Neil Patel

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Alfonso De La Nuez’s passion and desire to build something has elevated him to a CEO of a multi-million dollar company. His business has touched large tech firms such as PayPal, and he has kept on innovating on his dream for over two decades. UserZoom has raised funding from top-tier investors like Enjoy HQ, Validately, WhatUsersDo, and YouEye.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How passion can help you start a multimillion-dollar firm
  • The value of perseverance amidst criticism
  • How to come up with new ideas to solve problems
  • Coping with company growth from a small business to over 300 employees
  • His top advice on how research helps in building a startup

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    About Alfonso De La Nuez:

    Alfonso has over 17 years of experience in the Digital Marketing industry, including ecommerce, Web Design and Development, Web Project Management, User-Centered Design, Usability Testing, and User Experience Research. He has worked for leading brands such as Dell Computers and Icon Medialab. After 5 years of hands-on experience in the digital marketing industry, he co-founded a UX Consultancy (Xperience Consulting) and in parallel, a UX SaaS business (UserZoom). Alfonso is passionate about his family, first of all, then about startups and Entrepreneurship, Sales and Marketing Strategy, UX and beautifully designed products, the sport of Basketball, and Formula 1.

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    Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:

    Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. I’m thrilled about the guest that we have today; thrilled because he’s another Spaniard here in the U.S., and his story is amazing and remarkable and super inspiring. Coming from a foreign country is not easy. Especially coming from Spain, it is a different culture, a different way of seeing things, a different way of asking for help too, and a different way in which you raise money, so adjusting to what’s going on in this market is not easy, and this founder has done it, has built and scaled his company. He’s on his way to potentially doing an IPO very soon, and I think that we’re going to learn a thing or two about perseverance, going at it, and not giving up regardless of the circumstances in front of you. So without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Alfonso De La Nuez, welcome to the show.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: Thank you so much, Alejandro. I’m happy to be here. It’s hard to build a startup; it’s harder to do it internationally; and it’s even harder to do it bootstrapping, so yeah, it’s been a long, tough ride.

    Alejandro: 100%, and we’ll talk about the bootstrapping because I’m sure that many of our listeners are going to enjoy how you did it. But first, let’s do a bit of a walk through memory lane. You were born and raised in Madrid, so how was life growing up in Madrid?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: Yeah, a small correction. I actually was raised in Madrid but was born in Milan. My parents lived in Mila, Italy, for 14 years, so it was a coincidence. But, yeah. I consider myself from Madrid. I was raised there, and I love the city. It was great. I had a great experience. I think Madrid is a fun city. I played a lot of basketball and a lot of sports when I was a kid. I just never thought that I would end up living half of my life in California. But I love Madrid, and I go visit four times a year.

    Alejandro: Obviously, playing basketball is what helped you to land in the U.S., so what was that journey like?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: My parents approached me, I think, when I was 15 or 16. “You need to grow up a little bit. You need to mature. You need to leave us alone for a little bit, and you should learn English. So we’re going to send you for one year through the Foreign Exchange Student Program to the U.S. Come back, and hopefully, you will be a nicer guy.” With that, they found me a place in California. I was scared to death. I couldn’t speak English. So leaving my friends and my family was pretty scary. But the condition for me was if you can find me a high school that has a basketball program because I really wanted to continue playing. I played well for Madrid minor league teams when I was 15. They found me a really good program with a high school coach, who is to this day like my uncle. His name is Coach Shaeffer. He helped me go through that experience. I liked him so much that I ended up coming back for my senior year in high school. Then that led to a full scholarship at San Jose State, where I played basketball for four years and studied business administration.

    Alejandro: When you come here, and you study here, and it happened to me, it’s like you’re already exposed to the incredible culture that is the U.S., and also, their drive toward business, like the American Dream. In your case, you also studied business in college, so why go back to Spain?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: I had my family and my friends there. I ask myself that question a lot because I actually graduated in 1996, and you remember. That’s when Yahoo and Amazon and all these brands on the internet dot-com bubble, that’s when all these companies took off, and it was an amazing time. I went to college in the heart of Silicon Valley. I bought the Netscape Navigator. I don’t know if you remember. They had the boxes at the electronic store, and it was 1993, I think it was. So everybody here was into the internet in some way or another. But family and friends—you know how we are in Spain. You’re drawn to going back to your family and your friends, and I just never thought that I would end up working in technology or the internet would become so big. So I just wanted to go back and enjoy my home country.

    Alejandro: Tell us about being there because it was not the tech environment that you were experiencing here, in the Valley, in the ‘90s. You still experienced working for Dell and other companies that were a little bit more U.S. or with the American type of approach. At one point, you decide that it makes sense to pack things and come back here. But before doing that, you actually started your first company. Working at Dell and all of that gave you the mindset and the approach. That was in 2001 when you met your co-founders, and something sparked, and that first company came to life. So tell us about that journey, how it got incubated, and how it started.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: As soon as I left the Valley and went back to Spain, I started working in technology, Dell Computers, Icon MediaLab, which was Pioneer Consulting Company, to design and develop websites. Those were the first websites of Spanish corporations back in the late ‘90s. To your point about why starting the first company in 2001, what I noticed is that all of these companies were building websites and investing a lot of money in time. It was like a fever. Everybody wanted to have a website, but nobody really cared about the end-user, the human behind the website that was going to use the website for very specific things, always with a task or an objective and just wants to go in and get out. Nobody was paying attention to that, so I started researching. I got very frustrated. As a project manager, I got very frustrated on how bad and how poor the website’s useability was, and the user experience was just terrible. I started researching and got together with my two co-founders in 2001 to provide a service of testing websites. It was called Usability Testing. Obviously, it’s still done today, but back then, it was very special, innovative, and different, especially in Spain. We were kind of crazy and young, and we didn’t really know anything about starting a business, but we were very passionate about this. I think that drive helped us be fairly successful with that consulting model, helping companies and mostly the enterprises in Spain, the same guys that I was working for in the consulting business before, in the consultancy before our startup, and we were telling them, “Look, your designing, developing, and spending all this time and this effort, but what if you could test it before you launch it and compare. See if it’s actually meeting the needs, the desires, the experiences, and the expectations of your users. With that value proposition, we went to market. It was called Xperience Consulting. It was our first experience as entrepreneurs. We were able to grow it to about 40 people in Madrid and Barcelona. It was fun, and we made a living out of it, which is pretty successful because most startups fail. That’s how we got going as entrepreneurs in 2001.

    Alejandro: I’m sure it was not easy because in Spain, this culture that we have there is when you’re finished with university, you need to become a lawyer or a banker or a consultant. Back then, especially in 2001, starting your own company was not as sexy as it is today. Right now, everyone wants to jump into the train of building a startup, but back then, it was really not like that. How was that for you, too, for choosing a different route?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: I will never forget. I have two older brothers, and the one that has been very successful as a CEO for a long time now told me, “Are you a nutcase, another crazy dude that’s going to launch another dot-com? He literally said that at a family dinner when I told them the news that I was leaving my nice high-paying consulting job for launching our startup. But, on the other side, I had my parents that were very supportive. They said, “We think this is going to be very good for you. We’ll support you.” Basically, they said, “You know, we’ll give you some money for the first six months, and then you’re on your own.” So I think I just had it in me, and my co-founding partner is the same. What happened to me back then, I was always challenging my boss, and I was always challenging the customer. I was just a pain in the butt; I’ll be honest. It was like, “We could do better. We could do this, or we could do that.” Everybody was just slowing me down. I felt that was very frustrating for me. I think many, if not all of the entrepreneurs that listen to this broadcast can identify with this. It was just that drive that got me going. I could have had three brothers to tell me that I was crazy; I was still going to do it.

    Alejandro: Yeah, I hear you. Obviously, for you guys, once you got started with this, and as you were saying, you built it to 40 people, there was a key moment where one thing led to the next, and it ended up becoming more like a SaaS type of operation what you guys were embarking on. How did that happen?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: As we scaled, and scaling, obviously, 40 people are not that much, but as we grew, we were running tests every day in a physical lab. We ended up building three to four physical labs in Madrid and another three in Barcelona. Sometimes, we had to rent space. As we were growing, we would spend the day at the lab. We were interviewing people and testing. The way you do usability testing is you have a computer, and you have a user that you invite, somebody that fits the target profile of our customer. Then in the observation room, we tend to ask the customer to come and observe to see what the reaction is from the users. It was a fun type of service and very valuable, by the way. However, it was extremely costly, time-consuming, just burning. We could have hired, but then we would not be profitable. So we would do this ourselves as much as we could. I think that after a few years and all these tests, we were just tired, and we felt like the software, and the internet should be able to handle a large portion of the whole process here, whether it was to create the study, whether it was to collect the data, and the videos; whether it was to transcript the conversation with the user. A lot of those things, if you look at today, it doesn’t make any sense to do it this way. That’s what drove or motivated us to start building an MVP. It was an internal product originally, something that we were going to offer consulting using our own product so we could reduce the hours. But we’re talking about 2007, so back then, the term SaaS was very new. Initially, what happened was actually this: we were delivering the service with our product, and then we decided to spend money on a conference, one of these tradeshows, to come in and see if we could actually sell this product to American companies. It turned out that they liked it; they liked the idea of doing remote testing because that’s what we would do with the software. We would do it remotely. It enabled international testing. It enabled faster testing. The concept of Agile started to happen later down the road. The point is that some customers here felt that it was a good idea, so we ended up closing a couple of deals with eBay. Then the guy moved to Google, and all of a sudden, we find ourselves with a few customers. These were, again, services. We were providing the service. Then, at one point, I think it was 2008 or 2009, we had both companies at the same time. We had UserZoom, and we had the Xperience Consulting, the consulting business with the labs. At some point, right there, Google said, “You guys are great. You do great research. You provide great service, but we would love to have the keys to the car and drive it ourselves, meaning, give me a login and password, put it all in the cloud, and provide us a Software as a Service model. We were like, “Bingo. How much is that going to cost, and how much time is it going to take?” We didn’t know anything about SaaS. I think that was an amazing period of time. First, it was incredibly difficult. I ended up moving here to provide the service and to continue selling the SaaS model to the American companies here in the Valley, where the founders and the R&D teams stayed in Barcelona. That was really difficult—very, very difficult back then as it is today.

    Alejandro: Yeah.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: Ultimately, we decided that we had to focus on one business only. We kept them all overlapping for about two to three years. That was also very difficult to do. Then we bootstrapped a little bit. We raised a little bit of money with the condition that I move permanently, or at least for a while, to the U.S. to roll out the business. That was 2008, 2009. And here we are today.

    Alejandro: Wow! What a journey. Just so the people that are listening get it, what ended up being the business model of UserZoom? How do you guys make money?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: It’s a 100% annual subscription. The subscription includes three things: 1) access to the software so that you can build your studies. 2) Launch it; launch them to the target audience—finding the target audience. 3) You can capture all this data and insights by yourself or run the analysis yourself, or you can hire us to help you with the analysis. All of that is part of a yearly subscription. We work mostly with mid-to-large enterprises, and we dropped the consulting model completely.

    Alejandro: Building up the business, you guys were pretty much bootstrapping all the way to $12 million in revenue, which is remarkable. What do you think drove that decision of just keep going and bootstrapping it? Bootstrapping the problem, too, is that any mistake that you make could be lethal.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: Yes.

    Alejandro: I’m sure that you had near-death experiences too.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: I think it was a combination of things. We did have many near-death experiences. It’s fun to say it now, but back then, you have a lot of cuts. I still have the scars all over the place. I think it’s a combination of things. One is, even though we didn’t have a lot of experience, the experience we did have, the three co-founders, was actually precisely on the market. It wasn’t an MVP to try to solve a problem that we thought was out there. We knew the problem was there. One way to do that is to have a consulting business during a period of time that gives you this experience, this domain expertise, and helps you understand that there are gaps in the markets. I always say to other entrepreneurs that if you go into business and if you launch your own startup, you can start doing some consulting work that can help you 1) understand the market and 2) finance the SaaS model that the launch of the first MVP. That’s what we did. Again, we didn’t have a lot of experience as entrepreneurs, but we did have the domain experience. The other thing we did, and I take some credit for that, is moving to the U.S. because, frankly, we could never have scaled it without the U.S. market, and we could never have scaled it without having me in the market. We could have hired a country manager. Obviously, I could have gone back to Spain, but it wouldn’t have been the same. I give myself a little credit for that. 3) My co-founding partner, who is the CTO of the company, built a product that worked and that took care of business, and delivered on what the customer was asking us to do. I remember one of the first licenses that we sold was to PayPal. I think it was halfway through the year, we sat down with them, and it’s like, “How are we doing? We would like you guys to renew. What do we have to do for you guys to renew?” They said, “Yeah, let us think about it, and we’ll send you some comments and feedback. We were doing that with pretty much every single customer because that was our market research and our modus operandi. We would be delivering features and optimizing the software based on what the customer was telling us. They sent us a list of 80 requests—80. I remember thinking, “How are we going to take care of this?” Back to my point about my co-founding partner getting the R&D together and delivering; we delivered 79 of the 80 on the list, and they ended up renewing because we were building a good product that was delivering value. Those were the three things that allowed us to bootstrap and be successful.

    Alejandro: At what point do you realize that it makes sense to raise money. The approach that you took for raising money is not the typical one that you would say that a startup has, which is angel, VC, and then maybe growth VC, and then P/E, and then IPO or probably your exit. You went straight for the P/E.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: The bootstrap was a family office in Barcelona and a few of the family and friends. Then we also got some government grants in a bank loan. So a mix of all of that, about $1.5 million to $2 million to go all the way to $12 million and to do it here in the Valley. That’s key because it’s not the same. The cost of living here is, as you know, really, really high. If I went back and I could change a few things about how we did it, I would have raised maybe another round of $2-$3 million, maybe around 2011, 2012 as we started seeing some traction. That’s what I would do, and I would recommend to others. We didn’t because we didn’t think it was a big market, so the VCs here are always looking for larger market opportunities, and we kept saying, “We don’t think this is going to be a big market. We’ll be very happy to be a $10 million to $15 million company. That’s why we didn’t raise, and since we didn’t have any money, we just operated and worked with whatever the bank accounts would allow us to do from a hiring perspective, marketing, and all of that stuff. Then, yes, in 2014, we were wrong. The market started picking up. It actually became a big market. User experience became a thing and having a great design, and all of those things started becoming almost like a must-have versus a nice-to-have. Then, our competitor—I have no problem mentioning it. We all know each other very well. The competitor is called User Testing, and they raised a bunch of money back in 2014. So it’s because the VCs were paying attention to the market. I had been saying no to all of these VCs, and they didn’t. I think it was market validation for us. I went back to the board in Barcelona and said, “Guys, I think it’s time to do it because 1) We’re going to be left behind. We’re going to fall behind in the race. 2) The market opportunity is big. 3) I think by telling a good story here with our numbers, I can probably get some nice offers that will be a win/win for everybody. Sunstone came in with a proposal initially for a minority investment, but it was going to fundamentally change the business. As you can understand, Alejandro, it changes everything when you have an investor here, who wants to have a board here, and all those sorts of things. We back to them and said, “We don’t think this is going to be a fit, and we’d like to continue on. They came back and said, “We’ll be happy to provide liquidity for you guys and for the investors. You guys can continue on and build a great company here.” They made a new offer, a $34 million check that allowed us to do that, and it was a good win/win for everybody, the initial investors, the family office, and business angels. The co-founders who had gone through all of this for many years, and then to do what we’re doing today, which is about six years later; the business now is worth 10x. So that’s what happened.

    Alejandro: That’s amazing. This is not the typical, so it’s a partial exit, as they would say, but you’re still around. You get the liquidity and some chips on the table. A few things here. How do you think the dynamics have changed? Probably, for you guys, the risk is different because now you’ve taken some chips off the table. It’s not like: your life is a do-or-die kind of thing. It’s a little bit different. You have more oxygen on a personal level. Then, also, the other thing is when you have a situation like this, the board changes, the dynamics probably changed a little bit, so walk us through some of that transition that happened for you guys.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: The first thing I’d like to say is that, “You know what? Even if you do get some liquidity, and you live more comfortably, I’ll tell you. In a matter of a month or two, you still have the same hunger.” At least that’s how I am; I’m very competitive. I wanted to play in the NBA. I didn’t make it to the NBA, and for me to go public or get a large exit would be kind of like going to the NBA. I was very driven to keep going. Besides that anecdote, things changed dramatically, and I think it changes mostly for the better. The first thing we do is start hiring. You go from being an entrepreneur, a leader of a startup. I don’t know if I should call that a CEO. I think once you get to a point where you’re $30 million to $50 million, 300 people, and more, I think that’s when you start to become a CEO. I always say: I had to learn to be an entrepreneur, and the three of us had to, but then once you go through this, you have to learn to be a CEO, and it’s a completely different role. The first one was to hire. You’ve got to hire the all-star team that surrounds you, and you’ve got to change your philosophy immediately. You’ve got to say, “You’re going to hire people that are better than you, and they’re going to handle things for you, and you have to get out of the way because otherwise, it’s not going to work.” That was not easy. That transition was not easy because as an entrepreneur, especially if you’ve done well, you have that ego, and you have this desire to do it yourself. It’s not easy to be able to just let go of that baby, so to speak. That was a huge thing and both that stayed. One of them left and ended up going his own way to do his own business. But the two of us that stayed, we’ve taken a step back and watched. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s worked out for the better. The fact is that when you’re here in the Valley, especially in the Valley, you have so much talent of people who have done what you’re doing. Maybe they haven’t started a business from Madrid, Barcelona, or whatever, but they certainly scale the business. It’s interesting to see how the talent that you hire knows so much more of how to go from 30 to 50 to 50 to 200, which I haven’t done. That mindset was a huge change. While it’s not easy, a phenomenal event. Just to be able to focus on very specific things, vision, mission, culture, values, talk to customers, talk to employees, talk to partners, talk to analysts and investors. That’s what I do.

    Alejandro: There’s also another transaction that you guys did because you guys recently raised $100 million. Is that right?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: Yes. Well, it was actually in October of last year.

    Alejandro: Okay. That puts us at about $130, almost $140 million.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: I didn’t mention there were a couple of extensions that we chose to do with the same investor to acquire a couple of companies. So we’re almost $150 in total.

    Alejandro: Obviously, COVID has changed everything for you guys. Probably, it accelerated the vision by a few years.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: Yeah.

    Alejandro: How did that ramp up, and that unexpected growth for the company?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: We were already catching this wave of the importance of user experience, design, customer experience, and collecting insights. That was a revolution that started, I want to say, probably five years ago, and that’s why we got funding and all of that. So we were riding that wave. The remote wave is what’s happened with the pandemic. As I mentioned earlier, we went from a lab to doing remote testing, doing remote research. The fact that more companies were going digital helped us to grow at a pretty good rate, but then once the pandemic hit, there was no other way. There were two things that happened. One is, there’s no other way but to do the research that you’re doing through some sort of online tool. So it’s all remote testing. We got quite a bit of people that were hesitant a little bit in the past. They came in new, and they heard about us, and they heard how convenient it is, and how cost-effective it is, and how fast it is, and all those things, so a great marketing awareness campaign. The second thing that happened is that our own customers, other customers that were not customers, like IKEA, for instance, last year, signing over a $1 million deal with us because they’re going digital. So the digital transformation has accelerated. That’s what Satya Nadella from Microsoft. He was saying that the digital transformation and the digitalization of customers of companies in the enterprise have accelerated three years and about three months because of what happened through last year. So you put those two things together, and we’ve increased our growth from 35%, 37% to 50%.

    Alejandro: Wow.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: Obviously, it’s harder to grow once you get bigger. So we’re experiencing fast growth.

    Alejandro: As you’re thinking about user experience and events that trigger that growth, what about Google now rolling out the Core Web Vitals. Is that something that you think people are going to be more conscious about the user experience of this stuff that they’re creating, and do you think that’s going to impact you guys positively?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: Google has always been a company that bets on user experience. In fact, there are some articles in literature out there around how good user experience also helps SEO, Search Engine Optimization. Google has always been about or for better user experience. By the way, they’re one of our best customers as well. I think what’s happening beyond Google, honestly, is that customers have a completely different expectation, users, and customers—users before they’re customers, and sometimes, users are not even customers. They may be users of, let’s say, employee or HR tools online or whatever. That’s really what’s driving this. Alejandro, in my opinion, this was coming, and I saw it coming a long time ago with our vision, but now if the only way you’re going to interact with a brand is through some sort of glass—we call it glass, or the desktop, or the laptop, or the phone, or the iPad, or the car, or refrigerator, and so many others. Then that experience, that product experience, the design of that front end, and how it works has become strategic. It’s so important. You can no longer afford to be a retailer that doesn’t provide a great experience because what you’re going to do is your going to open a new tab—first of all if you have a bad experience, there are all sorts of studies out there from analysts like Gartner, Forrester, and Mackenzie, etc. demonstrating that if you have a bad experience, the chances of you coming back are very low. And if you do have a good experience, the chances of you coming back, even if the brand is not that famous or popular, you’re actually going to drive growth. That’s why I always say the great user experience design is one of the best growth strategies for modern companies. It’s something I call product-led growth. You lead, and you grow with the product experience rather than with sales. I’m not suggesting that it’s the only way, but it’s great. That’s what’s driving the growth for us and for the market is that user experience is becoming part of your strategy.

    Alejandro: Yeah, 100%. Let’s talk about vision because it’s a long time coming, Alfonso. I mean, come on. This started to originate back in 2001, and here we are in 2021, so imagine you go to sleep tonight, and you wake up in a world five years later where the vision of UserZoom is fully realized. What does that world look like?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: I always say every company is a digital experience company. That’s the vision we have in order to be a great digital experience company, not just a digital company, not just a company that’s in the software business, not just a company that is investing in back-end infrastructure or software. Being a digital experience company actually starts with culture; it starts with leadership, saying that this is a new way of interacting and dealing with customers. The only way we can be successful digital experience companies is by being always very close to those guys, very close to the market, doing a lot of research, a lot of interviewing, the same thing you would do with your employees. You have to treat employees differently in the era we live in today. Our vision is that every company is or will be a digital experience company running research and testing and constantly in touch with the end-user as part of the product development lifecycle, as part of their modus operandi. That’s our vision. I think that is happening already with a lot of enterprises where they use companies like us and products like ours every week. They don’t design or develop something and launch it and hope it will stick to the wall. No, they do a lot of research and a lot of testing throughout that process, and then afterward, as well. That’s our vision, and I think that when that actually happens at a large enough size, I really believe this can be a multi-billion-dollar company one day within the next few years. And who knows what will happen. It will be interesting to go public or maybe partner with a larger company. Who knows, but we’re definitely working today as if we’re going to go public soon.

    Alejandro: Nice. If I put you into a time machine, and I bring you back in time, 20 years before the time we’re in right now, and you have the opportunity of having a chat with your younger self, with that younger Alfonso that is thinking about branching out of the corporate world and starting something of your own. Let’s supposed that younger Alfonso was willing to listen. [Laughter] What would be one piece of advice that you would give to your younger self before launching a company and why, given what you know now?

    Alfonso De La Nuez: You know, the one thing that I remember regretting is not doing enough research on the market. I know that I’ve talked about user-experience research. In this case, I’m talking more about researching the market and understanding your buying persona. I think we went through a lot of issues and a lot of unnecessary situations because we didn’t study the potential of the market. We did go through it with our consulting model, but I think I would encourage young entrepreneurs, especially, that have no experience scaling or starting a company, to study the market and fall in love with the problem. That’s a big one for me. Then the other thing I would do is be more careful with going international. Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, I don’t know that we had a choice, Alejandro. Today, I think you do, so really understand whether you need to relocate to another country or the market because you can do a lot of things remotely, and I think I could have also saved some hard moments if I had known that.

    Alejandro: Of course. Well, Alfonso, very profound. Thank you so, so much for being on the DealMakers show. It was truly a pleasure and an honor to have you here with us.

    Alfonso De La Nuez: Likewise. Thank you for inviting me.

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    Neil Patel

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