Gordon Stanis: “People aren’t asking for this yet,” to which we would say that old Henry Ford quote, “If he asked people what they wanted, they’d say ‘A faster horse.’ Sometimes you’ve got to lead. You’ve got to explain the art of the possible and open people’s eyes.”
Joe Casabona: That was Gordon Stanis. Like last week’s guest, Colin, Gordon helped create a smart lighting system. But where Colin wanted to improve our homes, Gordon wanted to improve our experience in parking garages. This is a super interesting conversation where we cover both hardware and software, mesh networks, and much more. But before we get to that, I want to tell you about a new resource I have for podcasters, called Podcast Liftoff. Now I’m coming fresh off of Podcast Movement 2019, and lots of folks are interested in how I started my show and particularly my website. I know many of you are too, so I wanted to tell you about a free workbook I created that will help you take those first steps into launching your show. You’ll answer questions about your topic and format, and you’ll get show scripts and note templates, you’ll get checklists and a whole lot more. If you want to get this free download, head over to HowIBuilt.it/Liftoff. Get your free Podcast Liftoff workbook download today. Now let’s get on with the show, after a quick word from our sponsors.
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Joe: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today my guest is Gordon Stanis, the director of design and strategy at Twisthink. Gordon, how are you today?
Gordon: I’m doing great. How are you doing today?
Joe: I am doing well. Thank you so much for joining me today, and thank you for working through some of the pre-recording technical difficulties and at home difficulties, some of the hazards of working from home. I appreciate you joining us today, and I was wondering if you could tell the listeners a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Gordon: Sure. I am a degree-trained industrial designer that has worked in the automotive industry, contract furniture industry, consumer electronics industry. For the past two decades, I’ve been leading the design and strategy teams at a firm called Twisthink in western Michigan, and we work for Fortune 500s and Fortune 100s in just about every market imaginable. Designing great user experiences and products for them that typically involve a heavy technology component.
Joe: That’s great. That sounds incredibly interesting. I’m sure working for companies of such a big size have a bunch of complexities that a lot of the listeners who are freelancers or smaller agencies may not be too familiar with. What is it like working for a Fortune 100 company?
Gordon: It’s great. One of the reasons that we rarely work for individual inventors and smaller companies is that they really don’t have the slightest idea what it takes, how hard it is to take an idea and develop it appropriately and tune it towards your stakeholders, and then get it into the marketplace so that it stands a chance of winning. It’s a time-intensive, capital-intensive endeavor and only the Fortune 500s and 100s, and occasionally we try to connect with a VC-funded organization or a university tech outpost once per year. It’s not necessarily a money-making venture as much as it stretches us, it helps us grow, and keeps us connected with a different audience. But larger organizations have done this before, and they have systems and teams and expense accounts that can bear the burden.
Joe: Gotcha. So you work with individual inventors, you said, to help bring their stuff to market. I think that’s really interesting because I’m in the software field, and it’s easy for me to say on a Friday, “I had this idea for some piece of software,” and if I decide I’m going to work through the weekend I could have a working copy of my idea by Monday. Not the case in the work that you do, right?
Gordon: No. A lot of our work is hardware-intensive and software-intensive and deep UIs, really complex user experiences. In fact, there is a project that we did a couple of years ago where we had one guy full time with the support of our team cracking the code for an algorithm that would discern between the four different strokes that a competitive swimmer would do in a pool. The goal was to have these wrist-worn sensors determine without pressing any buttons whether they’re doing one of the four different strokes that swimmers do. That took– So you’d think about that, a 95th percentile male and 5th percentile female, and everything in between. That data set was so vast it took a year to figure out reliably who was doing what.
Joe: Wow, that’s incredible. I think about that stuff with things like the Apple Watch, for example. Detecting falls and how much testing and how much data gathering needs to go into that.
Gordon: I think about the Apple Watch all the time when I brush my teeth. I’m very aware of the fact that someone has access to how many minutes I brush my teeth every day, and how many strokes and in which direction I do. I don’t know that that data has any value, but Apple has access to that information. They know that “It’s about 7 o’clock in the morning. He’s a left-handed person. There’s a pretty good chance he’s brushing his teeth right now, I wonder if any dental companies would like to have information like this from millions of people.”
Joe: That is super interesting, and something I hadn’t thought of because my watch doesn’t go on until after I brush my teeth. But that is very interesting. But today we’re going to talk about a specific product, and We’re going to talk about the Limelight lighting control system.
Gordon: Yes, exactly.
Joe: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Gordon: Limelight is a very unique project. It’s a once-a-decade project for us. As I’ve mentioned already, we do– Our day job is working for large organizations that need innovation, and they either forgot how to do it themselves, so they call us up to help remind them of how the innovation process works, or we have some design or technical skills that they lack, or that they just need new bandwidth. They need more bandwidth, they’re extremely busy, and they can’t get all their work done, so they would call us. Limelight is different in that we intentionally decided to step into the shoes of our customers who are always saying, “It’s very important that you constantly invest in innovation so that your business is sustainable.” We personally invested in ourselves, so we made an observation, and we generated an insight based on our oftentimes insatiable curiosity. We said, “There’s something broken, there’s something wrong. I wonder if that could be fixed?” That gave birth to the idea that is Limelight.
Joe: That’s incredible. You generally do work with other companies, but in this case, you decided that you guys had an idea and you decided to bring it to market.
Gordon: Yeah. In fact, we had a very simple insight, and we began the process of understanding the problem. Before you can solve a problem, you have to deeply understand it. So we spent weeks and months studying this problem and verifying that nobody else had solved it, and as well as we could verify that no one else was trying to solve it. We did some brief low-cost experiments to verify that it was technically feasible, and then we wrote ourselves a business plan, and we hired some– I was going to use the word “Consultant,” but this gentleman refers to himself as an “Insultant.” Because he’s not paid to be kind, he’s paid to be blunt and helpful. This gentleman was instrumental in helping us sober-mindedly scope out what it would take to bring something like this to life. Of course, along the way, we learned about all sorts of technical challenges that were so deep into the crystal ball that we couldn’t possibly see them in the first few months. But that’s what gave way to the Limelight parking structure, flat lot lighting control system.
Joe: Gotcha. OK, there’s a lot of stuff you just said there that I’d love to unpack. But first is Limelight is a wireless outdoor lighting control system, right? You specifically mentioned parking lots and garages, and there is– Is it that they’re smart lights? Or are they–
Joe: OK, cool. What’s the main, if you don’t mind sharing, what’s the main observation that you made?
Gordon: Here it is. One of our– We go to a lot of trade shows because we work in virtually every industry, and someone from our staff– We had just finished up a project for a client, and it was focused on one space. They wanted to bring lighting control into the manufacturing space in a unique way that allowed you to individually address individual light fixtures in a million square foot warehouse environment, or a manufacturing environment, so that when manufacturing cells shift and change you can actually turn on lights only where you want them, and you’re not forced to turn on breakers and big random blocks of 50 lights. That was the big idea. So we had just finished that project for a client, and one of our employees was flying back from Vegas at 0-dark-hundred, and they saw one of the 40,000 parking structures in North America that was lit up like a Christmas tree at 3:00 in the morning. He scratched his head, and he said, “That seems stupid. Why do we do stuff like that?” Of course, we light them up because they instill safety and confidence. You don’t– No one wants to walk into a dim or dark parking structure, ever. So they waste all sorts of energy keeping these things lit when there’s nobody inside. So the thought was, “Is there a better way? What if we could individually address all of the lights in a space, what if we could put an eyeball on every single light? What if we could put a brain and a mouth on every single light, and what if we could make them behave intelligently so that when nobody is around, they’re behaving appropriately and then when somebody shows up, they’re incredibly brilliant, and smart, and add new value?” That was the genesis of the Limelight idea.
Joe: That’s fantastic, and certainly I’m sure will save money for the people who own the parking structure and make patrons feel safe. You mentioned that you did a lot of research to see if it was feasible to make sure that no one was doing it. What was that process like?
Gordon: I would call that ad-hoc. We were doing it between projects when we had time. But one of the biggest challenges was– Imagine parking structures. If we want to communicate, if we want light fixtures to communicate with each other and the entire parking structure itself, we’re having to punch through a lot of concrete and a lot of steel rebar. That’s a hostile environment for a radio signal propagation. Then you throw in a bunch of sheet metal that’s there sometimes and not there at other times, and it creates for an unforgiving environment for radio frequency communication. We had to make sure that it was feasible and it was possible, that was the big technical hurdle, and frankly, that’s the reason no one had done it before. We fought for two decades, our team has been working with every single radio protocol under the sun, and in fact, I don’t know if it’s true anymore, but five years ago we were running and managing the largest Zigbee radio mesh networks in North America as a result of the Limelight project. Once we determined that it was feasible, we basically just started building the system.
Joe: Gotcha. So that makes sense, right? Everybody has Wi-Fi now, and if you have a concrete basement or something, you’re going to need to add another access point in order to get internet in that basement. Or, signals can only travel so far through certain materials. That’s incredibly interesting. The main research was to try to figure out, “Can we put smart lights in a mostly concrete structure?”
Gordon: Yeah, and then, “If we could, how much energy could we save? What other things could we do? What other user experiences could we bring to life that people would value?” We knew that one of the largest costs for a parking structure was variable energy usage. They really can’t– The real estate cost isn’t variable, the maintenance costs, in general, are pretty consistent, but the energy use is a dial that they can turn. So we started to calculate how far we could turn that down while still being perceived as bright or brighter than any garage ever at any time. The beauty is what we learned through this process is the outside or the perimeter of a parking structure at night must be well-lit. The outside spaces need to be well-lit. The core of a parking structure doesn’t need to be well-lit, that could be stepped-in. That could be at half brightness because there’s no one there. But as soon as someone goes in, then it has to be brought up to full brightness, and then as soon as those people leave, you can bring it back down to a dim state. Doing that provides the opportunity to save a lot of money. Then you layer on things like daylight harvesting, so we’re not going to overdrive these lights in the morning on the east side of the building. That would be foolish. There’s plenty of light there at that time of day, and you can see how adding a brain and adding sensors and algorithms and intelligence into each individual light fixture allows every single one to be more efficient, and they can also communicate with each other.
Joe: Let’s briefly talk about that before we get to the title question. They can all talk to each other, so is this like “There is somebody walking near a light fixture ‘A,’ they are walking at some speed towards ‘B?'” They’re talking to each other saying, “‘B’ bring up the lights a little bit more now because somebody is about to enter your zone.” Is it something like that, or is it something different?
Gordon: You nailed it. That’s exactly it. It’s predictive analysis of where people are going, so there’s always light ahead of you. If you’re heading in the direction, we can predict where you’re going, and we’re going to light your path. Then it gets really interesting if, say– This does, unfortunately, happen in some garages, let’s say somebody wants to– Has nefarious intent and they want to commit a crime, or they want to mug someone. Typically they would knock out a light fixture outside an elevator or a staircase. If somebody does that with a Limelight product, that fixture is going to know what happened. It’s going to send a signal to the neighboring lights and the building administrator to make people aware that just happened. We can have a variety of different behaviors that automatically take place. A distress call could be automatically made, and the surrounding lights that form a circle around that light that was just taken out, they can pulse. And that pulse is a universal language to average human beings, and pedestrians walking around that something’s wrong and put people on alert.
Joe: That’s incredible. Because now you’re not only saving the owners of this structure money presumably, but you’re making it safer for them, and you’re alerting the authorities faster, so you’re making it safer for the people there. It sounds like you’re solving a multitude of problems by making this one simple observation, which I think is cool.
Gordon: And this is an IoT, Internet of Things, product. What we’ve learned over 13 years of designing such products and systems, because it’s really you’re bringing up an entire system or an ecosystem to life, is that when we help a client solve a specific problem by bringing to life an IoT infrastructure, we actually uncover multitudes of opportunities that maybe they hadn’t even thought of before. Because again, when you put eyes and a brain and a mouth on a product, it can do so many more things for you. It opens up your imagination. In fact, sometimes we jokingly refer to this as fracking, like we’re fracking people’s imaginations. This stuff was already there, and we’re just loosening it up and freeing it up so that can be harvested. People talk about innovation a lot, and you read about it a lot. But at the core of innovation is curiosity, imagination, creativity equals innovation. IoT has this amazing ability to allow people to imagine futures they hadn’t imagined yesterday.
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Joe: Let’s get to the title question here because you say you’re giving these lights a brain and an eye. How did you build it? Let’s talk a little bit about the hardware side of it, and what sensors you put in it, and then the software neural network side. Because they’re all talking to each other.
Gordon: Yeah. We call that a “Mesh network,” so it’s a daisy chain communication pattern, and it doesn’t have to connect to anyone’s IT system. What we’ve also learned in creating these innovative IoT infrastructures for a wide range of clients is that nobody wants– No IT organization wants any of our products to connect to their IT. They want this Battlestar Galactica firewall, if you will, between– I know that you’re a Trekkie and you like NASA and stuff, so you know what I’m talking about, right?
Gordon: Exactly. So we create these environments, and they communicate with the outside world cellularly. So there’s a cellular gateway, whether it’s 5,000– Or sorry, 200 desks per floor in a campus building for a large organization that is serviced by Herman Miller, those desks will all talk to each other, and then they will talk to the outside world via a cellular network. Each level of that building has its 200 desks, and they’re all talking outside that way. We refer to that as a “Mesh network, communicating with the outside world via gateway.” In this case, the way we started and the way we– After working on this system for over eight years, very different business models. We started selling light fixtures with embedded radios. This was at a time when LEDs were becoming more popular, but they were still very costly. They were still somewhat unreliable. But it was obvious and inevitable that the LED tsunami that was approaching us was going to land. It was going to hit the beach. But it wasn’t there yet, and it wasn’t ready yet. So we launched with sealed fluorescent light fixtures with this brain and eyeball and everything embedded into them, and in what seemed like the blink of an eye LEDs became reliable, and they became cost-effective. They just landed a little faster than everybody thought they would, so we shifted to only supporting LED light fixtures and we shifted from creating our own to allowing every manufacturer– All the large scale manufacturers like Philips and Hubble and others, Cree, to use our brain and our lighting control system in bolted-on or built-in to their sophisticated LED lumineers that were going into parking structures. Our business model completely shifted from being a fixture– An ecosystem provider to just being an ecosystem provider. We sold the radio module to the fixture companies.
Joe: That is so– That sounds interesting. I feel like there’s some analogous things between that shift that you made and a similar shift that I made with selling my online courses, which I was only going to focus on creating these one-off course sales. Then I realized that most of what can make me money is course licensing. So I generalized the course material, I license it to larger organizations who then provide it as a free service to their customers or their employees. It’s interesting to see that shift based on where the market is going, and how you can work with other strategic partners to evolve your business model.
Gordon: Bingo. We call it a “Networked sale,” and we used to have to own it all. We had all these big, large, heavy, physical products that we were shipping out the door, we were arranging for their manufacturing and shipping. Overnight we were shipping really small modules to manufacturers, and they would attach them themselves in their own factories. It completely shifted our business model, and instead of just having one light fixture, we had access to everybody’s best. The best and brightest, pun intended.
Joe: That’s great. Then you could focus on what you do best, which is work on this ecosystem.
Gordon: What we learned through this whole process is that we were way ahead of our time. The people in the– Shocker, the parking structure industry is not the most early-adopter, technology-centric business model on the planet. These are big vending machines and a set of bags of potato chips who have SUVs and sedans and so forth, and they weren’t thinking about technologies other than capturing your cash via your credit card at the front door. They weren’t thinking about how technology could revolutionize their business. There was a lot of education required. We– I say “We,” it wasn’t me. It was my business partner, Bob, who has been to every trade show around parking in North America and beyond many times, proselytizing the benefits before it caught traction.
Joe: So what was it like then, breaking into this– Probably an industry that is very slow to move on things that don’t exactly and don’t directly affect their bottom line in a super obvious way. Like capturing credit cards, yes, we can collect money more easily. Because being ahead of your time can almost be a death knell sometimes for technology companies if you’re too far ahead. So what was it like getting traction and breaking into that industry?
Gordon: It was hard, frankly. It was incredibly difficult. We would show up at these trade shows, and people would walk over. Salespeople for parking structure equipment would walk over and say, “Boy, this looks neat and everything, but people aren’t asking for this yet.” To which we would say, “Sometimes you can’t–” That old Henry Ford quote, “If he asked people what they wanted, they’d say ‘A faster horse.’ Sometimes you’ve got to lead. You’ve got to explain the art of the possible and open people’s eyes.” One thing that was at the top of our list at the beginning of this process that we thought would resonate with people was “Energy savings.” We proved that we could save an enormous amount of energy, and that translates literally into dollars into the pockets of the people who own these structures. We thought that was the number one compelling selling proposition for the system, and it’s very important, but what we learned over time was the maintenance story was equally compelling and in some cases more compelling. Imagine how maintenance used to work and let’s say you own 10 parking structures. Every day you had to roll a truck and pay human beings to drive through your parking structures to look for lights that were out. That’s how it used to work. Now, the way that works is someone gets a text message, and it tells them exactly where in what building and what fixture it is, and they just put one in their truck, and they go and swap it out. It’s a revolutionary idea. Then you translate that into one of our largest jobs, which was all of the parking structures that feed into the Washington, DC metro train lines. Where everybody parks their car and gets on a train and goes in and DC, there are dozens of parking structures. There’s 14,000 lighting fixtures in those parking structures. Every single one of them has our lighting control system in it. There’s 14,000 radios, and they’re always assessing the health of every light fixture, and they’re reporting out their status. That helps Phillips sell that– Or, obtain that job.
Joe: Right. Because that makes a lot of sense, if you– With the cost savings aspect, I don’t know what the scale is like, but if you say “You could save 10% or 40% or whatever in your electric bill every month,” versus “We are going to make your employees more efficient.” I feel like that is a really good story to tell, and clearly, it is.
Gordon: It is, and you were pretty accurate with the 40%. That is the type of savings that we’re looking at. It’s sometimes larger, sometimes a little bit smaller, but it’s in that zone. But then when you think of a human being and the cost of an employee, not to say– I’m not trying to get rid of employees.
Gordon: But there’s a lot of costs associated with gainfully employing a human being.
Gordon: You can imagine all of them. So if you were traditionally hiring three people to do that job and now you can get by with a half of a person who’s being deployed in a more useful way for a human being, engaging their minds and their hands and so forth, and not just driving a car around looking at lighting fixtures. It gets really exciting. There’s a huge ROI.
Joe: Absolutely. Like you said, you don’t want to make the argument that you could put people out of work. But if you’re making savings for employees or the bottom line for your employment budget, you can take that money and put it into more education for your employees so that they can do, like you said, things that better engage the mind, for example.
Gordon: Yes. More value-add work. The last thing we want to do as a firm is reduce jobs, we want to improve jobs.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. That’s fantastic. Well, that’s incredibly interesting. So you were ahead of your time, but now, places like DC Metro are using your ecosystem. What are your plans for the future? What’s the next step in this smart lighting ecosystem?
Gordon: I’ve got two answers to your question, “What are our plans for the future?” As it relates to Limelight, we’ve successfully sold Limelight to the world’s leader in lighting control, which is Lutron. Now they currently own Limelight, and what’s great about that is they have hundreds and hundreds of salespeople globally and thousands of employees, and they’re all motivated and incented to incorporate Limelight parking structure lighting, and flat lot lighting, and outdoor park and space lighting control into any job they bid. So imagine Twisthink having a side business with three or four employees commissioning these systems in nearly every state in the country, including Hawaii, we’re doing that as a really small team over a period of seven or eight years. Now there’s this industry leader who owns it and has breadth and depth and reach that we could never rival. So you’ll see more Limelight-capable garages and flat lots in the very near future because of that. We don’t– We personally don’t have plans for Limelight, Lutron has plans for Limelight, and we’re excited about that process. But the real question for us is, “What’s next? What’s Limelight 2.0?” I don’t mean literally a lighting control system, I mean “How can we add value with IoT and innovation to an industry that wasn’t asking for it, may not think it’s ready for it, but could benefit dramatically from it?”
Joe: That’s great. It’s cool to see that you successfully moved this business to someone who it sounds like will absolutely be able to take really good care of it. Now you are moving on to solve the next problem, which is more to your core business because you solve problems and you help your clients solve problems.
Gordon: Yeah. Our core business is our insatiable curiosity to find problems that deserve to be solved, and then a systematic approach combined with analytical rigor and imagination to solve them in unique ways. We always say that “There is no problem we can’t solve. The real question is, which ones deserve to be solved?”
Joe: Great. That’s awesome. Maybe based on that last statement you just made, I have to ask you my favorite question, which is, do you have any trade secrets for us? Of course not industry secrets, but some good piece of advice, maybe based on what you just said about figuring out what the good ideas are, the ones worth pursuing?
Gordon: Yeah, “Lessons learned.”
Gordon: I can share some lessons learned. First of all, the power of a great team is fundamental to solving any problem and building anything worthy of notice. We have a pretty unique team that we very intentionally designed and nurtured over time, and two-thirds of our staff are deep technologists, and one third are skilled industrial designers. You take that unique skill set, and that was strategic two decades ago, we merged what was typically thought of as two separate companies, and we put them together co-located in one space. Not by department, we seat people every other person, so the tech people are mixed in with the designers and the mechanical engineers and the electronic engineers. We shift that space every six months. Everybody moves every six months, and again it’s not by department, we’re just moving people all the time because we want them to pick up this adjacent knowledge that happens in a highly collaborative space. We have no walls in our space, and the other lesson learned that I’d share with you and I think it’s incredibly difficult to put a price tag on it, but we know it adds value, and that is nurturing collaboration in any conceivable way. In our spaces we have every wall is a whiteboard, whether it’s a brick wall with a giant 15-foot long personalized whiteboard attached to it or if it’s drywall, it gets marker board paint on it. Every square inch of our space is a place where you and I or a client and I or whoever, we can stop waving our hands and using words, we just hit it, and we start building these low-resolution prototypes on the wall. This was done in Lascaux cave paintings thousands of years ago, and it continues now. The faster you can get to an illustration and get away from people sitting in chairs and stuffy rooms and using only words and a little bit of body language to communicate complicated ideas. We have no tolerance culturally, no patience or tolerance for that at all. Everything is dynamic, and we’re standing we’re not sitting. All of our conference rooms are stand up conference rooms. We got rid of sit-down conference rooms half a decade ago. We’re, as a firm, whatever we can do to foster and to take down walls and to foster collaboration, to accelerate innovation. We’ll do it. We’re shameless about it.
Joe: That’s incredible. I love the not breaking up your employees by department because you’re right. People can learn a lot from each other, from other industries. That’s the big value of a coworking space. As you were describing what you have, it made me think a lot about coworking spaces in general.
Gordon: Yes. There’s tremendous opportunity in coworking spaces. No walls, 15 foot live plants, lots of sun coming in through the skylights, ceiling fans everywhere, ubiquitous music playing throughout the space which acts as a more sophisticated version of noise cancellation than any waterfall-hissing-snake backdrop. All those things add up. They make it a pleasant space to work in, and they are naturally conducive to people’s imaginations and creativity.
Joe: That’s fantastic. Gordon, I want to thank you for your time today. Where can people find you?
Gordon: Twisthink.com and Twisthink is two words with– There’s only one middle “T” between the two words. That’s the common mistake. Go to our website, check us out. There’s a wide range of case studies that you can look at, projects that we worked on in the past. You can see the customers that we serve, and even some explanation of the processes that we use as well.
Joe: Awesome. I will be sure to link that, and several things that we talked about in the show notes today. Gordon, thanks so much for joining me. I appreciate it.
Gordon: Thank you very much. This was my pleasure. I appreciate it, too.
Joe: Thanks so much to Gordon for joining us today. Talking about this stuff, stuff I don’t usually talk about on the show, was incredibly interesting and I liked what he said about explaining the art of the possible. I think that was a really good quote, that’s why I decided to open up the show with it. So thanks again to him, you can find him over at Twisthink.com. Thanks so much to our sponsors, Ahoy! and Pantheon. If you want to learn more about them, head over to the show notes, you can find everything we talked about over at HowIBuilt.it/134. If you want to download that free podcast workbook and launch your own podcast, you can head over to HowIBuilt.it/Liftoff. Now my question of the week for you is, what did you think was the most interesting part of Gordon’s story? , again, we don’t usually talk about this stuff on How I Built It, but I thought it was a very interesting story. I like the smart lighting, and I like building the physical product and things like that. So let me know by emailing me, Joe@HowIBuilt.it or on Twitter @jcasabona. Again, thanks so much for listening. Until next time, get out there and build something.