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A Conversation with Carl Smith, Owner of Bureau of Digital

What is The Bureau of Digital

I’m always surprised by how few marketing firms know and understand what The Bureau of Digital is all about. I think they are an incredible resource for all firms, regardless of where they are on the spectrum of digital adoption.

In this podcast, I interview Bureau owner, Carl Smith, about what he does, why he does it, and why attending one of their events might be a fantastic investment for your firm (my words, not his). Carl is a fun, smart, and incredibly interesting guy. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.

Episode Transcript

Mark O’Brien: Hello and welcome to Expert Marketing Matters. I’m Mark O’Brien, the CEO of Newfangled, and this is the first episode where we’re taking a new spin on things and we’re actually having guests on the podcast. Our first guest, I’m really proud to announce, is Carl Smith, owner and the head guy over at the Bureau of Digital. Welcome, Carl.

Carl Smith: Thanks, Mark. I didn’t know I was the first guest and it’s an expert podcast. We’ll just hope that this works out.

Mark O’Brien: Because you’re such an expert, you have to be the very first guest on the podcast. But I really am so excited to have you on this. I had been hearing about the Bureau of Digital for years and really curious about it, had some clients and peers who attended various events and just had great things to say and it just seemed like the silver palace of knowledge that I didn’t have access to. Then of course we’ve met through some shared connections and we’ve gotten to know each other really well and I have now had the opportunity to attend one of your events. I went to the Owner Camp in Belize, which is just one of the best events I’ve ever attended. It was extraordinary.
While I was there, I realized, okay, the marketing around the Bureau is really geared towards the digital world, and I think the unintended consequence of that has been that traditional agencies don’t realize it’s for them as well. What I realize during that event was, wow, everything you’re doing, not only at the Owner Camp, but at all of the different camps and summits you run, it’s really not a digital thing, it’s about creative firms and how they run and how different roles are properly executed. I just realized that there’s a whole lot of people out there who could really benefit from being a part of your community that is not on the radar. This is our attempt to bring the Bureau to the radar of our audience. Thanks a lot for being willing to join this.

Carl Smith: You’re welcome and take me to your masses.

Mark O’Brien: Yes.

Carl Smith: I’m ready.

Mark O’Brien: We’re well on the way. The hundreds of thousands of podcast subscribers we have here. If you wouldn’t mind, Carl, just give us a little background about you, about the Bureau, about how it all came to be.

Carl Smith: Sure. I got started in the early ’90s. I got a job at a full service advertising agency. I worked at [inaudible 00:02:55], basically worked my way up. I wasn’t talent on any level, but I was pretty good with people and I was pretty good memorizing stuff and spitting it back out, so I got good at selling and really just ended up being in charge of account service and being in charge of media and being in charge of all these things at about a 20 person shop. Then the internet happened. [crosstalk 00:03:21]

Mark O’Brien: [crosstalk 00:03:21].

Carl Smith: I was like, “We need this. This is amazing.” Then I got the bug and ended up in 2003 launching my own digital shop, nGen Works. It was me and three other people and we took everything we knew from that full service world and realized that digital shop sucked and it wasn’t that they weren’t good at what they build, they weren’t good with people. Our whole philosophy was we’re going to answer the phone, we’re going to keep our promises and we’re going to be really nice. You know what? Those three things launched us to the stratosphere.

Mark O’Brien: Amazing strategy.

Carl Smith: I guess it was about 10 years in to nGen Works, I got a call from Happy Cog and they were putting together this event and they were going to get owners of digital studios together to sit around the table and talk about what was working and what wasn’t. Their point was none of us went to school for business. We went to school to be … I was a theater major. A lot of people that do digital are musicians and they did the website for the band. Then they realized they like doing the websites and it paid better. Then suddenly they’ve got 20 or 30 people working for them and they don’t know what the hell is going on. That was it. We got together in Portland. It was the first Bureau event although it wasn’t called the Bureau at the time.

Mark O’Brien: What was it called?

Carl Smith: At that time, it was just called Shop Talk.

Mark O’Brien: Oh, wow.

Carl Smith: It was myself, Greg Hoy and Greg Storey from Happy Cog. Jeffrey Zeldman was there. Mike Montero, Kelly Goto who wrote Web Design Workflow that Works, that original book that had everybody thinking process. It was a who’s who. Kristina Halvorson who coined the term “content strategy.” It was an amazing experience and I just got addicted to it.
Fast forward not too far after that, my shop was doing really well and I just kept going to these things. Both Gregs wanted out and I was like “You know what? I’ll take it.” I’m burned out on client service, but this whole idea of connecting people who have never really gone to school or tried to understand business, but connecting them so they can learn together, that’s magic, man. I want to do that.
What’s funny is you talked about the name so like Shop Talk … I’m friends with Chris Coyier and he had a podcast called ShopTalk. We quickly said, “Okay. Lets call it Owner Camp.” But it was originally the Bureau of Digital Affairs, and I didn’t like the “affairs” word. I convinced him to change it to Bureau of Digital. But what I ultimately wanted was for it to just be the Bureau. Obviously that creates a lot of problems when you try to get to one word or two words dot com.

Mark O’Brien: Sure, sure, sure, sure.

Carl Smith: But it was never-

Mark O’Brien: But it seems to have become the shorthand anyway. That’s what I call it.

Carl Smith: Yeah, I call it the Bureau. I push that. But to your point, it’s never really … It’s called the Bureau of Digital so it seems like it’s digital. But we’ve had architects come to events. Right?

Mark O’Brien: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carl Smith: They have the same client challenges. They have different tools that they use, but they have similar process.

Mark O’Brien: Right.

Carl Smith: Right? It’s all of those things fit in. Coming from a full service agency background. It’s funny. People give me shit for saying full service agency. I’m just like, “Look, we did everything. That was it.” It wasn’t so much that you were full service, it’s that you were the never say no agency.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. Yeah. We can do that. We can do that. Sure. That’s quite the transition there. Getting into an agency, getting to a position of leadership in that agency, breaking out, starting your own web development company, sort of by accident getting involved in the Bureau and its nascent days and then deciding to just go ahead and buy it. Why not? Let’s buy it.

Carl Smith: And merge my company into it. nGen Works didn’t die. It just became a ghost in the machine.

Mark O’Brien: How is that now? What’s the division between nGen Works and the Bureau today?

Carl Smith: nGen doesn’t really exist anymore.

Mark O’Brien: It faded out eventually.

Carl Smith: Yeah. It was one of those things. I think any owner of any creative services or services firm can appreciate this. Once you fall out of love with it, it needs to be put down.

Mark O’Brien: Yes.

Carl Smith: Because otherwise it’s just going to flail and you’re going to put a lot of people through a lot of pain.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. If your spirit isn’t there, then no one else is going to be there either. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Carl Smith: I found another lover in the Bureau. I was just like, “This opportunity to connect people and watch them help each other, that’s what I want to do.”

Mark O’Brien: Perfect. Right, right, right, right, right. It’s so clear. I mean, Newfangled, we’ve done a few events and they’re so hard. They’re so difficult. I was just in awe watching … One of the comments, you hustle, not hustle like selling people. You were working the entire time. You’re sun up until well past sun down but it was so clear. It just looked effortless.
We were in Belize for what? Four days. Belize, how hard is that? But, no, you’re working. You were working your butt off. You’ve got some other people there who are extraordinary who also make it look effortless. But it’s so clear to me that you’re doing what you’re meant to do because I’m quite an extrovert. I’m just very naturally that way. But I was exhausted by watching how extroverted you were. There were times where I had to go back to my room and chill and I wasn’t needed for anything. You were the guy that was needed for pretty much everything all the time. You just made it look easy. I know firsthand it is absolutely not easy.
I think one of the things that struck me so much about the event is there are about 20 of us there and I have been parts of lots of different agency peer groups. I have gone tthrough the whole strategic coach program which is all about business acumen for entrepreneurs. I’ve been to lots of events like these and what I love about this one was the foundation of it all was really wrapped up in two things which is, one, new blood.
I was like, “I don’t know these people. Some of them know each other, but a lot of them don’t.” There’s a really nice mix of a foundation of culture that was apparent just in the vibe, the way some people treat each other, but it wasn’t clicky or exclusive and there were enough strangers around for no one to feel isolated. That was cool. There was some culture there.
The culture that was brought in by the alums was just one of openness, friendliness, transparency, fun, curiosity, lack of ego, all of that. That’s hard to do because a lot of professionals, we get tied up in our work and we develop ego around it and we have fears and those fears magnify that ego and a lot of weird things happen because of that. There was just none of that.
Since the Owner Camp, I’ve been part of the ridiculously active Slack channels created and it’s there, too. We’ve got owners of all these companies from around the country, many of them outside the country as well, all treating each other, many of whom have never spoken to each other because they didn’t go to the same events but they’re just all part of this group now, part of the overall Bureau community.

Mark O’Brien: They didn’t go to the same events, but they’re just all part of this group now, part of the overall Bureau committee who treat each other just really, really, really well and there’s a real spirit of helping each other out and that’s awesome and that’s a top-down kind of thing. I just commend you on your ability to curate a culture like that among known alums and strangers at each of these events because my understanding is that this Owner Summit I went to, or Camp rather, was not a fluke. This is just how it goes. How does that happen? How do you create and maintain that kind of open culture?

Carl Smith: I think it starts because the people within the community are the ones who reach out to new people to come in and they protect what it is that they have that they value so much. They’re not asking people who are jackassess to come in.
Also when you go through the pre-event survey, there’s some questions in there that people might be uncomfortable answering. If they aren’t open about the challenges they’re facing, if they aren’t willing to share solutions that they found, that becomes a conversation and a lot of times we’ll find that people just aren’t going to be open. That’s a quick red flag. To just let them know, hey, you know what? These are not cheap events. If you spend this money and then you’re not comfortable sharing, you’re not going to get the value and it’s going to hurt the room, too. There’s probably one or two every event where I have to have that call.

Mark O’Brien: Wow.

Carl Smith: Most of the time they say thank you. Occasionally they say the other you. Right?

Mark O’Brien: Sure, sure.

Carl Smith: It starts with an F. I can’t remember. But it’s one of those things that I think is just so important. Then when you have that base of alumni and you get them in there and they start the Slack channel … We get everybody into Slack about a week before the event. The way that everything is written is super open and informal but also caring. Everything sets the tone that this is going to be a learning experience, a business experience but also a family experience.

Mark O’Brien: Yes. Yes. Yes. I felt that right away. One of the things I’ve been a part of over the years is an agency peer group and it was 10 firms from all across North America. We got together twice a year for about three days each time. It last about six years. It was a wonderful experience. Some of my closest friends came from that.
When I decided to go to the Owner Camp that you put on in Belize a few months ago, it’s like, all right, well, I have to reset my expectations. I’m not going to get into that kind of thing again. Lightning doesn’t strike twice. It’s not going to be that so let me just leave that expectation at the door so I don’t find myself disappointed.
I did. I really did leave it at the door. I was shocked to find the second night of day two when we were out there in the ocean at 10:00 p.m. and discovering this bioluminescence. I was like, “Oh, my god. These are my people.” This is every bit as good as it was with those people. I couldn’t believe that was able to be created like that. But it’s because of the inherited culture. When the 10 of us got together, we were all jump starting together and trying to discover and create our culture and we did and ended up being wonderful and magical.
You fast forward right into that with these Bureau events. I’m sure not all of them are the same as Owner Camp. As an owner, knowing the kinds of things that I know and other owners and decision makers at firms really care about, I was just so shocked that this event that I thought was for digital agencies who are going to be hardcore geeks, there wasn’t a single topic, there wasn’t a single conversation that was had the entire time that didn’t 100% apply to what I know every single owner I’m always speaking with is 100% concerned with and cares about and interested in. It was entirely applicable topic matter the whole way through.
I think that my world, this more traditional agency world, would have a lot to offer to the digital agency world. I think owners from both sides, they’ve come up in different ways. None of them went to business school on either side, as you’ve mentioned. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for shared knowledge. When you think about your events, I’m guessing off top of my head you were on like what? To 13, 14 events each year?

Carl Smith: 14 this year.

Mark O’Brien: 14, okay. Good guess. Now, knowing what you know having come from an agency background, which of your events do you think would be most applicable to traditional agencies? Mind you, every traditional agency is very rapidly transforming themselves into a digital agency, right?

Carl Smith: Right. Owner Camp, for sure. Operations Camp, right? The back office stuff is still about selling a service. It’s either time-base or value-base. It’s about maintaining the right flow of inbound both in terms of staff, as well as in terms of work. There’s really nothing there with Operations Camp. Digital PM Summit, I mean, it’s still all about culture and it’s about learning. Now the one thing I’ll say about Digital PM Summit is digital PMs are a relatively new thing. It’s maybe six years ago that it started coming around.
What I’ll tell you about digital shops like pure play digital is they’re becoming more like advertising agencies. They’re becoming more like those traditional creative firms in that two years ago, the term “account manager” started getting spread around.

Mark O’Brien: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Carl Smith: When digital started, when digital agency started, they either spun off out of software or out of advertising agencies. This idea of having a client for more than one project was really nasty to a lot of people because they thought this is going to hurt the quality of the product because they’ve been at agencies where the relationship was more important than the quality or at least … Maybe I’m just talking about me. But it was one of those things. We would sit down with a client and I would tell them at the table, “Look, we’re only going to do one project with you so let’s make it amazing.”

Speaker 1: You’re listening to Expert Marketing Matters, a podcast about generating ideal new business opportunities by creating and nurturing digital marketing systems and habits that have a measurable impact on your bottom line. This podcast is brought to you by Newfangled, a digital marketing consultancy focused on empowering experts to do better digital marketing. You can learn more about Newfangled’s digital marketing method at

Carl Smith: It just reset every expectation. Anyway, we’re back to the question, creative director camp. There’s no doubt. They have different challenges potentially, right?

Mark O’Brien: Yeah.

Carl Smith: When you get into quality assurance and you get into things like that, yeah, there’s going to be some differences, but that’s assuming that traditional agencies aren’t also … They’re doing digital, right?

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. That’s why I led into this width. Even traditional agencies, there aren’t any of them that aren’t feeling the need, a desire or a pull into digital. Even things like the Digital PM Summit, that would be just a treasure chest of information for people like that.
Sorry, one quick question here just to get our terminology straight. You’ve mentioned two different things. You’ve mentioned camps and summits.

Carl Smith: Right.

Mark O’Brien: What’s the difference?

Carl Smith: A camp is a more intimate 20 to 25 person event that lasts three to four days and you are with those people, get to know those people and share the real stuff of what’s going on like your internal challenges, you’re trying to help them fix their problems, that sort of stuff. That group is going to stay together after the event in a Slack channel with all of the alumni of those camps. Camps are small and intimate.
Summits are larger. You’re going to find that same connection but it’s hundreds of people. You’re going to have that first half of the day, you’ve got people up on stage that are sharing. Then the second half of the day, you break into what we call camp sessions where we’re going to break everybody down into those smaller groups and give them that afternoon to have some of that intimacy.
That we break down in different ways. For digital PMs, we’ll break it down sometimes based on the type of product. We have a lot of higher ed. We have a lot of in-house corporate. We have a lot of e-com specific shops. We have a lot of more full service shops. They’ll break down like that.
With agencies, when we do Owner Summit, we break down based on size. We found that’s the most effective. You don’t want to do geographical because some of those people don’t like looking at each other. That’s what a summit is. A summit is much bigger and it’s got elements of a traditional conference whereas a camp is small and intimate and you’re going to walk away with great friends.

Mark O’Brien: Yes, and I can definitely vouch for that. That’s helpful and that brings up a few points. A lot of again owners whether they think about themselves going to an event or their employee is going to an event, there’s some fear there on a number of levels. Yes. Am I going to be giving my secrets to my competitors? What is going to be shared versus stolen? Is poaching at play here? I have to say speaking back to the Slack channel which I have been keeping a pretty close eye on although it’s hard to keep up with all of it. You need to print a daily newspaper,

Carl Smith: Tell me about it.

Mark O’Brien: … With content in there.

Carl Smith: You don’t even see the whole thing.

Mark O’Brien: It must take you hours a day. I don’t know how you do it. Anyway, with the Slack channel, I like how you curate that, too. You take a really soft touch. You get involved once in a while to offer a quip here or there, stir a conversation slightly in a different direction. But you really let it be what it is.
I did notice you jumped in quick and hard this week I think it was when someone mentioned the word “poaching” and you just dropped the hammer on that person. That was really cool to see and I think it’s important for my audience to know that the environment you’re creating is one that’s about sharing, but really understands and respects the need for individual privacy and firms individual …

Mark O’Brien: For individual privacy and firms, you know, individual growth based on their IP, et cetera.

Carl Smith: Yeah, it’s … I have a vision of the Bureau as a utopia, right? And I know that there’s always going to be challenges, there’re always going to be problems. But if somebody starts talking about poaching as a staffing a solution, and that was what happened there. I kind of … I gave the community some space. Like I think the better part of six hours, maybe longer, for somebody else to step in, and say it, and self-police. And when it didn’t happen, for me it was very much like, “Okay, we just need to let everybody know this is not cool.”

Mark O’Brien: Yeah.

Carl Smith: And the thing is it’s interesting. We’ve had situations where a shop would come to me and say, “Hey, another bureau shop just did this”, and legally there’s nothing, right? You can’t legally, as an entity like the Bureau or anybody else, I mean that becomes, you know, a whole nother employee law, employment law thing. But what I can do is just make sure that, you know, we kind of just don’t talk to that shop as much anymore. If we find out that there’s something going on –

Mark O’Brien: Yeah.

Carl Smith: – and sometimes it’s accidental, sometimes it was an employee that misrepresented. But I have –

Mark O’Brien: Sure.

Carl Smith: – I have facilitated a few owner to owner phone calls about something that went down.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, great, great.

Carl Smith: You know, at no cost except –

Mark O’Brien: Right.

Carl Smith: – for, you know, the pain intention of hanging out. But for everybody listening and for you as well, Mark, it’s like that is one of those things that, you know, play nice with others is really, really important.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, right. Yeah, the ground rules you set out when you opened up the first day of the Owner Camp were perfect. Everyone listens to you. I mean, you have complete control of that room and complete respect in that room, and you know how to wheel them properly because you’re so like not somewhat facing but sort of selfless guy and that’s how you come across.

Carl Smith: Thank you.

Mark O’Brien: But those ground rules I really admired them but I also could notice like wow, he’s learned every single one of those the hard way. Could you summarize what those ground rules are? I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I’d just love to –

Carl Smith: I can do that.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah.

Carl Smith: No worries at all. So we have an oath that we take and it’s an informal, nondisclosure agreement that basically says that anything that you hear during our time together is private, and that you won’t share anything that a reasonable person would consider sensitive. You know, especially after having a few drinks because that’s what’s going to happen. And also, you know, it’s kind of kindergarten rules, right?
Like don’t be a long talker, don’t dominate, and don’t be a slow talker. Those are even worse because they just take up so much time. And also, you know, from the mountain like don’t feel like your way is the only way. Don’t try to shut down anything else that might happen. But really I think that’s the basis of the ground rules.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah.

Carl Smith: And then we have different ways we facilitate that we’ve learned over time, sometimes from going to other events. There’s an event called Yonder which is for distributed teams. And yeah, they do this amazing … it was the first time we ever saw somebody say, “raise one finger to continue the conversation, five fingers to change the topic.” That was totally something that Jeff Robins had done over at Yonder and we, you know, stole it with no question.

Mark O’Brien: That was very cool. I really like that, I really that word. Yeah, and sorry for breaking a few of those rules.

Carl Smith: No worries, no worries. You were fine.

Mark O’Brien: But I get excited, you know.

Carl Smith: It happens. It happens to the best of us. I was the worst of the long talkers, I really was.

Mark O’Brien: Oh really? I don’t recall that.

Carl Smith: When I was an attendee.

Mark O’Brien: Oh got it, got it. Sure, sure, sure.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Mark O’Brien: Okay, so this has been really helpful and I think a pretty good overview. Now, since I’ve been to Owner Camp, I feel like encouraging listeners to check out Owner Camp. When and where is the next one?

Carl Smith: So the next one is going to be in mid-October. I think it’s 15th through 18th and it’s up in Granby, Colorado at the C Lazy U Horse Ranch. So we’re going to have 30 owners up there riding horses, enjoying the campfire, doing all that kind of fun, fun stuff but at the same time, sharing, and connecting, and just getting better together. That’s going to be from the 15th to the 18th I believe in October.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah. Okay.

Carl Smith: And it’s … I’m looking forward to it. We’ve got such a great group and, you know, you’re mentioning, you know, new attendees. We’ve got some really cool new ones and the shop sizes are everything from, you know, 15 up to 180 I think. So it’s always interesting to watch the different shops in different phases help each other.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, and it’s not always the big ones teaching the small ones. The size was almost the same actually at the Owner Camp I attended, and I was really impressed with how humble the owners of the big shops were, and how courageous the owners of the small shops were. In a really good way both ways like there was definitely an equal learning field. No one was acting superior in any way at all. It was really impressive but it was nice because people were able to bring genuinely different but helpful perspectives.

Carl Smith: Yeah. It’s amazing to watch every time and I think for the owners of larger shops, they feel disconnected, right?

Mark O’Brien: Yeah.

Carl Smith: What they’re managing takes up all their time whereas the owner of a smaller shop is connected with all of the new stuff.

Mark O’Brien: Right, right.

Carl Smith: Because it’s just crazy because we even saw that in Belize where it was like, “I’ve never even heard of that. What are you talking about?” And the rest of the room is like, “You haven’t heard of that?”

Mark O’Brien: Wow, interesting.

Carl Smith: And it’s just one of those things that, yeah, you get so sucked into it.

Mark O’Brien: Into your own world, yeah, wow that’s really interesting. Now so it’s like a couple of months away, are there still slots left or is that closed out now?

Carl Smith: No, we still got five spots available.

Mark O’Brien: Five spots left for the October 15th out in Colorado.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Mark O’Brien: And I can say I’m a little high maintenance when it comes to, I don’t know, things like that. I don’t want to … all I can say is that Carl creates a wonderful, really comfortable, enjoyable experience. It’s just great, it’s really, really, really great. You don’t choose slouch places at all, but you also aren’t going to blow everybody’s budget. You know, I think you really play the, you know, budget conscious but a really, really, really nice, comfortable experience line quite well. Quite well. I couldn’t imagine it being any better actually.

Carl Smith: One of the things we learned early on was if you want to come up with creative solutions you have to be in a creative environment.

Mark O’Brien: Yeah.

Carl Smith: You can’t be somewhere that feels like you’re in class.

Mark O’Brien: Right. With cockroaches crawling up the walls, et cetera. Yeah, yeah.

Carl Smith: This has got to change your perception of things then you’ve got to see stuff you haven’t seen before.

Mark O’Brien: Great, great. Okay, so next Owner Camp is in Colorado October 15th. Owner Summit is next February, right?

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Mark O’Brien: And that’s cool. And there are other events as well between now and then. It’s roughly an event a month for different functions inside the organization, right?

Carl Smith: That’s right. And we actually had our first online event –

Mark O’Brien: Yeah, how did that go?

Carl Smith: – and it went really well. It was terrifying.

Mark O’Brien: I bet.

Carl Smith: But the internet didn’t fall over so we were fine.

Mark O’Brien: Perfect, perfect, perfect. You know, we hadn’t caught up about that. I’m really curious to hear the full story on that. Cool, okay, how else can they find you? Is it

Carl Smith: Yep,, type that in and you’ll find us all over the place. If anybody wants to reach out to me directly it’s just

Mark O’Brien: Smith, all right. All right, Carl, hey man, thanks so much for your time. Thanks more for what you do for the community. It is so clear being at these events and all the currencies I have with you here and everyone else whose been exposed to Bureau over the years. Like it’s coming from a place of love. You want to bring people together, you want to elevate the bar for everyone’s business there. I mean, you’re fighting the good fight in the best way possible so thank you so much for the work you do, and I’m really excited for our audience to just be more involved in the Bureau. It’s going to help them tremendously so thanks a lot for creating this kind of forum for them.

Carl Smith: Your most welcome and thanks for introducing the Bureau to your community.

Mark O’Brien: My pleasure. Okay, till next time, thanks Carl. See you.