Welcome to the first interview for season three, where we hear from an expert in media creation. For this episode, we are concentrating on photography. To discuss this topic, we are joined by Joe Edelman, whose career as a photographer has spanned the last six decades.
In this interview, Joe is very open and forthcoming. He weaves a cautionary tale, which includes his past struggles with his business finances. As an artist, there can be high and low points with cash flow. Unsurprisingly, once he understood his numbers, his financial success turned around. Besides avoiding pitfalls, Joe's wisdom includes what's needed for lasting success. You will also discover that being profitable as a photographer comes down to a few key elements, pricing, practice, and authenticity.
Regardless if you're passionate about photography or some other creative field, you will learn insider tricks of the trade, which you can implement into your media business.
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Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Joe Edelman. Welcome to Get the Balance Right podcast.”
Joe Edelman: “Thanks for having me. It's fun to be here.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “I'm super excited to talk to you because I love photography. And I saw your pictures and you're an amazing photographer and you're also a teacher and educator of photography.
So let's talk about the photography business. People that get into photography. It's art, it's a passion, but it's one of those art forms You're sort of thrown into being an entrepreneur almost by default, because I don't think that very many people that are photographers actually get to work for somebody else by and large, you think photographers are entrepreneurs.”
Joe Edelman: “Yes and no, by and large, I absolutely concur photographers must be entrepreneurs. The problem is photographers suck at it. That's the real problem. I've yet to meet the person who bought a camera, because they want to learn how to run a business
It becomes that necessary evil. I frequently joke, but it's a sad joke that photographers are professional photographers, I should say are idiots. And for your listeners, I'm raising my hand and I'm one of them photographers go through this evolution.
And it always involves one of two decisions and both decisions are ultimately foolish. They get a camera, they get hooked, they get the bug and then they have this idea and I've never heard a third option. Option one. Wouldn't it be cool if I could make some money with this camera so that I could buy more gear. And there's some logic to that, but still a problem or option two, which is the really crazy one. Wouldn't it be cool if I could pay my bills with this thing. And that's why I say that photographers professional photographers are ultimately idiots of sorts because the minute you make that decision, All the rules change.
It's no longer about you. It's no longer about the way you like to take pictures or what you like to do. It's about a client, just like any other business. At the end of the day, professional photography is really not for everyone. And that's the hard reality that so many people find is that this passion, they developed photographing things that they enjoy, the way they enjoy doing it.
Once they turn pro it's very hard to find that balance.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “I think a lot of people, when they think of photography, they think of it as being a glamorous thing. Oh, I'm gonna be like in fashion or I'm gonna be in a jungle shooting tigers in the wild but there seems to be really in reality, a lot of hustle and grind because you gotta get those jobs.
When people first start in photography maybe it's a side hustle or maybe they're going full into it. Finding those clients can be very difficult. What do you recommend to people when they're starting out? Would you recommend that they work for somebody else as an apprentice have a mentor or how should they figure out the ropes?”
Joe Edelman: “Let me take a step back to answer that. Because there's a perception problem in the photography world when it comes to being a professional photographer. Let's start actually from the client side obviously there is this perception that photography's easy. The reason there's that perception is. Photography is actually easy to get started. Look at what we can do with smartphones. Now, the cameras that we buy, I mean, there are no bad cameras. You cannot buy a bad camera. That's not possible.
There are however, unfortunately, a lot of really bad photographers, you have this. Client perception that photographer's not that challenging or that difficult, but then for the photographers, what happens is you get a lot of photographers and I wanna be clear when I use the word photographers, imagine air quotes.
And I say that because if we go to the dictionary, we look up the word photographer. It doesn't say anything about making money. It just says a photographer is a person who takes pictures, because of this amazing technology that we have available to us today, and I love it. I think that the advances we have are incredible, but it gives people a false sense of ability early on if you are willing to invest the money in some nice gear, you're able with a minimal amount of effort to start taking.
Impressively nice images. But at the end of the day, if you are gonna turn it into a business and if you are going to get clients good clients, the ones that pay the big bucks, you mentioned things being very glamorous. There is still some of that around. And honestly there's as much of that around today as there was 30 years ago, but it's a very small number of photographers that are doing that.
For that small number of photographers, as photographers they do grind, but not in the sense that we tend to think of in today's world. When we hear the word entrepreneur, cuz that's one of those fun buzz words. Everybody wants to be an entrepreneur and work for themselves. No, those photographers that at the higher echelon they're grind.
Is making sure that their work is excellent. Their grind is making sure that their work stands out. That it's different, that it's unique and their grind is making sure that they understand and can provide an excellent experience to their clients, which all adds up to excellent value. So you notice nowhere in there.
Use any business buzzwords until the very end when we talked about experience and value, right? It's actually about just being an amazing photographer. The people that you read about all the time, oh my God, it's so competitive and you really gotta hustle. And the return is not there. Those are the people that, unfortunately, they're not focusing on the quality of their photography.
And honestly, I tend to pull on zombie photographers. They're the people that chase the trends they do, what everybody else is doing because they see every other photographer doing it. They think that the key to success is do that. And that is making a choice. It's making a choice to fit in. It's making the choice to be boring.
It's making the choice to make yourself. Competition where there doesn't need to be competition because the cool part about photography. Every human being is different. So if you do you and you focus on quality and value and great experience, there is no competition.
For my entire career, I've been one of those people. If everybody's over here on the left, you can be your life. I'm all the way in the corner, on the right side. And by the way, I'm not saying that my work is the best or better. It may not be at all, but it's mine and it's unique. And then the challenge as with any other business, find the people that appreciate what you do.
You don't need millions of people to like it. The whole idea with being a professional photographer is do what you do to the best of your ability, and then find the people to pay for it because that's basically what it comes down to at the end of the day.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “I love this because this is so much about what I teach with my group programs finding what's unique about what you can deliver, because we don't wanna differentiate ourself based on price. Cuz that's a fast way down to the bottom. If you can't have your own unique spin on things and you just become a commodity.
Okay. Someone goes to school to study photography. Let's just say that they go the traditional route rather than just taking pictures all their life. So they go to school, they put together a great portfolio and now they're going out into the world to find a job.
And I'm putting air quotes around job. Where would you recommend people start?”
Joe Edelman: “It’s really gonna depend on the type of photography they want to do. I think overwhelmingly photographers today, they start out looking at things like, shooting portraits or shooting head shots or shooting weddings that's where, tons of people tend to gravitate to.
Certainly there are the fields of commercial advertising, photography, there's fashion there. Literally hundreds of different genres, but I think the first step is number one, look at the type of work that you want to do. Look at the people who seem to be doing very well, learn as much about their business model as you possibly can, how they get to work.
That's one of the great things with the internet. It's. Easy to research. This kind of information takes a little effort, but it's very easy to find the information. If you're gonna do let's say portraits or weddings you've got two options depending on where you are and where you live.
You may not be able to find a photographer who needs an assistant or who will have an intern but in most areas for a wedding photographer instance, the best way to get started is to. Do what they call be a second shooter. And that's the person that is not the primary photographer at the wedding, but they're the second shooter and they're gonna go around and they're gonna take a lot of the kind of atmosphere, photos, and they'll shoot a lot of the detail pictures of the rings and the dresses and the shoes and the flower bouquittes and that kind of stuff.
That's a great way to get experience. It's a great way to be exposed to the whole process. Learn the business from the inside out and still get paid a little bit of money. You start there, you build out a portfolio for portraits and wedding photographers. Social media is definitely gonna be the key for building word of mouth.
That's so important because I don't wanna end a sentence with social media is gonna be important. Cuz people get too hung up on how to hack their algorithms. I've gotta post every day at four o'clock. That is all the biggest bunch of crap. The cool part of it is cuz I'm old I'll own it. I started photography professionally in the early 1980s and through the middle eighties I ran a portrait and wedding studio.
I did commercial advertising and back then, the way we advertised was basically three things, one. Word of mouth challenges, that word of mouth from a good client experience, it could take a year or two years to come full circle before somebody would come back and say, Hey, I talked to so and so and they said, I should come to you.
Photographers that were doing well. And I was fortunate enough to do pretty well. We would take out ads. In the yellow pages, which were ridiculously expensive, but that's where people went to find a photographer. They needed a wedding photographer, a portrait advertising photos, et cetera. And then the third version was good, old-fashioned cold calling, right?
It's like reaching out the clients who, we think would have a use for our services. The problem that we have today, people get hung up on social media. Because there's so many social media gurus out there, like it's some secret sauce, some new science and the worst part of the whole situation is it's no different marketing today is no different than it was in 1985. Social media is not a new form of marketing. Social media is simply using the internet to do all the same things that we used to do. And the cool part is. Word of mouth instead of it taking a year to two years, it can happen in seconds because you make the post and it can be seen by thousands of people worldwide, instantly.
Instead of taking out ads in the yellow pages, you create profiles and I'm not even advocating for Facebook ads and that kind of stuff for nine out of 10 photography business. That's an utter waste of time and money. So I'm just talking about taking out profiles on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, the platforms where your potential clients are likely to be LinkedIn.
If you're doing commercial, advertising, work, and being a consistent sharer, not building up a following of millions of people. I know a lot of portrait wedding photographers in this country, in the United States. That have 300 to maybe a thousand followers on a Facebook page. And these people are pulling six, nearly seven figures a year income from their business because they've got the right people following them.
They're not focused on the numbers. They're not burning themselves out, trying to, post every single day. Do all this stuff on social media that all these gurus tell you have to do. I find that all that guru stuff that you read, all these best practices for social media, that's the stuff you have to do.
If your photography sucks. If you don't have a good product, if you can't deliver a great client experience then you better bamboozle with all that other stuff. But if you've got great work, if you deliver a great client experience, people will come to you and that's the way to build a business.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Not just photographers, but all types of businesses get so hung up on oh, I gotta post all the time. And Maybe you should concentrate on other things. let's just go back when they first get a job, maybe it's like helping somebody out could be at a wedding or something like that.
When they are going to get hired for something like this, how much can they ask at that point? Are they giving up their time? Are they just doing it for free? Is there just like a rate that's normally given out.”
Joe Edelman: “There are zero standards there. I'm a big believer that at first as a photographer, and this is based on my own experience first, work for free it's highly debated. There are a lot of people that hate me for saying that, but I'm a big believer that you work for free.
You are giving your time and you are giving your effort to have access to real-world experience, Even if you're not being a second shooter or assisting another photographer, work for free to have access to a client that has real products or real needs.
Because a big part of working as a professional photographer in terms of making great images, it's the communication and the relationship building with that client. It's the planning, it's the preparation. All of those things have to happen before you're gonna be able to make great pictures.
That's the experience that you need. Plus, as that new photographer, you need to build out a portfolio of professional images. So you work for free. Then as you reach a point where you've got. Images that you can show that demonstrate your capabilities then you're going to start, asking for prices.
One of the big mistakes, that people make is they start pulling numbers outta their hat, which is a really bad idea. Or they think well, you know, I need to charge a thousand dollars or something, but I don't have the guts to ask somebody for a thousand dollars yet. I don't think my work’s there.
So I'll do it for $500. I'm a firm believer in. Doing the research, doing the math, crunching the numbers, establishing your rates very early on and never discount your rates ever. I have never in my entire career discount on my rates for anything I have done work for free. I will work with a client to change the services I am delivering to help them keep costs down. Once you discount your rates, you are showing people the true value of your services. The best example I always use. I don't know if you shop at Kohl's. My wife loves to shop at Kohl's. However, she will never shop at Kohl's without a 30% off coupon, because Kohl's has taught. They're customers. You're an idiot.
If you don't have a 30% off coupon, which is also why Kohl's is up for sale right now and about to be bought out by a vitamin company, right? Because their business model didn't work. It simply wasn't sustainable. I don't believe in discounting, you need to do that math early on. You need to get used to those numbers.
You need to understand, Hey, this is what I wanna be able to make in a year as a photographer. This is how many weeks outta the year I wanna work. This is how many hours a week I wanna work. So this is my number, everything I'm gonna price, whether it's a natural package or whether it's an hourly rate, it's gotta be based on that number.
you need to come to terms of that number very quickly, because then for a new photographer, if you're one of those people that feels a little bit guilty asking for that much money. Really what that's telling you is you're feeling guilty because your work's not good enough yet. Get your button gear, pick up the camera, practice, find more people to photograph, do it for free, put in the hard work.
the cameras allow us to really jump the line in terms of how fast we can start to turn out decent pictures, but just like any other business, any other industry without the foundational pieces, a solid foundational set of skills in photography you're not going to be able to build a business.
You're not gonna be able to be competitive in terms of your image quality. I had even gotten to creativity yet. Cause that's a whole ‘nother skill to build out.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “I work with a lot of creatives and I see that there's a lot of imposter syndrome that comes in when they're doing their pricing. and I'm like, okay, you didn't even cover your travel costs. This is ridiculous. like you said, it's a confidence thing where they have to get over it so that they can price themselves correctly.
When you talked about the number crunching what all goes into that calculation? Do you figure in your schooling as well, your time?”
Joe Edelman: “You're an accountant. You could probably school me on things that I've missed along the way. Right. Part of the reason why I encourage people start this process really early. Is because you'll find 10 years into the process. You're still realizing oh my God, I should have been adding that in all this time.
You're gonna forget things. So it is everything. It's the cost of your gear. It's the cost of education. It's overhead gear. Even if you're working out of an apartment, obviously, you're able to take a portion of you at that rent. It's electricity. It's the computers you're using.
It's the accessories on the computers. It's your camera gear. It's the bags. It's everything. It's the time that it takes you to pack up your gear. It's the time that it takes you to unpack and set up your gear. When you get to the location, it's the time that it takes you to tear it down and pack it up, drive home, download your files, do your basic editing, post your proofs online, all of those things.
It's the money that you spend to host your website. It's the money that you spend to host the website where you post your proofs. Every little thing needs to be factored in. If you are going to run a profitable business.
I may sound like a baby boomer with this. I'll go ahead and own it. I have no sympathy for imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a lazy excuse because people don't want to have to do the hard work that it takes to get past imposter syndrome. It's self-inflicted if you wanna do there's no shortcuts. You're not going to find a successful photographer that just picked up a camera. And three weeks later was paying their bills with a camera and they're amazing, et cetera, that does not exist.
You have to put in the time you have to put in the effort. So imposter syndrome is people that simply realize they haven't done that. They're stepping into an arena. Without really having all the skill sets and without having done all the research and I'm a big believer in jump in early break stuff.
Move on, fail. Failure is crucial to success as a photographer and as a business person, I failed more times than I care to think about, but they were important, very important in order for me to eventually be successful. I'm all for step in early and you know, it's gonna be messy, but. Part of the process. That's not being an imposter, you're being an imposter. When you can taste it, you want it, you know, you wanna be there, but you're not really putting in the work to get there you're being an imposter. You're hoping to get work or hoping to get jobs or hoping to do things that you're not really prepared to do.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Paying the bills, this is something, any entrepreneur has to deal with but when you're talking about doing something that's creative, . If you're gonna stand by your pricing maybe you're not gonna get all the jobs that you thought you were gonna get, should photographers have multiple revenue streams, do you think?
Should they also do. Editing pictures or whatever it is to keep the lights on. Or do you think that they should focus on their craft?”
Joe Edelman: “I think it really depends on what kind of photography you're doing and what you enjoy. I'm 62 years old. I feel like I've cheated the system. In life. I don't feel like I've ever really had a job. I have been fortunate enough to pay my bills with my camera in one way or another.
And part of the reason my career has evolved, I started as a newspaper photographer right out of high school, and I was determined to win a Pulitzer Prize. And it's not quite that simple. And then I wound up, getting married, having a child and I opened a portrait and wedding studio. Failed miserably through the empathy of a loan officer at my bank wound up saving my business, not having my car repossessed as the collateral for a loan.
And he taught me how to keep my books and how to do pricing and all that, which was way above and beyond his job title. And then went on to do commercial advertising work, shot food for a bunch of years. Did fashion photography. It was published in the magazines like cosmopolitan. I did modeling portfolios for quite a few years, for me, it's gotta be fun.
I've gotta be enjoying the challenge of learning it, of mastering it, of being creative with it. I think it's a little different for every photographer in terms of the unique kind of a side hustle within the hustle. It depends on the type of work you're doing. It depends on. How much of it you've got, cuz the problem sometimes with a side hustle is that, a side hustle's still a hustle, it's a business.
So you still gotta do some marketing. You still gotta do a little bit of networking. You still gotta build up a client base there. You've gotta really look at it from the standpoint of, can I get that money coming in really easy or is the effort that I'm gonna, put into that side hustle, gonna be taking time away from the main goal.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “As far as the different types of, I'm gonna just call it niche for lack of a better word. We've got, the food, photography, fashion, photography, there's so many different types of expertise, Are there certain areas that pay better than others or, is there something that you'd be like, oh God don't even bother with that because that hardly pays.”
Joe Edelman: “For somebody that's just starting out. No! You can find portrait, photographers, wedding photographers, commercial advertising, photographers, fashion, photographers that are making seven figures a year. They exist small number of them, but they exist. The opportunities are there in really any genre, again, it's all about how hard are you willing to work?
A big mistake that new photographers make is they bottom feed, and that ties into kind of the byproduct of their imposter syndrome or their fear of saying they're worth or. The fact that they haven't progressed enough, they're going after the kind of clients, like for instance, a wedding photographer will advertise on Craigslist, right?
Craigslist is not the first place that most brides go to when they're planning a wedding to look for a photographer. And then, interestingly enough, in the photography world… little soapbox thing here…I have to throw this out. Since I mentioned it, we'll get a lot of photographers that bitch and complain, oh, those Craigslist photographers, they're undercutting my business and they're making business hard and they're not, number one the reality is we all understand that unfortunately, those photographers that are on Craigslist offering to do a whole wedding for 250 or $300, they're not gonna be able to build out a business that way, but they actually do serve an important purpose because there are people that can't afford.
More than two or $150 or $300 to have wedding pictures. So by saying that these photographers shouldn't be allowed to do that is saying also that people that don't have the resources shouldn't be allowed to have photographs for the most important days or lives. Right. it's all balanced. If you're feeling that you're, dealing with competition from Craigslist, you're bottom feeding, you're going after the wrong clientele. We want people to like us. We want people to like our work. We want people to see our value without us having to justify it. But the simple reality is, not everybody's your client and that's completely okay.
That's not a bad thing that doesn't make them bad. It doesn't mean you suck. It just means not everyone is your client. And the challenge is. Accepting that, and then starting to figure out who is your client? Based on the numbers you come up with, when you crunch those numbers you certainly may not be shooting portraits for blue collar families.
You may need to be doing the research, you know, where are the million dollar homes. In my area, what are those neighborhoods? Those are the people that are likely gonna be able to afford the prices that I want to be able to charge so that I can take care of my family the way that I want to. You go to a place like Craigslist.
You're not gonna get those people that are living in the million dollar homes. It's all about really kind of breaking it down from business. And that's the big struggle, photographers learn photography. And then business becomes an afterthought. And again, I'm raising my hand.
That's how I started my business and I failed horribly, walked outta my apartment one day with my wife and toddler upstairs. And my car was on a tow truck being repossessed. If it wasn't for the kindness of that gentleman, cause fortunately, this was back in the eighties where the loan officers did the repossessions. They didn't have repo men then.
So he was standing there with the guy with a tow truck and I begged and pleaded and he. Be in my office tomorrow morning with all of your accounting. And you're gonna come back once a month with all of your books until your loans paid off. And at the time I was like that's a pain in the butt, but I need my car.
Obviously, the man saved my life. He literally did. He taught me what I needed to know to run a business cuz I knew nothing, but I just decided, yeah, I'm gonna run this business and support my family and I hustled. I've always worked hard. But that's not enough. Hustle's not enough. You have to learn at least the basics of operating a business.
And a lot of it isn't even about facts. It's understanding principles. It's understanding philosophies behind all, which is what really of saved me, cuz I'm definitely, I'm not a numbers person and I've never been a person that's money driven. But obviously gotta take care of bills, gotta, get things done.
And it's the philosophies behind all of it that really helped me prioritize the right things and understand, this is what I need to be looking at and really just paying attention to the numbers. The numbers are important.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “I work with my clients to find people that they can align with, and that has similar audience or similar types of clients. trying to get leads. When you think of weddings, it could be people that make brides gowns, that sort of thing did you have any kind of alignments like that.”
Joe Edelman: “Oh, throughout my whole career, we used to do that kind of stuff back in the 1980s. A wedding photographer would give framed prints to hair salons that tended to do weddings. They'd give frame prints to Floris. And there would be wedding pictures hanging on the wall.
The venues that did receptions and that kind of stuff they would have images from wedding photographers with business cards tucked in the, bottom of the frame.
That's still done today. It's still very important. When you talk to new photographers, their eyes lit up like, oh my God, that's such a great idea, but it's like nothing new about it.
Operating a small business as an entrepreneur. Again, I'm not a fan of that word but we are as solo business owners, we're all solo entrepreneurs. And I don't care what your business is. I don't care what you're selling. I don't care what you're doing. If you're gonna be successful. You have to learn how to establish relationships, networking, especially amongst the younger generation is yeah, let's go out and party after work and drink. And that kind of stuff. That's not networking. That's partying and partying is fine but that's not networking.
Let's keep it real. And besides even if there's somebody there that you really wanna do business with. They're there for the same reasons you are free food, free beer. They don't wanna talk shop. I hate that word. I like to simply use building relationships.
Anytime you can find synergy amongst another business where you can promote each other. Oh, hell yeah. That. Makes everybody's job easier helps everybody. And that's the kind of networking you want, but you don't do that stuff via email. That's the kind of stuff where, you talk to people, you meet people.
Especially if you're in a business where you're doing like portraits locally or weddings locally, or that kind of stuff. You need to know the people in your town. You need to meet them. All the people that, run the venues, the DJs. All those people, wedding photographers when you're at the reception.
If you got a DJ there and he is got all the cool L E D lights in that set up, make a really freaking kick ass picture, that DJ that he's gonna wanna use on social media and use for his marketing. Cuz then he's gonna turn around. He's gonna recommend you to anybody that comes to him and still doesn't have the photographer. So again it's all networking.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Yeah. Oh, I love that. That's so funny about the DJ too okay. So Joe, before we wrap up, do you have any last minute things that you would advise people if they wanna get into the business of photography?”
Joe Edelman: “Practice, more practice, and take a basic business class a basic business class. And I'm, I'm talking business 1 0 1. So you learn, a little bit of business accounting, all the stuff you need to do to set yourself up properly with liability insurances and all that.
So you get those important things and so it could be like a community college. Simple cheap. Get the basics and take a basic marketing class. Notice, I didn't say social media, a basic marketing class. I'm not saying two or three classes. I'm not saying, go and get a degree in business or marketing, but a basic marketing class to learn the principles behind marketing.
You can accomplish so much more by understanding how to make those kinds of connections than you can by understanding the algorithms and what time to post if you build a business by playing that game where you're, volume posting you're actually just creating 10 times more work than is necessary.
And the minute you stop. Your business goes away. you're backing yourself into a corner where you've got to be able to maintain that kind of pace. My advice aside from the practice, can't say that enough business 1 0 1 marketing 1 0 1 and then dive in. Don't keep talking about it. Don't keep thinking about it.
Don't say to yourself, oh, I gotta get my logo first. You don't need a damn logo. You need great photographs. That's what you need.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Yeah, that's funny. And so many people struggle with the same. It doesn't matter what type of business they're like, oh, but I gotta get my website up or I gotta do this or that. Yeah. Just do it.
Joe, tell us where people can discover you and where you are on the web and all.”
Joe Edelman: “Sure. So the easiest place to start is on my website, which is www.joeedelman.com. From there, you'll find links to all my socials. I will tell you if you're a photographer, check out my Instagram and make sure that you swipe on every one of the carousels, because every single Instagram post is actually a little mini-lesson…behind the image, there's lighting diagrams, there's behind the scenes pictures. There's breakdowns of how I did the shot. I have a YouTube channel. That's got about 300 photography tutorials and every Wednesday night at 6:00 PM Eastern time in the us, I do a live stream show called the last frame live.
There's also on the website about 500 different articles, tutorials, things like that. So a lot of learning stuff there.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Joe, this has been really great and I love being able to pick your brain. So thank you so much for being on the show.”
Joe Edelman: “Heather, it's been my pleasure. Thanks for having.”