Hello everybody, today we have Yahya Mokhtarzada, co-founder of Truebill, a software service that helps us find, track, and cancel our paid subscriptions.
In today’s interview, we’ll be talking about how Truebill got 10,000 signups without paying customer acquisition costs, why subscription commerce is replacing traditional commerce, and how Yahya saw a pain point in managing the-ever increasing amount of subscription services that people have and developed a product to fix that pain point.
Download podcast transcript [PDF] here: How Truebill Launched on Product Hunt (1k+ Upvotes) And Netted 2,500 New Users TRANSCRIPT
- [3:02] – How the free service model is working, because they don’t have to pay customer acquisition costs.
- [4:52] – They hope to get paid by subscription companies for management of intelligent recommendations. They hope to do this in an intelligent and not spammy way. They plan to take their time to build out what subscriptions would make sense before they information.
- [9:03] – Playbook for successful launches include having influencers post about the service at the right time, they also made sure they were very active in the threads
- [11:00] – Growing the business with content marketing includes creating articles about services that are notoriously difficult to cancel. These articles grow organically and people are very eager to share. They also were listed in an article on Forbes.
- [12:11] – Traffic that comes from a trusted source like Forbes or TechCrunch is more likely to enter their credit card information.
- [13:25] – They have 4 people total including two of his brothers. They know that their family bond is stronger than business.
- [14:20] – At Webs.com email was taking off, and they wanted to create a platform to build websites that would make it as easy to build a website as using email. He also worked with his brothers here.
- [15:49] – By working as a team of brothers they have a versatile skillset between them. Their parents were entrepreneurial and set the example of business and tech.
- [18:16] – Yahya would tell his younger self to take more risks and be more entrepreneurial earlier. He was influenced by meeting Tony Hsieh of Zappos
Resources from this interview:
- Twitter @YahyaMokh
- Product Hunt
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
- Onward by Howard Schultz
- Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
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Full Transcript of The Episode
Eric: Before we jump into today's interview, if you guys could leave a review and a rating, and also subscribe as well, that would be a huge help to the podcast. So if you actually enjoyed the content and you'd like to hear more of it, please support us by leaving us a review, and subscribe to the podcast as well. Thanks so much.
All right everybody, today we have Yahya Mokhtarzada who is the co-founder of Truebill, which is the easiest way to find, manage, and even cancel your paid subscriptions and recurring bills with a single click.
Yahya, how's it going today?
Yahya: Going great, thanks for taking the time to chat.
Eric: Yeah, thanks for being here. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself, and what you do.
Yahya: Sure. So I've been in technology for a little over a decade now. First at webs.com, then we actually spun a project out of webs.com called SGN, which made Facebook games right at the time that the Facebook platform launched. Then from there I spent the last five years at a company called Nanigans which is the largest social and mobile ad optimization platform. From there we grew the team from four or five of us up to nearly two hundred people over the last five years. Did so by building really a terrific optimization platform used by gaming and encounters companies to manage their Facebook and mobile ads spend.
Eric: Great. Why don't you tell us a little about Truebill, and what you guys are trying to accomplish today.
Yahya: Absolutely. With Truebill, the macro trend that we're trying to build on is subscription commerce is really eating traditional commerce. A lot of the good that we used to buy manually five years ago, or ten years ago have now migrated to subscriptions. If you think about it, ten years ago you might have gone to the record store and bought CD's, then on your way home you'd stop and buy groceries and shaving razors. Then you'd periodically buy software for your computer, like Microsoft Office, or Adobe Photoshop.
Today pretty much all of those thing have been either partially or completely replaced with subscriptions. So no one buys CD's anymore, in fact it's pretty odd that someone would even buy iTune songs. Instead people sign up for Spotify, or pay for an app of music subscription.
Things like shaving razors ... Gillette is getting massively disrupted by companies like
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Harrys and Dollar Shave Club, which ship you shaving razors on a subscription basis.
Old school enterprise companies like Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, you really can't even buy any more. Those are also subscription only. If you look into the future, your next iPhone is probably going to be subscription, and your next car might even be a subscription.
As the number of subscriptions per person goes up from five to ten to approaching twenty. We said you know what? There has to be a platform to own and manage all of these subscriptions. That spans everything from discovery to enrollment to personalization to management to cancellation.
Eric: Got it. Okay, that makes sense.
So you guys launched about a couple months ago. What success have you guys seen to date?
Yahya: Sure. We did a small friends and family launch towards the end of November, and coming into the end of January we had somewhere between four and five hundred users. In January we launched our new site design, and did our formal public launch where we went out on Product Hunt. We got a tremendous response from there, we got the number one spot on Product Hunt with over a thousand up votes, and signed up something like two and a half thousand users just from that. Since then that growth has continued, so today I think we're closer to nine or ten thousand sign ups with about sixty percent of those users actually connecting at least one thing per credit card account.
Eric: Okay, so that's how you guys are tracking if people are quote, unquote successful or not, if they connect one bank account or not.
Yahya: Yeah. Actually just so you know, most of the people that do connect a bank or credit card actually connect more than one.
So, how do you guys make money doing all of this? I've connected at Truebill, I'm not even sure I paid you guys anything.
Yahya: Yeah. So, its a free service, and we think its probably going to be a free service for the near to mid future. Again, users have been really, really delighted with it and have been eager to share it. That helps us not have to pay customer acquisition costs, or user acquisition costs.
Right now when you log in it does a quick scan of your credit card statement, or your bank statement or even PayPal. Then shows you all your subscriptions that you're paying for every month, it lets you cancel anything you want with one click.
Yahya Mokhtarzada Page 3 of 12 As we continue building the product, we hope to get past cancellation and into enrollment in management. With enrollment we hope to get paid by subscription companies for recommending them to our users in an intelligent way.
Eric: Interesting. So, what would be an example of that?
Yahya: There's a couple examples of things we could do there. For instance, we could say, "Hey, you know what? You have Dollar Shave Club, and you have Nature Box. People that have those two also really like Blue Apron."
Eric: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Yahya: So, we could power intelligent recommendations there. We could also say, "You know what? You're using this service, in general people have been pretty dissatisfied with that. Why don't you click here and switch to this other competitor?"
Eric: Wow, that's interesting.
I could see you guys acquiring a massive, massive amount of users, then you guys would just become an affiliate engine, right?
Yahya: Yeah. I don't like to think of it as an affiliate engine because those feel almost more spammy.
Eric: I shouldn't have called it an affiliate, I should call it a referral engine.
Yahya: Yeah. I think they key there is to do it in a way that feels organic to the service.
Eric: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Yahya: In a way that's intelligent and not spammy. We could pretty easily make money by saying, "Hey, you know what? Why don't you get car insurance quotes to everyone we see paying car insurance." We don't want to do that, instead we really want to take our time and build up intelligence around what new subscriptions would actually make sense for this user. Why would they make sense? Lets share that in a transparent way with the user, and if they decide to try it out, then great.
Eric: Okay. So, I mean ... Have you guys agreed on a target number of users you want to get to before you guys start to add these recommendations in?
Yahya: Yeah. I think we're aiming for half a million.
Eric: Got it. How long do you think that's going to take you guys to get there?
Yahya: I hope to be there in twelve months or less.
Eric: Okay, cool. This is interesting ... Also at the same time, I'm looking through the Truebill
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dashboard right now. When I try to cancel with somebody ... It's just a matter of ... We make sure you guys lost a confirmation ... Are you sure you want to cancel? Blah, blah, blah. If I'm on the other side, and if I'm like Adobe or something like that, and I get something from Truebill, how do you force them to cancel? Sometimes they'll be like, "We're not talking to the real owner. We can't cancel the account." You know? Does that happen?
Yahya: Yeah it does. I think the way that subscription companies ... The DNA of subscription companies has changed over the last few years. A lot of businesses that made a lot of money signing you up for something, then trying to hide it from you, hope you don't cancel, hope you are unaware of it so you don't cancel it.
Eric: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Yahya: Then putting up massive friction, or massive hurdles to prevent you from cancelling. That's not really the paradigm of these companies anymore. They want to build a great product, they want users to try it in a low commitment way, or a low barrier entry way I should say. Then you know, if those users aren't happy with it, then they're not trying to keep that ... Keep revenue from customers that are not happy with the service. With newer companies, or technology companies, they tend to be pretty understanding in saying, "You know what? You're an agent of the user and clearly this is reflected of the user's wishes, so we'll go ahead and cancel." Sometimes they do ask for additional authentication information, which we keep a record of. For instance, if you want to cancel Adobe ... As an example, they might want something specific, which we ... When you click to cancel Adobe, prompt you for as a verification step. Then we say, "Hey, cancel Eric's Adobe. Here is all of the information that you're going to need to be authorized to do that."
Eric: Interesting. Again, I think that this is fantastic, it's so genius ... I've actually even shared it on Facebook. When you get me to share something, that means its something special.
Yahya: Thanks, we really appreciate it. We've seen a ton of people sharing. Especially with some of these services like Comcast, or cable companies that are notoriously difficult to cancel. When we do make it as easy as one click to get out of it and the user says, "Wow, I've been paying for this for five months just because I didn't want to go through that headache. Thank you for doing it for me." They're pretty eager to share it. They become dedicated evangelists.
Eric: Yeah. I'm actually starring through my account right now, and I want to cancel like three things. So, yeah I think this is amazing.
Lets talk about acquisition for a moment. How did you guys go about getting to number one on Product Hunt? Was there a method to the madness?
Yahya: Yeah, absolutely. So, firstly we did a ton of research and talked to [inaudible 00:08:50] with a few companies who had successful Product Hunt launches to basically come up with a playbook on how to do it. Number one is, the time you post. We did ours at
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seven a.m. Pacific. That seems to have worked, if I could go back, I probably would have done it a little bit earlier. I probably would have aimed for five a.m. Pacific.
Secondly, we looked at who we wanted to post for us. There were a few kind of what I would call Product Hunt celebrities, that when they post, that thing is guaranteed to go somewhere near the top. For us, we got in touch with Heaton Shaw.
Eric: Ah, I was just going to say that name.
Yahya: Yeah, exactly. He was nice enough to post it for us. The other thing, is we put a lot of thought into the images, both the product images, as well as the head line image that would appear with it. Then we did what you'd expect, is when it went out ... Product Hunt does not like you to tell people to vote for it.
Eric: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Yahya: In fact, they'll penalize you if they see you doing that, but you're definitely allowed to promote it. So, we posted on our blog, all of us posted individually on our Facebooks, on our Twitters, "Hey check out Truebill on Product Hunt."
The other thing we did, we made sure we were hyperactive on the actual thread. So, anytime anyone commented something with a question or comment, we immediately jumped in and said, "Hey, I'm the founder. Thanks so much for trying it out to address your concern. Whether it be about privacy or security or anything else. Let me respond to that."
Realistically how many people ... Be honest here, how many people did you ask to help vote?
Yahya: Well, let's see. So we finished a day ... I think right now, by a few days after Product Hunt, we had close to fifteen hundred votes, maybe fourteen hundred, please don't quote me on that. I think we finished up the day around, if I remember correctly, eight or nine hundred. I would suspect that maybe a hundred of those are from people that I would call friends, and the rest would be organic.
Eric: That makes sense. I think ... Here's the thing, when you look at a Reddit, or any type of community, once you get past a certain point, if its actually a genuinely a good product, it's just going to take off, right? So, sounds like a hundred is a good number for ... As of this interview.
Okay, so Product Hunt got you to twenty five hundred users, and you guys are still continuing to acquire more. How else are you guys growing the business right now?
Yahya: Sure. So, we have some really cool data. We started packaging that up and doing content marketing. For instance, just today I wrote something about the ten most
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commonly cancelled subscriptions. These are kind of what you'd expect ... Let me give you some examples here, like Instant Check Made, or Credit Expert. These are things that when people see, they almost immediately cancel, and there are also things that tend to be somewhere between being very difficult, to ridiculously difficult side of actually being able to cancel.
Yahya: By packaging your content like that and putting it out, not only do our users respond to, but people share it and then we've had other views outlet pick it up. Or I should say, influence or bloggers pick it up.
Also we have a product that's pretty useful in a pretty tangible way. So the average Truebill user that cancels at least one subscription, saves an average of five hundred and twelve dollars per year. Like you said, you signed up and immediately saw three things that you probably want to cancel. Those monthly subscriptions really add up. So when people sign up and save money, they're very eager to share.
The other thing for instance, Forbes Magazine wrote about us in an article. It was something like the twenty easiest ways to save money. We hadn't even reached out to them, or done anything to initiate that. I guess the staff write there had just stumbled across it probably on Product Hunt, tried it out, saved money, and then built it into an article.
Eric: That's fantastic. Those are the best ways ... You can even call those advertorials in sense.
Eric: Where they just start to take off for your guys. That's fantastic.
Yahya: Exactly. A cool this is we've seen the traffic that comes in from a trusted source like Forbes, or Tech Crunch.
Eric: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Yahya: Connects their credit cards at a higher rate than just direct traffic.
Yahya: So, that endorsement really seems to help, yeah.
Eric: Wow. You know what would be really interesting ... Content marketing, if you guys can put out like which traffic sources like ... Who makes the most money, or who saves the most from which traffic source. I guess that might be a little too sensitive.
Yahya: It's definitely worth looking into.
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Eric: Interesting. Well, I would pay for that report.
Okay, cool. All right, so it sounds like you guys are doing content marketing as well. The Product Hunt stuff is working for you guys, and sounds like in the future when stuff really gets rolling you guys will probably be dabbling in paid acquisition. What else?
Yahya: The other thing is PR. So, personally a lot of my time goes into reaching out to reporters. The way that I do that, is I look at who's writing either about saving money, or about the subscription economy. Or about companies that we have a lot of data on. Then say, "Hey, you know what? I saw that you wrote an article about this company. Just so you know, we're seeing a lot of users cancel their subscriptions from that company. In fact, we've seen this percentage. I'd love to chat with you about it."
Eric: Interesting. Okay, awesome. So, the company itself right now ... How many people are on the team?
Yahya: We have four full time people, technically three with one starting on Monday. I'm working on this with three of my brothers. So, two of us are full time, and then two are contributing as advisors. So, four of us total.
Eric: Lets talk about that for a little bit. How is it working with three brothers?
Yahya: Its great. We've worked together out whole lives and that ... When I say our whole lives, that means from the lemonade stand which evolved into the lawn mowing business, which became snow shoveling in the Winter. Through our fist kind of website, through webs.com and SGN, and now this. I think it's absolutely great. A lot of people say, "Oh doesn't that create problems?" I think that with they way that me and my brothers work together, we know that our bond as family is stronger than anything business. Therefore, no business disagreement could ever really reach magnitude to cause real problems.
Eric: Okay. That makes sense, and I think that's a great story to probably ... I hope you guys are working on a book. I do want to talk about webs.com for a little bit. So, talk about that experience for a little bit, and talk about what you guys ended up exiting for.
Yahya: Yeah. So, webs.com really was born with a very straight forward mission. At the time email was taking off and websites were only for the really technically proficient. So, my brother actually came up with the idea. He said, "You know what? Today everybody is actually getting an email address, tomorrow or in the future everyone will want their own home space on the web. That's going to take the former website." He said, "Lets build a platform that makes creating a website as easy as email, or so easy that our very non technical mother could do it." The three of them started that together, and spent about eleven years working on it before it was acquired by Vista Print in 2011.
Eric: I'm a little confused here. So, I thought you worked on webs.com with two of your other brothers, so was it the three of you? Or was it like three other brothers?
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Yahya: Is three other brothers that did work there. I don't call myself a co-founder.
Eric: Okay, but you were pretty early then?
Eric: All right. Well, I guess my question would be ... So there's four of you actually-
Eric: How did you guys even end up ... You guys go from the lemonade stand, to the lawn mower business and all that. How did you guys end up figuring out how to do this? What was everybodies background?
Yahya: Right. So, we got really lucky that my parents had a home office when we were growing up. Which means that we had access to computers, a fax machine, a photo copy machine, and that type of technology. So, by making that available to us, two of our brothers became very technically talented. So, my brothers, CETO of Truebill. My other brother was CTO of webs. One of them became very entrepreneurial and one became sort of a jack of all trades, that's me.
So, it actually ends up being a great team and that we have a lot of different skill sets between us that make us pretty versatile in terms of being able to get done whatever needs to get done. Or tackle whatever challenge arises.
Eric: Okay. Do you think ... It sounds like a big part of growing up ... It sounds like your parents were entrepreneurial, right? Then they passed the genes over to you. How did that look?
Yahya: Yeah, I think my dad is really entrepreneurial. So, my parents met at the University of Maryland. Then actually after college, moved to Afghanistan. There my dad started a couple small businesses. Actually I just learned this, he had the first business in Afghanistan that sold processed chickens, or I should say, cut chickens. Before him, you could only buy a whole chicken. He started parting them out into legs and breasts and other pieces.
When the Russians invaded, they moved back to America. They kind of rushed in unpleasant circumstances and ... So, they started a passport visa service. At the time they looked, and that had a very low friction of entry, low entry costs. That's what they built. It never grew into a big enterprise, but it did provide for us, and it gave us that spring forward to be around an office, see how business is done, and have access to technology, and resources.
Eric: Yeah, I think people often forget about how important the childhood is growing up. It sounds like everything was fostered there.
Yahya: Exactly. I think ... I remember when my oldest brother was in high school, he was tasked
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in figuring out how to build a data base for that business.
Eric: Oh my God.
Yahya: We all chipped in in different ways.
Eric: Okay, great.
Yahya, how old are you right now?
Yahya: I am thirty two.
Eric: Okay, thirty two. So, what would you tell your twenty five year old self? What's one piece of advice you'd give?
Yahya: Take more risks. At twenty five, I was definitely ... I didn't consider starting my own business as an option, because I wasn't prepared to face the worst case scenario. Instead I worked reasonably good jobs at reasonably good tech companies, but I was much more risk adverse than I should have been at twenty five. Realistically if you're in your twenties, worst case scenario is you end up having to crash with your brothers, or your buddies couch for a month while you get back on your feet.
I was actually ... Do you know Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos?
I met him in Las Vegas about two years ago, and I asked him this. I said, "Twice you've kind of unmasked a fortune, and then been totally willing to dump it on something that's highly risky to the point where you almost drive yourself broke. Where do you get that risk appetite from?" He said, "The worst thing that can happen is you have to sleep on a friend's couch." That kind of struck me as, wow. You have hundreds of millions of dollars, and to you losing all of that is totally acceptable and is not a bad worst case scenario.
I was really struck by how willing he was to just go with that and realize that in the end, things will be fine.
Eric: I love it. It kind of reminds me of Elon Musk.
Yahya: Exactly. Exactly, yeah.
Eric: Okay. All right, well I want to jump back to webs.com for a little bit. You guys exited for, was it a hundred and seventy five million?
Yahya: Hundred and seventeen million.
Eric: Hundred and seventeen million, okay. Was there at any point in time where the company was on the brink of failure?
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Yahya: There were definitely learning experiences there. The one that jumps to mind is around 2006-2007 we decided to really emphasize making it more of a advertising model. So, we really over monetized the site. We did home page take overs, we did co-registration during sign up. We put ads on user's websites. It kind of became intrusive, and it confused the identity of the site and who we were trying to go after.
Before that it was a premium business, and it was going well. After that we sort of got things back on track and went back to premium, and that was definitely the way to go. There was this distraction there that we sort of lost our barrings, and made it a little bit Nascary, if I could say that.
Eric: Yeah. Lets talk about that more. That's a moment where trust is being ... You're kind of ... Your customers won't trust you as much anymore because of things that are happening all of a sudden, right? So, what was the reaction when you guys started adding all of these advertising take overs and things like that?
Yahya: Right. Well, you know there's not one big reaction. What it ends up being, is this conversion rate goes down by one percent, and then you see a small impact over here. There's no one mega outrage or event of lets just say, "Hey we messes up. Lets get back on track."
The other thing is, I think it prevented us from really focusing on the base customers that was going to make the business successful. Ultimately webs became a phenomenal tool for small and micro businesses to manage their web presence. So, that's ... When I say smaller micro businesses, I mean a lawn mowing company with two people, or a one person masseuse business, right? People like that, they want a little bit more of a professional feel. That professional feel is distracted from when you try to over monetize with advertising.
Eric: Okay. So, to be clear, once you guys started going down the advertising routes, your numbers started to decrease. Is that correct?
Yahya: Yeah, growth definitely plateaued and this is years ago ... I'm trying to remember ... The monitions started to decline if I remember correctly, from either flat lined, or declined from premium services, and was not being off set-
Eric: By the ads?
Yahya: Significantly by the ads.
Eric: All right. That makes sense.
Well that's a good lesson for everyone ... Don't get too greedy with the ads, because well first of all if kills the user's experience. Then, reviews go down overall.
Yahya: Right. Build from the people up. Stick to that, if people love your product and are using it, then you'll find ways to make money that are organic.
Yahya Mokhtarzada Page 11 of 12 Eric: Makes total sense. Now, I mean Yahya, how do you ... It sounds like you've done so many things already. For an ideal day, what does an ideal day look like for you?
Yahya: Sure. So, generally speaking, I wake up usually about seven, and usually have a phone call, probably with the east coast, or maybe with Europe. Then from there, I sort of get my day started. Eat breakfast, do some work from home before I head into the office. For some reason that's when I'm able to be super productive. Then once I get into the office, usually between nine and ten, I tend to divide the day into focusing on different pieces of the business.
So, the first thing I might do is look at customer support and customer advocacy and make sure that's on track. From there, jump into thinking about what type of new content we can generate. From there, jump into PR outreach, so I reach out to bloggers and influencers or the press and media. Then, fundraising takes some time as well.
Eric: Okay, cool. What time ... Right now there's four ... Sounds like there's four people on the team, what are your days ... What time do your days usually end? Or do you just keep going until you go to bed?
Yahya: Yeah. So, we leave the office between six thirty and seven thirty, and then my brother and I are actually roommates, so we get home and its right back to work usually.
Eric: That makes sense. You kind of have to, when its four people right?
Yahya: Right? When I can I drag him out for a run, or something to both be active as well as to at least take a few minutes away from thinking about the business.
Eric: I love it. Okay, well Yahya, what's one must read book that you'd recommend to everyone?
Yahya: Lets see, so there's a couple. I just read Ben Horowitz' book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. That was a great book. Another one that I really like, is Onward, by Howard Schultz. In that book, he built
... Howard Schultz is the founder of Starbucks. He built that business with such a reluctance to compromise on the experience that he wanted to deliver. So, that's something that personally I drew a lot from, and that's something that I try to remind myself a lot of. If its your business, its your name, your reputation. Don't stand for a less than ideal customer experience, and if there is one then you need to take that very personally.
Eric: That one is called Onward, yeah?
Yahya: Exactly, yeah.
Eric: Okay, great. Hard Thing About Hard Things, I think you're the second person to recommend that today on the podcast, so fantastic.
Yahya Mokhtarzada Page 12 of 12 Yahya: Yeah.
Eric: I'm actually keeping a running count for that one, I think that's number twenty two.
Yahya: How many people have said Delivering Happiness?
Eric: Actually I think only one person, you might be the second.
Yahya: Okay. If I could put three on the list, that's the third.
Eric: Yeah, we'll add all of these to ... I've heard great things about the Howard Schultz' book too. So, we'll drop those into the show notes.
Yahya, this has been great. What's the best way for people to find you online?
Yahya: Yeah, I'm on Twitter at Yahya Mokh. Y-A-H-Y-A-M-O-K-H. Or you could just drop a comment on the Truebill website, and I'm pretty good about checking those as well.
Eric: Yeah, everyone this is Yahya, co-founder of Truebill. Make sure you check it out, you have nothing to lose from checking it out. I think I have probably saved at least two grand for the year, or maybe three. So, check it out. Truebill.com. Yahya, thanks so much for doing this.
Yahya: Thanks so much, Eric.