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Episode 69: Building Business Credit to Manage Fluctuating Consulting Business—with Keith Knapp

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. Now, if you're a new consultant or you're thinking about becoming a consultant, one of the things that you have to figure out is what you're going to do, particularly at the beginning before you don’t have a regular pipeline of work. How you're actually going to manage the fluctuations in your revenue that comes in. I know that often scares a lot of people away from consulting, particularly because they're not sure how they're going to pay their bills if they have fluctuations in revenue.

So I am bringing on an expert. His name is Keith Knapp, and he is a business credit expert. This isn't something I knew a lot about, but he talks about how you can build up your ability to get business credit, which you can then use to help you during times of fluctuation. It can help you do things like, if you need to invest in your business later, get a loan.

So it's a really interesting topic that can help soothe you a little bit in terms of your ability to take the leap into consulting or take the time to build your robust business with having something in your toolbox that can help you deal with fluctuations of income.

So lots of terrific information. Let's get started.

Hi, I want to welcome Keith Knapp to the show. Keith, welcome.

Keith Knapp: Thanks, Deb. It's a pleasure to be on with you.

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. Well, let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.

Keith Knapp: Well, I'm with Credit Suite. At Credit Suite, we specialize in helping business owners establish their business

credit, build their business credit profile, and then get funding for their businesses without a personal guarantee.

Deb Zahn: Oh, that's great. I wanted to have you on because given what the market is like, there are a lot of folks who either by desire or necessity are getting into consulting. And they need to think about what some of their expenses are going to be both as soon as they hit the market and as they move forward and grow their business. So understanding what some of the options are related to financing, I think, is actually helpful.

We'll talk about that as we go through because there's a lot of consultants that get kind of surprised at what some of those expenses are. Surprised at how long it takes to be paid. In the meantime, they have expenses. So I think this is a great conversation.

Let's start off with define, in case folks aren't clear, what business credit is, and then say a little bit about how you think it could help consultants.

Keith Knapp: OK, business credit. When you talk to people about credit, they believe that there's this correlation between credit and financing. Just like when you're talking about personal credit, everybody thinks that your personal credit is directly tied to your credit score or to getting a loan. It's just a piece of the puzzle.

So what we do and why business credit is so important is because business credit and business in and of itself is a separate entity. When you set it up right and it's properly established and you go through the steps to make sure that it's separated from the person, it becomes its own standing entity. Why that's so important for consultants, and pretty much anybody in business right now, is because it gives you that separation and gives you that freedom of being able to have your business, run your business, but not be personally tied to everything that goes on.

So over time, what we're trying to do is we're building a credit profile. Just like you as an individual have a credit profile with Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, your business can also have a credit profile with Equifax, Experian, and Dun & Bradstreet. So business credit is just that. It's the items that are showing on those business credit reports.

Now when you get into that, it starts to get more in depth and you start to realize that there are credit scores to go along with the business credit as well. Then from that business credit profile that's being created, the scores that are coming from that data that's submitted start to play into the factors of being approved for different trade lines. Different types of funding.

That's really what business credit is. It's understanding the setup. It's making sure that the company is properly set up as its own freestanding entity outside of the individual itself.

Deb Zahn: I think that's important particularly for independent consultants. So people who just want to hang up a shingle and “now I'm going to be a consultant.” I do think it's important that you think through what the risks are associated with and the benefits associated with how you constitute that entity.

Personally, when I became an independent consultant, I set up an LLC because I wanted to segregate the risk of my personal finances from any risk associated with my business itself.

So what types of businesses can get business credit? Can a sole proprietor? Can somebody who just is self-employed get it? How does that work?

Keith Knapp: So we'd like to say it's LLC or higher.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Keith Knapp: So a sole proprietor. Anything where you're actually establishing an EIN number with the federal government, that's when you're going to start to establish your business credit. Because if not, if you're submitting your social security, then it's truly very clearly a personal transaction at that point. So if you're applying for what you consider a business credit card, but you've got your personal social security number in there, it's not. It may be reported on the business data, but it's a personal credit card still. So a lot of the stuff that's tied to it is going to be tied to the personal credit profile.

Deb Zahn: Gotcha. So the desire then is, from a business perspective, the business as its own entity, is to build up that business credit profile and build up your score. How do you do that?

Keith Knapp: That's a great question, and that's really literally the million dollar question that everybody's asking right now. The way that you do it is business credit functions in essence the same as personal credit. So there are a lot of factors that go into that and we'll jump into those. But basically the way that it works is that banks and lenders aren't going to give a business credit. They're not going to give them money or access to money if they haven't proven that they have the ability to manage it properly.

Just like your personal credit and your personal credit score is a risk indicator. Your credit report is a report of all the money that you're borrowing. The same thing with your business. Your business credit report is a report of all the money that you're borrowing, all the loans that you have out there.

The difference between like business and personal. Business, you have like net 30 accounts. Net 22 accounts. Net 60 accounts. Which means that you're paying those off within 22 days, 30 days, 60 days, whatever the terms are of it.

Now when you have your credit report, it's the exact same thing as being a person. When you're 18, you can't go out and finance a Lamborghini. Nobody's going to give you the money, right?

Deb Zahn: Hopefully not.

Keith Knapp: Right. Hopefully, right. You may be an incredible salesperson. You may be making a lot of money. But if you don't have that credibility there, if you don't have a track record showing that you have the capacity of keeping up with the monthly payments on any type of loan, people aren't going to loan you money. That's why like when you get started, you have secured accounts, secured credit cards on the personal side.

On the business side, you start basically the secured loans on the business side. Your net 30 accounts. Your net 22 accounts. Because a lot of those, you can get approved for those instantly without a personal guarantee. So what you're doing is you're looking for those strategic accounts that are going to set up with just the business' information and getting approved for those. And then start building your track record. Proving to people that you have the ability to make payments.

The fun thing about this, and this is what most people think, they're like, “Oh, I'm going to go out and I'm going to have all these new expenses.” You're not acquiring anything that you're not currently using. So when on net 30 accounts, we're advising people, go out to To Uline. To Granger. To places where you're going to use the items. You know, you don't want to go out there, and let's say you're a consultant. You don't want to go out and, let's say, get a credit card for a tractor supply company. You're not going to use a line of credit for John Deere. It's not in the same line.

Deb Zahn: Unless you're like me and you’re a consultant plus a hobby farmer, in which case...But not under your business. Separate those.

Keith Knapp: Right. Right, yeah. Yeah, you definitely want to talk to an accountant about that. But what you want to do is you want to use things that are going to make sense.

I think what happens is most of the time we…I'm going to get a little meta on us here, but I think for a long time, people had gotten so cash heavy and so cash conscious and afraid of credit with like going through the mortgage crisis. You know, Dave Ramsey. I'm a fan of his budgeting. Not a fan of his credit tactics. People have gotten to the point that they got afraid of using credit. And credit, when you use a properly, whether it's for your business, whether it's personally, is one of the most powerful tools you could ever use. Because it adds a layer of protection between the purchase and the actual cash that you have on hand.

So what we find is the best practice is going out and getting these net 30 accounts. Getting these different relationships with companies that you know you're going to use. And then start to establish a payment history with them and build your credibility. Because that's what credit is. It's just your credibility.

Deb Zahn: It's interesting that people got frightened during the last economic downturn, which of course the market's not always looking pretty right now. But you would think having that, even if it's a backup because you don't have to use the credit unless you want to use the credit, or take out loans relative to it, that it gives you that option to, let's say…and the example that came to mind when I was thinking about this is not all consultants just trade time for money. Like you pay me. I show up. I say smart things. I help you with this, and that's it. That increasingly, and I always encourage consultants to do this, you might decide to develop a product.

Well, that product might have great potential to bring in recurring revenue over a long span of time that doesn't require your time to be sucked up in an endless cycle. But there are upfront expenses. Do you wait to develop it until you save up all the cash to do it? Or do you take advantage of the fact that you have business credit to be able to develop it? To invest in your business with the assumption you're going to have a return?

Keith Knapp: The area that you're starting to get into, that I think a lot of people, especially if they're starting off, and I find this a lot with sole proprietors or the one-person shops, especially like in the consulting industry and the consulting line, you're going to deal with a lot of people that they're not trying to build big businesses per se. They're not trying to build enterprises where they're going to have hundreds of people working for them. They'll get to a point where they'll have assistants and they'll have people that they're outsourcing work to and things like that, but for the most part, it's more of a small team. It's more of an individual to a small team management.

What most people miss is when they're staying in that area, they're not looking at the company from a cash flow perspective. That's where credit can really change the dynamics of how you operate. Because now instead of having to worry about the constant fluctuation of, “Hey, I just did this job, when am I going to get paid on it?” And having to, what I like to call, chase invoices. Now you've got some flexibility to make sure your bills are being paid. To run things through your credit, and then pay off the credit on a monthly basis when these big invoices, when these jobs, start paying out. When things happen. Which improves your cash flow. Which gives you more room to breathe. And as a business owner, honestly, it gives you that freedom to be creative where you're not just over-encumbered by the cash crunch all the time.

That's what we find. Is that opening up these lines of credit for people just gives them that ability to express themselves and to get out there and really pursue the growth of their business so that they don't feel like everything is constantly chasing money all the time.

Deb Zahn: Right. Or hinges on whether or not you get this particular contract.

Keith Knapp: Right.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. I think a lot of folks that I've talked to are afraid. Either they're afraid to take the leap into consulting because they're worried about that feast or famine cycle, and sometimes it can take a little while to get out of that, particularly at the beginning. So they don't do it because they don't know that options like this are available. Or they're in it, and they're thinking, “Oh man. I've got to go back to my job. I don't want to because I like this lifestyle. I like the flexibility. I like what I do. But I can't. The peaks and valleys are just too hard.” And those peaks and valleys can be solved in other ways. But I like this because it also can give you peace of mind that you can weather that while you're solving it.

Keith Knapp: Right. Here's what most people don't know. It's kind of the hidden secret of business financing and credit. There are lines of credit that are available for startups. There is money that's out there that's available for people who are just getting started and getting three to six months into it.

What we have seen consistently is that when somebody utilizes the right strategies and they take the right steps to be able to establish their business credit, to separate it as its own company. Make it its own freestanding entity. Then within six months, nine months, they're walking away with $50,000 to $60,000 worth of available credit.

Now this isn't just like one trade line or one account that they have. This may be spread over a couple of different net 30 accounts. Different vendors. Different things. But what happens is now they have gas cards. Now they have all this stuff that they can start to utilize. And then they can pay it off monthly and make it where they're not just constantly feeling like they've got to go chase the money right then and there. When you get to that point, basically what you're doing is you're bootstrapping your business for the first six to nine months to get to that point while you're building your business credit. While you're getting out there establishing these relationships to make it where your business is now funded on your own without having to go out and get an investor.

That right there, I think, especially with the times right now and the position of the economy and the way things are going, I think more and more people are going to be looking for that all the time. Just figuring out how to get out there. Because I think there area lot of people in the US that are a lot more geared towards wanting to do things on their own and be their own boss and kind of have their own freedom of flexibility. They just don't. There's a level of fear and comfort that's not there.

That's why we're so passionate about business credit and business funding. Because if you can give somebody like that the avenue to be able to go out and get credit that's secured under the company name and not the personal guarantee, now they've got that freedom to breathe where if the economy crashes. If, God forbid, something just crashes and it becomes catastrophic for them, they're not ruining their family.

Deb Zahn: That's right. That's huge. I think that's the fear a lot of folks have. The other thing that occurs to me as you're talking, I had another expert on personal finance on who encouraged people to manage their expenses by having, in her case it was credit card specifically for food. Specifically for this. So that you know exactly how much you're spending and it doesn't require you to go back and look at what you did and categorize things. That you know this is what you're spending. This is this expense. It's a recurring monthly. So that's predictable. This is unpredictable. But I'm tracking in a very clear way. It occurs to me you can use this as a tool for that as well.

Keith Knapp: Yeah, it is actually the exact same thing. I mean, I've never thought about it from an accounting standpoint, but it's brilliant. I mean, I just thought of something new and I love it. I'm going to have to add that too to the stuff I'm talking about.

Deb Zahn: You have to listen to Diana Crabtree-Green. She was on my podcast, and it was great. She actually later told me I should track food. And then because I rescue a lot of cats, I should probably track that separately and never show it to my husband.

So let me ask, how do you do this without a personal guarantee or something that puts your own personal finances at risk?

Keith Knapp: It's the exact steps that we've talked about. The personal guarantee really comes in when you start looking at like getting credit cards. If your business isn't established. If your business credit hasn't been established. If you haven't gone out and started with these net 30 accounts, these net 22 accounts, what we like to call tier one accounts. If you haven't taken the time to develop out four or five good tier one accounts, a lot of business owners look at it and they're like, oh, well, I just got an offer from Chase. I'm going to go out there and get a credit card. That Chase card is going to be tied to you personally, and so that's not really doing what we're talking about here.

So it takes about six to nine months of establishing that good credit. That good payment history. Having that consistency for credit card companies to look at you and go, “OK, they're legitimate. They're managing their money properly. They're making their payments on time. They've got plenty of available credit. There, they're a safe investment for us to loan money to.” Basically, this is what they're looking at. So those net 30 accounts are the perfect way to get started.

Deb Zahn: Say what a net 30 account is, just for folks who don't know.

Keith Knapp: A net 30 account means that you buy it now and you have to pay it off within 30 days.

Deb Zahn: Great. Which seems lower risk than “I'm going to get something for 12 months and I'll think about it later.”

Keith Knapp: Right. Right. That's why those net 30s are so great for establishing business credit. Because at that point the company is looking at it going, they're minimizing their risk with it. Because if you go to Uline, they may go, “Look, we'll give you a net 30 account, but it's only for 200 bucks.”

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Keith Knapp: You're starting small. Just like you would if you were 18 and just getting out of high school. You're going to start with a small credit card. You're going to build trust. You're going to establish consistency. Prove on paper who you are financially. It's going to start to grow from there.

That's what we find. When you start with those small net 30 accounts. You get in there, and you don't go in and you don't call them and go, “Hi, I'm Keith. Here's my social security number.” You go, “Hi, I'm with ABC Consulting. Here's my EIN number.

Here's my business address. Here's my business phone number.” You make sure all the information that identifies the business as the actual person getting the credit is submitted to these companies.

Deb Zahn: Great. So I wish I had talked to you a while ago because clearly I did it wrong. So this is really helpful.

This I've never done, but what happens if you build that up, but you mess up and you damage your business credit? What do you do?

Keith Knapp: That's a great question. Business credit is one of the most forgiving things that's out there. The reason is because the people who are loaning you money are businesses as well, and they know that on a business, you can have an instant turn.

I mean, we've all seen it where somebody who's just struggling. You’re hand and mouth for months at a time. And then, all of a sudden, you get your marketing in stride. Your network starts to really kick in and things start to blossom and it gets wonderful. You're living high on the hog and now you've got money that's just kind of pouring out of your savings account.

That's the way businesses are designed. It is feast or famine. It is a feast or famine thing.

So the way that business credit is scored is actually scored on a 12-month basis. Where like on per person, it's on a 7-year basis. So within 12 months, all the data's gone, basically. It's not going to show if you've had any late payments.

But even easier than that, your score on business credit is completely based on your payments. It's not based on your credit card balances like it is personally. It's based on how soon you make that payment.

Deb Zahn: Ah.

Keith Knapp: Right. If you have a credit card that's due on the first of every month and you're paying it on the fifth, you're hurting your business credit. If you pay it on the 20th, they love you because now you're making your payment before it's due. That's what they're looking for on the business credit side is how fast are you going to get our money back to us?

So to repair your business credit, like I tell people this all the time. If you're looking at a 50. If you've got a 50 credit score, get out there and make some payments on time and make them soon. That's all you've got to do. Just go out there and start making payments early and it's going to rapidly improve your scores. I mean, just quick. It's almost overnight, it's so scary.

That's part of the fun of it with business credit. It's a lot looser than personal because they understand the business is very flexible, and there's a lot more money that's flowing through it. There's a lot more opportunity for growth fast and the banks know that.

Deb Zahn: That's right. If they didn't know it, they know it now because COVID.

Keith Knapp: Right. Very true.

Deb Zahn: Yeah. Talk about a different cash flow cycle. So if a consulting business is starting out, or they want to do something to accelerate or grow their business, and they want to get a loan. They've done what you've said and they've built up a good credit profile. What should they do to increase the likelihood that a bank says yes?

Keith Knapp: That's a great question. So we like to define it as the three Cs of financing. So when anybody is going in for a loan, the banks are going to look at three different criteria. The first one's cash. Then credit. And then collateral. So with the three Cs, when you've got all three of those in line, and you've got strong cash flow, good credit, and collateral that the back it, you're going to get a lot of really good, really strong approvals quickly.

Now this may seem irrelevant for a lot of people, but what a lot of people miss is that you can go through and use your 401k as that collateral to get started. So now you've got a loan that's tied to your 401k. You're not using your 401k, and so it gives you some flexibility. It gives you some separation there.

You also have the ability to use securities. So if you've got investment accounts that are sitting there that you don't want to take the money out because the stock market is magical right now, you can just use the securities that are there to back a line of credit.

Outside of that, if you've got commercial properties, there are a lot of different things that you can use to secure that.

Now if you're new, it's not easy to go out and just get a brand new line of credit. Like going out and saying, “Hey, I'm going to get a $250,000 line of credit.” The reason that people see these on websites and they see stuff like that on advertising, is because it doesn't happen a lot.

Deb Zahn: Interesting. OK.

Keith Knapp: Right. That is the absolute best case scenario. And that's what we like to call Disneyland. That's where you just come in, the stars aligned, you put in your application, angels start singing, and all of a sudden you've got a $250,000 unsecured line of credit.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Keith Knapp: It's possible, but it's…

Deb Zahn: Yeah, but for those of us that are people who it's more county fair than Disneyland, I mean, what should they do? Because one of the questions I was going to ask is risks associated with this. Obviously with a loan, using a tax deferred account like a 401k, there are risks associated with that. Because you're basically betting your future. And you want to be careful and cautious if you ever decide to do that. But what are the other risks?

Keith Knapp: Well, I mean, the other risks are, even though it's a business loan, it still has the same ramifications as personally. So if you don't make your payments, you can still be sued. They can still file judgements. They can still come after all of your assets of the company. They can freeze your checking accounts. If you purchase cars and vehicles, they can get repossessed. It has the same ramifications as it does personally. It's still just as scary. It's still just as ugly.

If you are one of those unfortunate people who happens to get in trouble with the IRS and the tax side, they don't even care about your LLC or S Corp or anything. They will come after you personally.

So there are always risks that are involved with any sort of company. That's something that a lot of people overlook. They think, “Oh, I'm just going to run a company. And if I do this, I'm perfectly secure.” There's no such thing as ever perfectly secure and separated. There are levels to it, and there are things that you can do. But at the end of the day, if you've got a good accounting team, you've got a good accountant on your side, you're making sure that the IRS is taken care of…that's a big one…then you're protecting yourself. You're not overextending yourself. You're not getting out there and trying to do something that's unrealistic.

What I find is that a lot of people who are coming and the thing I love about consultants is consultants are usually a little more seasoned. They're a little smarter. Do you know what I mean?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Keith Knapp: Opposed to some of the startup industries that we've been a part of, where it's low cost to get started and people are just jumping in like crazy. What you find is that if you're not chasing your dreams and trying to finance ambition, you're going to be OK.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Keith Knapp: If you set up your financing for security. For stability. To improve your cashflow. To put your company in that place where you can function and you can weather the ups and downs and the peaks and valleys. Not going out and saying, “Hey, I'm going to get a $100,000 when I'm only running $3,000 a month in invoices.” That's just not going to work. You know? You're going to put yourself in a bad situation very quickly.

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Keith Knapp: So that's one thing that I like to tell clients that I work with is don't try to finance your ambition. Finance your company. Get it stable, and then get to that place where you can focus on consistent growth. Then as the growth permits and you start allocating money to be able to afford financing, which I think a lot of people missed, once you can afford to take out a $100,000 loan and that monthly payment for however long it's going to be amortized for, that's when you can really start to leverage credit in a way that you can use it for growth.

Most people think that once they get their hands on the cash, that they can do it that way. But I've never seen that actually work for somebody.

Deb Zahn: Not well. So yeah, I would consider it rather than just like feeding your ambitions or just a safety net, it's a tool in your toolbox that you use for specific purposes. Just like I would always encourage people to get liability insurance in case you get sued, which consultants do.

Keith Knapp: Right.

Deb Zahn: That's a tool in your toolbox. Having good accounting systems, that's a tool in your toolbox. But this could be one of them, but it's not free money.

Keith Knapp: Right. Absolutely. That's a great point. It is not free money. You are paying interest on it. Anytime you use someone else's money, there's always an exchange, and interest is that exchange.

Deb Zahn: That's right. They're not a charity.

Keith Knapp: Right.

Deb Zahn: So is there anything else that you would encourage consultants, particularly when they're starting off, to think about how to use this sort of beyond anything that you've shared so far?

Keith Knapp: That's a great question.

So if I was talking with a consultant about this, the first thing I would tell them to do is make sure that their business is set up right. That's where we find that 90% of people mess up, is that they're getting out there. They're flying under their They don't have a website. It doesn't actually look like a business. That's one thing that as a consultant, I mean, I even think just from a marketing standpoint, is just huge. To be able to get out there and build your credibility. Show that the company is separate from you, and separate yourself.

So that would be the first thing I would tell him.

The second thing is don't be afraid of credit. Use it as a tool. Like you said, the tool belt, that's another great example. It's a way to leverage your assets and to leverage your credit to be able to build.

Then the other thing is when you're getting started, if you need that cash infusion, there are ways that you can leverage your personal credit to get there. If you do that, be smart about it, though. Don't just go out there and go, “Hey, I'm going to get a $20,000 credit card, and I'm just going to fly by this for a couple months.” You look at it and go, “If I can get approved for a $20,000 credit card, I'm going to use this so that I can leverage it to get my business credit up and going. So that I can pay off that $20,000 credit card with my business credit and move that out from me personally and separate it so that I can protect myself.”

Because sometimes you do have to leverage your personal assets to be able to make a big move like that. If that's the case, it's just having a plan. It's knowing that there are options out there if you take the right steps. If you're positioning yourself right. If you're building your credibility, your being above board with your finances. You can get to a point where you've built your business credit to be able to get funding to make it completely self-sustaining outside of your social security number.

Deb Zahn: I love that. And to, I think, build for stability, which to me is a big piece that came out of this. That's a very different way to look at it. Like you are trying to make a profit. You are trying to be successful, and you need ambition to do that. But that doesn't mean that that is solely how you run your business.

Keith Knapp: Right.

Deb Zahn: It's a long game. I like the idea of at the beginning, if you're going to make choices, particularly relative to your personal finances, think of the long game. Where do you want to end up? And where you want to end up where it's completely separate? What decisions do you make now to actually get there? I think that's really helpful advice.

So I have one last question, which I didn't actually tell you ahead of time I was going to do. I ask all my podcast guests this question.

Having balance in your life is always important. So I always ask everybody how, they love what they do, they do good work, but they bring more balance to their lives? I'm curious how you do that.

Keith Knapp: I have very set hours and very defined places that I work. My workspace, I'm a musician, and I actually have a drum set that sits right beside me.

Deb Zahn: Cool.

Keith Knapp: I've played since I was like eight, nine years old. And so it's one of my lifelong passions. So just having that there to see just reminds me that as much as I love business, as much as I love getting out and helping people and working with people on their credit, it reminds me of my loves that I've had before business became something that was important to me.

That's kind of my way of my physical reminders that are there.

The other side is that I like the way I feel when I take care of myself. I'm much more productive and much better at what I do when I take the time to not be on all the time.

Deb Zahn: That's great. You've got to have your rock out time, right?

Keith Knapp: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: Well, Keith, thank you so much for being on the show. This was enormously helpful. There's going to be some information in the show notes if folks want to dive into this topic a little bit more and think of this as a tool they want to use.

Keith Knapp: Thanks for having me on, Deborah. It was a blast.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode, or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I've got a lot of other great guests that are coming up and a lot of other great content and I don't want you to miss anything.

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Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

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