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In this episode we talk to Arjun Vaidya, the first Ayurvedic Entrepreneur to be featured in Forbes 30 under 30. Arjun talks about how he embraced his legacy, used powerful repackaging and turned Dr. Vaidya’s into a multi million dollar DTC brand. Dr. Vaidya’s - New Age Ayurveda, with its innovative products was successful in bridging the gap between ancient ayurveda and modern consumers.
In this episode Arjun talks about:
- Journey of how Dr. Vaidya’s went DTC
- Effective storytelling and repackaging products
- How Dr. Vaidya’s had a big exit and became a part of the Sanjiv Goenka Group.
Hello guys and welcome to the first episode of Vizards of Growth. The most actionable podcast for DTC leaders, building amazing brands and sharing tough lessons along the way. Today with us, we have Arjun Vaidya the young and dynamic founder of Dr. Vaidya's new age Ayurveda. The brand that found its mojo in making age old home remedies interesting for the new internet generation. Arjun is here to share his lessons about effective storytelling, repackaging and becoming the part of the multi-billion dollar. Sanjiv Goenka Group. Hosting the podcast as always we have the wonderful Sujoy Golan, Chief of Marketing and Omnichannel platforms, Vizury, over to you, Sujoy
Sujoy Hi Arjun.
Arjun Hey Sujoy. Thanks for having me.
Sujoy Thanks for getting on, Arjun. Super-interested about talking to you about DTC.
Arjun That's my favorite topic. So happy to chat.
Sujoy Wonderful Arjun. For those of our listeners who aren't familiar with their background, a lot of them are probably wondering how you got into a traditional area like, Ayurveda could you just take us through take us through how you got into this and why
Arjun So I think, look for me getting into Ayurveda wasn't actually a very tough decision and it wasn't a super complex process. It's actually ties in with my family legacy and who I am. I come from a legacy of 150 years of Ayurveda my family right? So my grandfather great-grandfather and generations before all I really doctors. My great grandfather moved from Gujrat to Bombay and set up a small Ayurvedic clinic. My grandfather as was customary at the time studied medicine, became an Ayurvedic, doctor and by 1971 took on his dad's or his father's practice. My grandfather didn't really care for business.
He wasn't a businessman. He didn't really care for sales, distribution, marketing strategy so he cared for a clinic, right? It's probably India's more successful or at least Mumbai's most successful Ayurvedic doctor. He used to see 300 to 350 patients a day in his clinic had 12,000 patients written by a post and post, as you can imagine was the e-commerce of that time. But he did not believe in marketing. He did not charge for a consultation. Consultation was and continues to remain free at Dr. Vaidya's because we believe that economic strata should not prevent people from coming into his clinic. In the late 80s, my father graduated from college and he was not a doctor.
He was a businessman. He was a brand guy. And he believed that what my grandfather was doing in his clinic could translate to a really large business. And so he actually thought of making a brand out of what my grandfather was doing. And you can also appreciate that FMCG was being built in, in the, at that time. Consumer brands were just being built in India. And they've tried to work together, but you know doctors and businessmen don't see eye to eye.
My grandfather didn't really understand why he had to spend to get people to come to the doctor and so eventually my father went his own way and started his own business in the luxury jewelry and watch space, which has been running for the last 35 years now for me, I grew up with Ayurveda. I suffered from juvenile bronchitis at age two, and I grew up with bombs, nebulizers, steroids, inhalers, but none of that helped me.
I was stopped from playing cricket at age seven because there was too much dust on the cricket field. I didn't have ice cream or Coke Fanta, Limca, Sprite, all of these things growing up because it would jack my Asthma. So my grandfather stopped me from having all of these things. I didn't have really that normal childhood and this affected me so 14 years of everyday treatment later when I was cured of Asthma my grandfather and I became the captain of my school cricket team. It really, that meant more to me than just a family legacy. Something that changed my life.
So I spent a lot of time with my grandfather growing up, learning about Ayurveda transcribed, our family formulations from the scriptures to the computer and became a believer in the science. For my undergrad in 2009, went to a university called Brown in the US. And then I saw the move to a national organic products. I saw yoga being repackaged yoga mats, yoga gym, yoga apparel multi billion dollar industry, in the US but India had nothing to do with it. And as a patriotic Indian, I thought that didn't make sense. Like why should it be a global phenomenon without Indians having a share of the pie?
And so that is basically the thought process with which I came back to India. I came back to India in 2013. I came not too very different from the India. I grew upin. So I grew up in India which was obsessed with imported products. I was gifted a Japanese electronic Sharpener for my 11th birthday, from a store that only sold imported products because if it was imported was considered good if it was in Indian it was considered substandard.
This India had changed. India, I came back to, was happy to consume quintessentially Indian brands, proud of our heritage. I worked in a firm that only invested in consumer brands. And so I got to interact with the 150 plus consumer entrepreneurs, apparel, retail, lifestyle, luxury FNB, FMCG, cars, bikes across the board. And I saw like huge activity in the Indian consumer run ecosystem and got to learn from all of these folks. I also want to walk in the early stage of e-commerce in India. In my first week of work, my boss asked me a question, will Indians buy clothes online? We have missed this wave with our funding, the US Europe and China. Let's look at it. And the company I'm talking about is Myntra, right? Such huge activity happening at that time.
And I got to work on our study, Myntra, Jabong, Pepperfry, Zivame used on all of these companies when they had just started off super exciting time for e-commerce in India and I saw the proliferation grow right between 2013 and 2016. And Ayurveda was also going through a Renaissance, right Ministry of Ayush was created in 2014, we take the ministry for granted didn't exist before 2014. Government had changed, Patanjali revolution was happening. HUL relaunched with Ayush line which they had shelfed since 2001 Colgate launched Ayurvedic. or herbal toothpaste. There were huge consumer interest towards the science. So this was a macro that was happening from a group perspective. My grandfather passed, unfortunately and so we had this rich legacy, these formulations and at one event after my grandfather passed it was my dad's 50th birthday, April, 2016.
I was in private equity at the time. I gave a speech at that party. This was for his office team and by this time my grandfather's, clinic was not running as a clinic. It was running as a dispensary. So any patient of his which came with his prescription could buy the medicine. There's nurse of 17 year came up to me at that event and said, you're, we're celebrating our father's legacy here.But if you don't do something right now, your grandfather's legacy will die and at some point in life had made my grandfather a promise that I do something with the Ayurveda legacy. So all entrepreneurs have that aha moment. I think for me, that was that aha moment that sort of switch flipped in my head. And I said, look, if not now, then when, what do I have to lose at 24 and a half?
I believe in the formulation. I believe in the products. I believe in the science let's just go out and do it. And so we set off on our journey with Dr. Vaidya's in end of 2016 to build an Ayurvedic products brand that makes Ayurveda appealing, accessible to modern consumers. That was the premise behind why I got into sort of doing Ayurveda online
Sujoy Arjun so from this point to through the process of what you built, you make its own sound easy to say, okay, this is where you started and you've built a successful business, but also very successful brand. When you got started, Arjun, what are the few first few things, you did, either right or wrong? How did you go about this?
Arjun I think until 2016 that whole story was an easy story. That was just my family legacy. And my background and all of that. So the problems didn't start until we actually started running the business and seeing what it was to run a business hindsight. Actually, Ayurveda is a really, really tough market to work in.And if I was maybe 29, what I am today, uh, at that time before I started, I may not have done it. Right. So I think the exuberance of youth and, and sort of just getting things done really helped me in that time. Look, we started like any other brand, I think giant 2017. We launched offline with two products. One is called Livitup It's an Ayurvedic hangover shield and the other's called herbofit Chyawanprash is bitter, sticky and inconvenient. So we multivitaminize and took the 21 actives of Chyawanprash and put it into a capsule form.
So fundamentally, really interesting products, but like all brands that we're launching or have launched in India, we went offline. We decided that that's the only way to do it and that's where everyone is building. And so Jan 2017 had a big launch event in Taj Lands End and signed up a few distributors in Bombay had 22 offline sales reps and hit the ground running and did really good sales according to me right. 10 lakh rupees worth of sales in the first month was outstanding. And the private equity analyst in me said, okay, 10 lakhs, 20 lakhs, 50 lakhs one crore, two crores five crores this is going to be a really big business very soon. And I'm super smart and I got the products. Customers love it. And I'm set right?
But the reality was, I didn't realize that selling to a distributor does not mean the game is over. Distributor sells to a retailer. Retailer sells to a customer. Once the customer pays for the product, the retailer pays a distributor and you get paid right. And with huge competition with Dabur, Emami, Patanjali, Vaidyanath, Zandu as well as limited capital. And very limited experience in FMCG. To be honest, we fell flat on our face I got nine lacks worth of products returned to me within three months. And from my background as a sort of good student, went to a good college, had a good job out of college this was my first real big failure in life. Really, really, really big failure to me.
The world was ending basically when this happened. And so I reflected over the weekend and realize that look, there is a lot of competition. I have limited capital and don't have any experience in offline so this isn't happening. And that call actually to say offline isn't happening and we need to pivot. It was the best decision. We took some time from Dr. Vaidya's that I also spend some time with my girlfriend at the time who's now my wife and she was at Goldman in the UK.
And then she came back to India and she worked in the first three 20 folks at Nykka the founding team and she saw the proliferation of e-commerce happening 2014, 2015, like very early on. I said, look, Arjun, there is something happening here and you can't ignore it and there's an opportunity. So you got to do online.And I said, fine, I don't know how to do it though. So you have to come along for the ride. And a little bit of convincing later, she agreed and families obviously want, okay. But eventually after we got engaged, nobody had a choice. And so Trisha joined forces with me,at Dr.Vaidya's mid 2017 onwards.And that's when the real journey of Dr. Vaidya's began. We said we're going to be an online only Ayurveda brand before DTC was a thing, by the way like today. Everybody talks about D2C and digital brands and all of that in 2017 and I would talk to people and in 2018 I talked to VCs and investors about digital only brand.
They said, impossible cannot happen. Brands cannot be built online only you have to have a hybrid or some online, some offline, but I think the best decision or the biggest failure for us was offline. And that got us to do eventually what we did with Dr. Vaidya's which is a digital only Ayurvedic Products brand
Sujoy Arjun, this is certainly unconventional, like with a lot of other things, that's part of your experience where you did offline first, uh, today I think when founders start, they're all digitally native, they start with digital. And even at that time, I think around 2017, marketplaces were big marketplaces were already growing very fast.Amazon started was already up and running. Did you think maybe I could just list my products on these marketplaces and that should do it?
Arjun I think we, we did list on marketplaces and that was an important part of the strategy. But I would say that we were always D2C focused and D2C in the real definition. So our own website was our peered protocol reason being actually two things. One, Ayurveda sold in long-term dosages and if a customer buys only one month, but they have to have it for three months. There's no way for you to reconnect to them on the marketplace and tell them or nudge them to buy or and the second thing is actually there is limited ability for cross sell and upsell as well as offering that free consultation, which my grandfather offered would not be possible in marketplaces. So we always focused on our own website, November, 2017, we were doing one order every three days on our website. I remember celebrating every single order. Few and far between on our website the next year, November, 2018 with a small core team Trisha and I actually learned online business.
So we learned Google ads, Facebook ads, Shopify website, tech, operations, logistics, customer service, all of that, and took our website to 50 orders a day in one year. Not 50 orders a day today would not seem like a big number, but November 2018 on a brand only Ayurveda website at a customer acquisition cost of 30% of AOV that was really exciting.
And then from November, 2018, sort of November, 2020 hyperscale that from 50 to 5,000 orders a day on our own that site, but Dr.Vaidya's, always remained website first, or sort of our own channel focused brand market basis. We were top sellers on Amazon, Flipkart, Nykka, Netmeds, MetLife, et cetera, all of that.But our strategy was always build our website because in that way, selling something, which is a little bit more complex, like either you can sell content, education, cross sell, upsell, free consultation, nudging the customer that dosages are over all of these things may not be as easy on a marketplace.
Sujoy Sure. And, uh, there are just want it to go into. A lot of these areas Arjun that you spoke about, uh, starting with content and, uh, your role in using content to really build a brand that you did by going direct. And, again, these were early days. How did you think about content because content in the immediate term, uh, is unlikely to lead to revenue. Did you think it was worth investing in it at that point? And, um, could you just take me through that?
Arjun I think you've, you picked a very important decision for a DTC brand? And the decision is always, and I hear it from a lot of people as well, right what's the split with content or brand marketing and performance marketing and the answer is there's no right answer. Having said that for us, if I give our experience, Ayurveda was fundamentally broken in relation to its connect to modern consumers. So the generations above understood Ayurveda, had knowledge and so consumed it, and I knew a little bit, but honestly, we lost touch with Ayurveda. We don't know that Amla was the most important component of Chyawanprash. We don't know what Bhringraj did. We haven't really heard of the benefits of Ashwagandha.
So that is the problem we set out to solve. We wanted easy to understand communication, packaging and simple product names, as well as education to consumers. We have to build this bridge between ancient Ayurveda and modern consumers, which has been broken along the way, maybe because of British rule, maybe because no ones done it, maybe because of old style packaging, maybe because of old style branding whatever that may be. We have to bridge that gap and content was the best way for us to do it. So we did a bunch of super interesting things. It was a lot of live sessions. We take our doctor live on Instagram and say, Hey, anyone has any queries or questions on Ayurveda our doctors available.
So going on a website, you're going to pop up to join on WhatsApp group join that WhatsApp group every day, between seven to 9:00 PM, every single day of the year, you will get one tip from us. Now this was not a multi-way communication WhatsApp group, where people could be spammed, but everyday we will send you one tip on WhatsApp.In this daily Ayurvedic tips group, we had more than 70 groups and think about 250 people per group. I think we had like 85, 90 groups over two years. But everyday people got one tip on Ayurveda whether it's home remedies, yoga, suns herbs, doshas ailments, Ayurvedic philosophy, principles, et cetera. One tip on Ayurveda everyday
These are the kinds of things we did to actually say, Hey, this gap is present between Ancient Ayurveda and modern consumers and through our products, through our content, to our brand, through our story, to our messaging, we are trying to bridge this gap so modern consumers can actually feel connected.To this amazing ancient science of Ayurveda and my previous example or my background as well. When I talked about yoga, yoga mats, yoga gyms, Lululemon, billion dollar industry in the US created by the west taken from us because they just solved that downward dog is a better way for a modern consumer to connect with that Ancient Asan.
Sujoy Intuitively, it makes a lot of sense. Arjun to focus on content initiative, especially for a category creation that you were doing or, uh, or could be early brand creation in an existing category. How did you measure this? Was the hour that the outcomes clear very soon of what you were investing in versus what your customer base was benefiting from?
Arjun We are very numbers driven data-driven company from a performance marketing standpoint. And I think all of us learned it on the job very quickly. And so we understood our numbers very well from a performance standpoint, and even track that every day, every minute, every year, every few hours and that we got right very early from a content perspective, actually, we just said, this is the allocation per month on what we do for brand building we won't track it from a ROI perspective.
We won't to track how much sales it gets, but yes, how much eyeballs , it gives what engagement it gives do our customers like it that. We will track and so that's how they viewed the two types of marketing and the different types of KPIs. And as long as you view it like that. Eventually your brand marketing helps build your topper funnel, which will feed into your performance marketing, eventually improve the ROI of your performance marketing. But I think it's a longer term game and so sometimes brands forget this and don't work on this, but it's extremely important.
Sujoy For performance marketing, Arjun, you are not a team of marketers. How did you start out? Did you start out by learning to do this yourself or did you outsource to an agency?
Arjun We did work with an agency. We did work with agency, but the key thing that I believe is right, as long as you know, what you're doing on what you expect from your agency, the relationship becomes much better. If you don't have a clue what you need, if you don't have a clue, what your CTR should be, what your CPM should be, what your ROI should be, how much you should increase your spend, how is it to increase the spend?How many campaigns to run? What's the architecture of the campaigns running in your background or backend?
We never ran the ads ourselves. And we did work with agency partners that we build really strong relationships with, but you need to know what going on. That is what we did. We said our in house team, as well as us, we know what's going on and we work with the agencies and we'll have enough people from our team monitor or coordinate or speak with the agencies to just align. But we are happy to work with the right partners and agencies. No problem.
Sujoy Sounds like that was a way to really take control of your performance marketing without needing to expand your team, to just run operations or digital marketing operations, but you still had your hypothesis on how you built your experiments and you knew what campaigns and messaging you wanted to have.
Arjun Absolutely. I think from an agency perspective sometimes people just keep bashing the agency, but I think it's a two way thing. While the agency also has to complete deliverables as a brand you need know what those deliverables are, set those deliverables clearly and also follow up or track where the deliverables are being met. I think it's important that it's a two-way street, a relationship, and both ways need to get it right?
Sujoy Yes. I think that's a very important insight because I think even in so many cases around us, we see, or we expect or founders expect agencies to come in and, do things ground up or change the world. Sometimes yes, I think there is that expectation doesn't really work out. So I think this really shows where an agency can partner versus the brand being able to take control of the entire thinking behind, all of the digital marketing that you ran in your case moving on to packaging or reinventing traditional industry. I haven't, I don't even know if she'd call it industry traditional space. Arjun, what are the things that you did to take Ayurveda to a new audience or was it going to the same audience with a different message?
Arjun Yeah, I think it was a mix of both, actually. I would say. Same audience with different message and capturing a new audience that had not consumed Ayurveda that is what eventually ended up happening. But from a packaging perspective, I think what were we trying to solve old school, boring white bottles with no excitement on the packaging or no sort of way to engage the consumer that was a fundamental problem. Ayurvedic products pretty much, it looked the same for the last 50, 60 years and they hadn't had much innovation. So from that perspective, we actually said, Hey, let's make this look like an exciting FMCG product and not just a traditional Ayurvedic product. And I think, look, my dad has built a business in the jewelry and watch space for the last 35 years, but he still designed every piece of jewelry that he sends. And so I was fortunate.
But I wouldn't say I was fortunate. I didn't have enough resources to hire an expensive agency, do my packaging so I got my dad to do it initially. And then eventually he's the one who built all the Dr. Vaidya's packaging from product number one, direct number 80. We used just spend a lot of time sort of working on colors, working on imagery, working on easy to understand a words. Like, for example, our products for sleep and stress is called Herbo calm. So even if you don't know, Brahmi Shankhavali Shankhpushpi, Herbo calm make sense to you. Herbo fit for immunity supplement, Herbo turbo for our sexual wellness product.
All of these like made it very easy for customers to understand what this product means. And I think making that happen from a packaging perspective, which is engaging customers, interesting colors, exciting packaging, as well as easy to understand language and easy to understand names made it much easier for customers to relate to them. You're talking about more categories, right? Like what I see going forward or the future?
Arjun I think Vahdam has done an exceptional job with Tea and Bala is a good friend, and he's done a super good job similar to us. He also has a similar background to me. So we sort of resonate with that, what I find, what do I see as the next few places that, that there is huge scope for growth because I'm an active angel now. And so I invest actively as well. Uh, I think there's a lot of work still to be done in health and wellness. There is some work still to be done in specific niches of beauty and personal care. Although there's a lot of work and competition there, I think wide spaces that will emerge according to me are alternate protein, home and kitchen and pets.I think these are spaces I'm very excited about from a digital brand perspective, but not as much work has been done yet
Sujoy Arjun in terms of growth hacks you mentioned and this was wasn't of course the growth hacks when you started out, but a free consultation is something that your grandfather already did. Today it's something that we see all the time in health and wellness. So there's one free consultation and then upsells to health and wellness programs or, in EdTech where they, you know give free classes, everyone knows. That's what EdTech uses for its customer acquisition strategy. Do you think there's fatigue that setting in or it is the free trial, the free class, the free consultation, still an extremely strong hook or or do you see it evolving?
Arjun Yeah, I think look from a free consultation perspective, right? Firstly I would say that I don't like the word growth hack. A lot of people say, what's that one growth hack that can take me from zero to one or, or one to 10 very quickly. I think that doesn't exist.
You got to put in the hard work and get things done. So I think, leaving the growth hack aside, we found out we could use free consultation that was unique, differentiated and something which hadn't been done as much before. So that was what we give or brought to the table that was unique. I think as a brand, you have to find something or bring something to the table, which is fundamentally unique and brands need to look for that or free consultation may not be that unique any longer. And so you've got to find your next free consultation that Dr. Vaidya's found.
Sujoy At what point in your journey did you feel the need to make like a senior marketing hire or were you the lead marketer throughout?
Arjun You know, to be honest, we didn't make a senior marketing hire. We made functional heads for performance marketing, um, for, for content, but. I still remain the brand custodian. And I think that's how it eventually happened. Or we didn't have a CMO I would say from a CMO perspective, I was the CMO, but that's because I was super passionate about the brand and it meant a lot to me and was part of my family.And so we didn't do it. Not that other brands shouldn't do it, but it just didn't happen in that.
Sujoy Understood and as part of the growth of Dr. Vaidya's, the brand itself or the business is something that you grew beyond the urban India. And today obviously, I think Bharat is a big story, big potential. How did you approach going beyond the Urban India with the repackaged product, but a traditional industry? Could you take us through some of the things that you did?
Arjun Sure I think it's a good question. And I think, look as someone who's an urban elite consumer of building for Bharat didn't come as naturally to me, but 82% of our orders at Dr. Vaidya's came from outside the top 10 cities, we got orders from 16 and a half thousand pin codes in this country and so you realize very quickly the demand is outside just Urban India they're not building a brand for millennials but building sort of genuine value for, for a deep part of India, because in Imphal and other places, they may not be access to high quality Ayurvedic care at the touch of people's fingertips.
In Bombay, maybe you can just go down the street and you'll get whatever you need, but it is a huge problem and a gap that needs to be built in India. So we did a lot of. Vernacular content. We did a lot of English Hindi content. Most of our ads did not run in English as well or and we understood what our customer wanted what our customer connected with and from a influencer brand perspective, that's what we ended up doing. So I think we realized very quickly where the market was for us and we didn't shy away from working for that market.
Sujoy That's a very interesting point to make Arjun because where you talk about not building for yourself or not building a with you or your friends and family as, the ideal customer profile, but relying on numbers and having that direct your go-to market. What role did data play in this whole process?
Arjun Leaving the brand aside, performance marketing wise we were really data driven company. I'll give you one insight on how data really help. So we were listening to our customers a lot and customer insights, meant a lot to us. I would do the customer service every Sunday just to see what the customer is saying and we got, we used to sell a lot of weight gain. A lot of the weight gain customers came and said, Hey, you have this weight gain, but I need a natural solution for muscle gain and that was really interesting. And we said, Hey, like, why is there no Ayurvedic muscle gain supplements? We launched a product called herbo build in July, 2019.
Herbo build became 40% of Dr. Vaidya's company sales. It is still, if you go on Amazon, is the number one product in the mass and weight gainers space. And that came through data and customer insight. So I think it plays a really important role for digital business and because your D2C you get direct interaction with customers and need to use it as far as possible.
Pre customer purchasing digital was our only sort of channel of customer acquisition. Whether it's content on Instagram, the WhatsApp groups. I talked about advertising on TikTok, Facebook, Google, sort of being a part of forums answering on Quora. That's how we built our brand on. So it was a top of funnel from customer acquisition. Word of mouth really helps in the part of India and the type of consumers we were working with as well.
So building brand trust and brand credibility was also really important. Once a customer purchased, actually we would do whatever the customer wanted or whatever channel the customer wanted to interact with us on whether it was call, email, WhatsApp, SMS, Facebook having the customer interact with us to get the information, collect the feedback and get the next order.
Sujoy Got it. Congratulations on a successful and rewarding exit Arjun. We're curious to know what's next? Where are you spending your time and what's coming up?
Arjun I think for the last three and a half months, since the exit in March, I spent a lot of time giving back to the ecosystem. So I made 16 angel investments, worked formally with 10 D2C founders, mainly advised them. My wife and I got more lateral thinking other than just health and wellness. We also spoke to more than 200 D2C founders, built a course on building a D2C brand in India, which we teach now, we've brought it to like 200 people, cohort based calls, and then we continue to do it, um, in the months going forward and, and walk with an early-stage venture fund called advantages advisors.
But my new journey actually just started I'm setting up and leading the venture investing arm of Vol invest, which is one of the largest consumer sector focused private equity funds in the world. They they've invested in some iconic brands, um, like Vita, Coco, or Oakley, vitamin water and India Sula, Viva, Epigamia Byju's, Purple and Wakefit but in India I mean globally, DiNapoli private equity. A global strategy and now getting back into venture investing, and that's what I'm going to be heading in India.
Sujoy Okay. And I think Arjun, what, what stands out is you building your company but you also giving back to the ecosystem through speaking to founders, and building so much content. I think everyone benefits from that. It was super insightful and wonderful speaking to you Arjun, thanks for your time.
Arjun Thank you so much, Sujoy for having me and pleasure to be on the show.