Resources for Buying and Selling Online Businesses

How To Succeed in a Tough DTC Men’s Skin Care Market


Kelley ThorntonKelley Thornton is the Founder and CEO of Tiege Hanley, a high-quality, affordable, and simplified men’s skincare brand. Before Tiege, he was the Founder and CEO of Purchase Point, a team of in-store design strategists helping clients stay ahead of the competition by providing expert, whole-store merchandising strategy by brand and channel. Kelley has a BA in economics and is an entrepreneur that values creativity, hard work, honesty, people, and data.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • [01:49] Kelley Thornton’s background in the men’s skincare space and how he founded Tiege Hanley
  • [04:51] Kelley talks about Tiege’s skincare system for men
  • [08:05] The challenges of selling skincare products to men
  • [10:24] Tips to thrive in the e-commerce space
  • [15:45] How to flourish as a subscription model business
  • [20:43] The value of selling on Amazon
  • [26:09] Tiege’s involvement in affiliate marketing
  • [28:49] Kelley’s advice for young entrepreneurs in a subscription-based business

In this episode…

Skincare for men is one of the most challenging markets because society has made men feel it’s taboo to have a skincare routine. So what can you learn from an expert thriving in this world?

Most men don’t know much about skincare. With this realization, Kelley Thornton decided to create a product system and brand that makes skincare meaningful, accessible, affordable, and uncomplicated for regular guys. Today, he shares how his subscription-based company is flourishing in the e-commerce space.

In this episode of the Quiet Light Podcast, Joe Valley sits down with Kelley Thornton, Founder and CEO of Tiege Hanley, to discuss tried-and-true strategies to succeed in the men’s skincare market. Kelley talks about Tiege’s skincare system for men, how to flourish with a subscription model and profit on Amazon, and advice for young entrepreneurs in the subscription model business.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Sponsor for this episode

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:07

Hi folks. It’s the Quiet Light Podcast where we share relentlessly honest insights, actionable tips, and entrepreneurial stories that will help founders identify and reach their goals.

Joe Valley  0:32

Hey folks, Joe Valley here, welcome back to another episode of the Quiet Light Podcast. Today, we’re talking to someone that runs a men’s skincare line, a subscription program for men’s skincare. So we’ve got a double whammy of difficult stuff for men and skincare here in the US to subscription. We talk about the pros and cons of subscription models. We talk about the lifetime value, whether you make money on the front end or lose money on the front end, and some of the key things to do customer service wise to increase retention and build your brand and reputation. It’s Kelley Thornton, from Tiege Hanley. It’s A great product and a great success stories. They’re doing it for a long time. And part of that comes to down to being a good human and running business where you’re really taking care of your customer. So let’s take a listen. Kelley, welcome to the Quiet Light Podcast. How are you?

Kelley Thornton  1:31

Great Joe. Thanks for having me.

Joe Valley  1:33

Whereabouts in the world are you hailing from right now?

Kelley Thornton  1:35

I’m in Chicago, Illinois. I live downtown Chicago and it’s the Windy City love it here. I lived here 30 years and just happy to have a chance to talk to you today.

Joe Valley  1:44

Glad you’re on why don’t you tell the folks that are listening about yourself what you do?

Kelley Thornton  1:49

Yeah, I sell skincare we market manufacture and sell skincare for men and we’re an uncomplicated skincare company so we just help guys figure out how to embark no matter where they are on their skincare journey and we do that by selling systems. So we sell a kind of a basic system and we sell some advanced anti-aging systems. We saw some acne systems for guys that are looking to deal with some acne issues. So we’re a skincare company we’re a direct-to-consumer brand and just having a lot of fun in the social and e-commerce space.

Joe Valley  2:29

I would think right away that’s a tough sell. Right? You’re selling skincare to men, backup a little bit, did you buy the company? Did you found the company, go back to how the hell you got into skincare for men?

Kelley Thornton  2:44

Yeah, I founded the company I had my third Rovio and my second I had a global design agency. And we were doing a lot of work for a lot of big CPG brands, the Unilever P&G, those companies of the world and they’re very interested in understanding how men were shopping. And we were kind of a shopper marketing company agency, we were helping them understand how men were shopping the category and they wanted expand some other global brands like x and dove into more skincare and face care specific outside of just male grooming. And we were helping them understand that and through our travel particularly in Asia and Europe, we realized that, you know, skincare was really popular and a lot for men was really popular in a lot of places in the world. And had been growing like triple-digit growth year over year and in Southeast Asia and China. And we saw an opportunity to bring that to the American consumer through helping them educate about why it’s important for the guy to take care of his skin. And we tested out a few things and we were able to we actually failed in the first launch of Tiege our version one in 2015 and we were doing a few things wrong and we were able to regroup and relaunch in the spring or July of 2016 and it’s been up and away every year since.

Joe Valley  4:07

I got to a test that I’m using it you sent me some after we talked last month, folks, I look beautiful don’t I mean incredibly handsome skin so supple. Really you just want to reach to the camera and touch my face I know you do. Okay, the system no Kelley that’s the key for me like how did you design or what made you think about the fact that a system would work best for men and let’s talk about this in the concept of all e-commerce what makes your process, in this case, work for what I would think would be a very difficult product to sell or category of people to sell to and ask a skincare.

Kelley Thornton  4:51

Yeah, you’re right and actually selling systems doesn’t make it easier for us. First, you know…

Joe Valley  4:58

It makes sense for me though, like I’m like, Okay, step one, I could do this step two, step three, because you got five or six things that came in the package.

Kelley Thornton  5:07

So that is the concept. I mean, when you would go into a car for or big see, our boots. And in Asia or UK, there would be a plethora of skincare, I mean, especially in Asia, you go to Sogo, and Taipei, and lab series, which is part of Estee Lauder, they would have 100 different items to buy, with pictures of guys with like Fabio, looking guys with water, you know, off their chest, and this is what they’re trying to use to sell the guys the concept of taking care of their skin. And to me, it just seems completely ridiculous. It sounds awful. I mean, it’s just ridiculous. Like, that is not, the mentality of men, obviously very different in my humble opinion than the way women think about themselves. And the way they look. Guys, we tend to be pretty guerilla style, like, you know, sometimes our shirts are hanging out the back of our belts, and we don’t really realize that going in going into buying, figuring out what a man needs to use to take care of his skin. It’s kind of a ridiculous task for us. And I’m painting with a broad brush. But generally speaking.

Joe Valley  6:24

You are, when your product arrived at my house, my wife said, what did you order, you know I know all of this stuff, you should just come to me for this stuff. And then she dug into it, and she liked it and was impressed. But even for a man, it would have it, asking my wife, it would have made it so much harder, because she would have been little one-off pieces that she gets. For the years and years of research, she’s done. I just want everything simple in our box.

Kelley Thornton  6:50

Yeah, we just want to know what to use. So we just box up stuff. So it’s really simple. I mean, our essential box just comes with a face wash that you should use, twice a day morning at night. And for people that haven’t typically used like a face wash to wash your face, they’re using water or bar soap or hand. So you should just use like a super high-quality face wash. And there’s a lot of great face washes out there. But you really need to use a high-quality face wash, and then you just need to put a moisturizer on. And that’s kind of like where we start things. So our

Joe Valley  7:25

Kelley, by the way, people is 83 years old. If you can see him on, you understand this product actually works, right. So unbelievable. I’m not exaggerating greatly. The concept though, in terms of steps and selling, direct to consumer to men. Product aside, it’s a great product, right? We’re not trying to sell the product, you’re trying to teach people understanding e-commerce and insurance selling steps and selling to a hard market like men where we’re gorillas, we don’t really think about skincare. What challenges have you had? What failures? What did you do wrong in that first launch that you had? And that kind of stuff?

Kelley Thornton  8:05

Yeah, well look, our challenges, there’s three different hurdles that we have to get over when we’re trying to acquire customers. The first is that they need to take care of their skin. On that front. I think society is changing a lot like the way that men are thought about and how they have more permission how men have more permission now than ever before, to take care of themselves from society. There’s a lot more leeway out there. When I grew up, you know, if you ate like a salad that made you less of a man, like these basic, ridiculous concepts. So there’s a lot more permission out there for men to want to take care of themselves. So convincing a man to take care of himself is one step. But it’s not the most difficult, it’s getting easier and easier, especially for the younger generation. Then we have to say, you don’t just need one item, you need multiple items, but we make it simple for you. And then lastly, we’re a subscription company. So it’s about understanding that a guy needs to kind of stick with this over time. And that’s where Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours comes, you know, in the mind, right, that you have to repeat something over and over again, to get good at it. And but we find that a lot of guys can relate to that because a lot of guys are taking regular steps after really healthy routines in their lives, whether it’s getting up and taking a walk every day, or running or going to the gym. And so those are the three things. So that’s what makes it very difficult for us is to get people over those three homes.

Joe Valley  8:26

Let’s talk about the subscription aspect of that and your marketing plan. Right What I want to get into much details about teaching what you do, exactly how much you spend. But this is something where you’re trying to acquire a new customer, I would assume you’ve got a pretty good idea what the lifetime value of that customer is. Early on, did you go with a model of I need to make money on that first sale? Or you are okay, breaking even? Or even losing? And where are you today?

Kelley Thornton  10:24

Yeah, that’s an awesome question. So for those that aren’t in the e-comm business, direct-to-consumer e-commerce business. It’s really a very combination of art and science. There’s a tremendous amount of data that’s used to decide how we spend our dollars every day. And so we really think about this cost of advertising to encourage and acquire customers. And what’s the value of that customer over time? And what we’re willing to spend on any given day in any given channel to acquire those customers? So to answer your question, we were cash flow positive since day one. And we’ve remained unfunded. So we’ve grown our business organically over the last seven years.

Joe Valley  11:18

But when you advertise now, cash flow positive is different than losing money up front, because you know the lifetime value of the customer, you can still be cash flow positive, do you have that dialed in? Where you know, we acquire new customers.

Kelley Thornton  11:33

To the penny. So to answer that question, we actually do lose money on the first acquisition, our payback period is very, very short. So it doesn’t take us long to make money on a new customer. But we do find Joe, that guys need a lot of impetus usually in the form of free items, or the opportunity to be having to buy a system at a discount, because they want to try it, putting something on your face is very personal. It’s a very personal experience. So the smell, the feel, the texture, how it looks on your face afterwards, how it feels on my skin versus your skin. So we do want to have a chance for a guy to to try our product, we want to lower the barrier of entry as much as possible by offering a very, very, very competitive price. So we’d have to lose a little bit of money.

Joe Valley  12:27

Did you lose? Like, when did you say it’s okay to lose money on the front end? Did this happen right away? Or was it a year or two or three into it?

Kelley Thornton  12:37

Yeah. It started pretty quickly as we started to understand the economics of the business. And as we started understand the economics of the business, we realized that we understood what the likelihood of a customer returning to make purchases from us over time. And then we started dialing into what that exact value is. And there’s two different metrics we use there, we use a fully loaded lifetime value, because we have guys that are have been here five and six years. Yeah. So they’re contributing a lot of money to our overall lifetime value averages. And then we look at what’s called a future 12-month earnings. So exactly how much revenue, we think that one of our customer, a customer is likely to contribute to the company over a future 12 months? And then we look at that based on cohorts. So where they’re from, what region they’re from, how old they are, what, what channel they came in from? Meaning, did they see an ad on YouTube? Was it a YouTube influencer? or Instagram? Or how did they end up learning about our company,

Joe Valley  13:54

You’ve got to be really dialed in, then. Did you develop the software to do all of this? Or is it software that you found that allows you to really dive that far into the valley they’re coming from?

Kelley Thornton  14:07

Originally, it’s spreadsheets.

Joe Valley  14:08

God I hate that. I did that too. Just calculating lifetime value.

Kelley Thornton  14:14

Eventually, it’s creating data lakes. So creating, taking all of our sources of data from Google Analytics, our platform, Shopify, our shipping partners, taking all that data putting into a data lake. And then from there, starting to analyze having people that are knowledgeable of writing, you know, SQL queries, and then eventually, analyzing the data to figure out what it looks like and then constantly monitoring it because things change very, very, very quickly. So it’s constantly monitoring the data to understand what that future 12 months is, and then on any given day understanding how much we are willing to spend on any given day on any given channel. So Facebook, Instagram, pay-per-click Google AdWords, on and on and on figuring out how much we want to spend on each one of those channels and tweaking the dials appropriately to get the type of customer that we want. And hopefully, we’re getting the right type of customer that’s going to give us the payback that we expect.

Joe Valley  15:27

With subscription models, one of the difficult things sometimes for the customer is to cancel or modify the package. How easy do you make it for customers to cancel? And did you find that that was necessary in order to build your retention longer?

Kelley Thornton  15:45

Critical, like the customer experience aspect, or the customer service aspect is do or die, I mean, we live in the Amazon world, right? Where you get something same day or next day, if you don’t like something, you send it back, Amazon gives you another one. So what we call here is a modern, a modern-day subscription. And what that means is we are a complete pain in the ass for a well, we’ll give you your money back, we’ll ship you a new box, we’ll give you a refund for something that used 90 days ago. Probably not good for my business to say this on your show. But um, you know, we really will bend over backwards. And yes, there is abuse and our team monitors that. But it is just part of the business. And so we do everything we possibly can to make it easy for people to quit and people that, you know, are really give us our time we actually give them discount codes for our competitors. We say like, look, no problem. Well, here’s your money back. And here’s a discount code for one of our biggest competitors, go buy from them.

Joe Valley  16:48

I’m sorry, how do you get discount codes for your biggest competitor?

Kelley Thornton  16:51

Oh, we will just search for him because we’re monitoring all the social channels and what our competitors are doing. Right? So we’re just seeing what everybody’s doing on any given week out there.

Joe Valley  17:03

How does taking care of the customer in this way, bending over backwards for them impact your chargebacks? If at all? And is this something you ever had an issue with that most subscription models do?

Kelley Thornton  17:18

I actually look at it on the other side, I look at it on the flip side of that question, right. It’s not how much does it impact our chargebacks it’s how much does it impact our success that much has an impact our retention? How much is that? It’s not like you and I are watching some NCAA hoops this weekend. And I’m saying, Joe your skin looks amazing. Let’s go down to Nordstrom and check out what’s there. But you know, but if you’re very happy with your relationship with Tiege Hanley, you’ve gotten everything you needed from us flawlessly and you had problems we taken care of you might recommend your son might say, hey, my son’s at school right now. And you might be having dinner with them and say, Hey, what are you using your skin looks like crap, like, why don’t you try this. So it’s about pay it forward, you know, on the customer’s experience and being a modern-day subscription of getting guys to stay here and potentially getting guys to say, I use a really great skincare company, you should give them a try. So that’s everything and then on the other question you asked we do. Once a guy buys a system, we allow them to fully customize so we just want them to try the box one time and see what they like and don’t like and then you can do anything you want. You can buy any one of our grooming products like body wash or deodorant or a lip balm, a bar soap etc, etc face masks and you can put that in your box or you could just get it in your box and next time make that one item column every three months you can do whatever you want. So we’re a complete pain in the ass free modern subscription business.

Joe Valley  19:03

Okay, is that written down? Is that a logo somewhere because it sounds pretty cool pain in the ass free modern subscription business.

Kelley Thornton  19:08

Yeah, PITA free. I don’t know I think it’s kind of like the mantra of our of our customer experience team. It’s crazy kind of some of the stuff they do we had a guy call in and say this is, I shouldn’t say it this way because it sounds like I’m making fun of it’s not his house burned down and he said I don’t have anything and I really want to continue my subscription business or my skincare routine and we send them skincare. We got an email about 60 days ago from a woman in the UK and she had actually been paying for her son’s acne treatments and you just Tiege Hanley user and he’s she sent us a note and said she was recently diagnosed with cancer she’s in the hospital she can’t afford to pay for her son’s subscription. He loves it so much. She want to know if it was okay to cancel and you know, she wants to join at a later date. And we said, don’t worry about it, we’ll take your son and send them boxes for the next several months until you can decide whether or not you could something forward to continue, and I think like that is the right way to run a subscription business.

Joe Valley  20:18

It’s a way to run any business, just being a good human, it’s not trying to take as much money from the other party as possible. If you treat them well, and care about them and help them as much as possible, in the long run, they’re going to help your business and you’re going to grow. So I like it. With your model, you started off of Amazon, if I understand it correctly, have you taken relief there?

Kelley Thornton  20:43

We do very well on Amazon.

Joe Valley  20:45

Okay, yeah. What was it like for you, you know, a lot of people that start, you know, off of Amazon, they grind it out, and then make it work. And then they’re hesitant to actually jump to the Amazon channel, because they just don’t know it. And I tell them how crazy they are. Because I generally don’t shop anywhere, but Amazon. Right. So for you, how long were you successful off of Amazon? And what was the decision? Like to go on and try selling on Amazon?

Kelley Thornton  21:12

Yeah, well, you just said it. So 40% of Google searches are on Amazon, for any brand, not to be taking Amazon very, very seriously, I think is a misstep, we consider it another channel, right. So just as there’s many, many channels on the Google properties and the meta properties, and affiliates and partnerships and everything, we look at Amazon’s another channel for us. So, I think from that perspective, you know, getting on Amazon as a channel pretty quickly is a smart thing to do for most brands. But you have to be clear about what your strategy is, as you do on any channel, like, what is your Strategy on Amazon. Our Strategy originally on Amazon was to have visibility. So we just m is that simple mean that very sophomore, like, just make sure we’re on Amazon. So people are checking us out, we’re not going to be found at bricks and mortar, let them see us on Amazon, if they want to buy there they can, we really weren’t doing much care and feeding. We were charging and we were following Amazon’s rules of service, but we were charging more. We had slightly different systems and we’re charging more money on Amazon, we’re allowing people to buy on Amazon if they want, we weren’t sending traffic to Amazon. We just wanted them people find us organically. As that evolved over the last several years, it’s been about three years now two and a half, three years that we’ve been very, we take Amazon as a very, very serious channel, we spend a lot of resources, we have a channel lead on it, project team on it. And our Senior Director of growth spends time on it. So it’s a critical channel, just like anything else. The last I would say Joe is just like, it’s, for me, it’s really important that, and we were talking about banking and investments, submit it before we started, I think it’s important to have a really healthy risk portfolio. For us, leaning too hard into Amazon and not having our business and any other marketplaces that were on not being a healthy proportionate to one another. And I think that’s different for everybody else’s business, they need to figure out what’s healthy there. But we don’t want to have too much of our business on Amazon. I think that’s a threat to us.

Joe Valley  23:30

Oh has the growth of the subscription model on Amazon and Amazon getting better at it and giving you better tracking, how’s that working out, is that giving you the data you need to track the lifetime value of customers there or not so much?

Kelley Thornton  23:46

It’s still pretty murky compared to what we’re used to. And we actually didn’t take subscription on Amazon very seriously until about 18 months ago. And it is important it’s critical. We were kind of tucked into it we weren’t really willingly kind of gone that way but it’s been great and having more data through understanding subscription has been an important part of our success there.

Joe Valley  24:11

I would think that as a customer that bought the product on Amazon and tried it out and loves the product you get comfortable with it and then you just go to and you set up your subscription there, there must be some leakage there from Amazon over to your site.

Kelley Thornton  24:26

Yeah, I mean, like a rising tide lifts all boats when all our channels are doing well Amazon’s doing well so we have a great video that’s done by you know XYZ influencer on YouTube and it gets a million views. We do really well on and we do really well on Amazon. So, I heard Kara Goldin of Hint Water a few years ago, maybe it was talking to her heard or heard on a podcast and she was just talking. Hint water was in so many different channels. They started in Starbucks. And she said, really Kelley, I’m kind of like, channel acting as an agnostic. And so I think like, I really, while we’re only available either on Amazon or, or, kind of agnostic, like I would obviously love to have people purchase it if I had a choice, but if people want to buy on Amazon, they want to go to Amazon and they like the Amazon ecosystem. Yeah, I’m fine with that. So and yeah, people do go on Amazon, and then find us on Tiege crossover, and it goes the other way as well. They stop using this for a little while, and then they’re on Amazon, we pop up and they make a purchase. So I think it goes on, it’s a whole ecosystem.

Joe Valley  25:39

Let’s talk about one other channel that you mentioned in passing just a few minutes ago, and I happen to have the Director of Business Development for ClickBank on the podcast last week. You mentioned affiliates and supplements, subscription stuff of courses, things of that nature are the best options for ClickBank and affiliate marketing, when you’ve got media buyers, find the time there. What are you doing for affiliate marketing and how’s it working?

Kelley Thornton  26:09

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with affiliate marketing. We’ve had some really strong years, and we’ve had some really very productive affiliates. And we really enjoy those relationships. And like any channel, some of our affiliates do really, really well. And then over time, they kind of don’t perform as well. And we’re a little bit of a low on affiliates right now, I don’t think that channels executing very well for us. Overall, I think it’s been very good. And I think it’s a very good channel. It’s one of the channels we’re not very dialed in on right now.

Joe Valley  26:45

So asking you, if somebody’s out there with supplements, products like yours, which is skincare courses and things of that nature, with high margins, and you can get an average ticket up around $200, what kind of bumped do you think that they could get if they go the affiliate right route and do it just sort of so like you’re doing maybe 5% In total revenue? 10%?

Kelley Thornton  27:07

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think if you could have, like, so we look at is like, share site, so the percentage of people coming from specific channel, that that’s that buy from us on any given day? I mean, I think if you’re gonna have affiliate in that 10% share, so I mean, a 10% share of daily revenue, I think that would be a very healthy number, in my opinion, if you have a very balanced portfolio. We’ve been over that we’ve been in that 15% range, but right now, our numbers are sub 5% share a site on affiliate.

Joe Valley  27:44

It’s not consistent, it’s not something that you can count on month in and month out the same well, revenue?

Kelley Thornton  27:49

Yeah, I think it’s very labor-intensive channel, and a lot of it is very human connection to it. So whether it’s writing or talking or the way that affiliates are managing the conversation around skincare, so it requires a lot of care and feeding.

Joe Valley  28:15

Very, very interesting. Okay, so we’re just about running out of time. And this, I’m glad we were able to focus in on the challenges and benefits of subscription programs and what you’re doing not necessarily Tiege Hanley products, which personally, I think are great. But any last bits of advice for anybody out there that’s listening, that might be buying a business that could be subscription, or could be turned into one, or is one, or those that are actually operating now and haven’t really focused in and dialed in on some of these things.

Kelley Thornton  28:49

Yeah, I couldn’t be better poster child for subscription businesses, I think the economics of a subscription business and the things that allows you to do which is plan for your supply chain, predict your future needs for product and sales and predict the economics of your business. When you have that it is a luxury in business, right? Because we have very good prediction capabilities which is really good. And it’s reoccurring revenue in anything, right? If you’re out there and you have rental properties, right? That’s reoccurring revenue. And so having a reoccurring revenue and subscription business is a great business. And I think also, Joe, I think a lot of people are, subscriptions for a couple years ago, we were really getting very negative kind of connotation to it. And I think there’s a lot of people that are really seeing the benefits of subscription businesses as a consumer I’m speaking of so I think the consumer acceptance of these types of type of relationships is very strong. So I think it’s a phenomenal business to be in.

Joe Valley  30:00

I do too. And I think the key is doing it your way in terms of the customer relationship. Right. So I have a subscription to a sleep program now. And it was supposed to be a three-month thing and do it on the app. And they just hit me up for another $225. Because I have to find their email address and send an email in order to cancel, there’s no other way to do it online. And so not far of a leap from not being able to cancel to a chargeback. And if I’m to recommend the program to somebody that’s going to be with that caveat, and your situation because you take good care of the customers as everyone should. That is only going to help, the customer is going to help grow the business is exactly what you’re doing with this subscription program. It’s a mouthful for me today. I think you’re doing great stuff. I appreciate your time, Kelley.

Kelley Thornton  30:53

Thanks. Thank you for your interest in what we’re doing. I appreciate it very much.

Joe Valley  30:57

I do know that actually your assistants sent me an email with a discount code as well. Right. You know what that is for the Quiet Light audience.

Kelley Thornton  31:05

Yeah, it’s It’s 30% off and I think we’ve got a free item on that. A body wash or a bar soap or something’s great deal.

Joe Valley  31:22

I’m gonna take advantage of it myself. All right. Yeah. Appreciate your time. Thanks, Kelley. Have a good day.

Outro  31:29

Today’s podcast was produced by Rise25 and the Quiet Light content team. If you have a suggestion for a future podcast, subject, or guest, email us at [email protected]. Be sure to follow us on YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram, and subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

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