Helen Duck is Founder and Owner of DragonFly Foods which is a Food Business specifically “the sweeter part of life”. Helen has been in business for more than 10 years.
In this episode Helen tells us her Business StartUp story. She talks of wanting to create security for herself, her family and her Team through starting her own business!
Helen and Thelma are at the leading edge of “What’s Hot” in desserts and sweet treats. http://www.dragonflyfoods.com.au
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Or you can read the entire transcript of Helen’s interview here.
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Happy reading! Now here is the full transcript of the podcast.
Ingrid: Hello and here we are today with Helen Duck from Dragonfly Foods. Hello Helen.
Helen: Hello Ingrid.
Ingrid: So what sort of business are you in?
Helen: I’m in food.
Ingrid: You’re in foods. Dragonfly Foods is a food business.
Helen: Very true. Specifically the sweeter part of life, so it’s desserts and sweet treats, things that you can make into desserts, or you can just eat it right out of the bag.
Ingrid: When did you start this lovely business of yours?
Ingrid: Ten years ago.
Ingrid: Wow. And why did you start that business?
Helen: I think it was a midlife crisis actually that started it off. I wanted security, I was a single mum at the time, my daughter was 12. I was in advertising, and I realised that I couldn’t actually do this forever, there would come a time where I am, not insignificant, but not completely up to date and can’t do the hard yards, and so I needed the security of being in control of that and being able to take it with me to the grave.
Ingrid: So you have a long term strategy for this – this is a business you’re going to keep?
Ingrid: So you’re not planning to be taken over by somebody else?
Helen: I can’t say I’m never doing it. I’m sure there would come a time when I can’t, and I definitely will always be in the kitchen and a part of the everyday production, but I can see myself being part of the development team, having a team of people that can actually do the hard yards but me always being part of it. I think I’d look rather gorgeous as a ninety year old woman tottering through the kitchen in a very funky apron.
Ingrid: That’s such a lovely picture. So it’s really interesting that you say what you wanted from the business from the start was security, that you saw having your own business as security, because you felt that one day you might no longer be relevant in the advertising world.
Helen: Yes, being in such a unique industry, you are one cog in a big business. If I were in a multinational business, there comes an age when you are just no longer relevant and you will get given some little job and then they just march you out the door. In a very active busy business like advertising you can, or any small business, you can be one of the cogs and do your bit really really well, but then you’ve got to trust the people that manage the finances or manage the sales part or manage the production part. The other people have to do their job as well, to give everybody the security. We see it all the time with medium sized businesses that go belly up because the finance department didn’t manage the money well, and that had nothing to do with how good the sales or the creative team were.
Ingrid: So you started your business, Dragonfly Foods, 10 years ago to give you security. In the beginning, when did it actually feel like you were in business? At what point, what was your first product?
Helen: My first product was actually jam. I was going to rule the world with a new funky jam, and I made jam for probably about two years, but in that time I developed other products as well, and then I took over.
Ingrid: When did it feel like it was a business?
Helen: Probably not until year 5 or year 6 I think. A very large real estate company approached us to do some products for them on a very large scale, and that was a little bit scary, because at the time it really was just me and a few school age casuals, my daughter and all of her friends, they were my Christmas elves. The following year when a large five star hotel also approached us to do their turn town guests for their VIP suites, that was the moment that I realised that we actually had some sort of reputation and it was a we, rather than a me.
Ingrid: And that was five or six years from when?
Helen: From when we started.
Ingrid: How did you know, you said you made jams and then you started to make other products, how did you know what your customers wanted?
Helen: I asked them, that was the key. Before I even started the business I spent about 6 months in research knowing that I needed to, just for the security of it, needed to have a finger in a couple of pies, so I wanted the retail side, and I wanted to have a wholesale business selling the same product. Before I even made anything I went out and approached the customers that I would be approaching to buy my product, to get their feedback. Was there a business in that product, and would they then be willing to actually buy that product from me, and what was it that would make it different to the other ones. And then once I did that and got the product into some of the wholesale customers, then I took it to the markets, the crafts markets, the farmers markets, and that way I actually got a chance to put it in front of the consumer, the people that were actually going to hand over the money to eat this product, and that’s when I got the feedback about what it looks like, what they thought it was going to be, what it tastes like and whether it’s value for money, and what it was that they actually did want.
Ingrid: When you were doing your research, were you still working in the advertising business or had you already left that?
Helen: I had actually left that, it’s one of those things if you had your chance to do it all over again, would I do that, it probably would make it a bit trickier to do it the way that I did back then, but I probably would do my research whilst I was still getting an income because it did mean that I was not getting an income, so I was relying on my savings for those first few months while I did all that.
Ingrid: One of the questions that I ask people, is what do they wish they’d done differently, so is that one of the things you wish you’d done differently?
Ingrid: Is there anything else, while we’re on that subject?
Helen: Most definitely. I spent a lot of money and a lot of time in the first year or two making the business look right rather than making. I think I could have spent a lot less money and a lot less time making it look right and making it right. So actually building the business, getting the product out there rather than working on making sure the website was absolutely 100% beautiful, and the double-sided glossy business card that cost me an arm and a leg, that I still have and are completely irrelevant because everything’s changed.
Ingrid: Yes, the business card is a little bit irrelevant now. But your packaging and your delivery, your branding has always been quite stunning, hasn’t it? That was something that was important to you from the beginning.
Helen: Yes, that was something that I did carry over from my career into the business. And I think that that has really helped me move it forward and make it look professional from the beginning, which has opened some doors that probably wouldn’t have opened had it been a little bit more ‘CWA.’
Ingrid: So that’s a fine line, what you’re talking about there, because you’re talking about the things you’d like to have done differently, you’re talking about spending a little bit less time on all of that, on making it look and actually making it work, but that is actually part of what has helped you be successful.
Helen: Yes, it’s a fine line.
Ingrid: It is a fine line.
Helen: And there’s a lot of the other businesses, because I work in the markets, I’ve got a lot of small businesses around me, and it’s funny that actually we all say the same things. We spend a lot of money on things that are just, that are now in a storage shed, and they’re all very lovely, but they’re just really weren’t important for that first year, and it meant that you’ve got some money tied up in things that aren’t giving you money back. Whereas in year three or year four when you actually do need that money to spend it on something that will help you expand the business, you don’t have it because it’s all sitting in the storage shed.
Ingrid: So that brings me to the question about funding. How did you fund initially, you talked about savings, and then how have you funded expansion?
Helen: In the beginning it was all about savings, unfortunately also, I did have a couple of credit cards that I did take to the max to get some of those very important ‘must haves’ that I eventually just ended up paying off, cut up the credit cards, and haven’t replaced them. It did make the expansion, buying some equipment and everything like that, more difficult, but I’ve done it with cash, so everything as we need a piece of equipment, then we save up the money for it and then we buy it and we don’t need to buy a brand new one, and sometimes you can pick up something that’s relatively brand new but for a lot cheaper. So doing it on credit is a lot easier just to go, I want that, I’ll get it, and you pay and you see and you immediately get it, and it’s great because you can now start using it straight away, but I have actually also found that in the waiting in the saving up to buy that piece of equipment I found a better piece of equipment that I can afford for just a few more dollars that will do not just one particular task but a couple of tasks. So now we are in debt to nobody. We own every piece of equipment, and it might take a little bit longer to get there, but I think a few times we made a better decision and a better purchase just by doing it always with cash.
Ingrid: And appreciating what you need to do to pay for that. How many of your products you need to sell in order to pay for that.
Helen: That’s right. We actually do talk about, this is really really nice, we’d love one of these machines, how much is it, it’s 2000 mini mints, or it’s 1000 pieces of marshmallow. Then you can work out how long it takes you to actually make those products and it’s not just, you sell a piece of marshmallow, let’s say that you sell for a dollar, but that’s not the profit that you get out of it, you might only get 20 cents out of that, so you might then multiply that out, so sometimes that can actually be, well that’s 100,000 pieces of whatever it is, and then, oh well maybe we don’t really need that product right now.
Ingrid: Magic. Well, well done. So how do you find customers? You talked about the hotel coming to you, you talked about the real estate people coming to you, did you seek that in some way, I mean that’s what happened now, but in those early days you said you went out to the wholesalers, how did you find those early customers?
Helen: I got in the car, and I drove around the streets of Sydney, and I chose, I had a very specific criteria for a retail outlet, and I chose them, and then that’s when I would go and approach them, and ask them the questions. And later on when it was actually the time, say now when we wanted to expand the business into a certain area, I would do it the exact same way. You’ve got your list of criteria, there’s like five things that they need to be, and once you’ve got that it’s just a matter of going, I have the good fortune that I actually love doing that. I love the approach, selling the business, getting that new customer. And I realise that for some people it’s very scary. And in the beginning I actually did pay somebody, it’s another one of those expenses that I thought it was probably more important that I stayed and watched the website to pump out orders than go out there and actually get customers myself. So I paid some people to go out and do that, and it cost me a lot of money and I got a very small return on that, and I found that actually doing it myself gave me a much higher success rate, quality customers.
Ingrid: When you say you love doing it, how did you break through that barrier that a lot of people have of the apprehension of selling your own product and that feeling if somebody didn’t want it today. Can you talk a little bit about that.
Helen: I think it gets a little bit easier the more successful that you are. The more times that you actually do it, like anything, practice makes perfect. If you really believe in your product and you can see that it sells, I have no problem in approaching somebody that I can look at them and say, now this is a very similar deli or cafe to one that we have in wherever, and I can actually list off a couple of other businesses where my product has been very successful, so to approach them and ask them if they would like to trial my product. I’ve heard a lot of the objections before and so therefore when they have their objections, and it’s usually because they’re scared, they’re in business, and they’ve got to put their money where it’s going to give them a return. They product that I put on their shelf has to pay their rent, and it has to pay a higher rent than the product that was there before. So knowing, having full faith that my product will actually deliver, makes it a whole lot easier. And also, actually having the product. You have to actually have the product that will deliver on that promise as well.
So that’s another thing. I spend a lot of time making a quality product, that will definitely move, so that I do have that faith in my product and I can go in there and say ‘hand on my heart’, this will move, and your customers will love it, and the reason I know why is because I asked them. And you can do tastings, you can do samplings or you could do surveys depending on where it is that you’re selling. But actually go out there and meet the customers. I’ve run a market store in various places and then made it so that it’s a successful product line and customers are coming back and seeking that product, and then want, they start to ask me, where can I get this during the week, if I want this on Wednesday, where do I go? That’s when you know that the area has a demand for that product, and then you can actually say to them, well where do you shop? And so you can then approach their customers, that business and say I have at least half a dozen customers ready for you if you put this on the shelf, I will let them know that it’s there and they’ll be in this week and they will buy it. Doing the hard yards and having a good product I think is key to that.
Ingrid: And the markets are so powerful, the customers are there, they’re tasting and they’re buying it, they’re coming back every week or every fortnight, whenever the markets are. It’s very powerful customer research.
Helen: It is. And if they don’t like it, they’ll tell you. And they will tell their friends, and you’ll see them, they bought it from me last time, and they just walk straight past you, and they’ll grab their friend’s arm and say no don’t buy it from them, or it’s the absolute opposite of that. We’re coming to the market and here are my four friends and you have to try this and that, and they force them to eat it and buy it and then they buy it and so that’s it. I think the markets are a fantastic place for anybody that’s starting out. If you’ve got a product to sell, or even a service to sell, I think going to the local market and actually asking the people that live in that area, do you want this, is it big enough, small enough, the right price, whatever, and I think that’s a fantastic tool, a fantastic way of getting you to the market place.
Ingrid: And lots of customer research. Now how did you decide not to do jam, while we’re on customer research? That’s tough because you were going to be the queen of jam.
Helen: Yes, I was.
Ingrid: So how do you release a product that you were committed to and in love with?
Helen: It’s a funny story I guess, as you look back now, I made jam, had been making it for probably 6 or 7 months, and as we approached Christmas I thought, it would be nice to box it up. I thought it’s a nice little gift box, a great idea for a grandma, or the teacher, you know those people that, what on earth do you buy that person, I’ll get them some jam. So I put it in a lovely little box, and there were these gorgeous little teaspoons with a little diamonte on the end, so it gives you something to actually get it out, but the box was just slightly too big, so it rattled around in there, so I thought, I’m going to have to put something else in there that’s not going to cost me very much but take up the space, and being Christmas time, I thought gingerbread. So I found a cutter that would give me a gingerbread man that would be the size of a jam jar, and fit into the simple box. Well then I took them to the market, and people kept pulling the little man out of the boxes and asking me if they could buy just the little man, and in the beginning I said no, it comes with the box it’s part of the gift box, and after a couple of hours I said yes, yes you can, and they said, how much is it, and I said, 30 cents, and they bought them, and by the end of the day they were a dollar, and 12 months later, I sold a thousand gingerbread mini men, and it was just, it was a business decision.
I had some people that loved my jam but I had so many more people who absolutely adored my gingerbread mini men. So I expanded the range, and it just took over. My wholesale customers were asking me, I’m out of mini men, I need gingerbread mini men, I need chocolate gingerbread men, and I used to say, and the jam? Oh no, I’m pretty right for jam. So as much as, actually it was, it was a very difficult decision, and I did have to answer the emails and answer those poor people at the markets that arrived and said, where’s my marmalade, oh I actually decided not to sell that anymore but I do make these gingerbread men. And even though they were very disappointed that I no longer made jam or their marmalade or whatever it was that they particularly wanted, they were very happy with my gingerbread. So I then became a gingerbread lady.
Ingrid: And I have tasted that gingerbread and it is pretty fantastic. It’s very traditional, even for someone who’s not a ginger person, it’s pretty fantastic gingerbread, isn’t it?
Helen: Which is what we often get, oh I don’t like gingerbread, and then they taste ours and then oh well, its actually I do like that.
Ingrid: It really was quite an accidental product.
Ingrid: Because then you made proper sized ones and little ones, didn’t you, those gingerbread men?
Helen: No we stayed with the mini men, and that gives us a point of difference, and it keeps the price down, because the majority of people buy them to give to their children, and so it’s a great size, it’s got a small amount of icing on them, the kids actually love the flavour, and it’s just enough. And many of my cafes actually have customers that arrive on the school pickup trips. And it’s one of the treats that the little ones get on the way to pick up the big sister. They get to go to the deli and they get to get a gingerbread man, and they eat it, and it’s something very special that they have only them, on their way to pick up the big sister because they’d been very good and sat in the pram. So if we made them any bigger I think it would change the demographic.
Ingrid: And people just want that little bite, don’t they?
Helen: Having said that I actually have a long row of customers that buy directly from me and they buy them in the barrel, which has 35, for their 25 year old tradie son, they just slip one in their lunchbox or he pops in on the way home from work and has one with his coffee. So they’re for kids of all ages.
Ingrid: Kids of all ages, that’s so gorgeous. So if we go back to what you’ve learned over time, so you’ve introduced other products, haven’t you, based on the feedback, we talked about what you’d wish you’d done differently, you would have research done differently, what do you wish you’d known from the start? That’s a bit different to what you wish you’d done differently. Were there things that you learned along the way that you thought, oh gosh if someone had told me this early on it would have saved me heartache or time.
Helen: That’s a difficult one to not spend 4 hours telling (laughs). There are so many things that I definitely would do differently.
Ingrid: But if somebody could have told you. Because the thing is, what I hear people saying is that they want to learn it themselves, they want to discover it themselves, it’s the reason that people get into their own business, it’s this freedom, wanting to make your own decisions, but there’s some things that if you just knew that, you would decide things differently.
Helen: How long it would take to be an overnight success? It’s, we’ve been now going on for ten years and I really think that we’ve just about arrived. It has taken a long time, and also spending all of that money in the first couple of years would have been very handy had I known that in year 4 or 5 I really was going to need to buy some pieces of equipment and put some money into expanding the business. I had a 5 year plan and I don’t think that I thought big enough. At 5 years we’re bigger than I had expected, however the first couple of years were less than I had planned, so once we got to year 3, having not been as good in building up the money, the reserves the intelligence of the business, to then cope with what do we do in year 3, 4 and 5 as it got bigger. And in my business I struggled around nicely – it grew quite nicely, and then all of a sudden, it just went in one year, it tripled, three times, and that makes it very difficult, because you can’t just triple your recipe. It’s going from making it a small bowl with a wooden spoon to now you want to make it three times, well you can’t just make three small lots in a small bowl with a wooden spoon. That’s an awful lot of effort. But you just have to think about, it’s not addition, it’s multiplication, so I think it’s the growth, the growth is the thing, the length of time it would take and then the speed at which it will multiply, that’s the thing I didn’t know at the beginning.
Ingrid: And you say 10 years to an overnight success. There’s so many businesses that take a while to get going, don’t they, but we only really see them when they’ve reached a point where you’re in the stores, where you’re on the pillow in a hotel, so when people now go around they can see your product in lots of places.
Helen: So now if we were to, and one idea is to open a retail outlet, and I think you see that often, how on earth did they, they’ve come from nowhere and now all of a sudden they’ve got 4 retail outlets, or they’re all over the place. It’s because you don’t see the fact that they started for the first five years as I did, in a home kitchen, and then just buying a couple extra pieces of equipment and the kitchen looks a little bit more industrial than it probably would normally. And it’s not out there, so you have to actually go to the right markets, where not everybody’s a market person. So they don’t see you expanding until you actually go into a bricks and mortar business, and then all of a sudden, there you are, and you’ve just come from nowhere.
Ingrid: If we just think about the people that have helped you along the way or that have influenced you along the way, and it’s up to you whether you tell us names, who are the people, what sort of roles are they, the people that have had an impact along the way, to either help you or inspire you?
Helen: I think for inspiration I constantly read people’s blogs or books of stories of people that have, especially women in business that are successful in business, and I love it. I love reading their story of how they had massive failures, or massive setbacks, you don’t hear about those, you only hear about the successful stories. And they may have started three businesses before they actually got the right one. You can be very passionate about what you do but you actually do when you’re in small business you have to have a finger in every department. So you have to be good at juggling the finances and the profit as well as the passion about the product. So reading people’s stories about how they went from their home kitchen or their garage or whatever, into some of them, massive businesses, multinational businesses. That’s very inspirational.
As far as practical help, my daughter and all of her friends, they did a great job for me in the very beginning in the early years of them sitting around the table, putting mini men into boxes and putting labels on, and sometimes they went on straight, and sometimes they went on upside down or something, but they had a great time, and they got a bit of money, which was great, they got some pocket money which helped them. I got products into boxes that I didn’t need to do myself. We all had a great time at the end of it, we had a barbecue and I got to know all of her friends in a different environment. They were never on their best behaviour once they got together and start working, you really do see those true personalities come out, as they got older and they all got their jobs, all went to uni and then they played different roles. I’ve had a couple of them work with me in the kitchen, and we’ve worked one on one, and that’s a very different relationship as well.
Jess, my daughter, once she went through school, she did the European experience, came back, got a real job with somebody else and then eventually decided that maybe mummy’s business was kind of fun, she joined me in the business, and then we really did start having fun and it started to grow. That’s where bringing on a Gen Y into the business has opened my eyes into the social network and that has then introduced us to keeping our product up to date, I now follow dessert shifts overseas and we’re right on top of all of the trends, so she’s an absolutely massively talented cook and she’s not afraid of trying anything. So we’re looking at what they’re doing in Paris or what they’re doing in Melbourne and she’s within half an hour, in the kitchen actually trying to put together that exact same thing. She’s been a fantastic help on a practical level.
Last year I had the honour of having my husband actually leave his career and join us in the business, which has been a challenge, he brings with him a lot of experience and knowledge from a business point of view, from a corporate business, so he’s taken over the managing of the business and expanding the business, so last year we increased by another 25 percent, which is a big stretch, and I think we can contribute that to him and he’s expanding, getting our product into more places, in different channels and getting it into more mouths, he also doesn’t mind doing the hard yards and he’s very good at putting up a marquee and doesn’t have a problem putting on a pink apron and selling things at the markets or doing the washing up, or mopping the floor in the kitchen. So the family has been a fantastic practical assistance.
Ingrid: It’s a true example of a family business style.
Helen: It is.
Ingrid: And as you say, ten years down the track you’re actually sustaining everybody’s income. Helen: That’s right, it is the household income.
Ingrid: Plus other people as well, because you employ and contract other people to do things.
Helen: Yes we have a rock leading up to Christmas, we still have that big balloon, I haven’t been able to work out how to even it out all the way through the year. Leading up to Christmas as a gift and food business, we really just expand and it stretches everybody’s seams. So yes we do have some Christmas elves and we couldn’t make it through Christmas without them.
Ingrid: Helen, who can give you good feedback?
Helen: The customer. The consumer. They’re the people that hand over the money, they’re the ones that are going to tell you what they like. When we come up with a brilliant idea, we can think that it’s going to take over the world, and this is going to be the thing that really makes the difference, and then you put it in front of the customer and they’re like, ahh yeah that’s all right, and then there’s other things that we just do, this is a bit of a bi-product from that and the other thing, and we’re playing around with that and it looks ok, so we will put those couple of things out on the table, and within a couple of minutes, they’re gone, and then people come back to you and ask you, where was that such and such, and I just watched somebody ate one of your blah blahs, and they are groaning and carrying on, well now I want one too.
You never know what really is going to take off, and what they’re going to really want, and so talking to the customer. And it’s different in different areas as well. So what we sell in Mosman is different to what we sell in Pokolbin or in Toronto. You really do need to talk to the customer. The customer is really key, the customer is the one that gives you the money. The customer is the one that actually paid for my car, or the petrol that actually goes in the car. If they don’t like it, then you don’t have a business.
Ingrid: So many people now want to start their own business. If someone came to you, and I’m sure people do come to you from time to time and they say, I’ve got this idea for a business, what do you reckon? What would you say to people Helen?
Helen: Are you really passionate about it? Because if you’re not passionate about it, if it’s not the absolute ‘I can’t live without doing this’, I think about this every single day, I wake up thinking about it. Starting your own business because you don’t want to work for a boss, and because you want to work for yourself and make your own decisions and all that sort of thing, it’s a very beautiful, romantic idea, but you also have to make sure that you are willing to do the hard yards. And you’ve got to do everything. In the very beginning you have to be the accounting department, you have to be the sales department, and you have to be the product developer and all of those things, and I don’t know anybody that is actually very good at all of those things, so actually at some point, you’re going to struggle with one aspect, at least one aspect of the business.
But if you are passionate about it, and you’ve got the drive, and you’re in it for the long haul, then go for it, because it’s a fabulous ride. It’s quite a ride, and you have to be flexible as well because what you start out with, that idea, that business plan that you first write, you’ll be chucking it in the bin some time in the future, and writing another one. We all do it, and you talk to anybody that’s still around in business, after 5 years or 10 years, and that’s exactly what they say. I don’t do anything now that I thought that I was going to do.
Ingrid: So if one of the characteristics is flexibility, what are a couple of the other characteristics that you think you would have? What does it take? I think you sort of hinted there about resilience and passion, but what are the top three things that you think you need to have to have your own business?
Helen: I think you have to be stubborn, I think you have to just be, this is what I’m going to do, and I’m going to keep going until I do it. There’s a fine line between that and flexibility, because you do still have to listen and see what’s happening around you, so I think you need to be observant, and at the end of the day, you’re in business to make a profit, so you do need to watch the bottom line. You need to make a profit out of everything that you do. So sometimes it’s hard, and you have to, I found it very difficult in the very beginning to actually value what it was that I did, so like the day that I put the gingerbread men out, they started off very very cheap, and they ended up at a level that the market could tolerate. When I put a new product out, I often undervalue it, and I think, it’s worth such and such, but everything that I do is high quality, and so therefore it demands a good price. So I think you have to be passionate, and you have to be stubborn, to dream, and you have to make money.
Ingrid: That’s so good that you said that about making money, because it’s what you’re in business for, isn’t it.
Helen: It is, yes.
Ingrid: Helen, what a lovely conversation, now before we go, I’ve asked some questions, and you’ve talked a lot about different parts of the business, is there anything else that if there’s somebody listening to this that has a dream about their business, because the business program is called, So You Want to Start a Business, is there anything else that you would say that you learned along the way, or anything that you wanted to say about your business journey?
Helen: I think if you’re passionate about it and you’ve got a good support network behind you, you’re going to need your friends and you’re going to need your family, and you’re going to need to remain positive about it, and if you’ve got all of those things, absolutely go for it. There’s this saying, ‘if there’s a hole in the market, and you think that you can fill it, just make sure that there’s a market in that hole’ and then absolutely go for it.
Ingrid: Helen, thanks a million.
Helen: Thank you.
Helen Duck is Founder and Owner of DragonFly Foods which is a Food Business specifically “the sweeter part of life”. Helen has been in business for more than 10 years.