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In this episode of Lawyer Business Advantage, I have a conversation with Kirsten Howe, President of Absolute Trust Counsel, a boutique estate planning firm in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kirsten may be humble, but she’s a marketing whiz. Kirsten discusses how her practice has evolved from corporate work to estate planning, trust and probate, to new growing niches in the estate planning field. Along the way, you’ll hear her perspectives on marketing for introverts and using a team based approach to marketing. Hear Kirsten’s stories, get some great ideas and supercharge your marketing!
Alay Yajnik: [00:00:49] Welcome to Lawyer Business Advantage, your source for biz dev tips, wisdom and inspiration. I’m your host, Alay Yajnik. We’re unleashing your inner rainmaker in three, two, one….
Alay Yajnik: [00:01:04] And I’m very pleased to welcome to the show Kirsten Howe, President of Absolute Trust Counsel. Kirsten, welcome.
Kirsten Howe: [00:01:11] Thank you, Alay. I’m really happy to be here.
Alay Yajnik: [00:01:14] Well, I’m excited to have you here, and to have such a veteran podcast here with us here today. Thanks a lot for taking the time.
Kirsten Howe: [00:01:22] I’m happy to do it. Thank you for inviting me. I’m honored.
Alay Yajnik: [00:01:26] And I’m flattered! We can go on like this for an hour.
Kirsten Howe: [00:01:29] Yeah.
Alay Yajnik: [00:01:31] So I’m really familiar with your practice. We’ve known each other for a long time, but a lot of our listeners may not be as familiar with what you do. So before we get into things, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your practice.
Kirsten Howe: [00:01:46] Ok. So I am an attorney. I’m an estate planning attorney, and my law firm is exclusively dedicated to estate planning and those kinds of matters. My law firm is Absolute Trust Counsel. So we do wills and trusts, probate trusts, administrations. We do special needs planning. And we also do government benefits planning for long term care. And we are located in Walnut Creek. I’ve been in Walnut Creek for…let’s see…I’m just going to say over 20 years. I don’t want to put a number. And I’ve been an attorney for a really long time. Let’s just say that I’ve almost always been in Walnut Creek. I guess most of my career has been out here in Walnut Creek. I started out as a business lawyer and then gradually made the shift over to the estates and trusts world.
Alay Yajnik: [00:02:46] Well, Walnut Creek, California, for those of you that aren’t familiar with it, it’s a bit of a bedroom community. So there’s a lot of, you know, an aging population and a lot of people that are, you know, that have a real need for estate planning and elder care. Kirsten, as we’ve known each other, I’ve always known you as an estate planning attorney, and I’d love to hear about what it was that made you make the transition from being a business attorney to an estate planning attorney.
Kirsten Howe: [00:03:13] Sure. The business work that I did, I was working with small companies, you know, usually a company that has one or two or three owners and we would be their general counsel. There are companies that are too small to have a legal department in-house. So we did everything they needed or found another attorney who could do the thing that we couldn’t do. And I enjoyed that because working with a owner of a small business, you’re working usually with the decision maker as opposed to, you know, working with a department head within a giant corporation. And I really like that personal kind of interaction. And I, well, honestly, I was asked by one of my business clients to review a trust that had been in her family for many years and she didn’t understand it. And so I read it and I kind of mapped out for her everything that she needed to know about this trust and what was going to happen. And when things were going to happen. And I really enjoyed that project. And so it happened to be at the time of the Terri Schiavo matter, which you and your listeners may remember in Florida, the woman whose family was arguing over her care. She was in a coma and did not have an advanced health care directive. So anyway, in that context, we decided to reach out to all of our business clients and say, “Hey, you need to take care of this problem. If you don’t have a health care directive, you need to take care of this.” And that resulted in some estate planning work coming to me. And so then I had to hurry up and learn how to actually do it. And I did. And I just loved it. It’s in a way similar to working with small businesses, but it’s even more personal and intimate. And I really enjoy that aspect of it. You get to know your clients in a very personal way. They tell you things that they can’t tell anybody else and their family sometimes. So over time I gradually stopped doing the business work because I had too much of the estate planning work to do.
Alay Yajnik: [00:05:41] Right. Yeah. And ultimately choose what you wanted to do and you were getting a lot of satisfaction out of actually helping people.
Kirsten Howe: [00:05:49] Exactly. Exactly. And you know, I believe that you can only do a few things really well and you can’t spread yourself too thin in terms of expertise. And so I really felt I had to let go of one or the other. And I let go of the business work. So I’m not a business lawyer anymore, although I understand about businesses. So business owners who come to me for estate planning, that’s kind of been a little added feature as they’re talking to an attorney who understands what they’re up to.
Alay Yajnik: [00:06:25] You know, that is really interesting because we hear about a specialized, specialize, specialize and – you just mentioned it here on the call – it’s impossible to do everything well. But yet, if you have a diverse background in different areas of the law or tax or business, I’ve yet to meet an attorney who who can’t deploy that diverse experience to the benefit of their clients. It really helps.
Kirsten Howe: [00:06:51] Yeah, I think that’s very true. Once in a while I get a referral from another estate planning attorney, one of my colleagues who understands that there’s some business entanglement within the estate and they really don’t feel comfortable handling that. It’s still estate work or estate administration work, but they just don’t feel comfortable because of the business being involved in it. So, yeah. So you draw on – we all do – we have drawn all of our experience to help our clients.
Alay Yajnik: [00:07:28] Now, you sort of moved from marketing…I’ll just say “generic estate planning”, to really talking about some of the specialized services that you provide for your clients in terms of special needs trust planning, MediCal planning and other things, what was it that made you decide to just stop emphasizing the estate planning part, which is somewhat generic, and really get more specialized and focused in those areas?
Kirsten Howe: [00:07:54] Well, as you mentioned earlier, you know, Walnut Creek is a is a bedroom community. We have an aging population. And so there is lots of estate planning happening and therefore there are lots of estate planners. And I can distinguish myself as an estate planner. I believe I’m very good at what I do. And I have a team that’s very good at what they do. But it’s still you know, you’re still one of many, many, many. And if you can find some way to really, truly distinguish yourself by pointing to perhaps something that you do that very few other people do, that’s an advantage, I think, in the marketplace. And so with that in mind and also just seeing such a need for those particular subspecialties that you were talking about: the special needs planning. Most estate planning attorneys, I would venture to say, don’t do that because it requires a level of knowledge of a whole other body of law, and that’s the government benefits law. So most estate planning attorneys stay in that what you call a generic kind of lane. And that’s a perfectly fine place to be. But I just saw a lot of need and not enough people doing that particular work. And, you know, I mean, we didn’t used to really understand about special needs, maybe 30, 40, 50 years ago. It’s become a much more prominent, prevalent situation for families. So there’s that. And then with the the MediCal the long term care benefits planning, it’s kind of the same thing. It’s just become such a huge population of people who need help with that. And for a while I was referring all those cases to other attorneys and there really weren’t a whole lot of choices for me to refer people to. And I was not happy with doing that because I just didn’t know, you know, I didn’t know the quality. I didn’t know if those people knew what they were doing. I just knew that they said they were doing it.
Alay Yajnik: [00:10:24] Yeah.
Kirsten Howe: [00:10:24] And after a while, I just kind of decided, “All right, this is gonna be a lot of work to learn how to do this. But I have to do it to have to learn it because there are so many people who need it.” And I wanted to be confident that if I’m sending my clients to somebody, it’s going to get done right. I don’t know what that says about me, but that was-
Alay Yajnik: [00:10:53] Mostly good things.
Kirsten Howe: [00:10:53] I guess maybe I’m a little too…I don’t know. My standards are too high or my nose is up in the air too much. Nobody else can do it as good as I can…I don’t know. I hope that’s not how it’s coming across. But it might be.
Alay Yajnik: [00:11:14] It’s definitely not, because you have a team. So clearly it’s not all about you and what you can do. No, no. Like, a couple of things were happening. The first is you looked probably at bar association meetings and looked around the room and saw there were a lot of estate planning attorneys and realized that, even though you’re really good at marketing (which we’ll get to in a minute) there were opportunities maybe to distinguish yourself and you were thinking about how you could do that. And I don’t know if you made this choice deliberately or not, but looking back on it, it certainly seems like a brilliant move because special needs planning is a growing area. MediCal planning is a growing area. And both of them were underserved at the time.
Kirsten Howe: [00:11:57] Yes.
Alay Yajnik: [00:11:57] And you were referring out at a lot of work for those two things. So you decided, “All right. Well, I’m going to invest in myself, take the time it takes to ramp up on these things. And then now I have two growing areas of the law that are relatively underserved, even more underserved than estate planning and-
Kirsten Howe: [00:12:17] Right.
Alay Yajnik: [00:12:17] Boom! There you go.
Kirsten Howe: [00:12:21] Yes, Alay, you summed it up perfectly, much more eloquently than I could.
Alay Yajnik: [00:12:26] Well I had the benefit of listening to it the first time. And, you know, connecting those dots in reverse. It was a very smart move. So congrats on on recognizing that and then pursuing it.
Kirsten Howe: [00:12:40] Well, thank you. Thank you.
Alay Yajnik: [00:12:44] And throughout the whole time I’ve known you, I know business development has been something that you’ve done really well. And even before I met you, people were talking to me about how great you were at business development. At what point did you realize in your in your law career, at what point did you realize that business development would be a skill that was critical to your success?
Kirsten Howe: [00:13:07] Well, when I when I was working as a business lawyer, back toward the beginning of my career, I was working as an associate for another attorney. So it was his law firm and I wasn’t worried about that at all. You know, I just did the work that he spoon fed to me. He was the one who had to worry about getting new clients. But when I started doing the estate planning, I was developing that on my own. And, you know, really pretty much right in the beginning, it became clear to me that, you know, it’s a very transactional type of practice.
Alay Yajnik: [00:13:50] Right. You always need to be bringing in new clients.
Kirsten Howe: [00:13:52] Yeah you get a client, they’re your client for some short period of time. Maybe it’s two weeks, maybe it’s six weeks, maybe it’s six months. But then they’re done. The project is done and they go away. They may come back to you five years down the road when they need more work, but you can’t rely upon that. There is no real continuing source of revenue in my practice area. You know, I realized very early on that business development was going to be a big part of my job.
Alay Yajnik: [00:14:26] So that was when you decided to become an estate planning attorney is when you got involved with that, really. In my work with attorneys, I’ve heard so many of them say this almost verbatim: “You know, Alay, I’m an introverted person. I just you know, I don’t really like marketing and networking and schmoozing. And so I don’t do very well at business development.”
Kirsten Howe: [00:14:50] Yeah, I know. Well, that’s their belief. And so they need to be disabused of that, I suppose. But I mean, you know, introverted means you don’t really get energy from being around other people and having to do those kinds of things. Schmoozing and what have you is exhausting. And I’m the same way I’m an introverted person. But I would say that you have to do it. You have to do marketing. That’s the bottom line. You have to do marketing. You just have to figure out a way to do it that works for you. And, you know, not everybody has to do everything. There are many, many, many different marketing tools that you can pull out of your quiver and use. And you have to pick the handful or, you know, you have to load up your tool belt with whatever works for you.
Alay Yajnik: [00:15:52] What have been some of the things that have worked for you as an introvert?
Kirsten Howe: [00:15:57] Well, I as an introvert, I don’t like to be the center of attention. I don’t want that. Like when I walk into a room full of people who are networking, you know. That to me is horrifying. I don’t want to have to walk up to a group of people who are standing around having a good time with each other and just kind of bust into that conversation. That’s not me at all. What’s happening in my head is, “Oh, I don’t want to impose on anybody. I just want to, you know, be respectful” and all that stuff. So, you know, networking meetings, networking groups, you’re missing out on an opportunity if you don’t take advantage of those things. So one of the things that I did early on – you and I were talking a little earlier before we turn the mic’s on about my estate planning counsel, which is a professional organization for continuing education, but it has a networking component to it. And very early I was a brand new estate planning attorney. I didn’t know a dang thing about estate planning, but I knew I should be going to those meetings. And I was I was just so intimidated. And sometimes I would sign myself up for the meeting, pay for it and just not show up at the last minute because, you know, I just can’t go. I don’t know those people. I walk in, they don’t want to talk to me. But what I can do, I am very good at talking to people one on one. I’m very comfortable with that. It’s what my job entails. And I can do that. So what I started doing is inviting a guest to come with me to meetings. So my guest and I would walk into the meeting and I am able to bust into a group and say, “Hey, have you met my guest?” and introduce my guest. And then we started conversation that way. So that was just a tiny little trick. But it made me go to the meeting because I’ve invited this other person. I can’t back out. And it was just a much easier way for me to walk into that cold room, you know, where I don’t know anybody else.
Alay Yajnik: [00:18:25] What a fantastic tip. Yeah. Bringing somebody with you. It’s accountability and it’s also support.
Kirsten Howe: [00:18:31] Right. And it exposes them, you know, it’s a nice thing to do for them. I wasn’t bringing, you know, a house painter or a jewelry maker. I was bringing someone who really should also be a member of that group. So I was doing a good thing for them. And that’s another piece of the answer, perhaps, to your question. You know as an introvert, what has worked for me? Doing things that are beneficial to other people, you know, education marketing is a good example of that. You want to be always writing. And one of the things I do started way in the beginning is writing a blog. And way in the beginning, I was writing a blog and posting three blog posts a week. And then we’ve since backed off a little bit. I just do one a week. But so, you know, providing something of value to people. I don’t like for myself to do marketing that just says, “Hey, here I am. Look at me.” It’s got to be like this is something that I think is going to be helpful to you. And I’m sending this out to you or I’m putting this on my web site for you or I’m, you know, recording this podcast that I think you could benefit from listening to. So that’s another thing that makes the introvert in me a little more comfortable.
Alay Yajnik: [00:20:01] You know, it’s funny. There’s there are two introverts on the show today. One being you and the other being me. And I coach a lot of people who are introverts as well. The one thing they have in common with all their marketing is they’re all very different. In the case of some introverts, they’re actually much more comfortable up on stage than they are one on one.
Kirsten Howe: [00:20:21] Yeah, well, I don’t mind. I actually presentations. Yeah. That I enjoy. And I when I first started out, I was terrified. I thought, “No!” I had in my head the, “I can’t do that. I don’t do public speaking.” I remember in high school when I had to take a speaking class and it was a disaster and I hated it. So I had all of that happening in my head. And I just – you know, you’ve gotta make your nut every month – so you get up and do it and then discover, “Hey, this is kind of fun! These people. They actually are learning something from me. They don’t know what I know.” When you’re talking about what you know…what you really, really know…it’s easy and it’s not scary, at least for me.
Alay Yajnik: [00:21:23] And I’ve heard similar comments, by the way, from from other folks as well who would describe themselves as introverts. My takeaway has always been, this is if you’re an introvert, you can do all the same things that extroverts do. No issue. Just sometimes you have to do less. And so you may have to pick your spots a little bit better and maybe do a little bit less. But the activity you do, you do 100 percent. And if you do that, it’s going to produce results just like it has for you.
Kirsten Howe: [00:21:54] I think that’s a good way of putting it. Yeah.
Alay Yajnik: [00:21:57] The other thing you do, which we haven’t talked about yet, is when it comes to business development and marketing: you are not a one person show by any means. So many attorneys take on all the responsibility for their marketing. They’ll do it all themselves. They’ll write their blog. So go to the events themselves. They’ll do everything themselves. But you actually take a team approach to marketing. And I’d love to hear more about how you set that up and who’s involved in one of their roles.
Kirsten Howe: [00:22:26] Sure. Well, starting in the very beginning, my first assistant, the first person I had helping me with my marketing was my assistant, Ivy, who you’re very familiar with.
Alay Yajnik: [00:22:40] Yeah.
Kirsten Howe: [00:22:40] And Ivy’s been working for me for about 10 years now. And she was a friend of mine. And she said to me one day, “I’ve been thinking about getting a part time office job.” And she just was casually mentioning that. And then I said, “OK, well, when can you start?” And I didn’t really have a job in mind for her, but we figured it out. And what I got her started on at that time, I had been doing some continuing education programs for CPA’s and financial advisers. Those are the two best natural referral sources for an estate planning attorney, and I’d done a big continuing education program and I needed someone to help me with the follow up because, you know, you do this big extravaganza and if you don’t follow up, you’ve kind of wasted a lot of time and money.
Alay Yajnik: [00:23:41] Yeah.
Kirsten Howe: [00:23:41] And so that was assigned to Ivy because that’s a thing…again, going back to my introversion…that’s a thing that I never could have done. You know, that telephone weighs a thousand pounds. And for me to pick it up and call somebody and say, “Hey, thanks for coming to my boot camp, would you like to have lunch with me sometime?” I would never in a million years to do that. But I hired Ivy to do that. And that worked out really nicely. So anyway, so Ivy’s always helped me with marketing and she’s taken on a lot of different aspects of our marketing. But the core of what she helps me with is all of that relationship stuff. You know, scheduling, you know, I want to have lunch with this person. “Can you just get that on the calendar” kind of thing. And she’s very good at that. And keeping me on track and making sure I don’t forget about anything. And then, you know, I write blog posts. That’s a team project. Some of them I write, some of them my associate attorney writes and some of them I have a writer that I pay to write. You know, we come up with the ideas and we outline it for her and then she runs with it. So that’s a a team effort. Same with our newsletter. You know, some of the articles I write, some of them, my associate writes, sometimes we get a guest writer in our newsletter and then the big thing that we’ve taken on in last year is our our Boot Camp. Our Elder Law and Advocacy Boot Camp. And we’re just about to step into our second annual. It’s going to be in May. And that is truly a team project. We have everybody in the firm has some responsibility there. So we’ve got a – you know, we have brochures. We have postcards. We have.
Alay Yajnik: [00:25:54] Well, it’s a big event.
Kirsten Howe: [00:25:54] Yeah it is.
Alay Yajnik: [00:25:54] Yeah. The last one received rave reviews, I talked to several people that attended. And I’m glad to hear you doing it again this year. That’s great.
Kirsten Howe: [00:26:05] Yeah, we are. So anyway, so that takes a team effort. And then I do have an outside marketing consultant who helps me with strategizing. And also they do some of my background stuff, like they edit the podcasts, they produce the show notes for the podcast. They do a lot of the design of things that go out like, you know, if an email blast is gonna go out, they’ll design it so that it has a photograph in it and it looks nice and branded and all that kind of stuff. So I have people who, you know, a lot of people have little bits of responsibility for the marketing.
Alay Yajnik: [00:26:53] That’s great, because it forces you to have, you know, marketing systems in place and it frees you up to do the thing that you’re best at which is actually connect with clients and doing the estate planning work.
Kirsten Howe: [00:27:05] Right. And you’ve got to have a certain amount of continuous marketing that’s just going to happen regardless of whether you’re actively doing anything about it. You’ve got to be able to have these things happening because somebody else’s got their eye on the ball. So, you know, the blog posts are going to get posted and you cannot stop marketing.
Alay Yajnik: [00:27:29] Right. And as you mentioned, 100 percent of the marketing cannot not be dependent upon the attorney.
Kirsten Howe: [00:27:36] No, I don’t think that’s really workable. At least not for me. I don’t have enough time to do all of that because, as you say, I’m a lawyer too! I have clients. I have work on my desk. And I enjoy that part of my job. I don’t want to do nothing but marketing.
Kirsten Howe: [00:28:02] You know, it’s not a good use of the attorney’s time either. There are plenty of marketing tasks that can be done by, you know, a 20 dollar an hour person.
Alay Yajnik: [00:28:10] Bingo. And with that time, you can sharpen your saw, go to some CLE, you know, learn some special skills and do your best. Well, you’re doing things differently than than most small law firms. And the results are showing. You’re definitely growing and you have a terrific reputation and you’re doing very sophisticated work throughout the state of California. That’s fantastic. You know, a lot of people that are listening to this podcast are probably just getting into business development. So for people like that who are just starting to dip their toe in the water or who are realizing that they need to get really serious about business development. What advice would you give them?
Kirsten Howe: [00:28:53] I would say the first step is going to be what are the clients I’m going after and where am I likely to get those? I just mentioned a few minutes ago that the best referral sources for me, for the estate planning side of my practice, are financial advisors because they’re always telling their clients, “You have to have an estate plan.”
Alay Yajnik: [00:29:23] Yes.
Kirsten Howe: [00:29:23] A fundamental component of financial advice. You have to have an estate plan so those guys are great for me and CPA’s: they’re great for me. So, OK, if those are good referral sources, how do I get to those people? How do I get to know them? How do I get them paying attention to me? How do I get them to remember me? So I think you have to figure out who are your clients and where are they going to come from.
Alay Yajnik: [00:29:53] When you put it that way, it sounds so simple.
Kirsten Howe: [00:29:55] Well, yeah, it is. Well, what’s not easy is the implementation that’s, you know, we’ve we’ve all got lots of brilliant ideas, but the implementation is where we tend to get bogged down. And so my second bit of advice for a beginner is..(I did this myself)…I just hired a part time marketing assistant. I was telling you about when Ivy first started working for me. I think when she started working for me, it was like 10 hours a week and we just made it up as we went along. But she was very valuable in terms of getting me to get things done. There were things that I knew needed to be done, and I also knew that I wasn’t going to do them. And having her help me get those things done was really critical. It made a really huge difference. I would say I think that’s one of the best marketing decisions I ever made.
Alay Yajnik: [00:31:15] Yeah, getting that marketing assistant and getting a good one. And then hanging on to her!
Kirsten Howe: [00:31:19] Well, there’s that and that whole thing has changed dramatically since when I was hiring her 10 years ago. You know, ten years ago, plenty of people were looking for jobs. Now it is not quite so easy. But, you know, if you’re looking for something to start out part time, it could be a college student. It could be a stay at home mom who just has, you know, two or three hours a day. And that’s it, you know, because the kids are in kindergarten. There’s plenty. You can find it. You can find it. It could be somebody virtual, you know. Doesn’t have to necessarily be someone who can come into your office and sit at your desk.
Alay Yajnik: [00:32:04] It really doesn’t. And if you’re willing to be a few hours and being flexible on things like location, maybe even being flexible on things like work experience.
Kirsten Howe: [00:32:15] Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. When you’re just starting out, the kinds of tasks that could be really helpful to you, they may not be that complex and they may not require a whole lot of training, but just requires someone who’s going to actually do it because you’re not going to do it.
[00:32:35] If they’g going do it, then do it right. So you don’t have to worry about it.
Kirsten Howe: [00:32:39] Worry about it. Yeah. Right.
Alay Yajnik: [00:32:42] And you’ve taken that approach and grown a really nice team and you’re doing some real sophisticated work. So, Kirsten, congratulations on all the success you’ve had over at Absolute Trust Counsel.
Kirsten Howe: [00:32:53] Thank you.
Alay Yajnik: [00:32:55] As you look as you look to the future, you have a lot of things going on. So what really excites you about Absolute Trust Counsel?
Kirsten Howe: [00:33:04] Well, I’m just going to go back to what I was talking about a little earlier. We have our second annual bootcamp coming up. And it was so much fun and it was so successful. Just in terms of how we pulled it off, it really was smooth. All the participants had a great time, as far as I can tell. And I’m just so proud and excited about my team, is really what it comes down to, because I couldn’t do any of this without them. And right now I have just the best team I could hope for. And as an employer you can’t always say that. You know, employees come and go and sometimes you’re going to lose somebody who is really great. But right now, I have a really great team and I’m just very thrilled about them and about that event that we’ve got coming up.
Alay Yajnik: [00:34:03] You know, in in today’s economy, in the Bay Area, if you have a great team that you’re really happy with, that is fantastic. And I can’t wait to see what this summit is going to be like this year. Because last year you really knocked out of the park. Interested to see what you guys have planned for the sequel.
Kirsten Howe: [00:34:22] Yeah. I think we’ve got to do something really even bigger and better, I suppose. Keep people coming back for more.
Alay Yajnik: [00:34:31] And Kirsten, if they want to find out more about the event, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Kirsten Howe: [00:34:36] They can go to our web site, which is absolutetrustcounsel.com, and they should be able to find out about it. And you can also call us. You know, we’re happy to answer questions. There’s plenty of room for people to attend. And we’re giving out continuing education credits to folks in the long term care professions. Our phone number is 925.943.2740.
Alay Yajnik: [00:35:04] Fantastic, Kirsten. Thank you so much for sharing that with us and thank you for being a guest on Lawyer Business Advantage today.
Kirsten Howe: [00:35:11] Thank you for having me. It was really fun. I enjoyed it.
Alay Yajnik: [00:35:15] And that’s a wrap! To get more episodes, webinars and free stuff, visit lawyerbusinessadvantage.com. My name is Alay Yajnik. Thank you for listening. And remember, there is a rainmaker inside everyone, including you.