Janett Liriano: Co-Founder & CEO of INARU

Episode 510

In this episode, Janett Liriano, Co-Founder and CEO of INARU, shares the story of her vertically integrated profit-sharing chocolate brand. Inaru is redefining equitable pay, food security, and climate resilience in the Dominican Republic while focusing on high-quality, healthy chocolate products made with organic cocoa. Janett discusses the challenges of building a company, the importance of clear purpose, and the need for emotional development as a leader. She also highlights the significance of building a supportive community and the impact of Inaru's direct relationships with farmers. INARU is delicious and I can't wait for you to hear more as we chat about her experiences starting and building the company. So much inspiration and wisdom in this episode. Now on this episode of #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. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone. It’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show and I am so thrilled to have my next guest here we have Janett liriano, who is the co founder and CEO of an incredible brand that if you don’t know about, you’re going to be so excited to hear about it and also taste it hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s a brand called INARU. And you must must must know about it. So INARU is the only vertically integrated profit sharing chocolate brand and factory in the Dominican Republic and redefining equitable pay food security and climate resilience through the love of chocolate. And INARU is proud to be the only brand that shares profit with its farmers in the in the Dominican Republic. INARU is so yummy. As I mentioned, they are just kind of getting going. So might be a little hard to find. But you can definitely get it online and feel good about knowing that you’re supporting something really, really incredible. So I can’t wait to talk to Janett more about her incredible company that she started. And so welcome, Janett.

Janett Liriano 1:54
Thank you, Kara. I’m so excited to be here and for that beautiful introduction and excited to chat ket all things you know, journeys, all the fun stuff.

Kara Goldin 2:04
So good. I had heard about your story. I had not tried your product and then got a chance to try it. And I was just blown away. I mean, what an incredible job and tell me a little bit about what is the backstory on the brand? Sure,

Janett Liriano 2:21
um, my i co founded this company with my sister Erica liriano. So it’s a sister owned business. We’re born and raised New Yorker from Queens. The backstory is, is an interesting one, my father owns a cocoa farm in the Dominican Republic. My both of my parents are from the Dominican Republic, and they moved to the States right before we were born. So we grew up hearing about cacao. And like all of the greatness of the cacao that comes out in the Dominican Republic. And for listeners that may not be familiar, cacao is the fruit that creates chocolate. So cacao is the fruit. And once you dry it and roasted and processed, it becomes cocoa and then that lovely cocoa turns into chocolate or many other things. So you know, it was always in our family. But Eric and I both worked in tech and venture, you weren’t in business, the family business of selling cacao. But I probably always challenged us to think about how we can apply everything that we were learning and doing in the US as entrepreneurs to think of a creative solution in the Dominican Republic, because what a lot of listeners may not know is that the Dominican Republic accounts for the majority of organic cocoa consumed worldwide. So majority of cocoa is produced in West Africa. But organic cocoa find flavor cocoa actually comes from the Dominican Republic in Ecuador. So, you know, it was interesting to us to realize that our small island has such a meaningful impact in the chocolate industry, and how we can innovate in that space. So, origin story kind of has a long history of you know, being in the family. But it was really a challenge from our father to think about how we can apply our values in business to build something in the Dominican Republic.

Kara Goldin 4:04
So what were you doing before this?

Janett Liriano 4:06
So I always joke around and if somebody were to like track my journey as an entrepreneur, they’d be like, Who is this person? So before, you know, I worked at a biopharma. I worked at Cambrian biopharma in New York, I was the first employee and Chief of Staff clearly very related. Prior to that, I worked in I worked in a men’s skincare company with an investor I was the CEO there and set the supply chain. Prior to that. I was the CEO of a textile circuitry company for four years, called Lumia. I have six patents in my name, so drove a lot of technology development. So three very, very different four, I guess, very different journeys. As an entrepreneur, what I would say the through line is I love supply chains. I really like complex infrastructure challenges. I know that it doesn’t sound like a normal thing to like, but I really believe that he build this system solution, there’s a lot of value to be had. So the through line, I think, as an entrepreneur has been, I like to be where the sticky stuff is. Where is it challenging, that’s where I like to be. I

Kara Goldin 5:12
love it. I love that you’ve gone full circle kind of back to not exactly what your dad was doing. But you know, kind of had a little bit of familiarity with the industry. But then you decided to go back there after doing some other things. So my dad was actually I call him a frustrated entrepreneur, because he worked in a large company and had developed a brand called Healthy Choice inside of armour food company. And never in a million years, did you think that I would become an entrepreneur and I didn’t either. And certainly not in the food industry. But I think it just goes to show you this, you know, the learnings that happen, and you start to pay attention later on in life about things that are meaningful and interesting. So for those who are unfamiliar with the industry, you talked a little bit about cacao, but what like, what to typical chocolate bars, what are they made up of?

Janett Liriano 6:07
I think I answered the chocolate bar question. And then I’ll talk a little bit about how the world moves food. So a chocolate bar today will be in many cases, primarily sugar, oftentimes, soy lecithins, or emulsifiers, some amount of cocoa. So like a milk chocolate bar usually has like over 50%, milk powder and sugar. And then the balance could be emulsifiers, and soy and then some cocoa, finer chocolates will have more cocoa content. So more of the actual, you know, chocolate creating ingredient, lots of sugar, often, and maybe less of the additives. And most of the chocolate in the world is processed in either Europe, and now more increasingly, Southeast Asia, some processing also in the United States. But all the cocoa in the world comes from the equatorial belt, so many countries in West Africa, and many countries across the equator, many countries in Latin America, but nearly all of the branded products are produced overseas. You know, when cocoa was discovered at scale, by the Spaniards in their, you know, Journey to the new world. They fell in love with it. And what a lot of folks may or may not know is that cocoa at that time was worth more than gold for the indigenous communities. Here in Latin America, it was a it was a tradable. It was a very tradable precious thing. And it continues to be a tradable and precious thing now, but on a global scale. So that’s the journey of chocolate.

Kara Goldin 7:38
And so, but how are, you know, the typical chocolate bars that you see sitting up on, you know, the at the cash register, that you buy that is significantly less expensive, tastes very different than yours? I mean, is that in terms of quality? Or those, you know, not as in terms of ingredients, like what what is kind of the big difference?

Janett Liriano 8:03
Yeah, I would say, you know, I would call those products candy. And in many places, they’re not even called Chocolate, it’s like a chocolate like candy or like a chocolatey candy is like the technical classification, in terms of health. And you know, and I’m thankful you’re starting to see consumers become more aware of this. Most of these, you know, products have very little cocoa content. And the cocoa that’s in there is often not tested for heavy metals is grown using, you know, quite a lot of, you know, chemicals and pesticides, and all of these things that the cocoa itself will absorb, and an enormous amount of sugar. So when you think about the health impacts of that, it’s like crazy insulin spikes, cortisol levels through the roof, your body’s absorbing all kinds of Franken food, which is you know what we call it and you know, all of these ingredients to give you this smooth chocolatey feel that, in fact, higher quality chocolate products naturally have because they don’t take out the cocoa butter. So you know, I always say that there’s no such thing as a discount. Like, if you pay $1 for a chocolate bar, you’re actually paying with your health. And you’re also paying with environmental damage your pain with economic harm, your the price must be paid the value of something will It will come do the bill. So you know, while it’s easy, and I love I’m not going to pretend like I’ve never eaten like $1 chocolate bar I grew up eating all of the same delicious sweets as a kid and chocolate is so wonderful because of all of those common memories. But I think we’re seeing we’re seeing the impact right? In many different ways from a health perspective.

Kara Goldin 9:45
Definitely. So you had incredible experience unique experience, which I as I always say it’s the people that come from outside of the industry that are really going to shake up category or an industry over overall. Do you remember them moment when you decided it’s time to start INARU maybe you didn’t have the name quite yet, but you were like, I’m gonna go do this, this is like, has always been something I go to sleep with wake up with not maybe not always. But you know, most recently and you have got to make this choice. And do you remember the moment when you decided I gotta go? Do they

Janett Liriano 10:22
do so one thing I have to give a shout out to my lovely sister Erica, my younger sister, who is my co founder, she had super conviction about doing this a year before I had sufficient data and analysis to be like, All right, we’ve got a really good business plan. Like, you know, she, she did the early diligence thing with the farmers. I was like, we got to do this. I was like, I need a year of close study. So first first, Erica’s moment of conviction was definitely before me. But I actually think the moment of conviction for me, funnily enough, this is like a strange story that I’ve yet to tell. I’m a very big fan of this one band that comes out of Korea, BTS, which is like doesn’t nobody knows how this is related to the business, but I was listening to one of their songs. And I’m like sitting on my couch and doing work for this other company that I was working in at the time. And the site basically challenges you to like, really be who you are, and like, follow your instincts and trust yourself. And it felt like a very personal moment of like, if I really was going to be my authentic self, and create and lead authentically, I’d be doing, you know, I would be doing this thing that I want to do, I would be showing myself in this way. So it’s actually this like moment of music. While I was like, kind of hesitating as a person in terms of where am I going to find the courage to take this next step in my career, you know, am I going to be who I really want to be? Am I brave enough? Those actually kpop song playing in the background. I was like, You know what, I’m gonna do it.

Kara Goldin 11:53
That was funny.

Unknown Speaker 11:58
But that’s the truth. And

Kara Goldin 11:59
so did you have a business plan? Or did you I guess, you know, with your co founder, sister, you were, you’re both sort of dividing and conquering on this. What did you how did you decide? Okay, what’s the first step? How many skews? What were the skews? All of those things?

Janett Liriano 12:19
I love this question. So, you know, there is many ways and in some ways, simpler ways that we could have built this business. So, you know, the short answer is, did we have a business plan? Yes, we spent about six months doing very serious research into the existing Coco commodity supply chain, to explain to our listeners, in our built a 7000 square foot factory that processes all of the product here in the country, we own a factory, we like built it from dirt, like from zero to this state of the art facility. And, you know, we didn’t necessarily need to do that we could have sourced cocoa and contract manufactured out the product with an existing facility somewhere else. But we really felt it was going to be critically important from a brand value perspective and a stewardship perspective, and really being able to be a resilient business in a changing climate, to have the factory in the country of origin to be able to have those direct relationships. So it was a really tough business case to make for investors. Like, why do you need a factory? Like, why is this important? There are many, there’s millions of chocolate brands that just don’t do that this is like a massive expense. And we really need it to kind of convince folks that five years from now, having a factory add origin is going to be so strategic. And while we could build a really great brand and focus on the US, first, we actually need to focus on the supply, because that is where the industry is going to see tremendous volatility. And to quickly summarize, today, the price of a ton of cocoa is $6,000. That’s way more than it’s ever been in the last 30 years. And we knew that was coming, we saw that five years ago, we’re like cocoa is going to skyrocket, and everyone is going to be scrambling to source at the source. So while no one sees the need now, there’s going to be a need later. And that’s actually we were really focused on the infrastructure and almost like the brand came second, which is why the products are like now coming out. Because we’re really focused on supply security, which I think is an unusual way that a consumer brand is built. So yeah, I wonder to clarify that a little bit. No,

Kara Goldin 14:33
I think that makes tons of sense. I remember when coconut water was first coming out and there were you know, a few different brands. Some of those brands have gone out of business and some of them have stuck around but I remember that the supply chain and actually running out of coconuts in certain countries was like a massive problem. And and so they had to go to other countries and they had to grow and you know, it was I remember hearing it, we didn’t have coconut and hence but it was, you know, supply chain is, is such a critical thing. And certainly we saw that with the pandemic, even being able to really understand that front to back as you do. That’s, that’s incredible. How is your product? I mean, your product is not very old, because you, as you just mentioned, you were focusing on the infrastructure, part of it first before even getting it launched. But are there any significant changes, I always share with new entrepreneurs that just get your product out there. And there may be things that you’re gonna want to change. You know, we’ve heard from people in different industries like the frozen industry that they’ve had clear windows when for their product that goes in a frozen case. And that’s a really bad idea, because you see all these ice crystals, and you can’t actually see the product at all. So that was a bad mistake, according to this brand. So again, I think there’s there are so many things that people learn once the consumer can actually touch the product. Is there anything that you’ve seen, that is like you had to pivot or shift in some way? Whether it’s packaging, or who your consumer was? I

Janett Liriano 16:18
really appreciate this. Yes. So several, I, on the one hand, we, I want to give the product team credit, they were kind of bang on to where the trends were going. And you know, as a brand, it’s like we’re vegan or gluten free, were emulsifier free, we we very much are taking the nutritive approach to chocolate, like chocolate can be a luxurious experience, but it can be an accessible experience. I think in terms of where we needed to pivot, there’s a polarization that happens with the chocolate consumer, there are folks that are looking for something milky and sweet. And that’s most of the market that consumes chocolate. And then there’s the folks that polarize on the dark. And you know, as a brand, we kind of had to decide, you know, where what space are we playing in, right? Are we the 100%? Dark bar, you know, polyphenols through the roof, you know, you know, are we going to put all of the health attributes, like you have to make a decision, because when you’re a brand, like, you know, it’s so tempting to like, want to tell every story. And I think one of the biggest challenges in the beginning was like, okay, the brand as a company has all of these amazing attributes, but at the end of the day, the customer is gonna make a snap decision, am I gonna buy this or not? And, you know, how are we going to make ourselves distinct. And I’m actually going to quickly show for those who are not watching, but this is a product that’s coming out, which is a beverage, it’s a cocoa beverage. But all of our branding has this like very simple inarguable logo, and it’s like, you know, rich colors. And what we decided to do, which was a bit unconventional, was not tell the story on the front of the package, to let the beauty and the mystery speak for itself. Because on a shelf with many bars that have a bunch of different levels and labels and USDA standards, that let let folks be compelled by the fact that it looks quite beautiful and quite different. And then when they flip the back of the product, the cleanliness of the ingredients, like really creating a intrigue was the angle that we took with our packaging, because at first it was just way too crowded. It was like, do I care that it’s from the Dr. Or do I care that it’s women owned? Or do I care that it’s organic? Or do I care that it’s, like, free of all like, what am I looking at, you know, it’s it’s can be distressing for a consumer. So I think we made a very unusual decision to go very simple with the packaging, because there’s so much storytelling that happens traditionally in our space. And that’s been working well for us. It’s like the thing we get the best feedback on it’s like this looks beautiful people love it in their stores, the customer loves to have it on their coffee table, and they want to learn more but it was a risky bet because you’re we kind of felt like maybe we need to tell more of the story on the packaging. So that’s one example.

Kara Goldin 19:04
Well, the packaging is beautiful, by the way. I mean it’s it’s stunning. And I think that it grabs you when you people and I think it’s it’s not just you know in your category but I think it’s in general you know great art on something really seems to stand out so I really do appreciate it and simplicity that’s what else I saw on your brand that was so beautiful. What is the SKU that is kind of the runaway best seller? Do you have one or that’s one that that is the go to

Janett Liriano 19:42
and I also want to share with your with your audience we have a budget new skis coming online so you know does a seasonal approach to product so we had our winter flavors the winter 23 And we’re about to launch our spring summer, and then we’ll be doing fall winter again in September. But the SKU that performed the best well we had trouble falls, which sold out pretty immediately, and we’re reintroducing bond bonds in April. So keep an eye out for that. But right now the vanilla and camel meal bar. But it’s kind of the vanilla cameo people love that bar. And then the other bar that’s like a close second is the Aoyama cranberry, the pumpkin seed cranberry one for like, the texture, because pumpkin seed is a very unusual, crunchy to get in a bar. Like there, we have super fans and both of those bars, but the vanilla cameo I would see performance like outperforms the other ones significantly.

Kara Goldin 20:35
It’s it’s so delicious. So So you guys are doing so much to not only, you know, help the farmers and the growers, you’ve got a great tasting product, you’ve sort of showing that you can do a lot of really great things. What do you think like, is really difficult to get kind of credit for right? With the consumer? Like? I mean, it I, I always, you know, for example, when we launched hint, I wanted a product that didn’t have sweeteners in it, but didn’t have preservatives in it all the great ingredients in it. And, you know, but the front end marketing of the product is simplicity, right? It just has to taste good. But this was very important, not to all consumers, but to some consumers. Right? And is there anything in particular that you feel like you’re really proud of? Because it was hard to do, I guess setting up manufacturing and doing things a little bit different Lee and you know, really thinking through things. That’s something that not all brands do, right? They slap things together, they private label things, whatever. But you guys are really like you’re creating it from scratch. Yeah, completely. Just so cool.

Janett Liriano 21:51
Thank you. I think that’s such a hard. That’s like such a great question. I really want to give you a thoughtful answer. I think that like truly being a vertical business, like so many folks say, being to bar and from an art perspective, from a craft perspective, it’s true right there importing the beans and then making your work. I say that, you know, scenario is seed to shelf in some ways recede to bar like we’re on the farm. We have we spent truly two years building producer relationships, being in the community several times a week, working together with our farmers to determine what are the contract terms? How do we guarantee their pay, like transforming the local supply chain? Like this is something that’s a long story to tell to a customer. And ultimately, the thing that they care about is, is it true that you profit share? How do you know there’s no heavy metals? We test every batch? That’s how we know how can we test because we have the relationships and the country. Like they want the soundbite benefit of profit sharing this product is safe, and it’s super tasty. But that two years of literally building the business model with the farmers that gets a benefit from our commercial success. And how directly that commercial to the Senate’s free Nauru translates into their communities, it’s something that I really am proud of, and how proud the farmers are of the of that they know where their beans are going like, this is a crazy stat. Most cocoa farmers in the world have never tasted chocolate, or they don’t even know what happens to those beans. Like they just when I think about that, and that, you know, hundreds of farmers in our community have been able to see the product taste the product have been paid super well for the product. And they built that contract flow with us. It’s something that makes me really, really proud. But it’s hard to like put all of that on a bar. Like we spent two years like building, building the business model with the farmers like, you know, that would be so

Kara Goldin 23:48
that’s so cool. So what strategies have you deployed to kind of build the community and let people know about INARU? But also, you know how to get their hands on it. I mean, I know you’re just now getting into a lot of retailers and different spots along the way. And obviously you’re available online, but what what is kind of working to get it out there.

Janett Liriano 24:13
So we one of the beautiful things about having a great products to the listeners, go check them out. We send samples to literally everybody, right? If somebody sends us a DM, we send them a sample, right like we reach out to the folks that we wanted to reach out to from a distributor perspective. And what we have seen is like when someone tries a product, they really want to carry it, they want to have it they want to buy it, they we have a very high retention rate of a customer once they purchased. So what we’re doing now in terms of expanding our reach because one thing I do want to clarify as well in our was a consumer product, but we also sell the semi finished ingredient to other brands. So a very meaningful part of our business and actually the majority of our revenue comes from selling Only branded ingredients to other chocolate makers, to other folks that source cocoa ingredients. So we have a pretty interestingly, I like to call it a de risked business model where other brands get to benefit from our sourcing story. Because they get to have in our cacao in their product, they get to follow the goodness that he normally does, they can also benefit from having that in their ingredients. So we, on the b2b side, we’ve seen very strong success just by getting the product out there and giving them really good partner marketing collateral. And this year, on the direct to consumer side, people want you to talk to them. So what I’m finding is like that immediate responsiveness, I respond to nearly all of our DMS personally, you know, I we send products to, you know, retailers, and I’m finding that that very hand to hand versus like relying strictly on technology creates a very sticky recurring community that we want to grow in what is I want to call it an organic way. Maybe some folks would say that’s bad growth hacking, but the retention is stronger. So we’re just scaling those the sense of personal personalization.

Kara Goldin 26:11
So what’s the most challenging aspect of building a company, you’ve worked on many other businesses and supported entrepreneurs? Now, you and your sister are, you know, running it right there, there’s the buck stops with you guys on the problems. And I think a lot entrepreneurs don’t realize it until they’re in your seat. What is kind of the most challenging aspect of that?

Janett Liriano 26:38
I, I know a lot of people talk about how important personal growth is as a leader. But I really think people do not make the critical investments necessary and emotional development to manage the stress of the role and the responsibility of stewarding other people and you know, their career, their jobs are on the line, like how do you manage that pressure? I think one of the hardest things is not internalizing the fact that you made a bad call or a mistake. And like disempowering yourself for future choices, right? Like we all make mistakes in the journey. And it’s important to learn from them, but to not flagellate yourself to not to not take your courage away, when you need to deal with the consequence of a bad decision. I think that has probably been one of the inner things that has been really difficult, especially as I speak for myself as a woman entrepreneur, you know, you feel like you’d have to be perfect all the time, you can’t make a mistake, you know, the standards are completely different, you know, and when you do it, the tension that you can put on yourself to then you can lose your confidence and then over consult, and then make bad decisions, because you didn’t trust yourself. Because he made one mistake that one time. I don’t know if this is clear, but I feel like that that journey, in particular has been really difficult for both of us to calibrate properly on that, you know, not easy. Yeah.

Kara Goldin 28:14
And it’s not that you don’t have incredible experience, right? It’s just that you, you know, if you don’t have anybody to go to right to say, like, here, this is your problem, you need to, you know, you’ve got to manage, you’ve

Janett Liriano 28:32
got Yeah, a lot of pressure. You know, probably sounds like you’re not always gonna fix it, right? Oh, sorry. I didn’t, yeah, no, no,

Kara Goldin 28:41
I was gonna say probably some of the best phone calls or emails that I’ve gotten are from people who worked for me over the years, and then they would go and start a business years later. And then they’d write to me, and this happens all the time, where they’re like, I never really realized exactly how hard it was. So on those days, when you were, you know, looking up at the sky, or you were stressed out or whatever, like, I get it now, you know, and when, when people don’t give proper notice, or, you know, all of a sudden, you have to kind of like turn on a dime, you’re just like, oh my god, what are we gonna do? And I’ve had so many of those emails over the years and I’m like, you know, we’re all good. Like this is but it is, it’s hard. It’s hard to explain it to people to, you know, especially when you’re in it. Because to your point, you want to you want to lead with positivity and you know, and say it’s gonna be okay. And then you’ve got this, this little person in your brain saying, like, maybe it’s not going to be okay, and you’re like, No, it is it’s gonna be fine. So I got it.

Speaker 2 29:55
You want to make sure you want to make sure you’re not being delusional with your confidence and your positive To me, cuz that’s important, right? You have to calibrate for risk well, but it’s tough for human beings. And it’s also very lonely, like at the end of it all, like it’s a beautiful journey, I’m so grateful to have a wonderful partner. Obviously, working with family brings in some complexity. But it’s at the end of the day, it’s a lonely road. It’s a lonely, lonely road. So having, you know, a really good community of people around you people say this all the time. But it’s actually really important. Having a good community that has compassion and grace for the emotionality that happens in running a business like this, like, when the runway is shorter than you needed to be when that investor that was gonna invest back down at the last minute, when this order, totally to the left turn, when this stuff goes the way that it goes. Like your nervous system needs people. It could just be a human with, right. So I would say, your employees can’t be that. And that’s an important thing, though, like making, I think building that community where I can be a human being running this company, has been the best investment that I’ve made. Yeah, I need it. You

Kara Goldin 31:08
need it. Definitely. So best advice for founders or someone thinking about starting their own company. Be

Janett Liriano 31:15
extremely clear on the why for yourself, and the why for the others you serve. It has to be clear to you. Because if you don’t know why you won’t know what or where, when you’re in the middle of it all. I think that people get very enamored with the what they’re doing, and not the why. So that’s like my my strongest bit of advice is sit with yourself and have a clear answer for that. Janet

Kara Goldin 31:44
liriano co founder and CEO of INARU, thank you so much for coming on. And we’ll have all the info in the show notes, but so inspiring. It’s, I’m so excited for you and good luck with everything.

Janett Liriano 31:58
Thank you so much.

Kara Goldin 31:59
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. I would love to hear from you too, so feel free to DM me. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my Wall Street Journal, best selling book undaunted, where I share more about my journey including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks for listening and good bye for now.