Judges on Fire: Sam Johnston, CEO, Acumino

In our Judges on Fire series of podcasts, we aim to let you get to know our judges a little better. They also get the chance to share their wisdom and tips about entering the Tech Trailblazers Awards. For our fourteenth outing we are catching up with Sam Johnston, CEO of Acumino, who is back for his tenth season as a judge for the Awards.

In a fascinating conversation, Sam shares his interesting history, having begun as a founder/entrepreneur at 17 years old, through working at big corporations, to being head of a startup that creates startups, bringing valuable experience to the Tech Trailblazers Awards’ judging team. He has good advice about how startups should stay hyper-focussed.

Sam also shares exciting developments in life-like avatars and also how removing the ‘venture’ from capital is opening up new opportunities for finance. So, over to Rose Ross, Founder of the Tech Trailblazers Awards, as she interviews Sam Johnston in our fourteenth Judges on Fire podcast.


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Interview transcript

Rose Ross: Hello everybody, and welcome to the Judges on Fire podcast from the Tech Trailblazers. My name is Rose Ross, and I’m the founder and the Chief Trailblazer here. And I’m delighted to be joined here by Sam Johnston. Sam is here from Acumino, and we have known Sam for a long time, he’s been with us right from the beginning when he was back at Equinix.

Hi, Sam, thank you for joining us from Singapore.

Sam Johnston: Hi, great to see you, again. Like you say, we’ve been working together for a long time now.

Rose Ross: Indeed, indeed. So, obviously your world’s been changing. We’re here because you’ve judged the awards for a decade almost now – we’re in our 10th edition – and hopefully you’re looking forward to getting back and looking at the entries again this year when we close in September.

Sam Johnston: Absolutely. It’s going to be exciting to see what’s going on in the startup ecosystem.

Rose Ross: Fantastic. And you’ve always been an ambassador for the startup world, even when you’ve been in very large organisations. So, obviously a lot of people will already know you, Sam, but it’d be great to get of a potted history of how you’ve come to be running things the way you are, and where you are in Singapore at the moment.

Sam Johnston: Absolutely. I started out in Perth, studied in Sydney, spent some time in Ireland at Citrix, went to France to do a startup around cloud (Revevol), and that’s when I guess we first would have crossed paths, was one of the pioneers of cloud. That landed me at Google, I then moved to Equinix to build up the cloud exchange and cloud ecosystem, before joining at the time CSC, subsequently DXC, to build out as a CTO and then build out their global network of innovation centres. And then recently transferred to the new tech pass with Singapore’s Economic Development Board to build Acumino, which is actually a venture studio, so a startup that creates startups.

But the common thread throughout the last decade has been emerging tech, which is of course one of the main areas of focus for the Awards.

Rose Ross: Fantastic. Well, you’ve certainly got an awful lot of credentials for being a judge, that’s absolutely no question there. So obviously, you’ve had a very exciting and varied career, which has taken you around the world, and you’ve looked at lots and lots of different startups. And now you actually are in that environment fully immersed, so tell us a little bit more about what you’re doing right now, because this is all quite new, so people may not know about what your new venture is.

Sam Johnston: I guess if you could look at my career it’s been basically three acts, I started out as an entrepreneur at 17 with my first startup, Australian Online Solutions. And then I spent probably a bit over a decade in different large, typically American Silicon Valley companies, like Google, Citrix, Equinix and so on. But now I’ve come back into the startup world and want to have a big, Act 3 I guess, for the second half of my career. And the idea is basically to dust off this venture studio model, which has been tried a few times over the years, but I feel it’s an idea whose time has come. And it’s basically a startup to create startups. So, I continue what I’ve been doing for years looking at emerging technologies like AI, big data, blockchain, and IoT, which are all Award categories. But also, things like quantum, and AR and VR, which is actually a big area of focus, and so on.

And then look at how we can apply those different emerging technologies to solving some problem, traditionally for businesses but increasingly for a consumer; it’s really getting in and an understanding, as Clayton Christensen would say, the job to be done, and then working out what we need to integrate, and how we need to integrate it to do that job perfectly. And that’s really been the focus for the last six months.

Rose Ross: Brilliant. So, you’ve mentioned Christensen, who obviously is somewhat of a hero for you. Tell us a little bit more about that because I’ve not actually come across him – if I can admit that on camera! Tell us a little bit about the ethos behind his work.

Sam Johnston: The funny thing is, I actually met Christensen, the late great Clayton Christensen, father of disruptive innovation I might add, in a bathroom at the Kodak Theatre; he’d come to talk to Equinix. Equinix every year they bring in these amazing speakers, whether it’s Ben Affleck, or in this case Clayton Christensen. I ended up actually learning with him at a Harvard course and doing a session on his books and so on. But what he did was, he looked at his study, he actually did some deep research into different companies and particularly successful ones and failed ones as well. He found that essentially, you can’t disrupt yourself, if you want to address a disruption and what he called either a low end or a new market disruption, like for example smartphones were one of the disruptions that he looked at; then you would have to actually create a brand-new subsidiary. Otherwise, the initiative would get snuffed out by the parent I guess. So, some, really-really interesting learnings there about how to go about building these disruptive businesses, and what is and isn’t disruptive.

For example, Uber was not necessarily considered to be a disruptive business, which might be surprising. What they were doing was, they were just doing the job of the taxis but doing it well. So, there was these decades that taxis had failed to do sustaining innovation, which meant that the service they were delivering was failing to meet the needs of the customers, and that created an opportunity for Uber. And so that’s just one example of how you might apply these theories. Not every business is disruptive, but those that are, are very-very interesting.

Rose Ross: So, how are you applying that now into the world that you’re in, as a sort of an entrepreneur, and as an investor, and somebody who’s creating a hotbed for these types of businesses to grow, a friendly environment or ‘as friendly as you can make it’ environment?

Sam Johnston: So, any kind of venture activity tends to have a portfolio. And if I look at the companies that are in the portfolio, we have things like a PropTech work-sleep, which is a crossover of Airbnb, and we’re working on and have just acquired Speakeasy of course, which we might come back to. But one of the more interesting ones in this context is Saku, which is a digital human for interviewing. So, for example, for HR interviews like a chat like this, we can have this almost photorealistic AI having a conversation with you and adapting to – if you say you’re an executive, she’ll ask a different a type of question, if you say that you’re a Python programmer, she’ll get in and ask progressively more difficult questions about Python to get a really good feeling. And then we’ll pass on just a transcript of your interview rather than the video itself, which actually allows you to categorically say that you filtered out any potential unconscious biases, at least at the filtering stage.

So that’s where we looked at an emerging technology, digital humans in this case which is a very sort of niche of AI. We’ve looked at existing business’s challenges around human resources and particularly around diversity, which is one of the topics of the Awards as well, and a very important one. And we said how can we disrupt the way that is done today, and deliver something which actually is quite new, delivers new capabilities. I mean it’s impossible to eliminate bias through a face-to-face conversation, totally, hence the term unconscious bias, but we can do that with technology. So, that’s basically another really good example of how we apply these theories.

Rose Ross: Excellent, well you did a very good segue there for us to talk about some of the new categories that we have this year. One of them is the Diversity Trailblazer, and it’s very much focused on the wider ecosystem. So, historically we’ve always focused on recognising, rewarding, and showcasing the amazing startups in the enterprise tech space. And increasingly we’ve got new categories such as AI and containers, as we’ve reflected the way that enterprise tech is developing, is growing.

However, we’ve thought it would be an opportunity now to start to reward and recognise some of the people or organisations that are involved with doing things that is helping those startups and their startup ecosystem, reflect better and embrace the diversity that’s out there in the workforce. So, looking at whether that be neuro diversity, gender, ethnicity, educationally, or your background, all of those things. So, that’s very exciting and we’ve not spoken about this before, so that was all new for me. So that sounds, mm okay, we need to ask a lot more questions about that! But maybe we’ll have to focus on some of the other stuff in the meantime.

That’s one aspect of it, and the other aspect that we’ve looked at is investment itself and how people are looking at investing in smarter ways. You did slightly set me up for all of this Sam, so, thank you for that! – is around looking at the way investment works, and you made a reference to venture capital just being capital. So, I’m going to quiz you on that one a little bit more!

Sam Johnston: Why don’t we start actually with the diversity, because I think that’s so incredibly important. As a manager, one of the things that I’ve made sure to do is to set targets and basically say that your teams really should reflect the wider population that you operate in. And if it’s not measured, it’s not managed and so that’s something that you need to do.

But I think that you mentioned a few things like neurodiversity and so on. We’re starting to get to the point where it’s not just gender and sexual diversity, we’re actually getting into a far more nuanced view. Take for example the Awards, now, if we have an in-person awards dinner, then that is itself a problem from a diversity perspective because you don’t allow everybody to participate. For example, it’s far more difficult for somebody to come from a region which is more affected by COVID, which is typically poorer regions who haven’t had as free access to the vaccines. And so, if we have an in-person networking or judging or celebration event, then they’re naturally excluded from that, they’re the kind of things that you’re a little unconscious of, they’re not obvious.

And so I think it’s really important as we adapt to our new normal, that we actually, for example this whole world of Zoom and Zoom fatigue and so on, well okay there’s lots of negatives, but there’s also lots of positives, in terms of eliminating commute and freeing up that time to either work, or better, spend time with family and that kind of stuff. So, I think it’s really important that companies look and potentially even enable by technology that does things like making sure that people take time out, and that they’re disconnected for holidays, and that kind of stuff, that can really help particularly minorities, whether that’s a minority around the typical demographic aspects, or it’s even things like whether you’ve got a family, or whether you’ve got a more modern complex family structure, let’s say, and we can adapt to that. So, that’s a really-really important topic and I’m encouraged to see a lot of development in that space.

Rose Ross: Yeah, and we’re looking forward to seeing some of those programmes as well and seeing what’s done around that. And, obviously we talked before we started recording, about the fact that we will be doing our first Awards Night this year on the 8th of December, although it won’t be night everywhere, because unfortunately – well, fortunately/unfortunately we have to make a decision and put a flag in the sand with regards to timing, which will probably focus on the European evening, just because it allows most people access to see the awards, the ‘And the winner is!’ moments, which everybody’s obviously very keen on particularly if they’re shortlisted and take that approach.

So, although there have been awful consequences and impact to the pandemic, we are able to take at least some positives out of it. And one of them is that we’ve always wanted to do an Awards Night, we’ve always wanted to try and get everybody together, have a bit of a celebration and do something that people feel that they can actually be part of, because ultimately that’s the way awards usually work. But being able to do it virtually means that we can include everybody, we can include people – as long as they’re going to be able to access a webinar type platform, internet access, they can be there, and they can hear the news first-hand. So, we’re excited about that, and hopefully that’s a small step or a small way towards diversity. And ensuring that everybody knows that they’re included in the Awards, because a lot of people go, ‘Is it just European?’ ‘Is it just American?’ ‘Is it just — this-that-and the other, and it’s never been that, it’s always been for whoever fits the categories, regardless of where they’re located.

Sam Johnston: Well certainly video and whether that’s VR and AR and going into the metaverse, which is an area of active exploration for us, these technologies are going to play an absolutely massive part in our new normal. And of course the impact to travel, the negative impact to travel is actually positive from a climate change point of view, and I think that climate change related startups and particularly climate, not just measuring – again if it’s measured it’s managed – not just measuring climate impact, but actually going carbon negative for example. So, removing carbon through different processes or adapting hydrogen and different sources of hydrogen, and that kind of stuff is going to be very important.

But this communication and collaboration, which I think is going to undergo a massive transformation, whether it’s going to be the Apple Glasses, or the work that the likes of Facebook have been doing around Oculus, and of course Microsoft has got a lot of activity in here. And we’ve actually just been in the news this week ourselves with the acquisition of Speakeasy, which is essentially like corporate boxes for live events, for big concerts and that kind of thing. But also, could be your global sales kick-off, or your corporate event for your internal corporate event. We can have different teams in different virtual rooms, and then they can participate without having to fly around the world.

So, there’s a lot of different very good solutions, and I think that’s going to be again, a lot of the focus of potentially even the Awards in October, that I’m looking forward to seeing what comes through in the new normal and post-COVID tech space.

Rose Ross: Yeah, I’m just making a little note to myself – must speak to Sam about Speakeasy for the Awards Night! You’re ticking all the boxes here, ticking all the boxes, Sam. So investment-wise?

Sam Johnston: Yeah, you mentioned that before.

Rose Ross: Yeah. We wanted to look at clever programmes that people were doing, to recognise those. I don’t think anybody’s actually ever really looked at those, unless it was perhaps a specific VC awards programme. But we’re keen to have it very wide, whether it’s an accelerator, whether it’s a new style of VC, whether it’s a new programme, or even an existing programme from a government somewhere that is making a difference or is planning to make a difference, because obviously, if it’s very new there won’t necessarily be any statistics to back up the progress.

But, bearing in mind you’re kind of doing that, what do you think are the key things that need to be looked at around investment? Is there stuff that’s broken, and if so, how do we fix it?

Sam Johnston: Well, look, I think that the big fundamental breakage in the whole of the financial markets has been something that I noticed with the acquisition of WhatsApp, this $19 billion I think it was, acquisition. I had a look at it and thought, well how did they do that valuation and so on. And I realised that it’s essentially like a divide by zero error with the interest rate, when the interest rate goes low, then the valuations skyrocket. And so, when we see changes in the interest rate, that’s going to have an interesting impact on these stratospheric, but justified by the way, valuations, at least on today’s discount rates and so on.

Now, that has interesting implications, because when money is scarce, you can have this whole industry that builds around that, and you can be a kingmaker. Even some of the early VCs were kingmakers based on who got and who didn’t get the money, and they’d have to look at not only the idea but particularly the team. But, what we’re finding now is that as VCs tend to get more and more focused on validation and market testing, and want to have companies formed and teams running, and momentum and so on, they kind of take the venture part out of capital. Venture is all about high-risk and taking a big bet, and maybe 1-in-20 or 5%, if you’re doing well, are a home-run and become a unicorn billion-dollar company.

But if you take out the venture part, it’s just capital. And meanwhile you’ve got all of this capital sloshing around, which is looking for somewhere to go, and you’re starting to get people coming into private equity and we’re seeing stacks and this kind of thing. And so it starts to squeeze different parts of the industry in really interesting ways, which actually creates opportunities for these incubators and accelerators, which are generally really fantastic programmes. But also this venture studio model and this role that I’ve taken up, which is essentially like a Chief Entrepreneur Officer, rather than a CEO focused on P&Ls and functioning of the business; more focusing on being a servant leader for your portfolio entrepreneurs.

I think that there’s a lot of dials there about how you do funding and how you do equity and debt, and so on. But I’m really interested to see what happens in this space going forward, and very keen to be a part of it.

Rose Ross: Fantastic. So, I think we’ll be seeing quite a lot of interesting developments over the last 18 months. But, as you say, I guess we need a new normal in venture capital as well.

So, aside from that, well we’ve talked a lot about sort of the ecosystem, but let’s go back a little bit in time to your roots and looking at the technology. I mean obviously you’re still tracking all of that, I know you can’t leave it alone, regardless of how busy with all the other stuff that you’ve been working on. What are you seeing? We’ve seen digital transformation accelerated beyond what we could ever have anticipated. Everybody’s always been talking about getting into the cloud, getting everything there, but things were quite slow in some ways. It probably didn’t feel like it when you’re inside that, but it was like your trying to push it, not you personally necessarily, but it was trying to be pushed forward, then it’s been dragged forward now over the last 18 months, where people have not had a choice and they’ve had to find a new way of allowing their businesses to continue to work, and people to have access to the systems they needed, pushing everything online for commerce perspectives. It’s been quite an exciting journey, even though challenging.

Sam Johnston: It has.

Rose Ross: So, what are you anticipating, or looking forward to seeing in the solutions that we’re going to be bringing forward?

Sam Johnston: I think that cloud was just such a simple shift that was just so transformational for the entire IT industry, as our mutual friend, Simon would say, it was just simply the transition from products to services for IT.

Rose Ross: Simon Wardley for everybody else.

Sam Johnston: Simon Wardly, of course. But also related to that, and this whole Chief Entrepreneur Officer role and so-on, this idea of value chain mapping, or Wardley mapping, and working out what it is that you as an enterprise should be focusing on doing. It’s not the ‘$8 in 10 of keeping the lights on’ as Gartner said a decade ago, it’s about how do you take emerging tech like the categories, AI, big data, blockchain, and IoT, how do you take that and apply that to some problem that you’ve got. The classic example is Netflix, should Netflix create TVs? No, but they should create the Netflix chip. Should they create content? Initially, no. Now, yes. Should they in an extreme example, generate the power, you need power to watch Netflix, but that’s not interesting for them to do. Simon talks about the Sun Tzu’s Art of War and looking at the business as a battleground and what should we be doing.

So, if we take a step back and look at infrastructure, so the categories of cloud, containers, networking, security, and storage, that’s not stuff those enterprises typically should be doing, they should be buying that and, to the extent possible, they should be buying it as a service. And what that does is it creates very complex architectures, and at the same time we’ve got this whole zero trust idea, where everybody’s working from home and there’s no perimeters anymore. And so, you need to have these quite complex service meshes. So, I’ve been looking at for example, HashiCorp’s console and vault, and this kind of thing, to tie these things together securely across different clouds and enterprise data centres, that kind of thing.

So, I’m expecting to see a lot of interesting stuff around cloud and containers and things like Kubernetes, networking, and particularly security. People think of security as confidentiality, but really for business it’s far more important that your information is both available, accessible to you, but not to anybody else, and integrity is protected as well. So, I’m expecting to see some really good solutions around that too.

Rose Ross: Yeah, definitely. It’s always seems to be trying to balance the access to the data for the people who need it, and as you say, ensuring that other people do not get at it.

Sam Johnston: That’s exactly right.

Rose Ross: So, we are seeing, I can unveil, we are seeing a lot of Awards entries across AI, security, and cloud. They are pipping along in the lead as a trio. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of other ones that are certainly seeing a lot of activity as well. Yeah, so we’re really excited about that.

Sam Johnston: I think, as well, that it’s very important to be extremely focused, and almost hyper-focussed was one of the things that I took away, I’ve just been through the Antler SG8 cohort, and I’ve got some great material there where you learn about the process of creating a startup and things like product market fit, and so on, which you pick up by doing, but then having a formal training about it is also great. The mentors will tell you to eliminate entire sections of your pitch, and really just focus on the job to be done and what needs to be delivered.

But then also looking at how you come up with ideas, and some of the things that I would like to see and hope to see in October, and I’m happy to say it now because it’s way too late for anybody to come up with a startup and pitch it, but things around biology for example, longevity. Twenty years ago I thought of having constant monitoring, when you go to the bathroom for example, having it tell you if you’re getting sick, and I saw somebody looking for a co-founder in that area, I think out of Scandinavia somewhere. Again, looking at things like climate-related issues like food tech, how do we do vertical farming, which becomes an IoT problem. How do we do clean me? What’s our new normal going to be? How are we going to travel? Are we going to travel? If we’re not traveling, what are the phantom competitors to travel? Are they things like virtual tours, which is one of the things that Speakeasy was built for?

There’s some really fascinating stuff that I think we’ll see largely as a result of just accelerating technological change, different things feed into materials, might feed into medicine, which might feed into computing, which might feed back into materials. So, you get this virtuous cycle, and we have this accelerating technological change; some would say that leads towards a singularity. It’s not going to slow down; in fact they say you live in interesting times; well we’re certainly living in interesting times.

Rose Ross: By that comment, you are absolutely not wrong, absolutely not wrong. So, anything else that you’d like to share? Obviously, you’ve seen a lot of our entries, and you’ve seen a lot of other entries as well, because you’ve been very kindly getting involved with other awards as well as our own, over the last 10 years. What would be your top tips apart from obviously coming up with something amazing that is going to pique your interest? How can people ensure that they present their awards entries in the most compelling way?

Sam Johnston: I think that it’s very easy. One of the things where startups do fail is, they presume they’ve got a good idea. Most startup ideas sound good in theory, particularly ones that haven’t come up organically, ones that you’ve gone looking for. And you think ‘this sounds a really good idea’, but it’s actually not a very good idea at all. And in retrospect when you look at it, once you spend six to 12 months on it and you failed, you say, ‘well, that was actually a terrible idea’. So, incubators for example like Antler, can level focus a lot more on, how do you find the right founder fit, and then it doesn’t matter, the idea doesn’t matter, don’t worry about the idea. And you’ll come up with one and you go in this drunken stumble, and then eventually you’ll find an idea that hopefully gets product market fit, and then you’ll get into the growth phase. The startup is actually a startup, which exists to grow.

I think that there’s a mix, and I’m front-loading the ideas and then back-loading the co-founders; once I’ve got a prototype or an MVP, I can plug in an operation or a domain expert. But in terms of how you would pitch a startup to someone like me, or an investor or an incubator accelerator, whatever it is, I would certainly focus on what it is that you’re doing and really think about putting yourself in the shoes of the customer. What are you doing to them, and how are they feeling about it? How did you come up with it? Was it a problem that you had when you were walking to work or school or the shops or whatever it is, and, and was something that you believe is a problem? And that’s where a lot of the stuff that I’m doing around video, e-commerce for example is driving… is something that I feel quite passionate about.

That bleeds into the new normal and these metaverses, whether it’s Fortnight or Roblox or Decentraland and so on. And one of the categories is blockchain, and I feel like a lot of the time that the blockchain stuff is solutions looking for problems. That tends to be the case with a lot of these tokens and NFTs and that kind of stuff. But, if you sort through all of that, there’s some really-really fundamentally valuable and disruptive shifts that are happening. So, one of the things I’ve been looking at is how do you do entertainment in these environments, how do we do standards across these environments. I focused on standards for clouds with things like the Open Cloud Computing Interface and the Open Cloud Initiative. But now we’re looking at, well, how do I take my avatar from Fortnite into Roblox into Decentraland? And if I’m a comedian how do I do my show? Or can I attend a sitcom for example in the Metaverse, and this is all stuff that we’re exploring.

I imported myself into a 3D avatar the other day and then used AI to animate this avatar skeleton, what they call a read model, which has been a fascinating experience. But still I can see the direction it’s going, which is part of the job of a future of somebody focusing on futures. But now it’s a question about how do we get there? What are the things that we need to integrate to actually make this possible?

Again, very excited to see what our entrants have come up with in October.

Rose Ross: Fantastic. Well, I’m a little bit worried I did think of it earlier, I thought I wonder if Sam’s actually sent his avatar or a hologram or something, to do the interview. So, I’m pretty sure it’s you. I’m really sure it’s you, but hey, you know, this stuff is getting more and more convincing, isn’t it? So, I don’t know!

Sam Johnston: For the minute it’s me, but actually the digital human technology we’re working on for Saku for the interviews, is really amazing, it does things like it reflects your own image in the eyes, like through the webcam, which you don’t think about, but if you don’t do it, it looks like people have dead eyes. Whereas when you look at somebody, you can see your reflection and it’s just those little details like that, and it can actually read your face and see whether you’re feeling good or bad or angry, which is really important for interviewing, particularly if you’re doing interviews about law enforcement, mental health, medical backgrounds, evidence gathering or whatever it is that you’re doing. So yeah, maybe next time but certainly not just yet.

Rose Ross: Well, we’ll hold that thought, we’ll hold that thought. So, we’ve covered an awful lot of ground I feel, yeah, a lot of stuff racing through my head now about what you’ve been talking about. So, it’s really great to catch up with you. Is there anything else that you’d like to share around the Awards, or just generally, that we haven’t covered already?

Sam Johnston: I think the best time to start a startup was a year ago, but the next best time is now. So, I think that if you’re thinking about it, get out there get involved, there’s people like me if you want to talk about working with us, or investing in some of the stuff that we’re doing. There’re accelerators, incubators certainly all over the US obviously, but all over Europe. In the acquisition of Speakeasy, we spoke about Singapore becoming the Silicon Valley of Asia, and I think that’s increasingly true, particularly with the geopolitics in the region. So, these programmes are very high quality, increasingly remote as well. I’m thinking about participating in one at Station F, actually just across the road from you guys, across the channel in Q4. So definitely don’t hold back, there’s no better time to do it, particularly with everything that’s going on around us.

Rose Ross: Brilliant. Thank you so much Sam, it’s absolutely a pleasure to catch up with you again.

Sam Johnston: Likewise, it’s been too long. I look forward to seeing everybody’s entries and catching up again soon.

Rose Ross: Fantastic. Well, thank you very much Sam, it’s been great to see you. Sam Johnston from Acumino. And yeah, that was – or this is the Judges on Fire, and Sam will be joining us again and looking at your entries this year.

If you would like to find out more, please visit us at the techtrailblazers.com, follow us on Twitter @techtrailblaze, or find us on LinkedIn.

Thank you very much, Sam. It’s been a pleasure.