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What has Silicon Valley to do with Capitalism?

October 28th, 2014 3 Comments »

(this is a quick and dirty translation of a French post as it is linked to a French radio broadcast – sorry for the bad english if any)

I was a guest yesterday of French radio Culturesmonde France Culture in a series about capitalsim entitled Des capitalismes (1/4) – Silicon valley: l’émancipation par l’argent. I had to give my views abotu SV and capitalism. Is it unique or extreme? Does the area care, does it have an ideology or is it indifferent to capitalism?


The topic is rich and complex because with 7 million people, opinions in SV are also diverse and were built over 50 years. Each decade brough a new generation of entrepreneurs and investors. You can listen to the broadcast (in French) who also involved Yann Moulier-Boutang, who talked about « cognitive capitalism » and Sébastien Caré, a spécialist of libertarian thinking.

A big thank you to Clémence Allezard who prepared the series, pushing me to think about the region in a manner I was not used to. :-) So I thought about it as follows. Is SV an extreme form or a unique form of capitalism? or as I have a tendency to think a region quite indifferent to capitalism? On the one hand you have large powerful firms who do not really pay taxes, you have a fast Schumpterian creative destruction, the government is not active as it is in Europe (health, schools, transportation) so that firms (at the anecdote level or not?) do the work (Google buses, Apple And FB recent initiative about freezing women eggs, Peter Thile encouraging school dropouts) and even induce the SF authorities in changing housing laws. One the other hand, it is not just extreme, it is unique, SV created venture capital, systematized stock options, and has active co-opetition. Richard Newton was saying SV is the firm and all the companies are its divisions. People move from one to the other easily with market dynamics.

Finally, it is the “revenge of the nerds”. They are problem solvers, and do not care about society (hence the libertarians) and even about capitalism (making money is a by-product and if an objective, far from being the only one). I read a great New Yorker article where George Packer explains that these nerds hate the friction created by negotiation and compromises politics and society necessarily induce. So they avoid it as long as they can. And do more when they feel limited by the government but are quite neutral about it. They are selfish. But i doubt “changing the world to make it a better place” is totally convincing at the same time. It is more selfish than generous. These people are mild versions of Asperger and are obsessed by solving their problems. If it solves others’, good, not critical. (Of course SV is 7 million people and is a diverse region, I am focusing on what is visible). I was saying to the journalist when we prepared the talk, that I see more indifference than real strategy, I see some lobbying in SF or Washington, but rather limited compared to general lobbying in the USA.

Another way to summarize is: is there a particular ideology of capitalism in Silicon Valley? I would say that rather than a strategy, there has been a practice that was put in place over decades, by iteration, by trial and error. Ultimately, Silicon Valley is the meeting of ideas (entrepreneurs, and academics sometimes) and money (investors). But unlike the rest of the world where investors are bankers who lend money, in SV they are often former entrepreneurs who “give” money (in the sense that they take the risk of not finding it back), in fact they take shares in the company (often around 50%). They literally invented venture capital, which has found its final form in the 80’s. In addition, the “stock options” decried in Europe are recognized in the SV as a motivation. Secretaries at Apple or Microsoft did sometimes become millionaires, something unthinkable at home in Europe. I have also said, there is an optimism that encourages risk-taking. Moreover, there is no real risk because the skill allows you to find a new job quickly. The risk lies in the possible error in the choice of the project and nobody is ever ruined normally, except one’s health. And as the model works, it is enriched in new areas beyond which the electronics is the root, through the electric car (Tesla Motors), aeronautics (SpaceX) and even the food 2.0 movement (for synthetic food). And the last frontier, aging, death, trans-humanism … which seems to me personally crazy, but …

As a post-scriptum, some comments I got… very interesting! i think SV is more diverse these days. there are the really old school types, like intel, cisco, even apple. then there are places like google and Facebook, that actually do something valuable. and then there are the startups with a hand full of 20 year olds that do not much, but have valuations measured in billions. i think the question should be answered differently for the different groups. and it’s important to not lump cisco in with, say, whatsapp or snapchat.

i’d say for many of them, it’s indifferent to mildly positive feeling abotu politics, as you say. for some (many of the VCs) it’s definitely capitalism on steroids. (or at least, they like to think of themselves that way; they blabber all the time about “wealth creation”, making sure that much of that new wealth goes to them.) more than capitalism, i think what’s concentrated in SV is talent, especially, technical talent. creative destruction resonates *very strongly* with people here; the whole idea of SV is that a handful of kids can change an entire industry, or even create a new one. they usually fail, and sometimes they succeed. imagine how steve jobs or the google guys would have done in europe. the google guys would have gone to the librarians and asked, how can we help you find information? steve jobs would have run long, extensive marketing tests to determine what people want. or maybe he’d go to siemens to try to convince some high level manager that a smart phone was a good idea. of course what happened is way cooler. steve jobs had better taste than everyone else, so he made stuff he liked, period. and the google guys just forged a new path, without seeking the endorsement or buy in of the librarians. in europe, a startup would try to get some giant company to use their product/technology, a long, boring, and tedious process.

typically, a handful of EPFL students would not imagine/believe that they can change the world. stanford students (who are not more talented) do. so, i think it’s mostly a cultural difference, and not something that has to do with capitalism.

Should entrepreneurs have start-up skills? Two counterintuitive answers

October 23rd, 2014 Comment »

I teach entrepreneurship and I often wonder. What should be taught? I am not sure. In the class How to Start a Startup, both Paul Graham and Peter Thiel did provide feedback on some examples. First Paul Graham. Just click here or go to time 5:26 below or read after the video frame.

“The second counterintuitive point, this might come as a little bit of a disappointment, but what you need to succeed in a startup is not expertise in startups. That makes this class different from most other classes you take. You take a French class, at the end of it you’ve learned how to speech French. You do the work, you may not sound exactly like a French person, but pretty close, right? This class can teach you about startups, but that is not what you need to know. What you need to know to succeed in a startup is not expertise in startups, what you need is expertise in your own users.

Mark Zuckerberg did not succeed at Facebook because he was an expert in startups, he succeeded despite being a complete noob at startups; I mean Facebook was first incorporated as a Florida LLC. Even you guys know better than that. He succeeded despite being a complete noob at startups because he understood his users very well. Most of you don’t know the mechanics of raising an angel round, right? If you feel bad about that, don’t, because I can tell you Mark Zuckerberg probably doesn’t know the mechanics of raising an angel round either; if he was even paying attention when Ron Conway wrote him the big check, he probably has forgotten about it by now.

In fact, I worry it’s not merely unnecessary for people to learn in detail about the mechanics of starting a startup, but possibly somewhat dangerous because another characteristic mistake of young founders starting startups is to go through the motions of starting a startup. They come up with some plausible sounding idea, they raise funding to get a nice valuation, then the next step is they rent a nice office in SoMa and hire a bunch of their friends, until they gradually realize how completely fucked they are because while imitating all the outward forms of starting a startup, they have neglected the one thing that is actually essential, which is to make something people want.”

Second Peter Thiel about the Lean Startup movement. Again just click here or go to time 44:55 below or read after it.

“What do I think about lean startups and iterative thinking where you get feedback from people versus complexity that may not work. I’m personally quite skeptical of all the lean startup methodology. I think the really great companies did something that was somewhat more of a quantum improvement that really differentiated them from everybody else. They typically did not do massive customer surveys, the people who ran these companies sometimes, not always, suffered from mild forms of Aspergers, so they were not actually that influenced, not that easily deterred, by what other people told them to do. I do think we’re way too focused on iteration as a modality and not enough on trying to have a virtual ESP link with the public and figuring it out ourselves.”

(NB: I assume ESP is Extra-Sensory Perception)

So what’s good: monopoly or competition?

October 22nd, 2014 Comment »

Two minor events drive me to write a minor post about monopoly or competition. What’s best? On the one hand, I just read an article about the poor status of the patent landscape and how to improve it. On the other hand, I listened yesterday Peter Thiel – yes, the same Peter Thiel I have so often mentioned already here – in a class he gave at How to Start a Startup? So what’s the link?

Well a patent is a monopoly given by the authorities as an incentive to innovate (just check But some authors, in particular Boldrin and Levine, claim this is an “unnecessary evil”. I just read again my notes about their Against Intellectual Monopoly and their arguments are strong. In fact, capitalism in general considers competition is good and monopoly is bad.

But Peter Thiel has different views. Just check two slides from his talk below. Peter Thiel, a famous libertarian, claims that start-ups should look for monopolistic positions! What a strange paradox… I honestly do not know who is right! probably, as Boldrin and Levine wrote, “in media stat virtus, et sanitas”.



As I did not find his views about patents in his class, I tried to find something in his recent book, Zero to One. Here is what he says (pages 32-34): “So, a monopoly is good for everyone in the inside, but what about everyone in the outside? Do outsized profits come at the expense of the rest of society? Actually, yes [...] and monopolies deserve their bad reputation – but only in a world where nothing changes. [...] But the world we live in is dynamic: it’s possible to invent new and better things. Creative monopolies give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Even the government knows this: that’s why one of its departments works hard to create monopolies – by grating patents to new inventions = even though another part hunts them down (by prosecuting antitrust cases). It’s possible to question whether anyone should really be awarded a legally enforceable monopoly simply for having been the first to think of something like a mobile software design, but… [...] Monopolies drive progress because the promise of years or even decades of monopoly profits provides a powerful incentive to innovate. [...] So why are economists obsessed with competition as an ideal state? It’s a relic of history.”

Maybe all this is BS, and unfortunately, I never read Jean Tirole. “He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2014 for his analysis of market power and regulation of natural monopolies and oligopoly.” He would have much to say about this… maybe you can react and in the mean time, you can listen to Thiel’s full talk (see at the end).

In this talk, Peter Thiel has another interesting description about capturing value creation. “If you have a valuable company two things are true. Number one, that it creates “X” dollars of value for the world. Number two, that you capture “Y” percent of “X.” And the critical thing that I think people always miss in this sort of analysis is that “X” and “Y” are completely independent variables, and so “X” can be very big and “Y” can be very small. “X” can be an intermediate size and if “Y” is reasonably big, you can still have a very big business.” [HL comment: The "you" here may be the inventor or the entrepreneur, or the university at the origin of the idea...]

And then: “The thing that I think people always miss when they think about these things, is that because “X” and “Y” are independent variables, some of these things can be extremely valuable innovations, but the people who invent them, who come up with them, do not get rewarded for this. Certainly if you go back to you need to create X dollars in value and you capture Y percent of X, I would suggest that the history of science has generally been one where Y is zero percent across the board, the scientists never make any money. They’re always deluded into thinking that they live in a just universe that will reward them for their work and for their inventions. This is probably the fundamental delusion that scientists tend to suffer from in our society. Even in technology there are sort of many different areas of technology where there were great innovations that created tremendous value for society, but people did not actually capture much of the value. So I think there is a whole history of science and technology that can be told from the perspective of how much value was actually captured. Certainly there are entire sectors where people didn’t capture anything. You’re the smartest physicist of the twentieth century, you come up with special relativity, you come up with general relativity, you don’t get to be a billionaire, you don’t even get to be a millionaire. It just somehow doesn’t work that way. The railroads were incredibly valuable, they mostly just went bankrupt because there was too much competition. Wright brothers, you fly the first plane, you don’t make any money. So I think there is a structure to these industries that’s very important. I think the thing that’s actually rare are the success cases. So if you really think about the history in this and this two hundred fifty years sweep, why is almost always zero percent, it’s always zero in science, it’s almost always in technology. It’s very rare where people made money. You know in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, the first industrial revolution was the textile mills, you got the steam engine, you sort of automated things. You had these relentless improvements that people improved efficiency of textile factories, of manufacturing generally, at a clip of five to seven percent every year, year after year, decade after decade. You had sixty, seventy years of tremendous improvement from 1780 to 1850. Even in 1850, most of the wealth in Britain was still held by the landed aristocracy and the workers didn’t make that much. The capitalists didn’t make that much either, it was all competed away. There were hundreds of people running textile factories, it was an industry where the structure of the competition prevented people from making any money.”

Please react :-)

Entrepreneurship from First Principles

October 7th, 2014 Comment »

I just began two books which might be the two most important start-up books of (September) 2014. Surprise, surprise, one is about Google, the other one written by Peter Thiel. I will certainly come back to talk about them individually but let me just give two quotes from their first pages which are surprisingly similar…


In How Google Works, Larry Page explains: “When I was younger and first started thinking about my future, I decided to either become a professor or start a company. Either option would give me the freedom to work from first principles. This autonomy of thought is behind almost everything we do at Google, behind our greatest successes and some of our impressive failures.” [Page xiii]

Peter Thiel says in Zero to One: “The paradox of teaching entrepreneurship is that such a formula necessarily cannot exist; because every innovation is new and unique, no authority can prescribe in concrete terms how to be innovative. Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.” [Page 2]

More to come about
How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg – Grand Central Publishing (September 23, 2014)
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters – Crown Business (September 16, 2014)

How to Start a Startup by Sam Altman

September 29th, 2014 Comment »

There are tons and tons of courses and videos about high-tech entrepreneurship. In 2013, the star was probably Peter Thiel. In 2014, it seems to be Sam Altman, President of Ycombintor with his How to Start a Startup The first 2 lectures have been very good with a focus on the ingredients a start-up requires:
1- an idea,
2- a product,
3- a team,
4- an execution.
Altman added in a typical American manner that hopefully you do not execute the team in step 4. You can find the videos on the web site How to Start a Startup, and also the full text of the lectures here:
Lecture 1: How to Start a Startup by Sam Altman – Ft: Dustin Moskovitz. The slides anc content can be found on another nice web site:
Altman’s slides: here.
Dustin Moskovitz ‘s slides: here.

Lecture 2: Ideas, Products, Teams and Execution Part II by Sam Altman
Slides: here.

More also here:


Ten key recommendations to support youth entrepreneurship

September 29th, 2014 Comment »

I just recieved a very interesting analysis by E&Y and the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance (G20 YEA), entitled Avoiding a lost generation: Ten key recommendations to support youth entrepreneurship across the G20. Both their recommendations and what young entrepreneurs look for deserve some attention.


Here are the 10 recommendations:

Access to funding
1- Capital without mentorship is lost capital.
Create funding mechanisms, either government run or government backed, that make mentorship and financial education a condition of funding.
2- Access to alternative funding is critical.
Create strong relationships and provide incentives with venture capitalists (VCs), incubators and business angels to develop or create initiatives that enable alternative sources of capital.
3- Public funding matters.
Sponsor start-up growth with low-cost funding for targeted groups.
4- Entrepreneurs still need banks to keep credit moving.
Create a new class of loan for small businesses and young entrepreneurial firms that offers targeted funding to meet expansion capital needs.

Tax and regulation
5- Targeted tax and business incentives are highly important to supporting young entrepreneurs in scaling their businesses.
5a-: Encourage investment in start-ups by offering tax benefits.
5b-: Enable young, high-growth entrepreneurial firms to scale up through amplified support for market access.

6- Support global mobility for young entrepreneurs.
Encourage top international talent by changing visa rules and offering funding support.
7- Complex and burdensome rules in areas such as tax hold back young entrepreneurs.
Simplify and streamline tax administration to ease administrative burdens on young entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship culture
8- Positive mainstream views about entrepreneurship are needed to attract young people.
Create a positive narrative around entrepreneurship to help engage young people from an early age.
9- Encourage a national, regional and local culture of entrepreneurship.
Encourage and foster hubs, incubators, accelerators and networks to bring relevant talent together.

Developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem
10-For many of the recommendations and actions to have sustainable impact they need to work as part of a regional ecosystem, and within a regional ecosystem framework that fosters and attracts a critical mass of talent, capital and most importantly entrepreneurial leaders.
Create the foundation for a regional entrepreneurial ecosystem to flourish.

And nearly as interesting is the perception from the entrepreneurs. Just notice that the priorities are not emphasized in the same order. We see that tax is not their main problem, an intuition that I always had.


At the Frontier of Research – the Universe and the Brain – and how Science works?

September 26th, 2014 Comment »

I just read two amazing books, which at first sight do not seem to have much in common, but indeed have. The first one is Time Reborn by Lee Smolin. The second one is Touching a Nerve by Patricia Churchland.


Beware Newton, Leibniz (not only Einstein) is back!

Lee Smolin revisits the current challenges of the physics of the universe – the incompatibility of general relativity and quantum physics – and tries to bring new ideas such as thinking again about what Time is. It’s not a difficult book but it is so rich with ideas, I am not sure what is the most important. His main idea is that time matters. For example, the law of physics may evolve over time. He also believes that Leibniz’s philosophy is very helpful to understand the universe. [What I remembered of Leibniz is Voltaire critics of him in Candide, with the recurrent "best of all possible worlds"]. Let me just quote Smolin: “the picture of the history of the universe given by causal relations realizes Leibniz’s dream of a universe in which time is defined completely by relations between events. Relationships are the only reality that corresponds to time – relationships of a causal sort.” [Page 58, Penguin 2014 edition]

There is something as stimulating: “Leibniz’s principle has some consequences that should constrain a cosmological theory. One is that there should be nothing in the universe that acts on other things without itself being acted upon.” [Page 116] This is the principle of no unreciprocated actions. I had learnt this when I was shocked to understand that the earth attracts me and keep me from flying, but I also attract the earth. With Einstein, matter modifies space. So if laws act on the universe and its components, then the reverse is true. Laws can evolve and Smolin thinks that this is following a Darwininian natural selection…

Smolin concludes his book with more general considerations about science and society, which are also very interesting. I had already mentioned here his previous book The Trouble with Physics. His views about science are not original but strong. For example “to be scientific, hypotheses must suggest observations by which they could be verified or falsified.” [page 247] and he indeed hates some features of politics in science. Truth is the ultimate even if unreachable goal. “Scientific communities and larger democratic societies from which they evolved, progress because their work is based by two basic principles:
(1) when rational argument from public evidence suffices to decide a question, it must be considered to be so decided,
(2) when rational argument from public evidence does not suffices to decide a question, the community must encourage a diverse range of viewpoints and hypotheses consistent with a good faith attempt to develop convincing public evidence.”
[page 248]

And I will conclude on Smolin with a final quote: “We need a new philosophy, one that anticipates the merging of the natural and the artificial by achieving a consilience of the natural and social sciences, in which human agency has a rightful place in nature. This is not relativism, in which anything we want to be true can be. To survive the challenge of climate change, it matters a great deal what is true. We must also reject both the modernist notion that truth and beauty are determined by formal criteria and the postmodern rebellion from that, according to which reality and ethics are mere social constructions. What is needed is a relationalism, according to which the future is restricted by, but not determined by, the present, so that novelty and invention are possible”. [p 257]


As a transition to the brain, I cheat here and quote Smolin one final time (promised!): “By the problem of consciousness I mean that if I describe you in all the languages physical and biological sciences make available to us, I leave something out. Your brain is a vast and highly interconnected network of roughly 100 billion cells, each of which is itself a complex system running on controlled chains of chemical reactions. I could describe this in as much detail as I wanted, and I would never come close to explaining the fact that you have an inner experience, a stream of consciousness. If I didn’t know, from my own case, that I’m conscious, my knowledge of your neural process would give me no reason to suspect that you are. [...] Suppose we mapped the neuronal circuits in your brain onto silicon chips and upload your brain into a computer. Would that computer be conscious? […] Would there now be two conscious beings with your memories whose futures diverge from there.” [pages 268-69]

Patricia Churland begins her book with the “fears” that scientific research brings when you are at the frontier. “I hate the brain, I hate the brain” is what a philosopher said at a conference, maybe to explain his discomfort with the importance of biology to explain the mind processes. Churchland adds that discovering that the earth is not the center of the universe, or the heart is just a pump had similar results in society: fear and denial. But Churchland is not afraid of knowledge and of progress. “My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations”

Near the end of her book [page 240], she addresses the topic of consciousness:
In about 1989, psychologist Bernard Baars proposed a framework for research on consciousness with a view to fostering a coevolution of psychology and neurobiology.
First, […] sensory signals of which you are conscious are highly integrated and highly processed by lower-level (nonconscious) brain networks. That is, when you hear [something], you are not first conscious of a string of sounds, then conscious of figuring out how to chunk the string into words, then conscious of figuring out what the words means, then conscious of putting it all together to understand the meaning of the sentence. You hear [it]; you are aware of what [it] meant.
Second, the information stored concerning [the event] are suddenly consciously available to help you decide what to do in this novel situation. This means there must be integration of sensory signals with relevant background knowledge—with stored information.
The third important point is that consciousness has a limited capacity. You cannot follow two conversations at once, you cannot at the same time do mental long division and watch for dangerous eddies in a fast-moving river. When we think we are multitasking, we are probably shifting attention back and forth between two or possibly three tasks, each of which is familiar and which we can perform with minor vigilance.
Fourth, novelty in a situation calls for consciousness and for conscious attention. If you are fighting a barn fire, you must be alert and vigilant. On the other hand, if you are a veteran cow milker, you can milk the cow and can pay attention to something else.
Fifth, information that is conscious can be accessed by many other brain functions, such as planning, deciding, and acting. The information can be accessed by the speech areas so that you can talk about it. Conscious information is kept “on the front burner,” so to speak. That is, the information is available for some minutes in working memory so that your decisions are coherent and flow sensibly together. The widespread availability of a conscious event was a hypothesis that Baars proposed, not an established fact, but it seemed completely plausible and provoked other questions, such as the regulation of access and the range of functions that can have access.
None of these five features is a blockbuster on its own, but notice that collectively they yield a sensible and rather powerful framework for guiding research into further matters, such as how information is integrated and rendered coherent in our experience. Wisely, Baars avoided trying to identify the essence of consciousness, realizing that essences are an old-fashioned way of thinking about phenomena that impede making actual progress. This contrasts with the approach favored by some philosophers, whereby they tried to identify the defining property of consciousness, such as self-referentially, which is knowing that you know that you are feeling an itch or pain.

But in between you might also learn about the role of DNA and genes; of proteins and hormons and other molecules such as androgen, cortisol, dihydrotestosterone, dopamine, estradiol, estrogen, melatonin, nitric oxide synthase, noradrenaline, oxytocin, serotonin, testosteron, vasopressin; and the multiple modules and subsets of our brain.

Both Smolin and Churchland have the highest respect for scientific research and researchers on a quest for truth. Just for that reason, you should read them!

Zalando files to go public

September 24th, 2014 Comment »

Zalando, one of the very visible European start-up should become a public company on October 1st in Germany. It’s not so much the numbers which I found of interest, but how difficult it was to get them. As usual, Europe is showing less transparency. Finding the prospectus was not easy, and I am not sure I could have found it without claiming I live in Berlin. And still, I have no clue how much the company has raised, at which price and when. This is not in the prospectus – I just have all capital increases dates and shares number, it does not help much.

Rubin Ritter, David Schneider and Robert Gentz

I could still build my usual cap. table and here is what it gives. Revenues are impressive, as well as losses. Founders have been diluted, btu given the capital increases and losses it is not so surprising…



Stanford University, where Optimism Meets Empathy

September 18th, 2014 Comment »

People who know me well might be tired of my enthusiasm about Stanford University. My kids laugh at me, even some former professors do! Still, often, when I hear something about Stanford, it reminds me of the good old days. Not only. Stanford mostly looks at the future! I was reading yesterday night the Stanford Magazine and was attracted by two articles, which illustrate my nostalgia (and by the way, EPFL has some similar features today…):

– Stanford and Silicon Valley are not known for their interest in art. However, the university will open a new Art Gallery (close to the Rodin sculptures) on its campus, showing a major private modern art collection from the Anderson family. More in The Collection of a Lifetime

The New Anderson Collection building at Stanford University

– The President column also said very true things, such as “I’m often asked what sets Stanford apart. The university’s entrepreneurial spirit is certainly a distinguishing characteristic. But there is another vital component: the desire to make the world better for others.” Again one may laugh at this, but I really invite you to read “Optimism Meets Empathy” by John Hennessy.

John Hennessy
John Hennessy

Equity split in 305 high-tech start-ups with founders, employees and investors shares

September 10th, 2014 Comment »

I regularly compile data on start-ups with shares of founders, employees, board members investors, as well as the size of the round of financings. These are companies who went public or at least filed to go public or were acquired. Enjoy!