Web Masters Episode #87: Alon Carmel


Alon Carmel:

And so we run to his house, which I didn’t have a computer, but he had a computer. He was kind of a techy guy. He was a really nerd, techy guy that loved gadgets. He bought anything that was have to do with gadgets and computers. We go into his house, he has internet, I think 32 kilobytes, something like that. It was very slow, and we open the computer to see if there is any dating site, and specifically because we are Israelis and Jews, we wanted to see if there was any Jewish website.

Surprisingly, 1995 or 1996, I don’t remember exactly, we opened the Apple search and we found 3200 dating sites already exist in 1995, 3200. We looked on each other and we say oh my God, we are late. Let’s see how many Jewish site are there. Out of 3200 there were about 120 Jewish sites with anything you can imagine, yenta dating, Jewish singles, Jewish dating. All the URLs were taken, not that I knew at the time what is a URL, but he started to search. He said Alon, we are in problem. There is already a lot. We are late. I said Joe, you notice there is 3200 sites. Probably it’s a good business.

Aaron Dinin:

And he was right. It turned out to be a really good business because the person you just heard talking was Alon Carmel, and he along with his buddy from the story, Joe Shapira founded Jdate. As the story explains, it certainly wasn’t the internet’s first niche focused dating website, but it would definitely become one of the most popular and well-known. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Hi there, and welcome to Web Masters. You’re listening to the podcast that teaches about entrepreneurship and internet history by sharing conversations with some of the web’s most impactful and successful innovators.

I’m your host. My name is Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur and I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University. One of the things I often find myself teaching young entrepreneurs is the value of niche markets. That’s because too many young entrepreneurs think the best way to build a successful company is by appealing to anyone and everyone. On the surface it makes sense. The more potential customers you can get, the bigger your market and the more successful you’re going to be, but reality works a bit differently. Turns out having a more focused target customer base, at least when first launching a new venture, is going to increase your likelihood of success. We’re going to see an example of that happening in this episode right after I tell you about our sponsor.

This episode of Web Masters is being brought to you thanks to the generous support of our partner and sponsor, Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that helps people buy and sell cashflow positive internet businesses and digital assets. That could be a dating website if you happen to be running one. Other types of internet businesses Latona’s help sell include things like content websites, SaaS apps, E-commerce stores, Amazon FBAs, domain portfolios, or basically any type of online, work from anywhere company you can think of.

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If you’ve been listening to Web Masters for awhile, you’ll remember hearing the founding stories for a number of dating websites. For example, in episode number 50, we spoke with Gary Kremen, who started Match.com, and in episode number 78, we got the story of Friend Finder from founder, Andrew Conru. One of the common threads of early dating websites was that online dating was hardly mainstream. That perception is well illustrated by the struggles dating website founders had with investors. In fact, if you’ll recall, Match.com’s investors ended up selling the site for almost nothing just because they didn’t want to be associated with the content. Friend Finder Networks never even managed to raise venture capital. When I spoke with Alon Carmel, one of Jdate’s co-founders, he mentioned a very similar issue.

Alon Carmel:

It was really, really difficult to find an investor. It was almost impossible. Dating in 1997 was considered almost a porno. No investor wanted to be involved in dating unfortunately.

Aaron Dinin:

Despite the taboo around early dating websites, in its heyday, Jdate managed to build a reputation for itself that, if not entirely wholesome, was at the very least mainstream and, according to Alon, maybe even a little cool.

Alon Carmel:

We loved our business. We really loved our business, making people happy, finding matches between people, creating new families. We knew it’s completely clean and legit. That’s what was important to us and yes, we made a lot of money out of it at the end of the day, so the proof is in the pudding. It’s legit business, it’s clean business, we made money. Everybody’s happy. We were known to have the best offline parties. Anybody and everybody wanted to join.

We had a Hanukkah party every year, which we invested, at the time, like a half a million dollars into a party. Everybody wanted to buy tickets to these. We always lost money on it, of course. It was for the branding, but we had a reputation that it was a cool Jewish party and you don’t find many of those. We just built the brand and so at the end of the day, we spent 5% of the revenues on online marketing, direct marketing, and 95% of the growth was just branding, was just word of mouth, just great customer service and the notion of people wanted to belong to that community.

Aaron Dinin:

The community Alon ultimately helped build was impressive, with everything from the big Hollywood parties you heard Alon mention, to billboards plastering Times Square. Even though Jdate was a niche dating website targeting a relatively small population of people, at the height of its popularity just about everyone had heard of it.

In fact, most people still know what Jdate is, and even though Alon hasn’t been involved with the company for some time, it’s still an experience he’s incredibly proud of, which you’ll be able to easily tell from the way he talks about it throughout the episode. Considering the website’s enormous success, you might be surprised to discover that it wasn’t started with any sort of ambition for it to become a huge company. That’s because Alon isn’t your typical visionary tech entrepreneur, or at least he wasn’t back when he first started Jdate. At the time, he didn’t even own a computer.

Alon Carmel:

So I’m an Israeli-born, and I came to the United States when I was like 25 years old, and I’m professionally a civil engineer, so the first thing that I worked in the United States, in L.A., in California, was in real estate, in construction, development and the buying and selling apartment buildings, single family homes. That was my expertise for many years. I arrived to the U.S. November 11, 1981, never forget that date, which was one of my happiest days in my life.

Seeing America from above the sky at night, and landing in L.A. and seeing all these lights was just amazing. I felt I’m in America, so that was my first wonderful experience and adventure coming to America. For years I used my profession and my knowledge in, call it construction and entrepreneurship, and became an owner of apartment buildings, and loved my business. One day, my friend who was in technology, one of the founders of Packard Bell computers, which probably nobody knows today, but this company was all about. It was in the ’80s, the largest distributor of computers in retail in the United States, I think in the world.

Aaron Dinin:

That friend, by the way, is Jason Barzilay, and yes, Packard Bell, a bit of a forgotten name in tech these days, was one of the largest computer retailers in the world in the mid-1990s. In fact, the first computer I ever personally owned was a Packard Bell computer. Yeah, I’m glad to have, I guess, contributed to Jason’s success?

Alon Carmel:

He was also an Israeli. There were three Israelis that started this company, sold millions and millions of computers, and the first time that I discovered the word internet was from my best friend, one of the founders of Packard Bell computers. When he described to me what is internet, I didn’t have a computer. I never had a computer. I didn’t know how to use a computer. In my real estate office, my personal assistant, secretary, had a computer. In accounting they had a computer, but on my desk there was no computer. There was a pen, pencil, and a yellow pad to write things on, and mostly using a telephone, buying buildings, selling buildings. I’m there listening to the explanations about internet. My best friend called me from his Ferrari and said, “Alon, Alon, I made a million dollars today selling computers.”

Can you imagine that? We both came from kind of poor families and never thought we would be in such a position making so much money, admiring each other and being great friends, and then the internet. I’m asking internet, internet, what is internet? He’s trying to explain to me that there is two computers, one in Saudi Arabia, wants to engage in virtual sex, excuse me for the word, with Inga in Sweden. They can see each other through the internet. She has a computer, he has a computer, and they actually can make love, and I was like amazed.

That was a perfect explanation of what internet is all about. It’s about sex, right? He said now please imagine that this will be between schools and universities, and commerce and everything you can imagine. I couldn’t imagine all the rest. I could focus on the explanation of the sex story, but other than that, everything became really complicated. That was, I think 1991, and then he took me on his private jet and we flew to Silicon Valley somewhere and gaming company explained to us the internet is coming and people will be able to play games. It was really mind boggling. I’m coming from offline real estate, nuts and bolts, and suddenly they’re talking about a whole virtual world. I didn’t know anything about computers, and here I am in Silicon Valley, 1991, learning about internet gaming, sex, and all the rest.

Aaron Dinin:

How did you go from not even knowing what the internet was and not owning a computer to starting Jdate?

Alon Carmel:

How I got to Jdate, it’s even funnier story. I had a partner.

Aaron Dinin:

That partner was Joe Shapira, by the way.

Alon Carmel:

We were manufacturing VHS cassettes. Today when you say VHS cassettes, nobody knows what it is, video cassettes, and I lend him money to sustain his business and then I became a partner. We manufactured millions and millions of VHS cassettes, and I became partner with a person that days later he became my friend. We went to lunch at a small Israeli restaurant called Haifa on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. I think it was 1993 if I’m not mistaken, 1994. He got actual letters from Great Expectations. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about Great Expectations.

Aaron Dinin:

No. What was Great Expectations?

Alon Carmel:

Okay, so it was an offline dating conglomerate. They got 150 offices all over the United States. You go and they take video of you and then the girls come, and the girls take a video of herself, and then you have libraries of videos, girls that want to find guys and guys looking girls, and matchmaking in an office, a beautiful office, really trying to convert you to a $2500 to $5000 membership. Today it’s $9.99 or $29.99. In those days, in ’94 and before, Great Expectations was a conglomerate. It was a huge company. I think it sold at the end for like $50 million, a nice Jewish guy from Beverly Hills. He used to be the owner of that. We were sitting there and Joe is telling me hey, I got a letter from Great Expectations. Maybe we should go to the offices there and look on some videos and girls.

I said let’s go. We went there. He’s trying to explain to me again what is internet is all about. I told him hey, Joe, I know what is internet. I learned it from Jason. He was like you know, this business should be online business on the internet. It all came to place, the story of Abdullah from Saudi Arabia, and Inga from Sweden, the gaming company in Silicon Valley, and now Joe telling me we should start a dating site. I said Joe, that’s a great idea. We’re starting a business. That’s it. Let’s go to Westwood Boulevard in L.A., look on Great Expectations office, and see how we’re going to implement an offline business into an online dating site. Didn’t know how you build a website, but I had the vocabulary already that I could think about it.

Aaron Dinin:

This is the point in Alon’s story you heard about at the beginning of the episode. He and Joe start researching internet dating and discover there are already thousands of internet dating websites, including over a hundred specifically targeting Jewish people. But rather than being dismayed, Alon sees the popularity of dating websites as an opportunity, especially because it was still only the early days of the web, and there was still lots of room for growth. He and Joe launch their Jewish dating website and then they start trying to figure out how to get users.

Alon Carmel:

Joe developed a crawler that found all the Jewish name on AOL, because it was public. Everything was public, and he put the crawler looking for Levi and Cohen and Lovitz and Liebovich, and we were scouting all Jewish names and send them emails to join for Jewish people to find each other. That’s how it started. It all started suddenly, and suddenly people joined word of mouth and in a matter of a few months we had like 10,000 users.

Aaron Dinin:

Why do you think Jdate was so appealing? What made it stand out in comparison to the other hundred or so Jewish dating websites you were competing with?

Alon Carmel:

I think it was the sense of humor that we had on the site. It was really, really funny and we really wanted to make it not serious. There was not too many rules and regulations. We don’t police anyone. There was phone numbers. There was the cellphone numbers of myself and Joe on the site, so everybody could call us and ask questions, and we were not hiding behind some website and some business with investors. It was just him and me, so people called us and said hey, listen, I don’t know how to upload a photo. We told them hey, just mail it. Put it in an envelope, we will do it for you, because nobody had scanners, right? I think it was more the funny, light approach and the customer service because it was great. It was great. People called us all the time. Can I get this? Can you help me that? Girls were thinking we are experts in dating, calling us to get explanations of how to date a guy. It was just funny.

Aaron Dinin:

At what point did you realize your experiment had turned into a serious business?

Alon Carmel:

I think it was in 1997, when we had over 10,000 people. It really took a major toll of our time, and financial toll to start and put engineers. We had to have a graphic designer and we didn’t charge anything, so we said hey, we have to change the model to a subscription model and make some money out of it. Otherwise I could lose my businesses or I don’t have time to work in my businesses, which were doing very well. But we fell in love suddenly with the internet, discovering and being one of the founders of the internet, so we just got drawn into this world of wonderful change that’s happening in the world, and so we were seeking for an investor. It was really, really difficult to find an investor. It was almost impossible because dating in 1997 was considered almost a porno. No investor wanted to be involved in dating unfortunately.

Aaron Dinin:

But you did eventually get investors, right? How did that ultimately happen?

Alon Carmel:

We got the first investor, a German guy. His father was a Nazi, and he invested one million dollars into the company without a business plan, without anything, just wanted to do good, just to cover for his father’s, I don’t know, evilness. The minute he heard about it he said I want to be part of it to preserve, sustain, and help the Jewish people, the Jewish nation, and grow it back. He just wired us a million bucks in the matter of a minute. There was no agreements, no promises, no nothing.

Aaron Dinin:

It’s probably worth pausing a moment here to note that this is perhaps the craziest investment story I’ve ever heard. According to Alon, the first investor for Jdate was the German son of a Nazi, and he decided to invest in Jdate as a form of reparations, I guess, in order to help create more Jewish families to replace the ones his father helped kill. I mean, not that that’s a bad reason to invest, but it’s certainly not a typical investment thesis.

It kind of goes into, I guess, a bigger narrative that’s been true for pretty much every entrepreneur we’ve gotten to hear from here on Web Masters, and that’s to say the ultimate success or failure of a business comes down to all sorts of different factors, some you can control for, such as what kinds of features you build into your product, and some you can’t control for, such as why an investor ultimately decides to invest. As an entrepreneur, how do you deal with the things beyond your control? Alon actually has some advice for that.

Alon Carmel:

I think I can summarize it in one word. It’s tenacity. I think tenacity is the most important asset that a person should have. We are not all very smart, but tenacity and persistence is something that I kept in every business that I had ever, so it took 10 years. It took 10 years to make it very successful. Yes, we can hear about stories of companies that become successful overnight, but I think the majority is just a matter of being persistent, waking up in the morning, working very hard until late day after day, and believing that it’s all going to happen, just like any other business. Nothing too special about Jdate or any other business other than Jdate was just happy days. It was really happy days. Personally I felt like a Hollywood person, you know? It was very glamorous, met a lot of nice people, was always invited to best places and Super Bowls and Lakers. It was very hard work every single day and we could have lost it to other competitors if we wouldn’t work hard.

Aaron Dinin:

Could you elaborate on that for a moment? Because as you’ve even alluded to, I feel like sometimes the success stories we all hear about companies can be misleading. You know, people listen to a podcast episode kind of like this one that explains the founders going from nothing to million or billion dollar companies in 30 minutes and they think it must be really quick and easy, but of course that’s never the case. What was hard and difficult about Jdate? I mean, I realize that’s an impossible question and you’re never going to be able to adequately answer it in a 60 second soundbite. I guess maybe that’s the point, if you know what I mean.

Alon Carmel:

Wow. It’s a combination of many, many things. In the first I would say two years it was a free service. You have to rush and run and present yourself. You have to dress yourself as an attractive investment target and tell a story. It was very, very difficult. The door was closed 100% of the times until we met that German guy that for non-business reasons he invested in Jdate, so it was just lucky. But the persistence and the tenacity to go investor to investor to investor, I mean it was hell telling a story, a simple story about a basic need of human being that can be the greatest investment in the world. We see today, the Match.com of Barry Diller, and it’s a huge conglomerate making hundreds of millions of dollars per year, I would think.

This is just one aspect. Customer service. We didn’t have money to hire so many people for customer service when there was no revenue and no investor, so we had to do it Joe and I. You’re dealing with technology, investors, customer service, and then you get in the mail flooded with envelopes with photos that you need to trim, scan, upload. My son was 10 years old. I had to put him to work. That’s what he used to do, which was amazing because he didn’t understand the differentiation where the guy send the photo with his ex-girlfriend and her hand is on his shoulder. He’s just cut it. He was 10 years old, so it was a whole world of things that we had to do.

I mean, to get the T1 at the time, to get internet, high speed internet, let’s call it, I mean it cost fortune. It was I think $5000 a month, and we had to wait six months until we get it. We worked from an apartment. We didn’t work from an offices because apartment was cheaper. It’s just a lot of things that really made the journey extremely difficult. The day that we changed the business model from free to subscription, I mean we were sitting in front of the computer for hours just to see who is buying and who is not, and our heart was like beating dramatically. Would they buy or not? Would they buy or not? They bought, so each part was extremely difficult and fun, difficult with fun. The two goes together and I hope I answered your question.

Aaron Dinin:

Yes, definitely, and as I said, it was a bit of an impossible question. Let’s maybe try a few easier ones to wrap up the story. First of all, can you talk about the business model you ultimately evolved to? You mentioned that it was initially free but you eventually started charging. How did that work?

Alon Carmel:

Yeah, we started the website as a place to find Joe a new wife, right? He was divorced, but it was just a joke. Then a flood of people came in and at some point we had to find an investor and put some business model into it. We started with $4.99 subscription rate only for males. Females free, males are paying. We saw that people bought it immediately. They paid the $4.95. We changed it immediately to $9.95.

Within few days worked very well, so three months later we changed it $19.95, and it stays for a long time on $19.95 until we decided that we wanted to go public. We went public, we changed it to $29.95, and nothing changed. Conversion rates continued the same. Then we charged the females also. We had more females than males. It was the only website in the world that there was a majority of females in the site. I think it was 52% females and 48% males, so it was heaven for males and females were fighting for the right man, the nice Jewish boy. The business model proved to be just perfect.

Aaron Dinin:

You just talked about going public. That wasn’t only Jdate though. You eventually grew the business beyond Jdate, right?

Alon Carmel:

Yes. I think two, three, four years after we started, I negotiated the buying of wonderful, wonderful URL with about 300,000 members, which was AmericanSingles.com, and I thought it is the most perfect site possible. Within two years, AmericanSingles.com became the second largest dating site in the world after Match.com, but by then I spent a lot of money on online distribution and partnerships. One of the best partnerships I made ever was with Skype distributing AmericanSingles.com on their properties.

Aaron Dinin:

Quick correction here. As you’ll soon hear, Alon later explained to me it wasn’t Skype, but Kazaa, the music downloading service. Skype and Kazaa were founded by the same people, who also happen to be Alon’s friends and he was just mixing up the order in which the two services were launched, but it was Kazaa that became the incredibly valuable advertising channel for Jdate.

Alon Carmel:

That brought us tons and tons and tons, I think the biggest days of signups were somewhere between 50 and 150,000 people per day, and that was just amazing. Jdate became a small site and American Singles was the biggest site at Spark Networks. We had more sites. We had Christian Mingle, which we became very successful years later. I think today it’s the largest Christian site worldwide in my opinion, even though I haven’t been involved for 17 years already. Once I left the company they decided to close American Singles.

I think for me the decision to close it was one of my saddest days, first of all, because I became an American, an American citizen, and God bless America. It was really sad to lose it from many points of view. I thought it was a wonderful business. It was a break even business for years and years and years because I cared about growth, not about profit. Jdate was the profitable entity of the company, and American Singles was the growth. I thought, and I still think, that I made the right choices.

That was the right thing to do, and that was a perfect thing to do because if we would continue to keep it we probably would be today one of the two largest in the world and we could do tons of things with that, not just in the dating. But that’s the cost of being in a public company with a board of directors and we appointed a new CEO, which I thought he was the worst CEO ever possible, a big shot from Silicon Valley. I won’t mention his name. They made the wrong business decisions about this property doesn’t make money and so let’s close it and let’s focus on only niche market, gay, Christians, Jews, and just being niche and not the mainstream. This is something that I couldn’t stand.

Aaron Dinin:

Is that why you ultimately left the company?

Alon Carmel:

In part of that and many other reasons kind of similar. I just decided this place is not for me anymore. I did my job and I have to go to my new adventures. That’s how I left the company. I loved the company. Unfortunately they don’t do well. I guess no one made right decision years after, but at least I’m proud to say that in my times in the company, the company grew triple digit every single year for 10 years, so one of the best 10 years of my life is developing Jdate and the whole company.

That’s how we started Jdate. That’s the story. Not one of us thought ever that that will become a public company. Five years later I think it was beginning trading at about $200 million. 22 years ago, in 2005, I left the public company. It wasn’t for me having a board of directors, too many partners to answer to, an LCC, lawyers and accountants. I am by heart an entrepreneur, and from then I stayed in technology for another 17 years, and it’s been one of the most wonderful years of my life.

Aaron Dinin:

Any regrets? Anything you wish you could do over again knowing what you know now?

Alon Carmel:

What? Today, no? Everything just went perfect. I was supposed to be there for 10 years and then leave, because better things happen later on. Today are the happiest days ever.

Aaron Dinin:

Seriously, no regrets at all? There’s got to be at least one, right? For example, a lot of the guests on Web Masters I’ve spoken with had opportunities to buy or invest in some sort of as nascent or early stage startup that came after them that ultimately became incredibly successful, but they passed on it. Surely you had something like that, right? Any big misses in your career?

Alon Carmel:

Wow, that’s a big one. Yes, of course. A very similar story. If you remember I was speaking about Skype as American Singles distribution channel, one of the best ones. I became close friends with the founders. One is a Norwegian and the other one is Swedish, and we got to be friends and liked each other. I even took them to the Great Barrier Reefs to dive and have a lot of fun. We were really young and geeks and stupid. They told me the story about Skype, which was their next venture. I’m mixing Skype, excuse me, with Kazaa. The whole story from the beginning, you have to fix Skype with Kazaa, so the distribution channel was Kazaa, if you’ll remember. You remember? Do you know Kazaa?

Aaron Dinin:

Yeah. Kazaa was the big free music downloading service that came after Napster, right? I mean, I’m not going to admit to illegally downloading music, but you know, I certainly know people who used it.

Alon Carmel:

Yeah, yeah, so that was the distribution channel for AmericanSingles.com and I mixed it with Skype. The reason is founders of Kazaa and the founders of Skype is the same people. During the period of that time, the founders of Kazaa asked me to invest in Skype, and they even told me the story. If I remember correctly, it was the name of a restaurant in Sydney that the names have changed, something similar to that.

I’m not sure 100%, but I think so, and I could have become a partner for several hundred thousand dollars, something like 10% or 20% in Skype, a few hundred thousand dollars. But the board of directors of Spark Networks did not allow me, on an individual basis even, allow me to be partner with these people, even though we profited from them, we liked them. I personally think they were very close friends of mine, and I admired them, loved them, and had fun with them, just me. I was the only one that really did great things with them on a personal level.

I wasn’t allowed because since we were a public company, and the American government or somebody was running after them for illegal activities with regards to downloads, illegal downloads or something like that. They’ve never been charged with that. I couldn’t join it, and I really protested about it, but of course I have to listen to the board of directors. They didn’t want me to do it, so I could have been one of the shareholders of Skype. I’m not sorry about it. You asked me a question. We all did very well at the end of the day.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay, that’s a pretty great story. Thanks for sharing it. I mean, if that happened to me, I’d call that a pretty big regret, but you know, maybe that’s just me.

Alon Carmel:

Yeah, there was another story. What was the name of the social networking, the music social networking?

Aaron Dinin:

Do you mean MySpace?

Alon Carmel:

MySpace, so I negotiated a contract with MySpace to acquire them, something like $20 million or $30 million in payments over time, the greatest terms possible with the founder, and brought it to the board of directors and they said no way. This is not in our business. We are not in the kids business, the teens business. Conversion rate in dating is very bad. In teens, you cannot even charge. About six months later, it was sold to News Corp or Fox for $580 million. I think that was the number. You’ve got two stories for one question.

Aaron Dinin:

Well, if the joy in Alon’s voice as he discussed Jdate weren’t enough to convince you of just how much he enjoyed building it, the fact that he doesn’t even regret not buying MySpace for $30 million a few months before it sold for $580 million, should tell you pretty much everything you need to know. For Alon Carmel, getting to build Jdate was one of the greatest joys of his life, and I’d just like to thank him for taking the time to share that story with all of us.

It’s always incredible to hear from an entrepreneur who loved his work as much as Alon. Of course I hope all of you know how much I love this work, creating new episodes of Web Masters. If you enjoyed it, I’d love it if you could take a moment to post a nice review or share it with a friend, you know, stuff like that. If you’ve got any thoughts or feedback about the episode, send them our way via Twitter. We are @webmasterspod, and I’m on Twitter too. It’s @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N-D-I-N-I-N. You can also find lots of content about startups and entrepreneurship that I post over to my website. That would be aarondinin.com.

Thank you to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for helping bring together the episode, and thank you to our sponsor, Latona’s, for their incredible support. If you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business, please take a moment to check out latonas.com. We’ll be back again soon with another episode in just a few days. You’re not going to miss it because of course you’re already subscribed, but in case you’re not, I’m going to give you a chance to do that right now, because well, this episode is over, which means it’s time for you to go subscribe and time for me to sign off.