“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world."
- Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States
What if we asked Calvin Coolidge - old silent Cal - with his early 20th Century common sense and puritan ethic, for his take on current affairs?
What would he say about inflation? About risk-taking in today’s environment?
First of all, I think he would find it obvious that the combination of large budget deficits, trade deficits, and the Federal Reserve’s stated commitment to keep interest rates low makes the steady erosion of the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar inevitable.
He would say that this will be very bad for the American worker, who will feel the double squeeze of both stagnant wages and a shrinking dollar.
He would probably also say that this coming inflation will be extremely challenging for businesses with little pricing power, and ones trapped in downward cycles of commoditization and relentless margin pressures.
But Cal - living in a time of opportunism and watching fortunes being made all around him like never before in history – would probably also see that for the vast majority of US businesses that are services and exports based, inflationary conditions can be advantageous.
Why? Because the best managed of them will be able to control their input costs (labor, rents) while adjusting prices upward.
How about if we asked old Cal about the stock market?
Remember, he presided over one of the greatest bull markets in history, where stock prices rose over 380% during his time in office.
I think he would channel the famous “outrunning the bear” parable:
Two campers are walking through the forest when suddenly they encounter a grizzly bear. The bear rears up on his hind legs and lets out a terrifying roar. Both campers are frozen in their tracks.
The first camper whispers, "I'm sure glad I wore my running shoes today.” “It doesn't matter what kind of running shoes you're wearing you're not going to outrun that bear,” replies the second.
“I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you,” he answers.
This “last man standing” wisdom would suggest to Cal that stocks will do well simply because the various alternatives are so much less attractive.
Starting with cash and treasuries, Cal would probably see that they both suffer from the double whammy of negative real return and serious principal risk as at anytime the issuer - the US government - can just get up and print away their value (unlike in Cal’s time, by the way).
How about gold? How would Calvin Coolidge - almost the comically stereotypical crotchety old-timer - view gold as an actual investment?
Well, he would probably say that its recent historic price run is directly related to the sheer terror that a wide swath of the public has toward their government’s monetary policies.
But Cal’s sturdy early 20th Century optimism would frown on the defeatism and pessimism that investing in gold represents.
No, as he believed above all that the proper business of America was business, he would in all likelihood see the business of investing as mostly involving stocks and bonds of operating companies.
Of the two, he probably would be partial to stocks. Remember, he presided over one of the great bull markets in American history.
And as a sturdy and self-confident New Englander of his age, he might say that if you're going to invest, then invest and take your swings for the 2, 3, 5, and 10 bagger-potential and beyond that only stocks provide.
So if he lived in our present age, would Calvin Coolidge – a man of the early 20th Century - think that we have a mostly bumpy and discouraging road ahead?
Silent old Cal would see the great opportunities abounding in our technological and global age.
And he would probably mostly counsel for government to just leave businessmen and women alone to pursue and profit from it.
This week’s “Why bother with optimism when fear and gloom sell so much better?” shouted from all media all the time was Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the United States Government’s credit rating from AAA to AA+.
This comes after the country and the world were subjected to the debt ceiling doomsday “debate,” which after the predictable hue and cry ended mostly well – predictably.
Now, the good news is that I know that I am not the only one that:
a) Finds the weekly Chicken Little dramas tiresome to say the least; and,
b) While I am concerned that the daily avalanche of negativity runs the serious risk of becoming self-fulfilling, well just like there's been shown to be little correlation between violent video games and violent behavior, so too does the serious entrepreneur, the effective executive see the news as the sideshow that it really is; and,
c) Far from the end being near, the real truth is that we are at the beginning of a global technology - fueled boom the likes of which has never been seen before.
I mean is it really news that the United States Government has a debt problem?
I may be dating myself, but the first presidential election I remember well was 1984.
The most famous moment of it was Democratic candidate Walter Mondale stating emphatically in a nationally televised debate that he would raise taxes to address the nation's run away budget deficit.
That was 27 years ago. Yet progress has marched on.
And the reason it does is so obvious - or maybe because it is so uplifting that it isn’t considered news - is that while yes the country has a lot of debt, it has 10 times, 100 times as many assets!
According to the Federal Reserve’s conservative counting, domestic financial assets totaled $131 trillion, or more than 9 times as much as the outstanding governmental debt.
That is an impressive number for sure, but in my view it vastly understates the true count of national assets.
These include the physical - the "sea to shining sea” geographic expanse of the nation.
And the corporate, the millions of enterprises big and small with their earnings and innovation power for as far as the eye can see.
But by far America’s biggest asset - one worth so many more multiples that its debts - is the interconnected force that is its people and its culture.
Even at this low moment in national spirit and pride, still the enterprising and entrepreneurial and innovation juggernaut that is the American workforce is beyond impressive.
Forget for a moment how it rates competitively - and would you really trade the U.S. workforce in aggregate for that of any other country in the world?
Just reflect on its unique - and to be protected at all costs for the incredibly precious asset that it is - ability to regenerate itself almost daily via attracting talented and hard-working immigrants from all over the world.
Reflect on its on its fiercely independent and individualistic streaks that foster cultures of creativity and innovation that is by orders of magnitude the best in the history of the world.
And reflect on the fact that Americans for the first time in history can see clearly and instantly through the miracle of the Internet exactly where they are falling behind and why. AND because of the power of these same distributed, on demand technologies change for the better can happen faster than ever before.
So, sure, America has a lot of debt. So what?
In the grand scheme of the assets and innovation and earnings power of the nation as a whole, it is a very manageable sum.
So channeling the great Peter Drucker, let's all focus a lot more on opportunities and lot less on problems.
It is good for the soul. It is good for the psyche.
And most importantly, when it comes to the real balance of assets and liabilities in this great nation of ours, it also happens to be the truth.
To register, click here: https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/194204291
e-Commerce companies spend over $2B annually on e-commerce technologies and yet average less than 3% conversion rates.
It is universally agreed that content personalization – showing the customer the most timely and relevant information for them – is the holy grail that greatly increases low conversions.
By example, Dell Computer has recently rolled out a pilot program built around dynamic web page personalization that has improved their conversions between 30% and 70%.
How did they do it?
And what does web personalization mean for the rest of us?
For the burgeoning world of mobile commerce?
A Dynamic Panel Discussion
On Thursday, August 4th, I am very excited to be moderating a high-powered panel discussion on the future of web personalization and the brave new world of 21st century commerce and retailing.
Our panelists are:
• Mr. Richard Marcus, Former Chairman and CEO of the 41 store luxury retailer Neiman Marcus
• Mr. Chris Ratcliffe, Executive Director of Global Messaging and Marketing Programs at Dell Computer
• Mr. Mark Nagaitis, President, CEO and Co-Founder of 7 Billion People, Inc., developers of the world’s leading dynamic web personalization technology
Limited Attendance by Invitation Only
To allow for quality audience interaction, we are limiting attendance to the first 35 registrants.
So sign up right away to attend via the link below:
It's hard to say which is more unimpressive - the Washington debt ceiling “debate” or the media's breathless “end is near” coverage of it.
I guess the media gets a bit more of a pass, as after all, they are running a business and know that “news” that preys on anxieties or fears - for better or for worse - just sells better than tales of progress and achievement.
For what it is worth, I will throw my entrepreneurial two cents into the hat and predict unequivocally that August 2nd - the so called debt ceiling doomsday - will come and go with barely a whimper.
Well, that is not exactly correct. Given that the US is a $14 trillion economy - over the next seven "countdown days" - approximately $270 billion of new economic output will be generated.
Which, for those of you counting at home, about equals the combined annual output of Amazon, American Express, Apple, DuPont, Goldman Sachs, Google, Southwest, and Time Warner,with their 560,000 employees.
Oh yes, in the next week also, approximately 125,000 new businesses will be started.
AND approximately 153 million Americans will go to their jobs, reflecting the nation’s over 90% employment rate.
Perhaps most excitingly but not counted in the bludgeon of debt and unemployment statistics, over the next seven days countless millions of idea sessions will occur in conference rooms, around cubicles, at the coffee shop, while lying in bed, or in the shower….
…which in turn will generate hundreds of thousands of new sales and marketing strategies, new operational efficiencies, new technology innovations, and new “go global” initiatives led by entrepreneurs and executives across this great land.
This is the real story of the next seven days.
And it will remain so for the seven days after August 2nd too.
Sure the country has too much debt.
Sure, our political system is maddeningly frustrating..
But for every one tale of woe you can tell, I can tell 10, 100, 1,000 tales of possibility and inspiration.
Of businesses striving, growing, prospering.
Of yes, government getting better – delivering services smarter, leaner, more effectively.
Of breakthroughs in technologies and efficiencies in our healthcare system, that ALONE can solve half and maybe more of the country’s debt challenges.
Of invention quickening at yes - a sometimes scary and unpredictable pace - but one that only the most confirmed pessimists among us would say is for more ill than good.
So watch, if you like, the Washington melodrama this week.
It is pretty good theater, I guess.
But don't let it distract or discourage you from the real story – that this 21st century of ours will remain the best time of all time to be alive.
And that America is still the best, most opportunity filled place to live it.
Don't let your newspaper or your TV or your radio tell you otherwise.
Or your politicians.
I attended a meeting last week with Austin Beutner, The City of Los Angeles’ first deputy mayor and economic policy chief.
My company Growthink is headquartered just a stones throw from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and the meeting was organized by Laurie Hughes, head of Gateway to LA - the airport business district’s advocacy organization.
The purpose of the meeting was to gather some of the district’s executives, landlords and hotel and parking lot operators together to discuss issues of importance to businesses in the area.
And what an area it is!
LAX - with more than 150,000 people per day traveling through it - is truly an Aerotropolis, a massive economic entity that employs thousands of people and contributes billions of dollars to the local economy.
The issues discussed ranged from the somewhat mundane - like the drivers of occupancy fluctuations at the local hotels through the days of the week - to the soaring, like plans for a new “people mover” monorail that will bring the LAX travel experience up to 21st century standards.
I contributed my view of how modern technology companies - with their mobile work forces and global market opportunities - should naturally be located near major airport hubs like LAX.
And as the discussion oscillated between frustration and inspiration, I was struck by how much need there is for entrepreneurial mindsets when it comes to making change happen on governmental scale.
First of all, patience and fortitude and big time sticktoitiveness are needed. To bring their vision of a new airport to life, Laurie and her team at Gateway to LA have worked diligently for 10 years and counting!
Secondly, governmental scale change is rarely about white boarding new ideas as it is about exploring and building into the “adjacent possible.”
For example, one of the landlords complained about the difficulty of attracting tenants to the area because of the Los Angeles City Business Tax, which does not have to be paid in nearby El Segundo.
Mr. Beutner replied that given the city's budget woes, the likelihood of the tax being rescinded or reduced were practically zero, but there were in it carve-outs for Internet and technology businesses that the smart landlord should explore and promote in their marketing.
Finally, it is just plain immature to treat local, state, national, and even international governmental regulation, taxation, and general economic participation as a burden or hindrance that needs to be “dealt with”, so that the “real work” of business can be done.
For the remainder of everyone’s lives reading this, the reality will remain that government - with all of its frustrations and maddening bureaucracy - isn't going anywhere.
The smart entrepreneur doesn't just accept this but creatively plans and acts to profit from and along with it.
Even better, he or she, like Austin Beutner and Laurie Hughes, work long, hard and yes entrepreneurially to bring to life new solutions and possibilities.
Like a new and better airport to be enjoyed by all.
David Allen, author of the productivity best seller "Getting Things Done," has developed an almost cult-like following for his ideas, structures, and best practices around to-do list management, prioritization, and metrics and schematics that define what an effective work day should be.
Without question, there are great benefits to his methods, and I especially like his best practice of always ending a meeting, conversation, or work on an open-ended project with the simple question "What is the Next Action?"
This discipline alone can greatly improve daily and meeting productivity, and perhaps more importantly reduce that sometime suffocating sense of anxiety common to knowledge and entrepreneurial work that there is always way more that must be done than there are hours in the day.
But a focus on simple to do list management, in the modern world, is far from sufficient.
You see, the dirty little secret that all of the self-help masters, all of the highly paid management consultants and investment bankers fail to tell you is that in our incredibly fast-moving, changing, competition from everywhere modern economy, it is virtually impossible to design a plan or strategy that is any way close to being assured of success.
The reason why is simple. Plans and strategies, by their nature, are speculative and assumptive.
They require the planner to survey the current market and competitive landscape along with assessing the current strengths and assets of their enterprise.
And then, from those assessments, forecast how a course of specific decisions or investments will be received by the market, by current or prospective customers, and responded to by the competition.
When stated this way, it becomes obvious that there is a very high likelihood that a plan as designed will not work. It really doesn't matter if that plan is to introduce a new product or service offering, a new marketing or advertising campaign, a website re-launch, or an internal re-organization.
So, does this mean that planning is worthless? Of course not! But it does point to a pair of strategic best practices:
1. Before commencing any planning process, first reflect deeply and document extensively what is working now.
These could be the practices and habits of a top sales person, a pay-per-click advertising campaign with positive ROI, an invoice collections best practice, a particularly profitable partner or affiliate.
Or, on a personal level, an exercise or diet or spiritual regimen.
Now to do more of these things that work, productivity and accountability best practices as outlined by the Dave Allens of the world are incredibly valuable and should be incorporated aggressively into the daily work habits and disciplines of the modern professional.
2. But for everything else that falls outside of this realm, the right mindset is one of testing and exploration, of brainstorming, of speculation and possibility. Of open-ended questions.
AND it should be noted extremely well that it is usually in this mode that the big outlier, “black swan” ideas and strategies and relationships are usually discovered.
As for the question as to how much of #1 – it has been called playing more of the existing game better – versus #2 – sometimes termed playing a new game, should be incorporated into your daily work flow and planning processes, well that is a decision that the best managers, the best consultants and investment bankers the most renowned self-help masters are paid a lot of money to answer.
My answer is – no surprise here if you've ever met me at a party - is to have my cake and eat it too.
Strictly schedule times, deadlines, to-dos and accountabilities to accomplish more of the stuff that you know works and leave plenty of open space - on the calendar and in one's mind and spirit - to step out of the safe harbor and into the big sea and dream more than just a little bit.
And when you balance doing and dreaming like this - and sprinkle in a little luck, a little bit of being at the right place at the right time - your dirty little secret will soon be how much money you are making.
Or even better, how much difference for the better you are making in the world every day in every way.
"….But What I do That Defines Me" – Batman
The recent capture of notorious Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger paints in sharp relief this brave new world of ours – with its full transparency and ultimate accountability for all of one’s deeds – good and evil.
Of particular interest was how, after 16 years on the run, the authorities were finally able to catch him.
He had evaded detection at least in part, not unlike the very infamous man who was once immediately above him on the FBI most wanted list, by eschewing the kinds of modern conveniences that most of us take for granted – cell phones, email accounts, or even driving a car. By so doing, Bulger avoided the electronic “paper trail” that is so easy to follow with just an Internet search here and there.
Whitey’s problem was that his girlfriend couldn’t quite manage to live the fully reclusive, offline life. She enjoyed normal things – like getting her teeth cleaned and her hair done – that involved public interaction. Knowing this, the FBI hit upon the bright idea of a public service ad aired during some popular daytime soap operas, and acting on a called-in tip, both Bulger and Grieg were captured and behind bars within a week.
This is a good thing for law enforcement for sure, but what about privacy? It seems that in our always-on, every syllable saved forever world of digital communication - it is truly impossible to hide. Probably even more troubling, often the very act of trying to hide is viewed as worse signaling than the secrets themselves!
I am of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, I am with the privacy advocates who say that even when modern media allows for the capture of a very notorious criminal, that Orwellian Big Brother fears are unsettling to say the least.
But before his publicists got to him, I also respect Mark Zuckerberg’s general take on the matter, namely that if you are so concerned about certain things that you do or say becoming public, then maybe you shouldn’t do or say those things.
You see, there is this little thing called reputation, and it is the ultimate currency in our online world.
Now, there always will be that small but very vocal minority whose main intent in life it seems is to “flame” and the more public the success, the more virulent their attacks. If you in any way doubt this, ask any celebrity, athlete, or politician about the lies, stereotypes and just downright viciousness they are subjected to online.
Adding to this, the nature of the Internet only amplifies that most unfortunate component of human nature – namely that we remember and highlight negative acts much more intensely than positive ones. Mirroring this, on the Internet the flames and the complaints are heard (and indexed by the search engines) in excess to their statistical importance.
Even with this important caveat, there remains great power and efficacy in that bright reputational spotlight that is our online, socially networked world.
Do the right thing, consistently and over time, and the world notices and rewards you.
Whether that right thing is being a power seller on eBay with thousands of positive ratings, a product on Amazon with dozens of positive reviews, an online blogger with thousands of dedicated readers, or an entertainer with millions of Twitter followers, the wheat online does get separated from the chaff.
And as for what all this means for the bad guys, well go ask White Bulger in his new holding cell if you have any doubt.
"You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart" – Bruce Springsteen
The financial panic of 1873, which set off a severe nationwide economic depression that lasted for 6 years, included The New York Stock Exchange closing for 10 days, 89 of the country's 364 railroads going bankrupt, and unemployment as high as 14%. In the midst of the panic, a gentleman by the name of Thomas Edison started a company called General Electric. You may have heard of both of them.
The Great Depression of the 1930's is even scarier in statistics than in legend. Industrial production fell by 45% between 1929 and 1932. Homebuilding dropped by 80%. 1,000 of the nation's 25,000 banks failed. US GDP fell by 30%.
And during these dark days, DuPont created new products and industries including rayon, enamels, and cellulose film. RCA invented television. And a little company called IBM started pouring research dollars into something called the computer.
The 1970's are commonly remembered as a dark period for America – stagflation, negative stock market returns for the decade, and hits to the national psyche including Vietnam, Watergate, and the Hostage Crisis. It was also the era that 2 ambitious and visionary young men named Bill Gates and Steve Jobs got their start.
Similarly, the severe global economic recession starting in 2007 resulted in American losing more than 25% of its collective net worth, the stock market declining more than 45% from its high, and the housing market down on average nationwide more than 30% from its 2006 peak.
And oh yes, during this last financial crisis the next generation of technology companies saw their most rapid growth, with Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter growing from somewhat novelties into part and parcel of global life and business, and fast on the path to other-worldly returns for their early investors.
Two main points to be made here:
1. Adversity creates opportunity. Always has, always will.
2. The world can easily be separated into two kinds of people – those that comment and complain on how things are and those that do something about it.
Since time immemorial, the town criers - those that comment and complain - have been heard more clearly because it is only human nature to be more easily scared by negativity than it is to be inspired by possibility.
Yet luckily for all of us, those that really matter aren’t wired this way. The Thomas Edisons and Thomas Watsons and Mark Zuckerbergs and Reid Hoffmans amongst us always - paraphrasing Robert Kennedy – invest their time dreaming and doing things that never were and saying why not?
The question, of course, is what about you? Will you be on the couch with the criers and the critics? Or will you be in the game with the dreamers and the doers?
The best entrepreneurs and executives are those that are able – through both great training and great talent – to move efficiently and profitably from ideas to execution, and then from execution back to ideas and then back to re-focused execution.
The entrepreneurs to avoid are those overly focused only on ideas or only on execution.
Those focused too heavily on ideas don’t quickly and rigorously enough subject their ideas to the rumble and tumble of the marketplace. These are the great “idea men” who never get around to actually executing upon a plan.
Those entrepreneurs overly focused on execution are often too slow to react to fast-changing technological, marketplace or competitive conditions and thus miss adjacent, easy-to-see opportunities.
No, the best entrepreneurs and executives are both creative and task-focused, but not too little nor too much of either.
They make plans and they work them, but are not slaves to them.
They understand that great businesses are inspired by ideas, but their success is counted in cash.
They are, in essence, “idealistic capitalists,” believing that the best ideas, the best products, and the best services are also those that make the most money.
Entrepreneurs running businesses like these are few and far between for sure. But more often than not, they demonstrate five tell-tale signs, including:
5. They are Risk-Takers. The proper goal of an entrepreneur is not to run a small business in the common sense of the term. With the fear of sounding harsh, the best of them are minimally concerned with protecting their own "middle-class" lifestyles.
Rather, they understand that achieving greatly requires daring greatly, and that the worst outcome is not necessarily a flame-out failure, but rather a muddling along driven by too conservative managerial decision-making.
4. They are GREAT Teammates. Great entrepreneurs are not simply great technicians, but rather have the gift to attract, cultivate, and empower a multi-disciplinary, faceted, and well-meshed leadership team.
And this team together, in turn, creates a culture of achievement. The tone of this culture might be, and usually is, set by a charismatic founder. But its enduring success depends on how it can be replicated and maintained as the company grows, and as its founder's role becomes less pronounced.
3. They are Goldilocks-ish. While there are certainly outliers in this regard, the best entrepreneurial managers are not "too hot" nor "too cold."
They have had a few past successes and maybe a failure or two, and are now in that sweet spot between experience and wisdom, and youthful hunger and energy. They know what they know yet they still have the intellectual and emotional flexibility and curiosity to change and grow.
2. They are Technologists. Well-led modern companies leverage technology -- from CRM and ERP to SEO and SEM to scenario-planning and simulation -- to "best practice" their business models. Their leaders understand that "IT" is not just the domain of a geeky guy to call when computers can't boot up, but is rather the crucial skeleton of the organism of their business.
1. They are Pig-Headed, Determined, and Willing to Sacrifice To Be Successful. More than anything else, great entrepreneurs work hard.
They work nights. They work weekends. They work when they're sick. They work when they're tired. They work and work and work and then to paraphrase the great (and famously hard-working) golfer Gary Player, "The harder they work, the luckier they get."
Look for this quality above all else -- it is almost always the best predictor of the presence of the other qualities on this list, and of entrepreneurs that build companies that grow and last.
Arguably the best book ever written on the power of entrepreneurial capitalism - The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley - should be required reading by anyone interested in protecting and defending the free enterprise way of life.
In an awe-inspiring tour de force of exposition, Mr. Ridley takes the reader all the way back through human economic history.
Back to the 1st entrepreneurs who discovered fire and the copper axe, through the Phoenicians, through the great trading cultures of India and China before their long (and government induced) sleeps, through the age of the Medici and the early Dutch wellsprings of modern trade, through the 19th Century Industrial Revolution in England and Scotland, to the American Century and the dawns of the computer, information, and communication ages.
And from this tale of human history, Ridley makes the overwhelming case that the 2 key drivers of human prosperity since time immemorial have been innovation and trade.
Building on the seminal work of Clayton Christensen in the Innovator’s Dilemma, Ridley describes the innovation process and its economic value-add in very prosaic terms.
He points to innovations like Amazon’s ongoing transformation of the ecommerce experience – none of which would be considered breakthrough technology, but which in their aggregate have brought unprecedented consumer productivity gains.
And to eBay, whose core innovation was NOT the idea of online auctions as much as it was that a robust exchange of buyers and sellers could be attracted via pay-per-click advertising.
Ridley’s point is that the innovation that creates wealth - versus innovation that looks good on an academic’s or a politician’s whiteboard - is simply the abiding power of Adam Smith’s invisible hand made real.
Namely individuals and small teams tweaking the way things are done only so slightly for one purpose and one purpose only – to make a buck. Or a yuan. Or a rupee. Or a few pesos.
And because now for the first time in human history, there are billions of people thinking and working and collaborating in real time toward this basic human desire, the result is more prosperity for more human beings than at any time ever.
AND MUCH more excitingly, now that all of this entrepreneurship and innovation can be shared worldwide in an instant at the click of a button, the statistical odds are overwhelmingly in favor of everything just getting better!
As in more prosperity, better education, more safety from premature death and disease, and yes even more happiness.
For all of us, for our children, and our grandchildren.
As Mr. Ridley points out, most of our grandparents had standards of living not much greater than that of Zambians today. And by corollary, if current trends continue, the grandchildren of today's Zambians will have standard of living's equal to those of ours today.
And as for our grandchildren, well they will live in a world, like our grandparents before us, that we can only dream of.
And as Mr. Ridley proves conclusively in this wonderful book, for all of this it is the entrepreneurs and the innovators that we have to thank.
So if you are serious about participating in the great 21st Century boom, read Mr. Ridley’s book.
And thank your local, neighborhood entrepreneur. For it is he and she that are driving it.
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