How does a woman who works for a freelancer without getting paid end up co-founding a $5 million dollar business with him?
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Hey there freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, home of the ambitious upstart. How does a woman who works for a freelancer without getting paid end up co-founding a 5 million dollar business with him? Leslie Bradshaw is the co-founder and President of JESS3, a creative agency that specializes in the art of data visualization. Her clients include Nike, Intel, Google, FourSquare and so many others that I actually have a list here, but I’m not going to go through it. Instead I’m just going to say, Leslie, welcome.
Leslie: Thank you so much, Andrew, it’s great to be here and hello everyone.
Andrew: So you got a call from NASA and what do they want from you?
Leslie: Well we’ve had to really incredible projects with NASA. One started in about 2008 where you saw a lot of astronauts starting to use Twitter. And there were launch events and the astronaut would come, and what we were asked to do is visualize the Tweets and the photos coming in from the astronauts when they were in space and also when they were just kind of on the airbase. And we did what’s called kind of a Twitter visualization. And that was 2008, 2009, and after that there was really a lot of build up around GeoSocial, and there were a lot of people talking about what would it be like to check in from space, wouldn’t that be really cool? And I got to talking to Stephanie Sheinerholtz, the former head of NASA social media program. And she and I decided, let’s give FourSquare a call. Let’s see if they’re able to actually architect a true check in from space, international space station, you know tens of thousands of miles above the earth. So certainly something that was very exciting for us.
Andrew: All right, great. And as we get deeper and deeper into this interview I want to find out about how you got other clients and about what data visualization really means. Because you guys do an incredible job of taking data that’s just boring and turning it into something that people not just want to look at and care about but actually end up sharing on Twitter by e-mail and talking about. But for you a large part of this, the business part of you started when you got an internship at Sony.
Leslie: This was a project that, when you think about Sony you think about music, you think about artists, you think about labels, you think about maybe televisions or Walkmans depending on what generation you grew up in. But I was in an area in kind of rural Oregon where they had a big manufacturing plant. And I was brought in as an intern to the kind of executive team. And the general manager pulled out a drawer and dumps out, in front of me, 6000 keys and says, I have no clue where these go. And it would be one thing if it was an office building but we’re talking about a manufacturing plan that was 300,000 square feet. And what I did over the course of three months, using Microsoft project planner and MIcrosoft Access, was develop a project plan to interview all the employees, all the people on the line, night workers, different people on different shifts. Get a sense of what kind of keys they had, match it against the ones that I had, create a whole database of who had what, destroy keys that weren’t supposed to be in certain people’s possession, replicate keys that people needed access to, and then be able to label everything in a way that the next person who would pick up the project or pick up a key would know exactly where it went. And you’re talking intellectual property, chemicals, desk drawer keys. I mean you had just about everything. Equipment, forklifts, I mean there were just so many different keys. And these were all from former employees and people that just weren’t tracking them very efficiently. So that was a project that I completed when I was, gosh I’m going to say 18, maybe 19 years old.
Andrew: You know what, I asked you about that question so early on in the interview because I feel like in that there’s an essence of who you are and how you take on projects. Most people it feels to me would have said, why don’t we just toss all these out and when we start from scratch we’ll organize I mean all the news keys that we have we’ll organize them and we’ll continue that way. But you didn’t take it that way. Why? What does it say about your personality to have created a project on Microsoft Project to have done it the way that you did?
Leslie: Well I really understood and empathized with the general manager who explained to me how much money was at stake. Because there were certain pieces of equipment that could not be operated without those keys and there were cabinets that would have to be cut open. So I kind of went through and started thinking you know what would the cost be if we had to, as you say kind of start from scratch, or at the whatever 7.50 whatever I was getting paid as an intern for three months, could they have someone really just focus 100%. And I had no other projects, this was my one focus. So I really looked at it and optimized the project for information gathering. You know there was an asymmetry of information that even if we did start from scratch we still needed to understand who had what. And there were certain keys that people didn’t have and certain keys that people somehow inherited that shouldn’t have had them. So it was about building that trust with the employees, with the line workers, understanding what, all the stakeholders. I mean there was the executive team had a certain point of view, the people that were down on the floor, they had a certain view about what I was doing. And I had to really be able to move through all those different types of individuals. And it was, I don’t know, as you say I think it was very formidable in my career and also a good indication of things to come.
Andrew: Jessie Thomas is your co-founder. How did the two of you connect?
Leslie: We connected through a friend who said, you keep talking about the internet and social media and this other guy keeps talking about the internet and social media. And at the time, and you’ll get a kick out of this, she said I’ve got a couple of cards and some stickers he gave me. You know it’s kind of, normally when you meet somebody you just give them a business card. But he kind of gave this individual kind of a pile of swag. And if you know Jessie he’s certainly very into his stickers and very into collaterals, so, that kicked off just getting to know him personally and being able to just bounce ideas off him and he was just really creative. And someone who not only had similar ideas that I had but he also was a designer. So he was able to act on some of those ideas in a kind of manifested way through blog design and information architecture.
Andrew: You know what, I’ve got to ask you about these stickers. Because I told you before the interview started, I’ve been living in DC for the last couple of years and I see Jessie’s stickers on everything. Like out in the street there will be a light pole with a JESS3, Jessie sticker. There’ll be one of those big boxes that I guess control the light poles that has it on. What’s the deal with all this graffiti?
Leslie: Well if you’ve seen Exit Through The Giftshop or familiar with people like Shepard Ferry or Banksy, you know those are really kind of the GenX street artists. And they’ve developed a movement. And they did it in kind of an underground wheat paste kind of street art, political some of it, you know politically charged, and all of it really kind of thought provoking especially a lot of Banksy’s work. And as long as I’ve known Jessie which is about six years he’s just been obsessed with everything Shepard Ferry and Banksy. And he’s bought all their books and he watches all the documentaries. And every little clip and bit of information he can get on them he does and so he’s, Jessie’s kind of the millenial version of those guys I think in a lot of ways and really is very passionate about it, and does it all himself, 100%. Every sticker.
Andrew: Oh, he didn’t hire a team of interns to go and tag up the city.
Leslie: Those are all, they’ve been touched, you can check for fingerprints. Those are all placed by Jessie.
Andrew: So if he and I were to go grab a drink, on our way out of the bar he might just put a sticker up on the pole.
Leslie: Oh yes. He is notorious.
Andrew: Talk to me about the business benefit of that. I understand it’s kind of fun to tag stuff up, but is there a business benefit? Did anyone ever call you up and say we saw sticker, we have to work with you?
Leslie: There is definitely a business benefit in the, just awareness game, right? When you think about the very cluttered landscape of creative agencies, there’s probably hundreds if not thousands of them. And for us to break through that noise kind of on a grass tops level we’ve done specialization and really been known for social media data visualization. But on a grass roots level you want to build a following. You want to have a community just like you would if you were creating a new product or trying to get people to get excited about something. So what we’ve done is we give away t-shirts, we’ve probably given away a few thousand t-shirts, free of charge. We ship them all over the world frequently. And with the stickers I think it adds to the brand swag. When you think about JESS3 we’re really inspired by things like street art, Mad Magazine, Nintendo, MTV, kind of the 80′s, 90′s, the era in which we grew up. And street art reinforces the brand that we are. Even though for clients we’re doing a little bit more sophisticated, oftentimes not street-driven things, I think clients like it. I think they think it’s kind of cool and it’s, DC is probably the hardest hit city but we also have a strong presence here in Los Angeles and we’re international. Whenever Jessie gets off the plane you know the first thing I see him, I can just watch it, he can do it with one hand. He can peel the back of the sticker and just have that all ready to go, and he just moves very quickly. So it’s pretty fun to watch.
Andrew: Has he ever been arrested for tagging up a public property?
Leslie: He has not. We are fortunate to have made a smart decision about the stickers. They are not permanent. They can be easily removed, so that’s a key element.
Andrew: I see.
Leslie: We have received a warning from the Golden Triangle which is the business district in Washington, DC. And they’ve asked that you kind of lay off the Golden Triangle’s turf which is kind of a radius around Farragut North and Farragut West, and so Jessie keeps to the west and the east and the south of that region.
Andrew: Alright, cool. So you find out about this guy who shares your interest in the internet and new media. This was roughly 2006 in Washington DC. What were you doing at the time?
Leslie: At the time I was working at a company called Dezenhall Resources. It was a team of about eighteen of really what I would like to say is the smartest group of co-workers I’ve ever had, you know with the exception being now here at JESS3. It was just a really potent group of well educated and just well connected people. And we worked on crisis communications which really our tagline was, We’ll Make It Less Bad. And it was very pragmatic and I was attracted to the company because they had a manifesto that quoted Machiavelli and Sun Tsu and they really understood human nature. And it really wasn’t a spin zone as much as it was trying to problem solve. And I really enjoyed that, and in fact ended up modeling a lot of my day to day job as the president of the company after John Weber, the President of Dezenhall. And at the time you know you think about a company that’s built, they’re built like a pyramid or a triangle, right? Most agencies are built like pyramids with a bunch of young people. But this was built like a triangle, sorry like a funnel, and at the very top you had a lot of very executive people. I was kind of down further but it really showed what kind of quality work you could get out of a boutique group of individuals and I was doing mostly internet research and internet brand management.
Andrew: So how did the two of you, he was by the way doing design work at the time, right?
Leslie: He was. And he at the time was working at Oglivy PR in DC.
Andrew: Okay. And so how did the two of you hook up and say, it’s time for us to build a business together?
Leslie: It wasn’t as immediate as that, it was very gradual. It started really with us first dating, which to this day we still are, and it’s been a wild ride. And he would come home from Ogilvy but then have the clients on the side as a freelancer. And I realized that if I wanted to spend any time with this guy it would be primarily in his studio. So I’d come over and it was, I enjoy work, it’s one of the things I could do probably all day if I didn’t have to sleep. And I started picking things up and sorting it, you know, and just doing some bookkeeping. And then realizing some of his grammar could be a little stronger or hey, maybe I could help with that proposal or write up a contract. So over the course of 2006 into 2007 I was there really as kind of an operation kind of admin assistant type of a role.
Andrew: Just doing this for free.
Leslie: It started out as doing it for free and eventually I think I ended up getting a couple of hundred dollars a week or something like that. And again I had a full time job so I wasn’t putting my full effort into it. But at that point in 2007 our revenue was about $120,000. And we think about $120,000 for two people who have full-time jobs you know that’s a really nice kind of extra. And you have a few contractors that you have to pay out and obviously taxes and all those types of things, but that’s really where it started. And then it just kind of, just like a snowball, it just kind of gradually kept moving and we kept picking up a few extra jobs and some of it was local business, some of it was a little bit bigger. But by and large it was a very gradual non, like sitting down and having a conversation about it, it just was.
Andrew: How did you guys get clients in the beginning?
Leslie: In the beginning Jessie did a great job of going out to networking events and speaking a lot to groups of people about social media. Kind of evangelizing what he was seeing as the Nexis between this idea of content creation by users and design and how you can leverage that. And before Twitter launched, before Facebook was an open platform, he was using Delicious and Flickr and other API’s that were available back in kind of the early days of the social web. And that was what, 2005, 2006? And once you do a few cool projects you kind of get on other people’s radars. So all of a sudden the agencies start paying attention.
Andrew: What kind of cool projects? What were the early ones?
Leslie: There’s a very famous DC is Busboys and Poets. And Jessie did all the web design, created an (?) that allowed you to have a, and he loaded it up MP3′s on a playlist. And it had kind of a feel of coffee stains and had Polaroids, and it was just a really beautiful website. And that drove a lot of traffic to JESS3.com because people were just wondering what is it? Other projects that came from that were that we got on the radar of agencies. And once the agencies know about you then they start doing overflow projects to you. So from there we ended up working with New Media Strategeis and Widmeyer, both of whom gave us the opportunity to work on Pepsi and Pfizer and Nestle. And from there once you get a few big brands in your back pocket then you can really start pitching work to larger clients.
Andrew: Let me see if I understand this. Busboys and poets, great little restaurant, but there’s just I think two of them here. I love the food there because they have healthy vegetarian food in an environment where you can sit down and hang out with friends or just sit by yourself with your laptop, and he designed the website for them. Most people would not think of designing a website for a restaurant as a springboard event. They would think, ah I can’t believe I have to do this, I want real clients. And then maybe they just throw up some kind of flash page. He clearly, he stepped it up and he said I’m going to make this into a beautiful site that people talk about. And I get that but I don’t understand the leap from there to agencies. It doesn’t feel to me like an agency would know to look for the guy who created this restaurant site. Help me understand that next step because that seems like a big one for you guys.
Leslie: So one of the most important things that Jessie has done a great job, we talked about the stickers. But it’s not just stickers where he puts our brand but it was always the footer. And that was always negotiated in every contract and you’ll see it in every infographic we design. In fact it costs money to remove the footer from any piece that we design, whether it be web or infographic. And because of that footer, Busboys and Poets because they have a lot of events, right? It’s not just a restaurant but it’s a gathering place and a meeting place and there’s people, Nobel laureates come through there and they’ve got the bookshop. So they actually do, you know, I would say five digit traffic per month. And people who go there are well educated and they’re professionals and they’ve got jobs and so they go onto the website and they’re, this website’s kind of cool. I wonder. And then they go down to the bottom, they click on the JESS3 link. And it drove a lot of leads for other small businesses as well as professionals who on the weekend maybe go over to Busboys and Poets and have dinner and then say to themselves, hah, I’ve got a bit of a project that I need some help with web design and I wonder if this person freelances? And that’s really truly is how it kind of unfolded.
Andrew: Was it just a JESS3 link or was it, did he do something that would make even that stand out? He seems like a, from everything that I’ve seen about him he’s incredibly artistic, I can’t imagine he’d just put a hyperlink. But is that what he did?
Leslie: Well it was just, designed by JESS3, in all caps, make sure it stands out. And from there you know we end up, to this day we still get a lot of inbound traffic from the work we did with them. And Jessie also did the logo and worked on a number of other kind of art pieces within the actual location and worked very closely with Andy Sholoal, he’s been a close friend of Jessie’s over the years. And Jessie really looked up to Andy and he knew he was a very savvy entrepreneur and I think, as you said, he took the job not just on designing a website and a logo for a website but I’m going to learn from this entrepreneur and I’m going to position myself next to this person who’s very smart and beyond just a restaurateur but trying to create a community and a meeting and a gathering place. Smart people are going to gather here and those smart people might one day be a client. And I think that’s kind of the progression and the connection and why he made that decision.
Andrew: All right, so we talked a lot about Jessie here. What I understand from Jeremy, our producer who talked to you, is you brought order to this. You took it from being a creative outlet where everything, where the paperwork was a mess, and you made it into a real business. Can you talk about how you did that in the early days?
Leslie: So very early on two things that I knew needed to happen. One we needed a CPA/Accountant and two we needed to get our legal house in order. And with both of those steps bringing on our CPA, who’s still to this day with us, Carol Zirkel, she’s fantastic. We worked on getting incorporated. We made sure that we were doing the right thing with all of our employees in terms of paperwork and taxes and it was something I knew it was much bigger then something I could personally manage but I knew I wanted to get professionals in there. So I ended up hiring a really strong law firm and hired a really strong CPA. So those were the two first steps that I took within a few months, and that’s something I highly recommend. And you have to get your operational house in order and it has to be legally and fundamentally sound. And that’s something no entrepreneur is going to have time or forethought to be able to do properly. So just outsource it. So that’s the key things I did at first.
Andrew Warner: On the legal front, Leslie, that means incorporating, registering a trademark so that great JESS3 logo that looks like street art but also feels like a professional creative agency, that logo is trademarked. But on the CPA side, what does a CPA do to help you get your house in order at that stage in the game?
Leslie: Well our CPA happened to have also been a small business owner, so she was very entrepreneurial herself. And her title with us is more comptroller. And she helps us with all the accounts payable, all the accounts receivable. She works with me on a P&L, a profit and loss sheet. We do a proforma where we do a projection of fixed and variable expenses across the year. We also do all of our, you know I talked about accounts payable and including in that is payroll, and being able to have an automated payroll system set up. We work with, at this point, we have about 30 full time, full time with benefits, and then we have hundreds of contractors. At the time when we first brought her on we probably had ten contractors and one or two full time employees. And just taking those invoices and being able to pay people and being able to coordinate in different countries. So we have PayPal and wiring money. And I remember in the very early days before Carol started, on the weekends I would be going to the bank inside of the grocery store and wiring money to Europe so that we could be paying our contractors, and it was just not a sustainable system. Similarly going to FedEx and faxing things and there’s a lot of things that we’ve since replaced with more cloud based tools, but by and large having one person really focused on that and being able to oversee it has been fantastic.
Andrew: I see. To make sure even that you get paid. That everyone who you did work for is entered into some kind of system and then they get invoices and if they don’t pay the invoices because the invoices are lost or because they just didn’t get to it or they don’t see it as a priority, someone else needs to follow up with them.
Leslie: Yes. And that is something…
Andrew: What’s the cloud system you use? I’m sorry, go ahead.
Leslie: Oh, I was just going to comment on that. I can not emphasize enough cash flow for any small business. And because we haven’t taken outside funding there’s really no cushion. RIght? Maybe we have a little bit of a credit line but it’s incredibly important that the second that we initiate a statement of work we need to collect that purchase order and that purchase order needs to quickly be invoiced again and then you’re off to the races. And one or two days added to each one of those cycles in addition to a net45, net60, net90 for some of these Fortune500 companies, that can spell death. Because you’re paying your employees every 15 days, your contractors every 45, and you’re getting paid every 60. So it’s very important that you don’t, that you collect quickly and as fast as possible. And I used to try to do it all myself and in six years I’ve only missed payroll once and it was because a client was three days late on a payment. But it comes down to days. And cash flow and having someone dedicated as you said to following up and making sure that you’re in the system and giving them W-9 and all the things, 1099, all the things they need, so you can get paid.
Andrew: Talk about that. The time that you didn’t make payroll. What happened?
Leslie: I don’t know if you’ve seen It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, but there’s a scene in the bank when everybody’s trying to collect their money and saying, see yeah, 12 dollars earned (?). Well if you need 5 dollars I can get you that but I can’t get you the full 12. I really felt like that. I ended up calling my father and borrowing some money. And you just feel terrible because there’s people’s lives that depend on making rent and paying student loans and buying food and certainly it was one of the hardest sets of phone calls that I’ve ever had to make. And it certainly was embarrassing, it was hard but it was also something that I’d hoped and I was praying that the check would come in and there wasn’t a lot of pre-communication. If I was able to, looking back on it, maybe kind of giving people the heads up? You know I was just hoping that the check would come in and when it didn’t I was so disappointed in that client, but they were such a big client it was you know in their system and they didn’t really care and here it was such a big impact on a small group, probably about 10 people at that time. So we all chipped in money, you know myself, Jessie, another executive, Carol our comptroller. So we ended up kind of making it happen and getting people kind of that Jimmy Stewart style, that minimal amount that they could survive and then when the check came in it was fine. But it’s something I never want to have happen every again.
Andrew: And to avoid that from happening to you in the future, and more, I mean you’ve got a system, but also for the audience and for me. What do you do? Do you set up a spread sheet that lets you know exactly how much you’re supposed to pay month to month and then plug in the revenues? What do you do, how do you make sure that this doesn’t happen?
Leslie: The number one thing that I did to make sure it didn’t happen is I removed myself from the collections process and I gave it wholly over to Carol. We were kind of sharing it a little bit still at that time and she just said, give it to me and I will make it my number one job. And I knew that I couldn’t make it my number one job because at that time I was managing clients, doing strategy, personnel management, talent development, so I think first and foremost have one person focused on it. And not someone who’s a founder or someone who’s a business person. Have someone who is an accountant time person because that’s their craft. That was what they were trained to do and that’s what they’re good at. The second thing is we instituted a proforma. And that’s just a very basic, as you said kind of you have across the x-axis all of the months of the year, and across the y-axis all of the different costs and expenses plus any other revenues. And then project out and (?) we’ve always done a great job of being in the black and never been in the red. We’ve always lived within our means. And it’s also about decisions. Do we hire certain people, do we keep them on contract, do we buy equipment now or wait? So there’s a lot of decisions that we make and in fact on about a quarterly basis sit down and have that conversation and, I would say that’s secondary but first and foremost once I put Carol in the drivers seat. Because it wasn’t an issue of mismanagement of cash, it was just being caught up in a few other things so I got the invoice out a little bit late and the PO came in a little bit late and all of those days compounded to impact our cash flow.
Andrew: You also happened to mention to Jeremy, you said you were one, this was part of another story that you told him. But you said I was writing this strategic vision and the budget and so on and I thought, hmm, what does it mean to sit as an entrepreneur and write the strategic business for a business. How did you do it, what did you do?
Leslie: Well I wish it was that, I don’t know, enlightened or poetic. It was really more of a, Jessie had a vision for where he wanted to take the company, and still has a very strong vision. And that is well beyond my imagination. It includes a film department and a venture capital department and a product department and really a lot of branches to accompany. And, he’s a big kind of big sky, blue sky, and I’m very pragmatic. Like how are we going to get to that point? And you know not necessarily writing it down as much as starting to hire the right people. To say, okay, if that’s where we want to be then these are the kind of people that we need to hire. Early on because we had such small budgets and because we were doing things so lean, I took a lot of responsibility myself to do a lot of the jobs. Now although I work very hard and I consider myself above average, there were some things I was not doing well. And there were things that were definitely suffering as a result. We also did hire a lot of people that were straight out of college, more cost effective for me, salary perspective, but the experience just wasn’t there. And we were really putting people in situations that was not fair for them, nor was it resulting in kind of the end place that we wanted to be. So earlier I would say for the first couple of years there was a little bit of stumbling around, just the staffing and the approach. But eventually once you do everything wrong you know what not to do. And by about 2011 it was a real clear path for us as far as who we wanted to hire, how we wanted to approach it. And by then we had scraped together just enough in terms of revenue to be able to start investing at a higher talent level in folks who had not just 0-3 years experience but we’re talking more 5-7, 7-10 years experience.
Andrew: You found designers early on in a clever way. Can you talk about how you did that?
Leslie: Sure. This is another Jessie special. He’s very good about, he might see something like the cover of a book and he’s like, oh I really like the cover of this book. I wonder, you know you and I might look at it and say oh that’s a really clever book. But he’ll track who did it down. And then he will reach out to that person. And in the early days of kind of the design web most designers were using sites like Flickr and the cool hunting site (?)Found. But now on the web you’ve got Dribble and Forest and Behanced and a lot of other kind of outlets. And everybody else (?) has their .com in terms of their portfolio. So what Jessie would do is he would friend them on Facebook, he would find them, and he would just kind of be talking artisty to artist and say, you know what’s your rate or we’ve got a project, what do you think? And so he had this really great rapport that he developed and just using just the internet and social media to kind of create that relationship but also do that internet research to find their portfolio and other work that they’ve done. And that’s how we find still to this day a good 80 to 90% of a lot of the contractors that we work with.
Andrew: Wow. Makes so much more sense then putting up an ad and looking through people’s portfolios or hoping that the resumes lead to portfolios.
Leslie: Yeah. You really want to start with good (?) and you want to start with things that were really impressive to you. And I remember when Urban Decay, it’s a design magazine, came out and Jessie really loved the cover and he bought the limited edition. He put it up in his apartment and he said, one day I’m going to hire him, and it’s a gentleman called Jim Hollander. And Jim did our logo and Jim did our Twitter background and Jim’s done dozens of things. His street name is Spock and he has a gallery in Paris and he’s in Leal, France and he’s become part of our brand and our essence. And it’s just so amazing to kind of say, one day when I have the money I’m going to bring that person in and deliver on it. And we’ve done that with a number of artists including we were honored to work briefly with Nicholas Feltron who’s now at Facebook and he’s famous for his work on the timeline but also for his annual report where he would do these really fun reports on his own consumption and his own life and steps walked and that type of thing. So yeah, we’ve had a great run with a lot of really talented people.
Andrew: His annual reports are stunning. To just see him create this document, this I don’t even know what, I guess I shouldn’t even call it a document. This work of art that summarizes what he did for the year. Where else, what else do I want to find out? You used to watch Jessie as he presented the company to potential clients. And then you learned from how he did it and you started doing the same thing. What he used to do? How would you then start to present the company based on that?
Leslie: The thing about Jessie is he’s got this infectious passion that it literally seeps out of his pores when he’s talking about JESS3 and the work, and he’s very excited. And in a lot of ways, especially early on, it was very important to kind of come with that energy level. As we started getting more serious meetings and starting to go from having talks at the bar camp or kind of local tech cocktail events, and starting to sit down with executives on Madison Avenue, you can’t come up with a non-linear story. You can’t kind of go all over the place. You have to come in and add structure. And so I would say my presentation style is much more, there’s going to be five things we’re going to talk about today, or there’s really one thing I want you to take away from today. So I used a lot of my oration skills and my just even kind of the way that you formulate thesis, evidence, conclusion, call to action. So I really implemented a lot more kind of a linear delivery whereas Jessie’s he’s here he’s there, he’s up, he’s down. And some people like that but I would also say that in some audiences that are more formal it’s a bit of a confusing, kind of even turn off in some ways. So it’s been good to have a balance of the two.
Andrew: How did you learn to do that? To present in a linear way so that it makes sense but also has a call to action and do it so persuasively that people take the action that you’re calling on them to take?
Leslie: Started probably when I was about seven. My dad’s a very strong public speaker and he’s always worked with me on the way that I project myself, what I cover, how I prepare for talks, and it’s always been something we really enjoy extemporaneous speaking and I was also a very passionate writer growing up and really got into the formulation of a paper and understanding really how to present that. And it’s similar in speech, right? And so between the two, the writing and the speaking, very early on it’s just become a very natural part of who I am and how I approach things.
Andrew: Speaking of your dad and your family. When you were growing up your family started a vineyard?
Andrew: What was it like to start a vineyard.
Leslie: Well, I can tell you kind of with rose colored glasses you know how romantic and wonderful it is at age 30. But when I was 12 years old we moved from Lake Tahoe, Arizona to Junction City, Oregon. And it was not happy times for a middle school girl. I had all my friends back in California and here we are living on this farm and there’s flies and it’s hot and it certainly, it was a lot of hard work. And I wanted to go out and play or go play sports or go do things, but I had to put 4 hours in the vineyard every day during the summer before I could do anything. And it was weeding and watering and helping my dad move things around and it certainly taught me a lot about hard work and really working through things that you don’t like doing. I’m sure we all have tasks that we’re like, oh gosh I don’t want to do this, and then I think to myself, well this sure is better than working in 100 degree heat and the dusty vineyard when you’re 12, so early on it was tough, but over the last, it’s been now 18 years since we first started breaking ground, it is one of my favorite things in the world to do, and it’s something I go home as much as I can especially now being on the west coast. We just harvested, had a great harvest about a week and a half ago. It’s our 14th harvest and it’s just so wonderful to have built one acre, two acres, 33 acres. And now we see this whole giant vineyard and you remember that first time or that first plant and how you use to water the plants with your dad’s pickup truck with a big tank on the back and it’s evolved now to have it’s own sprinkler system and it’s been really very rewarding and probably one of the most dear things to me, and the reason frankly, if I make any fortune in this lifetime it would be investing back into the farm and to keep it in our family and I already purchased a few pieces of equipment and I’m a partner in the farm, but that’s all that matters really at the end of the [??].
Andrew: What is it called?
Leslie: Ratchall[??] Vineyards.
Andrew: Ratchall Vineyards.
Leslie: It’s with a, plural, Vineyards.
Andrew: Vineyards. Excuse me.
Leslie: Uh, and we grow grapes. We grow Pinot Noir grapes, and we sell to King Estate, one of the, if not the premiere winery in Oregon. We aren’t actually making the wine but we [??] with the winemaker, who focuses on the enology, which is the science of wine, where we focus more on the [??] culture and the [??], which is the art of raising and cultivating the plant.
Andrew: So what I’m understanding, coming back to Jess 3, apparently, for agencies like yours, to get a big company like Microsoft to Fisor[??] doesn’t mean calling up Microsoft directly and saying, I want you as a client, or even speaking at a tech cocktail event, it seems to be that you go to the agencies that they’ve hired and then do work for them. Is that right?
Leslie: That’s one angle and I would say that when you’re first starting out you really can take a lot of different paths and one path is to sub under someone who already has the business. Now the challenge there though is you add layers of inefficiency, because all of a sudden you have the client telling the agency, the agency telling you, you telling the agency, and so it becomes a telephone game and the margins, nobody wins. You as a freelancer, your work is marked up at a price that you don’t foresee full money and then Microsoft ends up paying more for your services.
I think one of our best tactics, one you and I haven’t talked about yet, is doing work for a brand that didn’t even ask you to do the work and then put it out on the internet or send it to them. And we did this with Facebook. We created some really beautiful artwork, collaborating closely with Jim Hollander, who I mentioned earlier, and we printed the posters and it was this big monster. It was a big Facebook monster and it was spewing this flame and the flames were charring and actually killing these poor little twitter birds and it was very grotesque but kind of fun and we shipped a bunch of the posters to the design department on Facebook. And you can just imagine how much fun they had with it and they ended up posting it up on their workspaces and we ended up forging a really great relationship with their creative directors and designers and some of their engineers and that really kicked off a relationship that to this day is still very strong.
Sometimes if you want a brand bad enough and you really just decide, hey there’s only what, Fortune 500, there’s only 500 of those companies, and maybe only 30 of which we really want to work with, how can you create a relationship that’s going to last a lifetime? And beyond a lifetime? Hoping our agency lives on for many generations to come, you want to demonstrate that you really care and to do that it’s not about pitching them, it’s not about trying to sell or trying to get a meeting or you really don’t want to go from first base all the way to get a homerun on that first time. You really want to gradually move it along and it’s a little bit like dating. You want to get to know the parents and bring them flowers and we certainly look at client relationships as a courtship and cultivating them and also being genuine throughout the relationship and not going always just for the dollar amount but always to create great work, to make the client smile, and to do something unexpected with their brand.
Andrew: And you just send out these posters to Facebook. Did you end up getting paid by then for anything in the future?
Leslie: Oh yes. We ended up going official. It’s now Facebookstories.com but we did the stories.facebook.com prototype initially and helped them as they were announcing the 500 millionth user back in June, 2010. We did some branding for Facebook in F8 and their big developer conference. We did their Christmas card last year for their DC office. We’ve had the pleasure of working very closely with Randy Zuckerberg over the years in addition to, as I mentioned, a number of other designers. And we did a few infographics also for their marketing and ads sales team.
Andrew: So a lot of designers would say, no way am I going to send them free work. You know, everyone wants me to do free work. I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to send them a poster. What I’m going to do is send them my portfolio and let them understand what they could get. You’re making a face.
Andrew: What do you say about that?
Leslie: That you don’t want it bad enough. Because there’s agencies out there and there are people out there who want it badly. And we’ve always found ourselves in a situation where it’s less about trying to pivot off of, it’s like talking about other girlfriends. Like nobody wants to hear about the rest of your portfolio. They want to hear about what you’re going to do for them. And admittedly it’s an expensive and time, and not just financially expensive, but it takes time and energy to think about the idea and to kind of go through all the way. But if it’s a brand that you want to work with for the rest of your life it’s a very small investment when you look at it spread over time. And sometimes there’s clients who won’t necessarily invest in an idea. Like video, video for us was something we always wanted to do but we couldn’t quite sell it because we didn’t have any examples. So what we did is we made our own video in February, 2010 called the State of the Internet. And that video was something that we paid for out of pocket, you know, it was a good 10 grand plus project, and it went completely utterly viral. I’m not a big fan of that word but man did this thing spread all over the internet and then back around twice. And we ended up getting a phone call from Google. And they said, we saw your video, could you make a similar one for us? So sometimes it’s about proof of concept and sometimes it’s about taking that risk and saying I want to do this thing and create a new service line and I’m going to invest in a prototype. Other times it’s, I really want to work with this brand and in order to work with this brand I’m going need to get on their radar and everyone’s sending portfolios and links and pitching, and how do you break through that noise? And I think that’s a common theme in what you and I have discussed. It’s about specializing, help us break through the noise, putting stickers everywhere helps you break through the noise, and creating something really special. It’s kind of like a chef would create an (?), just a little tasty something from the kitchen just to let you know you’re about to enjoy a really great meal and that’s something that we’ve to this day continue to do as much as we possibly can.
Andrew: I’ve got a follow up question here but I got to tell you I’m so, I’m loving this interview. I’m so inspired by the way that you guys work. I knew a lot about JESS3 but I just didn’t realize the business part, the create part, the non stop need to express yourself and to show what you can do, and the hunger. Anyway, wow, I didn’t actually think I was going to learn too much coming into this interview. Because I’ve got the notes and I’ve known about JESS3, it’s not like I’m discovering this company for the first time, but, boy I’m glad you’re doing this interview.
On a technical level, you guys partner directly with Twitter, how did you do it? Or did you partner with Twitter?
Leslie: So, we do partner with Twitter and once again there’s two doors that you can go through when you’re working with a platform like a Facebook or a Twitter or Google. You can go through the agency door, and the agency door is the media buyer door. It’s like, hey we’re going to do a buy, we’re going to invest, we’re going to do something. And so then you get an ad salesperson, you get a business development person, and you start just talking about numbers. The second door you can go through is the door we prefer and we highly recommend going through, and that’s kind of the doer door. That’s going to be the designer, developer door. And in order to go through that door you have to present kind of credentials. This is all kind of a metaphor. But the credentials for us with Twitter was that we used their API’s during the election and during the convention cycle with CSpan. And we created a really neat CSpan hub and we were sucking in Tweets and we were visualizing the most talked about things and then, or the people that were the most engaged in conversation around the conventions. And then we were reading the Tweets on air. And this is pre-CNN, Rick Sanchez all that whole movement. This was very (?) at Twitter and we helped CSpan be highly relevant and at the same time helped Twitter be highly relevant. And for the election we ended up following it up by doing a visualization with Tropicana and Pepsi-co where we took we’re not red, we’re not blue, we’re a hundred percent orange, and we did fresh squeezed tweets and we were analyzing tweets using kind of an open master’s thesis on twitter visual urges on visualization and we used it for the tweets. So we were experimenting. We couldn’t help but get through that second door because these developers were like “Hey, these guys are doing cool stuff with our data.” This is what it’s all about, right? And then the developer environment really grew very quickly around twitter and we were proud to be part of the early ecosystem. So yeah, I think that’s a key word – community and ecosystem and going through not the ad sales door, but going through the designer developer door and doing it through credible, cool work that again either unexpected or just honors the mission of that particular platform.
Andrew: How does an agency like yours or even a freelancer go through the agency door where the agency says “We’ve partnered with these big companies. We need someone to do creative work for them.” How does a designer get that work from the agency?
Leslie: There are individuals usually called resource managers within large agencies who typically are responsible for how they are rolodexed. Here in Los Angeles, resource managers and producers are pretty common titles for people to have and just knowing who those people are and contacting them sharing your portfolio. I think it might be too cliche to say this, but the good always rises to the top and if your work is really strong, you’re going to be in high demand by all walks of life – individuals, agencies, brands, and I would say behance.net is the LinkedIn for designers and being on the front page of Behance or using some, if you’re more of an information designer, Visual.ly is a very specific community in both Visual.ly and Behance and then [??], Forrst, and Dribble. Those are places where recruiters would go to find talent and they go to the homepage. They go to see whose work is popping. So if you have good work, you should have no problem whatsoever, in fact probably having too much work and too many opportunities. So I think that’s typically how the business works. Now we’re a smaller agency and we don’t have the same kind of structure and we are looking for freelance talent. It is a little bit different. We are little bit more kind of nimble and we’re out there googling and looking at Instagram and we’re a little bit more internet native than I think some people that might be typically searching.
Andrew: What else? There’s so much else. I know what. You focus on data visualization, making data beautiful, shareable even. How did you know that that would be something that you should focus on and not building webpages, not doing so many other creative type work?
Leslie: This is again going back to some of the early conversations Jessie and I both had. My background, classically trained social scientist from the University of Chicago, very quantitative school. I love numbers, always have, enjoyed math ever since I was little. Then you take Jessie and he is very fascinated by the abundance of user generated content, because content typically is very expensive when you think about getting images or buying [??] you think about how else can you get lots of things that could then be populated onto a piece of art or either you have to create it from scratch or get it somewhere else and you get it somewhere else typically up to probably 2006-2007 it was expensive to get. But now it’s very abundant. So I think there’s a fusion between Jessie understanding the power of API’s, Application Program Interfaces, and user generated content and my understanding of big data and understanding that the world was continuing to throw off more and more exhaust and that this exponential increase in information isn’t just in social. In fact, social is just the tip of the iceberg when you think about point of sale data, think about healthcare data and the quantified self-data kind of some of social, some of health and all of that. So there’s this fusion of kind of the theorist and then the artist and we started doing a few projects in this vain and they really started taking off and then we started getting calls specifically saying “We’ve got a lot of data. We really need some help visualizing it. Can you help us?” And that’s really been our business model and lead generation and the way that we’ve been able to grow at the rate that we have is because we’ve specialized and really focused and become the best in class at visual storytelling with data.
Andrew: One of the first ones that you did was for Brian Solis. The conversation prism infographic. Tell people what that is? How do you explain it to people who don’t have it in front of them?
Leslie: The infographic, if you’re familiar with the color wheel, it’s really a big color wheel. It’s like a daisy with lots of colorful petals and each petal represents a particular type of software or tool sets. So there’s wikis, blogs, analysis, monitoring, there’s a lot of different things that you know, when we first started the web kept evolving so we’re actually working on the fourth iteration with him right now and probably every year and a half or so we release one. And it helped, what we heard from people, it helped brand managers and social media managers educate internal stake holders and say ‘Hey, here’s the world. It’s not just Twitter and Facebook but there’s actually a lot of other things going on. There’s Document Story and photos’. And then at the same time it was a great kind of almost like a battle cry or kind of a rally flag for people who are really interested and excited by it and it became kind of a peice of art that people who are into kind of social media industry, the industry that [??] social media to the things they were doing, they really enjoyed it.
So it certainly was aesthetically balanced, we explored it for months, what exactly we wanted to do until we really narrowed it and then once we did, it became, we were named one of Communication Arts Top 10 infographics of 2009, I believe, and it’s been translated into at least 10 languages and we’ve release under creative comments so that people can be inspired by it and leverage. And it was also initially inspired by, it was a starfish so social media starfish looked kind of like this by Robert Scobell in 200, gosh, 6, 7.
So he originated this idea that there was kind of this amorphous ever changing, multipronged thing that was social media and then we kind of almost used like a [??], kind of organized it a little bit more with the conversation prism.
Andrew: Google guys, if you’re listening. Google conversation prism and maybe somebody can help us out by adding it to the comments of this interview.
What else do I want to know? Two more questions.
The first is about you have a pig or is it a stuffed pig?
Leslie: A stuffed little pig. Yes, I [??] the other day.
Andrew: Tell us a little bit about this stuffed pig?
Leslie: As I mentioned earlier, when I was 12 we started a farm in Oregon and I moved from Lake Tahoe and at the time, you know, you have, you’re in Middle School, you’re in 5th grade, you have an established set of friends. And it was tough and a good girlfriend of mine, Lindsay Jones knew that I really liked pigs and she made me this little, kind of like a little muslin doll and she [??] painted this little ears and she gave her to me. And her name is aptly Piggy Doll and that was 18 years ago and, you know, you put so much emotion and love into this inanimate object, it almost becomes animated, right? and what she’s represented over the last 18 years is at a time of transition, she’s there.
I certainly be lying to say that I don’t once in a while come home and the way that some people might talk to their cat or something, I say ‘Gosh, Piggy, gosh. It was a real rough day today.’ And I’ve also kind of, she’s personified through a lens that it’s kind of an alter ego of me that’s a little bit more my dad. My mom’s a democrat, my dad’s a republican and I’m a libertarian, kind of the product of the two. But Piggy is a little more right to center. And she likes to do knife throwing, she’s a member of the NRA.
Andrew: Literally a member of the NRA?
Leslie: What’s that?
Andrew: Literally you got her a membership? No?
Leslie: Wink, wink. Like she thinks she is kind of thing, but she’s a little bit more [??] on defense. So there’s things about her that we’ve kind of made stories up as a family over the last 18 years.
Andrew: But every part of you feels like you and Jessie feels like there’s just creativity, just oozing out of you, right?
Leslie: Yes. Creativity, craziness. I mean, you have to.
Andrew: Did it ever bother you growing up, did you ever feel like ‘Oh, why am I just not settled down? Everyone else is really just focused and I am drawing or I am adding personality to this pig’
Leslie: I mean, there’s a point at which in 3rd grade my mom was pulled aside by my teacher and said ‘You know, I’d like to get Leslie tested because she’s showing some interesting proclivities and let’s get her tested.’ So I remember being 10 years old and going for 2 days, we had to go to [??] and I was so excited. I loved taking tests. I said ‘All right. What kind of test do we have today?’ And some of them are verbal and written and math and my mom said ‘I’ve never seen you so excited. And I remember I wanted to wear my favorite outfit. It’s like very serious, it’s kind of like going to work. And my Mom got the test back and there was fifteen areas where they had tested again across all those verticals. And the diagnostic instructor said, you know usually we see people test in the 95th percentile in math and science and then less in verbal, or you know you see a spike in a certain area. But they held up this piece of paper to my Mom and the bar chart reached across average and into the 90th percentile on all fifteen bars. Now I don’t say that to kind of brag about being some kind of child prodigy, because I actually don’t think I’m that special, but it just shows that I’m very curious and interested in a lot of different things. And I think as an entrepreneur I’ve been able to exercise multiple parts of my brain, whether we’re talking finances and collections and legal with (?) or we’re looking at brand strategy with our clients, or we’re looking at technical requirements and logic and algorithms for some of the ways that we analyze the data that we have. So all of those things as a very young child I think just the reason the first time I’ve actually been at a place that fires up all those cylinders. Other jobs along the way only allowed me to, maybe the key project at Sony is about my organizational skills, my people skills, whereas at JESS 3 it’s organization, people, creative, design, math, you know, all of those things. So it’s been good.
Andrew: Let me do a quick plug and then I’ll come back in and ask the last question. This is a question that people have been asking me about and to be honest I don’t know how I can answer it, so I’m glad that you’re here and I’ll bring it up.
But the important plug that I want to put in here now is for Mixergy Premium. If you’re an entrepreneur and need help with say how to you build i-phone apps, how do you promote your site, how do you sell? All of those things are answered on Mixergy Premium by real entrepreneurs who I ask to come back here and teach how they did it and how you can too. They break down their process. In fact we have a team here at Mixergy that works with them to break down their process and make sure that it’s explained in a way that you can follow and emulate and then adjust also to fit your world. And it’s all there at Mixergypremium.com. If you’re a member you’ve got access to it all. If you’re not a member join today and you’ll get access to everything, and that list is growing and growing because more and more entrepreneurs come to teach. Now that we’ve got thousands of entrepreneurs in Mixergy Premium, other entrepreneurs want to come and teach this growing audience.
So Mixergypremium.com. I guarantee you’ll love it. If you don’t of course I’ll give you your money back. So go join right now.
All right so here’s a question. I get a lot of requests for female entrepreneurs. And you know what we do our best to get as many on as possible, but it’s still a challenge. As a female entrepreneur are you finding that, well what are you seeing here and what do you think we can all do to improve. I mean, you know what I don’t even know how to ask the question to be honest. Because I feel like it’s so full of land mines that I don’t want to feel, well, what can you say about it?
Leslie: You know I can give you some data and I can also talk about some personal experience. So one statistic I read in Inc Magazine a few years ago is that 9% of all technology startups are started by women.
Leslie: 9%, yes. And when you look at the Fortune100, Fortune500, you’re looking at less then 10% female CEO’s. And you look at those numbers and you look across the board. You look over in, I looked at a report that was put out by the government and only 15% of the clergy in leadership are women. 16% of congress, female. So you’re looking at these numbers and they’re pretty abysmal. And they haven’t really changed much since they first kind of became statistically significant back in the 70′s. So some of the things that I look at as a social scientist, the first thing I look at is, what kind of conditions need to be present in order for someone to start a business, male or female? And some of it is education based. Some of it would also just be experienced based or a combination of the two. So in education if you look at the last 50 years, you’ve started really a parody of women and men both gathering their undergrad degrees hit in about the 70′s. Now what you’re starting to see here 2000, 2012, that women are surpassing men in certain graduate areas. Teaching, legal. So you’re starting to see, okay, alright well there’s definitely one of those conditions are being met. Now the second condition of experience when you look 50 years back women were paraprofessionals. They were assistants. They were secretaries. They were paralegals. They were dental hygienists. They didn’t necessarily have a full professional stance within the workplace, and that cuts in two directions. One direction is that you have a mom or a grandma or it’s the person that you’re looking up to as a woman as a role model, you don’t see what could be and at the same time you’re reinforcing certain stereotypes and certain normative behavior for men in the workplace.
Now we’re seeing, I would say that the millennial generation is the first true generation that is very pro-egalitarian and doesn’t have the remnants. Like that we’ve gotten to look up to Gen X and Gen X has been very equal. Right?
And then we look to Boomers and the they’re on their way out of the workplace and they’re retiring in droves at this point in the next five, ten years so I think we’re going to hopefully see the numbers shift just based on the pure fact of education and experience and the paradigms moving in the right direction over the last 50 years.
And what those things don’t account for is personal decisions. I have a very close friend of mine from high school who was a valedictorian and very bright and went to grad school, very good at physics and engineering and she’s about to have her second child and she sat down to meet with me and she said, you know what, Leslie? I look at how much it would cost for daycare, and I look at how much I could make, and I look at how much time I would spend away from my two children at a very important stage in their lives and I just don’t know that it’s worth it. I’ll come back, but right now I want to be a mom. And I think that that’s a perfectly OK, if not admirable and awesome decision that’s being made. But as a result, the time to be an entrepreneur is really 20′s to 30′s. Right? There’s where most of the, especially in the technology sector. But that’s also a time when you start a family. And that’s a time when whether you do what [??] did and have the kid, have kind of on-ramp, off-ramp, have the resources probably very close to you to help raise it.
I have also other professional friends of mine who have moved back home or near home so that they can have help from their family members. There’s a great piece by the President Barnard in Newsweek a few weeks back talking about how we, as Americans, we’ve become so individualistic that we’ve let go of the tribe. And the tribe is the thing that used to help us raise our children and not only are we so individualistic with the way we raise our children, but at the same time we’re having more demands on our time at work than ever before, so how are we suppose to balance those two?
Andrew: What about a woman who’s watching us that says, I want to be one of these, a successful female entrepreneur the way that Leslie is? Any advice for her?
Leslie: So, for me, personally again, speaking from my own experience, being 30 years old I have not yet decided to get married or have children. When I do decide, or if I do decide to do that, it will alter the amount of time and energy I can put towards a company. So I would say that being able to get things up and running prior to having children, having not done it, but watching a lot of other few entrepreneurs, there are certain trade-offs that have to be made. And I can sacrifice sleep and I can sacrifice a lot of things right now because the only thing I’m really responsible for at the end of the day is myself. But if I had another human being that I was responsible for I would feel just the guilt and also it’s irresponsible. You want to spend time with that kid and you can’t do that and, I mean, I was working 20 hour days for a very long time. A full time job working at [??]. Some days I would not go to sleep and I would pull all-nighters back to back. And those are things you just cannot do when you also have to have a child.
And I would say another piece of advice is if you do, consider running with the tribe, whether it’s friends that you can rely on or family. That’s something that I’m thinking a lot about as I head into my 30′s if and when I do want to have children, being close to my parents and my sister so that they can help me in case I have a big board meeting or I have to go fly out to an event, that I can have someone, not just a nanny type person care for them, but I want the values that I was raised with.
Leslie: I want family to be raising family and I think that’s something that’s missed oftentimes in scenarios of this kind of individualistic and highly compensated woman as well. We think about Cheryl Sandberg or [??] of face booking out of respectively not every woman has the resources at their fingertips that they do to be able to afford probably the childcare and also the flexibility in their schedules and early on as an entrepreneur you don’t have that much flexibility. If a client wants to take a phone call at a certain time or I couldn’t tell you how many Skype calls I’ve had with contractors at three in the morning, which is noon their time so [tape cuts out] projects, so there’s a lot of trade-offs that have to be made and ones that I have not yet had to made personally and I’ve seen others have to make.
So I’m excited about the numbers and the shift just as far as just the trend, social science side of me and then as a an individualist it does come down to making some key decisions about family that oftentimes do come in opposition to the start-up lifestyle.
Andrew: All right. Well thank you for taking the time to do this interview. The website, of course, is Jess3, J-E-S-S, three, or just if you forget it, look at the local light post and you’ll maybe see a sticker or at the airport. Leslie, thank you so much for doing this interview and if people want to say thank you directly to you what’s a good way for them to contact you?
Leslie: Well, there’s a tweet Leslie Bradshaw, L-E-S-L-I-E, Bradshaw, or you can just email me Leslie@jess3.com.
Andrew: OK. Cool. Thank you for doing this interview, and thank you all for being a part of it.