My Book on Design Thinking titled ‘Design the Future’

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Design the Future

Hi! As some of you might already know, my book on design thinking, titled ‘Design the Future’ is out!

Despite design thinking being several decades old, we are seeing increasing relevance in its application in our fast-paced lives today. I’ve read incredible books on the subject in the years I’ve been practicing it. However, I still find confusion & uncertainty among some of those who have been practicing it, as well as those merely trying to learn it.

‘Design the Future’ is an effort to reduce grey areas by building a stronger foundation. It covers the fundamentals, examples from around the world, and my observations, notes and learning of design thinking & human behavior.

If innovation, design thinking, problem-solving, human behavior or ideation are areas of interest, I’m sure you will enjoy reading this book.

Currently, paperbacks are on AmazonFlipkartInfibeam , and other online bookstores.

If you do read the book, I’d be grateful if you can leave me a review on Amazon.

You can reach me at ‘shrutin [at] ateamstrategy [dot] in’ with your views, or if you’d like me to answer any questions or doubts you might have.

Hope you enjoy reading the book & find it useful in supplementing your design thinking skills.

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What’s Your Profession? Did You Bring More Soldiers?

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What’s Your Profession? Did You Bring More Soldiers?

In 1970s, according to the TV series Mindhunter at least, the FBI was filled with accountants & lawyers instead of more relevant experts in areas that mattered. That is, in place of behavioral analysts.

That seems to have been the case with the Indian Venture Capital industry too for some time now. They’ve strangely been recruiting a concerningly high number of Finance and CA folk. Instead of hiring more right-brained folk who can understand customer needs, likes, dislikes, and the customer experience. Those who can appreciate an entrepreneur’s vision and passion, and perhaps the grueling journey she or he has been through to get there.

Numbers don’t build businesses. They’re the result of it.

If the venture capital sector doesn’t have enough people who can understand a customer’s journey, an entrepreneur drive and vision, among other non-numerical things, just processing numbers will only make so much of a superficial impact. And bring so much of a multiple-x return on investment.

Look at the Indian funded startup space for instance. It even makes one wonder if many of our entrepreneurs possess the vision and passion. Perhaps how Flipkart is try to go after numbers, while Amazon is increasingly trying to improve the customer experience. Or how and why Uber might have logically entered the food delivery space? And more importantly, why did Ola (I hope I’m wrong!) seem to acquire Foodpanda in a knee-jerk reaction to Uber? Or how, while in India we still get mobile phones and media content literally on the same day as any developed country. When it comes to business inclination to improve the customer experience though, we get by with the bare minimum. Why?

Why can’t investors identify truly driven entrepreneurs and be able to align with the entrepreneur’s vision to create an impact? Does pushing an entrepreneur into super minority stake keep them sufficiently invested in the big plan? And is it possible for the overpaid founder of a funded startup with multiple investments of his or her own in other startups, early in his or her own startup journey, to create what people call a unicorn?

Focus! Focus! You need the right people, adequately motivated, to do one job! And to do it right!

Reminds me of a scene from the movie 300. When Daxos and his army meets Leonidas and his brave 300. Have a look!

Maybe there’s a difference between saying ‘customer service’ and doing what is necessary to delight?

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What the Customer Wants

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What the Customer Wants

There has been the occasional debate between two schools of thought:

You need to ask the customer what he/she wants; and,

The customer doesn’t know what he/she wants until we show them (remember ol Steve Jobs?)

A bulk of the views I’ve come across so far lie on the side of ‘ask the customer’. However, it isn’t often that you find companies that build sound offerings and experiences that delight customers. And when questioned, a lot of them agree that no one really asked the customer. The huge divide between logical sounding answers on innovation, and contradicting real-life actions.

In fact, it all depends on how much improvement you want.

If you only need an incremental edge over competitors, your company’s efforts too will be similar – marginal targets, marginal budgets, marginal efforts. This might include a superficial but fancy-sounding customer survey, or just a few managers in the meeting room thinking of ways to tweak the existing product. In all, uninspiring intent, uninspiring effort, uninspiring results.

However, if what your business needs is a leap in growth, you need radically new offerings. That’s where customer inputs come in. From personal experience, I’ve come to realize that customers themselves often may not know or be able to hint at what might be a final solution going forward. But your interactions with your customers will be the only thing that will spark of that genius idea for an innovative new solution. Nothing else can trigger that. No research reports or internal ‘brainstorming’ can. But it is the customer who will help you get there. And the whole journey isn’t like a surgical missile strike or a silver bullet or an instant mix; but more like clay pottery.

You start with a meaningless mass of possibilities, spin them around, try things, make corrections, keep spinning, more tries, more corrections, till finally you have something wonderful shaping out. Something previously unthought of. Something incredible.

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The Up Side of Consulting

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The Up Side of Consulting

Here’s a post I had drafted for submitting as a resource to MosaicHub, in response to their call to members for ‘the Top 5 things businesses need to know about your area of expertise’.

Here are five top thoughts that we at the A-Team, believe would be beneficial for businesses who engage consultants, for those wanting to start a consulting business, as well as for people seeking a career in consulting. They are based to a large extent on the A-Team’s experience and focus. It will however, provide a certain insight into consulting in general.

To begin with, here’s a thought: The purpose of consulting, is not consulting, but the client.

1.  Never does a one-size fit all – industries, products or services and even markets may be identical. However, our solutions take into consideration even the less conspicuous factors. Factors like promoter aspirations or management vision for a business. Thus, no two solutions to seemingly identical business problems are exactly the same. Never let consultants sell you solutions that you feel aren’t in the best interest of your company

2.  No silver bullets here – you’ve heard of ‘easy come, easy go?’ We at the A-Team strongly believe that is exactly how quick-fix solutions are. We might be able to quickly patch up urgent problems with a tactical outlook. However, our strategies essentially apply for mid-to-long term growth of the company, which is akin to laying a strong foundation before a huge building comes up. Only strong foundations make for lasting results. If consultants promise you magic potions, you’ll know something’s amiss

3.  Who wants ridiculously expensive ‘paperweight’ reports? – We have heard numerous stories of larger companies spending fortunes on consulting assignments. And at the end of what seems like eternity, they’re often left with an attractive, painstakingly prepared report. One that no one at the company knows what to do with. The A-Team, since inception, decided to stay away from merely fancy reports and focus on simple, effective and implementable strategies.

We ensure that all our strategies are broken into logical, step-by-step tasks that are easy to understand and implement by the respective persons or teams at our clients’ company. Our retainer-based engagement model allows for our close association with businesses during implementation of our solutions. Do remember to ask your consulting firm ‘how easily implementable will your solution be?’ at the initial negotiation stage itself

4.  Grey haired scholars are a lot, but not everything – The bigger consulting firms normally look at recruiting fresh graduates or postgraduates and train them on the job. And respected consultants advising large businesses are people who’ve spent decades seeing cyclical patterns of those industries. With Small & Medium Businesses, the problems aren’t similar. Cyclical industry cycles apart, SMBs deal with smaller but way more critical problems than MNCs do.

And unlike MNCs, where efforts and effects can take long to show, it’s do-or-die several times a month for younger businesses. Young businesses might need more nimble and creative types of solutions, requiring a younger breed of people. Planning the vision and long term journey of the company, on the other hand, would benefit greatly by having some seasoned advisors to build stronger foundations on which growth can be built

5.  Stop at nothing – this one’s for aspiring consultants, nothing should stop you from becoming a consultant, if you have all of these – a logical and analytical mindset, and a transparent, ethical and unquestionable intention to do all you possibly can to add value in one or more areas at your client’s company. I had cleared most rounds at consulting firms I interviewed at. But never made it through their final interview round.

General feedback was that while my analytical skills were really good, my oral communication was not as concise and crisp as your average consultant [go figure!] The learning for you is, if you can solve problems logically and analytically, and have the noblest of intentions for your clients, nothing in the world should stop you from realizing your consulting dream. And this comes from someone who, 19 months down, has a few grey hairs of his own, to ‘show’ his distance run.

If you are interested in reading on, this is a little background story about A-Team Business Consulting.

A-Team Business Consulting is a Management Consulting service committed to working with enterprising young businesses globally. We operate in areas of Medium-to-Long term Growth & customer delight strategy. The aim is to be the Growth Catalyst of Choice for our clients.

Back in 2012, prior to starting A-Team Business Consulting, I sought the advice of some very senior and experienced persons from industry on my intention of working with deserving small & medium businesses [SMBs] in areas of growth and customer-focused strategies. While I saw a huge unaddressed demand, I wanted their perspective too. The overwhelming advice I received included a considerable amount of optimism, acknowledging a huge need for growth consulting for SMBs.

The advice, however, had a heavier share of forewarning. For reasons ranging from the fact that it is an extremely difficult space to establish a sustainable business model; or that younger companies are reluctant to pay high consulting fees, and that consulting was best left to the grey-haired stalwarts of industry [indicating those with over 20 years of experience, and who had ‘seen and lived through all kinds of industry cycles’].

I still felt strongly about my intention to help SMBs. So, taking their suggestions and warnings, I dived right in.

I’ll admit, it has been the roughest 19 months ever. And unfortunately most of the business is still operated single-handedly by me. But I have built a highly capable six-member external consultant team. And with over 16 assignments to our credit, things only looks optimistic. More importantly, a smooth-functioning and scalable model, and more importantly, an established brand in consulting, now looks achievable.

And has it been worthwhile? When an extremely driven entrepreneur is delighted enough with your work to offer you to come aboard as co-founder. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me going. Or when you complete a a small assignment for the company of a visionary 40-year old industry veteran. And he sits beside you and expresses interest in having the A-Team partner with them for the long term. Reasons like this are sufficient for us to endure and grow, to help more deserving businesses grow.

If you believe you are building a great company, do get in touch with us. We would love to be of assistance, in areas of Growth Strategy, Customer Delight Strategy, and Ideation. Now, we’ve graduated, and operate on the cusp of design thinking, strategy and human behaviour. We help companies understand their customers and customer needs, and then innovate and grow.

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Serves you Right

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“Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it. It is what the client or customer gets out of it.”
– Peter Drucker

We recently bought a cordless telephone from Croma (for the uninitiated, Croma comes under the Tata umbrella). Took it back home and it was not working. Late next evening mom and I made another trip to the store to exchange it. We entered Croma around 8:30pm, I suppose the store is open till 9:30pm or so. The salesman at the telephones section directed us to the Customer Service Dept at the back of the store. There we were directed to a small office cabin and asked to wait.

Right outside it was what appeared to be a desk where customers were guided and assisted with easy EMI and payment options. It seemed to be bustling with activity, with 2-3 customers waiting their turn, while an enthusiastic employee briefed each customer with her available options, found work-around solutions for delivery criteria, payment modes, etc. And here we waited patiently.

A few minutes later, an employee came by and we briefed him about the faulty telephone. He informed us, matter-of-factly, that the Customer Service dept closes at 8pm, and that the representative has left for the day. He said he’d check with someone. We waited another 5-10 minutes. And all this while, the “easy-payments” desk was abuzz. I was bored and sleepy. Someone told us that we’d have to come back the next day, anytime before 8pm. Mom expressed her displeasure. That was when someone took us to a senior manager on floor who promptly approved an exchange. It was past 9.

How unforgiving the present day customer is, cannot be over-stated by any measure. Companies offering services must go the distance while delivering the same. In this case, by service I do not mean the consumer products that Croma sells, but what they offer in the name of “customer service” or “after-sales service”, call it what you may. And it isn’t about Croma. Or any other biggie for that matter.

So if you’re offering a service (read customer service), offer it completely. Or don’t offer it at all. That’s about what you choose to offer customers. It’s different if, with a stiff upper lip and folded arms, you flatly refuse prompt after-sales service during a sale. But if you do offer it, do everything necessary to make it the integral part of your bigger sales cycle.

Nobody gives a shit if you have a nice big air-conditioned waiting room with a big board that says “Customer Service” if it isn’t manned, or if you close it hours before the store closes. If you’re open to business, you have to be open to customer service as well.

Because you could find a hundred different ways to entice people to buy more, ease payments, etc. but if something doesn’t work, until it is fixed, it is not a product that doesn’t work, it’s “their” money that’s just sitting there and not doing anything for them.

Business – whenever, wherever

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If you got to start your business, you can’t always wait for real estate prices to be right.

Sometimes, you just start..Wherever.!

(Saw this on some random inner road on the outskirts of Pune)

For those still wondering, that is a car covered with clothes that a man is trying to sell to passers by.

And while I was there only for a minute or two, while trying to make a u-turn as I was a little lost, he did have a few customers.!

Pretty cool huh?!

Layers of BS

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Ever realized how much time we spend each day either building a thick layer of ‘unnecessary’, and/ or scraping a thick layer of it.

Rather than build quality products and services, we tend to build our own imaginary features, declare our products/ services to be the absolute best without the real stuff to prove it. Facts are covered up, hyped, or even distorted.

And customers on the other hand, while listening to people brag about their ‘best-in-the-galaxy’ offerings, have to spend most of their waking hours in a state of suspicion, of products and services they buy, of people they interact with, of ideas and suggestions they are given. Because, more often than not, there’s always a layer of bullcrap that customers are mentally scraping and making their own deductions. And usually, the more the BS, the poorer the impression they have of what you have to offer.

Sellers will ridiculously inflate prices. Buyers will be aware to some extent, and both will go through the motions till they arrive at a common ground. And it isn’t just about price. It’s the same with quality, safety, and a lot of such critical factors. One hypes it, the other either falls for it to whatever extent, or doesn’t at all.

Rather than spend time in building quality products and services, we have come to rely more on confident BS based on an illusion of supposed facts that we have created, and what we pass on to every new employee at most companies.

More emphasis is given on teaching the shortcuts, rather than on the product/ service or business know-how. Employees too would rather learn some quick fake facts about something they’re trying to sell, rather than know what they offer, inside-out; so that they could perhaps better understand it, better understand the customer, and help build an even better product/ service.

Guess the meaning of ‘learning the ropes’ has, over the years, slipped down the very same ropes.

Our innate attitude is towards avoiding that extra mile, towards quick fixes, rather than in the direction of building something that lasts.

The way I see it, that extra mile today usually saves several hundred extra miles in the long run.

We Deliver.!

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We Deliver.!

Several years back, I used to work in the ever so famous BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) Industry in one of India’s IT hotbeds, Bangalore. My job involved providing technical assistance to North American customers of our pretty impressive all-in-one printer range.

There was a time I wondered if the monotony could leave me permanently depressed. Or worse, brain-damaged. But right then, I received an email from my boss. He was forwarding an email from a customer I had assisted a few days before. The customer had needed print cartridges urgently. For some reason unknown to most of us, it took about 3-4 days after placing an order, for the cartridges to actually reach the customer. (And in case you wondered, ‘no, the cartridges weren’t shipped from India).

While this was a free delivery, there was a 1-day shipping for some charge. I was aware that in some special cases, I could request a senior colleague to waive off the charges on the 1-day fee, but it was not a luxury I’d like to take for granted. So I promised the customer a 3-4 day delivery period and that I would try to have the cartridges delivered earlier if possible.

Coming back to the email the customer had sent, it read something on the lines of  – I would like to thank XYZ for the quick shipping of my print cartridges. He said it would take 3-4 days, but when it arrived the next day, I was thrilled. He has done what we in the customer service industry call ‘under-promising and over-delivering’, the surest way to win a customer and a little more to that effect.

That was my first lesson in customer service; ok maybe not the first, but certainly the one with the most impact. It has been a while since that corporate ‘high’, and since those technical support days, but that feedback has stayed on with me. While I’m no ‘pro’ at customer service, I do understand its ever-increasing importance in any business, and I constantly try to figure ways of improving the customer’s experience.

And I have found many an Indian BPO employee, or for that matter, even your average sales or service staff at any retail outlet or business centre, bubbling with enthusiasm to cater to the customer’s every demand. And while this is a great thing for customers, there are 2 key ingredients missing in many cases. Those being  Planning and Communicating. A simple equation of their effect on customer experience would look something like:

Customer Experience = Communicating (Planning+Commitment+Delivering on Commitment)

Most of us are great at committing, but tend to fall a little short when it is time to deliver on the commitment. And this causes unnecessary customer dissatisfaction.

In our endeavor to give the customer that little bit ‘extra’, we often miscalculate delivery or commitment deadlines. And this ends up causing the exact opposite of the effect we had planned for.

If we were to take into account all possible influencing factors (Planning) and build it into a commitment or delivery deadline, and perhaps even throw in a little buffer if we have a gut feel about possible delay, we would be giving the customer a more realistic picture. And of course, nothing beats plain old ‘Communication’. It is extremely important that we communicate with the customer. Even a call or message updating them the moment you see a deadline getting stretched, does wonders. You cannot imagine how much customers appreciate that phone call informing them of a delay. It beats them arriving at your doorstep on D-day only to be asked to come the following week.

To my customer.
I may not have the answer, but I’ll find it.
I may not have the time, but I’ll make it.
-Unknown

Then of course, nothing beats delivering on a commitment or deadline.!

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Funny Side Up

All those moments that left you speechless…More like the dumbfounded speechless. I was just thinking about it today, and thought I’d share some such situations that I have been lucky (and sometimes not so lucky) to be stuck in the middle of.

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Funny Side Up

All those moments that left you speechless… (No, not like when you saw Claudia Lynx or  Mila Kunis on TV). More like the dumbfounded speechless. I was just thinking about it today, and thought I’d share some such situations that I have been lucky (and sometimes not so lucky) to be stuck in the middle of.

  • About two months back, I called my credit card company to tell them that I hadn’t received my estatement, and to ask them to mail it to me. The charming voice at the other end asked me some random questions just to make sure I was the actual holder of the card, and then proceeded to say that she’ll have the statement emailed to me. Then, as what I assume to be a part of the ‘procedure’, she thought of “confirming” my cell number, mail id, landline number, address (hey, don’t look at me, am still wondering about the logic behind it). Anyway, so when she read out my address, I realized that she’d got one alphabet wrong in the name, so I asked her to correct it. After that, again, as part of the procedure, she proceeded to fire a series of questions, about practically everything, just to (again) make sure I was me. The second last question, ‘what was the last amount billed to your card?’ Thankfully, since I had received a message when the transaction happened, I remembered and told her the amount. Last question, ‘where was that transaction made?’ How the hell would I remember, it was over 12 days ago. ‘No problem’, she said, cheerfully, ‘you can check on it, I’ll call you back tomorrow’. I completely forgot, so the next day, she called up as planned, but I didn’t have the info. ‘Not a problem’ she said again,  suggesting the same deal of me checking after I get back from work, and that she’d call the next day. Anyway, I checked that evening, but missed her call the next day. Next thing I know, I receive a letter from the credit card folks (the address on which, by the way, still happened to have the minor spelling mistake). The letter stated that “this is the last correspondence to your old address, and all further correspondence would be made to your new address.” Whoa. When did I change my address? And, if that wasn’t enough to leave anyone wondering, I received another similar letter the next day (with the spelling mistake rectified), informing me that my new address has been updated in their records and from then on, all correspondence would be to the new address.
  • Back in 2008, I got myself a Vodafone USB internet card after paying for a limited usage for the year (1GB free/ month). The little software which installs on your laptop, helps you connect/ disconnect, and also shows you the usage. So I’d keep the usage within limits, so as not to have to pay at crazy rates/MB beyond the free usage. And then, about 4 months down, I received a bill for Rs.200 for excess usage. As I saw the statement only on the due date, I thought I’d rather pay it and then look into the matter. So, I paid, but then didn’t bother check with Vodafone. Next month, I made sure I kept checking my usage. I’d used about 3/4th of my free limit for the next month, but I received a bill for Rs.1400. Ok, now things were getting serious. I went to Vodafone to find out about the screw-up. After the usual ‘Happy to help’ chat, they assured me it was probably a billing mistake. That it happened sometimes. The issue was that while my Vodafone software was showing my usage at 3/4 of the limit, on the company system it was registering a usage 40% or so more above the limit. Few days down, my connection was blocked. Next visit to Vodafone, the same exec apologized profusely. He said he had forgotten to log the complaint, which is why it got blocked. I told him to take care of it, n went my way. Next month’s bill was over Rs.1500 (Rs.1400 + late charges, service tax, the works). What followed was 2.5 months of constant comms with Vodafone, at the store, on the helpline, and to with every email id I could find on their site. They kept insisting that they’ve checked and rechecked, and that I would have to pay up. At the end of that time, I had pretty much had it, and so I went and settled the bill, so as not to let them torment me anymore, even though they still hadn’t realized that there was something wrong with their systems. Next thing you know, I receive a letter from Vodafone’s legal guys threatening to go to court if I didn’t pay. The @#$#.! I called the lady at Vodafone whom I’d been in touch with regarding this matter. She was, I think, some mid-level manager. She told me that they’d received the payment, and that I could ignore the letter. Then I happened to just discuss the problem one last time with that lady. Just to let her know the hell they’d all put me through for some mistake on the part of Vodafone. And when I, for the nth time, told her about the Vodafone software that installs on the laptop, I said, ‘you know, the little window that shows the level of usage, and other info’. Her reply was priceless. The Customer service something Manager told me she had never seen the actual software before. And she didn’t know what it did. So, I was arguing with about 12 different people at Vodafone for well over three months, had to shell out money for no reason at all, and all along, this lady, who was definitely at a fairly high up position, didn’t even know what she was arguing about or defending. No better way to kill customer care, eh? I guess all along, all they meant was ‘Happy to Help (ourselves to your money)’.
  • Several years back, my dad had applied for a car loan. So, as part of the process, the bank executive dropped by home one afternoon, to get some papers filled, and to collect the post-dated  cheques. While dad was signing the 59 odd cheques (5 year loan), the executive, with a concerned look, asks dad, ‘Sir, I hope you have the total amount (the loan amount) in this bank account?’ Dad, already a little irritated with all that signing, suddenly was at a loss for words. He tried his best not to show his disbelief at the question, which of course, didn’t work too well. He looked at the executive and said, ‘if I had that kind of money in the bank, do you think I’d be applying for a loan?’ It then struck the executive, who then tried his best to hide his embarrassment with ‘of course sir, well, I was just asking’.
  • As a kid, I used to frequent the Croissants‘ outlet near my granny’s place. I had many favourites on their menu. And we sometimes used to parcel plain croissants. A slightly microwaved plain croissant tastes great with tea, especially in the mornings. So one evening, mom sent me to pick up about 15 plain croissants. I walked in, to find that I was the only customer in the huge place. Anyway, so I paid at the cash counter, and then walked up to the counter for plain croissants and gave the attendant the little order slip. He looks at it, and then asks me, “Will you be having them here?” I looked around, and then asked him, does it look like I’ll be eating 15 plain croissants here, alone?” Talk about being stuck with your foot in your mouth =O
  • My job in Venture Capital too, made sure I got a regular dose of such situations. Like a few times when I’d get calls or even random visits from aspiring entrepreneurs. They’d go, “I’m planning to venture out on my own. How can your Venture firm help me?”, they’d ask, with a straight, I-mean-business sort of face. That would get me all thrilled, every single time. I mean, it takes a lot of guts and conviction for anyone to start a business on their own. And I admire that. So then I’d ask them about what the venture is all about. How much money they’d need, and all that. Then comes the priceless answer. Something that normally sounds like, “I have a few different types of businesses that I could possibly get into. Depending on which one, the venture funding I’d want would vary. However, I haven’t really worked out the exact funding that might be required. You see, I could either start with one of the businesses in one state, or cover like, half of India. So accordingly, the funding I’d need would vary. I wanted to know how your fund could help me out.” Huh.! I could’ve sworn the board outside my office didn’t read ‘Charity Venture’ or something to that effect. Then why.?

Lemme know bout your ‘at a loss for words’ moments…

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