Oren Zaslansky is the founder and CEO of Flock Freight which is a business-to-business freight shipping company. The company has raised to date over $70 million from top tier investors such as Google Ventures, Foundation Capital, TenOneTen Ventures, SignalFire, Karmel Capital, and GLP Capital Partners.
In this episode you will learn:
- Learning to pitch investors, even if you think you know how to sell
- The advantages Flock Freight is providing users
- How Oren’s latest startup is leveraging a distributed workforce
- His top advice for those considering launching their own first startups
For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) that I recently covered. Thiel was the first angel investor in Facebook with a $500K check that turned into more than $1 billion in cash.
Moreover, I also provided a commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400 million (see it here).
Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.
ACCESS THE PITCH DECK TEMPLATE
About Oren Zaslansky:
Connect with Oren Zaslansky:
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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have quite an interesting founder. It’s amazing, the bootstrapping experience that he has, and then also, what he’s up to today. So, I think we’re going to find the interview quite exciting. Without further ado, let me welcome the guest today, Oren Zaslansky, welcome to the show.
Oren Zaslansky: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Alejandro: Originally born in San Diego, so how was life being born and raised there?
Oren Zaslansky: It’s a lovely place to grow up. Obviously, I’d argue the best weather in the world and great beaches. Although I walk into every room with a bias that I must surf and speak and move slowly, and I’d argue that I defy those stereotypes on a daily basis.
Alejandro: I know that for you, you were used to the moving, freight, all of this stuff. Your parents were in this industry, so tell us about this.
Oren Zaslansky: Yep. I grew up around it. They worked for a large household goods carrier, which would move you when your family wanted to move across city, across state, across country, or somewhere around the globe. When I was 14, 15 years old, they decided to leave that company that they were employed by and start their own small SMB freight brokerages, again specializing in household good movement out of the home. Watching their struggle and the amount of effort that they put in and the risks that they were willing to take with two teenage kids at home and one headed off to college and just all the stress and expenses that come along with that really inspired me to believe that this is doable. If they could do it with all the responsibilities they had at that point in their life, then certainly, I could too. When I came out of school, I made the leap into entrepreneurship as well.
Alejandro: Obviously, your mom went into entrepreneurship when you were in high school, your father, when you were in college. What are the top three lessons that they taught you about entrepreneurship?
Oren Zaslansky: I think it was just the tenacity of it, first and foremost. I watched my mom when she set up her first business out of the home in a study at the house for a year and a half working through regulatory and compliance issues, filing documents, making phone calls, signing up trade partners, and thinking like, “You’re not even doing the business yet. You’ve spent a year and a half preparing this business in order to be a business. She didn’t even understand the question. She’s like, “This is what you do. You work hard if it’s what you believe in, and if you believe in it, you’re not going to fail.” That kind of tenacity, that grit, that relentless nature, and the other part is when you’re bootstrapping to think about costs. It’s their money. You’re not spending anybody else’s money. It’s your own, and you tend to be pretty austere with those resources and making sure that every investment you make has some type of return. So, watching her say, “I’m not going to invest in a new FAX machine because this one works just fine even though it’s slow versus “I will invest in a computer because I don’t have that, and I need it to do my job.” And really thinking through a tactical level of how to deploy capital. Then last is that balance of never give up until maybe you really need to think about it. You don’t want to be myopically fixated so much so on what’s right in front of you that at the same time, you can’t zoom out and see the forest for the trees. They did succeed, and they are successful. At the same time, they would include me in conversations about how they thought about it. Like, maybe we have a reserve date. If we don’t achieve our goals by a certain timeframe, then we have to think about a pivot, or we have to think about letting go of this. So, having that clear kind of calculated reserve well out in advance, so that they were not emotional about it when the time came to make the decision.
Alejandro: The opportunity came knocking for you quite early. You were 21, so tell us about this first business that you started right out of college.
Oren Zaslansky: Yeah, I was 21 years old. I actually worked about three months for my mom’s Household Goods Broker. It was fine and great, a three-month experience. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy working with my mom and the team. At that point, it was a real company, around 30 employees. She properly said, “You’re going to be the filing clerk. You’re going to start at the bottom.” The idea was, “You’ll grow, and you’ll learn the family business and maybe someday take it over.” Two things hit me. One is, I want my mom to be my mom, not my boss, and I’m not invested in any of this yet. So, why put myself in a situation where ten years from now, you feel like, “Yuk. I don’t like where I am, and I wish I had done it differently. The second thing, and maybe even the more compelling notion for me, was, with all the wide-eyed exuberance of a 21-year-old, I want to build something of my own, and of my own making — test my potential, unconstrained, my creativity. What was my big idea? So, at 21 years old, I’m going to start a trucking company. It’s pretty simple, although very hard at the doing, the bare to entry is very, very low. For about $1,000 I was able to complete the regulatory requirements of the Department of Transportation, and then set up a factoring relationship, which is a high-cost lending relationship where I was paying 21 to 22% to borrow my money, lease a little bit of equipment, recruit a couple of truck drivers, and kick it off. I look back on it now, and I’m like, “That’s crazy. I can’t believe the whole thing worked. Why did the 21-year-old version of me think I could make it. I think to a large degree, it was my family’s experience, watching them and the accessibility that grew in me seeing them take the leap. But also, that ignorance is bliss. Of course, the odds are stacked against all of us as entrepreneurs for starting businesses. Within reason, because you want to understand those risks and be thoughtful about your decision-making going forward, there is a lot to be said for “I’m going to do this because I want to.” Because, at the end of the day, I feel like there are two kinds of people in this world: people who do things and people who say they’re going to do things but don’t actually do them. Even from the age of 21, I knew I was in the former group, not the later.
Alejandro: I hear you. Something really interesting here is that the way that you were financing this, the fact that you were talking about. I think that for the folks that are listening, it will be interesting for you to describe how you did this, and what exactly factoring receivables to plan your business. What does that look like?
Oren Zaslansky: Sure. Now that I’m a venture-backed kind of startup founder, the only one I’ve met that really deeply understands debt like this because it was the only tool by which I had to capitalize my first business. Factoring means you’ve provided a service or a good. In my case, it was a service. Instead of sending the invoice to the customer, you send them a copy of the invoice. You also send an invoice to a lender. A high-risk, because it is risky, as well as high-interest rate lender, and they typically will give you 90%. There were a few really tough times, September 11, dot-com, the bubble burst where I was able to talk my way into getting 105, 110%, but we’ll stick to the 90% of the value of the invoices. Simply stated, if I just charged a customer $1,000 for a service, for a transaction, I’d send them the bill as you would expect, but the bill would be stamped, “This receivable has been sold to this firm.” So, it’s interesting from an accounting standpoint for any of your listeners that think they’re on the finance side. You’re selling the receivable. You’re selling the asset. You don’t own it anymore. It’s not on your balance sheet as an asset or receivable. It’s now owned by the factoring firm. In exchange for that, the factor sends me $900, 90% of that $1,000 invoice that day or the next day. So, I instantly have capital long before I’ve had to pay, in this case, my truck drive, pay my salary to an employee, or pay my rent. So, it’s a way of basically getting nearly pre-paid, at least 30 days sooner than you otherwise would, depending upon the terms and what’s market for your industry, but albeit at a very high rate. The customer then, let’s say hopefully 30 days later, under net-30 terms would send a check to the factoring company, not to me, to satisfy that debt. The way that it works is, the interest rate is so high that often after your advance, $900 of the $1,000 that’s owed, you’re never going to see that last $100. That can get eaten up in interest if the receivable is old, meaning it takes the customer many, many months to pay. It’s simply a very expensive way of getting capital. But the upside is, it’s almost always no-recourse, meaning if it goes bad, I’m not obligated to pay them back, nor could I. I didn’t have the resources to anyway. And it’s a way of getting capital into your business right away. Quite frankly, it’s a great tool for those businesses that either just are not outside equity financing type businesses, or in my case, for a very inexperienced entrepreneur who wouldn’t understand that equity markets regarding it.
Alejandro: Got it. This company, E&H, you took it from zero to 100 truck trailers. How did you do that?
Oren Zaslansky: It was very hard. You’ve got to start with a little macro-talent. It was 1996 — you kind of replay history. The economy was doing quite fine and was expanding. There was freight to be had. We were a bit differentiated. We did what was called air-wrap blanket wraps. It’s like special commodities, high-value goods like electronics, store fixtures, and things like that. It wasn’t just in a sea of everybody else. I’ve always tried to be differentiated. I think I have been truly differentiated at times. I’ve been slightly differentiated at other times and told myself I was more than I thought. But certainly, I’ve always aspired to that and understood conceptionally why that mattered. Then, it’s just ultimate bootstrap, like you produce a dollar in profit, and you reinvest a buck and a quarter. You then find a way to produce $2 in profit, and you reinvest $2.50. Then you’re like, “Wait. That math doesn’t work,” and the answer is, you’re right. It doesn’t work. But that’s exactly the mindset, so the way that you pull that off is through working capital. Simply stated, bringing in the money before you’ve got to pay it out. So, anybody who has run a true cashflow, bootstrapped working capital intensive business like a trucking company, like manufacturing, like a lot of service businesses, I would argue it’s probably the majority of this economy, this SNB economy is you get really good at picking which bills need to be paid today and which ones can wait until tomorrow, and you deal with a lot of noise and pain. You get everybody paid. Don’t get me wrong, but you really grind it. Then on the receivable side, you get really good at making a lot of noise, making sure that you’re at the top of the list getting paid. And it’s not for the faint of heart. It is really, really gritty. It’s not awesome, but it is how you build a bootstrapped working capital intensive business. It’s a function of constant reinvestment. In that reinvestment, you have to be willing to forego your own personal gain. If you’re looking to grow the business to some amount of profitability and say, “That’s awesome. That profit on paper is now my paycheck,” then it isn’t going to work. You’re really setting yourself up for an environment where you’re paying all your employees more than you’re taking yourself, but you’re betting on yourself, and you’re building an asset.
Alejandro: Of course. For you, it’s really interesting because it seems you were building this super nicely, but then all of a sudden, it just felt like you reached that mental point where you told yourself that perhaps there had to be another chapter for you. What happened there?
Oren Zaslansky: Yeah. It was a little bit of Groundhog Day. It is fast, but it felt slow, and it typically is when you’re bootstrapping. The model wasn’t evolving, nor did it necessarily need to, so after about five or six years, I felt “I’m ready for what’s next.” In my case, I didn’t think to sell the business. Honestly, it never occurred to me. I had a nice income that I thought could become passive by putting a leadership team in place. Obviously, my income would go down because I’d be paying those folks, but that was okay. It was never about the money anyway. It was more about the interesting work and the purpose of it. But the idea of selling a business, I just didn’t even understand those things existed at that point. And, “I’ll start a freight brokerage. That seems more interesting, and it’s certainly less constraint.” So when you’re a carrier or trucker, you’re constrained by the asset. The dollars across an asset business model — I’ve got this asset. I want to put as much revenue onboard as possible to manage my cost. That equals profit. In a case of a freight broker, you’re not constraining that way. Do I want to be more of a consulting body? Do I want to have value-add? Do I want to focus on certain parts of the massive supply chain? So, I stumbled across. I had a customer come to me that I was providing hauling services to, a retailer called Charlotte Russe, which is a mall chain of women’s clothing, come to me and say, “You do this one little thing for us, you haul truckloads of our store fixtures. We’d like you to take over the entire supply chain for our new store construction, and major remodels.” That was the opportunity that changed my life, once again, where I could now build and develop programs and initiatives that involved all sorts of supply-side partnerships, new technology to manage the business, new employees. It was the most interesting thing I’ve ever done. I apologize for saying unconstrained so often, but I think as a bootstrapper, I felt very constrained. I always had more ideas than I had resources. Now, I still have lots of resource constraints, but less because I wasn’t investing in assets. I was largely investing in people and technology. So, I grew that business for about a decade, and it was a blast right up until it just didn’t scratch the itch anymore, I guess. I felt like I was ready for more.
Alejandro: Okay. So, what happened next?
Oren Zaslansky: I made that conscious decision. “I want to work on the industry, not in it.” There’s a lot of ego involved in that, but it’s honest, and I felt that I had the potential to do something big. I certainly had the experience that insiders have about the parts that work really well in this industry, and maybe the parts where there’s a big area of opportunity to reimagine and reinvent. For me, that was what’s known as LTL, less-than-truckload. That, in and of itself, is a 65 billion dollar a year industry in the United States, which is a subset of the one-trillion-dollar general freight transportation supply chain industry in the U.S. It’s a traditional hub-and-spoke model. It’s a hundred-year-old innovation. It’s weird to think of hub-and-spoke as an innovation, but it absolutely is. Hundred years ago, it’s remarkable. The idea of a vast terminal network where you have 300 terminals throughout the U.S. and freight itches its way from terminal to terminal until it ultimately makes it to you. I felt like there’s a better way. If you were to build that today if you had 165 million LTL shipments, which is what’s inside that 65-billion-dollar industry, you would do algorithmic carpooling. I would do a pure tech play. It hit me like a ton of bricks that “Wow! This would be interesting. This would, in fact, by far the most interesting thing, by far the hardest thing I had ever taken on. I would not build my third freight company. I would build my first technology company working in the freight space. I went to a few advisors and mentors, one a former operator, tech founder himself who was very successful, and I said, “What do you think?” The other is a business school academic but specializes in startups and one of my closest friends on earth. I went to the two of them as a friend and said, “What do you think. I’ve got this idea. I think it’s big.” They both said, “Oh, my gosh. This is fantastic. You should do it. We’d like to help. We’ll write a seed check, and you’re going to have to raise venture capital. It was very humbling going to people that I see as Titans and them saying, “I’ve got my checkbook out. Let me invest.” And I’m saying, “Whoa. I’m not asking anybody for money. That’s not at all what this is. I’m just going to you because you’re a friend and a mentor and saying, “What do you think of this crazy idea I have?” In fact, it made it far too real because now it’s out there. Again, as I mentioned earlier, there are two kinds of people in this world. Those people who do things and those who say they’re going to do things and don’t do them. I am somebody who does things. We launched.
Alejandro: When was this?
Oren Zaslansky: This was a side hustle for me, so I was still running Solsource Logistics very fulltime and spent about a year to a year and a half in 2015 from late ’14 is when these conversations occurred, all the way through 2015. Having bootstrapped twice, I had a little bit of resources this time. The three of us angel-invested ourselves into our own business. It was always meant that I would be the operator, the one running it. They would act as advisors and seed investors, and we would build our proof of concept algorithm. Could we prove that we could build the technology, and demonstrate uneconomic, albeit theoretical. But if you took all these LTL less-then-truckload shipments and algorithmically put them into carpools, and instead of using the LTL hub and spoke to move your freight, which is the only way you can currently do it. Instead, I’ll go to the truckload industry, which was my former path, which was E&H transport, the big truck, and have him make multiple pickups, drive to destinations, and make multiple deliveries. Simple in concept, it just isn’t remotely how it’s done, and there are all sorts of good reasons why it’s not done that way today, meaning, quite frankly, because it’s really hard building scale and density and all that.
Oren Zaslansky: In the spring of 2015, my academic co-founder told me, “You need some practice raising money because we’re going to have to go out and raise money on this thing in about six months. I have lots of friends and colleagues. We’ll set up some practice pitches, and they’ll be called out as practice pitches. You’re not asking for money. They’re not offering, but they’re willing to give you an hour of their time, which is very valuable.” I was very overconfident and said, “I’ve been selling for 20 years, and nobody’s ever given me anything. I know how to close deals.” He was kind enough to say, “Okay. That’s fine, but we’re going to do some practice pitches.” It was the most humbling experience in my life. I wanted to give up ten times. I just had that feeling of “I don’t know how to do this. I’m in over my league. These guys are smarter than me; they’re more educated than me; they’re more sophisticated than I am. There’s no way I can do this. They’re just tearing me down.” What I missed in that experience, unfortunately, is two things. That was their job. That’s what we actually asked them to do, and I lost sight of that. I was overconfident, underprepared, and I got my ass handed to me, quite frankly. But that was what it was meant to do. These people did it as a favor. It was a gift. The other thing was, it was just new to me. I didn’t know how to do it yet. I look back on it now, and I go, “You know, you can learn how to do anything. It’s just a thing you’ve got to learn how to do.” You might be great at it. You might just be good at it, but certainly, you can become proficient in any given thing given time and access to the experience and practicing. So, what a gift. I got to go out and meet with real Tier 1 venture capitalist in San Francisco, in Palo Alto, in Atherton, and Menlo, and SF, and get to pitch these guys as a favor to my buddy. Amazing. Six months later, I put my first deck ever together and had multiple term sheets coming to me. I couldn’t believe it. We’re looking for circa Q4, 2015, a million-dollar venture institutional seed round. We ended up raising about 1.3 million on a note, and I couldn’t believe it. I honestly didn’t believe it until the wire hit the bank account that you could share your ideas, your dreams with someone and that they’re crazy enough to believe you’re going after a trillion-dollar industry, and that person would say, “That is so interesting. I’m going to buy a piece of your imaginary company and give you 1.3 million dollars in return for that piece of the business. But it did not speak to my ego at all. It really spoke to my gut, if not my heart. I felt so touched. I really did. I felt so humbled that somebody would trust me and believe in me.
Alejandro: I can’t even imagine now because how much have you guys raised to date?
Oren Zaslansky: Now, I think it’s like 70 million raised over the last four years.
Alejandro: Just so the people that are listening get it, how do you guys make money with Flock Freight?
Oren Zaslansky: We move freight. We charge a customer who has a need to move five pallets or 15 pallets of freight, the thing that they manufacture: chairs, tables, wine, solar panels, air conditioning machines, whatever, and they would pay a traditional hub and spoke operator, somebody with big trucks and little trucks and warehouses and terminals and labor. They would pay them $500 per shipment to move that freight. And I say, “Well, pay me $500 to do it, but the reason why you want to do that is, it’s never going to see the inside of a terminal. We’re going to guarantee what we call a hub-less experience. We’re going to move it as part of a truckload. It’s like saying, “I’m going to sell you part of a big truck,” whereas you can’t buy part of a big truck on your own, I can consolidate or aggregate virtually in the cloud using very sophisticated software, I can aggregate all that volume and sell you part of a truck. The benefits are the LTL industry — and these are just points of fact — have an 80% on-time pickup. The truckload industry that I bring to the table has a 98% on-time pickup. The LTL industry has a 55% on-time delivery. The truckload industry has a 98% on-time delivery. The LTL industry has a 3 to 4% damage rate. The truckload industry has a fraction of a single percent damage rate. Transit times are anywhere from 25 to 50% faster in the truckload industry. There’s no loss and theft. You can’t lose things. Things don’t get stolen. I’m bringing a much higher quality, what we call mode of transportation. I’m guaranteeing pickup, deliver, transit time, lost theft, zero damage for — initially, the idea was for slightly lower price point than anybody else could offer, and we’d use our technology in order to deliver that solution.
Alejandro: Got it. You guys have been growing quickly. How many employees do you guys have now?
Oren Zaslansky: We have about 140 to 150.
Alejandro: Wow. What does the operation look like, for the folks that are listening, in terms of size?
Oren Zaslansky: Meaning the proportion of talent, where they sit within the firm?
Alejandro: What’s the distribution of the talent, the offices, or anything on the structure on the business that perhaps gives a picture for the people listening.
Oren Zaslansky: We’ve got a bunch of folks in the Philippians, probably about 40, in Manila, who work on administrative, back-office support work. We also have a group of nine of them working on direct sales to our SSMB, super-small medium business customers. So, a manufacturer who might only buy once or twice a month. The cap doesn’t work in the United States to acquire customers like that, and the LTD or too low, so we do that in the Philippians. Then we’ve got about 12 to 15 folks in Chicago. The reason for Chicago is that it really is the traditional freight epicenter of the world. So, we have a lot of really smart, sophisticated talent in San Diego that area kind of your “air” startup folks. While I’m a freight guy, and I’ve hired a few freight people in San Diego, San Diego and Southern California general are not a freight hot deck. We opened up in Chicago and wanted to inject in a thoughtful way some real superstar freight horsepower that could bring a lot of those best practices and technical expertise into the firm. Then in San Diego, there are 80 to 90 people, and that’s the middle market enterprise customer sale, which is also done in Chicago. We have biz ops and sales ops, but of key interest, I would think is, all of our, so we have your standard, full-stack engineering working on the platform. We have data engineers on the infrastructure side. But what really makes us Flock Freight versus any other tech company that would be hiring technical talent is the algorithm scientists, the research scientists, and the data scientists. If you think about what we do algorithmically, it’s actually really, really hard. So a quick example I can give you — I don’t want to nerd-out too much from a technical standpoint because I just don’t know how that will land with the audience, but we’ll use a practical use case, and that’s UberPOOL or Lyft Line. I’m sure everybody is roughly familiar with the idea of carpooling as a consumer. Those firms have to think through constraints over like how many stops if you took a pool, you’d be willing to sit through between origin and destination. You’re not going to sit in a carpool if it takes two hours to travel two miles because it made 78 stops between where you got on and where you got off. There’s a pain-and-suffering constraint. What Uber and Lyft do not have to consider — and I don’t mean to pick on them. We don’t remotely compete. These are consumer services, and I’m in freight, so that’s not the angle here, but it’s just a good use case to highlight because they’re so well understood. In the case of UberPOOL and Lyft Line, the algorithms over there do not have to consider my race, my gender, my age, my weight. They don’t have to consider my eye color, my hair color. They don’t have to consider any of those things. They don’t have to consider if I get in the right side of the car, the left side of the card, the front seat or back seat, and they don’t even have to consider what side of the road I get on, even though they suggest to me get in on the west side of the street. He’ll flip a U and get me on the east side if that’s what’s required. In the case of freight and what our algorithmic technology has to do is freight is all different, and we have to understand that, which means we have to constrain to it. You have to know the length and the width, the height, the weight, the density, the commodity, the value of those commodities, whether or not it’s stackable, and you put a pallet on top of a pallet or can you not? We buy in a spot market, which is super dynamic and more volatile than we’ve ever seen in my 25 years in freight right now because of what’s going on with the pandemic. So, we have to be able to have pricing intelligence and automation, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. The technology that we’ve built, people would say, “How hard can it be?” Very, very hard. We’ve got patents now on pooling technology that Uber and Lyft don’t, which I think speaks to they’d never need it to think about constraining carpooling the way that we do. Freight is actually much, much harder.
Alejandro: Got it. So, one of the questions I typically ask the founders that come on the show is, knowing what you know now — you’ve been at it now — third business. The first two bootstrapping, now more on the hypergrowth path with the equity partners. What would you say if you could go back in time and have a chat with your younger self, with that younger Oren and give yourself one piece of advice before launching a business, what would it be and why knowing what you know now? Perhaps this is the 21-year-old Oren that was thinking about launching the first business.
Oren Zaslansky: I think I would say for me, bootstrapping on route to equity and venture was the right path, but what I would tell myself is, move faster, be more honest with yourself to a degree that you don’t feel challenged or you feel underutilized. I stuck around in each business for a few years too long. I’m so thankful for those experiences, and how much I learned, and the people I met and got to work with along the way, but I could have shaved a year or two off the first one. I probably could have shaved four or five off the second one, but I think I was held back by fear, the idea of making a big leap, and what if I fail? Realizing now, that you have so much area to cover. The probabilities are that we’re all going to fail. The probabilities are dismal. No one should really do this in a rational way. If you’re so inclined to do it anyway, the sooner you get on doing it, the sooner you get on either winning or failing, but failing at a younger age where you still have more time to go out and try what’s next. What I would tell myself is, “Good for you. You’re 21. You want to start a company. By 23, 24, you probably knew that you’re ready for what’s next.” Instead of kidding myself or just maybe buying a nice car and thinking, “That’s what success looks like,” because it isn’t, success looks like filling your life with purpose and working as hard as you possibly can to realize that vision.
Alejandro: I love it. Oren, for the folks that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Oren Zaslansky: Probably the easiest thing to do is just drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alejandro: Amazing. Well, Oren, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Oren Zaslansky: Thanks for having me. I really, really enjoyed it.
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