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36: Is an Accelerator Program Right for Your Business with Kate Evinger of gener8tor Minnesota

Published May 12, 2020
Run time: 00:32:13
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Accelerator programs can have measurable impact on your business’s growth, but when is your business ready to join one? Tim interviews Kate Evinger of gener8tor Minnesota, and she breaks down what accelerator programs can do for your business and your community, along with how to vet the right program for your business.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How accelerators differ structurally from incubators and when your company is ready for one versus the other
  • Why you might need an MVP before joining an accelerator program
  • How local accelerators help their city’s startup ecosystem

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded April 16, 2020 | Edited by Jordan Daoust

Show Notes:

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt: [00:00:00] Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a nontechnical look at mobile app development. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

Today we are interviewing Kate Evinger, who is the program manager for gener8tor, Minnesota. Those of you who don't know what gener8tor is, it is an accelerator for businesses. So naturally, Kate and I discuss all things accelerator in this episode, and she drops a ton of knowledge around these types of programs.

In this episode, we discuss what accelerator programs can do for your business, when you might be ready for entering one of these programs, the difference between an accelerator and an incubator, and how accelerators can benefit the tech community in general. So without further ado, here is my interview with Kate Evinger.

Kate Evinger, welcome to the show.

Kate Evinger: [00:01:01] Thanks so much for having me, Tim. Excited to be here.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:01:03] Yeah, I'm really excited to have you here too. First things first though. How are you holding up with all of this lockdown and stuff that's going on right now?

Kate Evinger: [00:01:12] Pretty well. I've been able to spend a little more time with my family, so that's been good.

I moved to Minnesota just about almost a year ago now, and so before that was in Indiana, and that's where my family is based out of. So it's been good to be able to be back with them and get to spend a little bit more time getting to see them.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:01:31] Absolutely. My family's all here in the Twin Cities, but we've been really taking it seriously of staying away from, my parents are almost 70, so it's like we're trying to stay away from them and I have two young kids at home and I'm like, I really wish I had a babysitter right now so bad.

Kate Evinger: [00:01:47] Yeah, I can imagine. Are you doing e-learning?

Tim Bornholdt: [00:01:53] No, I mean kind of. We were doing that ABC mouse app. My oldest daughter is three and a half, so we don't have to worry too much about any structured curriculum or anything, but it's more of just trying not to go crazy with two screaming young children.

Kate Evinger: [00:02:11] Yeah. I can imagine two jobs in one.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:02:16] yeah, for sure. And like my poor wife barely gets a break ever. So I try to keep things focused so I can go in, take care of her and take care of the kids. But you know, that's how it goes. But that's neither here nor there.

Today we are talking all about accelerators and the whole point that, you know, the whole reason we brought you on is because you've been with gener8tor for so long and we want to kind of just let people know all about what is an accelerator and how can they help your business. And I figured, you know, the first thing we could talk about is maybe you just give us a deep dive specifically on gener8tor, and then maybe more broadly too on accelerators and just how they can help a business accelerate.

Kate Evinger: [00:02:56] Definitely I would be happy to. So gener8rator itself, we have a variety of different accelerator programs underneath our umbrella. But just to give an overview of our gener8tor program, it's a 12 week concierge based accelerator program where we invest in five companies that we'll go through the program in each city that we're based out of.

So we have one program in Madison, one program in Milwaukee, and then one program here in the Twin Cities. So it's a 12 week program. We invest up to 100K in each of the five startups that go through. It's industry agnostic, which means you've seen companies anywhere from a pet costume to a blockchain company within the same cohort.

And we tailor the experience to each individual company's needs. So that's where the concierge component comes into when we describe the program as being concierge based. And so within this program, it's 12 weeks, but the breakdown of the structure would be that within the first two weeks or so of the program, we have what we call our mentor swarm. And so that's where we'll do rapid speed dating with mentors in our network and the companies. So this is a great opportunity for them to be able to get, to start making connections with different individuals within the different cities that the program is in.

And then for about six weeks of the program, that is where we do a lot of one-on-ones with the company. So we do two one hour meetings per week with the companies where we sit down and strategize and, you know, talk through whatever it is that they're working on and however we can be helpful to them.

And then the last month of the program is our investor swarm. And so that's where we do curated one-on-one pitches for that entire month where we will take the companies on a road show to pitch to investors. And then the program itself is capped off with what we call our premier night. And so this is a really exciting public facing event where we can showcase the successes of our cohort over the past 12 weeks.

And so it's a really exciting program and it's been really a pleasure to be able to be a part of it for this past gener8tor, Minnesota 2019 cohort last summer.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:05:00] Nice, so at a high level then, accelerators, just listening to how gener8tor specifically operates, are there a lot of differences?

You mentioned like a concierge approach. Are there differences between generally what any accelerator program will do versus what gener8tor does?

Kate Evinger: [00:05:21] Yeah, I mean, I think there's a lot of different programs out there. Some focused more so on, maybe it's introductions to potential clients and corporations.

Maybe it's more so on the mentorship and structure for different fundamental skills that companies need to know as they're looking to scale their business. And then some accelerator programs are very industry specific. So whether it's in the healthcare space or maybe the insurance space where they do deeper dives into the different particular needs of say med tech companies as they scale their business.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:06:00] Nice. So yeah, that's, I mean, we can't all be pet costume companies, so it is interesting to hear that there's some accelerators that are specifically geared towards, you know, certain niches or industries where gener8tor tends to be more broadly speaking.

Are there certain criteria that you are actually looking for then? Like what would be a good fit for a gener8tor company as opposed to just any kind of company that would go into an accelerator?

Kate Evinger: [00:06:27] Yeah. So I would say in terms of specific vertical focus, we're completely industry agnostic. So we accept a wide variety of companies. So there's not necessarily anything that we're looking for in particular there as we are interesting agnostic, but we've seen companies go through that are pre-product, pre-revenue to earning revenue and maybe have raised a small round going in.

So there isn't really any specific criteria as in terms of stage either. It's anywhere in between that scale.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:06:59] Right on.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:07:00] That makes a lot of sense. So going back to what you had said before with what gener8tor does, and I think you could probably speak to most broadly, like most accelerators. So what you offer, if I'm trying to, if I'm considering an accelerator, you know, you guys would be offering, you know, services by connecting people with investors, by connecting with other people in the industry. Like you said, you have some money also that goes into the pot. What else? What are kind of the big reasons why, if I'm a business and I'm just considering different options, you know, what would make an accelerator more appealing than a different option?

Kate Evinger: [00:07:36] So I think it would be looking at being able to grow out your network. So it would be being able to get, number one, the resources that the accelerator programs provide. For example, with our mentor swarms, we introduce you to a number of different individuals within our network to be able to get resources in different areas that you're looking for help with.

In addition, it would also be to the different perks that accelerator programs can offer. For example, gener8tor is again, affiliated accelerator, which means that you get access to a wide variety of different perks on top of that. So it's a great opportunity to get access to different resources and platforms for potential discount that you may not be able to get access to otherwise.

But I would also definitely say it's in the network itself too, to be able to bounce your ideas or bounce your product off of a variety of different individuals to be able to get that feedback in return to be able to then continue to pivot and iterate your company, your business plan, your strategy.

And so I think that those are really important components and then also to be able to build out your network as well, especially as you're looking to raise that next round of financing. I think being able to practice your pitch to investors and being able to improve on it and tailor your pitch in a way that it's able to be digestible to a wide variety of audiences and better prepare you as you go into raising.

That's something that's definitely really helpful. And especially to be able to start building those connections with investors.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:09:08] Right on. One question that I've had, and it's one of those things where I could probably Google it, but I'd rather just, I have an expert here, so I might as well ask you. What is the difference between, you hear about accelerators and you hear about incubators, what are the differences between the two?

Kate Evinger: [00:09:23] That's a great question. So definitely you hear a lot incubators and accelerators being used interchangeably. But there are some differences. So with incubators, those tend to be longer in terms of length and more so focused on workspaces. There are opportunities for different things such as mentorship and other different programming that may go on within those incubator programs, but accelerators differ in the sense that they're typically around three months in length. There is investment involved for the most part with accelerators, and then also it's a little bit different in terms of their programming too. So incubators are more so workspace oriented with some programming around it and the potential for investment depending upon the incubator, whereas accelerator programs are a little bit more structured. There is a set beginning and end date to it as well.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:10:20] Interesting and I'm sure that there's differences between the two also in terms of like what you as a business owner would give up in terms of equity in the company, but speaking from the accelerator standpoint, what do you typically see as like what you would give up? If there's, obviously there's the equity component, but other kind of gotchas or catches or anything that come into being part of an accelerator program.

Kate Evinger: [00:10:47] Definitely. I mean, I think that with accelerator programs, they can be intensive in terms of the fact that we are introducing you to a lot of different individuals. There's a lot of programming that goes on with it. We ask a lot of you, and it's all in terms of being able to, let's see what your goals are, let's see what your milestones are and how can we increase that.

And so it's having that partner with you to help push and motivate you to see, well, your goals are this. Let's see, can we take that up a notch? Do you think you can hit these metrics by, you know, one month, two months, three months from now? And so I think it's just putting into consideration what are your milestones that you want to achieve for your company and is an accelerator the right time to do that as of yet.

It's depending upon what those milestones are. And I say that in a sense of, are your goals to be able to build out the platform to get it to the MVP stage? Or have you already developed that MVP and now you're looking to get beta testers on and you're looking to be able to iterate your platform and to improve it?

It's just depending upon what those milestones are that you have set for your company, and if it makes sense to apply for an accelerator at that given moment to be able to be provided the resources to use to help accelerate your company.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:12:04] Right. So really it makes sense to join an accelerator when you're at the point that you need some assistance.

Like it's more about, being in an accelerator is more about kind of the mentorship and the network building and kind of giving you the ability to just, basically you're standing on the shoulders of giants that have come before you. You can kind of just ride that wave and they can help push your business forward in ways that you might not have considered, but at the same time, you kind of have to be ready for when you join something like gener8tor, you're going to be hit over the head for 12 weeks or however long with just, you know, information after information and it's up to you to be able to kind of have time to sit back and process it and move your business in the right directions.

Kate Evinger: [00:12:46] Yeah. And with accelerator programs, the team, you know, they are partners with you. They're there with you. I'm in the trenches to help you hit those goals and milestones that you have set for yourself. We want our startups to succeed and we want to be evaluated. We want to be helpful to them to ensure that they feel supported and are able to get those metrics, and that we can be the most value add to them throughout the duration of the program. And even after graduation with our alumni, we keep in contact with them and we want to be helpful to them. And we still are helpful to them when they come to us with different questions that they may have or things of that nature.

You know, we always want to be a support system to our companies, both in and out of program.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:13:30] Yeah, I would think that you probably have, I mean, you literally have a vested interest because you take a bit of the company, to see them succeed, but also just you go through this 12 week process, and the worst thing that could happen is it just falls flat on its face and fizzles out.

Like nobody wants that. It's a lose, lose situation for everyone. So yeah, I would think that you'd be able to have some programming and help after the fact. And like you said too, does it seem like once you were in the program, you mentioned kind of like an alumni network. Is there a lot of collaboration that also, do you see coming out of that, of being able to, you know, you're having a problem with X and there's an alumni that has experience in that and you kind of make that match.

Kate Evinger: [00:14:15] Oh yeah, definitely. I would say that's definitely present with our network. And I think that's something really special about our alumni network across a variety of platforms is that they're all very collaborative and wanting to help each other and share expertise and lessons learned.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:14:31] Nice. One question I had was, maybe going down a little bit of a different path, but how do you know when you're not ready to join an accelerator?

Cause I'm sure that there's, you've already identified some components of that within what we've discussed already, but I would imagine that you need to be at a certain level before you're even ready to consider an accelerator. Maybe we could touch on that a little bit of like what kind of traits and things do you see of businesses that you would say, not now, but maybe later once you've done A, B, and C.

Kate Evinger: [00:15:06] I think that when companies may not be ready as of just yet for an accelerator is when you first get that idea or you know, you have the business plan down, but you don't necessarily have the proof of concept or the MVP built just yet. I think that that's when you maybe want to start creating connections with accelerators and putting them on your radar.

And then maybe there after just sending them updates as you continue to progress and build. But I think that in order to take full advantage of the program, it can be more helpful to companies once they have that MVP developed and then are able to go forward in testing and trying to attain more customers to be able to try out the platform and things of that nature.

It's also, I would say, dependent upon vertical too, because if you look at, for example, med tech startups versus SAS startups, obviously there's a little bit of difference in med devices for when they're able to get their devices out and use into humans versus maybe an application. So it's dependent upon the vertical focus of the program.

But I would say for companies that have some sort of platform application, once you have that developed and are able to test it.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:16:20] And I would assume that's another difference between incubators and accelerators where, maybe you can correct me if I'm wrong, but with an incubator, I think you would probably come in more of like, I have a team and I have an idea and there's resources around letting you kind of just sit down and focus on getting that initial MVP out or getting, you know, just from the idea to proof of concept and having it validated. Where the accelerator is more of, it's in the word, like you already have some traction and you just need some help in pushing it along further into the market.

Kate Evinger: [00:16:55] Yeah, I agree. Yeah, I think that's pretty spot on.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:16:59] On the same topic. So there's, obviously 12 weeks is a short amount of time, right. And you cram so much into that period. Are there things that like, you see businesses that leave accelerators that they wouldn't necessarily have learned while they're in the program? Like are there certain parts of the business that you don't touch when you're in an accelerator or are you pretty holistic in terms of going after, looking at the business all the way and looking at the product and everything in between?

Kate Evinger: [00:17:31] Yeah. I mean, I would say that we want to have a holistic view of the companies going in so that we know how we can be of assistance to them. I think that's definitely something that we want to be aware of and knowledgeable of. That way we are able to speak to what the company is doing as we go out and meet with different individuals and then be able to figure out the different areas they need help with.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:17:57] Are there certain things, like when people are talking to you about accelerators, are there any like common misconceptions? Or whenever you have a conversation with somebody fresh, like you have to constantly explain, you know, no, this is what we do. This is what we don't do.

Are there any things that come to the top of your head around like, you know, what it is gener8tor does, or even more broadly what an accelerator does.

Kate Evinger: [00:18:21] Yeah, I mean, I think that kind of goes a little bit back to accelerator versus incubator. I think a lot of the startups, sometimes when I talk to you, their main confusion is just regarding the accelerator versus incubator, which are two different types of programming. And so I think that that is one of the main points I see of confusion for companies that are looking to apply to accelerators.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:18:47] In terms of talking about like the tech community in general, and you can talk specifically to like Minnesota, but how do you see accelerators fitting into the overall community and how do they help benefit the tech community in general?

Kate Evinger: [00:19:02] What accelerators provide communities is a way to be able to put those communities even more so on the map. So, for example, with accelerator programs that recruit worldwide or nationally, they're able to bring companies in from throughout the U.S. or throughout the world and showcase the different resources and this sort of ecosystem in those communities.

And I think that that is such a wonderful opportunity to be able to showcase some of the great things going on, you know, in the Twin Cities area. Minnesota is home to many, so many large corporations, especially, you know, specifically with the focus in med device, healthcare, insurance, education. And so I think that it's a great opportunity to be able to bring in startups from around the world and showcase all the exciting things that are happening within the Twin Cities area.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:19:55] Yeah, absolutely. I think that you see so many companies that have come out of gener8tor and the way that they give back to the community as well, it's really cool to have something like gener8tor where companies can come in and really grow and help expand into the community, you know, indefinitely.

One question I had too was, is there, so, you know, like venture capital, for example. The people, all of these terms seem, in my mind, get kind of all jumbled together. You know, incubator, accelerator, venture capital, all that stuff. When you're talking about a program or a business that's going to enter into an accelerator, are you looking for that company at the end of the day to grow to a certain size? Like I know if I take venture capital money for example, the VCs are going to have an expectation that I 10X their return. Is there something like that that you're looking for in accelerator, or would you be, is it just generally speaking, you want to see, here's where they are now, they have a vision to get to, you know, this position down the road and you just want to get them there, whether they're trying to be this giant med tech startup or whether they're trying to be a pet costume.

Kate Evinger: [00:21:10] Yeah, yeah, exactly. So I think it's to the latter. I think just speaking a little bit to the gener8tor statistics themselves.

So of the 95 gener8tor alumni, we have had them cumulatively raise more than 300 million in follow-on financing. And of these 95, 59% have gone on to raise more than 1 million follow-on financing or have been acquired. And so looking at that, it's not that we have, you know, one or two unicorns who have raised that large amount of financing, but it's over half of our alumni have at least raised 1 million or more, or have been acquired.

And so I think speaking to that a little bit, it showcases that we're betting on these companies and we want them to be successful. And we want to make sure that we provide all the resources we possibly can for them to be able to go on, to continue to raise and scale and grow their companies into their desired exits.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:22:08] Awesome. So yeah, so it's not necessarily, if I want to join an accelerator, I have to be, you know, trying to be a billion dollar company or something. It's, you could be trying to, you know, double your revenue or quadruple or whatever, but it's not necessarily, you're not looking for unicorn moonshots. You're looking for companies that you can see a clear path to growth and then you want to help them shove along to their destination.

Kate Evinger: [00:22:31] Exactly.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:22:32] Nice. Perfect. Final thoughts. You know, so people listening to this podcast typically are people that want to build mobile apps and are looking into... A lot of times I get a lot of people that come to me and ask for, you know, how can I get my app idea off the ground? How can I get it funded? It doesn't sound like accelerators are necessarily the first stop along that destination, but what would you say to somebody that's looking at their different options and considering an accelerator as part of growing their business?

Kate Evinger: [00:23:02] Yeah. I mean, I think that's a great question.

I think there's a lot of different opportunities available to at least be able to connect with accelerators and learn a bit more about their program and how, you know, what they provide throughout the duration of that and see if it's a good fit. So I think that there's a couple of opportunities for this.

I think going to different pitch nights for different accelerator programs and getting a feel for the different companies that were in their current cohort, maybe engaging with the founders and hearing about their experiences within the accelerator program. A lot of accelerators also host office hours. So these are really quick, maybe 20 to 30 minute sessions where you can sit down with some of their team members and be able to ask any questions that you have about the program. Maybe talk through any business plan questions you may have, any other different ways you want to talk through strategy, things of that nature.

Anything just to kind of get feedback from them. Those are really good opportunities to learn a little bit more about the program themselves and maybe talk a little bit of strategy. So I think that that's another really great opportunity to be able to learn a little bit more about the program itself as well.

So definitely taking advantage of being able to go to some of their public facing events. Engage with some of their alumni who have gone through the program and then go to office hours and chat with the team and just learn a little bit more about the program and see if it's a good fit. Some organizations also have other different public facing events.

So for example, I'll speak to gener8tor. With our G beta programs, we host weekly lunch and learns throughout the duration of our programs and so this is where we'll bring speakers in to discuss a variety of different topics. So that's a really great opportunity to be able to engage with the current cohort that's going through the program, be able to build your network with some of the other individuals and entrepreneurs, and even the speakers too, to be able to get to meet them and grow your network a little bit at those events. And then there are really great topics from the speaker itself too. So I think that's a great opportunity to get to learn a little bit more about what the program structure might be like and maybe some of the topics involved.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:25:10] It seems like the more that you put yourself out there and make those connections. I mean business at the end of the day is all about establishing those connections, right? So if you're interested in an accelerator, getting out and attending those events and, and you know, you can only do so much from Googling and looking up what's on people's websites.

So I think, yeah, getting into the same room as somebody that's in a program or even somebody like you that's helping to run the program, so that's really what's going to help dictate whether you'll be successful in an accelerator or not.

One more question before I let you go.

So accelerator programs, do you see businesses that are going through it, do you often see somebody joining like gener8tor and then after graduating, you know, maybe a few months later they enter into another accelerator program, or is it, do you see people entering into more than one accelerator program at a time, or how do you suggest people navigate that path?

Is it just you're in gener8tor and that's it, or how does all that work?

Kate Evinger: [00:26:14] Yeah, that's a really great question. So I would say that it's definitely common for people to join an accelerator program, either maybe back to back or concurrently during another accelerator program. I think that for the latter where people are joining multiple accelerator programs at the same time, it's just dependent upon the program structure of the different accelerators that you're joining. Some may require more so in person, and it's going to be different events happening on a daily basis throughout the week. And others, it might be that they have some program structuring within the first two weeks of the 12 weeks of the program, and then after that, it may be virtual for a given amount of weeks. So it's really just dependent upon the program structure and how much involvement that they ask of you throughout the duration of each, to see how you can balance being in both, but then also prioritizing maybe which co-founders are tackling which programs.

So I think it definitely involves a lot of strategy between the team. And then also just diving into the program structure itself to ensure that it's doable, and then also strategizing what you're hoping to get out of those programs. So as you look to apply to multiple accelerator programs, what resources are available? What's the focus of this accelerator program versus the ones that you have been in previously or the ones that you're in now that you think that you would be able to continue to learn or gain more out of? So I think those are important considerations that founders should think about as they look to apply to additional programs.

But it's definitely something I've seen before in companies I've worked with who have either finished up an accelerated program and then joined onto one of the programs I've been working on or have concurrently been in other programs as well.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:28:01] Yeah. That's a really great point that you made of making sure that you're understanding what you're getting out of it.

Cause I think sometimes it's great to, as a business owner, you check a box that says, I was in gener8tor and you can put that on your website and you can use it as part of your portfolio, but it's like, just because you're associated with it doesn't mean that you actually get the benefits from it unless you put in the work to get those benefits.

And then also it's like you can just join a million accelerators if you wanted to, but at the end of the day, is that really what's going to help you, you know, grow your company? Or can you be strategic? Like if gener8tor is more of a general accelerator where you might have, you know, specific cohorts that are geared towards med tech or something like that.

But it sounds like generat8r's more geared towards,, it's more general in nature. But then if there's another accelerator program that is like right in your niche, it might be nice to strategize, you know, going to one and then the other. So you can help tailor your business, get the right benefits from those goals that you set for yourself before joining those accelerator programs.

Kate Evinger: [00:29:07] Yeah. Yeah. I agree with that. I think that it's definitely about strategizing what makes sense at the current stage of your company, and then what resources are being provided in each different accelerator program that you're looking into to ensure that it aligns with your goals.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:29:24] Okay. This was awesome. I actually learned a lot about accelerator programs. Where can people find you and find more about gener8tor and if they have more questions about accelerators, you know, how can they get those questions answered?

Kate Evinger: [00:29:37] Yeah, definitely. So if you go to gener8tor.com you're able to see our gener8tor program and to learn a little bit more information on there and get a recap of some of the bullet points of it that I talked about today.

And then feel free to send me an email. My email is Kate@gener8tor.com, and I'm happy to chat more about gener8tor and some of our other programs.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:30:12] How many times do you stumble over having to spell gener8tor? With the middle of it?

Kate Evinger: [00:30:18] Yeah. Honestly, now it's gotten to the point where if I type in generator, like the actual generator, I automatically want to type in gener8tor with the number.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:30:31] That to me, like, yeah, it would drive me nuts until then you get used to it and then it's the other way, it would drive me nuts. It's like we could just abbreviate it and cut out a couple of letters and put in the number eight.

Anyway, well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. I really appreciate it.

Kate Evinger: [00:30:45] Yeah, of course Tim, thank you so much for having me here. It was a pleasure to be on today and appreciated getting to connect.

Thanks to Kate Evenger for joining me on the podcast today. You can find out more about gener8tor by visiting gener8tor.com and that's gener8tor with an eight, the number 8, and you can also reach out directly to Kate, like she said, via email at Kate@gener8tor.com.

Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @timbornholdt on Twitter, and the show is @CV_podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny and edited by the crunchy Jordan Daoust.

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