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Friday, May 15, 2020

Out of the Crisis #2: Mark Cuban on putting people first, the Dallas Mavericks, and what we'll want on the other side

Mark Cuban is my guest on Out of the Crisis #2 (transcript below). You may know him as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks or an investor on Shark Tank. In his 20s, he started a systems integrator called MicroSolutions which was eventually sold to Compuserve. After that, he started AudioNet, one of the first audio streaming companies, which was sold to Yahoo. Since then he's been starting and investing in companies in a number of arenas.

Mark has been at the forefront of providing job stability and funding for his own employees and the networks that support them during the pandemic. He was the first NBA owner to take this action for vendors and other staff around the Mavericks, and his example soon led other owners to follow suit. In his view, "It's never selfish to keep your company in business. It's never selfish to hire. It's never selfish to try to do the right thing for your employees, your customers, and your stakeholders." 

He believes strongly in the long-term value of taking care of people. "Consumers, particularly Gen Z and millennials, are becoming more used to looking for a social component from the companies that they do business with. Now going forward, those same people are going to look to see how you treated your employees. They're going to look to see how you treated your customers. They're going to look to see what impact you had in your community."

Going forward, he believes there will be "great companies that come out of this....that were born in this mess." The key is to think about what that future looks like and how to contribute to making it better than the world that brought us into the pandemic. As Mark says, "Where can you see yourself? Put your long-term vision hat on and try to maximize the impact that you can have."

You can listen to our conversation on Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever else you like to download podcasts.



Many of you who read my podcast launch post requested full transcripts as well. You can find my conversation with Mark in that format below.

Highlights from the show:

  • Mark gives a brief summary of his career and work. (1:44)
  • We discuss running the Mavs, a completely shuttered organization that can't pivot the way a small business could, and what the team is doing to connect with fans (3:28)
  • Mark's work and family life during the pandemic. (5:37)
  • Discussion of the many functions schools fill in communities, how to help them now, and find resources (schoolclosures.org) (6:40)
  • Mark talks about how his kids are experiencing the pandemic and the messages he's trying to impart to them about how there have always been moments in history when you wake up to a different world. (7:40)
  • Mark's efforts as a business leader and what he's been doing starting with continuing to pay employees in his companies. (10:07)
  • Mark's ESPN interview during the final NBA game of the season where he was first owner to call for paying everyone in the team's the network and how crisis brings out people's true colors. (11:59)
  • Giving people trust and autonomy and opening lines of communication as a leader, and how Mark's  leadership has evolved. (14:16)
  • The lifecycle of companies and the importance of creating a bottom up culture. (15:30)
  • Companies that have made smart decisions as the pandemic has unfolded. (16:25)
  • Be aware of what's happening in the marketing of your products, learn everything you can about what's going on in your industry to set your company up for the future. (18:56)
  • What Mark has been doing to encourage companies to invest in themselves now and be courageous in moving forward, including applying to the PPP. (20:07)
  • The value and importance of offering people stable employment and how keeping your company running isn't selfish, but a service in rough times. (22:13)
  • The way companies treat employees and customers and impact their communities now will them for decades to come. The trend was already happening, now it's accelerated. (23:45)
  • Mark talks about his covid relief efforts, and we discuss the PPE crisis, how it became a black market situation and the need for open data and coordination to help put it right. (26:48)
  • Questions he's getting from companies as they grapple with the crisis and how his experiences with rough times have effected his answers. Need to communicate with vendors and be transparent and proactive. during S&L crisis. (36:43)
  • The two types of employees: those who create stress and those who eliminate it. The Dunning-Kreuger effect in action. (44:48)
  • Don't sit on the sidelines. You don't have to go big, just connect. Create local network effects and then go from there. Everybody can be a leader in their own community. (47:20)
  • Mark's predictions for how business and society are going to change, the products we'll need and the opportunities that will come out of those needs. (48:11)

Show-related links:

Transcript: Out of the Crisis #2, Mark Cuban

Eric Ries: I'm Eric Ries. This is Out of the Crisis. There's nothing good about this situation, but I have been witness to extraordinary acts of generosity, of courage, of ordinary people stepping up and leading, even in situations and places where they couldn't have possibly imagined them doing that even just a few weeks ago. I've always heard stories about how people did that in past crises. My grandparents used to tell me stories about that, and I never really imagined it happening to me. And yet I am witnessing it all around us, and I do think that is a path forward for us as a society, for us to realize we have these inner strengths and capabilities to step up and lead.

Mark Cuban is a legend. You've probably seen him on TV, or you know him as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, or just a larger-than-life personality in our society. Mark and I have been on many related email threads in this covid crisis trying to work on relief efforts. He called me the other day and just asked me for a comprehensive briefing on everything related to the procurement of personal protective equipment for our medical first responders.

Mark has a unique ability to use his name and his platform to open doors. He, of course, can do that for himself but he's been very generous in this crisis doing it for others. Here's my conversation with Mark Cuban.

Eric Ries: I can't imagine there's anyone out there who doesn't know you and the many things that you're involved in. But just for those maybe who are new, you want to introduce yourself and tell us a little about the many, many different business ventures you're involved in.

Mark Cuban: Yeah, I guess. I'm Mark Cuban. I own the Dallas Mavericks. I'm on Shark Tank. I've invested in hundreds of companies. I made my money initially when I was in my 20s. I got fired from a software sales job, started a systems integrator called MicroSolutions. We were one of the very first local area network and wide area network integrators. I taught myself to code over seven years and wrote all kinds of applications. We wrote the very first automated purchase order interface for Walmart. For Zales we wrote one of the very first video interfaces so that Zales could take videos and pictures of their inventory instead of having to keep one in a safe. Just all kinds of crazy applications, and sold that to a company called CompuServe, if you remember back then.

ER: Oh, yes.

MC: Then took a couple of years off. In the mid-90s, late '94, early '95 my buddy and I were trying to figure out the best way to listen to Indiana basketball and we had to have a speakerphone where we had one set up in Bloomington, Indiana, one in Dallas, Texas. Someone would put a radio next to it in Bloomington and we were like, "This internet thing has got to have a better way." So we started out what turned out to be one of the first, if not the first, audio streaming companies called AudioNet. Obviously we evolved to video as well, and took that public, and then sold it to Yahoo almost 20 years ago today. Then after that, bought the Mavs and just been having fun investing and starting and running small companies ever since.

ER: That's awesome. Obviously not going to have time for any basketball questions but just how is the whole organization? I was just thinking about what it must be like to run an organization that is completely shuttered, that can't do its business at all.

MC: Yeah, it's no fun.

ER: What is that like for everybody?

MC: Yeah, it's no fun obviously. I mean from the Mavs perspective, the players are going nuts and you try to keep in touch with them all the time. Particularly with young employees you've got to really be vigilant because their natural instinct is to think they're invincible. They want to go outside and do anything and hang out. We'd have some young folks, guys in their 20s, and a woman in her 20s, actually get sick as well. She works on the advance systems. They'll be okay but it wasn't any fun. That kind of sent the message back to them that they really have to take this seriously. So that's been the hardest part in terms of the Mavs.

MC: Obviously a lot of it is out of our control. Most small businesses you can try different things and take advantage of different opportunities you create for yourself even in weird times like this. But with the NBA teams we've got to wait and take direction from the NBA. So that's a big difference.

ER: Have your guys thought about how they can use their celebrity and platforms to be advocates for social distancing?

MC: Of course. They're playing video games with kids. They're out there sending the message to stay at home, giving examples of how you can stay active in your backyard or indoors, and just trying to stay engaged. We live in a social media universe now and all of them, particularly in the NBA, have very large platforms. They want to keep those active and they recognize that, with kids not at school, kids are more active on those platforms and they're potential fans, that turn into followers, that turn into bigger fans, and that leads to better business. So they recognize that as bad as this is it's an opportunity to connect more with fans and really advance that connection with them.

ER: So great. I really appreciate you taking time to talk about this with so much going on. First on all just on the pandemic, it's affecting all of us. We're all dealing with it as best we can. How are you holding up? What's your pandemic set up?

MC: I mean I work from home all the time anyway so it's not a big change. You know me from the past. I'm not a big meetings or phone calls guy. I do 90% of my stuff via email. So this is kind of par for the course for me. It's more of an adjustment for others that I work with or work around who always wanted to do phone calls or meetings. But they were always used to working with me this way, so my life hasn't changed all that much other than my kids being home and a lot more forced family fun for the Cuban family.

ER: How are they holding up with school closed and everything?

MC: Yeah. The school is actually keeping them busy in the mornings. My 16 year old daughter still doesn't talk to me. My 13 year old daughter talks to me sometimes. So it's business as usual here.

ER: Yeah. That's really great. We also were accustomed to working and schooling from home so it hasn't been such a big disruption. We'll put a link in the show description, but we've been working on this thing called schoolclosures.org for families for whom this is much more of a crisis, and trying to help them get the resources. I'm astonished how much people use schools for. For school lunches and food security, and so many surfaces. So getting the work out to people who don't have as much as we do.

MC: There's a lot you can do. We're getting kids meals and just trying to help where we can.

ER: That is really awesome. Have you had any conflict in the family about what level of quarantine you've got to do for, like, packages coming in, or groceries, or anything?

MC: Oh, yeah. At the beginning particularly. You know, "My friends are doing this, my friends are doing that." "No, you're not doing it." "But ..." "No," and fighting that battle. "No, you can't even take your car." She just learned to drive. But she's smart. She's come around and she recognizes the risks and she understands what's going on. Yeah, it hasn't been a problem the last 10 days or so, but early on it was. I think they're smart enough to recognize this is something that’s unique, because they see the fear in their parents' faces. They hear the fear in their friends' parents voices. It just is what it is. And the good news is they're social media babies, right? That's how they grew up. So whether it's Snapchat, whether it's Instagram, whether now it's TikTok, they've got things to occupy them. I couldn't even imagine when I was growing up if this would have happened. No sports on TV? I don't know what I'd do.

ER: Inconceivable, right? It's such a huge difference. People obviously compare to the 1918 pandemic a lot. Think about how much social activity, but also how much business activity, is able to keep going because we all can do so much from home. And everybody is discovering more they can do.

MC: We tried to explain to them that throughout history that there's always been circumstances where you wake up one morning and the world is different. Wars have been fought. My grandparents were forced from Russia. It's either leave or die. My dad and my uncles fought in the World Wars. So there's always circumstances in people's lives. I mean you hope you don't have to deal with it, but I mean if you live in Syria. There's just no normal there. So we have first world problems. This is still difficult for us, but it's still a first world problem compared to what people in undeveloped nations are facing.

ER: Yeah. Amen to that.

MC: We try to drive home to them and amplify as much as we can that as difficult as this is, people are resilient. In other countries they're gone through worse and in this country we've gone through worse.

ER: I took a lot of comfort in that. I remember as a kid, my parents were victims of the Holocaust and fought in the wars. They would tell us the craziest stories about what it was like. As a kid growing up in America in a middle class family it just seemed so remote. Like, "Oh, come on. That's so old fashioned." That kind of stuff can never happen here. And now I wish I'd listened a little better.

MC: Yeah. We reviewed the story of The Diary of Anne Frank and what she went through. Obviously it didn't end well, but still it was a book they had read and it resonated with them.

ER: It has a whole different meaning now when you're actually living through this.

MC: Yep.

ER: One of the themes that has really struck me the last couple of weeks working with you and so many others is this unbelievable surge of business leaders, civic leaders of all stripes kind of stepping up and trying to lead us out of this crisis. So talk a little bit about what you've seen and why you felt called to take on a leadership role.

MC: I mean I'm very fortunate. I'm not facing the financial struggles that I once did, so I'm in a position where I can try to help others. It didn't start with this, but when this happened--I have a platform. I have resources. I have people available to me to help me. It was just the right thing to do to try to help where I could. That started with continuing to pay employees in the companies I control ... Because I understood the grief and the uncertainty and the fear that they would go through if they weren't getting a paycheck ... and encouraging others to do the same.

I’m trying to use the Mavericks as a platform to reach out through our foundation, and through the Mavs directly, to get food or daycare to first responders. You know, it's just the type of thing that makes common sense if you have the resources to do them. It's not surprising to me at all, whether it's yourself or others--so many other people have recognized that, "Okay. I've got the resources to help solve problems, and there are people out there that they're putting their lives on the line to save people, why wouldn't I help them?" Do you know what I mean?

ER: Yeah, and they're the real heroes.

MC: Yeah, they are the real heroes. We've done it with the military. We'll do it with first line responders in healthcare. God forbid it happens again, but we'll do it again if we have to.

ER: I really remember right the first day the NBA decided to shut down. You were I think the first owner to call for providing funding, not just to the direct employees but to everyone in the network of vendors and people who were around the team who had economic need. It was really interesting. One thing I really believe is that a crisis reveals your true colors. You learn a lot about companies and organizations by how they respond in the moment. Look, I'm a Warriors fan. Their first day of reaction to that was not very strong. After you said that's what you were going to do, then other owners kind of stepped up and said, "Yeah, we're going to do that too." I just thought that was a really interesting moment in showing how an individual act of leadership could then influence a whole industry.

MC: Yeah, I mean it just happened that it was a Mavs game when everything shut down. It was just happenstance, but it was something I had thought about previously. We'd had conversations, not knowing that that game was going to be played that night. Not knowing what would happen with the rest of the season. It was just something that was a concern to me and it just came to mind when I was doing the interview on ESPN. Fortunately it did lead to others doing it. Again, I still think most would have done it anyways if they could afford it, but it was just nice to see people recognize that this was something they should consider.

ER: One of the key values here is to put people first, and that businesses, organizations, we exist to serve human beings. So when people are in need that's got to come first as a business priority. That just seemed like a moment to communicate that value through action rather than words. What else have you seen or done to try to help your organization to understand the need to put people first?

MC: I mean that's just a driving principle of who we are. Look, I've made lots of mistakes and I'm not here to tell you that these all came organically to me. We've had problems at the Mavs that I had to respond to and I had to learn from. When you have things that go really wrong you have to learn a lot and you have to recognize where things did go wrong. I recognized that the leadership that reports to me is just as important as what I do, and I gave people a lot more autonomy. You know, responsibility without authority doesn't get anybody very far. I think one of the things that I've recognized is that I've got to pull back and let people have that authority so that they can make the decisions, and just be more available to them.

I think that's really a big part of how my leadership has evolved. Because I was just having fun for a long time and it kind of bit me because I trusted people without communicating with them. Now I trust them. I give them authority but I communicate a whole lot more, actually let them communicate with me a whole lot more, so that we're all on the same page. When you do that, that kind of sets an example, and the people that report to me do the same thing. The people that report to them do the same thing. Even though we're not a very hierarchical organization, the level that we do have we really try to make it so that when you have responsibility you have authority, and a big part of that is communicating with your people.

ER: Yeah. One of my pet peeves is an org chart that puts the leader at the top of that chart. It's like no, because that's completely backwards. The leader should be supporting the people who do the actual work.

MC: Exactly.

ER: They're like the roots, and into the muck, you know?

MC: Yeah. And every company has different parts, has its own life cycle, right? You have to recognize and be self-aware where you are in the life cycle of the company. When you guys were starting up, when I was starting up, it was go, go, go, go, go, and when am I going to get my next customer? How am I going to pay my bills? Will I be in business in another month? You deal with things a lot differently then.

MC: As you grow and become more established, you have to recognize the business is an organism of its own and takes a life and culture of its own. You have to work on getting that culture to the point where it really is bottom up. Where the people who are touching the customers the most are the ones that recognize that they have the most important job, because if they don't do their job well we're not going to have customers and things aren't going to work.

ER: Totally. So beyond basketball, and your platform, and advocating for what is right, can you share some stories about people that you've seen step up that have impressed you?

MC: I had another company, Monkey Mat, that's a Shark Tank company that made the decision to close down. I thought that was tough but it was also brilliant because they had money in the bank. They didn't just let it go and take it the very end and then hope they could make it work. They were like, "We don't see the light at the end of the tunnel." They had just been abused by the tariffs. That was an issue. Their customer base was starting to not be as direct as it had been, and they recognized that, "Hey, this is a problem, and we're going to return money to our shareholders." But it also allowed them to put money in their pocket and their employees' pocket rather than just riding it out to the end. I was impressed there.

I've seen Dude Wipes is a company that really amped up. There are a few companies that are doing better because of what's going on. They recognized that they're an alternative to toilet paper. They're a sanitizing ... I don't even know what you call it ... Wipe. They're sanitizing wipes, right? So they ramped up.

ER: Business is booming.

MC: The business is crushing it, yeah. I've got a few Shark Tank companies that are crushing it. They have the moral dilemma of, "Okay, I feel bad about this." I said, "Don't feel bad. People like your product." They said, "What shall we do? Shall we amp up advertising?" I'm like, "Yes." I mean people out there don't realize the cost per click for advertising is going down. The customer acquisition costs are going down. If you play this right and you connect more closely to your customers, the lifetime value may go up.

For Dude Wipes it was an opportunity to connect more and reach out and get more customers, and they took advantage of it. They asked me, "What else can we do?" I said, "Hire people. There's going to be a lot of people who need jobs. Pay them 15 bucks an hour at least. They've got to be able to live off of it. Hire them to do whatever you can find them to do."

I think that's just one of the things where every company when all of a sudden your business accelerates, there's always something you need done. Now you can find a lot of smart people to do it because so many people have lost their jobs. So those are a few examples, but I think the one thing to really point out is whether you're struggling or doing well you have to be aware of what's happening in the marketing of your products.

Things are changing in digital marketing, changing dramatically. The big advertisers are pulling way back. If you can reduce your cost per customer acquisition, if you can connect in a way that expands your email database, adds more customers and allows you to connect in new ways, that's setting a platform for the future for you. So even in these dark days you have to be opportunistic.

That also includes really learning everything you can about what's going on in your industry. You can't fall back. You really have to lean in and say, "Okay. Are there opportunities right now for me to take advantage of? And what do I need to do to do so?"

ER: One of the things that Sam Altman said struck me was that during a boom the only thing that gets cheaper is cost of capital, everything else gets more expensive. So conversely in a crisis, the really key inputs that allow companies to grow get cheaper. Human talent, marketing, engineering, R&D. Everything gets less expensive. So what have you been doing to encourage companies not to be afraid now? To invest, to put people to work? To make sure that we're all doing our part, that this doesn't turn into an economic depression?

MC: The first thing is to take advantage of the Payroll Protection Program. Now you can't apply until Friday. I'm kind of disappointed on that, but that's neither here nor there. But for those who aren't aware, it's a government stimulus program that effectively says for your employees that make under $100,000 a year, the government will cover your payroll expenses, and rent, and utilities, and some ancillary expenses, for the next two and a half, three months.

But, there's also a kick, if you retain all your employees, you don't have to pay it back. So I've been pushing all of my Shark Tank companies, all of my smaller companies. You have to have fewer than 500 employees. So all the companies that qualify, to go out and apply for this because it allows them to retain their employees. Allows them to continue to push their business forward and stay in business and potentially grow. That's just something every small business with under 500 employees needs to take advantage of.

ER: A lot of folks I've been talking to about this, they're not accustomed to asking the government to help and it feels a little weird. Start-ups don't always interact with the government. Have you helped people understand why it's important for them to do this?

MC: Yeah, of course. I run Libertarian, just it's who I am, and my first inclination was, "I don't think I want to do this." But this is not a standard operating procedure. This is not a typical environment. This is a black swan event and you have to deal with what's in front of you. The government knows that stimulus is important for the economy. Like you said, we don't want any more severe recession than we're already in and hopefully to avoid a depression. So we really need to take the steps to keep our employees, keep them employed and keep them working. If there's a stimulus program that allows us to do this, you've got to do it.

ER: I don't think I was really conscious of this pre-crisis, but it really struck me in the early days because I was so focused on taking care, obviously, of our employees, our vendors, our contractors, our broader community, was that one of the ways that you provide support to people is to offer the stable employment.

MC: Yes. Oh, no question.

ER: Yeah. Actually keeping the company in business, having it have a sustainable business model, having it pull in the funds that it needs to keep going, that's actually not a greedy thing to do. It's a way to be of service to the people that are in your ecosystem.

MC: Without question. As someone who's been fired and had their back against the wall and sleeping on the floor and not being sure where my next dollar was coming from to pay for food, I can connect with people who are in that circumstance or would be in that circumstance if you had to lay people off. So anything you can do to keep them hired, you just improved their sanity. You improved their mental health. You improved the lives of their family. So you're certainly not being selfish.

Look, I'm a capitalist. It's never selfish to keep your company in business. It's never selfish to hire. It's never selfish to try to do the right thing for your employees, your customers, and your stakeholders. Where it becomes selfish is when you just try to squeeze out one extra dollar at the expense of an employee, at the expense of a stakeholder to try to look good to shareholders because you don't think they trust you or believe in you enough to increase your price earnings ratio if you’re a public stock. That's where things go wrong.

ER: And the way you treat people in a crisis when you could take advantage of them, people remember that forever.

MC: Right now, that way you treat your employees today while all this is going on will define you as a brand for years if not decades. Shark Tank is an example. We are seeing more and more companies over the last three years that have a social component to them. Buy a pair of socks, we'll give away a pair of socks. Buy these sandals and we'll contribute money to building schools in Afghanistan for girls who otherwise couldn't go to school. Buy this and we'll provide blankets.

So consumers, particularly Gen Z and millennials, they're used to, or becoming more used to, looking for a social component from the companies that they do business with. If you don't have it before this, you're at a disadvantage. Now going forward those same people, they're going to look to see how you treated your employees. They're going to look to see how you treated your customers. They're going to look to see what impact you had in your community. Because when they go on Instagram, or on TikTok, or on Snapchat, or even Facebook if they have it, they're not going to wear your tee shirt. They're not going to be proud of showing your products online.

They're not going to be an influencer for you organically and authentically because they don't want to be associated with your product. And they're going to tell their friends the exact same thing. We're always seeing posts that, this company just sent an email to layoff their employees, I'm not doing business with them again. That company did a group voicemail to everybody in order to furlough employees. That's going to have ramifications for years. So what you do today will help define your brand or hurt your brand for a long, long time.

ER: One of the famous things that Toyota would do, and Toyota has been around since the Great Depression and before, was that during economic downturns they would keep people employed in the factory even if they had no orders, and just come up with something else for them to do. Make them make improvements in the factory, improve capacity, so that when the orders eventually, they're going to resume, they're poised to take advantage of the growth. So anyone in your portfolio, or anyone that you've been talking to have an example of something like that, or impressed you with something?

MC: A lot of our companies are keeping people employed, there's no question. But in all small businesses, you're so go, go, go, go, go all the time. You always find yourself thinking, "You know, if I only had a few minutes, if I only had a day or two, I really would love to do A, B, and C." I'd like to redo my marketing materials. I'd like to rewrite this manual. I'd like to reevaluate this code and look for bugs and clean it up. I'd like to talk to this customer. I'd like to redo my video content, or add or create new content, or write scripts for this content.

All these things that you always wanted to do if you only had time, now you probably have the time. Now is the time to do those things so that you come on the other side after the reset, in America 2.0, and you're stronger.

ER: Let me ask you a little bit about the covid relief efforts that you've been involved in.

MC: Most of the philanthropic stuff has been geared towards trying to help first responders. Getting them fed. Taking care of their daycare needs. Getting food to kids at school. Getting money to food banks. Just trying to get where there's immediate need as much as we possibly can.

I haven't been one to try to say, "Okay. I'm donating X amount of dollars to try to find a cure or a vaccine for covid-19," because that's just longer term. I've really tried to focus on ways that we can help people that are facing immediate needs, whether it's feeding them, clothing them, sheltering them, providing daycare, whatever it may be.

Then obviously as a business person that just looked at what's happening with PPE, particularly the masks. Obviously that went from an efficient market to an inefficient market overnight. And it upset me. I mean I thought that there were companies out there that were manufacturers, particularly domestic manufacturers, that were withholding data and keeping the market opaque. And that was contributing to it becoming a black market as opposed to even a remotely efficient market if not a truly efficient market.

So that's where I got involved with you guys and Alex and a bunch of other folks for a project, N95.com, which effectively looks to connect buyers and sellers and make sure that product that was going from point A to point B was actually authentic and could do the job. The information they've uncovered, the opportunity they've been able to find, but also the junk, and the garbage, and the scams they've been able to protect people from is incredible.

ER: That's sickening. That's awful. We'll put a link in the description to PPE Coalition for those that want to get the latest information and want to get involved there. Why that issue in particular? For me, it makes my blood boil.

MC: Because it's something that shouldn't have happened, right? I'm sorry if I'm a step slow. I haven't slept in like two days.

ER: No, it's fine. Listen, this is one of the most outrageous things that's happening in the crisis right now. I think it's something people need to be aware of.

MC: Yeah, it's crazy. I'll use 3M as an example. I don't think that they're doing anything illegal but I do think that they don't have a great corporate conscience. There's a product manager at 3M that knows the N95 mask business inside and out, domestically and globally. They know who all the manufacturers are. They know what their capacity is even with all the additional capacity. They know historically who the buyers are. They know the trends. They've been in business and doing this long enough. They were there through SARS. They were there through other flu epidemics. Not as bad as this but they saw trends, and they had an understanding. They also had allocation programs that allowed them to deal with hotspots.

Yet, having all that data, they shared none. And because they shared no information, that market went from inefficient to their distributors telling people placing orders, as of this morning when I talked to some order placers, some hospitals. They're telling them, "You can place an order. You cannot cancel it. We don't know when we'll have any product to ship you, and we'll just ship it if and when we get it." And when you respond to your customers like that, it freaks them out.

So they assume that's just the way the entire market is and that's what it's become when the leader does that. So they're out there buying whatever they can in masks, from whoever they can, at whatever price they can source it at. And not only are they doing that, they're hoarding it. Whenever they can get extra, they're not sharing it, they're keeping it to themselves because of all the uncertainty. They don't know what their apex is going to be. In some cases they don't know when it's going to be. In some cases they don't know when it's going to strike them because they're in an area that hasn't been hit hard yet.

Because of that the market goes from an efficient market to a gray market to a black market. That may not have been able to be completely avoided, but it certainly could have been dealt with in a way that made it a lot less traumatic, and a lot less intense. And 3M could have done that just by releasing information. If they would have  just had their head of supply chain, their product manager for the N95s, just go out there and talk to everybody, to share data with other manufacturers. To talk to other manufacturers and say, "Why don't we organize together and release information about what our daily production is, what our daily deliveries are, what our order rates are, so we reflect demand. And work with the hospitals that are our customers and ask them what their daily burn rate is so other hospitals know how many are being used, so they can learn from hospitals who are being hit first."

All these types of things that they had information that would be supportive and helpful, and they didn't share any of it. To me, that's just the wrong way to approach things.

ER: Yeah. I've been on the phone non-stop the last 10 days with people all over this ecosystem, industry, and all these grassroots groups. One of the themes that has come up over and over again is lack of coordination, lack of cooperation, lack of data. We're all bidding against each other on the same black market, bidding up the price. And there needs to be a coordinated national response. We've got to work together. We've got to have open data. This is a crisis that's about to get much, much worse. All of us are getting these awful messages on social media, by email. Who doesn't have a family member or friend who works at a hospital or in the healthcare system in some say. Everyone's got these messages.

MC: That's exactly right, and it's reflective from our government. I'm not trying to pick on anybody, but it shows you that you can't have everybody in charge. When you have everybody in charge of trying to solve a problem nobody's in charge, and everybody steps on each other. And now you're also seeing in articles that USAID which had a stockpile actually shipped a lot of this PPE overseas. This week. You know? And if you had one person in charge you could manage everybody that's working with them, then you could start to take inventory of everything. As opposed to everybody just scrambling trying to solve the problem, not talking to anybody else.

ER: So one thing I want to get your perspective on is a number of the people I've been talking to who are working relief efforts, and some of these people have been working 24 hours a day for weeks now, they have these moments where they're like, "Why me? Why am I in charge of this? This doesn't make sense." We had that conversation today. What do you and I know about this? Why are we called to do this?

MC: Yeah. Why do we find ourselves adding value to this problem when there's no reason we should be adding value at all, or even involved.

ER: Yeah, and if you go on social media there's people saying, "Stay in your lane. What are you doing? Leave this to the experts. Leave it to the government." I was just counseling someone last night who wants to start one of these projects and they were afraid. They said, "Wait a minute." They actually had it done and were not able to ship it. They couldn't bring themselves to publish it because they were like, "I'm going to get crucified on social media. People are going to yell at me. I might make a mistake. Who am I to say what needs to be done?" It was late at night. I said, "Listen, we've got to have a heart to heart right now. First of all, you're talking to the minimum viable product guy. So what am I going to tell you, delay? No, of course no. But also, you have to do this. You were called to do it. The cavalry is not coming."

MC: Yeah, the only caveat that I would put there and Eric, tell me what you think. A lot of times people have the best intentions. They have an idea, or they want to start a foundation, or they want to do philanthropy, but what they don't do is check to see who else is doing the exact same thing.

ER: Exactly.

MC: Right? So I'm a big believer, and this is generically, it's not specific to all this, that we have too many charities. That there should be a great charity consolidation because there's so much duplication of effort, so much duplication of fundraising, so much duplication of overhead, that the effectiveness of all the above is diminished because these charities are competing with each other.

ER: I've talked to so many people these past couple of weeks who want to be in charge. That ego is getting in the way of doing the work, so we have a lot of redundancy and lack of cooperation. So it's how do you find that balance between, you have your own unique distinct perspective, but then the need for us to work together and not make duplicative effort.

MC: Yeah. It's almost like starting a company or creating a product, right? You really have to do your homework to do it right. Now you may have a vision that allows you to do it better, but we talk all the time, "Is it a product or a feature?" You have to really know the difference because somebody else's product, the difference between your product and theirs may be just a feature they can add in 10 minutes. So even if you have a unique element to your idea for solving the problem, you also have to ask yourself, can you take this to somebody already doing this and make their lives, or make their product, or make their service better.

We're starting to see some of that now as people realizing they're duplicating efforts. But I think it's incumbent upon anybody, in any company you start, whether it's a charity, nonprofit, or for-profit, can you work with somebody already in place to get this done? Because duplication of effort is counterproductive.

ER: Please cooperate. Please share data.

MC: Yes.

ER: The days of delay that this pissing contest causes, people are dying every day now, so there's not really the time and energy for duplicative stuff. Hey, maybe that should be true all the time to your point, but especially in a crisis, right?

MC: Especially now, yeah. Especially now.

ER: Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of questions you're getting from your portfolio companies, and the companies and nonprofits that you're affiliated with? What's some of the questions you're getting as they're grappling with this crisis?

MC: I mean the first is, "Have you seen anything like this before?" No. The second is, "What should I do about production?" I have one company, Rise Nation, which is a boutique exercise company, and they were in the middle of building another location. On one hand, I want them to continue to build it, because I want people to have jobs and continue working and us paying them. And on the other hand, they're going to finish it so quickly now because those folks have nothing else to do, that it's not going to open for months because there's not going to be anybody who can go to it.

That creates its own set of challenges. So trying to deal with what's truly a critical path and prioritizing in that particular case, and really across the board, have probably been the biggest questions, "What do I prioritize and how?" That's where I've had people put together critical paths of, "Okay. What do you need to do, and who all is impacted along each step of the way?" Then trying to maximize the impact that you can have for the long term.

Then the second thing that I've tried to convey is it's painful for today but there's going to be great companies that come out of this. We're going to look back in five, 10 years, and there'll be five, 10, 20, 25, however many companies that were born in this mess that we consider to be great companies. So if you put your long-term vision hat on, where can you see yourself, and what's your vision for the other side? This isn't business as usual, so do you have ... This is a conversation I had yesterday. Do you have a vision for the other side that maybe is different than what you're doing today, but maybe is something that everybody can get behind?

Because who knows where those visions are going to come from, right? Maybe it's you. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's this entrepreneur. Maybe it's any of the hundreds of entrepreneurs I may work with. But it's going to come from somebody so press yourself. Visualize what you think it'll look like when we come out of this. And can you do something to change the game that'll make it better?

ER: So when people call you and ask about what you've seen before, I expect what they're expecting you to say is well, you've lived through it. You've been through some shit, man. Excuse my language. You've been through the dot.com crash. You've been through the Great Recession. Tell me what you think are lessons that you've learned from those experiences that are relevant.

MC: I'll tell you, nothing matches those experiences. But I'll give you an example, the one that I've been using with everybody. So my first company MicroSolutions, the systems integrator. We were about two years old. We had three employees. We were doing things we thought the exact right way. We would have our accounts payable list. I would review that and then somebody else would cut the checks. Then I would sign the checks. Then I would have somebody put the checks in the envelopes and mail them to our vendors. No big deal. Worked for almost two years.

One day I get a call from the bank, a guy with a Texas drawl, "Son, you've had somebody come through the drive-through and they whited out the payees and put their name when they wrote it over." I'm like, "Tell me you didn't cash it." "Well, of course I cashed it. Why wouldn't I?" So it turns out of the $84,000 we had in the bank, $82,000 was for payables to our vendors. She took it all. Gone. So my first response, obviously, was, "What the fuck?" My second response was, "Okay. I've got to get to work."

My partner, Martin, and I did just that. We got on the phone with our vendors. We explained what was going on. They knew we were growing. I mean we weren't insanely profitable but we were sustaining ourselves and growing some. We were a decent customer for them, and they understood. But they listened and they talked. And the message I gave to my companies where I've used this example then and now, is you've got to communicate with your vendors exactly what's going on. You have to be honest. You have to be transparent, and you have to be proactive. You can't just put your head under the pillow and hope they don't call.

When I went through it, actually, back then we were in a recession and things weren't great for most companies. So they had heard it from others but for different reasons, right? Companies were going out of business. This was right around the S&L crisis. But we talked to them and found a way through it, and they listened because they don't want to see their customers going out of business.

Today, your vendors are feeling the same fear that you're feeling. They're having the same problem with their manufacturers or vendors or whatever the case may be. And they'll talk to you and they'll listen. They recognize that these are unique circumstances. If you can convey to them here's how you're going to get to the other side, here's how you'll come out of this better if they work with you and give you a payment schedule or whatever it may be, most likely they're going to listen. But as an entrepreneur you have to do that now. You can't wait till it hits the fan. You have to be proactive, transparent, and honest.

ER: One of the things I've been urging people to do is to send a letter to everyone of their vendors and contractors urging them to put their people first and making sure they understand, "Hey, we don't want you to put your people at risk for our sake. We want you to obey social distancing, too." Have you done something like that with your network of suppliers?

MC: I haven't talked to them. I mean we've talked to them on the phone, haven't sent letters or anything like that.

ER: A little old-fashioned, I guess, to send a letter.

MC: Yeah, that is old-fashioned for me. But I have had the conversation with some creative folks where, "Look, you shouldn't be spending this much time. You need to spend less time working on this." I know you're stressed because you're concerned about how much business you're going to continue to get, and I know you're trying to kiss my ass because you know I'll keep on giving you business, but don't worry, I'll be here. You go take care of your family first because your kids are at home. You can't be stressed. You're not going to do as good a job and you'll kiss my ass even better, I'll get both cheeks, when we get on the other side if we do this right.

ER: You got me stumped there for a follow-up. That's exactly right. I guess the point is you take care of your vendors as human beings first. Then when it comes time to renegotiate, when it comes time to work out payment plans and figure out how to get through this together, they're going to be more willing to work with you.

MC: Of course. Employers are scared. I had a conversation with somebody I didn't even know actually. They emailed me. They were like, "Well, my employer didn't tell me this, this, this and this. And I'm upset about it." I'm like, "You don't think they're upset? You don't think they're terrified? You don't think they're worried about whether or not they'll stay in business? You need to talk either to your direct manager, or it's a small enough company, the owner of the company and just tell them that you understand."

Because it's not just entrepreneur or employer talking to employee. If you're an employee, you should be just as motivated and proactive to say, "You know what? What can I do to help you stay in business? Where can I help so we get through this together?" Because that's going to create a much stronger bond between you and your employer that's going to pay off for a long, long time.

One of the sayings that I like to use, or concept that I like to convey, is that there's two types of employees. Those who create stress, and those who eliminate stress.

ER: Oh, amen to that.

MC: You're always going to be proactive to keep the people that eliminate your stress, or at least reduce it. You're going to just let the people who are the hurricanes ... You know, it's always the people who think they're the most valuable who always are the least valuable because they create hurricanes of their own making. Then they say they're the only ones that can solve them. The people that just go about their jobs reducing or eliminating your stress, the minute you hear they're even looking for a job or considering leaving, you go nuts and proactively give them a raise.

So in these types of circumstances, you want to be the employee that proactively goes to your boss, or the owner, and says, "How can I help? Here's what I can do. My partner, my spouse works, it's not a stress for me. Or my partner, my spouse doesn't work and this is going to be a problem but here's how I can put myself in a position to help you succeed here. Let me do this, this, this, I'm really good at this, this and this. You tell me what works best for you." And when you have that level of communication, regardless of who starts it, that's how you get to the other side and come out stronger.

ER: We'll definitely put a link to the Dunning-Kruger effect in the notes for the thing about people who think they're the most valuable. So, most importantly Mark, where do you think we go from here? How do we get out of the crisis?

MC: I don't know. I honestly don't know. But I think what I do know is that there's no other country in the world that's as resilient, that's as entrepreneurial, that's as creative. I have complete faith in American exceptionalism, if we want to call it that. That we're going to come up with unique ideas and create unique opportunities that we'll only see because we've gone through this. That whatever is on the other side after this reset, whatever occurs, that I have complete faith we'll figure it out and we'll come up with new businesses that propel us.

I mean when you go back over the last 50 years and you look at the greatest technological achievements, most of them came from this country. Now a lot of them were immigrants who came here, but they came here because they recognized that we incubate businesses, right? This is a country that appreciates entrepreneurship. I think that will continue. Maybe we won't have as many immigrants but those who are here I think are going to contribute. And I think entrepreneurs are going to lead the way, and that's how we come out of it. But the specifics, I don't know.

ER: So there must be people listening to us right now that are sitting on the sideline. I mean how many of us are kind of in existential dread, despair, on social media feeling like there's nothing we can do. If someone is on the sidelines right now, can't figure out how to help or what to do, how can they get in this fight?

MC: Take care of your family. Take care of your friends. Take care of your community. Start there first. Call people on the phone. Call your friends. I had a hang out with my high school buddies, some of whom I hadn't talked to in a couple of years. It was great, and just ideas started flowing. Because you don't have to go big, you just have to connect. And when you connect with people you start getting that network effect.

I think that's what we really need people to do. Start working locally in your community. Create a local network effect and then go from there and see where that take you because everybody can be a leader in their own community. Everybody can be a leader in their household. Everybody can work with people they know. You just have to connect with them. You can't hibernate and keep to yourself.
ER: Give us one prediction for how the world, business world, our society at large is going to change as a result of the crisis.

MC: I think people are going to be a lot more cognizant of cleanliness. We'll see a lot more germaphobes, and that's a good thing. It's not a macro thing but it's an important thing because we're going to need to get past social distancing. We're going to need to be able to go into a communal environment, and good hygiene for products, for services, for ourselves is going to be critical. It seems so commonsense and so basic, but it's something that I've always taken for granted, haven't you?

ER: Oh, of course. And listen, epidemiologists have been warning us about this for years, that we've got to change our habits. And we've been 100% ignoring them because it's such a downer message. I don't think we're going to be ignoring them to the same extent anymore, right?

MC: That's exactly right. And that's going to create opportunities. You're going to see one man sanitizer, one woman sanitizer companies just displaying everything. I've had conversations with people at our arena about creating labeling systems because if my mom wants to go to the local park she's going to want to know when the last time that park bench was sanitized, and how many people have been there since then. And, knowing, okay, here's a little label, or whatever it is saying, "Okay, it's only been 30 minutes. Feel free. You're safe." Or, "The count of people who have been here is X." Those are the types of things where giving people comfort that they can venture back out and have some ability to return to normal. I think those types of opportunities are going to be big, but it's going to take some time.

ER: This has been Out of the Crisis. Out of the Crisis is hosted by me, Eric Ries, produced by LTSE's Ben Erlich, and edited by Breaker's Jacob Tender. Music composed and performed by Cody Martin. Out of the Crisis was created in partnership with Breaker, the best platform to create and listen to podcasts. For more information on ways you can help, visit helpwithcovid.com. I have several projects on there. Feel free to message me that way. I'm also Eric Ries on Twitter. If anyone has ideas or is working on a project related to solutions, please do reach out to me. Thanks for listening.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Out of the Crisis #1: Sam Altman on resetting the clock cycle of biotech, investing in a cure and more

In the first episode of Out of the Crisis, I talk with Sam Altman (transcript below). Sam is one of the most prolific company builders in Silicon Valley. He was president of the startup accelerator YCombinator from 2014-2019, and is currently the CEO of OpenAI, which he co-founded. Its work, as he puts it, is "trying to do the science to discover how to make and then build superhuman general intelligence."

Sam is also one of the first people I saw taking action to help fight COVID-19. I was curious to talk to him about what that looks like for him, what he's investing in at the moment, and also how he thinks investors in general can help to support relief and research efforts.

As a self-proclaimed science nerd since childhood--he even wrote a paper about Dr. Anthony Fauci in high school--Sam has a deep-seated belief in the power of science to see us through this difficult time and into a more stable future. His observations on the way the biotech industry has mobilized as a unified, powerful force directed at solving a single problem are inspiring, and they inject some positivity into the world at a bleak moment. He thinks we're on the verge of a paradigm shift in both science and crisis prevention.

He also offers advice for startups, who are facing difficult decisions as we move forward. Work is being affected by COVID-19 as dramatically as everything else, and Sam put forth what he calls his "contrarian view" of how the ways we're adapting now will and will not change the nature of remote work and business travel once we've all settled into our new normal. His appreciation for our healthcare workers and his faith in science are the through-line of our discussion.

You can listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever else you like to download podcasts.


Many of you who read my podcast launch post requested full transcripts as well. You can find my conversation with Sam in that format below.

Here are a few highlights from the show:

  • Sam talks about how and when the virus came onto his radar, which was earlier than it was for many of us, and how he decided to focus on funding groups trying to make a difference. (2:17)
  • Some of the teams and projects Sam has been impressed with and how inspired he's been by the way the biotech industry has pulled together and operated with newfound speed. (6:56)
  • A look at how many biotech companies and non-biotech entrepreneurs have pivoted to work exclusively on COVID-19. (7:35)
  • Sam gives advice for investors looking to help. (11:45)
  • We talk about relief efforts Sam has been involved in, including helping to allocate capital the critical places that might be less obvious. (15:14)
  • The volunteer site helpwithcovid.com and also fundraising tips for those looking for capital. (16:07)
  • We discuss the importance of facilitating people's ability to do work, especially for leaders who have the flexibility to offer employees the chance to help. (18:12)
  • The role of science and our relationship to it, and how that might change. (20:01)
  •  The cycle time of biotech, why it will change going forward, and and why that matters. (21:43)
  • Sam describes his daily setup including social distancing (26:20)
  • Sam outs himself as a long-time Fauci fanboy (28:08)
  • Advice for startups and why Sam believes this is a moment when great startups will emerge and get stronger. They need to reduce volatility, be more bearish on what might happen, and also prioritize their obligations towards their employees, communities and themselves as people. (29:24)
  • We talk about the social and economic impact of all the technology we've all been using to make our lives possible these last weeks. (35:09)
  • Sam tells us what's giving him hope right now: healthcare workers. And how he believes we'll get out of the crisis: faith in science and experts. (37:23)
  • Thoughts on what our takeaway as a society will be from this period, and why the interconnected nature of the world matters. (38:18)
  • Sam's path from science nerd to startup investor to his current role, which he thinks is the most important thing he'll ever do. (40:51)
  • Final thoughts on what we need to do to get out of this crisis and safeguard against the next one. (42:52) 


Show-related links:

  1. YCombinator
  2. OpenAI
  3. helpwithcovid.com
  4. C19 Coalition
  5. Funding for COVID-19 Projects
  6. 1billionmasks
  7. Sam's blog: https://blog.samaltman.com/
  8. Sam on Twitter: @sama
  9. Eric on Twitter: @ericries

Transcript: Out of the Crisis #1, Sam Altman

Eric Ries: Welcome to Out of the Crisis. This is Eric Ries. My hope with this series is to highlight the people and teams who are working to address the COVID-19 crisis in sharing the stories of those that are leading is to inspire others to take action. That really is what is needed now. By now, I mean today, in the coming weeks and months.

Everyone's 2020 plans have been blown to hell. Nobody can make a strategic plan now for next year or the year after. We'll need at least a month to even understand what this business context means. All of us have an obligation to act right now in ways that minimize the damage, that look after the people who are affected, but most importantly, begin to lay that foundation for the future, to make those investments that can only be made in a crisis, to support people, to figure out what went wrong and how to prevent it next time, and to build new capabilities that will allow us to react quickly, whatever the situation is, no matter how uncertain it gets.

I wanted to start with a recent conversation I had with Sam Altman. Sam was one of the first people I saw in the tech world jumping up and taking the leadership position related to COVID-19. Our conversation focuses on what investors can do, but also what all of us can do to help lead in a time like this. Although we're very clear in the conversation that the true heroes of this situation are the frontline medical personnel and the people in all walks of life, ordinary people, who put their lives on the line to keep our society functioning under these extraordinary circumstances, there is, nonetheless, a role for those who are in positions of privilege to play in leading our society out of the crisis.

Here's my conversation with Sam Altman.

Eric Ries: You were one of the first people who when the crisis was breaking, I saw your name all over Silicon Valley, in the Y Combinator forums. Your name was attached to a whole bunch of different things that seem to be related to getting us out of this crisis. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about how did the virus and the pandemic first come onto your radar and what motivated you to want to jump in and try and help?

Sam Altman: I think like a lot of people, I just wanted to help in whatever way I could figure out, what I knew how to do. This is, well, out of my area of expertise. The thing that I thought I could help with was funding startups and research labs, nonprofits, whatever, that were trying to make a difference. Obviously, I think that in a time like this, this is when we should have a government response, but I don't think there's been enough of a government response focused on funding the things that can get us out of this.

I decided I would focus on that. I think I first heard about this in early January. I saw something online and then sort of a few people in my Twitter feed started tweeting about it a lot in sort of middle to late January. This is the kind of thing I worry about. I had been paying a lot of attention. I think that it's been really cool to see, as terrible as this is, one entire industry focus on one problem and the speed with which biotech startups and labs have been moving to figure out how to help with this has been quite inspiring.

I've never seen one industry do this. I've never seen biotech move this fast. Although I think it's going to take a while, I am optimistic that we're going to solve this particular crisis and also that the world is now woken up to the dangers of pandemics again in the modern era and we will have a huge amount of talent and resources go towards this.

ER: Before we get into the things that you've been funding and working on, you said that this is the kind of thing that you pay attention to. Talk about what your level of interest was in this or why it was on your radar before the crisis started?

SA: It's more just like I think that... And I'm not alone in this. I think a lot of people think this, that the risk of a pandemic and the health and economic impacts that would have on the world were just sort of like much higher than people realized. Couldn't guarantee this was going to happen this year, but we knew this would happen eventually. I don't think it was something clearly that the world was very prepared for.

ER: Why do you think people didn't take the warning seriously given that the experts in the field have been talking about this, I mean, for many years now?

SA: I think it was in the category of an important but not urgent problem. It's easy to put those aside. It's really sort of, I think, hard to think about something like this before it actually happens. It doesn't feel that real. I think unfortunately we just have a culture of ignoring a lot of experts.

ER: That is the truth. Was there a single moment for you that you remember where you woke up and said, "Wow, this really is real."

SA: This particular one or pandemic risk in general?

ER: This one in particular.

SA: Yes. I was very afraid early on when it seemed to be spreading quickly in Wuhan and then if you watch the Chinese case numbers, they sort of started to level off a little bit. I thought there was some chance that it would stay contained or that the rest of the world would follow their example and do really great in the stage where you still can contain it.

Then I remember seeing back when they were only maybe like a thousand worldwide cases outside of China, the shape of that graph, and I sort of realized at some point when it just looked like this perfect exponential, that it was beyond what was going to be contained.

ER: What was the first thing that you got involved in, in the response, once you had that moment?

SA: I don't remember the very first company. I generally think there are three ways or experts think, and I agree with them that there are three ways out of this. There's a good enough vaccine to get the virality rate below one. There is a very good treatment, good enough that people sort of aren't afraid and can live their lives. Then there's a great culture of testing and isolation like China did and I haven't heard a really convincing fourth.

I've been recently trying to focus on funding efforts in that category. Earlier on, I was also helping with efforts, trying to produce more ventilators or personal protective equipment. But at this point, I'm focused on things in those three categories and now that testing is really ramping up really more on the therapeutics and the vaccines.

ER: Do you want to walk us through some of the specific teams that have impressed you or that are making progress in those three areas?

SA: I will say, as a general statement, it ranges from labs to new companies, to existing startups and even bigger companies that have totally repurposed what they're doing. One of the coolest things is seeing everyone be willing to work together. People who don't like each other people who...everything. That's been awesome.

ER: Can you tell us some stories without naming the specific companies of people who have made that hard pivot and just dived into this with two feet?

SA: Yes. But the cool thing that I really think is, it would be hard for me to name a reasonably sized biotech startup that's anywhere in the realm of this sort of work that has not sort of changed what they're doing and put everything else on hold just to work on this.

There are companies that were... some that make more sense like companies that were working on antibody therapies for other things. They just put their entire work and plans on hold and said, "We are going to get antibiotics from recovered patients and we're going to figure out. We're going to sequence them, figure out what to do, and we're going to make antibodies for COVID-19."

It's just like the CEO woke up one day six weeks ago, decided to make the entire change and the entire company came in the next day doing something different. There are entrepreneurs who have a background in biotech, but were doing a non biotech thing, who put their web services or whatever company on hold and said, "I know something that could be helpful to people trying to produce a vaccine here. I'm going to make a company to start that."

There have been a lot of examples for that for testing. Then there have been entrepreneurs who sort of don't do anything in the realm of biotech but can somehow help with logistics or distribution or whatever that like, "I am going to ask my friends who do run biotech companies or hospitals or whatever, what they need me to do and then all of our plans are out the window. We're just going to do that."

ER: We've really never seen anything like that in our lifetime in terms of the whole industry, just putting everything on hold and all hands on deck.

SA: I don't think we have. I think it's going to be... I mean, I think there's many ways in which this is going to... not many. I think there's a handful of ways in which this is going to be a before and after moment for the world. But one of them is, I think biotech is going to move with a different clock cycle.

ER: It could be an incredible silver lining. I do think it's also interesting given how... I've talked to a lot of CEOs of companies of pretty much every size you can imagine since it started. It seems like a lot of the larger companies are struggling to respond and react quickly. Yet, it's the startup community that has gone all in on decisive action, even though relatively speaking, the cost for some of these startups, it'll be suspending the whole company or maybe risking the whole company on the solution. What have you noticed in that kind of the startup community's ability to move fast and kind of double down on this?

SA: I want to echo again that in a perfect world, this response would be led by the government, not the private sector.

ER: Of course.

SA: I think this is the kind of thing the government's supposed to be good at. And big companies are supposed to have a hard time turning on a dime. I don't fault them for that. Startups have more flexibility and less to lose so they can do more. I'd love to see big companies do more, but I understand the challenges. The economic impacts here are obviously just massive. A lot of medium sized or larger companies will not survive it. Them prioritizing, trying to keep their employees getting paychecks, I think is understandable and fine.

But the people who can help and are able to help, I think that's been awesome to see. Again, terrible thing to be in the situation we're in, but watching the business world come together and say, "Those of us that can help, what can we do?" That's been cool. A thing I'd love to see more of and that I hope will start to happen is more investors helping out with startups or medium sized companies that need funding and connections.

I think we'll start to see that, but I'd love to see it happen faster. There's incredibly talented people that want to figure out how to help and what they need is capital and connections.

ER: If someone right now is listening and they're in that category, how would you urge them to get started? I think for a lot of people it has been overwhelming to know how to help, how to start, what to do. It's such a big problem. How would you advise them?

SA: For an investor?

ER: Yeah.

SA: If you put out the word to your network, and I've done this myself and seen other people try it as well, that you would like to allocate significant capital, ideally both for profit and nonprofit, but even just for profit, two companies trying to fight COVID, you will be overwhelmed with the response. I got much more of one than I ever imagined and very high quality people that wanted to work on it, new companies or pivots, temporary pivots.

The trick is to be able to evaluate them and most investors will probably need to rely on experts to help them with diligence. But I've also been pleasantly surprised with just how many people are willing to help. Again, this is this moment where everyone wants to pitch in, and we need more capital focused on the problem.

ER: Beyond investors, what type of people are needed to help? If you're not an investor, you're not a health care worker, what can you do?

SA: Well, I think the people who can help most at this point are the scientists. The healthcare system is going to do its thing and I think they're going to make the best of an extraordinary difficult situation. I think when we look back at this, the healthcare system is going to be the equivalent of the first responders on 911. The risk that these people are taking to keep as many people as they can, healthy and alive is incredible. We will remember that with an incredible debt of gratitude for a long time.

But I think the thing where one person can make a difference or a small group of people is a startup that does something in one of those three categories that I mentioned earlier. I think a lot more people can figure out ways to help out than they think. I just saw a friend of mine who's a finance person temporarily pause his job and volunteer to be the CFO or investor, whatever investor relations person for a startup was trying to work on a cure so that the founders could have more time to do the science. I think people are finding all kinds of ways to help out.

ER: Well I echo what you said about the medical first responders, if you will, it's been amazing to see people rally to get PPE for those folks to try to help them and support them in whatever way possible. I don't want this conversation to minimize the just incredible national tragedy of the federal government's lack of leadership here and the fact that we missed the window to do prevention and mitigation.

Therefore, I don't want to sound like, "Oh, we're overly focused on the silver lining." The human and economic toll of this is absolutely devastating. But I've seen that too, the kind of response of individual people of civic society, of people just stepping up and being leaders in whatever way they can to address whatever part of the crisis it's been really inspiring. Do you have-

SA: In my... Okay. It means most people step up in a crisis. They don't disappoint you and that has certainly been true mostly here.

ER: Are you involved in some of those efforts you mentioned earlier about ventilators and equipment?

SA: Yeah. Earlier, I funded maybe three or four efforts trying to make new ventilators for example. I have since been more focused on what I view as this next phase. I think there's now a lot of... I'm sort of a believer and try to allocate capital where it is most needed relative to how much is there. There's not so many really great people focused on helping with the equipment side that I've tried to move on to these other areas.

ER: That makes a lot of sense. Now, we have the problem of lack of coordination of those people who are all bidding against each other on the same gray market in China. If anyone's interested in learning more about that-

SA: Learn more.

ER: Yeah, yeah. Go to ppecoalition.com, you can learn more about the problem there. Let's say somebody has an idea, but they need funding, they need volunteers. What would you advise them to do? How can they get the word out?

SA: A friend of mine named, Radu, made a site called Help With COVID for connecting volunteers to projects. It's been-

ER: That's helpwithcovid.com, right?

SA: HelpwithCovid.com. Then for fundraising, I think we are now at a moment where many investors are considering really jumping in here and fast and be indecisive. I would encourage people to just reach out to the normal crew of Silicon Valley Investors [for]... nonprofit capital or for a research lab. I think a lot of the family offices are not making this a significant priority.

ER: Are you aware of anybody who's trying to coordinate among those different funding sources, make it easier for people to access?

SA: No, but that would be a good thing to do.

ER: Yeah. Someone should post that to Help With COVID.

SA: They should.

ER: I'll just say on Help With COVID, I now have three or four projects listed there, I found that incredibly helpful and have probably placed, I don't know, maybe a hundred volunteers just from a few minutes. It’s just astonishing.

SA: That's been super inspiring to see. In a normal environment, something like that wouldn't work, right? Someone throws together a website, it says, "List a project or volunteer." And people would be like, "Okay, whatever." I think the fact that that works shows how many people really want to figure out how they can help.

ER: That is one of the big surprises for me is how many people who have come, applied for a volunteer position through Help With COVID are like legitimate Silicon Valley people, either I know who they are or they have a big time job. It surprised me that their own companies aren't giving them enough opportunities to be part of the relief effort that they're having to go through Help With COVID.

Do you have advice for people who are leading companies, how they should be engaging their own employees or their company's resources to get people involved in the relief efforts? Of course, they can work on antibodies. That would be a pretty obvious connection, but what about the rest of us?

SA: I think we've seen a handful of companies now tell their engineers that if you want to take paid time off to go work on a software project related to COVID... One particular example that came up recently was a contact tracing software that you could do that, and I thought that was a really cool response. Again, like different companies have different flexibility and so many companies are just trying to stay in business. But for companies that have the flexibility to offer something like that, I think that's a wonderful thing to do.

ER: I've really found it has helped a lot with morale. At LTSE, we're in a relatively strong place and so we haven't had this kind of crisis fundraising and grappling with some of the harder choices that I know a lot of startups are making.

SA: Yeah.

ER: For people who are in a privileged position, it's actually psychologically very difficult to feel like there's this problem and you're not part of the solution and you feel like you should be doing something. I think that's really powerful for companies to think about as a way of investing in their own employees and their skills... so they encourage them to be part of it.

SA:... to be doing anything at all and it feels really good to be helping other people to do anything at all. I had this period back to back once where I was just like reading about this impending disaster and feeling like I couldn't do anything. Then another where I was working 16 hours a day trying to help and hopefully it actually turned out to be helpful. But the difference in my own personal mood when I had something to do versus nothing about this was so different.

ER: I had the totally same experience. It's been nerve wracking and so stressful to be working on the solution. But at least you're doing something, it's so much better than despair. We'll talk a little bit about the role of science and how this might change people's relationship to science in our society. You had said at the beginning that we have kind of a culture of not listening to experts and you certainly have lived through an age now where there's been a diminishment of science in the public eye and kind of reduced institutional credibility of scientific institutions.

Now, all of a sudden, all of us are praying in our homes every day that scientists will make a breakthrough that will allow this nightmare to pass. What do you think the consequences of that are going to be for our society?

SA: I try not to make predictions about long term mass scale human behavior because I usually get them wrong. But I do think there will be at least a short term moment where after a period of a lot of despair, and economic, and health disaster, a huge number of people die in tragedy, by mega tragedy, by any metric. Science, I think at some point in the next year, is going to deliver for us and we will get either a pretty effective vaccine or a very effective treatment for this and that is going to feel like a magic moment.

People will be able to walk the world again and life will be back to some semblance of normal. I mean, I think people will be in fear of another pandemic as they should be, but that will be a moment that will feel like a miracle. I think for some period of time, there should be some return to a belief in and gratitude for science and scientists.

ER: I want to talk a little bit about something you said at the beginning, if you don't mind, where you were saying that this will change the clock cycle, cycle time of biotech?

SA: Yeah.

ER: Just expand on that a little bit and talk about why you think that could potentially be important.

SA: Let's say I'm working with 20 companies that I've, in some cases, known for a while and some are brand new that are working on this. I've got some data points on maybe five companies that I already knew and invested more in to focus on this. I sort of have a sense of how much they used to get done in a month and how much they now get done in a day and they feel within striking distance of each other. I'd say biotech startups now feel like they are moving with the urgency and efficiency of software startups.

I don't think people go back from that. The things that I always say you need for a startup to be successful are a fast cycle time and low costs. Biotech had the capability to have those things but didn't have them in practice and now they do. Once people have tasted that, they won't-

ER: They never go back. I've seen it in so many industries through lean startup in manufacturing, in all kinds of R&D heavy places that once you get that taste of the possibility of going fast, it can be a wellspring of so much startup activity.

SA: Yeah, totally.

ER: It's interesting because you said that they had the capability earlier, but didn't do it. So, just talk a little bit about the mental shift, the mindset change, that this crisis has driven for those folks who have realized something new with the same tools they had before.

SA: Well, I think people just now feel something where they're like, every day that we don't get this done is one day more of this current awful situation. So, let's get as much done every day. It's as humanly possible.

ER: So, tell me a little bit about why you personally have moved from despair to hope about the crisis?

SA: The main reason is just that the scientists working on these things and the early results they've had in the lab or in animal studies. Again, you never know. You try these things in humans sometimes and they don't work. But there are so many things that seem individually really promising, some of which we have similar data like creating antibodies and using that for a treatment to have like a more educated guess.

But the probability of none of them working seems low. Now, none of them will work really fast and unfortunately, this is going to get worse before it gets better. But I do think we're not going to be locked in our homes forever.

ER: Do you want to talk a little bit about just for people who don't know the background of how long these things take and why they take so long? Like, how a vaccine gets made or anything like that?

SA: Yeah. It's easy to blame the FDA and I think they deserve a lot of it for making things take a long time. They do generally keep us safe. If you're going to create a new molecule and inject it into a lot of people or give them pill or whatever, I would say it doesn't need to take as long as it does, but it should be done with caution and that does take some time. If you're going to give people a vaccine, it takes a while to find out how well that works unless you're going to spray virus in their face.
There are some things that can move quickly. One thing that I'm hopeful for but it may not happen is repurposing existing approved drugs or new combinations or reformulations of drugs. That could happen pretty quickly. There were a number of drugs that might help for this that were already not approved, but pretty far along in the process and those could happen quickly. But what won't be the case in sort of the 10 years that people say it takes to get a new vaccine into humans. It's going to be much faster than that this time.

ER: Tell us one good thing that's happened to you this past week.

SA: I mean, a lot, right? I'm here, I'm not sick. I'm able to help. I'm cooped up, but with people that I love and I have no complaints. I feel terrible for what's happening to the world, trying to do my part to help them to be a good citizen, but I have no serious problems. Everything has been good.

ER: Can you just say a little bit about your personal social distancing setup and especially think about folks maybe that aren't totally on board with 100% social distancing or think it's an overreaction. Just say a little bit about what that's been like for you personally.

SA: I'm thankfully in lockdown with people I really like, but it's definitely hard not to see friends and not to go outside, even like basic stuff. You forget how nice it is to just walk through a grocery store or around the block or whatever. But I think there was this photo on Twitter that I really loved of healthcare workers saying, "Please stay home for our sakes." I think anything we can do, if we don't need to be out doing things to help if people can stay home and take social distancing really seriously even though it sucks. Zoom dinner parties are not the same thing as real dinner parties, not even close.

The day we get those back, we're going to appreciate them so much more. I think everyone who takes it really seriously slows the spread a lot and it's worth doing.

ER: I read somewhere that one infection prevented today saves 2,600 infections over the next three months.

SA: Wow. That seems surprising to me, but that is amazing.

ER: I mean, it's exponential. It's so wild and we have bad intuition for that.

SA: That is true.

ER: Hold on, let me just think for a second. Who else has impressed you with their leadership during this time? Who are the people you would say that that's a leader who has stepped up or who has kind of taken the right or bold action maybe when they didn't have to or it wasn't obviously the right thing to do?

SA: Can I pick Fauci? I mean, I know that's like a-

ER: Yeah. No, please. Whoever's on your mind, whoever you're-

SA: Yeah. I mean, I've already been a fan boy of his for a long time. I wrote a paper about him in high school.

ER: Really? Wait, hold on. Well, go back. Go back. Tell us about that.

SA: I don't remember how this first came about, but I had taken some interest in infectious disease in high school and my dad told me about him and I studied him for a term paper.

ER: What was the paper about?

SA: Just like infectious disease and him and sort of history of stuff in the past.

ER: That's so cool. What's it like seeing him on TV every day, all of a sudden?

SA: I think he's great. I think he is such a calming expert presence.

ER: Who else would you give kudos to? Anyone in the startup community, any other investors or CEOs who've impressed you?

SA: Again, there are many people in the community have done a great job. I think none of us deserve nearly as much credit as any healthcare worker that's still going to work every day.

ER: Do you mind talking a little bit about your conversations with startups in your portfolio, people who have reached out to you for advice about how to handle a crisis like this?

SA: Sure. Yeah. So a lot of startups have been reaching out for advice, not about how they can help with the epidemic, but how they can survive and not have to lay off their employees. I think, first of all, a downturn can be an amazing moment for startups. The only thing that is really cheap in a bubble is capital. All the other things that matter, aggregating talent, getting people to care, all of that stuff that's hard in a boom and easier now.

I think this is a moment from which great startups will emerge or strengthen. However, surviving it is important. Although I think startups are thoughtful about their expenses and how they can reign those in, there's another input in the burn calculation, which is revenue. The startups that have sent me their models so far for feedback do a good job on the expenses, but they do not get nearly bearish enough on what can happen to revenue.

ER: I've seen the same thing.

SA: People say, "Oh, I'm a SaaS company. My customers never go away. They never stop paying." Meanwhile, then I have a call with another company who is like, "Oh, I'm thinking about stopping paying. This company told me they'd never stopped paying. What do you think about that when I'm reducing my own expenses?" I think the important thing to really be severe about is modeling a decline in revenue as you're redoing your FP&A to survive this.

ER: What kind of advice have you given them about their personal obligations as leaders taking care of themselves, taking care of their teams, how to treat people with respect in very intense times? Oh, about those kinds of conversations that you've had?

SA: Yeah, that's probably what most of the conversations are about. I have this sort of general theory that when a founder calls asking for vague help, what they're really calling for is like a friend or a therapist. A lot of it is about that, which is just the overwhelming responsibility that founders feel right now. Also, just the intense uncertainty.

Not a lot of founders I know right now are sleeping great through the night.

ER: No.

SA: People are going to have to face some very tough decisions. I'd say most founders still don't realize how tough those decisions might get. I think there's still a little bit of delusion or access of hope or whatever you want to call it and we might overpay. But I think this is a moment to plan for the worst and hope for the best for startups that have relatively short runways, especially if revenue declines.

ER: I've been urging the startups that I talked to budget on a net burn basis, so that more spending is gated behind net burn targets. Therefore, if revenue declines, you automatically cut back or don't hire or do whatever you need to do. Do you have a favorite tactical tip in that category?

SA: I don't have good schematics. I don't have good rules for this. This doesn't scale, but for the startups that I'm really close to, I just try to look at their model and tell them where I think it's wrong. But I don't have good rules. Yours sound like a good one. [inaudible 00:33:00] don't do that systematically.

I think a lot of VCs aren't helping by telling founders, "Oh, yeah, we're going to keep investing at the same pace as normal." They might even believe it and they might do that-

ER: Tell me about it.

SA: ... like science may deliver us a miracle here, but even if we got the vaccine in a month, which I don't think we will, we haven't run this experiment before of what happens when you freeze the economy and then start to-

ER: Try to restart it.

SA: And maybe that works. I sure hope it does. You cannot stimulate yourself out of a world where business entirely stops for very long. I don't know how this is going to go. I think it's always a little frustrating when you give advice to people, which is just... I don't know what's going to happen here, but it's the only true thing anyone can say. In times of great uncertainty, I think you should do what you can to reduce volatility.

ER: One of the reasons that these kinds of crises become macroeconomic depressions is that my spending is your revenue and vice versa.

SA: Right.

ER: So, everyone who's giving advice about cutting back... I've seen so many posts on the YC forums and elsewhere about how to renegotiate all your contracts with all your vendors, how to stop payment, how to get discounts. It's those same people who are saying and also make sure that you try to find new sources of revenue and checking with our customers and see if there are ways that you can serve them better. A lot of times, just the same companies that are going to be renegotiating with each other and struggling.

SA: This is worse for startups who mostly sell to other startups. This was the point that I was less eloquently making earlier, which is, if your assumption is you're going to cut back on spend but your revenue is not going to cut back and everybody else is assuming the same thing, something doesn't add up.

ER: It's going to be super painful. Let me do one more economics question then I want to close-

SA: Sure.

ER:... with some virus-led stuff. Is that all right?

SA: Great.

ER: One of the things I've been really thinking about, it's just struck me is the differences between now and 1918. I mean, there are so many. Of course, the world was at war at that time. The technology has advanced so much. We have so much better scientific understanding. But in terms of the economic consequences, one of the differences is think how much of our life has been able to kind of keep going thanks to technologies like Zoom. What do you think is going to be the impact economically and socially of... will it change people's relationship to technology or how they see the role of technology, if that winds up being one of the reasons why the economic damage was to some extent blunted?

SA: Well, I think most people actually like most technology and that you get a skewed opinion if you mostly listen to what the media thinks about technology. I think people already like the fact that they can do a video conference instead of driving somewhere for a meeting. I think that will only be more cherished now.

My contrarian view is that this whole thing is actually going to be a net negative for remote work and not a net positive. I think remote work is great for some people at some jobs some of the time. I think people are going to realize there's a whole set of things that are very hard to do remotely. Although everyone thinks remote work is now like just the whole world is going to shift, my contrarian view would be it goes to some of the other way.

ER: Yeah. I've wondered about how many conferences and how many meetings where people realize, "Gosh, we canceled that and it didn't matter." That I think will be true.

SA: I think there will be less business travel as a new default and that's not going to go away. I think people will realize like, "Is it really worth flying halfway around the world for one meeting and then flying back given the time and the cost and the carbon footprint and the jet lag and everything." Or, "Is that something I can do via Zoom?" That I don't expect to change. I think travel patterns will just be different for business. But in terms of people, like companies going fully remote, I expect a reaction in the other direction.

ER: Who is leading us out of this crisis?

SA: The health care workers keeping things going at all and the scientists working on tests, vaccines, and treatments, and the logistics people that will make everything in between happen.

ER: What gives you hope that we will get out of this crisis?

SA: Deep seated belief in science and that we have figured out how to vaccinate effectively against or treat many other viruses. I don't expect this one to be the one that we can't. The data that I've seen from companies or labs working on vaccines and treatments so far. Again, you never know and it's not going to be quick, but something in there should work.

ER: What do you hope we as a society will take away from this crisis and do differently in the future?

SA: We talked earlier about a belief in experts. Some of the time, obviously, sometimes experts are wrong. I believe in science a lot of the time, a reminder that when the whole world focuses on one problem, no matter how bad it is, we can take it out pretty quickly. One thing that a lot of people have said, but I certainly myself feel is how much the whole world is like in things together and how some of us do or don't do something that affects all of us, and how interdependent all of these systems are. It's a terrible moment, but I sort of believe that sometimes you come out of terrible moments stronger and I hope we have a pretty big resurgence after we get through this.

ER: What's the expression--from your lips to God's ears?

SA: I think that's it.

ER: Yeah. What are you excited about in the next couple of weeks?

SA: Helping to kick off a handful of clinical trials.

ER: Any trials or experiments that you're waiting with baited breath to see the results that you have a special affinity for hoping that they'll work?

SA: I'm not sure if I can say yet. I will say I think I've been watching some of the antibody stuff that is being widely reported already with a lot of excitement.

ER: You've mentioned a few times your kind of deep abiding belief in science as an engine of progress and a way to get out of the crisis. Where did that come from you personally?

SA: I mean, I was like a science nerd growing up and the thing that I did in my spare time as a kid was read about science or the history of science or discovery or whatever. I don't invest that much in startups anymore, but the startups that I still do get excited about are sort of the big iron science projects.

I think being on the frontier of discovery is the most exciting thing in the world. I think it is truly remarkable what people can do and figure out and understand about the world. I think people should just be much more amazed all the time than they are.

ER: In the startup world, there are hardly anybody who doesn't know who you are, know your story already. But for those who are coming maybe from outside the startup world, just tell us a little bit about your path from a science nerd to a startup investor and to what you're doing now.

SA: Sure. I went to college, I studied a bunch of science and a lot of CS and I dropped out and started a company. I ran that for a while, became an investor, took over YCombinator and then while at YCombinator, got interested in science startups, helped start a handful of them, one of which is OpenAI, which is trying to do the science to discover how to make and then build superhuman general intelligence. That I believe will be the most important project I ever worked on by far and now I run that. But I'm taking a short refocus on startups to see if I can help fund startups working on COVID.

ER: I just wanted to personally say thank you for your leadership in this area and for the resources, and time, and energy you've put into defining solutions. Like I said, I wanted to interview you first because your name has popped up just absolutely everywhere as I've done my own relief work and just-

SA: That doesn't mean I'm doing a good job. That just means I'm just praying and praying. But thank you.

ER: Well, at least you're doing something.

SA: I'm writing a lot of checks. That part's true.

ER: Yeah. That part. I mean, I know a lot of people who could be doing that and too are doing a lot of talking or a lot of thinking about how to help. I worry that by the time they actually get around to taking any action, they'll miss their opportunity to truly make a difference.

SA: Honestly, it's kind of like this normal. I am normally this like pretty disciplined, thoughtful investor and this cowboy approach of like, "You know what? If I lose a bunch and do one thing that's helpful, it's worth it. So, I'm just going to come out swinging. It's been pretty fun.
ER: Yeah. Here's to silver linings. Let me ask you one last question, which is, where do you think we go from here? What we need to do to see the real impact that is needed to get us out of here? How can we get out of this crisis?

SA: We are going to get out of this specific one. Again, it will take longer than anyone will like. The economic and human damage will be extraordinary and terrifying, but we will get out of it. Where we need to go from here is to invest now so that this doesn't happen again. I don't yet know for sure what that looks like, but I do know that clearly, the private sector economics and incentives have not worked well enough for us to already develop rapid response antivirals, whatever you want.

ER: Yeah.

SA: We need to try something new. I think that means some version of aggressive government funding to make sure this doesn't happen again. I sure hope and expect will have the will to do that now.

ER: This has been Out of the Crisis. Out of the Crisis is hosted by me, Eric Ries, produced by LTSE's, Ben Ehrlich, and edited by Breaker's, Jacob Tender, music composed and performed by Cody Martin. Out of the Crisis was created in partnership with Breaker, the best platform to create and listen to podcasts.

For more information on ways you can help, visit helpwithcovid.com. I have several projects on there and feel free to message me that way. I'm also Eric Ries on Twitter, and if anyone has ideas or is working on a project related to solutions, please do reach out to me. Thanks for listening.

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