Learn from startup founder Annabel Youens why “you can’t push off people stuff” & how to build a great HR process even when you feel too busy
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Tim Reitsma Building a company in New Zealand. Moving it to L.A. and then settling in Victoria, British Columbia brings about a lot of change. My guest today shares her journey as a co-founder and offers practical insight on how to focus on your team when you don't have a dedicated HR person.
Thanks for tuning in. I'm Tim Reitsma. The resident host of People Managing People. Welcome to the podcast where people manage your people. And we want to lead and manage better. We're owners, founders, entrepreneurs. We're middle managers. We're team leaders.
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Welcome to the podcast, Annabel, it's a pleasure to have you join. And yeah, for our guests or for our listeners. What did you introduce yourself and who you are, what you're up to? And I'd love to hear about your journey as an entrepreneur.
Annabel Youens Sure thing. Thanks for having me, Tim. My name is Annabel Youens. I'm a co-founder and chief marketing officer at Appreciation Engine. We're a startup that's involved in helping enterprise businesses really understand their fans better. And we really focus on especially the music industry, helping the record labels understand what their fans are really into one month and then what they're not listening to anymore.
So it really helps them with their marketing. And in the end, it's about helping the fan get the music that they want. So based in Victoria right now, we have team members overseas and New Zealand as well as here in Victoria. And I also run the company with my husband. So, you know, all the things happen in my life and at home with business and our personal lives. Yeah.
Tim Reitsma Yeah. Do you guys talk about anything else besides Appreciation Engine?
Annabel Youens Once we had our daughter, then we definitely talked about her. I think that it can be challenging for sure for us to turn off work. And actually it's kind of funny. So Jeff and I have been working together for almost 20 years. We've worked together. And when we first started, we had just we've had a couple of startups that our first startup was our first time really working together and understanding what that would look like.
And I had this absolutely hard rule that at five o'clock. There is no talking about business. And I was incredibly regimented about that. And what ended up happening was the Jeff found that very frustrating because when he had an idea or wanted to talk something through, that doesn't necessarily happen between nine and five.
So over the years, I've really let that go and just really come to terms with the fact that there is this blend in my life. And how can there not be so resistant for so long? And so now it's OK. And I've really come to terms with that. But honestly, sometimes we will be out having dinner, just the two of us.
And I'll be like, could we not talk about work for just a little bit here? Right. Totally. Because it's so easy. Right. Because we love what we do. And so you get quite caught up in it, but you do need that that headspace away from work is so important.
Tim Reitsma Yeah. I was talking to a colleague of mine and we're just talking about our poor spouses or poor partners who just hear us. So, I don't work with my wife. So I can imagine those conversations as you conduct work together as well as to raise your daughter and whatnot. So, yeah. So that's it's pretty crazy. It's not a norm to have various startups through the past 20 years with your partner and you landed on Appreciation Engine and you've been around Appreciation Engine been around ten years.
Annabel Youens Yeah, that's right.
Tim Reitsma So 10 years. And so what prompted you to start Appreciation Engine?
Annabel Youens So at that time was 2009 and my husband and I were actually living in New Zealand. So we had left Victoria. Geoff had got a job overseas, and we had decided that we were going to live in New Zealand for two years, work, explore the South Pacific, and see the world. So we ended up being there for a lot longer, and it actually ended up being 10 years. But it 2009.
Did the music industry was in a really weird place. So at that time, fans were being sued by record labels for downloading their music, and all these cool services were popping up. So Twitter had arrived. SoundCloud was really popular, especially with independent musicians. Releasing their music was a very hot platform.
Flicker was a place where everyone was sharing art that they had created and also photos. And we were really thinking about there's all this. Word of mouth marketing fans were doing, right? They were sharing SoundCloud links, They were sharing images of bands. They were talking on Twitter. And we really thought there just has to be a better way for labels and bands to be able to recognize this great behavior that fans are doing.
So that's really where our Appreciation Engine was birthed. And really the core concept behind it is, how are you going to appreciate your fans if you don't understand them? Right? And there's so much content online that it's incredibly difficult to do this manually. Also, if you look at, you know, just Twitter and statistics, you know, just searching through that data there, you can really see, you know, one hundred thousand people talked about your band and really loved it.
But who are those actual people and how do you reach out to them and how do you thank them for what they're doing? So that's kind of where it really started. And we've really seen the music industry change in leaps and bounds and really embrace digital, whereas they were very persistent in 2009.
Tim Reitsma I can imagine it's presenting a new technology or a new way to gather insights. And, you know, it's an industry that has, you know, evolved over time. But now you're seeing technology is being introduced and it's. It could be scary. So, how did you overcome that? So you saw that you know, that pushback or that reluctance from big music companies. And how do you breakthrough?
Annabel Youens Yeah. So, I mean, it's that same thing. It's always about finding that right person. Right? Finding that person that's aligned with your vision. Right. That also sees the potential. So in New Zealand, it was actually a band we started working with there called the Mint Chicks. They're now called Unknown Mortal Orchestra and plug for them.
They're amazing. So Rubin, who is one of the brothers in the band and kind of the main guy behind it. He was leaving his label. They were with Warner at the time and they were looking for a service that was doing and utilizing online platforms. So we got introduced to them. And then Rubin and I worked incredibly hard together.
And I think that was one of the reasons that we're so successful today, was because Rubin is one of those people who work incredibly hard in his music but also understands all the other components of the business. Right. That you need to be involved in. So we had a hugely successful campaign with that band.
We did all sorts of things. We had a live stream. Fans got to create videos. They did album art. It was all these collaborations between the fans and the Mint Chicks. And it was really successful. They released a single on a USB stick, which was kind of unheard of. And yeah, it was an amazing campaign. And it was very successful.
And after that, that allowed us to work with a number of other record labels in New Zealand and Australia. So it was finding that person that really got it, proving the success. And then other labels going, Oh that looked cool. I would like to give that a try.
So that was kind of the start of it. And then that allows us to actually raids, raise some seed capital. And that's when we decided that we needed to move to L.A. because we were being successful in that small pond.
And that's why New Zealand is such a great testing ground for technology. But if we were going to truly be a larger business, we had to go where the music was. So it was either L.A. or New York. And having grown up in Canada, I was like, no, thank you. I don't want it to snow in New York. So to L.A., we went and really immersed ourselves in the industry there.
And it was one complete culture shock to go from tiny New Zealand to massive sprawling L.A. And then also really realizing when we got there that there were a thousand there were thousands of digital agencies that were running creative campaigns for artists and teams. And we ran a few like we did a large one with Thievery Corporation and Kesha and OK Go. And they were very successful campaigns.
But what came out of it was that it was our core technology that sat underneath our campaigns that we ran that no other digital agency had. So that's really when we realized that we were going to stop building these digital campaigns for agencies and for labels and. Actually just turned into a service provider that's just going to deliver this technology for other groups to kind of build on top of. So we had a significant pivot when we got to L.A. and really realized the landscape.
And I think that is super common in a lot of growth stories for startups. Right. I think pivot word. But it was very, very difficult because we actually had to end up letting go of our team that was based in New Zealand because it was such a drastic shift in the business that we basically had to cut all our costs. Jeff and I didn't take a salary for six months and we'd really just focused on pivoting to really be this technology service. So that was a pretty rough, rough moment in the journey right there. Yeah,
Tim Reitsma I can imagine. If you've got a great idea and it is proven in New Zealand, you take that idea to L.A., which you quickly realized that there are a lot of other organizations, agencies doing. There's some very similar then to realize that your core technology is what makes you different and going from an agency to a technology company all and, you know, I guess a short period of time, you know, it's not like a 10, 20 or 30 years Check to do that. And then having to even pivot the team and move that team or move resources. So go from New Zealand to L.A. and you're now in Victoria. So I could imagine. Yeah. The long conversations and late-night conversations about making all these decisions.
Annabel Youens Yeah. It's you know, it's really interesting trying to make decisions that one, you know, are not emotional, sometimes can be incredibly difficult, especially when you have such an amazing team. Right. It was you know, I think there's a lot of businesses right now going through that right now with COVID. Right. Having to change, adapt, change their teams.
So it's just something you have to do at certain points in the business. And once the new model of the business got off the ground in L.A. and we realized, funnily enough, that even though we were in L.A. and we were working with a record label, so we were in Santa Monica, our office and where we lived. And then, you know, we'd work with a record label that was in Hollywood because of the traffic they would not want to come and see us, so we would have a Zoom meeting.
And I realized we realized pretty quickly after a year and a half or so that we could actually do this work from anywhere in the world. And we had always wanted to come back to Victoria. It's Where Jeff and I both went to university. And we still have family here. And on the West Coast. So that's when we really looked at what was happening with the business. And we just had our daughter. She was about two years old. We didn't have a support system in L.A.
And it was quite challenging to balance everything that was going on. So we made the decision that we wanted to move back to Victoria. And I remember presenting it to our board and I was worried. I was like, oh, what are they going to say? They're going to say, we have to stay in L.A. And they were actually really supportive. And I realized with this experience that if you are happy with it.
Your surroundings with what's going on in your life, that you feel supported with people around you. Your business is going to be more successful and we move back to Victoria. And then probably about four months later, we signed another major record label with a global deal. And I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that we were home again and we had the support system. And also, I mean, Victoria is incredibly welcoming.
If you compare what it's like to work in L.A. with what it's like to work in Victoria, it is. It is literally night and day in L.A. we were next we were in a WeWork office. We had startups next to us that were, you know, just raising a million dollars like a lunchtime with some guy in a cafe. That stuff literally happened. Jeff and I were both just there and everyone's like fist-bumping and are they doing any work? I literally saw some companies where they were not doing any work.
They were just raising money. Right. And then they come back to Victoria. And it's this place that's, it's so welcoming. Had people here on my network from years ago when I worked at eight books, I reconnected with people. You know, biotech was really welcoming. And, you can reach out to any entrepreneur in Victoria and say, hey, I'm Annabelle. And dealing with this, like, can you talk to me for ten minutes? Absolutely.
They will make time for you. And that would never happen in L.A. It was really, you know, in that city, you know, everyone is kind of out for themselves and it's very different here. And it's much more aligned with our kind of business philosophy and how we are as people. So, you know, being in that place that makes you happy. Not only is good for you, but it's also going to be really good for your business.
Tim Reitsma Yeah, that's just such an interesting journey, but also its insights that you gathered along that journey of, hey, we're in a place we could be anywhere in the world. Let's move back to Victoria. And just having that, you know, that warm welcome. So is he said it's that support system and that support system helps you grow as an individual, but as an organization? And so let's just talk about the growth of the company. You've seen growth, you know, sales of ingrates. Technology is been really adopted in the music industry. And I believe other industries now. And so, you know, it can't just be you, Jeff. How have you grown the team and is it been growing, you know, in Victoria? Are you growing it remotely?
Annabel Youens Yeah, it's a great question. We have. We still have some teams in New Zealand and especially Mike down there. He's one of our head programmers. Mike has worked with us for on and off for 20 years. So he's basically family now. He's always worked remotely. Yes. We're growing the team here in Victoria. That was like a big reason for us to move back. And also, there's a lot of smart people in Victoria.
The tech industry is so different from when I left in 2001 to today. It's dramatically different. So there's a lot of people, very smart people looking for interesting jobs. So there's a talent pool here. People want to move to Victoria, which is great for recruiting purposes. It's a beautiful place to live. We have definitely been growing. And I think that.
I mean, it's challenging. Right. You have In the first part of your business, your biggest challenge is, "Do I have a product-market fit? And will anyone buy this product?" And then people start buying it. And then you realize, "Oh, gosh, I guess we need people to help us support our customers". And then you have to go out and find those people. And then you have your new challenge of, How do I bring in this person who doesn't really know much about my business at all? How do I bring them in and make them understand how we work?"
Right, how we tick, how we tackle problems, how we deal with successes in the business, how do we celebrate those? Right. All those quirks that go on. And you move to this point where. You are spending time on the business, but the piece of that business with people starts to get larger and larger. Right. And take up more and more of your time. And I think there's a real tendency that I have seen for founders especially to go. Yeah, yeah. I'll deal with that later because I have an emergency over here, which I totally get.
Right. That happens. But I really believe you can't push off people stuff. You have to make time and do the work there because it definitely pays off in return for your business. I really believe that if you have people who are happy and satisfied and feel like they are being recognized for the hard work that they do, your business is going to be more successful than if you just have people who were there just kind of doing their job.
Tim Reitsma Yeah. And what you say is it is backed by research, research in various different business books where it's not just about offering somebody a reasonable salary and to come into work every day and, you know, effectively not be happy. Right. It's creating happy people with purpose and there's potential. And how do you create that? I know you know, I've heard other founders talk about its clear vision or clear values. Is there something else to ensure that people are aligned and excited and moving forward?
Annabel Youens Yeah, it's hard because I think it changes depending on the size of your team as well. I think at the point where we are, where we're kind of starting to scale, the way that we kind of handle it is for me, for the managers in our group.
We have obviously your weekly one on ones. I think that was our imperative to checking in with your team member to see how they're doing. Also, we do quarterly check-ins that roll up into annual reviews.
So, honestly, sometimes I feel like every week I'm like, oh, I've got a quarterly review that I have to do. And it can feel like a lot of paperwork and it can feel like I just did this. Do I really have to do this again?
But I have seen since we implemented that system probably a year, almost two years ago, we implemented quarterly reviews in a quarterly review.
We identify what are the key objectives that each team member is going to be working on and which overall goals in the business to those reluctant to write. So every three months I'm checking in with every team, every team member to really understand, okay, you're working on these things and these things matter to these big things over here that we agreed about our strategy in September.
Right. I think one that's really important that that cycle is happening inside of the business. And it is it can feel incredibly onerous to set that up and get that going. And I think, you know, I don't have any HR person on the team. But what I do rely on is I have an HR expert who I tap and say, hey, Matt, this thing, can you help me craft a for example like we don't have a policy and procedures book.
We have a book that's called What We Do and How We Do It. And it's in plain language. And then it clearly, you know, talks about how we handle holidays and how over Christmas we give everyone that break between Christmas and New Year's off because nobody wants to work that it's wasted time to be in the office.
Right. So we have these policy books that we developed that we've made them engaging and not boring is one thing I would say in your HR work that you're doing. Don't be boring with it. But I bring in experts when I need them. So Matt works at human elements and he has really come in and helped me craft these documents, but then also make sure that they're lining up with all of our provincial and federal policies that we need.
Right. That's the piece that I don't know. I can come up with any I can dream of all kinds of things. And then Matt can come in and go. Well, I really like what you're saying there, but we can't do that. I was like, oh, OK. So help me, you know, craft and figure that out.
So I think a lot of founders in this period before you can really hire that HR person, you really look to find people in your network who can come in and support you.
Tim Reitsma Yeah, that's a good point. I think for any startup or for any small, small company, you don't necessarily need to go in and hire an HR person or dedicated person. But it may be beneficial to bring in a consultant for a period of time to help create these strategies. But, you know, finding a consultant who is also aligned with the vision and the values of the organization is important because otherwise, you, me or
Anybody could go to Google and research how to create manuals or how to create policies or processes. But it's important to craft them in the language that speaks to the organization. Otherwise, you know, if it's legal jargon. Are people going to read it? Are people going to adhere to it? But he also brings up a good point is if we got to stay legal in organizations.
Annabel Youens Absolutely.
Tim Reitsma The last thing we want to do is get in trouble legally or from any sort of like in Canada. The SRE, you want to stay away from getting in any sort of trouble. So, yeah. So, yeah, it is important to go to that research in and get that advice. And so you touch a little bit about on. I'd love to talk a little bit more about just one to one clearly view an annual review and so on. And when did you realize that you needed that process that you needed? Was it proactive or was it somebody was asking for it for a review?
Annabel Youens It was proactive on our side. I think as the team, you know, as we started to squeeze past six people and me no longer. I spoke to everyone every day, all the time, and knew exactly what was going on. Right. To like all of a sudden you can't do that. I realized that we needed to have something in place that allowed each team member to be allowed to go out and help them make their own decisions every day.
Right. And the startup stuff happens all the time. You get sidetracked. Something comes in from a client. You've got to do something. You got to shift gears. But then after that has happened, it's like, how do they realign themselves with what the business needs to be focusing on? And this quarterly check-in does that because it allows them to log in to we use who? Me?
They're a Canadian startup as well. Go Canada. And they allow us to manage a lot of our HR processes like our leave and performance reviews, things like that in there. So they can log into that system at any time and they can see the agreed key performance indicators that they're working on for these next three months. And so they know what they need to focus on. Right.
They know how they need to realign. And the nice thing about that is they don't really have to bother anyone else. They might come in and double-check and say, I think they need to jump back into this and go, yeah, awesome. But it allows them to be independent. It allows them to also, you know, see that bigger picture on what they're working on. And then I think that that really helps everybody stay on track.
I know. I need it. Right. I need to. Cool. All right. What was it that I needed to get done by the end of this quarter? What do I need to deliver to the board as well? So I find it super beneficial. And I know that our team members also find it beneficial. The one thing I find most interesting about this is that, of course, we're all unique individuals. We're all people first and the weekly one on ones versus the quarterly one on ones.
I find some team members. Really rely on the weekly one, on the ones to help them keep on track because they have other team members who use the quarterly one to really keep them on track. It's quite interesting how different people are motivated right, by either a longer-term goal that they have or kind of more short term weekly goals that are in there.
So I think you need both of those things in place because honestly, I've said I've worked in organizations where you just have that one annual review and it's like, how can you talk about why whole year performance when basically all you really remember is the last three months anyway? Right.
Tim Reitsma I've been there and there. I've done that. And it's usually a scramble. Oh, shoot. I've got a performance review to write. Oh, hey, people, can you give me feedback? And you hear feedback from the last three weeks and you try to stretch that out.
So, you know, I'm a huge advocate for a regular cadence of one on ones, but not just a one on one to catch up and drink coffee, but some structure to it. Well, what do we working towards? And I was talking with a small startup here in Vancouver, and they were saying that they set goals, but the business is moving so quickly that, you know, they look back to us later on.
Those goals are relevant anymore. And so, you know, I start to question about, well, are you actually setting the right goals and are they aligned with your vision or are they tying back to the direction you want to go? And so we're gonna do a little bit of work later this week on that just for that fact. And then you can actually set up one and one and good structure with your team. And you don't you know, you can have an HR person for that or you don't need this elaborate plan. There are pieces of technology out there that help you. There's you know, you could develop a great template yourself as long as you're tracking to something and move it forward.
Annabel Youens Yeah, it's really interesting for me. It's all template driven. So we have a weekly one on one template that they fill in every week. So there is that structure to it. Right. And then also our strategic plan that we have, you know, we can boil it down to four slides. Right. And I think that's really important. Like some people think I've got to write a plan. It's got to be massive, all these pages and have all the support and everything. And I don't agree with that.
I think it's better to just get something down, even if it's rough, and try to aim for something rather than spend all this time creating some complicated strategic plan no one is ever going to read. Plus, I also have a tendency to I can plan and plan and plan forever and never actually execute. So it's also helpful for me. I know that I need to have a short and simple plan so that I can really focus on doing the work.
Tim Reitsma Yeah, I'm the same way I, I can get really good at planning. And then I have told myself accountable to the actual execution of the plan and, you know, work. You can always use the excuse that other work gets in the way. But ultimately it's where we're going as an organization and how much contributing to that. And so I'm really curious, as your team has grown, you've changed countries numerous times. The businesses are very successful. What is one thing that you've learned along the way with regards to people management?
Annabel Youens People management, I think there's a number of things that came up for me and I was really thinking about this question, and I think ultimately the biggest thing I have learned is that I used to think there was work-life balance and I kind of don't believe in that anymore. I really believe that when a team member comes to work, they are a person first, and they're coming to work with all that stuff that's happening in their life, right?
Maybe they forgot to put out the recycling that morning and now they're annoyed with themselves or something's happening with a family member. People come to work with all of those pieces about them, right? And you want your people to come to work with all those pieces because that's what makes them unique.
That's what makes them come up with amazing solutions. And that that is how culture gets added to your organization. So for me, I think it's really thinking about the whole person at work and recognizing that that's what they are first.
I think for many years, I was really good at hiring great people and managing great people, but I really try—it's so funny, it's in parallel to how I worked with my husband] Jeff and I was really trying to keep that separation between the two. And I have really learned that there isn't a separation. It's really just people. We're all people, regardless of whether you're managing someone or whether you're in a team with a group. And that that is a key part of. Seeing success in your business.
Because I really see my job. When someone comes to my company to help us be successful. My job is to help them figure out what skill set they want to get good at. I want to help them do that so that when they move on to their next part of their career or they go off to start a company or whatever it is that they decide to go and do. They're able to look back and go, oh, that was what EA helped me figure out.
This piece of the puzzle here. This thing that I'm really good at. Or it helped me figure out that I actually don't like doing X, Y, and Z. So that's kind of. I know it's not really a device, but that's kind of insight that I have seen as to really focus on the person helping them be successful. And, you know, figure out where they want to be in 10 years. And then your business is going to be successful. Also, you're going to have a happy place to work, right? Most of the time, everything's going to be excited to be there. So, yeah.
Tim Reitsma And I appreciate that. I think we often overlook this aspect of people's leadership. We think about the tactical of creating templates for growth plans, compensation plans, one's performance reviews. But ultimately, we're human. We're human. We try our best. We need to assume the best intention. And as leaders, I think it's our role to connect with our people, to inspire our people, and to figure out how can we help them grow. Yeah. You know, it's not just here's a shovel.
Go dig a hole. It's more than that. It's you. Do you see yourself in five years, 10 years? Is there fit continued fit with this organization? If not, can we help you grow into that next aspect of your career? I think that's really important. And that also lends itself to one on ones. It lends itself to everything we talked about. You have a great template. But unless somebody is inspired to be working with you with an organization, they're not going to care about a template.
Annabel Youens Exactly. Totally. Temperature boring.
Tim Reitsma Yeah. It's you know, I've been creating a whole lot of templates in for a contract that I'm doing right now. And I'm realizing that there's a lot more work that needs to be done in terms of you can't just roll out a template. You need to get people on the same page in which we are in it. But it's more than just, hey, here's a template, let's use it. It's the intent and the inspiration behind it.
Annabel Youens So, yeah, and, you know, it's so much of this stuff for me.
And, you know, I have a background in creative writing that I was a novelist. Who knows, I may still well be, but.
Tim Reitsma Maybe. Yeah
Annabel Youens Language for me is so important in these things. And the more reading that I have done around culture and creation of good culture, that language is so important. And so in all of our templates, you know, we speak in those how we speak in office, how we want team members and our organization to speak. So, for example, we have these rubrics that everyone fills in, and for the longest time, I could never remember what it was. And so I called them Stanley Kubrick's. And now they're like, Kubrick's right. These things have evolved. And it reminds me so much about the creation of culture.
I think back to, you know, those experiences that you had that week where at camp that one summer where you'd, like, bonded with these people and you created this language that when you came back from camp and you told your other friends, there were like, what are you talking about? Right. And so much of that I see now as a part of what you do every day in the business is OK, it does not sleep away camp, but it still is that sense that you're all in this and you're doing something together and you're making a difference.
So I mean that it's funny. I've only realized probably in this last year why I keep doing this. Being in startups and doing this is because. I love working with people and I love seeing people be successful and face challenges and fail. That's fine. Fail. Let's learn and let's figure out the next thing we're going to do. I just love that aspect of what I do every day. It definitely excites me.
And when I look back at when it was just Jeff and I during that weird pivot and it was incredibly difficult, I was just the two of us, you know, compared to now where we have this team, we're all working together. I am more successful as a person and a business owner because I have this team with me also supporting me. So it's just so nice to have great people that you work with every day. Right, because they're the people you literally see most in your life.
Tim Reitsma It's absolutely true. And if we do not enjoy the people we work with, then it's an opportunity to do some reflection and potentially some change is in the near future.
Annabel Youens So. Absolutely.
Tim Reitsma I really appreciate you coming on, Annabel, and sharing your insights from your journey as an entrepreneur, as well as just some inspiration on how to lead people. And, you know, I'm feeling inspired by this conversation and I and I'm sure our listeners will as well. So I just want to let people know how to find you. And the URL is get.theappreciationengine.com. I think I got that right.
Annabel Youens Yeah, it does. Awesome. Thanks so much. This was really fun. I love. I love chatting about people and all the wonderful, crazy things that go along with us as humans.
Tim Reitsma Yeah. Well, I know again, I really appreciate the conversation and I think I could probably go on.
We joked before going on the air or one going on for six hours. And I'm realizing now that I have about six hours worth of follow up questions. So, yeah, but we'll save those for future podcasts. How's that sound?
Annabel Youens That sounds awesome. Thanks so much, Tim.
Tim Reitsma Thank you. And take care.
Annabel Youens OK, bye.