J: Forward here, and I only do this little thing just so we can sync up for the editor the audio. I’m going to count to three, and then if we could clap on the fourth beat altogether. One, two, three. Perfect. Okay, there you go, editor. We’re getting rolling. Okay. Honey, are you ready?
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Carol: I’m ready.
J: Okay, give me one second, and Alan Donegan? Is that-?
Alan Donegan: Yes.
J: Okay, let’s welcome Alan to the show. How you doing today, Alan?
Alan Donegan: I’m doing fantastic, thank you. It’s raining in Basingstoke in England.
J: Ah, that’s right. You’re across the pond.
Alan Donegan: I am indeed. Yes, I’m going to get back for better weather.
Carol: Yeah, I can imagine. Thanks so much for being on with us today. I know our listeners are going to absolutely love everything you have to share with them. So, thank you for joining us.
J: So Alan, you run a business or a school–I guess both–called PopUp Business School, and I would really love to find out a little bit more about what PopUp Business School is, and I’d also like to find out what led you to start this thing that you call PopUp Business School. So, can you take us back a little bit and talk a little bit about where you came from and what led you to start this education, this school, this business education school for new entrepreneurs?
Alan Donegan: Yeah, I’d love to. I mean, to tell you where we are today, we travel around the world, and we help people to build businesses without spending any money. Last year we ran 44 events and helped 2,300 people, and it basically all started from the British government’s inability to help me start a business.
J: So, jumping back a little bit. First, you said help entrepreneurs start businesses without any money. Do you mean that they can attend your school without any money, or they can start their businesses without any money, or both?
Alan Donegan: Both, so the courses-
Alan Donegan: are free. No one’s ever paid to come on any of our workshops, and we don’t believe it takes money to make money. We think you can get going without that.
J: I love that, and so-
Carol: That is gold right there.
J: So, you do this in England, I presume. Do you ever travel to the States and do any of your workshops in the States as well?
Alan Donegan: Yes, we had one in Colorado last year. We did one in Houston. I think there will be one in Indianapolis and Charleston as well coming up. We did six last year in New Zealand. We had one in France, so the course has just been translated into French, and I’m flying to Morocco in about a week or two’s time for the launch in Arabic.
J: That is awesome. Congratulations.
Carol: [crosstalk 00:02:58].
J: Okay, so tell us how you came to become an entrepreneur yourself and how you came to start the PopUp Business School.
Alan Donegan: How did I become an entrepreneur myself? I think many years ago when I was a lot younger, my dad stopped giving me pocket money because his business had gone bankrupt and he didn’t have any money, but he said instead, I could make my own money, and he was running a sportswear business at the time, and he said, you can’t have pocket money, but you can take the shorts, t-shirts, and different things. I’ll give you one price, and then you can sell them for anything you want over that at school. So, you can’t have pocket money, but you can go and make your own money. That inspired me. Cash is good for buying sweets and pizza and food, and that’s what I needed as a kid.
Carol: How old were you when you did that, when your dad gave you your sportswear and you started reselling for a profit?
Alan Donegan: I think I was very reticent to do it. I think he might have started offering at 15, 16, but I had a lot of hangups over it. I only really got into it at 17, and some months at college I made more money than I did when I had a proper job later on.
Carol: Wow, right off the bat you figured that out.
Alan Donegan: Yes, sales first.
J: So, what was the next step? So, I assume that didn’t turn into a big enterprise. Maybe it did, but I think listening to your story on The Money Show, it sounds like that wasn’t your big enterprise. That was just kind of stepping stone to the next several things that you did. So, what was next in your evolution as an entrepreneur?
Alan Donegan: What happened next was I was working in the family business, but it’s not a good time when your parents are getting divorced and they have financial problems. So, I got out of that quickly, and my granny was very keen on me getting a solid job. So, I got a solid job, and I hated it. And I did telly sales and I did field sales, selling photocopiers. I struggled to get passionate about photocopiers.
Carol: Why? It sounds fascinating. Photocopying. I mean, what more could you ask out of life?
Alan Donegan: If there’s a stapler and a double-sided, maybe. And then I did recruitment. I did kids’ after-school parties. I ran a pub. I did landscape gardening, grounds maintenance, plus lots of other jobs. I tried everything. Before I finally got fired, which I’ve signed a document that says I can’t tell you why I got fired, and then couldn’t find a job I actually wanted to do, so decided I would start my own business. And that’s kind of how we ended up here, but it took a long time, a lot of pain and a lot of different jobs to make that decision.
Carol: I guess so. It sounds like you went… Your journey was very roundabout. You went from one job to another to another, and it sounds like nothing that your exceptionally passionate about or engaged in. So, then you decided, “Well, let’s start this PopUp Business School.” Is that the idea, and how did that come to fruition?
Alan Donegan: Actually the first business I started was a training business, so I ran training courses for big corporates. I taught them how to present, influence, speak. One of my favorite stories is I taught Microsoft how to use PowerPoint, and then just built a training business. And the sort of genesis of starting that business and going to the British government for support with that and another couple of business ideas, that was the experience that they did more to put me off starting a business then they did to actually help me.
Alan Donegan: They told me to write a business plan. They told me to get a loan. They told me to go into debt. They put so many barriers in my way to getting going that I nearly had a meltdown at that point and believed I couldn’t actually do it. And it took a long time to come back from that and get over it, and that experience of believing that I couldn’t do it, that I needed all this other stuff to start up was what then inspired PopUp Business School. It was my search for there must be a better way to do it than the traditional way to start a business. There must be a better way.
J: Yeah, I love that. I know that any of us that have tried this entrepreneurship thing, and any of us that are going to in the future are going to experience that letdown of, “Something’s not going right. We hit obstacles that are just so hard to overcome,” and a lot of times it can take one or two or five or 50 efforts before something actually works out. And part of being a successful entrepreneur is just not giving up, just going back. If it fails once, do it a second time. If it fails five times, do it a sixth. If it fails 20 times, do it a 21st.
J: And so it sounds like you had that failure early on, but you got back up and you said, “Hey, not only am I going to figure out how to do it, but I’m going to think about the process as well.” So, you started PopUp Business School. Can you tell us a little bit about what your goals were with it, like were you thinking about, “I want to figure out how I can start a business,” or “I want to help other people start businesses”? What was the origin of PopUp Business School?
Alan Donegan: My number one goal, and it still is, is to change the way entrepreneurship and startup is taught because in nearly all places, they teach you to write business plans, debt, loans, all of that stuff, and it does more to put people off than it does to help them. And I want to find a way to help people get going without debt, without risk, and doing it quickly so they can actually make money doing something they love. And actually, the whole business was in revolt against that traditional methodology, and still is, and we still to this day fight the traditional enterprise educators in England who like to throw rocks at us and cause problems because we come along and say it should be done differently, and take some of their funding, which they don’t like.
Carol: Oh, I’m sure. Well, and you experienced it firsthand, it sounds like, right? You had your training company that was doing well. You taught, like you said, you taught Microsoft how to use its own product, which is hilarious, and it sounded like they were a big old barrier, and you wanted to remove that barrier for yourself as well as other entrepreneurs, right? Got it, and that’s excellent. So, how did you go about doing that first session, or how did you get the… You’re talking about this whole self-funding and just going out and doing it. How did that first session or that first class, or recruiting the first people for your PopUp Business School? How did that come about?
Alan Donegan: So, I had this idea that we could do it. Originally I wanted to start a complete business school, a big business school, but to start a business school you need a big building. You need a lot of money. You really probably do need a loan if you’re building a big business school, so I took my own advice and said, “Well, why don’t I do a pop-up version, and who could we do it for?” And you start thinking, “Who would pay for it? How would it work?” and I just went and pitched it.
Alan Donegan: I had a client on the presentations skills business, which was a housing association, and I just went to them and said, “Here, I’ve got this idea. I think I could help your residents who live in your houses to start businesses and make their own income. Would you be interested?” They said yes. So, I wrote a proposal. We agreed to dates. I asked Michael Williams, who was the guy I pitched it to. I asked him for the money upfront, and that was a bit unusual. I think he felt a bit uncomfortable being asked for the money upfront, but actually he wanted to get it out of the budget before the end of the financial year.
Carol: Perfect. Good timing.
Alan Donegan: So, we got paid six months before we ran the event, and that was the money I used to set things up, and we borrowed a building. We borrowed chairs from a local church. We scrounged everything. I borrowed a projector. I painted the wall white so we had a screen. We just made it happen from nothing, and I think that entrepreneurial spirit of, “There’s nothing here at the moment, but I’m just going to make it happen,” I think that’s what’s missing because people think they need to buy stuff to start. But yeah, we just made it happen from nothing. I pitched the idea. I sold the idea, and then we created it.
Carol: That’s really cool. First of all, you got paid upfront, which is awesome in and of itself, and then you borrowed. You basically begged, borrowed, and stole everything that you needed to make it happen rather than doing it in a more traditional sense. Can I ask a question? So, why did… I believe you said the name is Michael Williams, the person who you pitched it to. Why did he think it was okay to pay you six months in advance before you even delivered the product? I’m just curious.
Alan Donegan: So, I had a little bit of trust built up because I’d already done some presentation-skills training for the business. Not yet. I’d already done a little bit of it, so they at least knew me, and I turned up in their building and I wasn’t starting from zero. But I think the thing there is it’s trust. If someone trusts you… I always say on the courses, if you’ve got a low-trust environment, you need a big contract because they want to tie you down. They want to pin you down. If you’ve got a high trust environment, you need a very small contract, which can be as much as an email or a shaking of hands, and we had trust. We had trust. I wanted to do it. He could tell I wanted to do it. He genuinely wanted to help his residents, and I think that foundation of trust is what allowed us to make that first one happen. Without trust it never would have launched.
Carol: Excellent. So, trust is paramount in this whole situation.
J: So, the typical idea that most people have when they think of entrepreneurship, they think, “Okay,” like you said, “Let’s go out. I have an idea for a business. I’m going to write a business plan. I’m going to go pitch it to investors. I’m going to raise money from angel investors or venture capitalists. I’m going to go out and get a building, hire employees, buy a lot of equipment, and in ten years I’m going to be a billionaire.” And as we know, that often doesn’t play out that way, and it sounds like what you espouse in PopUp Business School is a different methodology for starting a business. So, can you give us a relatively quick overview of how your idea of how to start a business differs from that more traditional idea that a lot of entrepreneurs or wannabe entrepreneurs have?
Alan Donegan: Well, I guess the first part of that is, let’s unpack what business actually means because it’s such a nebulous word. Business could mean Google with thousands of employees in a massive business, or business could mean a one-man carpenter making tables from his garage. And I think when you type in, “How to start a business,” there are in-built assumptions into that question and the answers that you find on Google and online that say, “Business should equal something that’s scalable, something that makes profit, something that you’re building to sell.” But that’s not what everyone wants, so I think before you even get to, “How do you start a business?” it’s what kind of thing are you creating? Are you building something to make money around kids? Are you building something because you want to make a difference in the world? Are you building something to make money? Any of those answers are fine, but until we know that, how can you recommend a standard way of starting a business for everyone?
J: That’s great. Okay, so let’s jump into some specifics here. So, let’s say I want to start a business. Let’s say I want to start what I think is often referred to as a lifestyle business. I don’t necessarily want to be a billionaire or a hundred millionaire or even a 10 millionaire. I basically want to make enough income that I can focus on my family, I can focus on my personal life, but I can also support my family and I can also have income coming in. So, what are the first steps for me to figure out, “Okay, what is the right business for me? What should I be doing? How do I find that business idea? How do I vet that business idea? How do I decide?” What’s the first step?
Alan Donegan: For me, the first step is absolutely the mini experiment, and the mini experiment says, “Let’s test it. Let’s see if it works.” Because I think lots of people, and I remember some friends of mine saying this, that they wanted to run a wine bar, and they wanted to launch a wine bar, but when they started doing it, they started thinking, “Well, we’re going to have to borrow lots of money. We need a building, and then we’re going to have to start working weekends.” And then actually then after thinking that all through, they went, “Why are we launching a wine bar? It’s because actually we want to drink wine with our friends.” Well, if that’s your goal, it’s going to be far cheaper and easier to buy a bottle of wine or go to a wine bar than it is to start one.
Alan Donegan: So, thinking through that before you even start is worth it, and then why not do a mini experiment? So, if you were starting a wine bar, could we find a venue that would lend us a space? Could we sell tickets upfront to a wine tasting evening? Could we invite people? Could we do a mini experiment and run one evening and see if it works? And if we like it and if the customers like it, and if we make money. And if we do, then scale it, but if you do it the other way around and you borrow all the cash and build the building first and you don’t actually enjoy running it, you’ve got yourself stuck.
J: I love that. So basically, figure out a way that you can verify that you have customers before you ever spend a ton of time and money on building the product.
Alan Donegan: Absolutely. What’s the only way to know if your business will succeed or not? The only way?
J: If you have money coming in.
Alan Donegan: Yeah, if someone gives you money for it, but if you go on… So, I Googled just before the interview, “How do you start a business?” And nearly all of them recommend market research. Now, I have a slight chAlange with market research. For me, what that means is you go out and you see people in the street with their clipboards and they ask you questions, “Would you pay this for this?” And “Do you like this?” And you’ll get some ideas from people, but especially in a British culture… I mean, even in American culture people will be nice to you. They don’t want to offend your feelings about your business idea. Most people take business research to go and see their friends, and they go and see their friends. Imagine I got a new mobile phone case design, and Carol, could you pretend to be my friend for this bit?
Carol: Oh, I would love to be your friend.
Alan Donegan: You can reject me again afterwards. I come to Carol and I say, “Carol, I’ve got this new mobile phone case. Brand new design. It’ll help make your phone sound louder. It’ll help protect it. What do you think?”
Carol: It’s beautiful. Oh my gosh, let me feel that in my hand. That feels really smooth, and it fits in my hand nicely. What’s going to happen when I drop it? Will it be okay?
Alan Donegan: I’m not going to try it, Carol. Carol, you are the perfect friend.
Carol: [crosstalk]phone case. You’ve done a great job designing that phone case.
Alan Donegan: And is that good feedback?
Carol: No, I just like you. You’re my buddy, and I want to tell you your phone case was cool. No offense.
Alan Donegan: And what you should do at that point is when Carol says, “It’s nice,” is say, “Carol, actually it’s 40 bucks. Would you like to buy one?”
Carol: Right now?
Alan Donegan: Yes.
Carol: Well, I don’t have any cash on me, but how about I’ll get back in touch with you later?
Alan Donegan: There’s the real feedback. People will be nice to you up until the point you ask them to take their money out of their pocket. At the point you ask them to take money out of their pocket, they will give you the real feedback. So, my personal opinion is skip everything that comes before. Pitch them the idea and ask them to buy because that is the only moment of truth when you know your business will be successful or not.
Carol: That is such a gold nugget right there, isn’t it, J? Right?
Carol: If someone right off the bat is willing to pay for it, you know it’s what you need to be doing.
J: That is great. I’ll tell you. So, your answer about your mini experiment idea. It’s great, and it reminds me of a story that is… I haven’t heard it in a few years, but used to be talked about a lot. Jeff Bezos, the founder of amazon.com, which is now the largest business in the entire world. The way he started was exactly what you suggested, as a mini experiment. So, a lot of us probably think, “Okay, he started amazon.com. He probably bought a ton of books of inventory, started marketing, whatever.”
J: In actuality, what Jeff Bezos did when he started Amazon was, he went out. He put up this website, this amazon.com website. He didn’t buy any inventory. He owned no books whatsoever. He listed a bunch of books on the website, and when he got his first order, he took the money from that order. He went out. He bought the book and shipped it, and he did that with the second and the third and the 10th and the thousandth book as well.
J: And it wasn’t until he had sold a couple thousand books that he said, “Okay, I can make this work,” and he actually went out and started buying inventory. So, he was literally taking orders, turning around buying the books after he got the orders and shipped them out as if they were coming from him. So, I mean, if this is something that can work for literally the biggest company on the planet, it can work for all of us.
Alan Donegan: That’s exactly how Richard Branson started Virgin Records is he put an advert out there. People sent him in checks, back in the days when checks existed. I don’t know if your listeners will know about those, but he would collect the checks, bank the money, and then go to the local record store and buy the records to ship out. You can do a mini experiment. It doesn’t cost you any money to test these ideas and see if someone wants to buy it, and I don’t really care what it is. There’s a way to pre-sell, test, find someone who will give you cash right up front.
Carol: If you work hard enough, you’re going to find the right person, or you won’t, and I guess that’s important too, right? If nobody’s going to, what’s that telling you? That maybe it just isn’t the right thing to be doing. So, that’s great.
Alan Donegan: If you’ve asked a thousand people and every single one of them has said you’re crazy and they wouldn’t give you money, that’s some fairly strong market feedback, but then you do have to have actually asked for the money, and if you’ve asked a thousand of your customers and everyone has said, “There’s no way I’d pay for this,” that’s feedback you’re going to have to listen to because you’ve actually asked for cash.
Carol: There you go. That’s reality.
J: That’s great. Okay, so you now have an idea and you’ve validated your idea. You’ve asked people, either your friend or your not friends. You’ve gone out and you’ve solicited customers, and they’ve either sent you money or offered to send you money. What is the next step, now that you know that you have potentially viable business, but you haven’t really yet started to build the business. What’s the next step?
Alan Donegan: You’ve got to deliver what you’ve sold, and that definitely depends on what it is you’ve sold, whether it’s a training course, whether it’s a CD. CD? How old-school am I? [crosstalk 00:23:41]. It depends what you’ve sold, but we’ve got to go we’ve got to go back and deliver what we’ve sold, which then… See, this is the bit I really like is because we’ve gone step one, sales. Step two, deliver the product or service, and we’ve gone straight into the heart of doing it. What we haven’t done is what you would do traditionally, which is build the LLC, build all the companies, do all the business, bank accounts, everything else. You’ve tested the idea without wasting any time, and that first round of delivering the product or service is going to give you all the feedback you need to see if it works or not and if you want to do it.
J: So, what you’re saying is, we should actually try and make a little bit of money and find some customers before we get our business cards printed?
Alan Donegan: I’m saying don’t bother with business cards. I find it fascinating, so I Googled “how to start a business” before we came on the call. The top article is from entrepreneur.com. It had 12 steps to starting a business. What step do you think sales is?
J: Number 12, probably.
Carol: Seven or eight.
Alan Donegan: Yeah, it’s number eleven.
Carol: [crosstalk 00:24:57].
Alan Donegan: They [crosstalk]everything first, and , you go down all of these different ones that I found on there. They all talk about everything else other than creating sales first. There’s statements like, “Most businesses require some sort of funding to start,” and then it goes, “Before you can start generating any revenue or making purchases, you’re going to need to open a business bank account,” and there’s all this crap online that tells you you need to do all this stuff first, and it’s completely not true. Sell it, see if you enjoy doing it, deliver the product or service, see if the customers like it. If they do, then we can figure out how to do all this stuff, and I’ll tell you what. You will get motivation to figure out all that stuff if you have a customer waiting. If you don’t have any customer waiting, well where’s your motivation?
J: Yeah, and I’ll tell you, the big benefit here. There’s a saying that I’ve always loved in business, which is, “Fail fast.” If you have something that’s not going to work, don’t take six months or a year or five years to figure out it’s not going to work. Figure out it’s not going to work quickly and move on to the next idea, because if you’re going to fail five or 10 or 20 times before you find that idea that’s going to work, you’d rather those five or 10 or 20 times be each very quickly than spend a year or two and take a year or two to fail those 20 times.
Alan Donegan: Yes, and I’d love to add to that, the expression we use at the PopUp Business School is, “Fail fast and fail cheap.” If it’s going to go wrong, make it go wrong quickly and without going into debt. It’s the antithesis of what most people do is they spend months organizing bank accounts and business names and websites and stuff, and they borrowed lots of money, and that’s failing slowly and failing expensively if you’re going to fail.
J: I’m very much against debt to startups. I think there might be a case for growth loans at different points, but for startups, get that product out there without any debt and see if it works or not.
Carol: Excellent. So, to recap, we’re talking to about your first step is the mini experiment. The second step is to actually deliver that product. It may be a kind of a step 2A is to get feedback after you deliver that product to make sure that it’s what you want to be doing and that the customers like it, and then I would suspect, tweak as necessary after you deliver, correct? So, let’s say we didn’t fail fast, and let’s say I do enjoy doing this, and let’s say my customers really do like the product. What’s the next step from there? I mean, I would say there are probably more customers who want the product. Do we continue asking for money upfront, or at which point do we decide it makes sense to go out and find money? What is the next step after that?
Alan Donegan: There is some legal bits that you have to do. So, if you’ve run your mini experiment, if it’s gone well, if you’ve made some money, then probably we’re going to have to actually get in and start the business, which then we’re starting to talk about which company structure are you going to be? How are you going to set it up? You can find detailed information about that online. That’s the fairly easy bit. It’s not simple, but it’s fairly easy to work it through and have a look at it. One of the things you said was, “When should I stop asking for money upfront?” My question would be, why do you need to stop?
Carol: That’s a good point. If they’re willing to give it to you, why wouldn’t you keep asking? That’s true.
Alan Donegan: Yes, and so I think one of the differences between the business that I run now and what other people I’ve seen run businesses do, is my particular business, I run it pretty much like I do my household. So, my business is a saver. I don’t think most businesses even understand the concept of saving. I don’t think most people even understand the concept of saving in their personal life. But we put aside our profit and we don’t spend it all, and then if want to expand, we’ve got a chunk of cash that’s sat there from the work we’ve done to be able to grow.
Alan Donegan: The antithesis is what I’ve seen happen. So, I was chatting to a really nice lady. She was doing a candle business. She said she needed to borrow money, and I was like, “Why do you need to borrow money?” She said, “Well, to buy the stock.” I went, “Okay, why don’t you pre-sell?” She said, “Well, I’ve sold all my batch. I need to borrow money for the next batch.” “Well, what happened to the money that came in from the last batch?” “Well, I spend it on marketing. I spent it on this. I spent it on that.” But she’d never saved any percentage of it to reinvest in the stock for the next time, and I think nearly all people, they see the profit as theirs.
Alan Donegan: I want you to stop seeing the profit as yours and start seeing the profit as savings that you might need some to live off, and it should be earning you money, absolutely, and you should be saving for the next growth of your business, and the next investment where you’re going to go with what you’re doing. So, we’ve never… In PopUp Business School, we’ve grown a multi-million pound business, and we’ve never had to borrow any money. We’ve always done it from saving, investing, saving, investing, and I think that’s a far safer way to build a business.
J: Okay, so from what I’m hearing, and this is actually a good lead-in to what I wanted to ask next, if we’re going to be saving money from the income that we’re generating in the business, and we’re not going to be paying ourselves a lot of money and taking it out of the business, in theory, we can’t necessarily live off that business at the beginning. Hopefully it gets to the point where we can, but that implies to me that a lot of us should be starting businesses, not necessarily full-time if we don’t have the ability to go a long period time without income. But maybe we should be starting these businesses part-time in our spare time. Is that something that you espouse?
Alan Donegan: I absolutely believe in doing the mini experiments around other things. Absolutely. It think there’s several bits to that. The first one is if you’re thinking about starting a business, how much runway, how much spare cash do you have to be able to live before it goes into crisis mode? So, have you got 12 months of savings? Have you got 18 months of savings? What’s your plan?
Alan Donegan: Part two is you should be earning money to pay yourself and save. We should be building a business to make money. So, when I build my training business, you can sell training courses for a reasonable amount of money, between, I don’t know, a thousand and two thousand bucks a day for a training course. And that’s a reasonable amount of money. You don’t need all of that to live on, so put half aside to grow the business, and the other half is what you live off.
Alan Donegan: And I think it’s balancing those two things. I think most people go completely the other way. They launch their business. They make 10 grand and they throw a party on a Caribbean Island to celebrate and blow the whole 10 grand, or they spend it all on whatever it is, a nice new car or anything. I’m being a bit facetious, but they spend it. There is a percentage that you save and invest.
Alan Donegan: Especially, every business goes through peaks and troughs in the market changes. We had one where our primary market, the British government decided to reduce funding to housing associations, and overnight they killed half our business. If we hadn’t of saved and invested, we wouldn’t have survived the next six months. And I think you do need money, right, to live off, J, but if your business is not making enough for you to live and to save a bit, something’s wrong and we need to tweak it. And back to your original point, do the mini experiment in your spare time. Test it, see what happens. Then, if you like it, if you’ve made money, if you’ve done your sums and you think it’s scalable for you, whatever that means, then go all in and make it happen. But if you’ve never done a mini experiment, well that’s a big risk.
J: Do you have any good rules of thumb for when a business owner can say, “Hey, it’s time for me to quit my other job and go full-time and take the risk of basically betting everything on this business. Are there any good rules of thumb there?
Alan Donegan: So, I think rules of thumb. My one is, is it providing you enough to live? So, how much? This is a question I don’t think most people will know the answer to, but how much does it cost you to live each year? And if that figure is 30 grand a year and your business is making 25, and you think by going all in you can get over that number, then go for it. So, I think expenses versus money coming in is an interesting way to look at it. I think the other way is how much reward am I getting for the time I’m putting in? So, if I’m running it in my spare time and I’m doing ten hours a month and I’m generating 10K, what could I actually scale it to if I went full time, and would that support me?
J: That’s a great question.
Alan Donegan: Yeah, the number of hours versus the income coming back, I think, would be the second way I would look at it, and I think that’s going to uncover all sorts of different things for you to think through as you decide whether to make the leap from employment to self-employment business or back.
Carol: Great, so I’m curious. Back to a little… kind of taking a little bit more of step back to… We’re talking about doing these mini experiments around other things, often around full-time jobs and so on and so forth. And I remember before we had our own businesses, I had a pretty darn demanding job, and I traveled a lot and I was tired. I was wiped out, and I don’t think I’m the only person like that that has a full-time job, so my goodness. I’m sitting here thinking, “Wow.” So, Alan is sitting here telling me, if I want to do something, that I’ve got to go to work full-time, if I need that to support myself, and then still somehow have the motivation and the energy to do more. So, how would you suggest people do that? What is the impetus that just makes that happen?
Alan Donegan: So, I guess point one is people see employment as binary. It’s either a one or a zero. I’m either fully employed or I’m not. There’s lots of muddles where you can go to four days a week, three days a week, to create time. It doesn’t have to be one or zero. You can look at it in different ways to create time. And I do appreciate a full-time job can be exhausting and you come home after the day, and you’re like, “I don’t want to do this” and sit back on the couch.I think my thought there is, lots of people complain they don’t have the time. But actually what I’ve noticed amongst the people that I’ve helped is it’s not always that they don’t have the time, it’s they don’t have the energy within the time they’ve got. So, they come home and sit on the couch for an hour because they’re exhausted. Well, that’s not a lack of time. That’s a lack of energy.
Alan Donegan: So actually, when you look at it like that, we then start to think, “Well, what can we do to build your energy? Do we need to look after your health? Do we need to help you get more sleep? Do we need to… What do we need to do to get you the energy to be able to do it?” Because there are people out there with incredible energy that make things happen, and there are others that are exhausted all the time. So, my question is, is it energy? Is it time? What’s really stopping this person from getting going? And then let’s dig underneath and work out what we can actually do to build that. Yeah, that would be my thought.
Carol: Yeah, that’s a great mindset shift. It’s a really good, different way of looking at it, and I want to point out something you mentioned in there as well as this whole energy thing, which is wonderful, but also, thinking about what you said about looking at alternative ways of working, right? I think a lot of people are maybe nervous to ask their boss, “Can I work four 10-hour days?” for example, or “Can I work from home one day?” or whatever that is. Because all of us here on this call and listening know that it’s not necessarily all those hours in your office are necessarily that productive on office type of things, right? So, looking at it in a different mode might free up some time and give you more energy because you’re able to be out of that typical office type of environment and build your energy for your other enterprise that you might want to be working on.
Alan Donegan: I completely agree. I remember one of my first jobs. I used to come in. I used to hang around at my desk and check my emails. Then I’d go for breakfast and a coffee. Then I’d come back to my desk and hang out. Then I’d go at lunch and play soccer. Then I’d come back to my desk and I’d do my one hour of work a day. Then I’d hang out at the desk and chill out and the maybe go and get a coffee with my friends. And if you look at the productive hours, they were paying me to be there for eight hours a day, but I was one hour of productivity and still achieving the targets they wanted to. And I’m not saying this is everyone, but I know in my previous jobs, that actually sucked more of my energy than it helped. There’s that expression of you want something done, give it to a busy person.
Alan Donegan: People achieve more when they do more, and lethargy comes from lethargy, so if you’re sat at work and you’re wondering what to do with your life and it’s sucking the energy out of you, then we need to do something about that. And maybe going to the boss and saying, “I think I can be more productive if we do this change. I think I could do this. Could I work from home one day a week if I still hit my targets?” There’s always ways to negotiate and chat, and I think the only time you should feel nervous is if you’re worried about your job because you don’t think they think you do a good job. Then you would be nervous, but if you do a good job and they like working with you, they actually want to support you. I know I’d want to support my team who work with me, and if they come to me with ideas, I’d want to help them because I love working with them.
Carol: Love it. Love it. Go ahead, J.
J: Oh, I was just going to ask, so a lot of times we put off starting a business because we feel like we don’t have all the skills. We don’t have enough knowledge. We don’t have enough time, and so a lot of us decide a good solution to this is, let’s bring in a partner. Let’s do it with somebody else, or two other people, or three other people, and I’ve personally, in my own life, I’ve found working with partners has some benefits, but it also has some chAlanges and some drawbacks. So, what are your thoughts on should we consider bringing in partners? When should we consider bringing in partners? How should we consider bringing in partners? What are your thoughts on partnerships in general?
Alan Donegan: I’ll tackle that question in a few ways if that’s okay.
Alan Donegan: The first one is, assuming that you need all the skills before you start. So, assuming you need the credibility, the different skills. You need all these things. That’s not always true. Just as an example, I’ve landed some of the biggest companies in the world for corporate training. We probably shouldn’t say this on air. Do you think I have a degree?
Carol: I would assume so from everything you’re talking about. I’d assume you had an MBA. Is that not accurate?
Alan Donegan: Do you think I have any certificates?
Carol: Hmm, now I’m curious. Please share. Where are we going with this? You have no certificates, no degree?
Alan Donegan: I have no degree. I have no MBA. I have-
Alan Donegan: I have none of that education. People assume they need that stuff to get going. Do you think any customer has said, “Can you show me your degree certificate?”
Carol: Not one, huh?
J: And they don’t care. If you have a great product, that’s all they care about.
Alan Donegan: Not a single one, and I’ve worked for Oxford University, Henley Business School, Microsoft, Pepsi, the biggest organizations around the world, and not a single one has asked me for their degree. Maybe they will now. I hope they’re not listening to your podcast.
Carol: I suspect they would just as happy to keep doing what they’re doing, if not even more, because you are proof in the pudding that you don’t need a degree. You just need to get out there, do those mini experiments, tests, and deliver a good product, which it sounds like you do consistently over and over, which is why they want to keep bringing you back for more and more. So, if you can do it without a degree, any of our listeners can do this without a degree. They can just get out there and make it happen.
Alan Donegan: And that is exactly what I believe. If you’re out there doing it and you can prove you’re good at what you do, they’ll take that over a piece of paper everyday. So, I did have to turn up and I had to prove I was good and I had to demo it. You have to show you’re good and you’ve got it, but if you can do it, you don’t need any of the certificates. There are obviously industries, like electricians where you do need certificates. Please don’t do that, but in general, for most business, you just need to get out there and show you can do it and do it really well.
Alan Donegan: So, going back to J’s original question, which was partnerships, I just wanted to chAlange that assumption that you need this stuff before you start because it’s not been my experience at all. The partnership bit, I think… When should you bring on partners? I think you should look at, what skills do you need to operate the business? There’s something called the trinities of management, which is a very posh way of saying the three things you need to actually have a successful business. And the three are the product or service, how you sell it, the sales, and then the finance and control. Those are the three main elements. So, if you looked at your skills, how good are you at the product or service? How good are you at sales and marketing, and how good are you at the cash to finance and the controls? And seeing where your skills are in those three areas.
Alan Donegan: When I first started I loved the product or service. I was shockingly bad at sales, and I was okay at a spreadsheet. I could manage the money okay. So, I really struggled in business to get any business when I started because the sales was there. I couldn’t do the sales. So actually, if I really evaluated myself in the cold light of day when I started, I’d be looking for someone who could help in the sales area and working out that element.
Alan Donegan: So, I’d look at your own skills across those three areas and see, where’s my gaps? Do I need to partner? Should I actually learn these skills rather than partnering? Am I partnering just to avoid having to do sales? If that’s the case, that’s a bad excuse, and I would chAlange just to think through those before you do partner. If you’ve got someone that you bounce off each other, you inspire, you can have open conversation, you work really well together, I think it can add a huge amount.
Alan Donegan: And the PopUp Business School, I started with a guy called Simon. He’s my business partner. We started it together, but it didn’t generate enough money quick enough to support both of us, and he got an offer. He had three kids. That changes things. He got an offer of a reasonably high paying job, so he went off to do that. And actually, I grew the PopUp Business School for the next four years or so until it was at a point that I could invite him back and tempt him back from his corporate job.
Alan Donegan: So, sometimes you start something with someone, and it’s having that honesty and that trust and that clear communication since the day we started it. I don’t know if it will feed us both. I don’t know what will happen. Let’s have a go and see where it goes and do a mini experiment. And then from that mini experiment you can see where it goes from there. I think yeah, the open honesty upfront of how much you’re going to earn and what’s going to happen and how you’re going to do it is really critical with partners.
J: Yeah, that’s great advice, and the thing I keep hearing you saying over and over… I want to do a little side tangent here. You keep talking about sales, and I think for a lot of us, especially those of us like me who don’t consider ourselves to be great salespeople, sales is often an afterthought. A lot of times we think if we build a great product, if we raise the money, if we start the LLC, if we get the business cards, if we get the office space, we hire employees, if we do all those all those other things, the sales are going to come. Kind of that mentality, “If you build it, they will come” sort of mentality.
J: And too often what we find is that… Well, most of the time, they’re not just going to come. You can have the best product in the world. You can have a great team. You can have tons of money, but if people don’t know about your product, if they don’t understand the benefits of your product, they’re not going to buy it. And I know this very well.
J: A couple years ago… And this is hard to talk about. A couple years ago a friend of mine and I started a business, and we spent six figures. We spent well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars creating a great product. It was a great product, and we had an office space. We hired some employees, but we spent about two years creating the product before we went out and started to try and sell it. And what we found was it was in a niche that we didn’t have the ability to sell it. It was in the education space, and we didn’t have the ins into the high schools and the colleges. And so ultimately, even though we had a great product, even though we spent a lot of money, even though we had the team and the office and everything, we ultimately failed at this business.
J: And looking back, had we done exactly what your recommended, had we done this mini experiment, had we focused on selling before creating and either figuring out how to sell or deciding that we weren’t going to be able to do it, not only could we have saved literally six figures of money that we invested, but we also could have saved two years of our time and effort. And that’s almost more important than saving the money. So, I know I just belabored this point, but the fact that you keep going back to sales is something that our listeners really need to think about. Sales isn’t an afterthought. It’s not the second part. It’s really the most important part of your business, and so don’t wait until you do everything else to start thinking about sales. Make sure you do that upfront.
Alan Donegan: I love that J. You gave me three ideas. The first was Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams. He lied to us. “If you build it, they will come” is the biggest load of… If you build it, no one will come until you promote it and sell it. And you are so right, but I’ve met so many people that spend all their time going, “Product, product, product. Service, service, service,” and I get it. And it can work that way, but you’ve got to sell it and you’ve got to market. And if you go… I’ve done a lot of tendering and pitching in my day. If you go to one of these pitch fests where you get invited in, and there’s five companies pitching for the business, does the people with the best product win?
Alan Donegan: It’s the people who can pitch it the best, the people who can sell it the best. And if there’s one skill, one skill that will help you, it’s sales and pitching. If I could tell your listeners to learn and work on one thing, it would be that. The reason they don’t… If I say to you, Carol and J, and your listeners… You know the word association game? I say a word, you say the first thing that comes to your mind. If I say “salesman” to you, what comes to mind?
Alan Donegan: I’ve done that around the world, and people say, “Double-glazing, sleazy,” and they think… Around the world, sales has got this really negative image, and then we’re telling all of your listeners to go out there and sell, sell, sell. Well, there’s some internal conflict of, “I know I need to sell to launch my business, but I think it’s inherently a bad thing. It’s sleazy. It’s this. It’s cheap suits. It’s that.” And we actually have to unpick that to get it to work before we can even do it. So, if there’s one thing I would love to do with you, it’s change what your listeners think sales is. So, if I could give a new definition, sales, for me, is the transfer of enthusiasm from one person to another.
Carol: That is awesome.
J: I like that.
Carol: Sales is the transfer of enthusiasm from one person to another. Did I phrase that correctly? Did I repeat it properly?
Alan Donegan: Perfect.
Carol: I love this. I love this.
Alan Donegan: So, let’s go out there and get enthusiastic about what we do. Let’s go out there and enthuse other people. Find out if they’ve got a problem, get enthusiastic, work out if we can help them. Let’s go out there and be enthusiastic about what we do. That’ll get you 80, 90% of the way to the sale, and then if you learn how to close as well, you’ll be on fire.
Carol: Then you’re good to go.
J: I love that. Yeah, I think too often we think about sales as trying to convince people to buy something that they don’t really want or need, but in reality it’s just trying to convince people why they do want or they do need something, or introducing them to something that once they see it, they know they’re going to need. But without that introduction, they’re never going to know about it.
Alan Donegan: Absolutely. So, what’s the quickest way to get anyone to feel a feeling?
J: I don’t know.
Alan Donegan: To go there first yourself.
J: Ah, empathy.
Alan Donegan: So if I yawn, everyone around me yawns. If I want people to feel excited, the best way for me to do it is to be excited first, but you’ve see these people who go out there, new entrepreneurs, and they feel like they need to be professional and serious. And so I’m going, “Yes, I’ve got a really good product. I’m very excited to work with you. I think we’d make a very good team.” And I feel the energy slipping away.
Carol: Yeah, not feeling a lot of enthusiasm going on there. Not a lot at all.
Alan Donegan: If you want people to be enthusiastic about your product, be enthusiastic. If you want them to be excited, be excited. If you want them to feel passionate, be passionate. The quickest way to get someone else to feel a feeling is to go there first, so don’t hide away your feelings and pretend to be professional. Get excited. Get enthusiastic. Get out there into the world.
Carol: That’s right, because if they’re going to reciprocate, right? Your customers are going to be like, “I want to feel what that guy’s feeling. I want a piece of that. I want to be able to have those results and experience that on a daily basis,” so that will make it happen.
Alan Donegan: Or if they don’t, you probably don’t want to work with them anyway.
Carol: There you go. That’s a good way to look at it. See, like you said, that’s just an energy drainer, right? You want to surround yourself with people who excite you and who you can be enthusiastic with. So, who is an example of somebody that has attended your PopUp Business School who has been enthusiastic, who has gotten people on board, who has had great sales, and who you consider one of your awesome success stories?
Alan Donegan: There’s a fabulous couple Katie and Andrew. They run time-trap escape rooms in England. Have you heard of escape rooms?
Carol: We have escape rooms here in the U.S. They’re super fun.
J: Oh yeah, we love them.
Carol: I’m really bad at them, though. I’m going to be honest. I’m so bad. I’m so bad, but they’re fun.
Alan Donegan: Katie and Andrew. Katie just loves games. She loves games. Her passion for the games comes through. They launched their first business as a pop-up escape room by borrowing a room in a local hotel, and they launched doing a pop-up version. They then saved enough money throughout that pop-up version to be able to get their own permanent space, and they now have three or four games in that permanent space, but they’re excited about it. They’re passionate about it. When you go into their place… I’ve played two of their three games so far. The staff are full of energy. They smile when they greet you. They want to be there. It just makes it for a lovely experience for all of you. So, I think that would be an example where they’ve infected a lot of people with happiness, and they’ve built a good business doing it.
Carol: That’s great, and they did exactly what you said, right? They borrowed a space from a hotel. They went out there and did it. They saved the money that they made from it to infuse it back into the business to get that permanent space. So yeah, this whole thing is so sitting all of traditional business on its head, and yeah, it’s really cool to hear. And yes, I do. Honey, I’m going to say this. I do wish we would have talked to Alan a few years ago when you and your buddy started your product. I think it may have had a very different turn of events, and I don’t mind that you… Obviously I would never mind that you failed at something, because it was a learning experience, but it would have been awesome for you to have been able to say you followed this different type of strategy, and look at these cool, different results that we had.
J: Yeah, and I think the crazy thing is, at the time I would have said, “Well, I can’t think of any ways to test this. We have to go build the product first,” but after this conversation with Alan right now, I’m sitting here realizing that they’re are a whole lot of things we could have done to test and to validate the idea, or more likely invalidate the idea before we jumped in for two years. So yeah, I 100% agree.
Alan Donegan: Just a couple of thoughts to share with you. One is a saying that I repeat constantly to the people I work with is start from profit, not debt. And I’d love your listeners to take that away. Start from profit. I make sales, bring in money before going into debt. So, start from profit, not debt. The second, J, and I don’t know if this is your experience as well, but I tried to sell a product or a service to education as well. It was actually my biggest… My worst year in business was spent selling to education. Fundamentally, what I found was, the education in England that I was selling to, they didn’t have the money for it. And I was selling to people without money, which you’re banging your head against a brick wall. It’s a fool’s errand, and one of the biggest things I learned was sell to people with cash. And it’s sound obvious, but I’ve met so many entrepreneurs that pick target markets for their business that don’t have any money, and then wonder why it doesn’t’ work, and I’ve done it.
Carol: Sure, we’re all guilty.
J: 100%. Yeah, in the education space, it can be very difficult to get in front of those final decision makers, the ones that do have the authority to spend the money. It can be a very long sales cycle, and again, even if you get in front of the people that can spend the money, there’s just not a whole lot of money there. Again, I wish I would have talked to you a couple years ago.
Alan Donegan: I wish I would have talked to me before I did my education [crosstalk 00:58:16].
Carol: Yeah, but again, on a more macro level for our listeners, yes, just identifying who your target market is, I guess, right? By realizing by how much your product is going to cost and then going after customers who do have that amount of money or more to spend is probably going to serve you well in the long run rather than doing it the other way around where you’ve got this great, expensive product, but the people who could actually afford it are not people who are in front of you. So, identifying that as you go very consciously.
Alan Donegan: Yes, absolutely, and one last piece on that. I think both J and I have learnt from those experiences launching those business, every business failure is a learning experience. Every note from a customer, every feedback. It’s all a learning experience. J sounds like it was quite an expensive learning experience, which is why I think we went back to that saying right at the beginning, “Fail fast, fail cheap.” If it’s going to go wrong, let’s get it done quickly. Let’s get the learning inside a month, and let’s do it without going into debt, and learn as quickly as we can. Because I launch new businesses all the time, and I still don’t get it right. And it doesn’t matter how good you get, you’re still going to fail. It’s still going to go wrong. Do it quickly and do it cheaply.
J: Yeah, Carol and I are both big fans of saying failure is a good thing. It’s not a bad thing.
Carol: We celebrate it. We absolutely celebrate failures. That’s right. That’s right.
J: Alan, if it’s okay with you, this has been fantastic, but I would love to move on to the next segment of the show, something we call “Four More,” and this is where we’re going to ask you four questions, and then at the end we’re going to get into a little bit about more. We’re going to talk about… Okay, let me try that again.
Carol: We’re going to do that part again. [crosstalk 01:00:14].
J: Alan, this has been absolutely fantastic, and if it’s okay with you, I’d love to jump into the segment of our show that we call “Four More,” and this is where we ask you four questions and then we end by letting you tell us more about how our listeners can find out more about you and more about what you do. You ready for that?
Alan Donegan: I’m ready.
Carol: Okay, I’m going to take the first one, honey. Okay?
Carol: We are rapid-fire style, so don’t overthink them. Just tell us the first thing that comes to your mind, okay Alan? First one. What was your first or your worst job, and what lessons did you learn from it?
Alan Donegan: I think my worst job was I used to get a trimmer, which is a machine that cuts the edges of grass, and do council estates, and the worst part about that job was you would occasionally catch dog poop and this trimmer would flick it up into your face and up your nose. That was the most disgusting job I’ve ever had. What did I learn from it? Don’t do that.
Carol: That’s a good learning. Very good learning.
J: Okay, I’ll take the second question. So Alan, so what’s an opportunity that you said no to, either in your personal life or your professional life, and looking back, was it the right decision?
Alan Donegan: I think I said no to a whole load of opportunities back in 2014. After I got married, my wife and I decided to take a mini retirement where we had six months off for our honeymoon and went traveling. And that six months off for our honeymoon… When I got back, I had an email from British Airways, asking for a training course, but it was too late. The opportunity was gone, and I said no to a whole host of opportunities, but I had life experiences. And I went out there and had an incredible time, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. So, I think there does come a stage where experiences, opportunities, being with your family, is more important than cash.
J: Love it.
Carol: That’s awesome. Okay, so you’ve given us a couple bits of it, but I’d love to hear your very worst advice that you’ve ever been given, the very, very worst advice you’ve been given and what did you with it?
Alan Donegan: The very worst advice I’ve been given. There’s just so much bad advice.
Carol: It’s hard to pick one. It’s so hard to pick one.
Alan Donegan: Bad advice in the business space? No.
Carol: I can’t imagine.
Alan Donegan: I think, “Start with the business plan.” I think it’s dreadful advice. I think start with sales. I think you need to talk about funding and finance, like literally going through the advice. My own advice from the British government was, “Get your finance and your funding straight.” And you look at how to start a business, and in England, when you search that, the fourth one is the start-up loan company, which is a company that’s trying to lend you money, and they’ve managed to SEO themselves up there.
Alan Donegan: And I think there is some responsibility, quick pop at Google. I love Google, but Google, come on. People are SEOing bad advice to the top of your searches and your proliferating these beliefs that it takes money to make money. Google, you’re doing a disservice to the people. Ad there’s so much more bad advice, from my accountant cost me 10 grand very early on. I’m so glad I have a new accountant. And you’ve got to double and triple check your advice and find out where it comes from.
Alan Donegan: One thing I would love to say to your audience is just when you’re getting business advice, be cognizant of what the other person gets out of offering it to you. So, if it’s a website, are they affiliate links? If it’s a solicitor giving you advice or a lawyer giving you advice on how to start a business, will they earn money by writing contracts? What’s their advice? If it’s a bank giving you advice, how do they make money? And just think about who’s giving you the advice and how they make money before they accept it. And I’m exactly the same. Judge me. How do I make my money? I make my money by going and getting sponsorships and giving my courses away for free. And I get paid more if you’re successful in your business, so there’s my motivation is to help you. That’s different to some of the other people, but you need to be cognizant of who’s offering the advice and how they get paid, because there’s quite often a correlation.
J: Love that. Follow the money. Okay, I’m going to take the fourth question. What is something that you’ve splurged on, again, either personally or professionally, that you found to be totally worth it?
Alan Donegan: Totally worth it? I did a big splurge at the beginning of this year. I’ve always dreamt of being a movie writer, so my splurge was to take two months off. I flew to Los Angeles because that’s where you go to write a movie. I rented an expensive Airbnb right on Santa Monica Pier and sat overlooking the ocean. And I wrote a movie in six weeks, which I’m now working to sell, but that was my splurge. That was my indulgence was to take one of my dreams and make it real.
J: That’s awesome. We’re going to have to… I have a feeling we’re going to have you back at some point in the future where we’re going to talk about your new venture as a movie writer and producer.
Alan Donegan: I’d love that.
Carol: Okay, here’s the last one, Alan. This is the “more” question. Where can our audience find out more about what you’re doing and connect with you?
Alan Donegan: So, if they want… All of the PopUp Business School courses are free, so just have a look on popupbusiness.co.uk, and you come along to a course if you’d like. There’s an online startup guide on there if you want extra advice. I have recently personally launched a small blog where I share my musings about business, financial independence and being, successful in life, so you can just search Alan Donegan. It’s Alandonegan.com. I think those are some pretty good sources of extra advice. But yeah, everything we do at PopUp is free, so feel free to come along to an event and to get some extra advice if you’d like it.
Carol: Excellent, thank you.
J: Fantastic. Alan, this has been an absolute pleasure. I am quite certain that our listeners will have gotten a ton of value out of this discussion, so for anybody out there who is thinking about starting a business, is in the process of starting a business, I hope you’ll take Alan’s recommendations to heart and really figure out how to sell your product before you spend a lot of money building it. And I assume that you would love to hear feedback from our listeners who have used your advice and have succeeded from your advice. So, what’s the best place to find you in terms of either social media or email?
Alan Donegan: So actually, I’d like feedback no matter whether they succeed or not, J. I think there’s as much to learn from if you’ve listened to my feedback and it’s gone wrong or listened to my ideas and it’s gone wrong, there’s as much to learn for us all there. So, it doesn’t actually really matter what. They can find me on Twitter, Alan Donegan. They can find me, Alandonegan.com. Send me a message there. I would love to know. I’m definitely as interested in the stories where it goes wrong because every failure’s al earning opportunity.
J: I think we can leave it right with that. Alan, thank you so much. We appreciate you being here.
Carol: Thank you, Alan. It was so good to chat with you.
Alan Donegan: Thanks, Carol. Thanks, J. I loved it.
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