Nicole Ledoux: Co-founder and CEO of 88 Acres

Episode 273

Bars and butters anyone? I can’t wait for you to hear this conversation with Nicole Ledoux, Co-founder and CEO of 88 Acres, an absolutely yummy food company thoughtfully crafting bars and butters with whole seeds and simple ingredients. Nicole co-founded 88 Acres in 2015 after changing careers from a different industry. We talk about the founding journey, her upbringing growing up on a farm, as well as the company’s expanding product assortment. Listen and learn. This show will leave you hungry! 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 golden 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, its Kara golden from the Kara golden show. And I’m super thrilled to have my next guest here I have Nicole Ledoux, who was the co founder and CEO of 88 acres. And if you are not familiar with 88 acres, you definitely need to get familiar with it and hear a lot more about Nicole’s story. Nicole is just a super rock star. And she is a Boston based food company. And like I said, if you have not heard or about the company or tried the product, definitely you need to go to our website, go to the store and grab some. She has a host of craft bars and butters and with lots of whole seeds in them and lots of really simple great ingredients. She grew up on an 88 acre farm which is I was so curious like where the name came from, I would love to see this farm by the way, it sounds amazing and Brookfield, Massachusetts, where her passion for food began. And I really cannot wait to hear more about all of these products and sort of how it started. So let’s get started. So welcome, Nicole.

Nicole Ledoux 1:59
Thanks for having me, Kara. I’m so happy to be here.

Kara Goldin 2:02
super thrilled. So let’s start at the beginning, I would love to get a picture of who was Nicole as a little kid. I mean, on this 88 Amazing acre farm. Were you constantly like, you know, doing farm stands and making things and wanting to create or tell me a little bit give me a snapshot of that.

Nicole Ledoux 2:24
So we moved to the farm when I was in first grade. And my parents had always wanted to have like a really big piece of property. And the first thing that we did when we moved to the farm was start to grow, produce and like a huge garden and the garden just got bigger and bigger every year. My parents were not farmers by profession. So I affectionately call them hobby farmers. But we grew all kinds of produce, we grew pumpkins in the fall. And then I had a farm stand in front of the farm, where I sold all the produce and the pumpkins and then I sold Christmas trees at Christmas time that we got from the next town over a new brain tree, I would buy wholesale Christmas trees and then I would resell them. So I guess as a kid, I was pretty entrepreneurial. I think I learned from a young age that financial freedom was really important. And if you weren’t having to ask your parents for money, then that like equaled a certain amount of freedom. And then, you know, I think like both of my parents and my brother, they’re just really hard workers. So like in my household hard work was the currency of respect. And you know, my entire family just like always really emphasized like attention to detail and you go out and you like no matter what you do you work as hard as possible. And that just sort of rubbed off on me. I love that. Yeah, and just I like I think it was in when you’re a kid you’re like oh man, there’s so much work to do all the time growing up on the farm is like none of my friends have to do as many chores as I do. And now looking back on it it’s like a fundamentally like one of the most instrumental things about growing up and and what has made me into the person that I am today is like that experience on the farm and it certainly inspired like this really close connection with food like literally growing the food that we were eating has made you know now however many years later being an entrepreneur in the food space it like it profoundly affects the way that we source ingredients and we think about like how the food is made. Like there’s so many Americans who just their connection to food is going into the grocery store and they don’t always make the connection that that like steak that they buy behind the meat counter like us To be an animal or that vegetable, like somebody had to grow that with care and pick it out of the ground. And so at any rate, yes, I, I loved looking back on it now I loved that experience growing up on the acre farm and my parents are still there. And we try to embody that same kind of like connection to food to everything that we make today.

Kara Goldin 5:21
I love it. So what did you think you were going to do when you grew up?

Nicole Ledoux 5:25
I did not think I was going to start a food company. I was one of the first people in my family to go to college. I got a full ride to like a full academic scholarship to the nearby state school. So I went to UMass Amherst for undergrad. And I thought I wanted to be a business woman. So I was like, I didn’t really know what that meant. So I, I got a degree in economics and legal studies, I figured that would like cover a lot of bases. But I was working full time when I was going to school. So I was bartending at night. And I knew I wanted to work in finance, because it seemed like there’d be a lot of smart people to work with. I graduated in 2001. So it was a sizable recession, there weren’t a lot of job opportunities, and a one when I graduated, so I kept bartending, I’d have a stack of resumes behind the bar with me. And one of my favorite customers actually got me an interview with platinum investments. And that’s how I landed my first role. So I started the summer after I graduated. And that was like the launching point for a 10 year career in finance.

Kara Goldin 6:32
That’s wild, you started thinking about, Okay, I’m not going to do this anymore. What was it that started to, you know, where did the itch come from, to actually leave and really find your passion for what you’re ultimately doing today?

Nicole Ledoux 6:47
I think it was two things kind of colliding at the same time. The first was just a realization that I liked what I was doing in finance. And it was challenging, and difficult. And I liked the people I was surrounded by, but that I didn’t really have like a passion for it. It felt like more of a job than something I could see myself doing for 30 years. Yeah. And then right around the same time, I lived in London, I was trading commodities. And I had moved back. And when I moved back, I met this guy on, who was now my co founder and my husband. And on our fourth date, he humbles died at the dinner table when his meal was accidentally cross contaminated with knots. So he is definitely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. And he told me that on our first date, and I was like, Oh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t really met anyone with severe allergies. So I didn’t, I just kind of stored it away as like a information like a useful information. And like literally three bytes into dinner. He was like, Hey, I don’t want you to panic, but my throat is closing and you’re gonna have to get me to the ER, and I was like, Oh, wow. Okay, so. So I put them in my car, and I drove like 100 miles an hour to the Beth Israel emergency room, while he called his parents. And then he was like, he handed me his epi pen and asked me if I knew how to use one. And I was like, I’ve literally never seen one of those before. Oh, my gosh, obviously, we he he got the fifth pity date, because I couldn’t dump him after that. And I got to meet his mom and dad for the first time in the ER, which is a really interesting way to meet your future in laws. Oh, that’s hysterical. Yeah, but that whole experience, I was just like, blown away by you know, I had this experience on the farm, like with this super close connection with food and my family’s, you know, a family of foodies. We all love to cook, and we, you know, gather around the dinner table, and Rob like, desperately wants that as well. But he’s always had to treat food as like a potential minefield. So I remember after that whole experience, like going to Whole Foods and seeing what nut free foods I could find for him. And it was a shockingly small amount of stuff. And I’ll never forget the look on his face when I like proudly emptied out the grocery bag. And he was so bummed out. He was just like, Yeah, I don’t, I don’t really eat any of that stuff. And I was, it was just like, this weird moment where, like, some of these brands were catering to people like Rob and he even he didn’t want to eat this stuff. And he’s like the target market. And he was just like, look, a lot of these foods are these brands like they remind me of sitting at the nut free table as a kid in elementary school. Like I want to be proud of the food that I eat. I want to share I write with my friends who probably don’t have food allergies. And like, this stuff is kind of lame and gross. And it’s all about safety with like taste and nutrition as a total afterthought. So that really just got my wheels turning. And, you know, at the time we were, we were training for triathlons. And we were super active, and I just started making him bars. In our, in my basement apartment kitchen had seeds instead of nuts. You know, for a variety of reasons, seeds are incredible. They’re like nutritional powerhouses. It tastes amazing. And most importantly, for Rob, they’re not a common food allergen. And, like, long story short, these bars we got, we got in front of, you know, hundreds of people in the Boston workout community. And then we gotten in front of Whole Foods, kind of like accidentally, literally with bars in a Ziploc bag. And the interesting thing was that they, you know, the bar category is super crowded, there’s hundreds and hundreds of different options in that category.

But there was really no multi allergen free bar. And there was no one who is building, you know, a brand on a platform of seeds and Whole Foods saw, you know, that, that need that we were filling. And they agreed to launch us throughout the North Atlantic region, which was then like 36 stores, before we had no sold a single bar. So there’s just a super unique opportunity. And so I was like, Oh, I’ll take a three month break from finance. And I’ll focus on the business. And if we can make something of it, then then great. And then three months ticked by, and we had made some progress. So I like tacked on another three months, and my family was like, you’re gonna get another finance job. And I was like, Ah, I think I kind of focus on this for a little while. And it, you know, and that was, however, many years ago, and now we’re in, you know, 4000, almost 7000 grocery stores nationwide. So, yeah,

Kara Goldin 12:09
he’s your co founder. Was he doing anything in the food industry?

Nicole Ledoux 12:13
No. So neither one of us had any food experience. Yeah, which was a challenge we had to overcome, but he was in. So he came from the startup world, he had been a number of like clean tech startups in a sales function. And I think like, one of the things that makes us a really strong co founding team is that our skill sets are very different. So you know, she, as I said, He comes from a sales background, I am super analytical and like, incredibly detail oriented. And so the are two, I guess, different ways of approaching things. And our different backgrounds are like super complementary to each other. So

Kara Goldin 13:00
you were sharing for co founders, you have to have that. So, you know, it’s absolutely, hint has very much been the same way. So I, my husband is my co founder. And was I love that we don’t hear that often enough. Yeah, no, no, no. And and I say that all the time that you have to have the ying and the yang together in order to really be successful at that. So I always feel like there’s, there’s things that there’s mistakes along the way, that in starting company that, you know, maybe some of them are funny along the way, hopefully a few of them are funny, or accidental discoveries about oh, these actually tastes great together. Were there any of those in the very early days?

Nicole Ledoux 13:47
Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of our early r&d really just came from our first team members were all super, super into food. And we would just like, we were just willing to experiment with a lot of stuff. So we had like a pretty extensive r&d library of like, some stuff that we would never launch and some stuff that we were like, Yeah, I think this, you know, this could move on to the next step. But, you know, we were super curious about like, at one point, we had experimented with like 30 different types of edible seeds. So I remember having like a pretty heated argument with one of our team members where I was like, I don’t think the world is ready to eat like nasturtiums seeds or you know, any of these like weird herb seeds or you know, I think like when we launched our we launched our watermelon seed butter we were like first to major market with that and so good by the way, and but even that, it’s like people are like, what is this like? It doesn’t taste like the fruit of a watermelon, which is what I’m used to eating like it’s more savory like, so I think it’s just like learning that See how painful some of that that education curve is, when you’re first to market with something? It can be there can be a lot of education that needs to go with, you know, convincing consumers that this is something that they need to try.

Kara Goldin 15:16
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the other thing that I always share with founders is that buyers sort of trick you too, because they want to have like the different one. Yeah, like, what do you have? That’s new? What do you have this different? And at the end of the day, if your consumer is not, they don’t know what it is, then it’s not going to pull off the shelf?

Nicole Ledoux 15:36
Yeah. And I think that’s like something that’s a relatively new phenomenon within grocery is like this demand for constant innovation, but like, not necessarily the support. Brett like, it very much feels like the onus is on the brand to do all of the support and education around building that. But the demand is coming from the retailer for the innovation. I, I wish there was like a little bit more of a connection where there’s a little bit more skin in the game for the

Kara Goldin 16:10
for there. Yeah. And, and unfortunately, I mean, we have so many stories I share in my book undaunted about this, where, you know, even I grew up in Arizona, and hibiscus was a really big ingredient for teas, and the Southwest. And there’s like a major Latin influence from Mexico. And so hibiscus flowers are made into tea in Mexico constantly. But when we launched a honey do hibiscus, which was so good. In the early days, it was, you know, consumers, when they saw it on the shelf would just be like, Oh, I wonder what hibiscus is, I wonder, you know, especially in New York, or Boston, nobody knew what it was. And so those were the sellers that did the least well, and unfortunately, when you only maybe have three skews initially on the shelf, and your other two skews are doing great, but that one is not doing awesome. There’s this perception that your brand isn’t pulling, because you have one that has a lot left on the shelf. And so, you know, that’s what we learned is like, you know, go out with your top sellers, like, if you feel like, buyers are constantly saying, oh, we need new, we want you to have something different on the shelf, and we want to be different than the other retail. Or you might even need to discontinue that flavor, which is what we ultimately had to do, or we only sold it online, ultimately, because it just was, you know, too confusing to people who were trying to make choices. So it was, it was a painful lesson that we had to learn. But it’s something that I still stand by, you know, when you’re leading when you’re going out into stores, and especially conventional grocery grocery or Costco or Walmart, I mean, Target, you know, you just really have to go out with your top flavors. So it’s so so interesting. So what what do you think has been like the best marketing strategy, you opened a bakery in Boston? And and I mean, that’s just so interesting. So you did that. And, like you were wholesaling, obviously, getting it into places like Whole Foods, but you had your own bakery as well. How did like did you feel like that create a trial buzz, I mean, all of that.

Nicole Ledoux 18:37
I think it’s definitely helped us to, like kind of own our backyard. We have such a strong story here in New England, especially here in Boston. I can’t say that, like being vertically integrated. That conversation back in 2013. When we were we were out there searching for commands, and we just couldn’t find one like we were are. So all of our products are free of the top nine food allergens in our bars are baked, which is pretty unique within the space. And back then we didn’t have the C butters yet. So we were really just trying to find like a contract manufacturer for our bar line. And it was it was a combination of like nobody was allergen free. Very few people had the the bakery equipment that we needed to manufacture the bars. And even if we could find those two things, which we couldn’t, the MOQ is like the minimum runs were so daunting that we just didn’t think that we would, it was like a viable way to set up the business. And so for those reasons, we really sat down and we were like, Okay, we could either not launch the company or we could build our own manufacturing facility. And we were, I think that like getting the whole foods distribution gave us this, you know, a certain level of confidence to, you know, to go out and and build the bakery. And then once we were comfortable with the idea, it was just like a total no brainer. We’re able to build the bakery in like an economic development zone within the city. And we really gave us the opportunity to think to really rethink, like the food manufacturing jobs that we could create. It’s typically like a high turnover, low pay type of role. And we saw an opportunity to hire directly from the community to create career paths. And to like when people were people are just now hitting that like $15 an hour minimum wage, like we’ve been there for years. Our minimum wages in the bakery are approaching like $18 An hour averages are approaching $20 an hour. So I’m really thinking about like, what is a? What is a living wage? And how can we as a company, make sure that that’s, you know, that we’re fairly compensating our team and that we’re giving them career opportunities. So most of our managers and supervisors have started with us as sort of entry level bakery team members and they’ve been like kind of coached and promoted from within we’ve know we’ve started to like promote people into to a tech roles who started as production people, so it’s just a sister really cool setup in the bakery. And and now that we do our own manufacturing, I literally can’t imagine ceding that control and quality to some random nameless, faceless coal man. Other grasses like always greener, I, I think that there’s arguments on both sides of the aisle for why you should you know, launch why you should build a company with commands and why you could build a company vertically integrated and and I think for us, it just made so much sense to to be vertically integrated.

Kara Goldin 22:13
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Nicole Ledoux 26:07
I mean, if you, I guess I think about there’s that technology bell curve, that there’s like the early adopters and the, you know, the left hand tail, and then there’s like it, as you get to the right hand tail, it’s kind of like the late comers. I think the story is really, really important when you’re just starting out, especially in such a crowded fields, like in any food and beverage category. And you know, maybe the story becomes less relevant as you become a more mature brand. But I think it’s it’s really difficult when there’s 300, other three or 400 other like brands that people could choose from. And I think that customers now like the story matters, people care about, you know, what are your hiring practices? Or like, how do you think about sourcing ingredients, or what’s important to you people want to, I think, especially in this day and age, like, personally, as a consumer, I feel like the only power I have is the power of my wallet and who I choose personally to, you know, to, to bring into my household. And so I think, yeah, I think the story is, is really important.

Kara Goldin 27:25
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s, there’s really two big stories when I think about your round, I mean, there’s your why you guys did it. But then there’s also all of the other stuff that you’re doing and growing your company, right, and the things that you care about the things that you, you know, your mission, your respect, you know, how you’re treating your employees, all of those things as well. But I think it’s it 100% I think consumers are looking for, you know, the story in the brand. And it’s a way for startups to really differentiate what they’re doing versus the big guys. Because, you know, they struggle to find their stories and it without a story. I think that there are, you know, less and less consumers out there that are just you just look so maths at that point without that story. So I think you guys have done an amazing job of doing that. So what do you think has been the most rewarding part of of starting your own company? I mean, obviously, you made, you know, there’s trade offs, there’s risk, there’s all of those things. I mean, you left an incredible career, you’re your husband, as well, it sounds like and what do you feel like is the most rewarding thing when you think about what you do for people? And, you know, and just starting this company, what, and what are you most proud of?

Nicole Ledoux 28:48
For me, there’s two things I think the most, one of them has to do with that team of people that we’ve been able to build with NaVi acres and then that second is really the effect on the customers who love eight acres. And who reached out and said, you know, your product has changed my life like I’ve never been able to I’ve been I’ve had a severe food allergy my whole life. And I’ve never been able to eat a granola bar or I’ve never been able to have, you know, nut butters and suddenly I’ve discovered your pumpkin seed butter and it’s changed my life like or hearing from a mom who has like been struggling with like my kids who have had food allergies, and they don’t they’re afraid to eat stuff until we found you know, your products like that is literally why we do what we do. And I think just as a founder like the most one of the most rewarding things has really just been to to be surrounded by the incredibly talented people who have helped us build the company into what it is today and who we will rely on To build the company and to no major national household brand, and to see them growing as, you know, as people and as, as team members into like, and seeing them rise to challenges and like I’ve learned a ton about. And I’m still learning a ton about how to be a better leader for them, like they’ve challenged me in ways that I just don’t think I would have been challenged, that I stayed in finance. So I think that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. Like this is the literally the hardest thing that we could have ever done as our chosen as a career path like starting a business and a brand from scratch. I just like grossly underestimated how difficult it would it would be. And the only thing that keeps us going is our team and our customers. And, you know, I think that like, if you pull most founders, they would agree, like there’s a way easier way to make the money that we make. Totally,

Kara Goldin 31:06
yeah, no, I say that all the time. But I always encourage consumers to really share when you like a product, I don’t think I ever prior to starting hands told a brand, how much I love their product. I told them how much I didn’t like their

Nicole Ledoux 31:24
pro totally right, we all complain.

Kara Goldin 31:27
Right? But now I’m constantly so it’s another thing that I always say to people too. And, you know, having that connection, where it’s easy for people to find you, as well. And part of the reason why I’ve done so much around social is just because, you know, I hear from consumers on a daily basis. Yeah. And you know, what they like, what they don’t like, we’re, we’ve had problems along the way, I will hear it on social first and people will be you know, not nasty about it, they’ll be really nice and DM me and say, hey, you know, this, this flavor in particular, like it’s not my favorite, or it didn’t taste right, I used to drink it, did you guys change something, whatever it is, like, you know, you as a leader, being able to be accessible, you may be forwarding it off to somebody who can, you know, help you answer it, but it’s just to be able to really have access or have people have access to you, I think is also, you know, mentally, it really helps you even during those challenging days to sort of have that connection, where people are actually telling you that they really liked your product, right. And they care. And that’s why they’re, they’re reaching out. So that’s very, very, very inspiring. So one of the questions I always ask is along the way, I mean, you alluded to the fact that there’s way easier way to ways to make money. There were many ways along the many times, I should say along the way, where as a founder, you’re thinking, I’m going to, I’m not going to do this anymore. This is like or it’s over. Right? It’s, you know, we’ve got competition, we can’t raise money, we, whatever it is, we lost a big account. So what has been one of your biggest challenges or failures along the way, where you felt like, wow, I really learned an important lesson that I can share today with all of our listeners,

Nicole Ledoux 33:33
there’s been a lot of challenges. You know, I think one of the biggest challenges that we have faced is probably to our detriment, where we are fairly conservative in some ways where we’re, we’re like very much minimum viable product people like prove that it works before, you know, before like taking an unnecessary risk. And I remember when we were launching at eight acres, a friend of mine was launching a brewery at the same time. And he was building like 35,000 square feet of production space and like at a huge cost. And I was like, wow seems like really risky. And we were building. You know, at the time, we’ve since expanded meant, like multiple, multiple times, but our original bakery footprint was 1800 square feet. And I did 100 production and then our friends and family would would come it was like we bought the bare minimum amount of equipment to kind of prove the concept. And there have definitely been times when we haven’t scaled up capacity fast enough to be able to meet demand. And I think that’s like you know, one of the biggest difficulties when you are vertically integrated is like making sure that you are well positioned for like the next level of growth and And we are in a situation right now where we’re tight on capacity. And we are building a new plant. And, you know, trying to get better at having more and more capacity. But one of the things that’s really incredible about our sales team is that every time we’re like, yeah, we we’ve doubled capacity, again, gets gobbled up. So I think just really like being able to get ourselves out of the weeds, and really making the time to, to think as far ahead as possible. And, and to, you know, just to just take those, like bigger swings when they’re out, like, very calculated as de risk as possible has been a big lesson for us,

Kara Goldin 35:48
as my dad used to say, always ask yourself the question, what’s the worst that can happen? And when you look back in history and figure out, you know, should I do it? Should I not do it? You know, figuring out what’s the worst that can happen is always a question that is, is one that, you know, makes you think back on those times when you’re thinking, Okay, I wasn’t gonna go Go and take that risk before. But when I did, lots of great things happened and sounds like that’s sort of been your experience as well.

Nicole Ledoux 36:20
Yeah. And like, when we were starting out, it was like, Oh, we could personally go bankrupt, right, like, which was terrifying. But, you know, we accepted that risk. The risks are different now. It’s like, we have almost 100 team members. Their current financial situations are completely reliant on Rob and my ability to create and grow a successful company. And that’s a huge amount of responsibility that we don’t take lightly. So yeah, it’s just, it’s all the same risk. It just shifts around as the company evolves.

Kara Goldin 36:58
That’s amazing. Well, this has been such an incredible interview, and I really enjoyed the conversation. And you’re an absolutely incredible entrepreneur, where’s the best place for people to find 88 acres? Try 88 acres? And definitely, what’s your top seller as well.

Nicole Ledoux 37:19
So our number one seller is our chocolate sea salt bar, or our pumpkin seed butter or chocolate sunflower seed butter? You can find us nationally in Whole Foods. And then we just launched four of our bar flavors in Walmart. So you can find us in just about 2000 Walmart stores as well. Amazing. And

Kara Goldin 37:41
do you sell online as well?

Nicole Ledoux 37:43
We do on And you can also find us on Amazon, but the only place you can find our full product library is on

Kara Goldin 37:53
Perfect. That’s amazing. Well, thank you so much, Nicole, and thank you everyone for listening. Definitely give this episode five stars. And please subscribe to the Kara golden show if you haven’t already, so that you’re sure not to miss an incredible episode with another founder and CEO and great people like Nicole and just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara golden. Nicole. Where can people find you as well?

Nicole Ledoux 38:23
On Instagram we are at 88 acres foods. I am not as good at social media as you but you can find me on Instagram at Nicola do.

Kara Goldin 38:32
Awesome, very cool. And my journey for those of you who have not heard this spiel before on building hint is in my book undaunted, you can listen to it on Audible. It’s also available on Amazon and we are here every Monday, Wednesday and now Friday as well. So thanks, everyone for listening. Thanks again, Nicole, for joining us, and everyone have a great rest of the week.

Nicole Ledoux 39:01
Thanks, Kara so much. Take care everyone.

Kara Goldin 39:04
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 golden 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 golden thanks for listening