know, and maybe that’s a little arrogance, maybe that that entrepreneurial arrogance that says, I think I have something, you know, great, go prove it, right, go prove it and validate that your your thing is better, faster, cheaper, and then go message on that. So yeah, and I didn’t, I’ve never met a competitor I didn’t want to slay. So.

Kara Goldin 8:19
I think that that is that’s so key. I mean, the focus is has to be on you, right? And figuring out how you can be better. And if nothing else, I think competition expands the category for people to really understand. And all you can do is just be better.

Chris Heivly 8:35
Yeah, like, I think if you bring it right down to the core core core, right? A customer has a need, and they’re meeting that need in this way. And if you have something and I always say this gap between how they’re doing it today, and the value of that, and the value of what you’re trying to bring, if you’re just incrementally better, who cares? I want to bring products that are, you know, again, better, faster, cheaper, like, in a way that’s so obvious to everyone that I’m not even a competitor anymore, because I’ve completely disrupted the way you’ve done this thing. So I always look for that gap. And I want to do it in my own companies. I want to do it in the companies I invest in, I want to do it in the companies I I advise like tell me what that value gap is. And that’s to me, I always break it right down to that that point.

Kara Goldin 9:24
I love it. So why did you decide to write your book, build the four I’ve got it right here. As I said, it’s so so good. I mean, the wisdom that you’ve really gathered over the years, not only with your own experience, but with talking to founders and helping founders is is just incredible. So I would I’d love to hear why you decided to write the book and why now?

Chris Heivly 9:54
Yeah, there’s a couple. Give me a couple little reasons. You know, if you think about it, You have an impact as a founder in one company one thing. And as an investor, you might have an impact across a handful of companies. As an investor. What I started doing in my town hometown of Raleigh, Durham, North Carolina, about 1618 years ago, it started. And I was inspired care by TechStars and Y Combinator. And I started thinking, well, if one is fun, then maybe 10 at a time would be completely a gas, right? feeds my ADD perfectly right? And what I started learning, and now we call these kind of startup community builders or ecosystem, an entrepreneur ecosystems, boy, if I can do this, if I can help cities, create the environment where more entrepreneurs can, can succeed, I can now impact 1000s of entrepreneurs, not a handful. So that’s probably my one part of my motivation. The other thing is, I have spent the last five to six years as a consultant flying all over the world, helping these cities, from as small as Fort Wayne, Indiana, to as large as Lima, Peru or Taipei, Taiwan. And what I started to see is that there were some commonalities, and that there are some really basic, and this is fairly a new science, or art, or whatever you call this. I saw that there was more questions than answers, and not that I have the answers. But I have an approach that I think cities and city leaders that are that are entrepreneurs, founders, investors, economic development, folks, university researchers, you know, everyone that gets involved in their community or ecosystem, that if they work together, that is something amazing things could happen to their city, and the founders within. That’s what wakes me up every day. And I like it that it was it’s still kind of uncharted territory, and I’m still trying to figure it out. And as a entrepreneur, we always love those, don’t

Kara Goldin 11:50
we? Yeah, definitely. Now, are you still in Raleigh?

Chris Heivly 11:55
Mostly. But traveling. Yeah, I’ve traveled around. But the funny thing is, I’m trying to slow down a little bit, trying to, you know, get off the airplanes, as you know, as we’ve done most of all of our lives. So I have a little lake place, and I’m trying to spend more time there. So I don’t know what home is anymore. But it’s a little bit more there than in Raleigh Durham, or, or even, you know, airplanes, American Airlines, you know, first class to be,

Kara Goldin 12:25
I love it. I love it. So there’s no, in your book you talk about or you explain, there’s no single playbook for building and accelerating your startup community that will work for every city. But there’s a mindset that will improve your chances. What is the mindset really involve?

Chris Heivly 12:43
Well, any founder out there is going to love this. Because many times when I go into a town or city, and you know, there’s a couple 100 people there that are enthusiast, I do this little trick and I say everyone who’s an active founder, I want you to go over to this side of the room. And everyone else I want you to over to this side of the room. And then at its core, you know, job that all of us have is you’re either a founder, or you’re here to help founders succeed. And that’s it. So that’s a mindset. Many times, government bureaucrats, academics, even people that are running entrepreneurial support organizations, which just about every city has won, they sometimes get caught up in the idea that they’re there to serve their organization. And they forget that the very thing we’re trying to do is help entrepreneurs succeed. And that gets lost. So the core mindset is, spend more time thinking about how do I help the entrepreneurs in my town, get more customers get more access to capital, hire employees, right? Get partnerships, whatever they need. And if we all focus on that, as a mindset as the kind of founding principle, better things will happen. And it means putting our ego in check a little bit many days.

Kara Goldin 14:07
Well, and I found when I was reading this book, too, it doesn’t just apply it certainly applies to when you go in and you’re meeting with cities and and all the different components in order to make a startup successful. But I think if you are, this is your first job working inside of a company. It’s the same mindset, right? It’s it definitely is the same mindset that you know, you’re not just there, you shouldn’t just be there to just get a paycheck, you should be there to actually be a part of the wheel and really make it work.

Chris Heivly 14:42
Yeah, I mean, isn’t that even more so today as we think about this networked connected world, that the days of just kind of keeping our heads down and doing our one thing, and doing it in a vacuum or a silo, and not being connected to the machine that’s running all around? This is very short sighted and you personally as well as your organization will fail if you don’t figure out how to be part of the network machine. And so one of the things, one of the tools that I preach is one of the easiest things you could do to help your community. It’s just introduced to people together. In other words, facilitate the building of the network and making it more connected than less connected. I can’t tell you that you and I meeting and doing this today, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or a year from now. But if we’ve never met, I know nothing will ever happen. Yeah. Right. So now that we’re connected, who knows what happens and sometimes, like, ET, right? Sometimes there’s a little connection that happens when two people meet, that ends up being a one plus one equals three moment. And if we can find ourselves doing more of those, then I think we put ourselves in a better position of being successful, whether you’re in a corporation, or a nonprofit, or as a founder.

Kara Goldin 16:00
Yeah, no, absolutely. It makes a ton of sense what you’re saying. So you encourage building a startup community in the same way that 10 year olds approach building a fort, I loved it, I kept thinking like a Lego Land, you know, giant, not just a fort, like I kept my mind was going towards the cities, you know, that people are building and what do we need here? And can you explain more about this example?

Chris Heivly 16:26
Sure. Well, you know, I’m an old adult. So I’ve been. So I’ve seen it and been through it. And, you know, I think a lot of our success, if not, most of it is psychological, right? It’s our mindset. It’s our approach to how we handle challenges. How do we celebrate things and keep ourselves kind of moving in a very positive direction? I said, the easiest thing for me to kind of riff on this build afford metaphor is to look to you and say to you, as you’re 10 years old, growing up, where did you grow up in Scottsdale, in Scottsdale, and it’s a summer day, and we’re neighbors, and I turned to a cara and I say, hey, I want to build a fort. And you say,

Kara Goldin 17:13
Sure, why not?

Chris Heivly 17:15
Right? And it takes you five seconds decide to do that, right? Because your 10 year old, you’re like, that sounds fun. Let’s go do it. Let me let me do the adult version of that, right? The adult version is, Hey, Chris, you want to build a fort? Well, we’re, where are we going to build it. And I’ve never built a fort before. And I don’t know anything about for building and where we’re going to get the wood or the blankets and the tarps. And I don’t know, my parents are okay with rebuilding a fort. But like, you know, as an adult, we layer in so much crap and our psychology that I think prevents us from going forward. And so the idea of build a fort, what I broke down, and my two books, first one about how to start anything. Second one about how to build your startup and participate in your startup community, to the betterment of you, right? The whole idea is to build a Ford is, let’s channel that 10 year old. And there’s five real basic rules, and I’ll run through them really quick socializer idea with no fear or inhibition. Gather team members that are closest to you that kind of, you know, share your passion. Find the assets that are closest to you, right, don’t make this bigger than it has to be. We’re not building the Taj Mahal fort, right doesn’t need a bathroom or kitchen. Keep the scope small. to that same point, I believe in kind of three month increments, right, crawl, walk, run. And then five, don’t ask for MIT permission and just go do it. And so when you can, if you can kind of channel that mindset to any of the activities you’re involved in in your life, I think you get a chance to eliminate the noise and focus, which helps you get more things done. Momentum breeds confidence and off, off, you’re off, you’re off, you’re off and running.

Kara Goldin 19:03
Definitely. I think it’s often tough for startups to measure if they’re successful or not. Right. It’s, you know, if you’re, like most founders, maybe, you know, you want to just keep doing better you keep raising the bar, but at what point, do you think when When did you know that you were successful? Was it when you went public? Was it when you were acquired? I mean, like what how does the Win Win your profitable? I mean, what is the measurement? Like when do you know you’ve really done it?

Chris Heivly 19:39
Yeah, I, you know, that’s a really great question that no one has asked me. I thought, I’m not sure I know how to answer that one. You know, I’m a pretty humble guy. I mean, I have my, my moments where, you know, I think I’m pretty good at something. I think I’m I’m always hungry. And I’m curious. And so I guess realistically, it’s only been maybe the last 10 years that I recognize that I’ve done some pretty good things. And, you know, and it’s, you know, I don’t think I would hate that anybody med thinks they measure success by dollars accumulated? I would hate that they would. You know, I think the idea of you’re not, you’re not a successful founder, unless you have an exit. I think that’s kind of not fair either. You know, I’m gonna get really squishy care, I’m gonna say, you know, I think as you get older, you realize what the important things are for you. And then you can kind of measure yourself against those important things. I’ve raised a good family, I have three good kids have a fantastic wife, who’s been supportive of me. This whole family allows me and enables me to go do wacky, curious things. And I’ve been pretty good at getting people interested in joining me on that journey. I think that sounds pretty successful. I’ll take that.

Kara Goldin 21:01
Definitely. Well. And I think this leads into the next question, which is another point in your book, you talk about mission. And I would imagine that over the years, you’ve had consumers who have talked to you about Mapquest and how maybe they actually you made life easier for them, you help them navigate to some place, and you know, and they don’t know all the late nights that you’ve spent, or I would imagine the the times that you almost ran out of money, and you weren’t going to make it or some big challenges that happened along the way. And when you come back to kind of why you did this in the first place. I think that mission is just so critical. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, or how you’re helping, you know, whether it’s businesses or people and really having that at the heart, then I think you get lost, right? You don’t know, I think it’s really tough to get successful if you don’t have that. So I loved hearing that in your book. But can you share a little bit more about your feelings on that?

Chris Heivly 22:07
Yeah, I mean, this is the good stuff, right? This is, this is the stuff that you don’t read about that often, or you don’t hear about, and, and it’s related to maybe what we just shared in terms of how do you measure success and what is success? You know, I think most of us start something when we have a passion for it. And many times, it’s a problem that we see that we you know, have ourselves that we want an improvement on or whatever. I have loved maps all my life. And and then I also love being on the forefront of something new. And that drives me, I really like it when those things impact other people when it’s not just solving my problem. And so, you know, in today’s parlance, if we talk about like the customer discovery process, my favorite part is going out and telling 15 people, Hey, I think I’m going to do this, what do you think this is how I’m thinking about that? I love that process. Now you’re now you’re outside of you. Now you’re kind of telling the world? Hey, what do you think about this, even writing a book, as part of that, you’re talking to a guy who failed freshman English in college, who was told all through high school and college he couldn’t write. And then here I have two bucks, you know, a contributing editor or contributing writer for Ink Magazine, you know, 400, blog posts, whatever. You know, maybe I have something to prove. But But bringing it back, you know what I think an interesting what I was thinking about when you asked the question is one of the most often asked questions is, what do you tell a founder when they asked you when it’s time to shut down? And obviously, the answer is I don’t have an answer. Yeah. But I’ll tell you what, if you wake up three or four or five days in a row, and don’t like what you’re doing, that’s probably a pretty good signal. And so to that end, you know, how do you judge success? How do you have the passion to go forward? How do you decide what you’re going to do in life? Find the things that wake you up every day, and say, I can’t wait to tackle the day. Yeah, I’ve been lucky to have that almost every day of my life.

Kara Goldin 24:26
And to your point, if you don’t believe you shouldn’t be there. Right? Whether you’re a founder or you’re an employee, or, you know, it’s just Life’s too short, for sure.

Chris Heivly 24:40
Way too short, you know, it’s funny a couple years ago, my son in law were, you know, doing an errand and, and my daughter and my wife were all in the car and he said, you know, something about like, have you you know, if you’ve had any jobs that you’ve disliked, I’m like, not one. Because when it comes to the point where I I’m done with something, then I go do the next thing. And maybe that’s a little career add that I joke about, but I’ve loved every job I’ve had. And when it’s not there, then I go do something else. Yeah. So I’ve had a rich life.

Kara Goldin 25:15
Yeah, definitely. It’s, I think it’s critical. I’m of the exact same description. I think that it’s it, you know, started working, I was worked at a toy store. Actually, I wrote in my book that I, my first job was at a toy store when I was 14 years old. And my girlfriend Robin picked up the book and reminded me that it actually wasn’t my first job. My first job was when I was 12, when I started a kids camp, and we built a city. So it’s somewhere between a fort and a city, out of tissue boxes and paper towel boxes that we got at Safeway. And she was very daunted by the idea of building a city. So I said, don’t think about it as a city, we’re going to build a town. And everything was fine, until the irrigation came, and they have irrigation in Scottsdale, and Phoenix all over the lawns. And so, it last for about three weeks, we had a bunch of kids at the camp, and 112 degree weather and it was it was all good. But it was, but I loved it. And I laughed every day, you know about this, and I had kind of forgotten about it didn’t even think about it as a job. I just I thought about it as building a town.

Chris Heivly 26:36
Right, right, right. Yeah, I’ve never thought of anything as a job. And work isn’t a four letter word. You know, here I am in a semi retired state kind of dabbling. I do a little this little that. And someone asked me last week, you know, are you ever going to retire and I’m like, I don’t even know what that word is. I know, I’m going to be active until I don’t want to be active anymore. And maybe that’s the day before I die or something. But being active getting, you know, talking to you meeting you, you know, you know, talking to people about what makes for good founder, you know, how to help them, you know, big, you know, building towns and cities. Yeah, man.

Kara Goldin 27:15
I love it. Love it. So, mentorship, the really interesting take on on mentorship. Can you speak about that a little bit? And it’s like, how do you think it’s most important to entrepreneurs and founders?

Chris Heivly 27:32
I mean, I think it’s, it’s the gas that makes the car run, right? So you know, it regardless of whether you’re a multiple serial entrepreneur, every deal you’re doing is like a brand new discovery journey. Now, you can do it the hard way, by you know, you know, putting yourself in your garage, and, you know, trying to figure everything out yourself. Or you can get feedback and advice and thoughts from others. And I’m a big accumulator of feedback. And I help, I think it makes me make better, faster, better decisions. And that’s my advice to founders. Now, the question is, how do you go get that, in most cities that aren’t called New York, or Boston, or even Austin, or, obviously, the valley, you know, they have mentorship programs available. And I’m not a big fan of those per se, I don’t mind them. But I think mentorship is more ad hoc and one on one. And so when we get back to that network of introducing people together, I always want to reach out to probably five or 10 people, probably a different five for every idea, and run this idea by and some of them stick around and go, Hey, I’m really interested in what that thing is. Let’s work together on that. And I think that kind of battle that kind of, you know, back and forth conversations, feedback. I think that’s where true mentorship comes from, and you should never be done. There’s always someone that has walked part of your journey. Before you that you could lean on and say, How did you handle this? Or what would you do in this situation? And hopefully, you can put your ego in check to say, you’re not supposed to have all the answers. Yeah. We’re supposed to go seek those answers.

Kara Goldin 29:13
Yeah. And I think people appreciate that, as well, when they see your vulnerability. I mean, I’m channeling Brene Brown right now, right? Like I think people, you know, expect, hey, you’re successful, you’ve sold a company for a lot of money, all these things, but you still ask people for their opinions and you still want to grow. And I think that that’s together every day. Yeah. And I think that that’s the other thing about mentorship is it’s got to be both ways, too. For people that you you know, it’s not you’ve got a lot of value that you can give, but you also want to learn from people too.

Chris Heivly 29:53
Yeah, riffing on my very good friends, Brad Feld and David Cohen of Tech Stars and Foundry fame They wrote something called the mentor manifesto 18 points, I put it in the book, obviously, with their permission, and I riff on it. I’ve done a couple of workshops around how to teach mentors, how to be better mentors. And one of the core things is, they shouldn’t be assigned, they should be organic. And when they are organic, they end up hopefully very quickly becoming a peer relationship. I learned as much from you as you learn from me. And I still think 50% of mentorship is not specific advice. It’s just listening and asking good questions. Many times you find your own answer yourself in that process, so everyone can be a mentor to somebody. Maybe I’ll finish this thought one of the most asked questions I get when I asked someone who’s about a year into their journey. I’m like, do you mentorship? And they’ll say, What do I have to offer people? And I said to someone just starting, you’re a year ahead, right? You’ve already lived a year of experiences, share that first year journey with them. Right, please. And by the way, I just said 50% of it’s just listening to him and ask him questions. Anybody can do that.

Kara Goldin 31:07
I love it. Well, Chris, it was such a pleasure talking to you and hearing more about your journey and also build the Ford everyone needs to pick up a copy. And we’ll have everything in the show notes as well, but really appreciate it and so great to meet you, Chris. Hi, V and have a great rest of the week.

Chris Heivly 31:28
Thanks so much for having me, Kara. I can’t wait to connect again.

Kara Goldin 31:31
Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review. And feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen. Or pick up a copy of my book on daunted which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week, and 2023 and good bye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening