Keith Peiris became the CEO of his first company at a very young age. His latest venture has already raised $81M on its mission to help us communicate and understand each other better. The startup, Tome, has attracted funding from top-tier investors like Audacious Ventures, Greylock, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Wing Venture Capital.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Differentiating between co-founders and team members in the hiring process.
- Presenting your business idea to potential investors.
- Establishing shared goals and values with your financial partners.
- Utilizing AI technology to enhance pitch presentations and exchange of ideas.
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About Keith Peiris:
Keith Peiris is a Co-Founder and CEO at Tome (2020) and an Entrepreneur In Residence at Greylock (2020). In 2019, they were the Head of Product at Citizen, where they helped the company 10X its active users, reach #1 in the News category of the iOS App Store, and scale the largest contact tracer in the US.
Keith also helped redesign the product for mainstream usage, hired the product management team (0-6), and briefly ran recruiting + HR.
In 2018, they were Head of Product at Glossier, Inc. From 2016-2011, they were the Messaging & Camera AR Product Lead at Instagram, where they grew Instagram Direct more than 10X to 500M monthly active users.
At Facebook (2011-2007), they were the Manager of Product Management and worked on Predictive Search and Notifications, Graph Search, Facebook For Android, and the Rotational Product Management Program.
Keith also founded and advised the University of Waterloo’s nanorobotics team and helped them win the 2011 & 2013 NIST Mobile Microrobotics Challenge with their magnetically levitating 300-micron soccer-playing robot.
Keith Peiris attended the University of Waterloo from 2006 to 2011, graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc) in Nanotechnology Engineering.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: Alrighty hello everyone and welcome to the deal maker show so more stories today you know, building scaling financing and all the above all the good stuff that we like to hear you know in this case, you know he got started at 11 years old with his dad so talk about you know, starting and just doing it. So why. Again, you know we’re gonna find he say a story very inspiring and again you know all about the hypergrowss stuff especially on the dealmaking side too that we love to hear so without farther. Do let’s welcome our guest today Keith Perris welcome to the show.
Keith Peiris: Thank you excited to be here.
Alejandro Cremades: So originally you were born ah in Ontario canada and you know your parents were originally from Sri Lanka so I’m sure that they you know they they like cricket and all the good stuff that thing that they like you know back there but how was life growing up. in in Canada
Keith Peiris: I mean Canada was what was incredible. You know I but my parents moved there in the 80 s you know during the civil war and they just wanted me to have access to it to a good education so you know just like every good canadian kid I played ice hockey growing up. You know, learned a lot about but about life you know, ah being the smallest kid on the ice naturally and got really into computer science early just to say that. Ah my dad made it all the way from delivering pizzas early on sort of the first thing he did when he landed. To ah managing and you know sales at an it company and ah because of that you know he was always bringing computers home. You know at at that time computers were thousands of dollars so having access to to one with felt really special and you know around the age of 8 or so he he brought. Home this really powerful computer and a book on how to use Adobe Photoshop and you know you could argue that was that was maybe the the start of something new.
Alejandro Cremades: That’s amazing I’m sure that for you, you know also to see your parents you know coming here I mean here to kind of a you know new life. You know, um a better life that they were looking to to build too for for the family I’m sure that that was very inspiring to you as well.
Keith Peiris: Yeah, yeah, exactly you know we ah were brought up thinking that we have to sort of outwork. Ah, but the folks around us and fight for every inch and I think that’s it’s still true today.
Alejandro Cremades: Now now in your in your case eleven years old that’s when you know the whole business. You know craziness you know, knocks on the door. So so what happened there with your dad.
Keith Peiris: Yeah, so like I said you know he he got me this computer and ah a book on photoshop and I think to be honest, the first version of photoshop I hat was a little bootlegged and you know I I would come home after school and play around with this I would play manipulate photos I would make. Sort of websites and interfaces and at the time this is when internet forums were becoming a thing you know I think this was ah sort of early 2000 and I would put my work up on forums to try to get critique advice I’d ask them how to do effects how to do different things in Photoshop. And in flash and after a while some people started to message me on these forums and asked hey could could you make a website for me or could you make a flash animation for me and ah you know at the the time I I was doing it I opened a Paypal account I’d charge just enough to be able to buy video games and toys. And ah, you know one day. My my dad came home and and he was like well what? what are you doing I’m like I’m making a website for this person. You know I’m I’m charging two hundred and fifty dollars so I can buy an Xbox and um, you know he started to look at this and he was like wait a minute you should be charging a lot more than two hundred and fifty dollars with this kind of thing. Ah, so he he opens up my ah but but my direct messages that he realizes. There’s like 10 of these these people asking for websites. Ah so so we had a back and forth about it and um, you know my dad had already been sold on the internet was the future.
Keith Peiris: Right? When you’re selling computers. You’re you’re in these these cio groups and they’re talking about this like what is this web thing that’s happening and um it was like you know we should start a website company. You know in Canada at the time it felt very sort of rare ah to to have website companies and all of these companies knew that they needed a web presence. So ah, you know he decided he was like I should be the Ceo because I sort of brought the technical talent and you know he would run ah but the sales and marketing. So the the first thing you know he did was we ah, we we got the basement renovated. We bought some computers. We. We moved into the the basements and then you know he started to pitch um customers of the it company he worked at and you know I would start to respond to people on on forums on on the internet and we were actually able to. Ah, to to drive quite a bit of of of grum of of a website design company.
Alejandro Cremades: Now now in this case I mean at 11 I mean what? what? what did you learn about pitching to.
Keith Peiris: Yeah, it’s ah it’s a good problem to you know when when you’re an agency which is what we were. You’re you’re constantly pitching right? You’re you’re showing up at people’s offices and you need to to Dazzle and shine you know within the the first thirty minutes ah because you never want to win on price right? It’s sort of a race to the bottom. So my dad taught me everything about first of all, you have to compose emails this way you have to sort of have to um, pitch you know leading with the the sizzle first and get into the operations later. And um, you know my my dad sort of encouraged me to lean into the the novelty of the fact that I was 11 ah so we we wrote a lot of press releases around you know 11 year old Ceo’s company you know breaks ground with new web technology or you know. Ah, 11 year old ceos companies starting to work with the canadian government and I learned a lot about how do you take all of these things in your head and and and build it into an elevator pitch or or how do you like Dazzle and wow people with. With things that you haven’t built yet in in 30 minutes and and I think I I use a lot of those things today.
Alejandro Cremades: That’s amazing now. Obviously you had the the acumen now in Business. You know so as such an early stage so in your life. So. Why do you end up, you know going and studying nanotechnology engineering was there anything more challenging that you could find to study or not I mean humbely, you.
Keith Peiris: Ah, but the story leaded up to it was very pragmatic I promise you know when at this time it was 2001 2002 you you needed a really powerful computer to do any of these things to do 3 d rendering photoshopped even to even to play video games. And I was always running out of compute. Ah you know on the the cpu on the video card. Ah so you know I was always asking my dad hey when we get this next contract can I get a faster computer. We’re can I get a faster cpu and um, you know I ended up getting really into this sort of um. Lost art called overclocking where there’s this community of people on the internet where they um, they learn about the thermals of the processing units and they try to run them as fast as they can. Where they’re doing liquid cooling. They’re doing water cooling. They’re hacking these systems to get them to run faster and I sort of got into that and and then I realized wait a minute to be really good at this to get all of the processing power you need ah you sort of need to understand silicon you did notre just dead Silicica and submiconductors. Like I want to go study silicon and semiconductors and then one day I want to go work at Intel or Nvidia that would be really cool. So that’s sort of how I ended up at in you know in nanotechnology engineering in this this hope of building faster processors.
Alejandro Cremades: Well hey you you you went from there you know into something really interesting because you graduated and then all of a sudden. Obviously you did a bunch of internships you know on robotics and you know stuff stuff that could be applied to what you were studying but but you ended up working at Facebook. I mean you landed in Facebook before the ipo at the series. The you know financing and then you kind of like scaled for the ranks there and landed at Instagram where they were essentially reinventing themselves and there you were to able to to see you know ah a lot of stuff around you know more like. What sales what works what doesn’t what were some of those things that that you learned while you were there because sounds very interesting I’m sure that that shaped your way of looking at business and seeing things.
Keith Peiris: Of course yeah, the the first thing I’ll say is that it’s funny I ended up working at Facebook um, you know because I was sort of fascinated with the space. You could see all of this happening with software social networks and and search but my my grades were terrible. Ah, because I was always working on side projects. So I applied to Google and they were like your grades are too low. You know I applied to to Microsoft the the same sort of view but Facebook was at the time startup they were like as long as you can solve problems come on down. Ah you know would would figure it out and I’m very very grateful for that opportunity. Um, it’s funny at at Facebook I learned a lot about what? Um, what people are interested in and and ultimately what what what matters to people because when you when you have a user base of a billion people. Um, almost anything you put in the product works right? You can get. Ah, you can build a marketplace you can build a dating app you can build. Ah, you know, ah a way to discover restaurants nearby like and some percentage of people will always be interested in it. So I think it gets you to to be honest to be a little bit lazy right? because almost any that you ship people will use. Um. And you know I sort of needed to to recalibrate. Actually what are people interested in What’s what’s driving this company more than you just put a feature and people play with it and the the thing that that sort of came out to me was the reason Facebook works is that you know people just sort of have this this.
Keith Peiris: Predisposition to want to communicate with each other right? But the um you know it. It turns out that’s ah at the core of it just being connected to your friends seeing people that you’re attracted to seeing what other people around you are doing is what makes this gigantic company work. Um. And it’s funny I went to to Instagram and this was ah during the sort of Rebirth of Instagram you know it was was end of 2015 when the company was growing. You know we had good sort of earnings calls. But inside. We knew we were sort of losing market share to snapchat. You know we were ah young people in America were migrating over to snapchat we we were afraid that we were going to be this product for the olds you know and as a result we we sort of needed to to reinvent. The company and I um very I feel very lucky to have been a a small part of it. You know there was ah a new brand being built but we were also sort of inventing direct messaging at the time we were inventing the the sort of augmented reality camera and um. You know I was learning a whole lot about the way people communicate. Ah and and this is ah sort of 1 of the most interesting topics to me and and maybe why I got into tone because everybody communicates differently and nobody communicates the way that you want them to.
Keith Peiris: Which is to say I had this perspective on what you should use the camera for how people should use text messages in the product how they like reshare memes and and we were always surprised that no one ever used the products the way we wanted them to so ah you know it kind of got me. Enthusiastic about this this idea of open-ended communication tools because I think the ones that are most flexible, highest fidelity most expressive end up being the ones that that survive um and ah, you know it got me thinking sort of in the background. How could I build this really powerful. Open-ended communication tool for for ideas. But you know more on that later.
Alejandro Cremades: And we’ll talk about it in just a little bit but you know it sounds like you were having a good time. So why? All of a sudden giving your notice and coming to New York city what were you thinking.
Keith Peiris: Ah, well the the grass is always greener on the other side and um I would say one of the things that I absolutely loved about Instagram was that I was learning so much from being around the founders you know, um Facebook was this giant company at the time thousands of people managers on managers and managers and. Instagram is still small. You would still review ideas with the founders. They would still be like I like this I don’t like this take that and because of that the company was very creative. It moved fast and you know I could tell that the ah the founders were ready to leave and yeah I wanted to go. I wanted to be a founder I wanted to be in that small company world where you’re fast and creative and as they were leaving I was thinking I should go do something else. Um you know and at the time I was looking over at New York thinking um wow that’s like a completely different world ah completely different people. It’s not It’s not run by tech I should go experience something. New. You know so I moved to New York um I was looking for a job and I actually ended up joining ah a startup there working on on very different subject matter.
Alejandro Cremades: So obviously you were doing there. You know a little bit of safety. No and and basically on on the app that they were building but you know you were not there for long you know for long until you know you really got the idea and of Tom coming coming to mind. So. So what happened there and also show why did you think that it would be a good idea to incubate it under the umbrella of a venture capital firm like Grayroft sorry great look gray look gray look gray look.
Keith Peiris: Yeah, so it’s a good question. Lucky yeah, ah, all good I mean I learned a lot from ah from citizen and and I would say that one of the biggest things I learned was um, you know you sort of have to be careful with the markets that you. And the the problem spaces that you start with ah you know citizens a really hard company to run. It’s ah the the tam is small because it it it really only ah is engaging in in in dense cities. Um the the willingness to pay is sort of challenging. Ah, when you have a free consumer product that’s unrelated to to being productive. Um, and it’s just like it’s ah it’s a really hard company to to run I think the the founders is doing an incredible job at seeing it through but it got me thinking about what’s the right problem space. You know I want something. Sort of geo unrestricted and I definitely want to work on something that helps people you know achieve their goals and be productive such that they they pay for it. But you know I left citizen and I started to think about this idea and the backdrop was that this was sort of um phase one of covid if you remember phase one of covid and in New York city ah we weren’t allowed to leave our apartments. You know? Um, um, when you go to the grocery store you end up buying ah a box of clorox to to sort of wipe off your groceries for like $50.
Alejandro Cremades: Oh yeah.
Keith Peiris: And um, you you know you you can’t really see your friends right? or you can’t really talk to people so you’re at home watching Tv right? Ah, figuring out like well what what’s going on reading on the internet and um, there’s just this like crazy flux of ideas being passed back and forth on the internet right? like should we wear masks. Should we accept this vaccine. You know should we clorox our groceries. Ah should we talk to each other and um I know it’s sort of funny. Ah when when talking about that period most people talk about the social media bubble. Right? If you’re on Twitter and you only see people that believe the same things as you um, but I think the other side of it was that we we don’t have great tools to talk about these ideas right? Um, and just to to say that’s ah the the new generation of folks that they’re not reading Longform white papers. And um, you know on the other hand. No one’s compelled by one hundred and forty character tweet but about a different topic and I was like oh this this sucks you know someone needs to build a really sort of expressive tool to talk about stuff in our heads. Um, you know, just as much as. We we were building expressive tools at Instagram to talk about you know what? you’re doing with your day or sharing your face. Um, so I started looking around and like as someone builds um like ah like a visual multimodal sort of take on like substack or medium.
Keith Peiris: Or or Twitter and I couldn’t really find anything. Um, so you know I decided to to join graylock because I had had a good friend Seth who who worked there ah who who had just moved to Greenwich Village and I was like you know I’d I’d like to work from your apartments. Ah he’ll. I don’t think he loves this detail but it was Johnny Depp’s old apartment. So. It’s a very inspiring place to be um and I was like I want to work on this idea but I need to think through the go to market and how I would make money you know which is to say that it’s very hard to make money building something like medium. Ah, because as a writer you want reach and distribution. But you also want to get paid right? So those things are sort of at odds. Um, and like in the end I think this could be you know a replacement for documents and powerpoint. But the challenge with that space is. It’s very hard to go into a company and sell someone a replacement to the office suite right? So like I need to sort of figure out this this go to market and make sure there’s something there. Ah so I just started to work on it with with with Seth and and with with Reid Hoffman at Graylock you know week over week
Alejandro Cremades: I mean that’s saying that’s unbelievable like being able to work on something with sathan with read Hoffman they cofound I mean the cofounder of Linkedin I mean that say you can’t treat that lightly how how was it you know, incubating an idea you know with the caliber of individuals like that.
Keith Peiris: So I’d say a lot of it was just being naive. You know I wasn’t thinking about how impressive the person Reid was I just had this graylock email address and I was sending him an invite invitation every week being like hey could you work out this idea with me and. And I would say for for the first little while he was like sure. Okay, you know I’ll have some some meetings with you and you know at. But first I was starting with the space being like how has nobody built something here. You know just to say that I think expressing ideas. Visually is such an an important thing and you know everything has changed since those tools from from the 80 s like powerpoint and word right? We we have mobile devices. You know we we have data in the cloud. Ah there’s all of this like. Foundational ai being built. You know why hasn’t anyone done anything here and and and Reid was always like um I agree that there there should be something here I don’t think you know what it is but he’s like but I think that there’s something here and you should explore it.
Keith Peiris: Ah, so you know I just started to explore week over week and very quickly I realized actually I don’t need a cofounder that can build this. This is actually a very sort of common trope I think of startup founders whenever you meet vcs. They tell you you need a technical cofounder that can write code. And it’s like no I think we actually need to think about like well what do we want to build. We want to make sure that people love the thing they’re interested in it I think once we have the product or at least the idea of the product then we can hire someone to um to to sort of build it. So I started looking for like I would say like a product design sort of founder cofounder and um, you know I went on all the the co-founding date dates. You know where you you meet people on Zoom, you pitch them your idea and ah eventually I met Henry. Ah, like co-founder he was. He had actually worked with Seth um, ah at Facebook and I’d known of Henry it’d be ah, everyone sort of knows him at Facebook as this sort of brilliant visionary. That’s also very stubborn and hard to work with ah you know and I think that’s sort of the the perfect profile of a cofounder. Right? as ah as a founder of a company. everyone’s telling you you’re wrong everyone’s telling you that your idea doesn’t deserve to exist so you sort of need to have ah ah you know a degree of stubbornness and and hubris to sort of push through. Um so I met Henry we were talking about the idea felt very natural.
Keith Peiris: And um, at the time he was like you know I’m thinking about this or do I go take another job. Ah and you know I think he thought about it for a while. It’s like no another job sounds terrible compared to to doing this so then we started having Zoom calls with read with Seth every week. Where you know Henry was sort of concepting the idea of tome you know he was like drawing it and building prototypes and we were showing it to people and and eventually we we found people that were like this seems pretty good. You know if you guys built this ah we would absolutely pay for it. So then you know ah sort of convinced Henry to to quit his job. Yeah, he had to have some long conversations with his wife and and and then you know we started to to look for engineers to hire and then by the time we had found a couple of engineers. We were like I guess we have to pay these folks.
Alejandro Cremades: No kidding.
Keith Peiris: Ah, so then we we decided? Yeah, ah we we should maybe raise some money and that’s when you know Reid and Seth were like you know we think you guys are ready. Ah, you know how much do you need you? You should go start this. There’s no point incubating this any longer.
Alejandro Cremades: That’s how basic. so so I guess for the people that are listening to get it what what ended up being the business model of Tom. How do you guys make money.
Keith Peiris: Ah, good. Good question so we ah right now we we grow using our free product. Anyone can try tome for free and they have limited functionality and then if you want to use um the Ai parts of tome. Ah you. We we we charge you for a pro plan. Um, and that’s going really? Well, we’re scaling up monetization but the the big place that we’re going to go to eventually is that I think this is a really powerful enterprise product. You know where you can train homes ai on your data. You know your Google drive or your. Ah, data warehouse and then we sort of generate content trained on the things important to your company and that’s that’s where we’re we’re headed at the moment.
Alejandro Cremades: Now going back to the point that you were mentioning earlier where readid you know is like hey guys I think that it’s time to to make this thing fly and to raise some money How much capital have you guys raised to date and how has been the experience of going through through that journey to.
Keith Peiris: Yeah, so we’ve raised I think 81,000,000 ah to to this date. The first round was around 6 and you know it’s it’s been an interesting process. Um, which is to say that I think um, a lot of founders get tripped up. In this, you know in the sense that it doesn’t matter how good your idea is you’re always going to have a bunch of vcs that don’t understand your idea they don’t understand where you want to go. They don’t believe you? Um, and um I think my my current take on it after having fundraised 3 or 4 times is that um, it’s actually. More important to find people with the same core beliefs as you than it is to convince someone of something they don’t already believe which is to to say that we know we we have incredible investors who who we found who actually believed the same thesis as we did around building. And enterprise company first with a consumer. Go-to-market sort of using artificial intelligence using mobile tech like hiring consumer people into an enterprise space. Those were all sort of core principles of tome the company and um, you know if you find like an off the shef. Enterprise saas investor none of this makes sense to them. They’re like what do you mean you’re you’re hiring all of these consumer people to build an enterprise company that’s crazy. You’re going to invest a lot in technology. That’s also crazy or um, you know I think tome is a very broad product right? It works for everybody from students to.
Keith Peiris: Parents making children’s stories all the way up to founders making pitch decks and that’s sort of um, blasphemy right? Most early startup people tell you you should build for 1 person and do 1 thing for them really well and scale up and we’re like no, that’s not an interesting company. You know we want to build this. Really powerful tool for lots of people so we went through our string of rejections. But eventually we we found people that that believe the same thing as us and ah and I think it’s it’s sort of really nice they’re they’re on the journey and they’re aligned.
Alejandro Cremades: When when do you when do you know that you have that alignment in place.
Keith Peiris: I Think um, it’s It’s sort of funny. This is this is true of recruiting and fundraising which were maybe the same thing I think there’s always this predisposition to want to sell the company in the rosiest way possible. Right? You’re like I’m trying to convince this head of engineering to join our company I need to make it look like it. We’ve made further progress or ah, you know with an investor you want to make it you know, instinctively you want to make it look like you’re further along or your thinking is sharper than it really is but um. Found for the most part just being really honest about where we are and really honest about the path. We’re going to take um the the people that aren’t into that self-select out and you know who the the people that you’re left with usually ah are really really aligned.
Alejandro Cremades: And then in that in that case I mean obviously you know to all these investors for raising all that money because Keith let’s face it. You know the eighty one you know million bucks that you guys have raised. You know it’s a lot of zeros you know they come obviously with a lot of expectations. And obviously you know like the the alignment tool. You know it’s an alignment around a vision that you guys have created for this now that compelling future in which you guys are living into so thinking about that you know just for a second here if you were to go to sleep tonight. Keith. And you wake up in a world where the vision of tome is fully realized what does that world look like.
Keith Peiris: Um, it’s a good prompt. Um, you know one of the things that I I tell at the company. All the time is that you know tone. Ah, right now is inventing. Ah ah, a very specific communication format. Right? It’s this thing that replaces documents and slides and canvas. But um, you know we’re we’re a multi-format company. This is just our first product and it certainly won’t be our last product when I think about spiritually what tome is trying to do you know we’re trying to sort of build. Um. This really high fidelity communication channel between people so they can understand each other’s ideas you know I think in the future we would want to build something like neralink you know, maybe where you can connect your brain to someone else’s brain and completely understand what’s on their mind and their ideas. Um. Because I think if we can sort of advance understanding of ideas and advance understanding of each other we can work on things faster. You know we can go and agree on energy climates. Ah, politics much faster and then just go make progress on them as people and that’s sort of the fit the future I’m excited to build and we just hope that that our technology plays a small part in that.
Alejandro Cremades: My god that looks like a exciting future for sure now imagine Keith that you know we werere talking about the the future here but I want to talk about the past but doing it with a length of reflection. You know, let’s say I put you into a time machine. And I bring you back in time you know maybe to that basement where you were you know pitching and wandering through forrooms you know with your father you know your first stint that they are taking a look at what you know building creating value and extracting value could look like and let’s say you were able to have a sit down. With your younger self right? there on the spot and give that younger Keith 1 piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be and why given what you know now.
Keith Peiris: Ah I would say the maybe the most important thing to to me is that ah, whether you are selling people on buying a contract with your company or selling people on joining your company or selling investors on fundraising for your company. Um as a Ceo as a founder. Ah, you’re going to be spending most of your waking life selling people on your company right? selling people on you on your idea right? and and and I think that because of that um you need to be really really excited about that idea and um and and it’s sort of. Interesting I think people that are really deeply passionate about the work that they’re doing have this unfair advantage. Um, and and I think that that’s actually in contrast to a lot of the advice that that that that startup founders get you know a lot of startup founders. Get this idea that you should. Choose a really easy problem that nobody else cares about um and then you should do that really well because nobody else cares about it and you’ll take that market and then you’ll land and expand and go to the next market in the next market. Um, and that’s like pragmatically true but you know you you have to build a company made of people. Right? And so you need to inspire great people to come and work on this idea with you for it to be worth anything and and I actually think that you you sort of have this you and build the superpower of recruiting. Um, if you choose to work on something really hard that you’re passionate about and and I actually think that’s why.
Keith Peiris: Some really hard ideas even though they look hard on the outside might actually be easier to pull off because you can sort of attract incredible people into it.
Alejandro Cremades: Wow, that’s very very profound. So Keith for the people that are listening that will love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Keith Peiris: Yeah, ah so I read all Dms on all communication channels but I would say you know go to tome dot app play with the product and then you know if you’re interested send me a note Keith that tome page I read every email. Or reach out to me on Twitter excited to hear from you I’m Keith Perris
Alejandro Cremades: And what is your Twitter handle. That’s it you see enough Keith well hey, thank you so much for being on the deal maker show. It has been an honor to have you with us today.
Keith Peiris: Likewise really enjoyed the chat.
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