What it is like to sell an agency to a holding company (featuring Mitch Joel)

Separating myth from reality when it comes to exiting your own firm
Mitch Joel

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to sell your agency to one of the big holding companies? How does the dream compare to reality? What should you know before you make that decision?

Mitch Joel shares the perspective of someone who has done just that. He and his partners sold Twist Image to WPP. After remaining with the firm for several years after the acquisition, Mitch is now a prolific writer, podcaster, speaker, and more.

He is the host of one of the longest running podcasts, and he just welcomed Seth Godin as his guest on the 700th episode of his Six Pixels of Separation show. As an accomplished communicator and entrepreneur, he has lots of useful advice for listeners.

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Transcript

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I am your host Chip Griffin and my guest today is Mitch Joel. He is, among other things, the founder of the Six Pixels Group. He is also the longtime host of the Six Pixels of Separation podcast. I think he was saying there are over 700 episodes or around 700 episodes of it now. He was also the President of Twist Image, which was acquired by WPP and became Mirum. And of course, he’s a book author. He’s got a couple of books to his name, including Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete. Welcome to the show, Mitch.

MITCH: Thanks. I’m going to use that I’m going to have that intro. Just give it to everyone you did it very well. Thank you. I never know what to say when people say what do you do so there you go. Thank you. I love

CHIP: I tried my best to to condense all of your experience into a succinct way that that can communicate everything that you’ve brought to the table. And I do have to say those those six pixels must be experiencing burnout at this point though, because those six pixels have been used over and over again and seems we are all interconnected

MITCH: as I like to say so it still stands for wrong for me.

CHIP: Well, why don’t you before we, before we dive in? Why don’t you explain that we’re six pixels comes from for those who don’t know, and then anything else you’d like to share about yourself before we jump into the rest of the conversation? Yeah, I mean,

MITCH: sure we started our agency is actually he started 2000. And I joined in 2002. At the time, it was two out of what became four whole partners, including myself, very small boutique shop, a handful of employees, I just didn’t really know how to sell and at the time, blogging had become really new and fresh and having a previous career in publishing magazines. And being a journalist. I thought that that’s interesting, sort of share our thinking and see how that goes. And it really was the twist image blog for a long time. And then I was asked to speak about sort of, I’d been building this platform and featured in the media. And one of our strategies account writers sort of multi tasking individuals wrote up this blurb for me and asked me if I could approve it and one of the lines was, you know, it used to be the cross six Degrees of Separation apartment now because technology, we’re just six pixels of separation apart, I just remember circling that and highlighting it and thinking this is a really nice play. And that’s when the rebranding of the twist them into blog and podcast became six pixels of separation became the name of my first book. And then as I exited the agency after a very long period of time, they were kind enough to let me keep the asset of six pixels of separation. And then I called my new company is called the six pixels group because I just sort of like it and it stuck in it. I’m sort of known for that brand. So it’s a I like it. I just really like it. So

CHIP: it’s great. It stands out, which is which is always useful. And from a branding perspective as all the listeners, I’m sure Now, before we talk more about some of the history because I think that’s particularly relevant to the the agency owners and leaders who are listening. Tell us a little bit about what six pixels group does today.

MITCH: Yeah, it’s a great question. You know, I sort of sold the business post earn out, wanted to start it Another business that took some small office space near where I live. One of my business partners who was our operations finance guy was sitting in this thousand square foot space with me. And we needed a name. I mean, I primarily needed a name because I had some events coming up, I do a lot of speaking, I do like 40 to 60 speaking events a year all over the world. And I needed just somebody to be able to write a check to somebody, not just me personally. So I sort of took that name and incorporated it. And it’s really three things. It’s the sort of speaking book media is one path. The next path is we do a lot of investing and advising in the technology and media space. And then the third part is what is essentially to stealth. I would love to sell startups just sort of projects that are sort of floating around out in the world that I hope myself and operations my business partner and I can be involved in.

CHIP: Fantastic. Well, let’s talk a little bit about how you got here because I think that a lot of agency owners look at the idea of selling Their agency and say, Wow, that’s, you know, that’d be great to do someday. But I, you know, I have no idea how to go about that I you know, is it is it really a possibility. And so I think being able to hear stories from folks like you who have been there and sold an agency business, I think that helps make helps make it more real. And we go see if I can speak today. It’s always helpful on a podcast. And so, you know, tell us a little bit about, you know, why it is that you decided to sell the agency and who you sold it to?

MITCH: Yeah, so we started in 2000. And we built a multi office business based in Montreal and Toronto as well. We became one of the larger independent digital agencies, I would say, in North America, hundred and 20 plus people, I think that are our sale point that I’m not exactly sure.

And it was a bit of a journey for sure. Like, I don’t think we were ever in our brains, like we’re going to sell this thing. It was a very profitable business and we’re doing quite well and we were managing it and Really fiduciary positive way for for many, many years, and it was a really nice business for the four of us and people who are benefiting terms of bonuses and stuff like that. And we actually came to a point where we wanted to rethink the business in terms of scale, how could we make it bigger? How could we get more us clients or maybe go global to another region. And we had reached out to a similar friend and a news acquaintance at the time, who had been part of a smaller holding company than a lot of major acquisitions, but was now brokering deals but also helping businesses figure out their scale. And the real crux of the conversation was, you know, can you take a look at our BD channel and tell us what you’re seeing? What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What are we missing? What are the opportunities? And he came in and quickly asked us why we don’t try to sell. Really, the four of us hadn’t thought about it. We sort of looked around and thought I don’t I don’t know. And he’s said, well look, what would the number be if you want to sell and we, you know, went around the room. And it turns out that all four of us were fairly aligned on what the number would be. And his response was, I think we can get there. We’re pretty close to there. And we thought, well, that’d be interesting. So let’s see what happens. And we went down the road of really trying to figure out who would be right for us, how would it fit? We had several meetings. And it just worked out really well that we got to a place where there was multiple parties that were interested in acquiring us. This happened I would say in about 2013 2014 is when we sold and and we wound up going with WP p for a bunch of reasons. One, I mean at the time, they were definitely the 800 pound gorilla and and one of the biggest or the biggest knowing they had a vision for you know what they thought in terms of this becoming a global more substantive agency. Within WP p there was at the JW T which became J. Walter Thompson again, and that was become wonderman Thompson but so we’ll call them wonderin Thompson just to sort of be okra. And within that group, which again, if you don’t know the dynamics, what happens is nobody really reports into WP p they really are a holding company, you choose one of the bigger agencies within their network. So it could be an Ogilvy j wt a group M or whatever it might be now, and we had a couple real big champions within the time, the JW T or the wonderman Thompson channel and they were really, really excited and positive. within that group. What what we learned is that there were a bunch of agencies like us that had been acquired to ramp up the digital capabilities of of at the time to what was JW T. And we knew some of these players and they were good shops, they were good entrepreneurs and we’d like them. And so that became an interesting opportunity to think about and shortly after we were acquired, we brought a lot of these are they actually brought a lot of these agencies to the table. And all of us wound up rebranding as mirim. At the same time it was but seven I think agencies at the time and then grew it substantially over, you know, what is the sort of period of earn out that you’re working on. So I think we stayed for five years. And it became, you know, a really interesting business close to 3000 employees in 30 countries and to this day is been doing exceptionally well. And I’m not sure if it’s formal or not, I don’t really follow the space but they’re now all a part of wonderman Thompson, I don’t know if Miriam will be retaining its name or not, I haven’t heard anything those grumblings in the media that they won’t, but still being a part of month of wonder, and Thompson is a great story. It’s a great agency and continues to do great work. So that was a long way of telling you a short story.

CHIP: No, that’s great. And I think it lays a lot of foundation it actually opens up a number of avenues that I think we can explore as well. And you know, the first one I wanted to zero in on there is is you mentioned that when you went around the table, you and all of you Your partners had a very similar outlook for what you would sell for. And obviously, anytime you’ve got a business with partners in it, that creates an additional dynamic when it comes to selling obviously, if you’re solo, you get to decide for yourself, Is this the right price or not? Is this the right time or not? And so, you know, were you as partners, were you, you came in at different points in the business, right? So were you all generally aligned throughout the history of the agency or, you know, did you sort of just come to that point where you all agreed at the right point in time, on a sales price.

MITCH: selling a business and having an exit is something that I really wish on everybody, if it happens in a willing positive way like it did with us. But the greatest achievement, I really do feel of my career is the fact that as a foursome, these four and very unique and different individuals really love each other to this day. We’re super tight and super close. And we spent a lot of time and energy because we come from very different backgrounds and very different upbringing upbringing. different generations event. And I’m really most proud going from let’s call it, you know, it just started 2000 Let’s call 2002. You know, again, let’s call it about a year ago 2018. And that to this day, we still enjoy having what we would call our partners meetings or partner lunches or partner dinners, I still consider ourselves as as one unit. Part of the reason why that magic works so well is because from day one, everybody had their own role. You know, Mark was very much our CEO and internal Mitch was more of the president out there rain making making noise. MC was more the sort of hybrid creative technology person. And Aubrey was more the operations and finance guy. And the old joke that we would always kick around to other media outlets is, you know, works really well because I hate everything they do, and they hate what I do. Right? But it makes it really easy to sort of stay in your own lane and do your thing and then obviously, really be respectful of each other’s decisions. I mean, I think that that’s you You know, the big the big one is always when things are looking good, everyone’s got their back to each other and it’s knives out. When things go bad, it’s knives it right. And the ability to step back in those moments and go, why are we blaming one person two persons an operation versus again having our backs to each other with knives out, that became more of a skill for us and our ability to elevate beyond the current situation looking at a macro level, what can we do to change it without laying blame on one individual or another. I also think because of our CEO Mark, and how we ran the business, he had had experience building FCB in Canada. And so he had been down the road both with networks and holding companies and also just running a very aggressively growing fast agency. And I think that did a lot of brush clearing for us. So a lot of the mistakes that you’re typically going to make in the agency life we had alleviated because he would come in and go now I’ve seen this before. This is sort of how we should go head down this And all of us had, you know, again, complementary skills, and that, because of that, and the sort of financial approach that we brought to the business when we were very pragmatic about our financials, you know, both Aubrey and Mark, which is half of the partnership being really focused on that, we sort of kind of knew, like, what is it like, what’s it worth, where we’re at how’s our quarter going? How’s our year writing what is next year look like? He was very much in front of us at all times. Because we cared about it, we really recognize that it’s one thing to have great creative work. And one thing is to create a great creative, digital product. But if you’re not really running a business, you’re not really running a business. And I’m just thankful that at least two of them because Mick and I tended to be more creative, product driven, sales driven, we’re really on top of it with that level of ferocity. It really did come in handy, through through the entire growth of the business and the process of selling it

CHIP: right. And I think you’ve touched on a few of the key ingredients into a successful business partnership of any kind. Typically, in an agency, which is that you had personal chemistry, you had good communication with each other. And you also had, you know, the complementary skill sets. And, you know, I see a lot of agency owners who, you know, are often interested in adding someone as a partner to their agency in part because it’s, it’s lonely to own a business by yourself. You don’t have anyone to challenge you or to question decisions or to talk things over with and so people love to bring in a partner, but if you if you don’t think it through, and you don’t have exactly what you had, from that spirit standpoint, it can do more harm than good.

MITCH: Yeah, I mean, whenever I see the implosion, and I look at it, it typically, I mean, again, I’m speaking very generalized here. But it’s always like, Oh, yeah, of course. How would it work you both like and do the same thing? That’s usually the start there where it’s like, it’s two creatives and like, there we go. As is going to not not end well. And but you are right that, you know, I was approached over the years and I’ve done speaking events for groups like YPO or ye, O or Or whatever they’re called. And I never understood the allure of it. And it was like, well, the forums and like be having a private, safe place where you could talk with other, you know, entrepreneurs and leaders about the problems. And I’m like, I do that every day with my partners that No, no, it’s different like that. I don’t think you understand my partnership. Right? I don’t think you understand that. It really was, we had our own forum, the four of us and it was, it wasn’t still is a really unique situation. It really, it really was. And it requires a lot of self checking in terms of ego and attitude, and understanding and real and empathy to because as much as you’re equal, you’re not equal, right? Someone goes off and buys a home, the other person wants a car, the other person wants to hoard all their cash. It’s never really equal as the years go on. And so you have to also be respectful that others have more others have less others have different types of challenges, more kids more expenses, whatever it might be. And so it’s it’s it’s that level of empathy, to have understanding what it takes to really be a good partner. And, you know, I’m very lucky that my marriage has been successful as well. I think there’s a lot of similarities between a great partner and a great marriage.

CHIP: Oh, there are tremendous similarities and unlike you, I’ve been fortunate to have some some good partnerships and a good marriage and, and so I’ve seen the similarity in the dynamics and you know, I think that you know, what you’ve just pointed to as far as you know, having that that empathy for your partners are you know, as I like to put it, you know, you need to be all headed to the same city but the way that you get there may be a little bit different and, and so you need to be respectful of that, that everybody kind of you will follow their own path because you know, everybody’s life is a little bit different. And as you say, you know, one person may decide to have a second home and other person may decide to have a couple extra kids you know, it’s it, but it all comes out in the wash in the end, if you’ve got a good strong partnership.

MITCH: Yeah, and again, we can talk about the work and the clients and WP and the excitement of it on it’s great. I love it and it’s super exciting. But to me, that is actually and always will be and I’m happy it came out, like right away at the gateway with you, Chip. But it’s the partnership that really, ultimately is the fact that we survived, you know, 20 years together. And to this day, we do it all over again.

CHIP: Yeah, my longest term business partner, someone that I’ve worked with now for almost 30 years and, and it’s, it’s really enjoyable to have that kind of relationship where you, you know, you can explore, you know, whatever ideas you may have, and, and play off of each other effectively. So,

MITCH: imagine it was three others, yes,

CHIP: but that would be that would be outstanding, but, alas, I can’t turn back the clock 30 years and do it with that way, but Okay, so So, you know, one of the other things you touched on was, you know, obviously, after you sold the business, you remained with it. And that’s very typical in the agency space. I think, you know, one of the misconceptions that a lot of agency owners have is that once they sell, they get to, you know, hand over the keys and, you know, head to the islands and enjoy my ties for the rest of eternity, but the reality is almost every agency sale has a period where you continue to work for the acquire, you typically have an earn out so you’re you don’t get all of the money up front it’s you know tied to performance in those years after. So talk to us a little bit about you know, how your your the transition from owning your own business being your boss, I’ll be it with partners to now working inside of the the larger environment

MITCH: ultimately, there are deals that are done that are, you know, cash outs, they do exist, they don’t really exist within the holding company structure. And that’s just the route we decided to take. And I’m still fine with the fact that we did it that way. I thought it was the right avenue for us, but there are, there are those who sell and have my ties there definitely are in in this business. It does tend to be a multi year earn out with even a year of employment after if you so choose or that you create others there’s nuances to it, but it’s pretty straightforward in terms of what the holding company These expectations are for growth and all that sort of stuff. So So there’s that. But But you’re right, the bigger question was, what happens when you sell your child? Right? And that’s that that’s sort of the way interpreting your question. And I can tell you the only way to survive that is to be very comfortable and understanding the minute you sign the letter of intent, let alone the actual purchase offer, which comes after the due diligence of the LSI. You have already agreed that you’ve put your child up for adoption and it’s no longer yours. And I think the conversations that we had as business partners fell into two buckets bucket one was, we understand that by signing this document, there will be monies and then an expectation of employment for X amount of years. We have to be able to all four of us look into each other’s eyes and commit that we’re committed both to each other, the business and the company that decided to give us this this This the sale.

And it was a, you know, didn’t have to be a legal paper, it was just a look in the eyes and saying, Are we all in this for the long haul, knowing full well that this is no longer ours, and that every day could in fact be a misery and that if that’s the days that they wanted to give us, we have to take those days with a smile.

MITCH: Yeah, so So I mean, we approached it like that. So there’s two ways you can react to a situation, you know, I would never do it that way. They can’t do this. to us. This isn’t fair, this isn’t right. Or it could be, I forfeited my right to say that and I can give them an opinion back. It has to be very fact based and pragmatic. But ultimately, if they want to move forward, it is their business to move forward with and I have agreed to either be the conduit, or the bearer of the good and or bad or neutral news that comes with that. It’s very easy to look at the decisions and think to yourself, why would they if they bought us because We’re such good business people, why would they treat us this way? Or to these types of things to us? And the answer is when you’re looking at a public company that’s worth $40 billion you have to understand the mechanics are moving in a different velocity and pace then you might have optics into and as stupid as some of these decisions might be or as brilliant as they might be. They’re not really yours and it’s not really your business anymore. You have shifted from owner to as you said, manager and I would be lying if I sat here and said it’s it’s it was comfortable and great every single step of the way. No, it’s not, but I can’t sit here and be mad or angry about it because it’s the situation that I created an agreed to.

CHIP: Right. So that is so it sounds like you you you may have had a moment or two afterwards where you said cheese what you know, why did I do this, but you were able to move beyond that.

MITCH: Now why did I do this? I was always okay with that. It was more like, I’m not sure I’m clear on why. They’re making the choices for our business. I wouldn’t do that. And I think my reasoning is still business sound, it’s not just emotional, but it is out of my control and I have to be accepting of that. So it didn’t even have that level of negative connotation to it only because I we went in with the philosophy up it’s there’s, we have to be understanding of that to

CHIP: you said that, you know, you would you would love to see all agency owners have a successful exit. And as I like to say to agency owners, you’re going to exit the business someday and in some fashion, whether that’s by selling it or handing it off to family are walking the keys away, someone just walking away or toes up, in some fashion, you are leaving that business. You know, what advice would you have to folks as they’re thinking about their own exit and potentially selling the business? You know, how should they be thinking about it? How do they, you know what, from your experience, can you share with them? Do you think that would help them make their own decisions

MITCH: I don’t think there’s a unified answer to that chip. I think everybody has to look deep into their own heart and decide what type of business and lifestyle they want. It took me a really long time to understand what a small businesses because to me, I looked at every opportunity as how do we become global? How do we do more? How do we grow this? How do we how do we scale this? And I fail to acknowledge that there are many people who are running small businesses, that it’s more of a self employment strategy, right? It’s it’s this ability to make as much money as you would working for big CO, but not having to have any of the problems of you know, key passes and coffee limitations and budget issues or whatever it might be. And I mean, I’m not I kid you not, it took me a long time to understand why anybody would want to be in business to not try to scale it at at a magnitude. So I think it requires that everybody looks into their heart and soul and says what do they want to do and ultimately, yeah, you if you’re going to go the route of Holding Company understand that, you know, it’s another four or five years of your life on top of that. So the sale number might even sound good today. But can you go through another half decade of the process of what it takes to get there. And again, a we were somewhat diluted because we hear stories like Instagram was acquired for $3 billion. And these are the anomalies. They’re not the real stories. They’re not the scared people like I am, or you may be in running your business and worried you’re going to lose the plant and how you’re going to make payroll. And those are the stories you don’t hear. We only hear these sort of strange stories of these companies being acquired for billions of dollars. You have to really think deeply about the type of business and life you want to lead. I believe all businesses have an event horizon of about 10 years if you’re lucky, and a good way, good sense meaning, like you did really well. And I think it really is a 10 year journey to see what the fruits of that labor are. So So it’s a haul and I just don’t think it’s a quick hit or a quick fix. And I don’t think selling is a quick exit,

CHIP: right. And I want to underscore one of the things that you said there because I think it’s absolutely critical, which is that each owner needs to understand what it is that they want. What there’s no one size fits all just because, you know, someone looks and says, Well, this is what Mitch did this, you know, I should be doing the same thing. This is what shifted, this is what I should do. It’s not you, you need to figure out what it is that you want out of your business and, and people create agencies and run their own agencies for all sorts of different reasons with all sorts of different objectives. And there’s nothing wrong with any choice you take as long as you’re doing it consciously. Well, the

MITCH: one choice that I think it can be thought of in a different way is what you do. You know, and the reason I say that is because it became very apparent that you know, again, we happen to come in and really good timing on being a digital only shop, right? I don’t know if it holds the same multiples today as it did back then. But I do remember that just a general shop had a very low multiple, but if digital one had a very high What? So those are the things that you can impact, which is if you’re looking at how do I grow or change or even sell my business, really looking at where the multiples lie in terms of the work that you do is something you can control. So it you know, and the reason I say this story is because there was a moment in time we were looking at what we do. And we thought, Well, why don’t we just do TV ads and videos and all this other stuff, like we’re good at that stuff. And again, it took mark, who was our CEO and mark the elder amongst us to say, I believe there’s more of a multiple instinct, digital and Spang. Very, staying very, very nice and very, very focused. And it turns out that it’s true across not just being digital, but any form of services, the more specialized you are, the more valuable it is. So that’s the only area where I would I would caution to if you’re going to think about also take a look at what the multiples are, because it might not even be a path for you. You might look at it and think oh my god, this is not a multiple I’d be comfortable with I’d rather run it into the ground, then hand the keys over then then sell it, which is also viable. The other thing is you do have to To be able to manage your finances, they’re looking historically for growth over multiple years. And so if you have a bit of a yo yo business or jigsaw business, it becomes very tough to sell it becomes almost unsalable. And if that’s the case, you need to think about, how do I either streamline it so that I can show growth over a period of three, four or five years? And or what is my exit plan to sell to the employees is to just keep going and make it a small business, whatever it might be. But they’re all different routes that you can control that part of it.

CHIP: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. And I, I think if you start with what it is that you want to personally achieve, then you can figure out you know, how to shape the business to take you in that direction. And you know, one of the things that I often do with agency owners is I use what I call my aim, get framework, and the whole thing doesn’t matter for this show. But the the first tour, ambition and identity because if you figure out what your personal ambition is, and then you figure out what the identity of the agency is matched up to that, you know, that’s how you can take yourself down the path whether you’re, you know, looking to have a lifestyle agency where you know, you you You get to work the hours that you want. You can, you know, do three days ski weekends in the winter and beach weekends in the summer and travel with the kids or whatever, or you want to build something where you can get the maximum possible multiple. You know, either way you can structure your business for that, but you just you need to be very thoughtful and plan it out.

MITCH: Yeah, and it’s, the other thing is, I do look back and go, I don’t want to discount luck. And I just I always, you know, people go, Oh, you know, you work hard, you get lucky. I think that’s true. I think if you work hard, it puts yourself in a situation where more things happen, and there’s luck. But I also think there’s another luck that just sits on top of it, which is just, it’s just life. It’s like, how did I miss meet these partners? How did we focus on this? How is it the right time versus like, there’s just so much stuff that is out of your control, and I don’t want to use that as a lever for a reason to not be successful or an excuse for success. They could go both ways. It’s somewhat ambiguous. But it’s an important thing to talk about, because you might hear the words coming out of my mouth and think, well, if it’s just sort of a head down and Ryan and Mitch seems so smart and did everything, right? If Thank you, it’s very complimentary of you. I think I can communicate concepts in a very cogent way. But I do not want to diminish the random luck, that got us down this path. And don’t think for a second that I don’t look at it like a lottery ticket, because I do. Yeah, it was just really, really lucky.

CHIP: Luck always plays a part in these things. And I think, you know, part of it is, as you suggested that, you know, by working hard, you can often create those opportunities for luck. And then I think the other pieces is you have to be open to the opportunity for luck, you know, whether that’s finding the right business partner at the right time or finding the right model, you need to be open minded, and that, that allows you to take advantage of luck when it comes your way. So, but it certainly plays an important role in success. I agree. All right. Well, that’s it. Unfortunately, to bring us to the end of our time together. I know we could certainly spend the whole day here chatting about these topics and others, but if someone’s in Interested in learning more about you, Mitch? Where should they look online

MITCH: appreciate that chip chip. It was great to connect with you after all these years we’ve known each other for again almost close to the full tenure of the 20 years so it’s great to hear voice people can find my blog and podcast at six pixels dot com, which is all of my content and all the stuff I’m doing Radio appearances etc. speaking gigs, or go to Mitch Joel dot com, which is more by sort of speaking page and stuff I’m doing over there.

CHIP: Well, Mitch, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with the audience here and with me about your experience, I think it’s been very beneficial. Hopefully, folks will go check out your site learn more about you if they don’t already know you your podcast is fantastic. I’ve been a longtime listener, I, I can’t claim to listen to all 700 or so episodes, but I’ve I’ve listened to quite a few of them over the years and I will include links to all of those in the show notes for for the listeners so that they can have easy access. So, again, my guest today has been Mitch Joel, the founder of Six Pixels Group.