Strategy| Brand| Tactics

Why SaaS companies fail with content marketing with Skyler Reeves, CEO at Ardent Growth

Sep 23, 2021 23 minute read Edward FordEdward Ford

Last updated 23 September, 2021.

You have to build up topical authority in a subject before you’re ever going to hit this critical mass and have what is needed to rank.

Content marketing is easy to do. Write on a topic related to your business where you have expertise and publish it on your website. The customers will arrive pronto!

On second thoughts, content marketing is easy to do badly. Writing content with no understanding of the strategy, process or reasoning behind it is likely to be wasted effort. Sadly, it probably won't help much in bringing in customers either.

Skyler Reeves is CEO & Founder at Ardent Growth, and in this episode, we’re talking about why SaaS companies fail with content marketing.

Almost all B2B SaaS companies will be doing content marketing in some form or another, but are you doing it the right way? Skyler talks us through some of the pitfalls SaaS companies fall into when it comes to content, and what you should be doing instead. He covers:

🚀  The two primary factors that should dictate your content marketing strategy
🚀  How to set goals and measure the success of your content
🚀  How to prioritise topics in a search-led content strategy
🚀  How to acquire quality backlinks to your content
🚀  The importance of content refreshes and audits
🚀  How smaller B2B SaaS companies can catch up with established competitors

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Links:

Mindset by Carol Dweck >> https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40745.Mindset

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Advance B2B >> www.advanceb2b.com
Follow The Growth Hub on Twitter >> twitter.com/SaaSGrowthHub
Follow Edward on Twitter >> twitter.com/NordicEdward

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👋 PS. Want more help with your SaaS content marketing? We've got you covered! Read our blog post: How to build the ultimate B2B SaaS content marketing strategy ⭐️

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Episode transcript

Edward:
Welcome to another episode of The Growth Hub podcast and it's my pleasure to welcome Skyler Reeves to the show, who is CEO and founder at Ardent Growth. Skyler, thank you so much for joining us today here on The Growth Hub podcast.

Skyler:
Hey, thanks for having me, Edward. I'm looking forward to it, man.

Edward:
Yeah, likewise, and I know that we have a lot of demand gen and content marketers listening to the show, so this will be super helpful to them as we're discussing why SaaS companies fail with content marketing.

I was thinking to open this up, a lot of marketers who are new to content might start off by picking a bunch of keywords from tools, like Ahrefs, and just start pumping out content without really thinking about why they're doing it in the first place. To kick things off, what do you think are the two primary factors that should dictate your content marketing strategy?

Skyler:
When you're approaching strategy for a business, content strategy is a subset of the overall marketing strategy and that's a subset of the overall business strategy, I credit that to Jimmy Daly, former director over at Animalz.

But I think the two primary things that you need to think about when you're approaching content strategy are going to be, the constraints of the business, which you can tie in with the goals, what are you actually needing to accomplish with that content? And really keeping that in mind. Whether it's do you need more pre-signups or do you need more people to convert at the bottom of the funnel?

You have to think about that and where the business is at, at that particular time, when you're approaching content strategy and also understanding too that can evolve and change over time too, as the business evolves.

The second would probably be capacity, which I guess could be a function of constraint too. It's thinking about, okay, what do your resources look like? What does your velocity look like, in terms of what you can publish? And trying to balance those in such a way that you're not going to sacrifice quality for the sake of quantity over time too.

Edward:
Yeah. Super good point, constraints and capacity, and you mentioned goals there. Another fundamental question then is, what is the goal of content marketing and how do you actually measure it success?

Skyler:
Oh yeah. I think if someone could really effectively answer the measurement question on content marketing, things would be a lot better because it's hard sometimes, unless you have really great attribution set up, to be able to track that back to whether it's conversions or whether that's growth rate over time.

I think fundamentally that your goal is going to depend on what your constraints are. If your constraint is that you need more say free trials, then I would focus more on an organic growth rate over time. Aiming for some percentage of month over month average growth rate from organic traffic over time. Or if your constraints are something more like, we need more actual conversions from, say, a free trial to the paid users, well then you got to go more bottom of funnel and say, okay, what's the conversion rate of paid to sales and what kind of content do I need, that's perhaps going to help the sales team, some sales enablement content to help them convert those people? What do they need to help them take that step?

The goals there are either going to be, I'd say, organic growth rate at the top and, or actual conversions to paid users at the bottom.

Edward:
Yeah. And you spoke there about organic acquisition and bringing people in at the top. If we're thinking about an SEO driven content strategy, how do you go about prioritizing content topics for that approach?

Skyler:
Yeah. I think a lot of people take it in a lot of different ways here, but I'm bullish on there being a right way to do it. What happens right now is people will go to Ahrefs, SEMrush or some tools like that. And they'll go through and they'll maybe look at their competitors and select some topics or they'll look at... Maybe they got a few terms in mind and they start exploring and start putting this keyword list together and then they say, "Okay, let's break these up into topics and go after them."

And that's fine, but I think that you end up wasting more time in the long run. I think the best way to actually select your topics is to start with what your initial seed terms need to be and what... Our approach is, we'll say, "Okay, let's first understand what the total addressable market looks like for this and collect everything that we possibly can from keyword data."

We'll pull a quarter million, half a million keywords sometimes from Ahrefs, we're trying to understand the TAM. And then, often times, we'll go into the search console, we'll stitch that data together from your queries and impressions to pull a lot more data that Ahrefs doesn't have, we de-dupe it and then we run it through an algorithm that we have here that handles topic clustering.

From that, what emerges though are the actual main hub keywords out of that quarter million set, we'll end up grouping them together so you get this idea of, okay, here are your main keywords. And then we will begin to look at, okay, what's the value returned on these going to be? How difficult is it going to be to create these? We create this inter-relational graph between them to understand what order we might want to tackle them in.

If you're a more established company, if you're looking to go into a new vertical, you'd want to start looking where you have these interrelated connections between say content that you currently have and the new topic that you want to go into and look for what we call these bridge connections between them and build your way into it. That way, you're not having to fight Google the whole time to help them understand that you're now establishing top authority in this new subject where if you push them together, it can happen a lot faster.

Edward:
And you hear people speak about topic clustering. Is that the approach you're alluding to there? And could you open up a bit more about topic clustering and how you approach that with your content?

Skyler:
Yeah. Topic clustering, yeah, that's the approach we'd take. When I first got into this world, my background was in computer science, working on routing problems in the transportation industry. And when I first heard about topic clustering, I heard everyone talk about the hub and spoke model and things like that.

And it was always this problem that I had, trying to understand how do you know that you're picking the best hubs, hub keywords, especially whenever you're actually trying to map out what a site architecture would look like or how your plan would look like throughout the course of a calendar year or something? We worked on an algorithm where we could ingest hundreds of thousands of keywords and then group them together into clusters, creating these topic models.

Once we had that together, then we also have a metric for priority score and it really just paints the picture for us, to say, okay, you need to create, X number of pages now, and here are the sub-topics that fall within it, that aren't going to overlap and compete with another main keyword that has subtopics. There's sometimes some overlap, but when we're looking at the weakness between the signals, that's also an opportunity for internal links between the two.

But yes, that's the approach we take. And we started originally with a machine learning model, and I think that there are some people out there who are working on that and that's great and all, but then we also have to remember too that we're trying to do this to ring on Google, then why am I trying to do something that's already been done?

If Google's already built out in the machine learning models themselves, they're grouping things together on the SERPs, you can use what you find on the SERPs to figure out how you actually need to group these topics together anyway and you can do that by looking at similarity between the Serbs across various keywords and setting certain thresholds, whether it be based on a weighting of the position or what you're seeing across tile tags, how similar they are between keywords.

And you can do that manually, but it takes forever, especially if you're trying to do it at scale. Yeah, that's our approach is address 100,000 keywords, group them into a hub and spoke models, build a priority score off of it and then that's your game plan on how you need to build out your various topics on the content actually itself.

Edward:
Nice. I like it. I like the process and the steps there. Prioritizing topics then working on the topic clusters and so forth. And, I guess, ultimately the next step is then looking to acquire traffic and grow traffic, in particular to your blog, which is often the heart of content. What then is an ideal growth rate from a blog? And I think particularly from a B2B and SaaS business perspective.

Skyler:
I think a reasonable rate to aim for is going to be... You want to look for, probably, about a 10% organic growth rate annualized, or when you're looking over 12 months, it also depends. If you're just starting out, you're going to see a much larger, I think, than 10%, just because you're working with smaller numbers there, but I'd say over time, you want to aim for about a 10% growth rates as you're working your way up to say 50,000 organic visits per month or a hundred thousand organic visits per month, or even more.

I think the first milestones to set for yourself are, if you're looking at it just in pure terms of traffic is to say, okay, let's start with 25,000, start with 50,000, a hundred thousand, but really paying attention to the growth rate, I think is what's more important over time. About 10% is healthy. If you can go more, that's great too.

Edward:
Yeah. More is always good. And a lot of people, I notice, spend a ton of time trying to acquire backlinks. What's your view on this? And our backlinks always needed to rank?

Skyler:
Well, I have to default back now, I guess, to that whole, it depends thing. I don't think that they're always needed. That being said, I think that nothing hurts getting links from high quality websites that may share some of the audience that you're looking to have an overlap with. I don't think that's ever going to hurt. I would look at it the same way I would any sort of collaboration or business development.

That being said, I mean, what we've seen thus far is if you're more in the FinTech industry or anything like that, it's a lot more competitive versus say MarTech. MarTech may seem extremely competitive amongst the companies, but the tools lend themselves to backlinks. It's really just a matter of getting your name out there, doing PR, reaching out to people when you've got free trials, things like that. I think you can acquire them fairly easy at scale.

But now if you're talking super competitive niches, I mean, for particular topics, even then, I mean, we've been able to rank Ahrefs and HubSpot and everyone else, whenever we were an Ahref domain authority of nine. I think they help, but I wouldn't always focus my energy there. I think rather than always trying to acquire backlinks to particular pages, if you just focus on creating some really interesting popular content, some sort of tool. If you've got a free tool, it's going to get links.

Things like that I think are the best way to acquire them over time. Long story short, nah, I don't think they're always needed, but if you can get them then get them, I guess.

Edward:
Yeah absolutely, and in addition to creating good content and providing unique points of view, have you found any other effective ways to acquire good quality backlinks to your content?

Skyler:
Yeah. Building relationships is really handy. It's not always the fastest way to scale, but I think it has longer-term benefits over time. Our approach is we basically said treat it the same way you would sales or business development, where there are a handful of... Let's say 10 to a hundred. Just pick 10 to a hundred targets of people that have enough overlap with your audience, that if they were to promote you or link you or even share your content, that it could have a dramatic impact on your business and your overall popularity and brand awareness and things like that.

Our approach was to say, okay, let's cultivate, let's focus on cultivating those relationships as much as possible. And be real authentic about it, legitimately want to connect with those people or those brands and the links that you get from there, not only share a high overlap with the audience that you're already trying to get in front of, but you can find these continuing opportunities over time, if you're approaching it from a business development collaboration perspective and the quality of the links just tends to be significantly higher and worth, you could get, say a hundred, think about DR metrics or something like that.

And you can get a hundred DR25 links but one good, DR75 or 80 link, just would be sufficient, I mean. That's our approach. We use a tool called Obsidian to do that and it's actually really neat the way it works does because I mean you can't keep up with everything in your mind all the time.

We use Obsidian almost as a mini CRM to understand what's going on with people that we do want to connect with and stay in touch with. And it allows us over time to start to see these emergent connections between various people that we are trying to connect with and what they have going on. It's a way to see these connections between people, concept, dates, times, places, things like that, so that whenever you do actually go to interact with them and talk to them or try to stay up to date with them, it's a lot easier to be authentic about it because you actually understand what's going on with their life right now, you've found these commonalities, things that they're working on.

Yeah, that's our approach. It's not the fastest, but I think it has the best long-term residual effects.

Edward:
Yeah. Absolutely. Super good advice and content marketing, as we discussed it, it's not just about creating new content or earning backlinks, but another thing is actually updating your old content. What are content refreshers and what's the value of them?

Skyler:
Yeah. A constant refresh is, it usually starts with, what we call, a content audit, so you're just taking stock of how things are currently performing, looking to see how that's trended over time. And you're looking to see, did this content hit the mark? Is it pulling in enough organic traffic, to be meaningful? Does it have any backlinks? You can weigh those together.

If it's got backlinks, but does it have organic traffic? Well, okay, it still has a purpose on the site, that's passing some link equity around. If it's getting conversions and not getting organic traffic or backlinks, well, then that's fine too. Right. We usually look at those three things to see how's your organic traffic trending over time, the positioning, especially, of it.

If we start to see, across the set of pages, that the position has been declining over time, or the position never really got in the top five or the top 10 even, and then we flag that and we'll put that into list and then say, okay, these pages need to be refreshed, they were missing something. Or the intent behind what people were searching for originally has changed.

You can imagine if there was something related to, it's more timely, the pandemic or something, you're going to keep that content updated over time to be able to match and give searchers what they're actually looking for, whereas if it's something that perhaps might be a bit more evergreen, but not entirely, for example, marketing trends in 2020, well then maybe you only have to update that once a year. It's a bit more evergreen, but it still needs to be updated over time.

But then you have the third category of things where perhaps the intent behind, say for example, if we were looking at email templates, email templates and email campaign templates are two separate topics with separate intents. They used to be the same, but over time they split apart. If a website like MailChimp or ActiveCampaign or somebody like that were targeting them both together and weren't keeping on top of the fact that they did have a split intent over time, they're going to see a decline in some of the rankings for, say, email templates itself while they're still doing okay for email campaign templates.

When you do identify with those intents what's happened, because you're losing organic rankings, it's time to go back and refresh that content. I think the hard part there sometimes is knowing how should I prioritize it? You could do that by effectively saying, looking at what the value is in analytics or something like that, or what you know that the value of the conversion rate on those pages are and approach it from that perspective.

Or you can also look at it, one of the things that we do is, our priority score will balance both the value opportunity that's left on the table for us to get, with things like what's the essential effort that you're going to have to put into it because... We may tackle something first, that's perhaps not as much value as another page that we need to refresh, but the effort that we're going to have to put into is going to be, say, an hour versus 10 hours. Right.

When you start to think about developer hours and things like that too, those are things to really take into account and you can say, okay, I only need an hour development time for this and here's the return on it, so I'll use it to get that buy-in and get those things done and get movement versus trying to tackle and eat the whole elephant at once, so to speak.

Edward:
Yeah, I think that's good advice and sometimes forgotten when it comes to content marketing. And I think one other challenge, particularly for new SaaS companies or startups, is that you'll find yourself going up against established companies. From a content marketing perspective, that throws up a whole new set of challenges. How can you catch up with these entrenched competitors?

Skyler:
I think the best thing that you can do there is, velocity is one factor, the sooner you can get content created and indexed, the sooner you can catch up. At a base level, that's just an effective how search engine indexing and growing works. But that being said, again, you don't want to sacrifice quality. And I think it's still important to follow, you can think of it almost like a semantic order, a logical consistent order of your content.

When you're just starting out, the first thing that you're going to have to do, people talk about there being a sandbox, and I'm not so much sure that there's a sandbox, a Google sandbox for ranking as much as there is... You just have to build up top with authority in a subject before you're ever going to hit this critical mass and have what is needed to rank.

When you first start college or something, I mean, you're not a PhD, you have to earn that over time. It's the same thing with content. What I would do to catch up with entrenched competitors is to understand your TAM first, understand the value, and then start to pick topics that you want to go after. And looking at things, effectively finding the opportunities where one of the main keywords, for example, or at least say two of the competitors are really outperforming everything else on the SERPS, despite their position. Maybe the search results are returning people, like HubSpot and Ahrefs and SEMrush and Moz and Content Marketing Institute, or things like that, or MailChimp, ActiveCampaign.

And then you find these opportunities where a smaller blog is ranking or some affiliate site or something like that. Those are the opportunities, I think that you could start in first. I would approach those first. They may be a bit more long tail, but once you see that you're beginning to pick up rankings for some of them, you're still looking at probably, three to six months there sometimes, depending on how quickly you were creating content.

Once you start to see yourself picking up ranks, that's when I would also simultaneously start to create hub pages, to start indexing, to go after the much larger terms, even though it's going to take a little longer, might as well get it created, get it indexed and then as you build out the rest of the topics around it, you're always adding more and more to it.

That would be, I think, the approach to take if you're brand new. Start with long tail where lower authority type websites, where at least one or two are ranking, and just see that as an opportunity to claim that piece of the market share from that addressable market.

Edward:
Yeah, that's really good. And at the other end of the spectrum then, how can larger established sites get more incremental search traffic and value from their existing content?

Skyler:
Yeah, the content refreshes, honestly, it's probably the best way to do it. When you're looking at the websites like QuickBooks, or with massive contents libraries, so to speak and support documentation and things like that. There's a ton of search formed around the random terms too.

The fastest way for them to get the incremental traffic is, honestly, just to go through their existing inventory and look for where, either refreshes need to occur to resolve search intent alignment issues or where gaps have occurred. I was looking at QuickBooks the other day, as a matter of fact, and we ran just 3% of their TAM through our topic cluster model and immediately there were these handful of things that I was like, oh, you can go fix these.

And usually what you're going to see is one of three things, either you have one page or you have two pages that are competing for the same keyword, so you can think of cannibalization, but the way we really tell whether or not it's cannibalization is where those two pages are ranking at. If one's ranking position 11 and one's ranking position 50, that's not cannibalization, that's just the next best page on your site about that happens to rank for the keyword too.

But if you've got two that are ranking, say 11 through 15 together, that's a sign that they're competing with one another, that's splitting the vote at a primary and no one wins. Essentially by going to the page that you don't want to rank and understanding why it's ranking, review the content from that page, add it to the page that you want to rank and just keep working through the list like that, if you're dealing with cannibalization, add internal links to it, that sort of thing.

That will oftentimes get a pretty significant amount of lift in traffic, just because there's so much of it occurring on large websites because a lot of times they just throw this content out, without really thinking about how it's all going to interconnect together over time and where it's place in the mold is. They end up competing with one another and dragging each other down.

The other is, when you're looking for those declining organic traffic for certain positions over time and just saying, okay, have we missed the search intent? Is there some key piece of information or way that we were supposed to talk about this, that we just didn't get?

And then the third would be, let's say, we're looking at our topic model, we start to see all these gaps that aren't being filled. It's similar to a keyword gap analysis, that sort of thing, except we're looking at it from a subtopic perspective with the way that things get clustered. We then look at those and say, okay, do we need to fill those gaps?

You have to look at what's the value returned from that and what's the effort going to be? And when you start to do that for large sites over time, you can work through it very quickly because oftentimes it's something like you literally just didn't answer this one question that when you add up all the various iterations that this question gets searched, the different ways they ask this question, it ends up being another 1500, 2000 traffic.

And that doesn't seem like a lot, especially on big sites, but you replicate that across a quarter million pages and all of a sudden, you have economies of scale to deal with too, in terms of the way it multiplies itself out.

That'd be my approach there is, focus on fixing cannibalization issues first, fixing declining organic traffic where intent has missed itself, missed the alignment of search intent and then working on filling some of the gaps. And a note on cannibalization too, you're going to sometimes find where you have the same page, it's actually ranking for two different topics. And maybe it's ranking in the top three for one, but let's say rank eight, nine for the other.

Some people might try to optimize it for that second topic, but really in reality, if you build out your topic models appropriately, then you actually don't need to optimize that page for the second one, you just need to create a new page to go after that topic. And you'll rank for it pretty quickly, you've already established topic authority there.

Fix cannibalization, fix misalignment by refreshing our content and fill in gaps. That's probably the best way to get incremental. Other than that, go talk about your competitors. I mean, I guess if QuickBooks were to start writing out a support documentation for Xero, they'd get a lot more traffic, probably. It'd be interesting to see them do that because then they could paint themselves against Xero when they're talking about how to do certain things within the tool. But I would start with the first three first so that buyer's going to take a lot of executive buy-in, I think.

Edward:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, super good advice. And one final thing, before we jump to our closing questions. Skyler, what are some of the other common pitfalls you've seen B2B businesses fall into when it comes to content marketing?

Skyler:
Not talking about their competitors and not paying enough attention to what branded search looks like for themselves over time and not capitalizing on those opportunities.

Stay on top of your brand and search, understand what people are searching for related to your brand and create content around that because you want to participate in that conversation, if people are searching for it. The last thing you want to do is have someone searching for your brand name alternatives or your brand name pricing, or your brand name feature how to, and have some other website that might be wrong, or may not paint you in the best light, be the one ranking for it. I would pay attention to that.

And I would make sure that, you need to talk about your competitors because here's a scenario I tell people is, that people are going to shop around. We're either looking, we either have a pain point with the tool currently and we're trying to find something to pull our service to replace it or we're just trying to understand what the landscape looks like, what our options are.

To not talk about your competitors is to say that you're okay with not participating in that conversation, but the thing is, and that conversation is going to happen, whether you decide to participate in it or not. You can sit on the sidelines while your competitors have a chance to get in front of people that might be a current customer, or might be a potential customer. And they're getting the chance to paint themselves in the best light while you're just for example, being stubborn and saying, no, we don't talk about our competitors, we don't want to risk sending someone to them.

Well, if their competitor is the best fit for that customer, that's where they should go and you should be okay with them because you should be focused on getting around customers anyway. It gives you a chance to even decrease turn even because you're not attracting the wrong people to begin with. But again, by not participating in that conversation, you're also missing the opportunity to paint yourself in the best light and give your pitch or be a part of that conversation and potentially are losing out on more customers to your competition, who is, they're talking about you and everyone else in the landscape against you.

Edward:
Yeah, absolutely. Super good advice. And Skyler, this was super good and we can now move to our closing questions and our fast five challenge. To wrap things up, I will ask five questions and all you need to do is answer as quickly as possible. Are you ready?

Skyler:
Sure. Yeah.

Edward:
Great. First question, what is the one book you'd recommend others to read?

Skyler:
It's called Mindset by Carol Dweck, psychologist. I would definitely recommend that one. I think a lot of people will call it a growth mindset, but the book's called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Edward:
Yeah. And that's also been recommended on the show before, so great to hear.

Skyler:
Yeah. That's how I learned math or learned I could learn math, so it was a game changer for me.

Edward:
Yeah, definitely. Second question, SaaS company you love and why?

Skyler:
I really like Ahrefs, not so much because of the tool. I love the tool though, too, but I love Ahrefs because of their approach that they've taken with their content and both on the blog and on the YouTube channel with Sam.

It was super educational and super useful and helpful. And that's something that some of the competitors weren't that good at. The education, I think, that they've put out there to really... Especially whenever we're doing new hires, the way it's helped them. It's been fantastic. It's a great introduction.

Edward:
Yeah, absolutely. Third question. Favorite place to learn about marketing online? And maybe you kind of answered that already in the second question.

Skyler:
Oh, no, honestly I would say Superpath, when Jimmy left Animalz, he formed Superpath, the slack community. There's also a pro version of the website, but if you learn about marketing, especially content marketing, in this respect, I would say Superpath. You want to talk about marketing in general, I've really enjoyed Traffic Think Tank, things like that. Slack community, start social is probably where I would go and actually have the real conversation.

Edward:
Yeah. I think super good recommendations. And for sure anything content marketing related, then you can't go wrong with Jimmy Daly.

Skyler:
Yeah.

Edward:
Definitely. Fourth question. Most important growth metric?

Skyler:
Oh, man, that really depends on your model. I would say, from a content perspective, I'm going to look at organic traffic over time, but ultimately I think things come down to your... Looking to see what percentage of the total addressable market are you gaining over time. From that, you can look at conversion and things like that. I would say organic traffic first, which is the derivative of what's the total market share that you've captured.

Edward:
Great. And then fifth and final question, best piece of advice for fellow marketers?

Skyler:
Learn enough about the product, that you can really be an advocate for it, go work for the companies that you like using their tools. But then beyond that, if you want to make your life a lot easier, I would say focus on how to have conversations with developers so that when you do need help, that you know how to talk their language and get them be more enthusiastic about helping you because, especially the larger the organization, it's hard to get things done, if you don't get buy-in from them or if they're constantly fighting you all the time.

Ultimately, be able to talk to them, be able to speak their language, maybe learn a little bit about how the underlying architecture works. I think that'll help you actually succeed and get things done so that you can actually hit the KPIs and goals that you're aiming for in the long run.

Edward:
Awesome. Well, Skyler, I have to say thank you so much. This was absolutely fantastic. It was a real pleasure having you on The Growth Hub podcast.

Skyler:
Thanks, Edward, I appreciate it, man. These were some really good questions.