Moving to the Silicon Valley to pursue startups seems like ‘The Dream’ for many, but what is it actually like? In this episode we chat to Alan Shen, a USYD graduate about his experience moving from Sydney to Silicon Valley where he’s working at an early stage startup called Pave. We learn about Alan’s decision making process around where to work and how to maximise effectiveness when outreaching. Alan also talks to us about his thinking around how he prioritises learning, the importance of finding a good manager/business to work for and focusing on his health.
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Please note the following transcription is the product of AI and a mere approximation of the transcription and not a 100% reflection of what is spoken in the episode.
Hello everyone and welcome back to sprout.
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Today, we’re bringing you a very exciting episode about pursuing startups in Silicon Valley with our special guests, Alan Shen. so Viv and I know Alan all the way back from the first year of uni subs can actually since then, Alan has moved to San Francisco, working in an early stage startup could pave and is helping to run the sales team. It was great to chat with Alan and hear his story of what it was actually like when he moved to the Bay Area without having anything lined up. What I found really valuable from this conversation was really diving into the specifics of how Allah made decisions in this process, and how to maximize effectiveness when outreaching. But anyone interested in moving to Silicon Valley one day will try to navigate career decisions. This is a great one for you. So without further ado, we hope you enjoy the episode. Hi, I’m Sydney and I’m Welcome to sprout a podcast about finding your place in the world and growing and impactful Korea. Welcome to our show, Alan. Yeah. I mean, you guys could see you guys again. It’s been a minute. Yeah, many of our listeners might remember Alan from the trician episode on episode two, currency. And a lot of people have been asking us who’s Alan, who is that guy? Yeah. So today, we’ve brought Alan to you guys. And so to start us off, we like to ask our guests an icebreaker question. Alan, what’s been the best part of your week so far?
So thanks for having me. And also, it’s funny that Tristan shouted me out. And we’re gonna shout him back out. Justin is doing cool, really cool things over at data, data markets. And if you guys don’t know who he is, you definitely follow him. He’s gonna be doing a lot of cool things right now. So yeah, to answer your question, I think what is the best part of my week can specifically pinpoint certain time, that’s been like, amazing, but I think generally speaking, like throughout the week, there’s many moments where, you know, I’m quite happy and quite delighted. Usually, those revolve around interesting conversations, learning something new, or something that tickles sort of my curiosity. So you know, could be going down a rabbit hole on Wikipedia, or watching a lot of YouTube videos about random topics that I enjoy or like, or want to learn more about, or conversation like this. So we talk and you know, you can learn more about each other. And yeah, just have a great time learning, chatting.
Awesome. So the last time we sort of saw you was on festes camp when me and Sydney were besties. And your camp later, and then you sort of disappeared for a while. So what’s happened since?
Yeah, so crazy story, I guess I I graduated. And I actually started my first job in sales in a company called Asada. And basically, within a month of starting, I found out that I had to go to military service in Taiwan. So I basically dropped everything and went back and was very fortunate to also have the chance to move to the US right afterwards. So I don’t know if you guys knew, but I always wanted to move to the Bay Area and sort of pursue startups. And so the timing worked out and just pull the trigger and and moved over here as I’ve been here for two years. So what happened when you first arrived? What do you have to? Yeah, great question. Well, the first thing I did was try to find a job, right? I didn’t, I didn’t have anything lined up. I sort of just decided to move. And so the first thing I did was reach out to every single person I knew, that lived in the Bay Area, or reached out to every single person I knew I knew someone that live in the Bay Area and just started getting into conversations, figuring out what the deal is. Interestingly enough, I think you guys might remember Steph Steph, when she visited me like my first week there because she was in, in DC. So that was pretty fun. I had someone a friend to explore the city with for a bit but the main priorities was really like hey, okay, you’re here. Now? Let’s find yourself a gig. Let’s get this journey started.
Yeah, really interesting. Alan, I feel like ever since we’ve met you, you’ve always been really interested in startups and wanting to move to the Bay Area. Now, how did you come to this realization?
Sure. So I it’s a great question. I think it was something that was always kind of in my life, but I just didn’t realize. I think in high school, for example, I was always not super interested in class, but was super interested in like clubs and societies. So I started I think six or seven different clubs in high school. You know, it’s a problem. I didn’t run all them very well. I was just I’m just always obsessed with starting things. And so from then on, I was like, Okay, cool. I wasn’t really The value for that in high school I went to school in Asia and solid grades. So for me, it was kind of like, Alright, maybe I’m just a weirdo. And I like to do things on the side. But when I went to uni, and I started lazy liquor, I don’t know if you guys remember, it was an alcohol delivery business and classic, you know, college, bro, like, of course, he would start like alcohol losing business. And the moment that kind of happened, and I realized, Hey, I can take the same skills that I had used in high school, but now in real life, to generate some sort of, you know, meaningful, you know, move outcomes, whether for the consumer or for myself, or just for my community. And so that was really when I realized that startups were something I wanted to do.
It’s also you’ve been sort of really entrepreneurial from a really young age.
Yeah, I guess. I guess in a bit. I wasn’t making money in high school or doing those during those things. I hear stories of people all the time now, like, all trade flipping books, and selling candy at school, I definitely wasn’t like that. But I think some of the, there’s some a bit of congruency there and just terms of like, you know, liking to do things and liking projects and liking to start stuff and seeing a problem and being like, let’s, let’s do something about it.
Really nice. Now, let’s talk a little bit about your role and what it’s like in the Silicon Valley. So first of all, how did you get your role at pave?
Yeah, so the story goes, I quit my last job in December. So end of the year, I decided to go back to Taiwan to visit my parents during COVID. So I had a two week quarantine that I had to stick through. And like I gave myself a goal of Hey, like, Can you find yourself a job in two weeks? You’re in quarantine. So while I was there, I can guess. Tell me like how granular you want it to be. But there are a lot of research a lot of homework. And luckily enough, I was able to land a gig before quarante ended? What is doing research and doing homework actually mean? Yeah. So great question. I think what that means really is, is one figuring out what you want to do. And for me, that was the whole process of Hey, like, what role do I want to sales? Is it marketing? Is it offset Finance? Like, what do I want to do? That is sort of figuring out what I wanted to do developing a model of like what type of company I want to work for. So for me, personally, I knew I wanted to go to the early stage company. So the way filter that is a series A Series B, I wanted them to be, you know, looking for someone like me, like a salesperson usually exists within the b2b world. So that’s another filter you can place and to add just like a bunch of different filters that you put on and your wants and your needs, and narrowing down the different options of what companies like excite you or get you interested.
Interesting. Do they advertise the roll out in the public market? Is that how you found that they were looking for you? or How did that come about?
Yeah, so So really, it’s not like anything. It’s not like a crazy process. It’s really sale and manual, if anything, but I went through and filtered and found like 80 companies that fit all my criteria. And I literally just went through their careers page one by one, marked down which one was hiring for my role? Which one was it? For the people that were hiring for my role I reached out, and the people that weren’t hiring for my role that I really liked, that I wanted to work for, I would just email their CEO anyways, just with a different different bit of messaging. And so yeah, it was advertised. And, and when I found it, I just really made sure to do a lot of homework and prep, I can get a little bit more into the interview process and, and how that helped me get the job. And and yeah, and it was, again, luckily enough to be accepted to the role.
You mentioned just sort of also reached out to companies that weren’t hiring and you reached out to quite a lot. Just out of curiosity, how many responses did you end up getting?
Yeah, so I got quite a few responses. I think my reply rate was like in the 80, which is pretty good. The reason why was, I guess this might be interesting for you guys here, like I cold outreach to all of them. So I didn’t apply to any of these jobs through any of the portals. I truly believe that if you want to get to the right person, or you know, have something happen for you, you go to the stakeholder, the person who makes the decision. And so in my case for sales, you go to the head of sale. So in the emails, I would make a really blunt my title would be like, hey, I want to I want to be your next SDR sales development rep, which is a role I was looking for. And in the cold email essentially gave him a few reasons. Like straight up was like, Hey, this is who I am. Here’s three reasons why you should hire me. And it gives my resume if you’re interested. Let’s chat. So that was how I actually got my first job at the hustle using that email format. But I think what helped a lot for this process during the SDR job search process was I made that email it’s like a video. So I recorded like a loon video, the thought process there was that I think I communicate much better talking than I do. texting, I’m really bad texts, or I’m not good at writing. But I know I’m good at it, it’s talking. So why not show that off in a format that people can really see. So I made the video, I even know how to hyperlink to like, Hey, here’s my calendar link, just just schedule a time in my calendar, if you want to chat. And even in the writing of the invite, I would say hey, like, if you think I’m a good fit, then book a time, that way, I’m like, you’re tricking them into talking to me, things like that. Just little, little fun things like that. And I think that’s stood out, compared to other candidates, and which is why I got such a high reply rate.
And I think, especially for a sales role, like you got to be able to sell yourself as well. So when you were writing up like a three reasons for, like, why you be great, and why they should consider you, how did you come up with those three reasons?
Yeah. So I think the three reasons were really just aligning the inch, what they’re looking for, and, and with your experiences, and putting those two and two together, I think for any job, that’s really all it is. It’s, you know, what they want? Like, you can look this stuff up, right? What do you want a salesperson who’s Google that and you’ll find 50 million articles, and all coachable, drive, you know, interest, you know, hard working, whatever, like this, all these things, that there’s a few qualities, there’s like, yeah, there’s a ton of qualities that every job people are looking for, and you take, you know, those qualities, say three things, and then you sort of match it up with what you’ve done, and experiences. So I think one of them was, you know, I’m constantly curious, you know, I’m someone that I can I know that I can never, I never know everything. So I’m always curious, I want to learn, and that fits into the coachable aspect of what people are looking for in a salesperson. It’s really important. And as you know, I started a few companies back in college, I think that that fits into the hard work grid sort of category, and you kind of just mix and match and see how you want to develop that email.
Okay, so just remind us, are you back in San Francisco right now? Oh, yeah. Um, what’s the actually like in Silicon Valley? So what’s it like?
Great question. What’s it like living in the valley, I guess, compared to Australia, where you guys are based, there’s a lot of things that I like and and I think are, are great and different about living here. The number one reason why I moved here was to pursue my career as very, as you guys can tell, says live here. And for me, it’s been great as there’s a few things I really love about being here is one year, right in the middle of all the action, the world’s best startups are all still in San Cisco. People are saying like, yeah, they’re Miami, you know, it’s been, yeah, there might be some, but the core of it is still here. The reason why is all the capital is here, all the talent is here. And all the networks are here as well. And what that means in a day to day life is that when I meet people, just random that a house party or coffee chats or, you know, hanging out with just anyone at work. These are like sort of the most intelligent and hardworking people I’ve ever met the highest concentration of those types of people. You run around and you meet randoms. And you like, what do you do? Like Your what? what reason? What’s their startup doing? Like? That’s insane. Like, it’s just things that you’ve never heard of, and everyone’s ultra intelligent and ultra curious and you’re valued for, you know, every city values things differently. No, you go to LA and Miami new value, like your how much money you look like you make like what car you drive, and, you know, your outfits and things like that. In San Francisco, you’re valued by like your intelligence and your in your curiosity and things that you want to do. Things that you achieve, and you know, your hard work. So I think that that was like a huge difference between Australia and here. It’s just the type of people you meet. Not saying there isn’t smart people in Australia is plenty, but just a general overall culture. You hear things in Australia, like the tall poppy syndrome, you know, you’ll want people to work hard, right? or chocolate or thickie. Right. It’s part of the culture to skip work. Like that doesn’t exist here. And there’s pros and cons. But yeah,
yeah, in terms of what startups are like, what do you think is the difference between startup culture in Australia and San Francisco?
So I haven’t personally worked at a startup like worked for like a startup in the same context, like someone who’s raised and then all that, but that’s of no that’s a lie. I have his answer out of for a month. So I don’t know if that really counts, but so I don’t know if I can give a fair comparison to say what’s different and what’s not. But what I can say is, is again, if you’re working at a top startup, you’re working with the best talent because everyone that works there knows that they only hire for the best and that means all your colleagues are just ultra intelligent. Like for me, I worked with my manager our minds like he was the number one salesperson carta, which is I don’t know if you guys heard of it, the cap table company, like worth a few billion dollars now and he was doing 300% quota. He became director of sales at 2728 shout out our minds get the podcast code to call 30 minutes of president’s club, but he, he’s my manager, like this guy that has a incredible salesperson and, and people in the valley like literally people Australia know who he is, right like I work, I text him all the time. And he’s kind of my manager. So even on the engineering side, all the people who used to work there are not just from Uber, but there will be from Uber ATG, which is the former self driving division, which is where all the super smart engineers, and the top notch guys go work at. So it kind of you know, I guess the context here, again, it’s going back to the same point I made earlier, which is, the people that work and you work with every day are just the smartest and most hardworking people, most curious people you’ll meet, it makes work really fun.
Yeah, so you’re in a place with a high concentration of really smart, really hard working people. What kind of culture Do you think that creates? Do you think it’s competitive? Or how do you think it might differ from maybe, say New York, which is also high concentration of smart, hardworking people in a different way?
Yeah. 100%? I think the competition part is actually a huge part of our culture. You mentioned that? And I think, you know, yes, it’s it’s I don’t know, again, I don’t know how different it would be versus New York, because you haven’t worked there before. I imagine it’s very similar given, given that it’s just different industry, you know, very finance focus in New York versus here as a lot of tech. But the type of culture you breed it is, is, is really interesting. I think, one is one of problem solving and curiosity, I think constantly, always trying to figure out how to make the company better. We’re all bought in to making our vision into reality. So for us, we’re always trying to figure out ways to make the business better in our respective areas. And, and yeah, I think I think another part of our culture is the competition. As you mentioned, it’s actually really fun working on my company, like, everyone’s super competitive, because all the people that work, there were some of the best people in their own companies. So you bring that spirit, you bring that competitive edge. And it’s it’s manifests in a few funny ways. example I can give is we have this thing called Breakfast Club within our business. So that means every Friday, one person will cook breakfast for everyone that day. And so, you know, it starts off and you know, people are doing bacon and eggs and pancakes, whatever real casual breakfast. And then, like the last one, we had one of my colleagues, like marinated steak three nights before, like, came in with like, just is the eye likes dessert. And like all these crazy like, it was like a three course meal. And if there’s one thing that we find hilarious, and is that that competitive edge, like turns itself into, again, like I think, in a really healthy way. And we all really like to have fun with it.
That’s awesome. And sounds super fun. We’ve talked hates about the positives of working a startup in the Silicon Valley. Are there any like downsides that you want to highlight?
Of course, I think with any decision you make, there’s always trade offs. I think generally speaking, when I was thinking about what career choices I should make, I try to put I remember, I heard this from someone I think, or from somewhere on the internet, but Camera Roll was, it was this general framework of saying like, hey, like, when you pick a job, there’s basically three categories of things you can fulfill, you can only usually have optimized for one of those categories, and the two other ones are going to suffer and take a hit. Right. So one is optimizing for learning. The second category is optimizing for cash, like how much money you’re making. And the third is optimizing for, for lifestyle. So you know, your typical nine to five, you’re optimizing for lifestyle, right? Get home, go home with your wife, and kids play with your dog, go have dinner with your friend, but you’re not going to make a lot of money or learn a lot. Unfortunately, you will optimize for cash, you’re not gonna get the two other ones, right, you’re not going to get a lot of time with your friends or family, but you’re gonna make a lot of money and you’ll learn you’ll learn, you’ll learn a lot of stuff. But oftentimes, at least from my perspective, to get an unbiased, you’re not learning as much as you would in like an operational role like in a startup. Which brings us to the third category, which is optimizing for learning, which is why I chose and decided to go into startups. And, again, the two trade offs are there, right? I don’t make a lot of money compared to other people in similar roles at a bigger company, for example, salesperson at an Oracle or Salesforce, they probably make more money than have How about the lifestyle? Yeah, that takes a hit as well. I work a lot I worked on, right. I try to get to the office really early. And I work sometimes. I usually work on Sundays, and there’s always trade offs and downsides. But I think what’s really important is to just ask yourself, like, Is this what you want? For me, I love my job. And I love working because I like the people I work with that I care about what I’m doing. So, yes, I sometimes have to miss dinner and can’t go out on road trips and stuff. But again, it comes down to your priorities and What do you really are aiming for?
Sounds like a very deliberate about your choices. Yeah. And I think that’s like a good point to go into what led you to Pave?
Yeah.So I think there’s two sides of the story again, again, two buckets? I think, generally, the first one is is the obvious are are things that you look for, like the city, you’re, you’re in a VC for, right? Like, you know, how to analyze businesses and what to look for. You’re a, you know, what’s their? What’s their total Tam? Like? What’s, who is the founder? Or was this a space, a hot space, you know, something that allow our competitors? What’s the growth look like? Who are their investors? Right? So all these basic sort of outside things you can just find out online, were all very positive. When I found out about PayPal, led by Andreessen, you know, raised the biggest round ever out of Y Combinator, you know, there’s a lot of great sign is like, knowing how do you validate that is one kind of looking online, and two is going to network and talking to your friends. So I asked a lot of friends who are in the in the valley like, Hey, have you heard of this, or ask my investor friends, they’ve heard of this company. And generally speaking, you can generally trust in network opinions. And when there’s a few multiple data points with from multiple circles that say the same thing, and generally trust that on the second, second, so the other side of this is the more like human side of it. I think there’s a few anecdotes here that are interesting and touch upon. When it comes to finding a job. I think, especially earlier career, the number one most important thing is finding a good manager, right? The manager 60. And you succeed, if he’s bought into you, and you’re bought into learning from him and taking his lessons or his or her lessons. And using that and really learning, you’re going to do amazing, versus at a place that you’re managing, we care about you or you guys don’t get along. So touching to that point. I mentioned to you guys earlier about Armand, and he was someone that I was learning from, from his podcast, I didn’t know what pay was, when I first found out about his podcast, my friends just sent me the podcast and was like, Hey, you want to learn sales, listen to this podcast. And when I stumbled and was doing my research, I found him and I knew that, hey, if I could work for this guy, that’d be pretty insane. Right? Go through the interview process. And one thing really stood out to me was, during my first interview, literally the first one intro call, and he told me at the end of the interview was a Hey, that, hey, we really want you to work here. And I’m sure you have other offers on the table. But no matter what you end up deciding to do or going or what company you want to work for. I want to make sure you succeed. And I was like, What the heck is going on the interview? Why is he telling me these things like this is not confusing, but awesome, great. Like, I feel super validated. And I feel like he’s supporting me, even though he literally just met me for half an hour. And so that soft skill side of things, you know, like the human side was extremely convincing, because I knew that if this is how he operates during an interview, this is what he’s going to be like on a day to day basis. Matt are the founder. He also took a call with me and was very thoughtful, like a day later. He goes, Hey, you know, I know your Intel right now. Are you free on Monday, your time, Monday in Taiwan is Sunday in America. And I knew that there were in taho. Like on holiday, the fact that he jumped on a call with me for an hour to interview like, you know, like an entry level salesperson was very, very touching and very meaningful. And I think those two sort of emotional, soft, people side types of situations really convinced me to be like, yeah, okay, I definitely want to work here for sure.
That’s really interesting. And one thing that I noticed that you didn’t quite mention is the interest in what pave is actually doing so Pave’s doing stuff about compensation and compensation benchmarking, does interest in what your startup do actually affect your decisions? Are you more looking at those two buckets?
Yeah, I mean, I think it really depends on your personality and what you care about. I know a lot of folks are extremely mission driven, they have things that topics that they care about, and they want to only work in businesses that, you know, are in that field, because they care about us so much like new environmental, you know, renewables or mental health or you don’t hear a lot of people saying they care a lot about Yoast, SAS businesses, but I guess there might be people like that. But for me, I think it didn’t matter as much what the industry was, or what the company was doing. I think, definitely it played into a part of my decision, I thought that if we can really, truly bring our vision to reality, then it’s going to make the world really a better place. And that sounds super cliche, and a lot of startups say that, but I truly believe that we can do that. But I think on top of that, what’s more important for me was was how can I learn again, that was my goal. And the best way for me to optimize for that goal was kind of what I mentioned earlier, which is Google that working with, you know, and I guess, you know, who am I learning from, but also the growth of the startup And how fastest growing things as Paul Graham or another, you know, Silicon Valley sort of legend mensen. Like, don’t worry about what company you are just, if you see a rocket ship, just jump on it. And you’ll you know, that’ll be a great decision, totally butcher the quote, but kind of get to get the point where I was trying to say. So yeah, so for me, I think it was just more about what company is doing really well. And, again, that was my priority, but could be different for everyone.
So I feel like a lot of what you’ve just mentioned, reminds me of this book I’m reading now, because the business of venture capital, which is more from the investor side of how to grow businesses, and invest in them, and a really key part of that is like looking at few other people who are managing the company. So it’s really interesting to think even from an employee point of view, to get companies where you think has like, tremendous growth potential as well.
I think, yeah, just to add on to that point, I think you make a great point. And it’s really like, what are what are VCs? Were investors? Were they doing right? You know, they analyze businesses all day lay a framework to figure out what’s a good investment or not, because they need to make returns for the LP. And for me, as an employee’s like,
why not use the same framework to judge where I want to work? So route, I took a lot of those things I was talking about, like the people that whatever, my learn that from reading the same books you did, like the VC books, and a lot of different tech blogs and YouTube videos, and you know, Reddit and Twitter, it’s the same type of stuff that they’re looking for, I think you can apply that to many different places, including your job search.
Absolutely. So going forward, Allen, where do you see your future going?
Yeah, that’s a real, real, real big question. Frankly, frankly, I’m not really sure where, where my life is going. I don’t think anyone knows what their life is guilty. But I think life, at least for me is, is it’s always some random opportunities or things that happen that you stumbled upon, and you sort of just decided to take that road and kind of, at least for me, is just see where it takes me when when those opportunities come up. I don’t really know. But I just know that I need to prepare for those opportunities. So when it comes, I’m ready. So not to be again, I feel like I’m coming on answering your question by spouting out a lot of BS. But I think generally, if you asked me back when we knew each other in uni, do you know you’re going to be at a high growth tech startup, five years later? or six years or so? And so on over know, How many years has been? I probably say no, like, no way I’m gonna, you know, I don’t I don’t know what you’re talking about. So for me, I focus less on that side of things is more. So I think just having clear goals and trying to get after it and kind of seeing where that takes me.
Ellison and Celeste reflecting back on your experiences, you moved countries straight out of uni, you’re working in San Francisco to startup? Is there anything you would change or do better?
Yeah, I think the the one thing, if I could, I guess the question is, like, if I go back and change anything I’ve done to like, learn about myself a lot more. But I think this comes with age and experience. I’ve learned so much about myself in the last few years that I say to myself, sometimes if I knew these things about myself, I would probably be doing so much better. And that’s including things like health, like exercise, like your emotions, mental health, like how you think, you know, just what, you know, different systems and processes and just learning like what works for you. And like being okay with that. And using that to sort of help you make decisions and, and not trying to be someone else or fall into buckets of what you know, other people’s expectations are because I think I did fall into that a lot back in college, you know, really was like trying to impress people do this do that talk a lot about myself. And it was just a bit much To be honest, thinking back at it now. But now it’s like, Hey, I kind of just do things that I like, and I do things that makes me happy and kind of let you know, trust your gut. And I think that’s, that’s a that’s one thing I would hopefully change as I trust myself and learn more about myself. very philosophical, hey, not really answering the question. No, they’re really great learnings.
Yeah, and I definitely agree with that piece. Like, it’s really important to know yourself and see where that fits into the wider world as well. So over the years, I know you touched on it briefly. But what do you think has been your biggest sprout or growth moment?
Yeah. So I don’t think there’s been like a particular moment that’s been like, Oh, my God, my life has changed. It’s more so sort of like a collection of moments and collection of things that happen that kind of that kind of build over time for achievement to occur. You know, if it wasn’t for my first internship at the hospital, I wouldn’t have learned how to write cold emails. Right? That cold email helped me get my job at pace, right. If it wasn’t for going to the army, maybe I wouldn’t have really understood like, back in Taiwan, like I wouldn’t have understood like, Oh, this is what it’s like to be culturally tolerant. He’s right, like learning more about my own identity. So I think there’s just a lot of like small things that kind of build up and helps you get somewhere. I think, what the podcast is called sprout casts, right? Like a sprout was, you know, you need the soil, you need water, you need to decide and there’s all these different factors and things that happened that allows the sprout that, you know, the like, you’ll know whenever to sprout. So, so, again, me I’m avoiding the answer, but I think it’s a collection of things that that occurred, and I can’t really pinpoint one one thing specifically.
But that was a great metaphor. You’re using our metaphor better than us. Yeah. Glad to be of service. Yeah, no worries. Yeah. Thank you so much for coming on our show today, Alan. It’s great chatting with you. Thanks, Alan. Thank you. Thanks for having me. Thank you for listening.