Show Notes: Business Time #001

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Show Summary:

The first episode of our business-focused segment, Business Time. Today we’re taking the temperature of business in the age of COVID, with Andrew Youderian and Tyler Tringas.

Andrew runs the eCommerceFuel community, and is also Managing Partner of eCommerceFuel Capital, which focuses on helping eCommerce businesses grow.

Tyler is General Partner at Earnest Capital, which provides early-stage funding to companies focused on sustainable growth.

Show Notes:

  • [00:15] About Andrew and Tyler
  • [00:30] COVID’s impact on the software industry, especially SaaS (Tyler)
  • [02:52] The extra bad luck of serving paralyzed industries (Tyler)
  • [03:48] COVID’s impact on e-commerce as a whole (Andrew)
  • [05:35] Why are some companies doing well, and others suffering? (Andrew)
  • [07:05] Advice to small-business owners (Tyler)
  • [07:48] Why is this an opportunity to create lifelong customers? (Tyler)
  • [11:15] How can we hit the right note with marketing/communications? (Andrew)
  • [14:36] The type of business I’d love to be running right now (Tyler)
  • [15:54] Ditto ^^ (Andrew)
  • [18:05] Why do bootstrapped businesses have an advantage right now? (Tyler)
  • [21:08] Business opportunities for the mid-term (Tyler)
  • [24:10] Opportunities for new businesses (Andrew)
  • [25:54] Is e-commerce gravitating towards Amazon? (Andrew)

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Transcript:

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Business Time #001

Jimmy
We’re back and headed into Business Time. Today we’re taking the temperature of business in the age of COVID, with Andrew Youderian and Tyler Tringas.

Andrew runs the eCommerceFuel community, and is also Managing Partner of eCommerceFuel Capital, which focuses on helping eCommerce businesses grow.

Tyler is General Partner at Earnest Capital, which provides early-stage funding to companies focused on sustainable growth.

And I mean, both of you are seeing a tonne of data points right now. But Tyler, let’s start with software. What’s happening out there? Is everyone suffering? Are we all suffering, or are there pockets of light?

Tyler
Yeah, I mean, so I can give you a perspective, that sort of, it’s a combination of both our portfolio and then what I’m hearing from other software founders, which is, mostly although we don’t invest exclusively in SaaS businesses, we’re, we’re very focused there. So this is everything I say, will be kind of coloured by what’s going on in the SaaS market. I will say, it seems like the industry is holding up comparatively quite well. You know, particularly the area that we focus on, which is sort of bootstrap SaaS businesses, which are, either already profitable or quite focused on that as opposed to being sort of dependent on raising additional financing. So bear in mind, I’m not really commenting on the sort of venture funded SaaS world, just folks building regular businesses, they’re holding up pretty well. I mean, I would say, terms of direct impairment to their businesses, most of the SaaS businesses that I know either were already sort of remote first distributed teams or have adapted to that relatively easily, just because of the nature of the business, the fact that, as long as you guys all have Slack, and GitHub and all the relevant tools, you can pretty much do your, your same day to day work. So that the big question is around, what’s happening with the underlying, if you’re B2B, the underlying businesses that you serve, or, if you’re B2C, just, the sort of macro economy more broadly, are you are your customers in more trouble than you? And there we’re seeing, I would say, all sides of the distribution with sort of most of the businesses just seeing a general across the board sort of slow down and uptick and maybe churn, some number of your customers saying, hey, can we can we put our subscription on pause for a month or two? Or can we have it for free this month. But not sort of catastrophic, we’re talking about, sort of maybe 10 to 15% hits. And if you’re already growing, we’re seeing some businesses that are flat instead of growing. On either side of that, you definitely still have other things going on, if your B2B SaaS and you were unlucky enough, as many founders I know, to be serving directly, some of the industries that have just straight up stopped. If you’re in tourism, or, restaurants or delivery or things like that, obviously, you just saw sales go to zero, overnight. Although I think that’s a non-trivial but pretty small proportion. And then on the other side of the equation, you actually have some businesses that are clearly pretty sort of, antifragile to this situation where if you enable particular sort of online remote first entrepreneurship, or also if you’re kind of in the education professional development space, where people have a lot more time at home, they’re willing to watch some, learn to code screencasts or tutorials and things like that, you’re probably seeing actually quite a big uptick in business. So it’s kind of all over the place, but across the board holding up, I would say, fairly well, relative to most industries.

Jimmy
Right. Interesting. Okay, Andrew, how about e-commerce? Is that a similar environment right now?

Andrew
Yeah, I’d say so I’m gonna get up into two different segments. Let’s go maybe two weeks ago, when stuff was just I feel like two weeks ago was when there’s just a lot of raw fear and stuff. And in the last two weeks, things have maybe gotten a little bit slightly more positive sentiment wise in the markets have obviously thought so. So two weeks ago actually ran a poll in our community. And anecdotally, I was hearing a lot of pain points from people I was guessing sales would have been down on the e-commerce side 30/40%. But the average like the actual median revenue dropped two weeks ago was down about 10%. And I think the best way to say it is like, wouldn’t be quite as much pain for, let’s say seven figure ish e-commerce stores as I thought. And probably like the best of times and the worst of times it’s a pretty good way to put it. You had companies, you had 15% of merchants that were up or 13% that were up like 50% there’s businesses exploding, you had 25% of merchants that were down 50%. And so a lot of huge winners, a lot of big losers. There’s a lot of different people who look at this, looking at some great data from Common Thread Collective and others. But just anecdotally from what I’m seeing from a handful of surveys, it seems like things have improved dramatically in terms of, I’d say, your average e-commerce store owner in terms of revenue is probably up maybe instead of a net median decrease of 10%. Or ish. You’re probably up 10 to 15 to 20% even I think e-commerce in the long-term is going to benefit from this, I think in the last couple of weeks, it’s doing reasonably well you still have a lot of people that are really suffering and that their businesses have just been just, really severely impacted. But overall, it’s… promising and even more promising that it was two weeks ago.

Jimmy
And so you’ve taken polls, you’ve seen data, obviously, you’ve done some level of analysis into that, do you think, are there structural similarities with the companies that are doing well during the crisis period? Or is it just kind of luck of the draw, sort of what Tyler was talking about in terms of if you’re in an industry that’s gone to zero, bad luck, and if you’re not, things are okay.

Andrew
I think it’s two parts, you’ve got the regulatory, not the regulatory environment, but the environment in terms of if you’re operating out of your own warehouse, can you ship a lot? A lot of people still can thankfully, at least in the States, most states I think are considering mail order and e-commerce essential services. So that’s good. The other one is industries like I’m looking right now at the top 100 fastest growing and declining categories in e-commerce, this from Stackline, their survey, we’re gonna do the top five, disposable gloves one, bread machines number two, up to 600% plus, cold and cough three, soups four, dried grains and rice, number five. I actually was… our community who sells these kind of heirloom bean varieties I’m like at the end of the world’s coming and we’re going to eat a lot of beans might as well eat good beans and so we ordered a bunch from him and his business just completely exploded and then on the the declining side luggage and suitcases number one, briefcases two, cameras three, men swimwear four, and five bridal clothing. So yeah, I think it’s a little bit on the can you ship the orders but mostly niche driven.

Jimmy
Got it. Got it. and Tyler you’ve talked about a little bit of pain that you’re seeing out of there. And obviously you’re in a position to be giving advice. What are you saying to founders and small business owners who are the ones who are having a tough time?

Tyler
Well, I mean, there’s a certain category of folks for whom, there’s really not much they can do, right, in the sense where if your entire industry is frozen, there’s not a lot you can do in terms of your core business metrics, right, you’re a little bit at the whims of you just cannot go and, and get that MRR back in the short term. You know, one thing that we are saying is, try to, first of all, just trying to survive is super important, but also recognising that this is potentially a moment to create lifelong diehard customers, if you can manage to sort of come through out the other side and do right by your customers and treat them well. And at the same time, we are seeing some folks have some success around, kind of leaning into some of the stuff that ordinarily just wouldn’t fly because your customer base is too busy. So one of our portfolio founders has built a Facebook community of his customers to sort of just help them kind of navigate this incredibly uncertain time. And, a year ago had he tried to, to launch a community of his own customers, they, they obviously, they’re just too busy, right? They look away, I’m too busy serving customers, but now, they’re there. This is one of the industries that is just completely impaired, totally just sales zero. You know, they’re all saying, hey, actually, it’d be kind of good to sort of work together and figure out what’s available for us and share best practices and navigate all the kind of regulatory stuff that everyone’s dealing with around, various stimulus things and all that. So, I think, I guess I would encourage folks to just sort of lean into some of those opportunities and say, hey, the search term I’ve been using is, kind of widen the aperture of what’s possible, right? So there, there are certain things that kind of you would just toss aside in ordinary times that you can sort of give a whirl right now. You know, the other piece of advice that comes out of somebody who’s in our mentor community, here at Earnest was, if you do things that don’t scale, it kind of always makes sense, but it makes just enormous amounts of sense right now. Because you’re sort of opportunity cost of what you can spend your time on is way down. So, it’s a great time to sort of do one-on-one calls with every single one of your, your longtime customers to, be really rolling up your sleeves and, and kind of doing work that, ordinarily you’d be too busy to do but in these times, you can you can kind of take a crack at it and build that relationship

Jimmy
It is relationships, isn’t it? It’s really leaning into almost being a facilitator. You talked about the Facebook group, I mean, that’s becoming a hub for people and not through your own self interest necessarily, but through looking at what people need and adapting to that. Mm hmm.

Tyler
Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Jimmy
Sorry, Andrew?

Andrew
I was just gonna say, one thing to add to Tyler, you mentioned about chance to just build some lifelong raving fans and we’ve we there’s a thread that popped up in our community of store owners titled what companies have surprised or disappointed you during the Coronavirus pandemic, and it’s amazing. There’s a lot of SaaS companies in there and, and that have done some that have done really well. others that have, earn the ire of a lot of people. And, people are gonna remember this. And so it’s I think you’re spot on, people are already doing this and seeing who’s, taking care of people and who’s just kind of, yeah, not not being super flexible.

Jimmy
Yeah, it makes sense. I mean, on that note, Andrew, if you were running one of these companies we’re talking about, I mean, for all of us, I think marketing feels kind of weird right now. I think a lot of founders feel a bit frozen in place almost. Because it’s hard to know what to say. Right? So what are you seeing it whether it’s in that thread or through your own personal experience? What are you seeing work for small businesses when they are communicating with the community like what feels okay to say?

Andrew
Yeah, I think I’ve heard this echoed from other people too that if you’re just coming in people are pretty smart and pretty good at filtering out what’s a genuinely caring offer and what is just kind of marketing propaganda wrapped up in Coronavirus speak right? And if you’re just offering a month free to new members to help them with the Coronavirus, quote unquote, yeah, and only to new people, not your existing customers, that’s probably gonna look a little bit more like you’re trying to capitalise on the situation. From an e-commerce side of things I’ve seen I think just being real and honest with people is always a good strategy. I’ve seen people who if you are, let’s take two categories. Let’s say you’re really genuinely struggling, right? Like, because, there’s people, some of this marketing is driven by the fact that people are scared and their business is collapsing and they really need money to keep the lights on right and so If that’s the case, I think I’ve seen some really compelling campaigns from some of our store leaders, just very honest and candid on video saying like, Hey, here’s where we’re at where you’re really struggling. Here’s the situation we’re at - our revenues are down this x if you if you, if there’s any way you could support us right now, it would mean the world to us. And that’s done incredibly well for people. And I think on the flip side of that, if maybe if you’re in a position where you want to continue marketing, but you’re not at death’s door, thinking about how you can reframe that offer to discounts, of course, but also where we are, there’s a guy that that runs our razor company, Supply Co, and I saw this on Twitter, and he, they read they did an offer where they pretty much included a free year’s supply of razors for free if you bought a blades if you bought one of the razors but in a position at a time where everyone’s really worried about spending money on stuff and stocking up is very much in people’s minds, it resonated incredibly well. So those would be my two approaches to think about how you can position it in terms of the mindset people are in? And also be honest, if you’re in a tough spot, just be transparent with people.

Jimmy
Absolutely, absolutely. And we’ve talked about the companies that are doing it tough. But Tyler, what type of business? Would you absolutely love to be running right now?

Tyler
Yeah, I mean, so. Well, before I get to that, I just want to echo a little bit that. I totally agree with that. And I hear in meeting a lot of founders that, as you say, are frozen. And I really want to encourage them to unfreeze. I think, honest, well intentioned founders should not at all be afraid to speak to their customers and potential customers right now. I think, the economy needs to, to sort of grind on and as long as you follow exactly some of the stuff that that that Andrew laid out around being honest or making a genuinely helpful offer, I really want to encourage folks to sort of unfreeze and get back at it, with the obvious caveats that you do need to not be tone deaf, but I’m seeing a lot of folks who I think are being way overly cautious in this respect. And look, this is something that has affected everybody, across the board. And so everyone has like, got a pretty high level of patience for well intentioned attempts at continuing to sort of grind the gears. Um, so yeah, I just want to echo that. For the folks who, who are doing really well. I mean, a huge number of people obviously, are, being downsized across all kinds of industries. And you’re also seeing a lot of stuff that, outside of e-commerce and SaaS are both, very privileged industries to largely be not dependent on or to be, slightly less affected by social distancing. And so you’re seeing a huge upswing in interest of folks who want to be able to do one of the few categories of business that are sort of available, right? So if you enable any sort of remote friendly side hustle online business, whether that’s kind of digital goods and products, membership sites, e-commerce sites, all that sort of stuff, I suspect you’re probably seeing a pretty significant uptick in business. And the other one is, essentially, a lot of folks are stuck at home. You know, if you are, if you don’t have, let’s say, three or four kids at home, you probably have a lot more free time on your hands than you did a month ago. And so there’s a lot of folks who are seeing a huge increase in any kind of online training materials, that is something that’s going to be useful going forward. So all kinds of tutorials and online classes, things like that are seeing a big upswing as well. So those are two bright spots, I would say.

Jimmy
And Andrew, is there any business if you’re going to start a business right now, anything you’d be very excited about launching?

Andrew
I mean, maybe into the world prepper supply bunkers and kits. You know, the logistics weren’t a nightmare to deliver them. I think what Tyler said. I agree with almost all of that digital goods, e-commerce depending on the niche, digital products are incredible, anything online, anything with low overhead too, I think, it’s times like this where your overhead burn and your fixed costs just, I mean that is what kills people, I heard it listen to a financial podcast the other day about investing and they said there’s a ratio that never before was ever even in creation, but now almost every fund and portfolio company in the world is, is running that and that is how much… How long can a company survive on the cash that they have with zero revenue? Right like you never would have even thought about that in the past but that’s something that’s very in very front of people’s minds right now. So yeah, I say all those things and e-commerce and digital products just in general, depending on the niche, are good places to be.

Tyler
I take cooking supplies. You mentioned breadmakers before, right. What do you think about that? I mean, I personally know we would have made a huge run of every artisanal, crazy edge case, cooking gadget that I could think of right before we locked ourselves in.

Andrew
Oh yeah, absolutely. I even heard like seeds like I was thinking about like seeds because they could grow some stuff and wanting to do that the last garden I grew I had like a 95% failure rate on the plants and seems like a good time to sharpen and, and yeah, there’s a huge run I mean run on seeds right now. I don’t think you can get those either.

Jimmy
95% failure. So that’s basically a VC vegetable patch.

Andrew
Exactly I think, I think VCs have more luck than I, close to 98 or 99%. I think we got one carrot after I knew over about a thousand seeds planted.

Jimmy
Yeah, and heirloom beans is my one. I want to start up an heirloom bean company after hearing about that earlier. So I think it feels to me, as a business owner, it feels like it’d be comforting to have a few hundred million in the bank right now. But, Tyler you’ve talked about bootstrappers having an advantage. Overall right now, and can you dive into why that is a little bit?

Tyler
Yeah, we both kind of came to the same conclusion in the sense that, most of these businesses are taking at most a sort of 10 to 15% hit, if they’re not if they’re lucky enough not to be in the category, the select few categories that have just been totally impaired. And so, most businesses if you don’t have sort of either a business plan that involves continuing to fundraise, or having recently done a large fundraise, that’s the kind of buffer that you tend to keep in the business anyway. So a lot of the, I would say, larger operational software businesses that that we talked to that are kind of bootstrapped I mean, they’re fine we looked across the board at the mentors and and portfolio companies and exactly nobody had laid off a single person yet. Most of them had frozen their hiring plans, but they’d essentially sort of survive the initial shock, without really seeing their business being substantially negatively affected. And, and that’s contrast, I think, very substantially if you were 6-9-12 months away from needing to raise a much, much bigger round than your last raise, just to keep all the employees and the lights on. So I’ve actually been encouraging, folks who run bootstrap businesses to consider, I think a lot of people have defaulted to the survival mode, right to say, hey, let’s hunker down, let’s hoard cash, let’s cut as much cost as we can, and just try to ride this thing out. But I think a lot of bootstrap software businesses in particular are probably going to be okay. And they should think very hard about ways that they could potentially get aggressive in this moment, particularly if they operate in an area where they have venture funded competitors, right? So if you think about one area that’s particularly difficult most of the time is hiring great talent. Now is an amazing time to maybe not, just ramp up hiring across the board. But to fill one or two key roles to get a true top-notch exceptional person to fill that role, who’s sitting there at maybe a large venture funded competitor that’s unclear if they’re going to survive, or they’re at, one of the top, big tech companies and they’ve just seen, their, their sort of equity compensation package cut by 40%. Now, is going to be a much more interesting time to have those conversations and potentially poach some folks that, once we come out the other side of this, can really change the trajectory of your business. So I think there’s some folks that really should think about, hey, obviously, you want to be tactful about everything but I think this is a moment where bootstrappers in particular can potentially thrive and really, actually maybe, make some big news.

Jimmy
That makes a whole lot of sense and we’ve talked a lot about opportunities now or plans now, but in the midterm looking ahead a little bit, if you were starting a business now, with an eye to 12/18 months down the track, are there any particular opportunities that you’re seeing? Are you encouraging early stage people who you’re interacting with to go in a certain direction? Or is it more of a meta structural thing?

Tyler
Um, I think, I mean, this is gonna sound pretty self serving. But, our basic thesis has been around B2B software as that there’s still just like an infinite amount of edge cases and, and things that are still stuck in spreadsheets that just need a layer of being hosted on the internet and collaborative and easier to use. And I think this kind of shock of remote work is going to just more so open those opportunities and open the minds of some customers that maybe have said, our IT setup is working fine. We don’t really need to look at it and now all of a sudden, they’re quarantined, and then and they can’t, they can’t work from home, they have to, they literally can’t, even figure out how to VPN into their basic data to run their business. So I think a lot of businesses that maybe have held off on embracing SaaS are going to come out of this saying, now’s the time to go ahead and look at that. So one interesting example is we’re seeing, not a huge, but a definitely a meaningful uptick in interest from governments to embrace kind of modern SaaS products, because governments need to continue functioning. And, they have these really outdated legacy systems that, it’s like, well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, we’re pretty risk averse. But now all of a sudden, they’re saying, hey, we can’t, we can’t do any of the basic functions of government from a home anymore. We have to go to the office, we’re tethered to it. And I think there’s going to be even more of an upswing and interest there, but even though we’re already seeing that Right now, it’s kind of hard to do that kind of migration, right, the second. But once we come out the other side of this, I think there’s gonna be a lot of interest there.

Jimmy
So you don’t think it’s something that people forget immediately, say government departments aren’t going to go back after this is all over and say, okay, we’re good again. You think that’ll stay in the memory and trigger actual change?

Tyler
I mean, I’m sure many of them will do exactly what you just described, but, it has opened this space right, for folks within organisations to say, hey, this is important, and we need to prioritise this now. And, it doesn’t take that many actors to make a market for a lean efficient software business. So yeah, I mean, we’ll get a mix of both for sure everybody will have short goldfish memories about this at a certain point, but the, the, I think the ability to go remote may for certain organisations become a sort of critical component of their work plan.

Jimmy
Andrew, same question to you medium term opportunities if you’re starting a business right now?

Andrew
if you’re starting a business right now, I think there’s a lot of opportunity if not now in the next probably three to six months and I think it’s gonna be really dependent based on a lot of if you’re in SaaS, if you’re an e-commerce, I think, I think if you’re an e-commerce right now, I think there’s going to be there’s gonna be, e-commerce doesn’t have the margins that SaaS does. And so depending on A) how, you know how much fixed overhead people have, from a medium amount to a lot to how much money they have in the bank, you’re really sadly you’re going to see some of those people just not be able to make it. So I think, potentially, if you’re looking to start an e-commerce business, and you’ve got some capital, maybe you’ve been in the professional world, you’ve saved something and you want to get in I would be looking in the next six months as someone who wants it, as an owner operator to try to buy something that potentially had potential but just financially It wasn’t panning out and if that’s on the on the new, if you’re starting a new business site because if you can do it now I mean like if you can I launched my first business in 2008 like March of 2008 like arguably the worst time to start a business right great for bootstrappers though and, if you can make it work in the middle of really hard times you’re gonna come out the backside that much stronger. So yeah, I think they’ll be a lot of different opportunity on the buy side. And for existing businesses, maybe not on the new side, but existing businesses like Tyler said, great time to buy to acquire talent, great time to competitors. And if you have the ability to weather this even if you’re not making money and improve your product and be one of the fewer remaining people standing at the end of this with a better product, that’s a pretty phenomenal place to be.

Jimmy
Absolutely and staying with e-commerce. Are you seeing people gravitate more towards Amazon or away from Amazon? Because obviously Amazon I believe is still restricting shipments if they’re not essential supplies. People in… Amazon is obviously the gorilla in the room, people are usually getting a lot of their ecommerce revenue through Amazon. Is there a feeling of how that’s gonna play out in the medium term?

Andrew
So we do a big report on e-commerce and we haven’t done as this year. But last year we saw the number of people who were selling on Amazon. It was still growing, but it had decelerated and almost almost to the point where it had stalled out. So the adoption of people moving there and my predictions this year was that, for the first time ever, we’re going to see the number of people who sell the number of stores who choose to sell on Amazon as a platform actually declined. Not in aggregate but the percentage of stores that sell on Amazon maybe just slightly come off that peak and I think I didn’t anticipate Coronavirus, I wish I would have been that smart ,but I think this is going to do nothing but to accelerate that trend because you have I don’t blame Amazon. I think they’ve handled this as well as they could, I think they made the right decision but if 70% of your business is based on Amazon. If you have an incredible amount of inventory There are even if you don’t you can’t sell it there; it just cripples your business. So even apart from all the other things that were were causing versions to maybe questions selling on the platform, things like IP issues, counterfeit issues, fees, the worries of suspension and channel risk all these things now, you go through in a traumatic event like this where your entire or a huge part of your logistics chain is just completely your demands, like now you realise that the supply side when you ship orders can be locked, disappear overnight as well. Like, that’s pretty scary. So I think that trend was, I was already seeing that. And I think we’re gonna see that accelerate on the backside of this.

Jimmy
And it relates to what Tyler was saying earlier about community and becoming a hub and deepening relationships. It’s very hard to do that over Amazon isn’t it?

Andrew
It’s incredibly hard. Like, I mean, we were, I think there’s a lot of niches that you can sell on Amazon, but personally, I think Amazon’s gonna be a great place in the future to buy very well on existing extra big brands, or very cheap things that you really don’t care for breaks in, in six months, you need it for the short term. But like those in between things was really interesting niche brands like Minaal, for example, I could be wrong, maybe you move a boatload of them through Amazon. But I would imagine for something like that, it seems like it makes more sense to focus on your own channel, because you’ve got a great product. There’s a story behind it. You don’t have to pay the fees there. There’s a lot of word of mouth, I would guess, a lot of word of mouth sales that you get, because it’s such a great product. So I don’t know for something like that, I mean, does it make sense to have a little presence on Amazon, maybe. but I would be putting a lot more of my effort into the.com. And because I think that’s just a product that lends itself much more to that. And I think we’re going to see kind of the hollowing out of e-commerce where super great brands, really cheap stuff on Amazon, anything that has character, story, proprietary medium and is going to be driven more on their own websites.

Jimmy
Makes a ton of sense. Alright, well, sounds like there are plenty of opportunities out there despite – or maybe even because of being a completely crazy time – thanks for jumping on today guys, really appreciate your insight.

Jimmy
That was Andrew Youderian, Managing Partner at eCommerceFuel Capital, and Tyler Tringas, General Partner at Earnest Capital. We’ll be posting audio and show notes from this conversation at minaalradio.com/businesstime