It’s not every day that an entrepreneur creates an entirely new industry category and a nine-figure company at the same time. But that’s exactly what Dharmesh Shah did when he started HubSpot.
Before the company launched in 2006, marketing relied solely on outbound tactics such as cold calling, purchasing billboards, and buying email lists. Shah and his co-founder Brian Halligan saw an opportunity to completely change the game. Together, they founded the concept of inbound marketing, which is all about creating value for your audience to draw them into your company.
Since then, HubSpot has quickly become the most respected and recognized brand within the marketing world—known not only for being the inventor and category king of inbound marketing, but also for adopting an incredible company culture. In this interview, Shah touches on all these topics and shares his biggest takeaways from serving as the co-founder and CTO of HubSpot.
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Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is, how’d you get your job?
Dharmesh: How’d I get my job? You’re talking about the startup I’m in or my first job?
Nathan: Yeah. How’d you find yourself doing the work you’re doing today?
Dharmesh: Well, my co-founder and I were graduate students at MIT and we have a shared passion for startups and small business. And we saw a problem in kind of how companies were doing marketing, that the old kind of approaches marketing were no longer working, where you buy an email list or you buy a list of phone numbers and kind of cold call people, and that there was a better way. Now that the internet existed, you could kind of create blogs and podcasts and things like that, and add value to your audience. And we recognised that although that was a better way to do marketing, it was difficult for most small businesses to kind of have this technical sophistication to kind of pull those tools together, to be able to kind of do it right. So we decided to start a company and build a product that made it easier for small and medium sized businesses to kind of grow using the internet and using what we call inbound marketing.
Nathan: Yeah. HubSpot, very, very well known company. You guys are clear market leader in the space. I’d love to talk about the term inbound. You guys coined it and when everyone hears the word inbound, they think of HubSpot. And a lot of startups do that if they want to take market sasses in particular, do that when you want to take a market. If you think of the sales funnel, there’s obviously click funnels, or if you think of… Yeah. All sorts of companies. So I’m curious, do you think that that’s something that is important and it has been a really key ingredient for you guys?
Dharmesh: It has been a key ingredient, but if I were advising a startup, I think you need to walk into that decision very mindfully, which is you’re trying to create a new category. It happened to work out for HubSpot and we were deliberate about it. We said, okay, we’re kind of looking out in the landscape and say, what category, if we had to pick an existing category for our software product, which one would it fit in? And the categories that existed just didn’t really click. So the most likely one would have been something called marketing automation, which is fine, but that didn’t capture the idea of inbound marketing. And in fact, it kind of was almost contrary to it at the time. So we decided that we should label this kind of new category. So we coined the term inbound marketing.
And once we did that, we had to do all this work around creating the categories. And I think one of the pivotal decisions was around not trademarking the term. Although we coined the term, we deliberately did not trademark it and we told the world that we would love for them to adopt the philosophy and the term because we just wanted the product category to exist, we didn’t necessarily need ourselves to kind of own the term, and I think that helped. Had we done it differently where it was just a HubSpot specific term that was trademarked and no one else could call what they were doing inbound marketing, I think the movement towards inbound marketing would just not have taken off. So that was one of the lessons learned.
Nathan: Interesting. So when it comes to kind of inbound and using content as a way to provide value and then in turn, build a relationship with a prospect or just building an audience and then when somebody needs a solution, you hopefully are the first PR person or company that they think of, back then in 2006, were people using content marketing to grow companies?
Dharmesh: Not really. And this is what kind of made it hard, right? So the idea, I mean, blogging existed as a thing, social media was a thing, SEO was a thing, but this notion of using content to kind of drive customers in or potential customers in wasn’t completely absent, but that was definitely not the trend. So I think we were early in that game. So one of the few things we got right, which is that really was the old school marketing really was a problem. And marketers everywhere were experiencing this kind of diminishing return from classical approaches to marketing where you get a trade show booth or you take a billboard out or you buy a list. Humans have become immune to classical marketing approaches. We were getting very, very good as a society blocking out unwanted marketing.
And so that’s where we called all those approaches kind of outbound marketing, where you’re pushing a message out. And that’s why the inbound marketing was kind of the opposite of that. Can you pull people in as a result of kind of adding value or saying something useful or just yeah, pulling them in versus kind of pushing the message out.
Nathan: Yeah, it makes sense-
Dharmesh: It was not common … It seems obvious in hindsight now, 13 years later, but at the time it was relatively new and the good news though, we didn’t get a lot of resistance when we talked about, oh, here’s what’s broken. We’re all immune to the classical marketing. People look at their own behaviour. We got up on stages and wrote a book and things like that. So there was no resistance to the idea because it made sense to people. It’s like, yeah, I don’t like getting spammy emails. I don’t like getting a phone call in the middle of dinner with someone trying to sell me something. And so it wasn’t that big of a leap. The harder part was not getting them to recognise that there was a problem, the harder part was getting people to start blogging and start creating content because they have these kind of internal constraints in their head that says, oh, I’m not really a writer, or I don’t know how to create video, or those barriers.
And the truth is that you don’t actually have to be a professional writer. You’re not looking to win Nobel prizes, you’re just looking to share your story and teach people what that can help them with their business.
Nathan: Yeah. All that makes sense. And the landscapes change a lot now in 13 years. And one thing I’ve noticed speaking to startups is usually, early stage startups, they usually grow from… Obviously, they have to have a great product or service, but then you need to choose a vehicle or a mechanism to grow, or a vehicle. And it’s either paid, they’re really, really good at paid or they’re really, really good at inbound. In this marketplace right now in 2019, should people still be… It’s hard to focus on both; paid acquisition and content marketing. What should people be thinking about in the early days?
Dharmesh: I think if you’re going to do paid acquisition, which I understand why startups do it, the obviously, it’s effective, but it’s a very efficient market. So if you’re going to do it, you have to do it very, very well because you’re up against, based on what category you’re competing in, up against kind of paid marketing ninjas that have been doing this for a while. They’ve been tracking the data, they know their conversion metrics, so they can kind of afford to make the investment that they do. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t do or startups shouldn’t do kind of pay channels, but you have to kind of really get crisp around which keywords you’re buying. You have to kind of watch and monitor the analytical data. You just kind of make the investment and get good at it if you’re going to do it.
But even today, I would still say, and yes, you’re right, it’s hard to do both really, really well, but I would still kind of, as an entrepreneur, balance your investments a little bit across both paid and content. And it can be whatever form of content that’s comfortable. Doesn’t have to be blog writing. It could be video, it could be podcasting, it could be you’re publishing data. If you’re more of an engineering focus thing. I also think of free tools as a form of content. So if you’re a software company, let’s say, your content could be that you give away part of your product for free or related tools for free. HubSpot did this in its early years, and that often works really well as well. The nice thing about investing in content is that you’re essentially building this durable asset. So for instance, blog articles that I wrote 13 years ago when we started the company, even today, still drive traffic, still drive leads. They still bring us customers.
The issue with paid is that as soon as you stop paying, let’s say times become tough, that traffic literally immediately stops. That’s issue number one. Issue number two is that, let’s say you find an economic model where I can afford to pay Y dollars per click for these keywords and as a startup, I figured out that here’s what the value is that I’m getting on the other side, the challenge is that you are sort of at the mercy of the market. So you could have a new venture back startup that just raised $20 million come in and buy up those same keywords in that category, and not even overnight, literally immediately, your cost per click goes up and your economic models break down. So I’m not suggesting avoiding pay-per-click, but you need to kind of balance it with this kind of durable asset mindset where you’re creating something that people can’t take away.
That even if in a downturn, you have to stop investing in blog posting or whatever content you’re creating, whatever you’ve done to date still kind of brings you value over time. There’s this kind of layered approach. But you’re right, it’s not nontrivial. I’m not saying spend 100% on content oriented inbound marketing stuff, but it shouldn’t also be zero.
Nathan: Yeah. That makes sense. And yeah, I just think it’s tough because everyone’s talking about pay, pay, paying is easy, but then you compete against companies like HubSpot and it’s just hard. But then the content piece, it takes time to see a return. Sometimes it takes months and years.
Dharmesh: Yeah. Since we’re on the topic, sorry. Sorry to interrupt. One of the hardest things around content creation is figuring out what content to create. What are the keywords I should be going after? What’s the thing I’m trying to solve for? And paying is an exceptionally good learning tool. So my suggestion would be, don’t just start blogging and doing it kind of willy-nilly because you have no idea that, even if you were to rank for a particular set of keywords, what a conversion rate would be. That’s going to take you some time to kind of get that traffic flowing in any way through organic search. So my thought would be, you’ve paid, if for nothing else, at least use it to say, okay, I’m going to test these 15, 20, 50 keywords that I think are bringing value to my business, send some traffic to some content and see if those things convert, see if that that message is resonating.
And then you can say over time, oh, it’s like, oh, we’re spending $5,000 a month on these set of keywords. Is it possible for us to actually create content that rates organically for those same keywords over time?
Nathan: Yeah. That’s really, really smart. Yeah. That’s awesome. Thank you. Well, look, I’d love to switch gears and talk about culture because I know that’s something that you’re very, very passionate about and you published the Culture Code deck or manifest or body of work. And yeah, it’s got a lot of attention and it’s yeah, a big part of, I guess what’s fueled HubSpot’s growth. So one thing that I’d love to start with is, why do you think culture is so important?
Dharmesh: A couple of things. One is, culture helps kind of internally the organisation make good decisions efficiently. It just helps you operate a more effective company and without passing any moral value judgements. So the way I think about culture, so you’ve seen the Culture Code deck… By the way, inside story, the word code in that Culture Code, most people often think of as like a code of conduct. And when I wrote it, it was not written as like a code of conduct, it was written as literally code. As an engineer, I’m like, okay, if I can write an operating system on which the company itself would run, what would that look like? So the number one reason to be very kind of deliberate as like to have… You’re going to have a culture regardless. Every company has a culture. The more intentional and deliberate about it you are, the more it will be like the company you envisioned it to be, right?
If you just let it kind of grow on its own, most of the time, you’re not going to wind up with a culture that you wanted because you just weren’t deliberate. You weren’t hiring for it, you weren’t promoting people for it and you just weren’t operating it in that way. So if I could rewind time in HubSpot, I would have written that Culture Code much, much earlier. It might not have been 128 slides in the first go, but it was just so impactful for us to sit down and think about what kind of company we wanted to build. And then it helped along so many levels. It helped with recruiting, not just of people, so you can think of it as a form of inbound recruiting, but also self selection because HubSpot’s culture is not for everyone and we save potential candidates and ourselves a bunch of pain simply by them selecting out how they read the Culture Code deck. It’s like, oh, no one has an office?
I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, I can’t see myself in this kind of company. And that’s great. They should find a company that fits them, but it’s nice to kind of have it articulated and get it out there. So my strong advice to entrepreneurs is, and even if it’s just a one page thing, kind of sit down with your co-founders and your team and figure out kind of broadly, what kind of things matter to you and try to avoid the cliches. And everything in your culture should be something that not everyone agrees with, right? That it just happens to be your particular way, not the right way.
Nathan: Yeah. And when you think about culture and when you wrote that slide or the Culture Code, it’s basically the way that you view the world and your personal values, you and Brian’s values, right?
Dharmesh: It is. Yeah. And it’s interesting. So we’ve iterated on it just like code over time. So it’s gone through a bunch of changes over the years and yeah, to kind of captures the kind of value that we have around kind of transparency was one of the core values ever since the company started. And our first kind of cultural act at HubSpot well before the Culture Code ever got written was just around Brian and I sitting down deciding, we want to build a company that the two of us want to work in, one of the things that will make it joyful for us to come into the office and do the work we do. And so a lot of what you’ll see at HubSpot in the culture is essentially something that’s like, okay, well, Brian, I don’t like hierarchy, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, so we don’t have a… We just built a company that we thought would be a fun and engaging place to work.
And then the rest of it sort of came from that as we got increasingly kind of intentional and deliberate to try to articulate some of the other things.
Nathan: Yeah. I see. And one thing I’m curious around is how do you make sure that culture spreads, especially because you guys are really big on autonomy? So you have different offices, remote teams, remote workers, and that’s a very, very fast growing trend where it’s not uncommon for startups, especially early stage to be fully remote now. So how do you make that spread?
Dharmesh: Yes. I think culture is easier when you’re co-located, when everybody’s kind of in the same physical space. But in this day and age, I don’t think it’s necessary. I’ve seen the great companies with great cultures that are fully distributed, so that happens. And yeah, even at HubSpot, we have an increasing percentage of our workforce that’s remote. I think the important thing, kind of step one, if you want to make sure, and I can’t emphasise this, is to write it down, right? So it’s like, okay, here’s what it is. Otherwise, if you think you’re going to communicate via osmosis to a growing base of people, that just doesn’t work. So number one is you sort of have to write it down. Number two is you have to keep repeating it, and this is the thing that’s often painful for founders, certainly, painful for me, is like every company meeting, we call it an all-minds meeting versus an all-hands meeting.
But every company meeting, my topic is culture and I’ll say the same things kind of over and over again and to the point that it’s like, I can’t believe I’m going to say this again, but that is a very effective and very necessary thing for a couple of reasons. One is, we think we’ve kind of communicated all and we’ve kind of transmitted it and it’s there. Often, it’s not. Repetition actually is very, very effective and I’ve had my leadership team come back to me like, Dharmesh, thanks so much for putting that message out there. My team needed to hear it. So that’s number one. Number two is, as you’re growing, you forget the fact that yeah, you may have said those things, but if you’re growing really fast, let’s say you’re doubling every year, that means that any given point in time, most people in the company have never heard you say those words.
And that’s important for them to kind of hear it from the founders how important it is, what it really means, sometimes kind of the backstory and the mythology around the cultures is kind of important to keep putting out there. One kind of related thing on culture that I think is important, this was kind of just an observation, and I didn’t have this epiphany early on, but a actually builds two products. They build a product for their customers, which is a kind of classic product we think of, and they build a product for their boys, their team, and that’s what culture is. And the more you think about it that way, the easier and more kind of naturally it comes to you. For instance, all the things you would do in building a product. When I say product, I mean, offering. It could be a service, it could be whatever it is. There’s no entrepreneur on the face of the planet that will say, oh, I’m just going to build this product. I’m never going to get customer feedback.
You would never do that, right? So you would say, oh, I’m going to put the product out there. I’m going to see what customers think, I’m going to see if people are buying it or not, I’m going to see if they’re cancelling. The exact analogues exist in the culture as product idea, right? Which is, oh, you should never build a culture without getting feedback from the employees as to whether that product is working for them or not. You should get feature requests like, okay, here are the things I would love for the culture to do in the future that’s not doing right now. Here are the bugs in the culture, things that we think are just broken. And then you have to kind of track the data just like you would for your customer facing product, which is, okay, over time, are people more or less happy with our culture over time? Just how is it holding up? And then you think it’s like, okay, well, yep.
So every quarter, HubSpot right now collects data from our entire employee base and we ask the same question that we asked for customer net promoter score, which is the kind of customer satisfaction score. We ask our employees and say on a scale of zero to 10, how likely are you to recommend HubSpot as a place to work, which is a classic NPS question. And the second question is, why did you give that score? And so every quarter, we will go through that list. Every quarter, now we have hundreds of responses. We’ll go through that, we’ll summarise and we’ll say, here’s what we heard back from you, folks. Here are the bugs that are in our culture right now. And some things will be, yep, I know a bunch of you folks asked for this feature or to fix this bug, but that works with design. We’re likely not going to do anything about that. We’re very candid and we’ll talk about it in the next company meeting.
Oh, and here are the things that you folks asked for. Within the next three, six, 12 months, we’re going to fix that. That’s on our list of things to kind of put in the next release, so to speak, of the culture. But that’s been a very useful kind of analogy or a framework to work with to think of it as a product. And it’s a living, breathing thing. And just like a product is not static, as the product grows, you add features, you have to kind of fight for simplicity, just like you would in the product, and culture is the same way. You’re fighting every day to kind of battle complexity as an organisation grows.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. And one thing I saw in the deck was, you guys think about culture’s retention strategy, not just for the customer, but also the employee. Can you maybe elaborate on that more?
Dharmesh: Sure. So in the same way we want to keep customers, obviously, we want to keep employees. It takes a lot to kind of pull people in and recruit and go through the process. There’s a hard dollar cost, but also just the time and energy thing. So I think it’s intuitive that we would want to keep our employees. So then the question is, okay, so what keeps people happy and engaged? And the answer there is, okay, well, it varies from company to company so let’s just ask them. So the reason we have autonomy in there is that as it turns out, especially with people earlier in their careers, one of the core features people are looking for in HubSpot and that keeps them engaged is that level of autonomy. So we take that very seriously. They like the transparency that we’re sharing information.
They may or may not read all the financials and everything they have access to within the company, but they like knowing that it’s there, that they have access to it. There’s nothing happening behind closed doors that they’re unaware of. So we just made a list of the things that we think of as kind of flagship features of our culture and that the more we invest in those features that our employees as customers care about, the longer they’ll stay customers of the culture, boys of the company.
Nathan: Yeah. And I’m curious, out of all the data you’ve collected thus far, what matters the most? Is it the work that people are doing? Is it the impact they’re making? Is it their salary? Is it the compensation that they’re getting? Is it stock options? What matters the most you found from your experience? And I know you advise a lot of companies as well.
Dharmesh: Yeah. The number one thing we’ve learned, and this has been consistent across the years. The thing people love about working at HubSpot, and this is a little bit recursive, so it bothered me in the early years because I’m not exactly sure how actual it is, the number one thing they love is the other people at HubSpot. So who they were working with and alongside far outweighed anything else. So then the question is like, okay, well, that’s sort of recursive. So that means in order for me to keep my great people, I have to kind of keep great people. And so then you kind of go to number two and number three, and people love the autonomy. That’s probably the second thing, which is like, I like… And so one of the common patterns that I think great people now in this day and age, this I will pass as a value judgement , but I think there is a right way and a wrong way.
The good people, great people love to learn. So it’s a degree that you can say, okay, we are the company that’s going to allow you to learn the most. One of the things that a startup can offer that bigger companies often can’t is that startups will expose someone to whatever they want to be exposed to. That’s awesome. And the way to learn, right? Is you have to be able to make decisions, you have to be able to fail, you have to be able to try things. So if you don’t have the autonomy to actually do anything and have any discretion back until you make choices and see whether they work or not, it’s very hard to learn. So then autonomy and learning go, in my mind, hand in hand. So if you can provide folks that, find them a way to be around great peers that are brilliant and a way to kind of try things out and learn, and if they’re kind of maniacally committed to kind of becoming masters of their craft, whatever it might be, that goes a long way. The rest of it sort of tends to work itself out.
Nathan: Yeah. And I think also in the early days, a big part of it, because often, these people have never done what they need to do before, they have to problem solve. And the number one way to do that is just self-education. Going out there, speaking to people, reading books, reading, blog posts, reading and listening and watching and learning. And you just have to be obsessive to be able to be a master of your craft and then that’s how the company grows, if everyone’s learning and solving big problems.
Dharmesh: That’s totally right. I’ve talked to a bunch of entrepreneurs over the years and that’s one of the common patterns is that, and most of them, especially first time founders, they’ve never done any of this before, right? This is not like anyone who went to school and was a classically trained entrepreneur, that’s a very rare thing. They kind of get thrown into it or they throw themselves into it and it’s just a matter of kind of adapting, right? It’s like kind of looking beyond your own kind of whatever you think all your personal constraints are. And some of the most successful entrepreneurs, I think we’ve seen as a society are folks that chips were sort of stacked against, that they would not have been predicted to be successful entrepreneurs, but they kind of just were learning machines and they were just able to kind of absorb it and kind of keep pushing through and kind of stick to it and keep going.
Nathan: Yeah. So I agree with you. The best kind of team members are people that are learning machines, because if they don’t know it, then that’s where you can hire on attitude, not necessarily skill and experience. I’m curious though, we have to work towards wrapping up, you talk about the autonomy piece. This is a question from personal experience. Sometimes depending on the size of the team, remote and a mixture of remote and a location-based can be quite messy. I know you guys do it now, but in the early days HubSpot, what is your thought? Do you think you should go all remote or just all in in a location? Or like right now with our company, we have a combination of remote and two different locations, and it can be tough across culture spreading, but then also communication. Yes, you have tools like Slack, but it’s just not the same.
Dharmesh: No, it’s not. And in all candor, so HubSpot’s doing more and more remote now, and I’ve been an advocate of it for a while and I was part of this internal resistance, right? Which is we have a working culture, things are going relatively well. So even putting aside remote work, HubSpot’s a global company now. We have offices in nine different countries. In the early years, I fought that first office that was outside of our kind of headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the reason I resisted it’s like, okay, well, we’ve got something magical here, the outcome is working. I’m not sure how we’re going to transport this across an ocean. And so I was very resistant to that first office. Do we really need to do that because the risk was so high, and I still believe that trying to mix the remote and co-located is very tricky and you have to kind of understand the trade offs.
And then mixing it with this kind of notion of autonomy. This is one of the reasons I was worried is that, how does that work? It’s hard enough providing autonomy when 20 people in the company are all kind of in the same room. How do you let someone that you’ve possibly never met before, you maybe saw once in the last year, kind of own things and make sure that they’re being held accountable and that they care as much as the people that… And so we’re kind of learning as we go. The thing that I’m trying to teach myself and teach others in the company is that just because someone happens to be remote, if we don’t think that they’re capable of making decisions and using good judgement and having autonomy, then they shouldn’t join the team, whether they’re co-located or not. And if they do join the team, then we have to trust them just as if they were in the same building.
And then we will work through whatever other issues we need to, but we’ve got to get that part right. We have to have that trust. And if that means in the first year, they’re flying to wherever they need to be to be co-locating, just to build that trust. We haven’t kind of worked out the mechanics of all that yet, but that’s crucial. That’s the thing that I think that would be toxic in the longterm in terms of mixing remote and co-located, if we can’t have the same level of kind of rights and privileges for every person in the company, regardless of whether they happen to be one of our offices or remote or whoever it happens to be. We don’t have that all figured out yet.
Nathan: Yeah, I agree. But just coming back to round it out, early days, because of the tools, because of these marketplaces like Upwork, where you can find a data scientist or someone that could work 10 hours a week editing your videos, it’s just insane. I’m curious, early days, what should early stage startup founders be thinking? Should they still do, from your experience, co-located and a combination of remote or?
Dharmesh: Yeah. If I were doing it all over again, so I wouldn’t mix it, especially in the early days. I would do either all co-locators just do all remote, that’s kind of advice number one. Advice number two would be, in terms of Upwork and freelancing, I think you just separate some of those things like, oh, I need someone with this discrete task and I’m going to go hire someone on Upwork for 50 or 500, whatever it happens to be. That’s a very different thing than the kind of early team that you are kind of hiring full time. What you want is people that are waking up every morning, going to bed every night thinking about how to better serve customers and how to build this company. And you’re not going to get that from a freelancer. That’s just not how that relationship is designed to work. So it’s completely okay to have folks that are remote.
It’s not completely okay to have people that are on the team that are just not committed, unless you’re doing it for like, oh, I just need them to edit this blog post or do this video editing, that’s a different matter. But if you’re hiring your kind of head of product or head of engineering or design, whatever it is, and even that kind of touches the core business and touches a product and touches customers, those should be people that are full time, that are committed to the company. My personal take is, they should have an equity stake of some sort, just so they feel a sense of ownership. But yeah, I would do one or the other because mixing it in those early days is really hard, hardly alternative. So I would just start remote as a beginning point. And then over time as the company matures, you might have clusters of people that are at a specific location that happened to get together once a week or once a month, whatever it happens to be, but…
Nathan: Yeah. No, that makes sense. Okay, awesome. We’ll, look, we can work towards wrapping up, Dharmesh. Just last question, anything that you’d like to finish off on? Where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work and then yeah, any parting words for early stage startup founders?
Dharmesh: So one kind of last piece, and this is the thing that’s kind of helped me across my entrepreneurial career is just become maniacally obsessed with the customer problem. Don’t fall in love with your particular solution or the way you’re doing it right now, but attach yourself to that customer problem and kind of just stay focused on that. And in terms of just finding me, I’ve a personal blog called onstartups.com, which is where I do all my startup blogging. I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter and all the places. So it’s relatively easy to find. If you just Google Dharmesh, you can’t avoid me. I’m everywhere.
Nathan: Awesome. Well, look, thank you so much for your time. I really, really appreciate it.
Dharmesh: Those were great questions, by the way. I really enjoyed this interview. I’m not saying that to pander. It’s not in my nature to pander, but it was fun.
Nathan: Thank you. Thank you so much.