Acting on what’s important

Last weekend, two men, neither of whom I knew personally, died in separate accidents in North America. Yet this morning, as I sit down to write I find the deaths of Dave Goldberg, CEO of Survey Monkey and Parag Parikh, value investor have impacted me in ways I’d not have guessed. Yes we live in a world, whether the earthquake in Nepal (7500+ dead), war in Yemen (1250+ dead) or Syria (200,000+ dead) which in many way inures us to the news of death if not death itself. Yet the death of both these men, one admired in the startup community – known to many as the spouse of Sheryl Sandburg of Facebook (and Lean In fame) and the other in India’s value investment community, should make every one of us in the entrepreneurial community stop and take stock.

As founders of startups and otherwise active members of the ecosystem, we get caught up with the chase – whether news of rounds raised or customers won or milestones made. Our startups are constantly faced with existential crises be they cash flow problems, key employee loss or co-founder shenanigans. Many of us make it a badge of honor that we don’t have time for personal lives or the long hours we put in or how we’ve spent days at the office with little or no sleep. What little time we have we spend poring over startup news, networking and hustling. Many of us who left the corporate “rat race” have only traded it for the startup roller coaster, without the perks and the sobering truth of what working for oneself really is. Almost every one of these things is what makes the start up life the exhilarating and infuriating ride that it is.

The sudden death of these two men in their prime only brought home the truth of what’s important in our lives – our families, our health and what we can contribute to our communities. All too easily our own time can be taken away – so don’t put away what’s important to another day – don’t wait for Mother’s Day or any other special day to call on a loved one, to read to your child, take a walk with your spouse or a long hike with friends.

Stop reading and go give someone a hug!

4 Lessons from 3 Months as a Gaming Startup

Since 1988, when I began working, I’ve been part of three multinational firms (National Semi 1988-96, Synopsys ’99-2000, SiRF 2006-08), two startups (Microcon 96-97, Sasken 97-99), started two companies (Impulsesoft ’99-2006, Zebu – 2009-’11) and one non-profit (NEN, 2011-14). Between 2006-2011 I also invested or advised a variety of startups, a few of whom have thrived and a few died. Most of course are hanging in there. You’d have thought I’d have learned a few things over these 26 years and I have. Yet, doing a gaming startup has brought home loud and clear how much more there is to learn.

Follow The Dots

In mid November, my partners and I began working with a young man, for now code-named Don Knuth to pivot Zebu Communications – our originally marketing automation, then marketing consulting startup – to be a gaming studio. Since then we’ve launched two games on Android HomeBound and Follow the Dots and one on iOS. This post is a quick summary of 4 Lessons that I’ve learned (some granted needed reminding). Some of these are true for all startups but particularly relevant when embarking on a startup outside your own area of domain expertise.

Act fast and often I’ve never stop to be amazed to discover how much I STILL don’t know – not just about game mechanics, App Store Optimization or customer acquisition, monetization or mobile eco-system and even doing press releases. I’m sure there’s more stuff that I don’t even know that I know nothing about. Yet whatever I know, that I need to know, came from doing things. We got our first Android game out the door in 3 weeks – sure it didn’t set the world on fire (yet) – but I’ve learned more in this time, that’ll keep us rolling for the next one year. Reading is good (and I’m a big proponent of it) but acting fast and often, especially when it’s a new domain is very important.

Business first Doing a startup, particularly a gaming one, is loads of fun – there’s ton’s to do – games to play, code to write, logos to design – it’s very easy to keep busy. And as you learn stuff (see above) there’s even more stuff to do. Of course all the things that involve product development (concept, design, coding, testing, competitive analysis) are all in your “control” and feels like “real” work. So there’s a real risk that you’ll spend all your time doing these “fun” things and its easy to lose sight of the fact that you are a business – in other words you need customers – who’ll generate revenue for you – whether by paying you, through ads or other purchases. So spend as much time thinking about how you will make money and validating that – fast and often. We are yet to figure this out, but think about it and try things every day.

Consult others Luckily both the entrepreneurial community and gaming in particular is quite giving and willing to share. There are so many unknowns in building a gaming business that it is both an opportunity and a risk. So talk to people who are in the business. For instance a friend introduced me to Rajesh Rao, founder of Dhruv Interactive – India’s oldest game development company. They’ve been through the whole cycle – game development as a service, product development, to game incubator and Rajesh was sweet enough to take the time to give us an unvarnished view of the pluses and minuses. Others whether Vishal Gondal or Alok Kejriwal have been active speakers, writers and supporters of the gaming scene in India. Numerous indies have been forthcoming in sharing their time and insights locally and globally. It would be a huge mistake to try to do this – for any startup – on your own without consulting others and seeking their counsel.

Do your own thing Of course having sought others counsel, you still need to do your own thing – at least you’ll be well-informed. The challenge when you consult others is that you will get a lot of seemingly contradictory advice – do this, don’t do this. If we went completely by what others said – and I’ve done that more than once – we’ll come to rue it. What they said was most likely true – for them and at that time – the very opposite may be true now or for you. So getting to know what you need to know and what others have tried or not – regardless of whether it worked or not for them – is important but beyond that you gotta do your own thing. We were told that interstitial ads work better, but we found text ads worked better for us. Of course we may find video ads work even better or not. So do your own thing to verify.

Once a quarter, I will share our learnings as we embark on yet another startup journey. Meanwhile – support us by downloading our games, reviewing them and spreading the word. Thanks.

3 Steps to Achieve Profitable Growth

I never ceased to be amazed at how fast time seems to run right by us. Here we are in the second week of December and soon another year will be gone. Over the last four weeks as I’ve talked to a variety of entrepreneurs – it seems like they just got started and now already they’ve been in business for 4-5 years. Where did the time go, I find myself wondering. I’m not always sure that they wonder about it!

More importantly as some of them struggle for consistent growth and profitability, I find our conversations veering towards figuring out what’s working for them. In these conversations, I find myself repeatedly asking three or four questions

  • What is a typical deal size for you?
  • How long a selling cycle do you have – between first contact and first payment or purchase order
  • How many of these are repeat customers?
  • With which of these customers are you actually making money?

The funny thing is despite age or relative success of the business or experience of the entrepreneur this data is not that handy usually in most startups that I meet. It’s when they encounter a bump or worse yet a wall, they seek help and often the answers lie within such data. Of course sometimes it does not, but we’d know that only after we look at the data. Three things that are worth doing are

Analysis framework Build yourself a simple revenue and profit analysis framework – this could be simply a spreadsheet, like a sales tracker, but instead of forecast it shows what transpired. Ideally you would cover revenue, sales cycle, gross margin by account or customer (outside-in) and by-product or service offering (inside-out) and if you have a large enough team, even by salesperson. Depending on the nature of your business this could over a weekly, monthly, or quarterly period. Even if you review only on a half-yearly or annual basis, having the breakdown at least at a monthly level, helps.

Periodic reviews Any data and analysis is not of much use, unless you periodically review it. I’d include as many senior folks (if not your entire team) in such a review. The goal of the review is to really understand, which customers and products actually make profits for you – how long it took you to acquire them and why they’ve stayed with you or given you repeat orders. Alternately it will tell you if you are NOT getting repeat orders or those repeat orders are NOT coming fast enough or at better margins. Including the larger team, allows you to do find bottlenecks and assumptions within your own team – why proposals or demos take longer than they need to (selling cycle), costs are higher (team tries to get one customer to pay for entire dev cost etc.) Also it reminds the team that business is about making profits, not just shipping products (or proposals) alone.

Action plan Three critical actions can come out of such reviews

  • identifying what worked and doing more of this. Could include up selling to existing customers, culling non-profitable ones, tracking and shortening lead-to-customer conversion cycle times
  • designing experiments to validate things that are unclear – did that email campaign work, did pricing make a difference, what worked for one account or sales person can it be used for others – this helps find what worked (and what didn’t)
  • modifying your analysis framework do you continue to measure what you are presently measuring? What do you remove? What do you add, so that the analysis framework -> periodic review – > action plan cycle serves your purpose of profitable growth.

As December winds down and a new calendar and fiscal year loom, this might be a good time to look at this.

When should I start raising money?

This is amongst the most common questions I get asked. A young entrepreneur approached me with this exact question last weekend at the Unpluggd event. My response to her was, as always, “NOW!”

As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to get confused by all the conflicting advice that seems to be out there. It seems that when people pose the question “When should start raising money?” they get a variety of answers

  • When you have a prototype
  • When you can demonstrate market traction
  • When you have paying customers
  • When you [ fill in your favorite future event]
Photo: HowardLake via Compfight cc

Photo: HowardLake

These answers clearly aren’t wrong. But they often are answering the question, “When am I likely to get funded?” and not “When should I start raising money?”

Fundraising, in many ways, is analogous to marketing and sales of your product or service. In this instance, the product is your team, company and business plan. So things we’ve come to accept and address in a typical sales process apply to fundraising as well.

Process or cycle Just as making revenue involves a selling cycle, raising money also involves a cycle, with its own elapsed time (typically 6-9 months depending on how big a round you are trying to raise, market conditions and of course your business and team). Which means the sooner you start, the better it is. At times you begin the process before you have a product or prototype (whether selling or fundraising) but in general, sooner you get out there the better it is.

Relationship-building Just as in a product or service selling cycle, you’re only hustling your offering – but building a relationship with your prospect. Ideally, you want the customer to buy more than once, you want them to buy sooner, at a better price. All of this involves a trust-based relationship. Fund-raising requires similar comfort and trust in the relationship, which requires more than one meeting – only time and repeated meaningful encounters, whether in person, phone or email is it built.

Risk Mitigation A first-time customer is taking a risk, when she buys from your startup – of course, this risk is usually finite and not life or job-threatening for most customers. In the case of a potential investor, they are taking a much larger financial risk when they choose to invest in your business. This once again takes time for them to understand your business and your capabilities to adequately de-risk investing in your business. Part of this de-risking comes from when they find you making steady progress from meeting to meeting (whether customer traction, product milestones or team building) – all of which takes time as well

Given all three things, the process, relationship building and risk-mitigation take time, the sooner you start, the better off you’d be.

To be fair, raising money poses its own set of risks – notably eating up time that you should be spending on building your business or distracting and possibly de-focusing you as you get varying inputs from different sources. You need to balance that with your need for capital and the timelines within which you need that capital. Happy hunting.

Selling Your Business – A Primer

This last weekend, I gave a talk at the Unpluggd Conference in Bangalore titled “Selling Your Business.”

It appears that the internet and world at large is filled with information on creating business plans, getting co-founders not to mention loads of advice on fund raising. Yet there is mostly silence or a lot of speculation on selling your business. Sure you hear about “OMG! Did you see Little Eye Labs got acquired by Facebook!” So when you read about RedBus being acquired or an acqui-hire (BuyNBrag) happening or product buy-out (Mango) – what is it that actually goes on? More importantly what is it you want? Are there lessons to be learned from entrepreneurs who’ve sold their businesses with various levels of (un)preparedness and differing degrees of (dis) satisfaction?

The talk was intended to serve as a brief How-to ranging from, “Should you sell?” “Where do you start?”, Who should be involved? What do investment bankers or other consultants do? all the way to the mechanics and esoterica of valuations, deal structuring etc. and the lessons learned from other Indian tech and non-tech firms going through a merger and acquisition (M&A).

Thanks to my friend Ramani, who originally inspired me to put this together.

Visualization and other lessons from a friend

“He’s my colleague’s son-in-law. You should connect with him, soon as you get to Bangalore.”

I don’t know about you, but as a young man, I usually did not jump on friend recommendations that my father-in-law made. So it was nearly a year after we’d moved to Bangalore that I finally connected with Ramani. And boy was I glad I did – my life – nay our lives – my wife, kids and I would have never been the same if we hadn’t met Ramani and his family. Over the years Ramani has been many things – first a friend, a walking and yoga partner, a teacher, student, at times a project for me and often a sounding board.

Sense of humor Chitra and I can’t help but smile anytime we talk of Ramani. Few people I’ve met is so ready with a smile and laugh as Ramani is. Despite many business challenges he might be facing as an entrepreneur, Ramani is always not just ready to listen but to laugh with us. And even better often laugh at himself. All to often, he’s exactly what the doctor ordered. There are times I suspect I call him just to hear him laugh – it’s a tonic. Sure accounts receivable may be hell, customers may be complaining and cash flow may be a problem, but keeping your sense of humor helps you not only cope with all this but to be there for others.

Community Just after we first met, Ramani invited the family and me to an event organized by a non-profit, Premaanjali Educational Trust (PET Forum) he had co-founded. Even by Indian standards of extended families and communities, the PET forum was an amazing group – mostly first generation entrepreneurs who’d gotten together to make a difference in the community even as they were just getting their businesses rolling. What made this different for me, was the degree to which the families of the entrepreneurs – particularly the kids – were engaged with the cause. The manner in which we were welcomed into the group as Ramani’s friends was overwhelming. Active to this day, Ramani has lived the truth that giving back to community is something you do NOW in the midst of our messy lives. It’s not just something you plan to do one of these days or when you retire.

Power of visualisation To say Ramani is an optimist – then again which entrepreneur isn’t – doesn’t describe him adequately. He’s been an active practitioner (and proponent) of the power of visualisation. When he first spoke of it to me, I’m sure I was skeptical, yet his passion and belief moved me to give it a shot. That and several crisis in my business found me ready to try nearly anything. To this day I’m glad that I listened to him and use this technique to both prepare myself as well as work towards my goals.

Thank you Ramani, for being such a wonderful listener, friend and teacher. I’m truly grateful that you are in our lives and all the difference that you’ve made.


You can read all the posts in my 30 days of gratitude series here.

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Taking risks and other lessons from a mentor

I have a job offer from Infosys and an option to start my own business — what do you think I should do?

NS Raghavan

The question was posed by a young man who approached N.S. Raghavan (NSR), former joint managing director and one of the founders of Infosys. When Raghavan responded, “Take the job with Infosys,” the youngster was taken aback. In Raghavan’s words, “If you are an entrepreneur, starting a business is not an option that you consider alongside taking a job — you’d just do it!”

The story was narrated by Raghavan himself soon after he had invested in our first business Impulsesoft. The best way to describe my experience with Raghavan was that he was truly an “angel” – not just in that he invested but in how he gave us a long rope – always available for input and help but never looking over our shoulder, even as we stumbled from one crisis to another in those early years. In those five years that he was an investor, booster and mentor to us, we’d have had maybe two meetings a year – yet the insights he shared and the spirit he imbued in us were invaluable. Two critical lessons I learned from NSR were

Be willing to take risks We’d been in business of nearly five years, when we broke even and made a small profit. It was amply clear that we were not going to die, but the market was consolidating around us and we’d have to either integrate forward – enter the consumer market as a brand or backward into chip making. Neither was very easy  – the former needing large marketing investments and potentially a low margin, high volume business. The latter a prohibitive capital expenditure and changing who we were (primarily software). Having worked with the likes of Logitech and Sony (Ericsson), we were quite enamoured with the consumer retail business – possibly because we were not in it 😉 So in a board meeting we were presenting the pros and cons – and trying to hedge our bets, when Raghavan spoke up – You’ve got to take risks in business – if, staying in the same place is no longer an option, and your passion lies in trying to build a consumer brand, go for it. And we did – setting up Hippo Lifestyles in Singapore. And we struggled but the story had a good ending when our semiconductor customers and partners approached us seeking a merger. Our decision (and willingness) to go our own way and risk building a consumer brand, allowed us to negotiate more confidently resulting in a profitable acquisition. This is a lesson that’s stayed with me.

Being an angel means letting the entrepreneurs make the call Despite NSR’s investment in our business, we were quickly out of money and needed more. So we went back to borrow some money from him and did so twice. While we’d stayed focused on Bluetooth, we zigged and zagged years before the word pivoting was fashionable – going wide, going narrower (only stereo music), building proof of concept hardware systems, laying off our still-born chip design team, creating new standards (for bluetooth in a car), exiting the highly profitable Japanese service market, to focus on the laggard North American market, nearly merged with a North American design company (that was our customer). If you are still with me, you can tell it was a rocky ride with a lots of turns – Raghavan was supportive throughout all of this, not butting in till we sought his council and always nudging us to come up with the answers and not jumping right in with his solution. This is not an easy thing, even when you are not an investor. I’m yet to possess this degree of dispassion but NSR’s example continues to inspire me. So when I hear someone bad mouth an angel, I find myself jumping in citing his example.

Thank you NSR, for your incredible faith and all the support and inspiration you provided us through out the Impulsesoft journey. You continue to inspire me and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have worked with you.

 


This is the seventh entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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Make Haste Slowly – lessons from a mentor

Now lookee here! You gotta sloow down!

via Comfight

via Comfight

I was fresh out of college, all rearing to go. My work buddy, mentor and fellow process engineer Ken Bohannon had been working longer than I’d lived. The very first day it was clear none of what I’d learned in nine years of college was going to be of much use, as we set out to build a green field semiconductor factory. The team was a motley crew of experienced hands and fresh grads, split probably right down the middle. Our little work group was itself a virtual United Nations – Ken, from Louisana, Tony from Samoa, Mohsen from Iran, Joel the token Washington native and yours truly from India.

Ken and I couldn’t have been more different – he was a 6 feet 4+ inches tall, built like a linebacker, spoke slowly with a Lousiana drawl that was never too far. He was unflappable, patient, ready with a question and slow to jump to conclusions. I was a foot shorter, easily excitable, prone to act first and think later. Hence his frequent reminders to slow down!

In the short two years we worked together, 18 months in the same department, Ken taught me not just all about diffusion and furnaces, but how to work well with operators on the factory floor, all of whom had vastly greater experience than us, the maintenance crew who were suspicious of all the college kids and engineers and vendors of all stripes. The real lessons I learnt from Ken are:

Making haste slowly We were building new processes, on new equipment and in some instances we were building the equipment themselves. This was the time when six-inch wafer were being used for the first time and so the number of things that could go wrong was enormous and things did go wrong. So rather than run yet another 12 hour experiment overnight, it made sense to stop, take stock, think through what it is we were seeing and what made sense, if we wanted to get the production line fixed before the next shift showed up. All clearly sensible in hindsight. However, Ken’s calm approach and gentle prodding is what taught me to balance my need to rush forth with some forethought – hence making haste slowly. Can’t say I’ve mastered it but Ken is where it all started.

Working with younger people Today as a father of teens and working with young entrepreneurs professionally, it is only recently I’ve learned to appreciate what Ken must have gone through with me. At no point did he make big deal about working with clearly no-nothing, not-prepared to listen folks such as myself. Even more importantly, he was very willing to learn from us, the few things that we did know a little more about – whether the VAX VMS systems or statistics or wordprocessing software.

Knowing what you love Even in the backwaters of suburban Tacoma in the late eighties – NY city or Silicon Valley it wasn’t – a lot of the people in our company were hustling to get ahead. Ken was not only laid back, or maybe he was laid back, ’cause he was clear about his priorities. He was the first person that I heard say I don’t want to be a manager – of course he’d been there and done it. He was comfortable with himself and who he was, clear about what he wanted and confident enough to be vocal about it. I can’t say I understood it then, but since then clearly I’ve gotten a little smarter and envy his clarity and courage of conviction.

Ken, thank you for all that you’ve taught me – including what March madness was. I’m yet to master slowing down, but am grateful for having you in my life and putting to good use a great deal of what I learned from you.


This is the fourth entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.

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Answering uncomfortable questions and others lessons from mentors

“When are you going to sell your company?”

Photo Credit: Oberazzi via Compfight

Photo Credit: Oberazzi via Compfight

I was taken aback. My good friend and former boss, Sandeep Khanna had suggested that I talk to Pravin Madhani, kick-ass sales guy and serial entrepreneur who’d just sold his previous company for a sizeable chunk of change. My intention in meeting with him, was to learn about raising capital. This was in 2000, when the internet bubble had burst and we were still holding day jobs as we tried to bootstrap Impulsesoft, our Bluetooth startup.

I think my first response to Pravin’s question was a somewhat offended “We’re trying to build a business here – we’re not going to sell it.” To Pravin’s credit, he kept his laughter to mere chuckles and persisted.

This was the first of several meetings I had over nearly two years – usually months apart. Every time we met his first question would be about selling the company – a variant of “When are you..” or “Have you already..” Initially I felt very uncomfortable about this question and wasn’t sure if I really wanted to talk to him. To my we-are-trying-to-build-a-Sony-or-HP sensibility, his questions seemed far too commercial. Luckily good sense prevailed and I did continue to meet with him and he too met with me enthusiastically, despite my clear discomfort.

I came to not only value but look forward to my meetings with Pravin. Three critical lessons I learned from Pravin

The need for clarity Why are you in business or for that matter why are you doing whatever it is you are doing? Examine this closely. Each time you seek to answer this, go past the easy or evident answers. My meetings with him were always the exercises in asking Why five or more times. And clarity can only be achieved by asking uncomfortable questions

The power of diversity Of all the advisors I sought, Pravin was probably the one who was most unlike me. This I have to admit made me uncomfortable. I suspect I initially avoided or at least procrastinated meeting with him. The very fact that we were so different, thought very differently is what made my meetings however short and far apart, invaluable. To this date, I find myself asking “What would Pravin ask?”

Being yourself Pravin was the living embodiment of being yourself. What you saw is what you got – he made no apologies for the positions he held, which in hindsight all seem tame. Neither did he hesitate to say “I don’t know. I don’t understand it.” Several years after my first meeting, Pravin sought my marketing inputs for one of his startups. His engineering vp had persuaded him to have me come in. He told me “I thought marketing was all fluff and am never sure marketers really do anything.” I refrained from retorting that this was rich coming from a sales guy! The very next morning he called me and said how useful our meeting had been despite his initial skepticism. Despite his multiple successes (he did sell this second startup as well) Pravin’s been the same plain-spoken person with no airs about him. An example well worth emulating.

Thank you Pravin for being the person you are and challenging me on every occasion you’ve had. I’ve learned a great deal and in a small way passing them on to the next generation of entrepreneurs. I’m grateful that I got to know you and to work with you.


This is the third entry in my 30 days of Gratitude series.
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Practice makes perfect – lessons from a mentor

Ma’am, TTV wants Srikrishna.

I was in ninth grade, when a tenth grader appeared in my class, asking for me. TTV – Mr. TT Varadakutti – was my math teacher – a slim, small made man, with a distinctive red mark on his forehead. He was one of the teachers who both excited us and gave rise to dread when he called upon us in class or outside. Why was he calling me?

I walk over to the 10th grade classroom and enter tentatively. I pointedly avoided meeting the 30 odd pairs of eyes that are staring balefully – so I imagined – at me.

Sir, you called?” I address TTV who’s busy writing something on the board. “Ah, there you are Srikrishna, tell me what’s ….” and he shoots three or four questions at me. For a moment, I’m flummoxed and then begin to answer him. I was so focused on his rapid fire questions that I lost sight of where I was and what else was happening. Then he drops the bombshell. Turning to the 10th graders, he says “Aren’t you ashamed that you guys can’t answer questions that a ninth grader can? ”

I beat a hasty retreat, without meeting the eyes of any of the tenth graders and tried to stay out of the playground the next couple of days!

Practice makes perfect While TTV didn’t usually pull us out of class to snub our seniors, he constantly challenged us and expected us to push ourselves. He’d expect us to be able to work out problems on the fly and in our heads, under pressure. His constant refrain was to practice, practice, practice. And he didn’t leave it to chance, he made us work on enormous number of problems.

Make learning fun When teaching us commutative law (or any other basic principles or axioms) he’d first write it on the board.

a + (b+c) = (a+b)+c

Then he’d read it out “A plus (pause) (superfast) b+c (pause) equals (superfast) a+b (pause) plus c – the first time he did this we wondered if something had happened to him. However, over the several months (and years) he taught us, he trained us adequately to be able to transcribe any problem he dictated correctly without his having to write it on the board. It also made it immensely fun. In the bargain, what seemed like a silly or contrived game – became thoroughly absorbing. We also developed great respect for brackets and parenthesis early 🙂

Expect the best from yourself and others As my little trial by fire in front of the 10th graders showed, I was likely the most surprised by being able to answer his questions. Starting with his evident passion for the subject, his high expectations from his students and his willingness to work hard with us, he never lowered the bar. Years later when I took Engineering math in graduate school or the IIT entrance exams right after school, his lessons stood me in good stead.

Thank you TTV sir. 35 years on, since graduating from your class, I continue to not only value, but use, the lessons you taught me. I’m grateful for having had you in my life and all that you’ve taught me.


This is the second entry in my 30 days of gratitude series.