Sara Cullen: Founder & CEO of GEM

Episode 519

Sara Cullen, Founder and CEO of GEM, shares her journey of creating a unique multivitamin product and building a successful company. GEM is real food bites – a delicious, nutritious experience packed with all the vitamins, minerals, superfoods, prebiotics and probiotics we need. Sara’s journey in creating and scaling GEM is as fascinating as the product itself and you won't want to miss this conversation. I can’t wait for you to hear it. Now on the #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’m so excited to have my next guest here. She is the founder and CEO of an incredible company called GEM. And her name is Sara Cullen. And if you have not heard of jam, you are going to be so thrilled to try this product, but also to hear the backstory on this incredible company that has completely reimagined the multivitamin, turning what was once a chore into a delightful nutritious experience with their real food bites, which are super packed with vitamins and minerals and super foods and all the good stuff prebiotics, probiotics, and they’re absolutely delicious. So definitely get ready to hear all about this incredible company plus Sara’s journey in creating jam. And let’s dive in as soon as possible so that you can stop hearing from me and hear from Sara. So welcome, Sara. Thanks, Kara.

Sara Cullen 1:46
I’m so excited to be here.

Kara Goldin 1:48
Very excited to have you here. And I I’ve been wondering who is behind this incredible company. So I’m very, very excited to hear all about the founding of it, but also for your your backstory. So maybe start it, you know, in your, in your own words, why did you decide to start Jem? And what were you doing before this?

Sara Cullen 2:13
I decided to start Gen. Out of my own health journey that I had I was in my late 20s, I was experiencing a lot of stress. Because before this actually had another company that we can get to. So at the time I was in the startup world I was building things I was super stressed out I was in my late 20s I was having these allergic reactions, which were kind of sporadic and weird. I wasn’t sure what was going on. You know, I thought I was healthy. I went to the doctor turns out, I was nutrient deficient in a lot of areas. And so that’s, you know, led me down the health journey, right. And so I started going to supplement aisle for the first time. I never believed in vitamins. Ironically, I think you should get your nutrients from whole food. But it turns out even if you eat perfectly, it’s almost impossible to get all your vitamins and minerals from food because of our depleted food system. So you do need to fill the gaps in your diet. And what I found when I was looking to do that is this aisle full of these shiny, colorful capsules and pills and the sugary gummy bears. And it just didn’t make intuitive sense to me. Why would I put these artificial process things into my body to fill the gaps in that way, there has to be a better nutritional solution. And so I started making my own concoctions in the kitchen and it was very green at the time. Lots of spirulina and algae and these super foods and didn’t taste great, but I felt a lot better. And eventually it led to this funny looking bite. That’s Now Jim. And we’ve gone through many iterations since then. So years later, it now tastes amazing. But it’s taken a long time to get to this formula, and into this product. And I brought in now a full Scientific Advisory Board of people to help me. So we have a neurologist, we have functional medicine doctor, we have an herbalist, we have a registered dietitian, so really looking at your health from multiple angles, and building the right formula in this nutrient dense whole food bite. And so you’re actually getting your nutrients from real food, you know, in a bioavailable form in the best form for your body and not through this artificial processed way. And that’s, you know, it was really just my own health journey and experimentation and curiosity led me to this point.

Kara Goldin 4:25
And so what were you doing before this?

Sara Cullen 4:29
After college, I joined an entrepreneurial fellowship called Venture for America. And that’s where I first got my feet wet in the world of startups and building things. And then after that fellowship, I joined a group of restaurant tours actually in New York. And they were building kind of an angel investing incubator group. And so I with them co founded this CBD beverage company. This was back in 2016. So I was the OG of that category. Now it’s a year in the world of CBD. Do we were the first to market didn’t last long, complete failure learned a lot from that. But most of the failure was just like me being super young and not setting up the right operational structure. But I learned a lot about how to build a product from scratch, you know, the ins and outs of the supply chain in the CO man world and what that looks like. And most of all, it really, you know, it goes with my more my cohesive story around just like food as medicine and being interested in all of these different plant compounds, including CBD including algae, including these other interesting plants that we use in gym, and how can we democratize access to them in convenient ways, and nutritious ways and educate the world about them. And so that’s what attracted me initially, actually, to this, you know, budding CBD world at the time. And ultimately, you know, I continue that story in a very different way. But I had started with CO founding this company, I

Kara Goldin 5:56
love it. So well, I think you were also early for CBD. I mean, that was like, I mean, give yourself a little bit of a break. And then also beverages are our, you know, lots of things are hard. And, and it doesn’t sound like you’re afraid of hard, but it’s, it’s definitely it’s a lot and, and takes a lot of capital to, to a lot of capital, a lot of capital. So I Are you

Sara Cullen 6:23
and category that you’re in. It’s very, very hard to disrupt and, and to build quickly. And

Kara Goldin 6:28
thank you. That’s that’s very kind. But so how would you describe GEM and its mission you talked about, you know, you’re, you’re taking a lot of the vitamins side of the world, and also, but you’re also doing more you’re going into the pre and probiotic side of the world to and you’re putting it into a very, very unique format that not very many people are doing. I’m trying to give a visual to people on on sort of what I’ve experienced. But I’d love to hear what you think, when you think about the product? And also, how do you differentiate it from other supplements? Great

Sara Cullen 7:15
question. Our mission is to transform human and planetary health, through the power of nutrition and really, like celebrate the Sustainable Future food is medicine. So ultimately, we’re building a product that’s rooted in that ethos very clearly. Food is medicine. It’s a real food buy. And we’re disrupting this vitamin and supplement aisle that has really only had very few form factors, right? Pills, capsules, tablets, gummy bears, tinctures powders that no one has taken a food form, and has created a nutrient dense bite that could be your multivitamin replacement. And that’s, that’s what we’re doing. We want to really redefine what a vitamin looks like, but also what’s inside of it. I don’t think your multivitamin should necessarily be 100% of every single vitamin and mineral, I do think you get a lot from your diet, it should be carefully selected to look at what are your nutrient deficiencies like on average? And that’s what we looked at what are kind of average nutrient deficiencies. And then what are our lifestyle demands that might be leading to deficiencies, right things like stress, or eating more plant based even these, like there’s different lifestyle behaviors that have led to us needing a new type of formula. And so that’s how we built are multivitamins. So we have things like vitamin B’s, and D. But we also have tumeric, you know, with black pepper. And so we look at like inflammation that’s happening in your diet, or probiotics and prebiotics, that gut health, it’s really important to have this foundation. And so we’ve looked at how do we like design, a curated formula in that way that fits your lifestyle, but also, how do we make sure that the ingredients work together to do the most for you. And that, you know, often people call like synergistic combination is what then provides that bioavailability bioavailability, making sure it’s activated to its full potential tumeric. And black pepper is kind of a famous example of that, or prebiotics and probiotics, you really can’t have them alone, you really need to have those two things together to do the most for you. So that’s how we thought about designing it. And we really try to take all of our, you know, vitamins and minerals from whole food sources as well. Like our vitamin D comes from an algae source. Our vitamin K two comes from fermented chickpea, and that again, goes along with this food is medicine, ethos, and really building the future of nutrition that’s equitable, that’s accessible and that’s delightful as well. I think nutrition should be fun. It should be easy. It shouldn’t be this scary thing where you’re choking down handfuls of pills and swallowing them, you know gagging on them. It should be done. lightful and fun and convenient and comprehensive as well. So

Kara Goldin 10:04
where did the name Jim come from? Or how did you decide to name the company? Jim?

Sara Cullen 10:10
I can’t even we had a funny name before Jim. We really happy I changed the name. Our first name was called Nash, natural, organic, sustainable, healthy. Like a fun acronym, but also like nosh like a snap, not a great name really happy I move on from that, to Jim. And I think, you know, I’m trying to remember how I even came up with Jim, I feel like it was one of those shower moments where you’re like sitting in the shower, and I was looking at, I think, one of my shampoo bottles of GEMstone, and I was like, oh, GEMs, kind of a cute name. And it just sort of it lends itself to so many fun, you know, ideas, and just I love the short, pithy name and that this little bites like this little GEM, right? And you know, you’re a GEM of a human. And so it’s just this sort of fun name that really doesn’t have any substantial meaning behind it other than I think it just sounds good. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 11:03
no, it’s it’s a great name. So the vitamin industry is super competitive and challenging. I mean, it’s, it’s very crowded. It’s not as regulated, I think, as many people like to believe. But yours is a little goes beyond that and gets into I think you’re more than vitamins. And I think, when I look at, though creating it, and even your direct to consumer totally right now. So maybe in some ways, that’s easier, because you’re not sort of trying to figure out the shelf space that exists inside of stores. But what were some of the initial hurdles you faced when launching jam? And how did you overcome those?

Sara Cullen 11:49
Great question. The first is, taste, it was super difficult, right? My life would have been a lot easier had I started to call me bear company where I could use artificial flavors and coloring and sugar to mask everything. But having to squeeze that many nutrient dense plants. Without any of this artificial fillers and binders was really challenging. And we pride ourselves on our innovation mindset, we have iterated on our formula again and again. And in our packaging design, we’re always trying to make it the best the highest quality, and the best tasting. And so that’s been a journey in itself. And, you know, I started with this sort of kaleidoscopic scientific advisory board that I mentioned earlier with all these different voices, which is awesome. And then I also brought in later down the road, a pastry chef, and more culinary backgrounds, and chefs and cooks to help and bakers to actually help make the product taste good. So we looked at it from that angle to from the Senate delightful angle. So that was a big challenge. From a product standpoint, getting that right. I would say the second one is, for our type of product, we’re not a supplement company where product proliferation begets growth, necessarily, we’re not going to have you know, we have quite a few products, but we’re really focused on our main foundational, the GEM bite multivitamin product. And making sure that we keep focused to that is so important for our business. And there were times in the early days where, you know, we have like a sleep product, we have an energy product, we have a magnesium by a calm product, which is lovely. But these are in our core focuses, these are just awesome add ons. Really, it’s your foundational bite that we’re focused on investing in. And that’s where a lot of our brand equity goes. And I think understanding that business model, and that focus from the gecko was really important for our type of company. And especially for our form factor, right? We don’t want you eating more than we say three bites a day, because then it becomes a whole meal in itself, which might be fun, but yeah, really, we want to be convenient and delightful and easy for you. And so that’s where that one bite of day, you know, is an important focus for

Kara Goldin 14:04
us. Really good point. So so how many skews Then did you launch with Was it just the one core one

Sara Cullen 14:12
we launched with one core one however, it had three different flavor variations. Okay, so now we only have one flavor citrus, ginger, and that’s one that we’ve worked really hard at leading, but in the early days, we actually had cacao we have lemon and we had peppermint. Most of these are sunsetted we actually have a variation of two of them that still exists for existing loyal customers. But we don’t in fact offer it in your first order anymore because they’re very polarizing taste profiles. I’ll say some people love it. And that’s the the base that we have the continue that we still have holding on to it which I believe I of course love it but I’m very biased but for I think more of like a mass you know palette. That makes sense. stability. Our citrus ginger is like our core flavor now. So we had launched with those three flavors to kind of offer that variability to try to reach, you know, different taste profiles in the early days. And then we ended up launching two new kind of bonus skews is what we call them anything outside of our bonus bites anything outside of our main foundational multivitamin skill. We launched those two, two years after

Kara Goldin 15:26
consumption of that. So how many total skews Do you guys have now?

Sara Cullen 15:29
So total, we

Kara Goldin 15:31
have? Five? Five? Okay,

Sara Cullen 15:35
if you include the flavor variations that I mentioned, aren’t necessarily offered to.

Kara Goldin 15:39
You got it? Got it. And so, when you launch? Did you see a big discrepancy? Like in the different the sales numbers for the different flavors? Or were you? I mean, was it giant? Or did you just decide, You know what, let’s just focus on this one. How did you make that decision? I guess is the question. Yeah, it was

Sara Cullen 16:00
hard on actually, within one, within one week of launching, I realized that I had to offer a trial pack. So we started by being like, choose your flavor that didn’t work out. Within one week, I figured that out. So that’s how fast I got that data. And then I implemented a trial pack. So these trial packs at the time, were five bytes per pack, you got three flavors into your first month or your first two weeks, I think at the time it was you got this trial pack, and you choose your flavor, and then you tried them all. And then you essentially told us, okay, this flavor, I would like tucked into a subscription, this is my favorite flavor. And you could switch at any time down the road. And so that trial entry point worked really well for us in matching you to your right flavor. And also make trouser just a great way to get people into the funnel to from a director consumer perspective. Yeah, definitely.

Kara Goldin 16:54
For trials anymore. So know that you were like, successful? I mean, I hear this a lot. So funny. I, I hear this a lot from founders, you know, they like what is the metric? Right? It that. I mean, I’ve we just had, I just had Scott tan and on from Boland branch. And his, his interview was so funny. He talked about, you know, he was every day was GEMerally roughly the same amount of sales. And so he thought that that was great. And then it just kind of started shooting up. And then he had a couple of days where there were like, no sales at all. And he was like, Okay, what am I doing wrong? And then all of a sudden, he got a few more sales. And so it’s this, like spikes that go on throughout the journey, for sure. But it’s it? Where do you get that that confirmation that you’re making the right decision on to stay to stay going, I think is the big thing.

Sara Cullen 18:06
Yeah, so actually, in the first two years, we grew quite consistently 20 to 30%, every month. Every month, we had 20 to 30% month over month growth for two years. It was great. Then iOS hit about the two year mark, maybe it was. And at that point, things really changed, we had to change our top of funnel, right to adjust our paid funnel in order to support the higher Cox, we had to we had to change a lot of things across kind of our product and our business model. We restabilized and focused on the fundamentals, looking at retention, cohort retention. And so now I would say it has shifted a lot in my mind from looking at that month over month growth, which was maybe early indicators of like, Oh, we’re onto something like people are interested in this to now the retention side, if I see that now I’m looking for certain retention numbers, which is very, you know, specific to our business report lens. So it’s hard to share exactly what that is. But, um, but I look at that now. And I have baseline. And so if I see something going, you know, down or up, I’m like, Oh, we’re on to something or we’re not or what are we doing wrong? So now it’s a much more sensitive model, I would say, right, in the early days, it’s like you kind of just look for that growth, like are we are we ticking up or not? And now it’s like let’s turn the knob and do the fine to make tuning. And it’s challenging. We’re in a challenging era, you know, four or five years later now it’s it’s getting harder to get those same numbers and you have to get much more nuanced and, and much more diliGEMt about about some of those nuanced KPIs.

Kara Goldin 19:54
And so how do you build like a strong and loyal community that knows about about your product, because I think word of mouth is the best, right? When people are just talking about your product and and you’re not paying influencers to talk about your product, it really it shows right. And I How do you do that? And obviously through social media, because you’re a direct to consumer company, maybe you’re doing trial as well, so people can figure out how great it tastes. But how do you do that?

Sara Cullen 20:27
You’ve tried. I mean, I don’t know, if we have some sort of magic formula. I think we’ve tried it all. You know, I often talk about my story. In the early days, I started on Facebook group, and I started a community where I had everyone refer, you know, their friend. And so it became kind of like, not just my friends, but you know, these outer circles, tertiary networks. And that’s how I first seeded the product. And I did a lot of surveys with this group, I did a lot of beta testing, prototyping. And that group still lives on today, we still invite you to this group within our email flow, you can still join, it’s not led by me, it’s completely community led. So people ask questions in there, people share their own, you know, health journey. And so we offer kind of like microcosms like this community, for our people, whether it’s like on these like unique private community groups, whether it’s on organic social, we also do a really fun event in real life event activation, called GEM Breakfast Club ripperger, with different chefs. In different we’ve only done la in New York, so far those cities, but we’ve gone to those cities, we partner with those chefs, we make a beautiful food is medicine, brunch spread that’s synergistic with GEM and our ingredients. And we talk about GEM obviously, we share that we invite other brands to participate. So we offer in real life, you know, events, we do these kind of private community groups, we also have our ambassador program, we have a give a GEM, which is our kind of philanthropic arm. So just like different activities like that, that we do. And I think that these days, that’s what word of mouth really requires, is kind of a syndicated system of different communities that fits different people’s lifestyles and needs. And that’s what we try to provide, I think we’re, we really are for everyone, for better or for worse, super hard to target. So we, we, you know, we have a lot of ages that take our product, and we try to meet them at those different places. So

Kara Goldin 22:33
what’s the most challenging aspect of building a company, it’s funny, I was talking to my son is in college, and he’s sort of grown up in our house around being around entrepreneurs. And he said, it’s probably like, the, the one thing that he sees so often, and he has an entrepreneur, a couple of entrepreneurial classes, but he said, it’s like, the people, you know, they they get a, they think that being an entrepreneur is just about having a great product that tastes great. And that, you know, checks all the boxes, whether that’s, you know, top of funnel or, you know, determining how to actually not deal with too many chargebacks if you’re going into stores or whatever, but it’s also there’s people that are involved in the company, and you know, and that ends up depending on the day to be a really big aspect for founders. And, and I just, like love to hear from you. What, what do you think about that, like, I mean, I, in terms of, you know, a challenging aspect of building, building a company and an idea.

Sara Cullen 23:46
Yeah, so I think you have great points there, like you have to out of the get go be able to build, you know, a good taste a good product, a quality product, one that’s needed in the marketplace, and one that has good unit economics, right. So, you know, some people I hear they’re like doing a sub subscription, frozen business and glass, whatever. I’m like, how is that ever going to work and scale? So you need to be able to have a scalable company, a good quality product. That’s that’s certainly the foundation and hopefully you can get that somewhat right out of the get goes that you’re on a good, a good path. But I agree with you. It’s not necessarily the most challenging. I would say the most challenging is the people part. Yeah. And I’ve talked about this before on podcast. You know, in the early days, for me, everyone’s circumstances different. We had to raise money. Right away. I didn’t have money, the time I needed to fundraise out of the gates, super hard that first $3 million, that your fundraising takes a lot of time, a lot of energy. And that’s really unfortunate. I’m also a sole founder. So it took up a lot of My time. So I felt like you know, in some ways I didn’t get a good head start on the people part until later until I finally got the money to hire people. It’s like the chicken in the egg problem. And so I, once I got to that people per, you know, I never worked for a large corporate company, I’ve never had that experience. I’ve interned for big government, like organizational, you know, the UN, the World Bank, that kind of thing. But those were all internships, like, I’ve actually never worked for a large corporate company, for better or for worse, I don’t think I would thrive in those environments. However, it would be nice to learn from some of them, because I’ve had to learn, you know, there’s all of this, like, HR kind of one on one, you know, paperwork and documentations, and how you manage and how you lead people. And, you know, I’ve had coaching now, and I’ve had help, but it’s a lot to learn in a short amount of time. And how do you attract? You know, the the best in class leadership? And how do you retain that leadership, and it really is all about the people that you work with, that is the most important thing. I mean, that is, you know, of course, it’s the product, and it’s your customers, but at the end of the day, like you’re working, it’s your team that’s making it all happen and investing in them in the right way is so important.

Kara Goldin 26:14
Yeah, that’s, it’s so true. I remember early on at hand, and people have asked me like, how did you get? How did you recruit? Initially, and the, I mean, think about this, like, people are relying on a minute, you’ve never done this before, right? You’ve had an amazing experience, and you’re smart, you’ve done a lot of things, but the fact that they’re actually, in our case, signing on to a drink, maybe they liked the taste of it, but I mean, you’re, they’re depending on you to actually build this company, their family, in some cases is depending on you to to, you know, make sure you’re paying your bills and, and, you know, setting up health and all of these things, right, all the backbone of it. And I think for me, the hardest thing was when the first person decide, actually, two pieces, the first person who left the company, and then the first time I had to fire somebody, I mean, both really hard, because it’s like somebody thinks, you know, in the case of, of the person leaving, it’s like, they’re telling you your baby’s ugly, right, you’re like, and that you’re a terrible, you know, parent, or, you know, you’ve done this or whatever. And, and then the second one, I mean, it’s, it’s never easy to fire somebody, especially somebody that’s committed to your company, and I’ll never ever go to tears.

Sara Cullen 27:47
I was so nervous, the first first, I think, ever been in my whole life on

Kara Goldin 27:51
anything? No, it’s it’s really, it’s really bad. And it never, I always tell people, it never frankly, gets easier to do it. And, you know, depending on who you are, I think that if somebody says, Oh, it’s really easy, and, you know, I get that it’s, it’s super important to, to, you know, person is not working for the company. But when you start looking at, you know, how many years they’ve been here, they’ve got a family, all of those things, you can do it in some Kinder way, I guess. But it’s. But anyway, I just think, going back to the original point, I think that you’re going to go through changes in the beginning that that people are signing on to basically an idea, and they need a job, and they’re going to come and do it. But they’re probably not going to be the team that you’re going to have when you hit 3 million, or whatever.

Sara Cullen 28:51
I think that’s the hardest part that right. That’s the hardest part for me to swallow, because you want to hire these people you want to hire right? And you would love to grow with them. And I think in ideal world, some people you can grow with them. But the truth is, is that sometimes who you can hire and afford, when you’re under 3 million in sales versus three to 10 versus 10 to 20, is actually very different leveling up, like different levels of skill. And then, and you don’t necessarily have the capacity to grow those people to like, it’s not that these people don’t have potential, but sometimes, like you don’t have, you know, the Googles resources, I like to say these big company resources to train and to have the time to level everybody up accordingly to your growth that you’re hitting. So it’s really tough having to kind of reorg like that at each level. And it happens quite a bit. And we’re going through another reorg now, and it hurts. Yeah, you know, it’s never fun. For any party, any side. And I think it’s super hard. And, you know, I think to your point like that, there’s a lot of ego involved too as a founder, just like fundraising, right? When you’re fundraising, you’re getting a lot of nose and rejection and to then go to the hiring side and feel like you’re getting rejection there. It’s a lot to take. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 30:09
no, definitely. So last question, as a leader, you touched on this, but you’re gonna face a lot of challenges and learn a lot along the way. What’s one piece of advice you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs who are thinking about launching and, and, or maybe have launched and are a little bit behind where you’re at now, as they’re, you know, looking at this experience?

Sara Cullen 30:38
You have so many tidbits, I think, right now, what’s top of mind is, there’s no way but through and to not let perfection get in your way. And there are times that I have to remind myself, that’s why this is top of mind right now, you know, you want everything to be perfect 100%, when you launch or, you know, the brand messaging be just perfectly dialed in. And sometimes the only way is to really just go through it and might be at 80%. But to keep persevering to keep iterating on it. And that’s really what’s important. I think a lot of early founders get super stalled up in that perfection ism. And, and I just, you know, there’s a reason why it takes years to build a company. And a lot of people don’t talk about that, too. I think they hear these stories of these rocket ship companies. And they think, Oh, I accept in three years. And that’s just not the reality. If people tell you that they haven’t told you about the other 10 years. Building the company. Yeah. So you know, I don’t know.

Kara Goldin 31:42
I totally agree. It’s funny when we first launched hint, I think vitamin water was, like 12 years old. And we ended up meeting the founder. And, you know, he had restructured the company, he had gone bankrupt. I mean, there was like a whole like, story. I was like, wait, I just started seeing vitamin water and all of its success a couple years ago, I thought I was early, like finding new guys. And you know, it’s, it’s amazing, because I think companies are typically way many more years into it. By the time you end up learning about companies, even if you’re super early. And it’s, I totally agree with you. So anyway, Sara Cullen, founder and CEO of jam, so so nice to meet you. Everyone needs to try this product. We’ll have all the info in the show notes, too. But thank you for spending time with us. And thank you, everybody for listening and have a great rest of the week.

Sara Cullen 32:47
Thank you.

Kara Goldin 32:48
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.