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Tom Willis in conversation with John Merris

John Merris

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Listen to John Merris, CEO and Director of Solo Brands on the Culture Eats Everything Podcast in conversation with Thomas Willis.

Read more about John Merris:

John Merris is the CEO of Solo Brands (NYSE: DTC), a Southlake, Texas based platform of direct-to-consumer lifestyle brands, including Solo Stove, Chubbies, Isle Paddlebords and Oru Kayak, which he led from humble positioning as a business with under 10 Solo Stove employees in 2018 to a successful IPO at a $2.1 billion valuation in 2021.

John, a graduate of Brigham Young University and the University of Texas McCombs School of Business MBA program, leads, operates, and innovates with a vision inspired by his diverse professional background across both B2B and B2C. Immediately prior to Solo Brands, John helped lead Ft. Worth based Clarus Glassboards to unprecedented growth, resulting in a successful exit via private equity. Before Clarus, John launched the first profitable managed service model for programmatic advertising in B2B media, as Vice President at Multiview.

John specializes in scaling the entrepreneurial potential of businesses, a passion that began with his first startup venture, a home automation brand he founded after college and successfully exited in 2013. John and his wife Cindy live in Southlake, Texas with their five children, and in addition to being active members of their church, together founded Fostering Hearts, a 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to supporting foster children through their participation and education in the arts.

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YouTube Transcript

John Maris thanks for joining me on the podcast today. It's great to meet you we've not met before and I'm super excited to talk to you. I don't I don't um sell Wares but I am a big fan of one of your products which is the solo stove. My brother bought me one a few years ago it's an amazing amazing invention amazing fire pit. So I'll let you explain more of what it is to the audience here and maybe talk a little bit about your your background and how you got here.

Solo stove is uh is the kind of foundational brand inside of the you know our our house of Brands underneath solo Brands. It's a it's a really really great product that kind of was was born underneath the the solo stove brand it's a stainless steel now we've added some color but stainless steel cylindrical fire pit which sounds pretty simple.

Actually in a lot of ways it is but it's a wood burning fire pit that burns nearly smokeless so if you've ever sat around a campfire uh most likely if it was a traditional type type campfire you've played musical chairs trying to avoid the smoke and no matter where you sit it kind of seems to follow you and find you and you you feel like you've got a smoke magnet on you and solo stove really sought to solve that problem and kind of bring that Primal really amazing campfire type experience to every backyard in America and and give people the opportunity to sit around a campfire without having to play musical chairs or smell like smoke or or whatever.

It's just been a phenomenal run my story to joining the brand is is kind of an interesting one I've met the founders it was two brothers that founded the business about four and a half years ago is when I met him and um you know I think in the first meeting there were there was some line along the lines of of you know we've reinvented fire and to give you a little context.

I grew up on a 50 acre ranch in Texas and I I spent I don't know how many nights in my youth sitting around fires but it was a lot and I remember sitting in that first meeting and hearing you know we reinvented fire and thinking to myself what a joke you know the fire's been around a really long time this is the 21st century you know it's a pretty bold statement to say that uh you know two young guys in their garage reinvented fire how could that be and uh in a very skeptical fashion I took took the proud like tone for the first time and you know my wife's one that you know we've always because of my upbringing we've had you know some sort of built-in type Fireball or fire Contraption in the backyard since my wife and I've been married and over the years she's become less and less participatory in those fires and my kids and I would spend time Outdoors uh you know in our backyard making s'mores and doing the fire thing and I remember bringing the fire pit home and telling her like this is going to change our lives like these guys said it's smokeless and she's like whatever you know like no way and I went in the backyard and made made our first fire in the solo stove and it sounds like uh you know probably a similar experience to what you had uh about 30 minutes in I'm sitting out there just like staring at this thing going how is how is this possible and went and grabbed my wife brought her outside and the rest is kind of History nine days later I started at the business which is in 2018 and uh have been here ever since but uh stove has experienced a ton of growth celesto's been um just a rocket ship business since I joined and uh you know to put it in context for for some of the things we're going to talk today about in terms of culture when I joined the business I was the seventh employee so we were a really really small team um and and as probably all of us that are listening to this know small teams tend to be much easier to manage from a culture standpoint than large teams and so at the time it was just such an awesome experience to be able to kind of grab and know every employee individually and interact with them you know frequently on a daily basis that that obviously has changed over time but as the business grew we saw opportunities to continue to expand the the business not just in our own product Innovation but also through acquisition so um we took some of the success that we had seen at stove and in 20 in 2021 so about a year and a half ago or almost two years ago now started talking to other businesses that were in the outdoor space kind of like solo stuff was but in completely different ways and we're doing a really good job of connecting with their customers and you know it's it's interesting but you know I've always said at celestove there's something really special about sitting around a fire with friends and family uh it's it is very Primal and yeah I always say like it doesn't matter like if you're young or if you're old and everything in between but everyone enjoys sitting around a good fire with people they love and um you know if you're with your young kids you know it can be you know your your funnest night of the week you know making s'mores or whatever and you can be with your teenagers you know around the fire and it could be the first night of the week that they put down their phone and actually have a you know meaningful conversation with you if you're with your spouse and that's you know kids are kids aren't around it can be your most romantic night of the week and you know you can be with your your elderly parents and it can be you know a walk down memory lane so there's just something really cool about a a campfire type experience in your backyard and being able to do that on a regular basis and I've fallen in love with it I really really I fell in love with it as a kid growing up on a ranch but we just recognized that as much as we loved what our business and our product was doing for people in terms of making those connections and helping them have those experiences that there were other businesses that were doing something similar in a different way and we started leaning into that we acquired three businesses in 2021 we we bought a an origami kayak business called Oru Kayak it's a kayak that folds into the size of a box you can put it on your back like a backpack it weighs 20 pounds and you can hike with it you could put in the back seat of a Prius and go and go kayaking and it what it really did is it made kayaking and getting into the outdoors accessible for a big cohort of people that either lived in the city and didn't have space for a kayak or had gotten older and weren't in a position physically to be able to lift the kayak and load it up on the top of their car and you know ratchet it down and get to where they were going and unload to do all the things that are kind of required to get into kayaking after we bought Oro kayak we got into a business called aisle paddle boards uh it's a surfboard and paddle board business out of San Diego both hard and inflatable surfboards and paddle boards again also leaning into water Recreation but just this idea of getting people outdoors and getting them to experience their tagline is is life is better in balance and and uh and and obviously you know you got to do a lot of balancing when you're out on the water which is which is a lot of fun our acquisition kind of spree in 2021 culminated with the acquisition of a a really cool apparel business uh called Chubbies if you're if you're not familiar with Chevy's it's a it's a men's swimsuit swimwear and and uh and short shorts brand um it's kind of what they really made their their name on since they've expanded into pants and and really kind of um I'd say personality Rich designs um there's very few places when I have a chubby shirt on uh that I don't you know whether it's in an airport or out in public that I don't get somebody that stops me and says just love your shirt and they're smiling back at me and I I love that about about it it was actually What attracted us to the brand a lot of people ask us well that's not really in the outdoor space you know how did you end up with Chubbies and it's just that all of our Brands the common denominators focused around putting smiles on faces you know making people a little bit happier than they were before they they were introduced to Our Brands and um and just and just growing them and so culturally we've we've tried to to Really allow that purpose that we have across all of our businesses to infiltrate uh how we do things why we do what we do who we do it with and and so forth but that's a little bit about solo Stow which which eventually morphed into solo Brands as we acquired these these other three businesses I just described oh it's really fascinating and um I'd love to love to dive into your own Journey because you said I think you said you're the seventh employee and did you start as the CEO did you become the CEO talk a little bit about that leadership Journey I did I was hired as the CEO I was I was uh Lucky in that regard the founders um you know had grown the business it was really a hobby you know kind of side hustle for them they moonlighted the business for six or seven years and um it had gotten to a size that they really had never really anticipated or expected it to get to and um didn't have a lot of interest in kind of managing the the people growth side that was going to be required at the size and scale that we had gotten to and um and so they were out looking for a CEO and um yeah my background's an interesting one we were talking a little bit earlier um you know before before the show about our our personal Journeys and you know mine like yours is is not very traditional um I was I was an entrepreneur turned sales guy turned operation lover turned CEO and and so I just kind of just been through the full gamut um I started a residential alarm company out of my undergrad the primary driver of Revenue into that business was just door knocking like literally going to neighborhoods and knocking on doors and trying to sell alarm systems um and I did that for about four years and then went back and got my MBA at UT in Austin and um and then uh and was fortunate enough to meet uh the a guy that's to this day is is one of my best friends and and uh and mentors who was was working at a media company in in Dallas and um he was fascinated with the whole door knocking side of the business that I had come from and I was fascinated with the business they were running and finally one day we were sitting in a room and and he's like man you know you should come work for us and and I was like man I would really like to come work for you and and uh and so I said well what will I be doing and and he said we don't really know but you should just kind of we'll figure it out you know when you get there but uh so I started with them and and went through a variety of roles but all all pretty growth sales focused roles um started out just just with myself and within about a month or so I've been given a small team of maybe four uh employees to work for me and um we found some success while I was there and and uh you know did a lot of a lot of good at that business and about a year later I had the opportunity to continue to scale uh my opportunities there with with my team and I left about three years after I started um but as I as I grew and scaled at the time that I Departed the business I think that my team was about 120 um and so it was it was it was a really fun ride but I I that was my first big foray I had started my business my company was was not small the the alarm company I was talking about we had gone from uh you know basically myself and a partner to about a hundred people but then I kind of went through that same exercise um at the media company I was working for where we had gone from you know a team of four to manage to a team of 120 or so to manage um and then I was I was um I was asked to come over to a company called Claire's glassboards uh which is the the innovator of the glass marker board space if you if you've seen a marker board now uh that's glass instead of a traditional whiteboard or a Blackboard the company that I that I was the chief Revenue officer at was really responsible for that that Evolution and writing services and uh and very similarly um I uh I came into that business it was it was more sizable than any of the others that I had had joined from people from about the size of the media company but we had a few hundred people at that company I was managing uh probably about 30 to 40 when I joined and then was able to scale my my sales team up to just over a hundred I think that what was unique about that opportunity for me was that the team of sales people that that I worked with were all 1099 they weren't W-2 employees so this was my first foray into learning how to build a culture with a group of people that technically weren't employed by me they didn't have to do what I said and so it was a it was a different Dynamic of of motivating them through um through positivity to get them to want to show up uh versus kind of saying hey you know this is your job this is what you have to do which is kind of what what I've been through prior to that um and then it was from Claire's glassboards that I I was introduced to the founders of of solo stove and and ended up joining the business here and and uh and watching this business kind of go through what it's been through the last four and a half years so my Evolution has been an interesting one again from kind of Entrepreneurship to sales sales leadership I got exposure to operations at Claire's glass boards we manufactured all the product and houses so that was my first kind of view into manufacturing and what operations is and how sales and operations kind of work together to create a symbiotic relationship and and then was able to come over to solostove and kind of put all that together as the the CEO and and so in the last you know four years now roughly that you've been CEO you've gone from seven to I think you said about 350 employees and so how have you done that how do you scale an effective culture because I would I would argue that we've we've deluded ourselves that we could we could tell people what to do you know when I was a CEO I had about 200 employees and I thought okay good now I'm finally the CEO I can tell people what to do and then I realize that that doesn't work um but uh We've grown up in that mindset but really that's not true we we humans have much more freedom than that so how have you scaled this culture and created uh such a powerful team yeah I uh the the that that is a correct statement we definitely have a powerful team I don't know that I've done a great job scaling the culture to be honest with you it is it is the hardest thing for sure um that I do every day um you know even as a public company CEO building and managing culture is is so hard and I think um I think it's gone through Evolutions with us um I think that the culture shows up in different ways with different size businesses and you just I I think for me probably the thing that's helped the most has been just recognizing you know there's a really good book um called uh that that's titled what got you here won't get you there and um it's one of my favorites and and it's it's not a culture book it's it's really a behavior focused book but there's so much overlap with culture if you just read it from that perspective from the culture perspective because so often times as a leader you you go into your business and you go okay this worked you know that culture worked in this environment or this Behavior drove this culture at this size business so I'm just going to duplicate that again here and then you realize it completely it completely falls on its face and and I think that I've learned a lot uh going through that experience and recognizing that at every there's kind of been these trigger points in our business size from an employee account standpoint that have required step changes in Behavior related to culture in order to continue to scale culture in the way that's healthy for the business and to me those those those points were going from seven to about 70. employees and about at 70 we had to start behaving differently than we did when we were seven we could get away at 25 and 40 and even 50. um with with how we had been behaving but at 70 I found that it was it wasn't working to behave the same way and we went through the same thing when we went from about 70 to about 120 and then what we had been doing at 70 just stopped working really well uh at 120 and um and then the next big one was was when we acquired other businesses and I recognized that meshing four cultures together talk about just scaling people that's one thing but taking four organizations that all have their distinct cultures and trying to mesh them into one there was no way that we could do what we were doing at 120 successfully to to mesh these together and it had to be viewed at completely separate early and I'd say I still feel like we're in the work of that even even a year and a half later we're still in the work of really figuring out how to properly how to properly drive and manage uh the culture of of our combined businesses together into one so it is it's it's an evolution but if I if I summarized it I would say that what got you there what got you here won't get you there is is probably the best way of putting it as you scale well I love your candor frankly and your honesty because there's lots of CEOs would who would kind of puff up and give you a frankly a BS answer sort of a canned answer um even though they know below the surface that the culture is not where they want it to be um and so I think that's probably part of your secret sauce John is is that you're you're just willingness to be honest with people is uh is a great part of the the solo Brands culture um and I don't know if you want this is the good news or the bad news but in our estimation the work is never done you know it's it's literally you you there's lots of things you can do obviously um I joked with my my business partner Brad that it took me about four or five years to get my team where I wanted them as a as a CEO I could have done it in five months with his help um there are ways to accelerate it but it does take hard work it's not a there is no Silver Bullet there is no you know so much of what we think about as cool culture is not it's it's perks and benefits it's um you know it's free lunches and dry cleaning and work from home all that stuff is not bad but it's not culture the culture really is to your point it's really Behavior how do we go about figuring out not just behaviors on a Surface but down below the surface what are the unconscious behaviors that we're collectively bringing to the to the work because that's what that's what shapes the the culture um so I again I just appreciate your your open honest answer it gives hope to I'm sure to lots of listeners out there that um that they're not alone um that if they're having challenges with their team and their culture that's completely okay it's completely normal now the question is what are you gonna do about it absolutely and I think that that's the key um I love your last line there is what are you going to do about it and I think that that's the call out that that I would make is that you you said it very well and and I'll I'll just spin it around and say it slightly differently just to re-emphasize the point culture is not what you say it's not what you talk about and at a hundred percent is not what you put down on a piece of paper culture is actually how you behave it's how you act it's what you do and so if you want to change your culture then you have to change your behavior that's the only way you can sit for two weeks on a beach with a book and a notepad and you can you know DEC disconnect from your business and and uh and detach from the day in and day out and okay I'm just gonna clear my mind and I'm gonna write I'm gonna really figure out what we're gonna what this culture is gonna be and there's not a problem with any of that except for when you believe that by going through that exercise and printing out a piece of paper and handing it out to your team that your culture is going to start evolving into that it just isn't it what my experience has shown is that you have to do the hard work that you're referencing because the hard work is actually changing behavior and that then is what results in a distinct culture shift if if you're trying to change a culture if you're trying to maintain a culture you because these are two very distinct things and again back to the scaling from seven to three fifty and what that's been to maintain the culture that we had as seven employees at 70 and it said from 70 to 120 and now the work we're trying to Endeavor in to take four Brands together and and create a culture is requiring that we make sure that the behaviors that we want our culture to be reflective of are happening from the very top and all the way to the very bottom of the organization and that's why it gets harder to to be completely Frank is because we're human you mentioned this earlier and human nature um mandates autonomy and free thinking and free thinking leads to free behavior and free Behavior leads to free culture and none of us want free culture what we want is established to find culture and in order to get that you actually have to influence people's human nature to fix their behavior to align with your culture so that you can then infiltrate the the the the human nature inside of every single person inside the business and then reinforce that culture that you're trying to drive and that is I mean gosh I mean just replay what I just said over and over again and tell me that that's an easy exercise I mean there's just it's just not you know nothing about it and if anybody that's raising children knows that um yeah I've got five kids and and you know you try to kind of create a culture inside of your family and it's you know unfortunately kids are no one kid is the same as the next and so even with my five kids inside the same family they're all so distinct and so you write when you think you've got culture figured out with one kid the next kid behaves differently and you're like oh shoot just totally screwed my my plan up and and uh an organization is no different right a family is just a smaller version of a larger a larger business organization and and uh you know that's the challenge at hand right it's it's both the opportunity and the challenge and and um and that's that's what makes leadership fun is that like you said it's never over um because you're always bringing new humans into the into the mix into the Cog you know and and uh and and ultimately those human are going to bring unique perspectives and experiences and behaviors in and and your job as a leader is to mold those behaviors into the right culture yeah especially when you're growing at such a rocket ship like growth you know that that you guys are going through um it's uh it's actually a little harder than that even John than what you said it's you know most of what's missed in this work that we've found anyway is is I know you'll come in and Consultants will come in and they'll do sort of the traditional Mission Vision value stuff and that's all important and valuable but it misses the underlying point that what makes culture so different difficult to change is that it's mostly unconscious we don't realize the things that we're we're doing and how we're contributing so if you want to improve a culture um because I would argue you can't even maintain a culture you have to you're either improving or you're sliding down uh you're coasting which means you're going downhill um that if you want to improve that you can't change anybody you can't fix anybody they have to want to improve themselves they have to be committed more committed to their their better self a better version of themselves in the future than they are to their own comfort zone and the comfort zone is a is a powerful thing for most of us humans especially you know if you're sitting around that makes me think of the fireplace sitting around a a fire um in your case looking at five kids saying oh this is an interesting culture we got right here these are all slightly different human beings I've got sitting with me yeah there's there's no doubt and that's that is a great call out um because I completely I I completely agree and have found that there is there is no maintaining of culture it's either enhancing or it's deteriorating um just by nature of what it is and and and and for that reason it is a constant effort uh but I love the perspective of the the unconsciousness uh of of uh of so many of the behaviors that we just you know in our day in and day out we just kind of go through without even thinking about it you know I don't know how many I remember reading somewhere sometime how many decisions we make in a day and I I'm not even gonna purport to remember you know the the gravity of that number but it was a lot is all I remember and I remember thinking man like I probably actually think about you know a few handfuls of of decisions on a daily basis and the rest of them are all just kind of Happening by by habit or or you know just just whatever it might be um and so that's that's a great Point uh around culture because so much of your behavior is is really done I won't even maybe maybe unintentional isn't fair but uh but certainly subconsciously um in in terms of of what you're doing every day yeah there's a great book um uh from David Brooks called The Social Animal and he actually talks about how you know at any given time the human brain can process about 11 million pieces of information you know think about that for a second 11 million pieces of information we're processing most of it you know if you think about anatomically just the act of walking requires an amazing amount to be happening in our brains and our muscles and our tissues and our feet you know it's it's fascinating he said of those 11 million we're conscious of about 40. 4-0 11 million to 40. like that's that's not even close right um and we think as human beings that we're so conscious you know folks like us that got our mbas we think we're so smart like we're we're very logical we're very data driven you know all this stuff but the reality is that we're nowhere near what we think we are um and it's a great it's a great thing thank God if we if we had to think about all that stuff consciously we'd be exhausted by 8 30 in the morning so it's a huge strength that we humans have the question is as Leaders though what do we do with that how do we what are those 40 things that really do need my attention and how do we help each other as a team how do we how do we help each other realize you know hey John you're doing that thing again where whatever or Tom you know you're you're retreating into your head we don't know what you're thinking think out loud with us you know how do we create a team where we can we can help each other grow and improve um I just realized we're almost out of time and I um this has been a lot of fun and I've got like a 10 more questions but I really want to hear specifically on one of the things I saw on your website I think it was in a blog somewhere was this idea that we all have to create our own fire um so I'm just curious what that is and then we'll we can wrap up with a book recommendation that you have yeah you know I I just just inherently believe that I don't know the the more experience and the older that I get like everyone has something to give and um you know you can use the word purpose if you want um you know you can use the word Mission if you want you know whatever whatever you know really jives with with your psyche but the reality is is like I just believe that everyone was was put on the earth to achieve what their thing is and um and that's why I don't stress a lot I've never gotten caught up with you know if if somebody in my organization decides to move on or you know if I you know if I realize it's time for myself to move on from something or or if I decide to stay and lean into something I just there's a time and a season for everything and everyone has something to give and as a pertains specifically to you know making your own fire in a lot of ways it's it's figuring that out you know what's what's your thing and you know of course you can have more than one thing but um you know sometimes people will have a thing personally you know I I certainly have one you know as a father and a a husband um and then professionally and uh and I just love the idea around it you know making a fire is very there's an art to it every fire is different it's kind of like a thumbprint um no no no single fire is ever exactly the same um just like no piece of art is just like no fingerprint as and I just love the idea of people be being able to leave their fingerprint on things and and I think for any leader that's listening to this podcast and trying to really understand culture and how they can have a better influence over the culture of their organization just recognize that like nobody is like you exactly uh we're all unique we all have our way of doing it and and one of the things I've learned probably more than anything else is that there's never one right way it's it's just never been that way for me there's so many ways to to win there's so many ways to succeed there's so many ways to build culture what's important is to be authentic in the way that you do it don't be phony don't be somebody that you're not don't try to don't read a book and then try to take that culture and put it into your org it will never work but what will work is if you are genuinely a good person and just authentic in your way of going about building the culture and doing it the right way and and not letting your ego or your your selfishness or your pride can in the way of of doing it right my experience has been that when you do that you know in a lot of ways you're making your way right you're making your own fire and and giving the team around you something to warm their hands on um something to get excited about something to be something uh to put a that puts a smile on their face and there's just something awesome about that visual for me um so when I when I say you know go make your own fire or we should all be making our own fire that's that's really what I'm thinking about it's just being authentic and recognizing that all of us have something unique to bring to the world yeah that's awesome I love it it reminds me of we were talking about before the podcast about one of our clients in northern Minnesota and um one of the guys up there said you know what I just realized that my job as a leader is to help my team rekindle their fire that was literally Verbatim what he said and I just tied on to it but you said which is we all have this fire inside of us at least in my opinion that was given to us you know at Birth and the job of leadership is to unleash that is to help people on uncork that because through life we get traumas and we get beat up we get we get fired from jobs I I have been you know we start to lose that that fire but the the the the pilot light is always there you know our job as Leaders is to help people reignite their own fire and our own and our own as well yeah I love that that's awesome it's really cool so how about a book what book would you recommend for our audience you know is it just just based on the topic there's so many that I love I I have been really lucky uh to have gotten to know um Mark Randolph who's one of the co-founders at Netflix and um Mark is is a culture genius in my opinion I've never met anybody that understands and and and has developed as distinct of a culture as as he did inside the Netflix organization uh along with his co-founder and he wrote a book that I think is is really just does a great job at getting you into his mind on how they did that and it's called that will never work um is the name of his book and and of course you know it's it's a it's a spin-off of you know all the naysayers around Netflix that said it would never work um it's kind of where that title came from but so much of of the way he built the culture is woven into uh that that book and and uh I think is pretty relevant to some of the things that we've talked about today okay I've not heard that I love that title though that's fantastic you could apply that to almost every culture you know you've got the the folks who are rooted in the past who will say well that won't work or we tried that before and if you really want to innovate a culture you got to break through that malaise yeah and it doesn't have a practical kind of you know telling the story of how the business was born um versus kind of your more traditional culture focused books that are more psychological based and that kind of so to me I like the the application side of of kind of being able to see it in action I think that that that could could be beneficial to some of some of the listeners today yeah yeah I love it I love it it's uh I'm sure it'll be almost as good by Brad and I writing this book right now we're in the final phases we hope um and uh it's called the Great engagement it's the it's playing off this whole idea of the great resignation you know yep so many people have lost a true sense of Engagement and something that matters they've lost their fire right yeah um and uh the subtitle is how a CEOs create exceptional cultures and it's based on our 30 years of of doing this work um and I've I have a whole new found respect for authors because it has we thought it'd be fun and quick and easy um not that's not fully true but in the ballpark um it is it is hard and painful frankly to distill the work we do with human beings in person into a a little book and so for our audience out there we'll we should have that out by this summer and we're really excited about it so um well John thanks again for your time I really appreciate it and uh just appreciate the the work you guys are doing I love this idea of how do we how do we bring more joy and happiness to the to the Outdoor World and hopefully the indoor World once you guys get there awesome thanks thanks so much it's been a lot of fun to be on with you today [Music]

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