If you’ve been in the startup community for any length of time then you have heard the all too popular buzzword “automation.” We’ve heard stories about people driving significant revenue growth by leveraging automation within their email retargeting flows. We’ve even heard stories about organizations accelerating their hiring, onboarding, and training programs with the help of automation. We hear about automation all the time, and we know it’s critical if we want to scale our business, yet we are halted because we don't know where to begin. After years of running our business, it seems like a daunting task to start integrating new systems and processes. This week we are joined by Chris Ronzio, founder of Trainual as he shares his thoughts on how best to leverage automation, as well as how to integrate it into our business.
My guest this week is Chris Ronzio, founder and CEO of Trainual. If you're unfamiliar with Trainual their product is the absolute easiest way to train and grow your team. In order to grow your business you have to establish processes, and those processes need to be documented. Well, that is if you want consistent results.
Small and growing businesses across the world are using Trainual to build playbooks, train teams and scale their business. By using Trainual you can greatly accelerate your entire hiring, onboarding and training process. So that your new hires are up to speed in a full contributing fashion months ahead of schedule.
That acceleration without a loss in efficacy is exactly how good businesses become great businesses. In fact, Chris is such an advocate for helping small businesses grow and scale that he and the Trainual team host their PlayBook events series every year. So whether do you need strategies to scale big, marketing ideas that really resonate, or hot tips on anything else small business-related. Their PlayBook events series has exactly what you need. In fact, registration is free so visit PlayBook2021.com to secure your spot.
Chris will be having Gary Vaynerchuk and Shaquille O'Neal joining for this event. And if that wasn’t enough, everyone who registers will receive a copy of Chris's upcoming book titled “PlayBook.” Alright, enough for the hype Machine let's jump into the early days of Chris Ronzio's entrepreneurial journey to understand exactly how he got to where he is today.
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Chris Ronzio: Hi, this is Chris Ronzio, the CEO and founder of Trainual. And this is MY startup story.
Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. That is the startup story.
James McKinney: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. Are you new to The Startup Story? Have you only just discovered the show recently? If so, I am so pumped that you're here and I'm so thankful for the time that you've allocated to listen to me and our founder guests. And I hope you subscribe to the show on your podcast platform of choice or if you use Spotify, they don't use subscribe, they use the word follow. You know, we've had some amazing founders this past year and our upcoming release schedule is not showing any signs of slowing down, so you will not want to miss a single episode. There are some amazing founder tactics coming your way.
And in fact, founder direct tactics are not shared just on The Startup Story. In fact, February of this year, we launched Grindology which is our tactical manual that is chock full of founder direct tactics. And since our launch, we've published an issue of Grindology every quarter, and today is the day that we revealed our Q3 cover on our Instagram, which you can find by searching @JoinGrindology. And of course, we'll include a link in the show notes. Our Q3 cover features Chris Ronzio, the founder of Trainual, and our Q3 theme is automation. And if you've never read an issue of Grindology , then you are truly missing out because there is not a single piece of journalistic content within the pages of Grindology. We're not looking to win a Pulitzer or Peabody Award, we're only focused on helping founders build businesses smarter and faster. That is why every single piece of content within Grindology is provided directly by a founder or senior level executive that is sharing a tactic that they've employed within their business that has been proven to be effective to grow, scale or improve their own startup. Like I said so many times before, as a founder Your time is so incredibly valuable, so do not waste it listening to a self proclaimed thought leader. Get direct guidance from real business builders to learn what has worked and what hasn't worked.
Within our Q3 issue, you will hear from a founder on how they drove 20% revenue growth by automating their email retargeting flows. You will hear how to leverage automation within your hiring process, so that you are not hindered during your season of exponential growth. And you will also receive the actual playbook on how Lyft built their marketing automation platform, provided directly by the senior engineering manager who built it. Past issues have provided proven tactics on how to leverage existing content that you've created to drive new business and deliver new revenue. We've even had a founder share an operational tactic that produced nearly 400% growth in one year, and he attributes that growth to the tactics he shared in our Q2 issue. And in our Q1 issue, we had a SAS founder lay out exactly how he obtained his first 1,000 customers and another founder talked about how he leveraged his video to increase sales and lead conversions. I'm telling you, founder direct tactics make all the difference in the world. And that's exactly what you will find in this issue and in every issue of Grindology. Like I said, real tactics from real business builders. I meant it when I said it. We don't mess around when it comes to aggregating best practices from proven business builders, not journalists and not thought leaders. Get your digital access to our issues today by visiting grindologymagazine.com. And of course, we'll include a link in our show notes. All right, let's jump into this week's episode.
My guest this week is Chris Ronzio, founder and CEO of Trainual. And if you're unfamiliar with Trainual, their product is the absolute easiest way to train and grow your team. In order to grow your business, you have to establish processes and those processes need to be documented. Well, that is if you want consistent results. Small and growing businesses across the world are using Trainual to build playbooks, train teams and scale their business. By using Trainual you can greatly accelerate your entire hiring, onboarding, and training process so that your new hires are up to speed in a full contributing fashion months ahead of schedule. That acceleration without a loss in efficacy is exactly how good businesses become great businesses. In fact, Chris is such an advocate for helping small businesses grow and scale that he and the Trainual will team host their playbook event series every year. So whether you need strategies to scale big, marketing ideas that really resonate, or hot tips on anything else small business related, their playbook event series has exactly what you need. In fact, registration is free. So visit playbook2021.com to secure your spot. Chris will be having Gary Vaynerchuk and Shaquille O'Neal join him for this event.
And if that wasn't everyone who registers will receive a copy of Chris's upcoming book titled Playbook. If you've been around The Startup Story and connected with me on LinkedIn, you know how much I love, and I'm an advocate for small businesses. And Chris Ronzio is the absolute same way. So make sure to visit playbook2021.com today to be part of this incredible event. Alright, enough of the hype machine, let's jump into the early days of Chris Ronzio's entrepreneurial journey to understand exactly how he got to where he is today.
Chris Ronzio: I had one uncle as a kid that had his own stained glass shop, and he still does today. So he's Manhattan Stained Glass. And so I saw owning your own business is really hard, like working long hours and just grinding, and I got to see what he was doing. But my earliest business story came from another uncle who asked me to wash his car, and he fished around in his pocket, and he came up with four $1 bills. And he said, "I'll give you $4, if you can go outside and wash my car." He was probably just trying to get me out of his hair. So I went outside, turn on the hose, got the dish soap from the sink, washed his car, and I knew $4 was exactly the right amount to buy a Ninja Turtle action figure. So for me, that was like, my currency as a kid. And so I washed his car. And that led to washing all my neighbor's cars, and you know, having all those little kid businesses. And so to me, making money or entrepreneurship as a kid was just like do work, get money, spend the money, and then be able to buy toys and things that I wanted. But that was the early days.
James McKinney: I love it. So being that the business owners in your circle where your uncle, you got to see, I'm assuming depending on the years, the decades, you got to see the good times and the bad times. Right. And so, you know, depending on what your experience was in that cycle, did you think you wanted to do this for a living? When it comes to the let's say, the end of high school years, did you want to pursue entrepreneurship? Or were you like, I saw what my uncle went through, I don't want it.
Chris Ronzio: Yeah, so I knew it was a tough thing to run your own business. And I never really thought that that's what I would do. I thought that I wanted to be in business. But I didn't really think about running my own business. So my dad was in business. But he was an executive. He was always traveling sales, marketing, he was always on the road. And so as a kid, I liked going to his office and seeing his briefcase, and seeing like, you know, this big corporate center with a waterfall. Like that to me was like business Disneyland. And so I thought that'd be cool, someday that's what I want. But then I didn't want the aspects of his career of him always being gone and missing my baseball and basketball games, and those sorts of things.
So when I was 14, I actually started a video production company. And again, it wasn't a business at first, it was just like I'm playing with cameras with friends and someone offers you know, if you film this thing on the weekend, we'll give you 100 bucks. And so that's kind of how it started. But from 14 to 15 to 16, I started to formalize this business, and where my friends were just starting to get their first jobs at grocery stores or gas stations. I was starting to film weddings and film sporting events. And instead of making hundreds of dollars turned into thousands of dollars. And instead of making minimum wage, it turned into like a real thing that I could do alongside school. So that's when it started to really crystallize that, wow, I can make a living, I can do something. But at the time, I was still a camera operator. So that was like my first business was being the editor, being the camera operator, wearing all those hats. And it wasn't until a few years later that I learned how to delegate and actually run a company.
James McKinney: And this was a few years later that puts us in your college years, I assume.
Chris Ronzio: Yeah, exactly. So my co founder of my video company was a few years older. He went to school for film production, he ended up working at NBC. He was the technician in the business. Whereas I started to shift towards the business side of the business, and I was starting to book our productions and find crews. And when I went to college myself, I had bought my partner out. And I said let me see if I can keep this thing going. So he wasn't in the picture anymore.
But I was in class and I had homework and I had to find other people that could do the work while I was doing my commitment to school. And so that's when I really started to refine who am I hiring, what is their role, what am I asking them to do, how much am I paying them, what's my contract with them? And college, the college years were just sort of my business beta tester kind of years of learning how to delegate. So it was in college that I opened my first office, started hiring other students, other interns, and then before I graduated, had my first full time employee, and that's when I knew Okay, I'm going to give this a shot. Let's try this full time.
James McKinney: So let's put some date stamps on this. When did you graduate high school?
Chris Ronzio: High School at in terms of the year?
James McKinney: Yeah.
Chris Ronzio: 2004.
James McKinney: So 2004 graduate high school, so we're talking, man, small number math, 16 years ago, I think, so 16 years ago. Is that right?
Chris Ronzio: Something like that.
James McKinney: Something like that, 16 or 17 years ago, right? So this was pre iPhone, right. And I don't know where we were at software wise, I don't know if we had iMovie yet, from an editing perspective, technology-
Chris Ronzio: It was close, it was close. When I started doing my video production, we were using those nonlinear editing systems like VCRs and dials, and through the next few years, then it was like we had one of the first those ugly Mac's that were like teal-
James McKinney: The egg shape?
Chris Ronzio: And Avid as an editing system. Yeah. But it was hard. It was not it's not consumer friendly.
James McKinney: And then from a marketing perspective, right, we didn't have Facebook, I don't know where we might have been. I mean, maybe SEO was probably a big focus early 2000. So when you think back to your early days trying to figure this out, right, your dad's an executive. Are you have the framework, where you trying to kind of isolate and figure out on your own? Or did you leverage experience from your dad and other resources around you to try and figure out how do I acquire customers? What does branding look like? Does even matter? What kind of processes Do I need to establish or again, back to the isolation and figuring it out? And therefore having a lot of lumps in the process?
Chris Ronzio: Yeah, so it was my dad. And it was some of my teachers in high school and professors in college. With my dad he taught me the basics of like cost of goods sold, and banking, and you know, get applying for a credit card, how to process credit cards. And then there was some of my professors in college that, you know, were teaching me the more specifics of marketing and creating a business plan. And I was getting exposed to all of this. And so having my company, it was like, I had this, you know, everyone else was making up businesses or projects for school, and I had this real world thing. So I used to keep my notebooks with two sides of the notebooks. One side would be for my notes in class. The other side was for action items, like what am I going to do in the business? It was the most practical application of college. I know a lot of people go to college don't know what they're going to do. I was just like refining my business. It was a four years of consulting.
James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love it. So let's just for, you know, a look back, how did you acquire customers back in the day?
Chris Ronzio: I mean, the beginning was referrals. So it started in just my hometown, and my high school. And we did like I mentioned, it started with weddings and bar mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs, anniversary parties. And then as we did that, the school said, "Well, can you film the talent show? And can you film, the soccer games and the football games?" And one weekend, they had the state administrators there for this big high school cheerleading championship? And we were talking to a few of the cheerleaders and they asked us, "Would you film this big event?? Now as like a 15 year old that is your dream job, is to film a cheerleading event. So of course we said yeah, perfect. And they said, "You know, if you can give us copies for archival for our records, then if you want to set up a table and sell VHS tapes for $10 apiece, feel free, no problem." And so that was really the first foray into events.
And once that worked, then we had kind of a niche. We said, alright, well, this championships and sporting events seem to work. So let's look at the baseball tournaments in town. Let's look at the regional championship that took place three weeks ago that we didn't even know about. And so little by little, it was like this spider web out of referral business where we would get exposed to something through someone buying a VHS tape or a DVD and saying, "Hey, were you at this event?" And I'd say "No, but we'll be there next year." You know, and I and so I was keeping this record of all the events. I'd reach out to the organizers of these events, I'd send them example copies. And I would say, you know, "Hey, here's, here's something we did that's just like yours. I got a copy of yours last year, I thought you might like to know how we do things a little bit differently." And so it was just that over and over until we booked, you know, hundreds of events around New England.
James McKinney: That's incredible. Now, where did you grow up mentioned New England? Where'd you grow up?
Chris Ronzio: Franklin, Massachusetts, so it's like a half hour outside of Boston.
James McKinney: Excellent. So, you know, a lot of what you've said, as far as consumer acquisition early days, so much different, so different than how we look at it now to some degree. I mean, most people think I'm just going to create a startup, I'm going to launch Facebook ads and that's how it grows. So we forget about the standard ways in which to grow a business, because we just get so landlocked on the digital side of things. But you were young. And so for my listeners, what I don't want them to think is like, oh, man, I mean, Chris was just destined for this. This was a wiring he had, this is he just thinks differently than the rest of humanity, which might be true. But at the same time, I love breaking down this idea that we operate in a vacuum. So these ideas, right, even in high school, these ideas that you came across that worked well. What were some of the influences in your early day life? Was it the books you were reading or was it truly the input of teachers and professors?
Chris Ronzio: It was both I mean, I wasn't reading books in the early years, because I didn't really realize what I was doing. It felt like a fun side project and a way to make a little bit of money so I could buy t shirts and CDs. And so at the beginning, I wasn't investing in this as a real business. It was initially just being opportunistic about, and being helpful. And so I would have neighbors that would say, I'd hear them talking, and they'd be talking about some event. And I'd say, "Oh, you know, I started recording the events at my school, like, if they need a camera operator, let me know." And, you know, it's just those sort of like, I guess it's sales, but it was just listening for those conversations, opportunities.
So we have like, one neighbor, who, he had a friend that worked for the Boston Duck Tours, and Boston Duck Tours needed an end of the year corporate video or something like that, and he said, "Oh, my neighbor's kid does this stuff, you should talk to them." And so I remember getting in this big meeting with the Duck Tours when I was 15. And they were like, "Yeah, why don't you come down and we'll talk about you producing our video. " So I had to get my mom to drive me to downtown Boston. She's waiting in the car, I go upstairs, and they're like, who is, what is this kid here for a meeting? But, you know, it was just being opportunistic, and kind of acknowledging like, yeah, I'm young, but I'm willing to help. If it fails, if it's not what you want, don't pay me, I only want to do a good job for you. And then success builds success. And so you, you do a good job for one person you get the next opportunity. And so it's just that over and over again.
James McKinney: I love, now as a young person, to your point, you walk into that conference room, I'm young, you're opportunistic, that from a corporate perspective, that youngness, that youthfulness can be seen as a weakness. So how did you, if you can reflect back, how did you overcome that perceived weakness in order to close a deal like that?
Chris Ronzio: It's you overcome perceptions with talent, I guess. If you can actually do the thing that you say you're going to do, then people take you seriously. Like another example this before we got into strictly events, I was toying around with some video equipment, I went down to my local car dealership. They were like 10 minutes from my house. And I asked them, "Is it okay if I just filmed some stuff in your lot? Because I think it'd be cool for my demo reel and trying to get customers." And they said, "Yeah, no problem." And so I filmed a bunch of stuff. And I went home, and I edited this little music video, and it was, you know, all these cool cars, so flashy. And I brought them the DVD. And I said, "You don't have to use this or anything. But thank you so much for letting me walk around here. And here's what I brought." So it just so happened, they had a meeting with their agency, and they popped it into the TV to watch it with their ad agency. And the ad agency said, "Who is this that's like coming in trying to steal our business?" And they were like, "No, it's this, like, 15 year old kid down the street." And so I get a call from the vice president of this ad agency, and he's like," Hey, you know, this stuff is really good. Rather than work against each other, why don't you work with us? And you know, we've got this other thing you can film." And so I think if you're if you've got the talent, and you can prove that you're good at something, then age is not a barrier.
James McKinney: Oh, I absolutely love it. Now, how many years did you work in that video space?
Chris Ronzio: Almost 13.
James McKinney: Thirteen years. So around 2015, again, small math is sometimes challenging for me. So around 2015 to 2016 that sound right?
Chris Ronzio: It was like 2014.
James McKinney: 2014. So what was the catalyst for dissolving that business into whatever the next step was?
Chris Ronzio: Yeah, so it was a couple things. The first was, you mentioned the iPhone a bit earlier. So in 2010, the iPhone 6 came out, and it was the first iPhone that shot HD video. And so people could now carry around these phones in their pocket. And they could go to their kids event and film a pretty good copy of whatever they were doing. Whereas before that, cameras were these over the shoulder behemoth kind of things, and you needed a real professional. So not to say that it was irrelevant, but it was a challenge. Providing that professional coverage was something that now is reserved for the biggest events and we lost a lot of revenue to these tiny small events. So that was one catalyst.
The next thing was in that space, in that event video space, you have a lot of these mom and pop kind of operators that work out of their house, have zero overhead, and all they're trying to do is sustain themselves with some sort of salary. And we had grown to a scale hundreds of camera operators where we're shipping gear and production kits across the country and had all the costs of the fuel, and the transportation, and salaries, and benefits. And our overhead just started to grow. And so it made it again so it was hard to compete in the local markets, we can only do the big national events. And so at that time, we had refined our processes so much to the extent that you really couldn't get another drop of profitability out of the orange when you squeezed it, and I was in these entrepreneurship groups and other business owners would have these challenges that I had been through in my company, because we were so efficient, so process oriented, I said, "I can help you with that. No problem." And so it was that over and over, where I saw there's, there's an opportunity to help a lot of other companies do what we've done with SOPs, and training, and onboarding, and systems and technology, and remote operations of your systems. And so it was all that kind of happening at once.
And so the first step was, I talked to my director of operations. He was interested in becoming the president of the company. And so I said, "Okay, let me get fully out of the day to day, I'll train you to be promoted into president. And I'll take a step back." So now I'm just the owner of the business. So it did that, took six months. And then after that, I took myself off payroll to be fair to the company, and I said, to make up my own salary, I have to do something. So I started consulting a little for other businesses. And it was this natural evolution where I got to see the business as an owner, figure out what the real assets of the company was. And at the same time, build my second company, my operations consulting firm. So I ended up selling the business in 2013. And it was kind of like an earn out. And by 2014, I was over and doing consulting full time.
James McKinney: Now, just out of curiosity, in the training of your director into president in that process is there a catalyst story, is there an origin story to Trainual on that? Or are we still a few years away before the seeds of Trainual begin?
Chris Ronzio: The seeds of Trainual began when I went to college and figured I need to train other people to do what I do. It was incepted, a long time ago. And the first transition out of my business, full time was a big milestone in this development process of Trainual. So it finally allowed me to go full cycle from having started a business, having delegated some early responsibilities, having built a team, having built multiple offices, having built the other executives, and then finally removing myself entirely. And so that process, it was a six month thing where I just had a heart to heart with our director of operations. And I said, you know, "I've been doing this now for 12 years. It's not my passion. I'm excited about some other things. Where are you at? Would you want to run this?" And he talked about it with his wife and said, "Yeah, that's something I'd really like to do." And so it was a good next step for him, it was a good next step for me. And so we worked on what are the last few things that we need to take off my plate, the legal, administrative, tax, things that that you might do as a president of a small company. And as he took each of those responsibilities over, yeah, that was kind of the precursor to me, figuring out here's how you do that. And, and it'd be cool to have a tool for that someday.
James McKinney: So I think we're on the doorsteps of the Trainual story, if you will, and we've walked along the path to get to the door. But for my listeners who may be hearing of Trainual for the first time, can you unpack exactly what Trainual is so there's a reference point as we continue on?
Chris Ronzio: Yeah, of course. So Trainual is just training and manual smushed together. It's a very simple brand I came up with because the domain was available, but it really is two halves of the coin. You know, it's manual, which is the writing down, the documenting of all of your policies, your processes, your procedures, what makes you unique as a business, getting it out of your head and into somewhere that other people can read and understand. And then there's the training piece, which is how do you assign that to people and hold them accountable for it, and make sure that they understand it. And so the idea for Trainual was just a way for companies to have this playbook to make their business more turnkey, to understand here's who we are, here's how we do what we do, so that someone else can take over those responsibilities, and it's not such a burden for you.
James McKinney: Now, for those who are hearing this for the first time, the first thought in their head might be well, wouldn't that just be a Google Docs library? And you laugh, because I know you've heard that question probably numerous times. So can you tee up very quickly, so we can just shatter that that idea right away why Trainual is such a far superior solution than just a collection of documents?
Chris Ronzio: Google Docs is a great place to start. It's where most people start in Google Docs, but it's a blank slate. An open document is a blank slate and it's a good place to start writing things down. But as you start to build a business that's beyond just you and a few people, you really need to have a set of instructions that are more role based, department based, team based, and maybe aren't just so maybe aren't just text, but also videos and slides and other types of interactive material. You might want to quiz people, make sure that they understand it, and Trainual provides the full structure and accountability so that you cannot just write down how your business works. But you can assign it to people, you can track that they've seen it, you can update them anytime things change.
James McKinney: Love it. Now that we've teed it up, we've framed exactly what Trainual is and why, just for those who might be thinking a Google Docs library is such a far superior solution. Let's talk about how you got to this technical startup. And we haven't heard anything about a technical background for you. So you've left the video company, you're doing consultant work. And if I understood correctly, you the consultant work is in helping people set up processes, and streamlining some efficiencies there. How do you get from your consulting business to a SAS business?
Chris Ronzio: Alright, so pretty interesting bridge here that I don't talk about hardly at all. But when I was running my video business, we started to dabble with software . The first thing that we did was we hired a developer to create some custom script that every half hour would batch out the orders we got through our ecommerce site for people's videos of archived events, and connected it through our local area network to this DVD robot that would print DVDs from image files. And so if you can imagine customers would place orders every day of the week, all day. And at 4 pm every day, we would send this script that would push all of those orders to the DVD robot, and it would print out here's what goes on the DVD, here's the cover, so that an intern could come in at the end of the day, package that up, slap the mailing label on it, and ship it down to the post office. So that was the first thing and that really opened my eyes to Wow, you can kind of invent a process and build your own technology from it. I didn't know that was possible before.
So after we did that, the next step in the video company was why don't we create a portal where we can upload all of our videos to, and it will process those videos, it'll pull out a 30 second preview kind of like iTunes did at the time. And it'll show it to prospective buyers so they can preview the video, decide to buy it, put in their credit card, and it'll email them the full file. So that was the next thing that we did. And so I was kind of learning as I went here, you know, hiring contract developers, but saying, here's the process, here's what I want to work, let's make it happen. And so that was that was the very, very start.
So now as I transitioned out of my video company and started consulting, one of my first clients was an Arabian horse farm, which sounds strange. But they were trying to get all their processes in order. And they got referred to me because they live streamed a lot of the video coverage of these Arabian horse farms. So there was that that event slash business connection. And when I went in, I saw they were developing custom software and they said, "This whole project is a mess. We don't know how we're going to get this to the finish line. Can you oversee this?" And so I thought, Okay, this is interesting, I'll take a stab at this. I ended up working for a year with their contract developers. And so as I'm phasing out of my video company, which had done a little software, and I'm phasing into this consulting world, and managing a software project, I thought, wow, this is a new tool set that I could use for infinite things. And it was pretty cool to get that exposure.
James McKinney: That's incredible. And I being, again, you have learned technical skills, you've learned project management on the technical side of things. But not obviously, from a developer perspective, you're not a developer. So launching a SAS solution when you're not the developer, how challenging was that for you? And then how did you do it in such a way that you didn't just blow tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on code that was not extendable? Because that's where a lot of SAS founders are, who aren't technically inclined.
James McKinney: All right. Well, there's still a couple of steps here. And so the first is, you know, I was doing these technical projects, first for the Arabian horse farm, and then for a couple other clients that I had. Once I opened up that new skill set, as again opportunistically I thought this is something I can sell. It started to become a regular part of my consulting work. And so as I built the consulting company, ended up hiring a full time developer, and we were building these little scripts and these little Ruby on Rails apps. None of them were SAS applications, but we were building and making things happen. So I would product manage, I was doing mock ups and designs myself just based on theme kits from what I found online, bootstrap kind of themes, and then the developer would turn them into reality. And so I did that a few times.
And around this time, late 2014, I was mentoring at ASU here in Arizona for the student entrepreneur program, which is close to my heart as a student entrepreneur. I met a couple kids that had put together this HR kind of tool for big enterprise companies. And to me, it felt inapplicable to anything I was working on at the time. But after a few months, I was with a client that had a big turnover issue. And I made the connection between getting people up to speed in your business, and turnover and processes, what I had documented in the past. And I had this idea and I thought, what if there was a small business tool where you could introduce people to your company and store all your SOPs? What if that exists?
So I reached out to these, these students. They had graduated from school at the time, they had moved to San Francisco, gotten other jobs, and they said, "Well, we that was just a student project. If you want to buy the code from us, you can." So I bought the initial source code for this project and it had holes in it and whatever. But then my developers went to work. And we just re envision what could this be for small businesses. And so Trainual as a product launched in 2015, as something… a prototype for my consulting clients. And that's all it was ever intended to be. I spent like $8,000 total on it. And it was just like paying freelance developers hourly to build this first iteration of what would become Trainual.
James McKinney: So as you built your consulting business, and again, you built it to service your consulting clients. Was each instance, were you working off of a central instance? Or did you replicate it and reinstall it for each of your clients?
Chris Ronzio: Now it was, we built it as a SAS kind of tool where we could set up multiple accounts and bill them through Stripe. And so that foundation was there at the beginning, because my idea was people will pay thousands of dollars for the consulting work, but then I have no residual income. And so what if, as part of the consulting, I introduce this tool, and then once the consulting work is done, they pay $49 or $99 a month indefinitely? So to me, it was the way to create some residual income. And so that's what I started doing. We would do these onetime projects, then we put them on Trainual, and then they would subscribe to it and keep paying. And so little by little, it went from you know, in 2015, to 2016, to 2017, where initially it's a few hundred dollars a month, and then is $1,000 a month, that's a few thousand a month, and all of a sudden, it's turning into something real. And my wife keeps saying, "You know, you should put some attention to that. The thing is paying the mortgage. Why don't you just work on that?"
James McKinney: So when did you have your first non consulting client on the platform?
Chris Ronzio: The first non consulting client would have been 2016, a year after it launched, because I started writing blog posts for a couple other tech companies, and mentioning the platform as just one of the examples or recommendations. And so we got like some minuscule, but still existent traffic through some of those back links. And it would result in one sign up every couple months. And they were strangers, though, which is a huge win that strangers would sign up and use this thing.
James McKinney: Now, as you're building this business, what were some of the first priorities for you? Was it customer service? Was it technical strength in your hires? Was it the marketing and customer acquisition? Because it sounds like you were focusing fully on your consulting business and this was an added perk to it. As again, as you were building a framework around this, where were your priorities in hiring?
Chris Ronzio: So once Trainual existed as this prototype, we didn't put any effort, money development resources, anything into it for almost three years. It just kind of sat there. And so the focus was definitely not technical. It was definitely not product, the product was good enough, it did what it was supposed to do, and it wasn't broken. And that was good enough. And so the focus for me was really hiring people. And so again, it was consulting. But that's when we hired instead of contract developers, a full time developer, an administrative assistant that ended up being like a office manager and she also took on customer service. And then we brought on my brother actually joined to start doing some marketing once we had the sense that Trainual could be something big. I hired a UX UI consultant that was sort of a hybrid Product Manager, designer, could kind of bring with me on any client project. And so building that initial team was the focus. And then fast forward, we decided to make Trainual the business and then of course, it was entirely different.
James McKinney: Yeah. So what was the switch for you? What was the moment? You mentioned, your wife had said, you know, you need to start looking at this Trainual, it's paying the mortgage. Was that the moment you actually put some eyes in on this and thought maybe this is the core business not the consultancy, or was there another moment?
Chris Ronzio: So there were a few moments, this was 2017. A couple of things happen. So first, in spring 2017, consulting was going so well, had become a multimillion dollar kind of consulting business. And I thought, I'm just going to build a huge consulting business, I'll hire consultants around the country, just like I did with camera operators. I've got this model of how we work with clients, I've got this residual with Trainual, that'll be the way we grow this. But I didn't want to run the product anymore. I was kind of getting out of the technical bug. And so I actually pitched a friend of mine, to just sell them Trainual entirely for $40,000. Fortunately, he said no, so fortunately I didn't sell the whole thing, but I pitched him on it. So he said no, he challenged me and said, "Do you want to be a consultant forever or do you want to be a CEO someday?" And it was kind of a little dig. And, and it just got me thinking.
So the next thing was, I had read Good to Great years before that. And I was reading through it again, thinking, What's my B hag, you know, what is the big goal I've got in front of me. And so I had written down that I wanted the consulting company to work with 25,000 small businesses. And my path to doing that was going to be through hiring these dozens of consultants around the country, having different markets. And I realized we could get to 25,000 a lot faster if we're selling the software. So that was kind of another thing. And then I had a couple consulting engagements that were just really challenging, really burdensome, where their businesses were broken to begin with. And as I was working on their businesses, I thought, why am I not just working on mine? And if I could, instead, give away all my business building expertise, instead of charging for consulting, I can monetize everything through Trainual the product.
And so it was like, all these little things were starting to happen that year in 2017. And so I got the team together. There were five of us. And we sat around the conference table. And I said, I want to go all in on Trainual. And I want to hear you out if anybody has a problem with this. But worst case scenario, we go back to consulting in six months . We're not raising any funding, I'm going to self fund it. But let's just give this thing a shot. And the team was all in.
James McKinney: That's awesome. And you answered my next question was about the funding, being bootstrapped. And have you remained a bootstrapped?
Chris Ronzio: No, we haven't. But we... So we did it pretty strategically. So we bootstrap the entire first year. We got to where we had about 1,000 customers, 1,000 companies on Trainual, over a million ARR. So we built that business bootstrapped. But we also use a ton of debt. Like I tapped, I use all the cash in the bank account that I had, everything I could do personally. And I was signing up for credit cards left and right, maxing them all out. I went $300,000 in credit card debt, which I don't necessarily recommend, but it was very strategic. I could dive into that if you want. So built the business to this point where it was big enough that our MRR was greater than our monthly overhead. So at any time, we could stop the ads from running and be profitable. And that was a really important milestone to get to because it gave us the optionality of how we want to build the business going forward. And so I thought, do I want to grow more organically? Or do we want to find a partner, a strategic partner, an investment partner? And we decided to raise a series a funding in 2019, because we thought that it was going to be fuel to reach more businesses to get closer to that goal that we had set out. And so that's what we did. And we actually just closed a Series B, in the last month, too.
James McKinney: You've gone through series A, you've gone through Series B, each one strategically. Again, you're very intentional about everything. You talk about the leveraging of debt, which of course is you know, part of many entrepreneur stories and some handle it well, some don't. It's never, I don't know if it's ever a tactic that we put out there and say you have to do this, but for some it works out. And so when it comes to each of those series, though, part of what makes the fundraising and the venture capital a great option is not just the money, but it's the partnerships and it's the access to advisors. And so when you looked at your series A and series B, what were each of the key points as to why you went with the partners you did?
Chris Ronzio: Well, the first part is I was learning so much from them, as they were quizzing me about my business. It opened my eyes to all the things I didn't know. I was resistant to talking to investors for our whole first year, because I had never taken any money. I was against the idea of raising money when I still had available balances on my credit card. I thought who's going to put money in if I haven't exhausted all of my options? So I was pretty, pretty fixed on that. But when I started being open to it, I was just having these introductory meetings and they started asking me things about our funnel and our cost of goods sold our margins, our payback periods, our team, my hiring plans, and I realized that that's the type of guidance that I need, not just on a rare phone call, but across the board always.
And so as they told me stories about the companies they had built, and the companies in their portfolio, I thought, well, they have the playbook, you know, that's what I'm all about is helping businesses create playbooks, and these people have the playbooks for how to build bigger companies. Why would I try to figure it out on my own? And so it just became about finding the right people that had relevant experience, that could see the patterns in what we were doing, could connect us to the right advisors and portfolio companies. And I found that with our first two investors.
James McKinney: Awesome, love that. So let's talk about the customer acquisition side of it. Because everybody, you know, whenever it comes to these episodes, they want to hear, you know, how they got the first thousand if it's a SAS solution, or if they were a physical product, how do they get into their first retail store? Like it's always about that first jump, that kind of elevates the business in a significant way. And you talked a little bit about the blogging you did that they drove some customer acquisition. But let's talk about the switch in which things went to scale, where maybe, and I don't know if these numbers are accurate for your business, but maybe when you started seeing, oh, wait, now we're seeing a hundred or so signups each month? What was the tactic that you put in place? And when did you know that was the time to start flipping the switch on the increase of deal flow?
Chris Ronzio: Yeah. So the beginning of the story, like I said, was a Trojan horse of services to sign people up for the product, you know, and that's an avenue I really do recommend, because you're getting money, people are paying you for you to create the better product. And so I always advocate get as close to your customers as you can, build the product, collect their feedback, get paid some other way. Because if I was looking at Trainual sales in the early days, and basing our success on our monthly recurring revenue, I would have abandoned it so quickly. And in fact, I did. That's why I wasn't trying to grow it as a product for those few years.
James McKinney: And you offered to sell it for $40,000, right?
Chris Ronzio: Exactly. That's clearly how much… and that was some multiple of our ARR. It's like how much I valued it at the time. And so then, when we started the business, the first few months were kind of grass roots, do anything to get it out there. I spammed like my 3,000 LinkedIn connections. I don't even know if you can download your list on LinkedIn anymore.
James McKinney: Unfortunately, you can't.
Chris Ronzio: Yeah, so that was a strategy at the time, I guess, not only my strategy. But yeah I was sending emails to everybody. And I would position it as can you get on the phone with me to give me some feedback. So it wasn't a solicitation, it was here's something I'm launching, I'd love to just talk to you about it. And that would result in some sales. Our second monthly long launched on Product Hunt. So a website for apps to launch, which got us some good exposure, but mostly feedback on why we were not so good. And then we had a launch party, where as a live event that I invited about 100 people to. I had a local reporter, a photographer, I was trying to create some fanfare, and some assets, some media assets that we could use for advertising.
So the big pivot you asked about was when we figured out how to do digitally what I was doing relationship wise, locally. And so the relationships I had locally, my authority as a consultant was built on the success of my business, my comprehension of all the other business books that were out there. The validation of some of my early consulting clients, and so we packaged up testimonials, my story, my recommendations of business books, things like that, to try to appeal to entrepreneurs all over. And we said that In a couple of Facebook ads, "If you've read the E Myth, if you've read Scaling Up, if you've read Traction, you know this is the next step in your business. When I was building my business, here's all the stuff that I had to deal with. And it wasn't until I created this playbook that we figured it out. If you want to create a playbook for your business, click here, check out the free trial." You know, it was some version of that. And it was just very organic, like iPhone videos walking down the street that we started running as Facebook and Instagram ads. And so it was when those ads started signing up customers at like, a one month payback period, two month payback period. It's like, let's go, let's spend all the money that we could possibly find to show this ad to a million people. And that's what we did.
James McKinney: I love that absolutely love. You know, one of the things that I'm excited about having your episode released is that you're going to be the cover of our Q3 Grindology issue with the theme being automation. As soon as I knew what the theme of our Q3 issue was going to be. I immediately knew Trainual was the solution. I'll tell you why I knew this: because of your ads. Because of your ads, and to be honest, the one particular ad is the ad that features Gary V, and it talks about you need to make this an ROI conversation. And that ad shows up in my feed still to this day. I love the ad, maybe because I keep clicking on it. I'm apologize. If I've cost you that much money, you know, that ad-
Chris Ronzio: It's worth it.
James McKinney: … the ad is so good. And so when we knew that Q3 issues automation, I knew Trainual and I knew you I had to have on the cover for it. And so under the discussion of automation, you know, there's almost a requirement of automation, if anyone is ever to experience exponential growth in their business. And so what I want to ask of you for our listening audience, and again, for those that want to hear more about this, make sure you grab the Q3 issue because we actually have a content piece from Chris that talks about the idea of exponential growth inside of requiring automation. But for you and your story with Trainual, what were the things that you had to acknowledge and release for yourself as a relational person, we have to automate some of these processes, and therefore we have to balance relationship and automation in order to accelerate and grow the business.
Chris Ronzio: Automation is a buzzword in business. Everybody wants to automate their business. I think it started with the four hour workweek craze with Tim Ferriss talking about how he automated his business, which was a pharmaceuticals kind of company, supplements. And he automated this process of setting up an e commerce store, setting up dropship fulfillment, setting up customer service, so that he could salsa dance in South America, or whatever it is that he does. And so everyone has this idea, this romanticized idea that automating your business means plugging together a couple tools and some virtual assistants and checking out, and you're not there anymore. And so what I would say is that automation has multiple levels to it. You can automate processes through tools like Zapier, and things like that, and connect technologies, and you can automate some things with technology. But for everything that you can't automate with technology, you're automating it through your people. It means you don't have to do it, and whether a computer is doing it, or your people are doing it, it really doesn't matter to you, because automation is about finding leverage in the business.
So when I was growing Trainual, of course, in the early days, a lot of the responsibilities were on my shoulders. Before we really built the consulting company, and I was a team of 100% of things were on my shoulders. But as the business grew, you have to look for things that you can take off your shoulders and hats you can remove and hand to other people, so that you can free up time for yourself for your own role in the business to get a bit more narrow. And so automation is not about having 1,000 things happen at once that your business is some big machine, but it's about slowly applying little bits of automation. You know, how do you take the sales demos that you're doing 30 times a week, and automate that by training someone else to do those for you? Or automate that by setting up an evergreen webinar? This both ways are ways to automate. But little by little, you're checking these things off in your business that take up time, and you're building leverage for yourself so that you can focus more on the higher value activities.
And so for me in the early days, automation first was how do I automate our product management so that I don't have to do it. How do I make that cycle of idea, to design, to development, to testing, to production, feel automated, as if it's happening in the background by some machine because I'm not overseeing it, I'm not involved in it. So we checked that off. And then it was how do we automate customer success and customer service. And it was, well, let's create some drip sequences of campaigns, let's train someone to answer support tickets, let's write document FAQs so that those problems just get solved in the business. And I didn't have to solve them. And then I mentioned the sales, I mentioned, the marketing, our ads automated our way of sharing the story in a way that millions of people can see them without me being on the phone with millions of people. And so little by little, you're looking for these opportunities to replicate to duplicate the clone to automate yourself in whatever task or project or role it is that you're focused on.
James McKinney: I love that, absolutely love that. So when you think to your own personal journey with Trainual, again, as a founder, there's so much ownership and love that we have for our startup. Of all the things that you had to let go of and distribute, and now as Trainual has continued to grow, you're probably letting go of more and more things you become hyper focused on what for looking strategy is. What have been some of the challenging things for you to release as a leader?
Chris Ronzio: The challenging things would probably be the things I like doing. So, you know, as a growing leader, it's easy to delegate the stuff you hate. Like getting rid of accounting for me was no problem whatsoever. Getting rid of maybe even like performance reviews and salary negotiations, those things, like no problem, happy to hand that off. You know, it's the things like the culture kind of things like, you know, planning of the office party that I just desperately want to be involved with, because I think it's fun and I would like to do that. But I know that it's not the best use of my time. And so I think that's the struggle for most people is that there are things that you just love to do, and you want to get your hands in it. But you're getting in the way of other people doing their job. And then if you cross that line, they think, Okay, well, Chris is going to do that next time, I guess that's not my role. And then when you're not available, things slip through the cracks. So you've got to be really careful about what is your role, what is your set of responsibilities.
James McKinney: You know, when you think of the idea of success, and this question is rooted in a post I saw recently from a Trainual employee acknowledging, another Best Place to Work award that Trainual got, which again, it's not the first and as Trainual continues to grow more and more accolades are going to come your way. But I know again, as a smaller business than Trainual, we get really get hung up on those awards, like as if we've reached something that is truly significant. But the reality is, there is some vanity to it. But when you think of your success, and the various accolades that Trainual has attained, what does success look like to you?
Chris Ronzio: To me, success is empowering millions of other businesses to have a bit of an easier time. You know, small business is hard. Like we talked about at the very beginning with my uncle and his stained glass shop, business is hard, especially when you're running it yourself, and you're wearing all the hats. And so with Trainual, I think what's so cool is we're building this new product and category that kind of lets you zoom out on your own business and say, Wow, there it is, I can actually look at it and see it, and see how everything works, and who does what. And I think that's an empowering thing for entrepreneurs, because it creates some distance between you and the business. And so what we're trying to do is make businesses feel more tangible, more interchangeable like you could hand it off to someone else and not be so worried to take a vacation. That's what keeps me going is not the award that we win for this quarter or this year or something like that. It's are we getting closer to this place where every small business has a playbook?
James McKinney: Yeah. And I love that and I know you have an event coming up in September of this year and so I want to talk about that. But before we jump to that, I want to talk about this small business persona that you picture. When you think of the Trainual user and of course the Trainual ads you know you're creating these things for this persona, but when you think of the Trainual user, what does that customer persona look like to you? Where are they located? What size are they? What industry are they in? What does the Trainual customer look like to you?
Chris Ronzio: So it's funny we have a few made up personas that we use -
James McKinney: Oh, if you have names I love when they're named.
Chris Ronzio: Yeah, so we have a few made up ones and then we've got a real one which is actually a friend of mine. Her name is Veronique. She runs a marketing firm and she has 30 employees or something like that and she cares about her culture, she invests in her people, she has a family, married, young kids wants to be a great home life balance, be there for the family, but also kick butt at work. Cares about making the business better year over year, is goal oriented. That's the type of person that we're building this for. It's somebody that's not stagnant. Somebody that loves what they're doing, that knows they're creating some kind of legacy, that wants to build a people powered business, where they're having this community of other families and other career growth. And we're just facilitating that. So that's the persona we think about.
James McKinney: I love it. And one of the things that I also love about Trainual and you've said it so many times in this episode, I hope my listeners have picked up on this, is that you truly do love supporting small businesses. That is who you built this for, that is who you seek to serve. And I too, love everything about small business and small businesses, and the people that run them. And so when you think of this event that's coming up, right, what was the catalyst for one, what is this event? Tell my listeners the name of this event. I'll let you disclose this, but also two what was the catalyst for wanting to have this live event? Because again, you're a SAS solution.
Chris Ronzio: Yeah, yeah. So it was inspired originally by one of our board members, who is an advisor of mine Clate Mask, who's the CEO of Keep, formerly Infusionsoft. And they had this event Icon that they did for years and still do. And it was the biggest thing in tech in Arizona, where I am. And so going to that event, year over year, I always aspired to do something like that. And so Clate was influential in a way. We were at this other event with Gainsight and their team, and they had created this category at Gainsight, around customer success. And one of the ways they did it was through a big industry event that wasn't a Gainsight user conference, but it was an event that was promoting what is customer success.
And so we thought, well, there's the playbook. Let's do that. Let's have the event for small business systems, processes, operations, getting out of that day to day. And you know, there's a lot of these general events that are for entrepreneurs and startups. But our point with this event is the actual tactical way to document your business and to handoff responsibilities and delegate and clarify roles and responsibilities. And so we created this event back in 2019. And it's called Playbook very simply. And so Playbook 2020, Playbook 2021, we've got all the domains out into the decades in the future. And so we'd love to have everybody attend if this in any way relates to what you're thinking about.
James McKinney: I love it. Now, is this, let me get this as a clarifying question, is this a live event? Or is this virtual only?
Chris Ronzio: It will be predominantly virtual again this year. It was virtual last year and live in 2022. So there is an in person component for some members of our community. More to come on that for this year, but we'll be in person for 2022. And it'll be a big event, over 5,000 attendees and some great speakers. And so we're really excited.
James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love it. Now, when you think of this event, what does a great outcome look like to you?
Chris Ronzio: Great outcome is people get value, tell their friends, and we double the attendance next year. This to us, yes, it's for exposure for the company. But it's really again, just to be helpful, to provide value. And if we can be the brand that is championing this effort in your business, that is the win for us. And so that's really what it is, a positioning thing.
James McKinney: Awesome. I want to honor your time, because you've been so gracious in giving us this time to record your episode, but the same time my founders love my final three questions. I don't want to neglect those. And that first one is just this idea of entrepreneurship. I think the media has done a great job painting a very specific type of entrepreneur and a lot of times that entrepreneur is sleeping on their buddy's couch pounding away at code, launching something, raising $100 million, and having some massive success that comes from it. And it all seems like it's overnight regardless of the seven, eight years beforehand. And so people have this idea that entrepreneurship is something so simple. It's something so fast. It's something so quick and easy. So for you do you think anybody can be an entrepreneur or is there some type of makeup that it takes in order to be an entrepreneur?
Chris Ronzio: No, I don't think anybody can be an entrepreneur. I think it is something that you can cultivate. It's something that you can pull out of a lot of people, but I think you have to innately have the drive and the desire to do this because it's not for everyone. There are a lot of times that require you to have the resilience and the passion to just keep doing things when it doesn't feel like it's working right. And there are a lot of people that would rather just have full time jobs and have a consistent salary, and that's better for them in their life. And so I don't think entrepreneurship is this challenge that only some people are up for but everyone could do, I do think it's something that you have to be cut from a certain cloth at least to grow a business to a certain extent. And so you could definitely start a company and support yourself, and be self employed, and have an incredible lifestyle. Or maybe you're the type of person that could grow to, you know, a 10 person company, and that's the right size for you. Not everyone's going to build a billion dollar conglomerate. Actually, Gino Wickman, has a great follow up book called Entrepreneurial Leap. And so we've been sharing that book out, I think it's a great book, if someone's considering that.
James McKinney: Love that. You know, for you and your journey. One question I didn't ask is, was there ever a moment when you thought, I'm just going to hang my hat up, I can't keep going through these cycles.
Chris Ronzio: You know, probably the closest I came was when I was consulting, and my consulting business was just starting, and I had gotten through the video company. And I had a couple of really great consulting clients that were offering me full time gigs for like twice as much money as I had ever made before. And that was tempting. My wife was pregnant, and I had to really think about it. And so it wasn't that I was going to hang up my hat long term, but there are those temptations. And obviously, I'm glad I said no, and stayed on the path, but they were there.
James McKinney: Love it. You know, the other that we like to break down that I think, probably has been created because of the headlines of massively successful startups is that it is an isolated journey, that it's done in this Lone Ranger status. And I want to acknowledge that it can be isolating, but it doesn't have to be. And so for you, when you think of your journey, your personal entrepreneurial journey, who are all the people that you look to with such immense gratitude for their contribution to where you are today?
Chris Ronzio: Wow, you would have had to ask me at the beginning of the show to fit them all in. I mean, I mentioned I mentioned my parents, I mentioned extended family I mentioned my co founder, my initial employees that let me kind of be the that were the guinea pigs for my horrible management skills in high school. Friends of mine that would that would volunteer to work for me at events, the professors that were first just like my English teacher who let me film her wedding and chanced that with a 14 year old. My professors in college that were entrepreneurship oriented or had run businesses in the past. Mentors that I've had, I've been in EVERYONE, Entrepreneurs Organization, for about 12 years, just got into YPO. I've been in this Startup Arizona community for the last four years. So all of these groups and masterminds and advisors and mentors and coaches and friends, I have never felt isolated fortunately. I've felt like I'm so grateful to be in a community where people want to be supportive, and I've tried to provide the same level of support. So if anyone's listening has a question, I'm always walking around responding to people, voice texts on Instagram, text line and LinkedIn, just send me a message, I'd love to help you.
James McKinney: I absolutely love that. I appreciate you wanting to do that for all the listeners. The last question for our time together, you know, as much as I would love to provide these coffee chats with every single one of my listener. But to scale, it'd be a bit unreasonable. So I want to kind of reverse engineer this and have a virtual coffee chat. So if you were sitting with one of my founders, who is constantly hitting these obstacles to figure out when is the lever to scale, when is the time to go heavier in on whether it be process automation, or whether it be to simply just scale marketing, or whatever the case may be in order to take their business to the next level. But they're constantly just frustrated because of their lack of results. What would you say to that person, if you had that coffee chat?
Chris Ronzio: I would say that scaling a business in a big way is marketing something that works and delivers a consistent result. And if in your business, you're not getting consistent results, or you don't 100% believe in the product or the service, then it's hard to scale. It's hard to market it. But if you feel so passionately that this thing in your business works, it delivers incredible results, it helps everyone that buys it, then it's almost like a responsibility to tell and you want to tell everybody about it. And so then at that point, you're just figuring out how to get the word out. So scaling the business, first you're focused on how do I get customers? How do I get a product that works? And then you're focused on how do I get more customers that use that product.
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