Episode 237 — Ben Burns — The Futur
Episode 237 — Ben Burns — The Futur
Ben Burns is a brand strategist, an award-winning designer and an expert in user experience. As the Digital Director of Blind, he oversees the intersection of design and technology in all client work. He is also the Chief Creative Officer at The Futur.
Prior to joining the team at Blind, Ben founded Burnt Creative, a brand experience agency in Richmond, Virginia. He also served on the executive board of the Richmond AIGA chapter as Vice President.
He received his BA in Media Arts with a focus on New Media from the University of South Carolina and a Masters Certificate in Cyber Security from Armstrong Atlantic University. Since then, Ben has enjoyed working with brands like DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures, AMC, TBS, (Olympic) Team USA, Laika, Hyatt, as well as several exciting startups.
Ben is a veteran having served 5 years in the Army National Guard, earned the rank of Sergeant. In a brief intermission from the creative sphere, he also spent a few years chasing drug dealers as a decorated Narcotics Agent with a multi-jurisdictional narcotics agency.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews the CCO of The Futur Ben Burns about the importance of niching down and becoming a successful brand, the insight to building relationships and the three most common pain points for creatives.
Ben Burns’s Website: https://www.mrbenburns.com/
Ben Burns’s Profile on Blind: https://blind.com/studio/people/ben-burns/
The Futur on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-b3c7kxa5vU-bnmaROgvog
Main Website for Blind: https://blind.com/
Ben Burns’s Profile on The Futur: https://thefutur.com/team/ben-burns
Ben Burns on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mrbenburns/
Ben Burns on Instagram: @mrbenburns
Ben Burns on Twitter: @mrbenburns_
[03:23] Ben’s Journey of Becoming a Creative
[08:35] Things That are Worth It Aren’t Easy — and How to Deal with Resistance
[10:33] Ben Shares Chris Do’s Advice that Changed His Business
[14:24] Trading Dollars for Time: What is the Value of a Creative Service?
[19:08] Ben Give Advice on How to Weed out Bad Clients
[21:10] Ben’s Recommendation of Books for Creatives
[26:04] From Blind to The Futur: The Conversion of the Company
[29:02] The Three Main Pain Points for Creatives
[34:13] Ben and Allan Talk About the Race to Becoming an Expert
[37:55] The Importance of Niching Down
[41:56] How to Position Yourself as a Successful Brand
[48:01] The Power of Outreach — and the Right and Wrong Way to Do It
[52:33] On Providing Value Upfront
[54:28] Additional Info
EPISODE 237 — BEN BURNS — THE FUTUR
Welcome to Episode 237! This is Allan McKay. I’m talking to Ben Burns, the Chief Operating Officer at The Futur and the Digital Director at Blind. Hopefully, you’ve seen their amazing work, helping designers with their career. A lot of the content on this Podcast is similar to theirs: they talk about pricing psychology and other tips for designers.
I had Chris Do from Blind and The Futur on this Podcast as well: www.allanmckay.com/125. Here, Ben talks about how he got started and his journey. I loved chatting with Ben!
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[00:43] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[57:49] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH BEN BURNS
[03:07] Ben: My name is Ben Burns. I’m a designer by trade but right now I’m the COO at The Future. I’m also the Digital Director at Blind.
[03:14] Allan: That’s awesome! How long have you been there now?
Ben: It’s coming up on 3.5 years now.
[03:23] Allan: Growing up, did you always want to be a creative? Or was this something you stumbled into later on?
Ben: I was never one of those kids who knew exactly what he wanted from the ground up. I was busy building tree forts and rolling around in the dirt with my brothers. I never really had career goals until high school. I was always into drawing, but when it came to creativity, I always had this nagging self-doubt. So I would draw something and my buddy would draw something else, and I thought [his stuff] was so much better. I never really pursued that until late in high school. Then, I thought I’d be in photographer and have a cool studio in New York City. But someone had convinced me that photographers didn’t make any money so I abandoned that. I bounced around a lot.
[04:35] Allan: I think it’s good when people give you a reality check about certain occupations. But there is money in photography or design; it just comes down to positioning yourself. What’s your take on someone telling you there is no money in photography?
Ben: I can’t stand it when I hear this! [05:28] As a designer, if you hone your craft enough — and if you’re savvy in business — you can make more than doctors and engineers. There is money in these things. Saying there is no money is a bold face lie. The more appropriate statement would be to say that there is no direct course to money. When you’re a doctor, you go to medical school, do your residency. As long as you don’t fail, you’re going to graduate with a job. I think there is a certain level of certainty there. In a creative career, you have to stand out with your skills and your business / career maneuvers.
[06:24] Allan: So why do you think people do that? I think it’s either their excuse not to try and they want to discourage others. It’s easier to have external forces to affect you.
Ben: I think a lot of it has to do with our culture’s view on creativity, on a global level. Creativity is so fuzzy, there is no certain way to get to the gold at the end of the rainbow. And that uncertainty is terrifying to people. If parents aren’t in the creative industry, they see it as this black box of mystery. I think that’s discouraging for parents to encourage their kids to become creatives. But the thing is: Making it in anything is hard! If we reframe the narrative, do anything you want to do! I tell my [daughters] to do whatever they want to do — but not to expect it to be easy. It will be hard but it will be worth in, in the end. My 4-year old is learning to ride a bike without training wheels, but she can’t stop. I keep telling her it’s hard to learn how to slow down and stop without falling, it will be worth it. I think if we take that narrative and wrap it around any career, we’ll be in a better place.
[08:35] Allan: I love that! I think most people expect things to be easy. But I say that anything worth learning is going to be hard. The struggle is where you learn from your mistakes and it’s part of the process. Most of us run into that issue. As soon as there is some resistance, they want to give up. You aren’t born as an expert.
Ben: I think we’re also in the phase of the world where the doers are rewarded and the thinkers are not. I saw this tweet the other day. It asked how many works by Picasso are considered masterpieces. There is a hundred of them. But to look in the context of how many he’d created, he created tens of thousands. It’s a numbers game! And I think that’s reflective of the fact that the world rewards those who do. If you learned design and you learned business, you expect for things to come to you. But you haven’t put yourself out there yet. You haven’t had shitty clients, or put your work on social media, etc. Without doing, you are expecting for things to come in — and I think that attitude is toxic!
[10:33] Allan: When you first got started, you launched your own business. You got in touch with Chris Do. I thought it was fascinating when he told you over the phone to fire all of your clients. I think this is the number one thing that’s holding back a lot of designers because they’re afraid to get a no from clients. Do you want to talk about that?
Ben: Just to give everybody the context, I’d been a designer since college. I interned at an agency, put down my pencil and my mouse — and picked up a badge and a gun. I was a police officer for 5 years. During that time, I started freelancing again. The freelancing turned into something where I was making more money. That’s not saying a lot: Cops in the U.S. do not make money! I finally made the jump. Once I started freelancing full-time, that’s when the pressure really hit. I was working 16-18 hour days. I was so frustrated and I needed help. I went to YouTube and typed in, “How to find more clients?” I came across Chris Do and through internet magic and messages, he got on the phone with me and told me to calculate how much money I was making per hour. By working with 53 clients and on multiple projects from each, I was only making $3 an hour. Chris told me that I had to have time to work on my business — as opposed to in my business — and to get rid of these low paying jobs. And the next day, I fired 50 of my clients. And I said, I needed to run a profitable business and I needed to raise my rates. I told them my new rate would be $100 per hour. Fifty clients left. Three clients stayed. Those 3 clients made up more revenue on a monthly basis than all 53 combined! I was doing a fraction of the work but making more money. And I had time to think about the business and how to expand it.
[14:24] Allan: I love that advice! I went through a similar thing with a designer a week ago. The premium designs that she makes, she only charges $2,500 per package. I always told her to double her rate. She was spending 2 weeks on that one package. The $500 deals would only take her a day. You don’t want to do more of the cheaper jobs: they’re way more work! If you were to double your rate, you would lose more clients. But to get to your minimum, with those fewer clients you can go all in. The ones that can’t afford you may come back when they can.
Ben: I agree on all fronts! The one caveat to that: I hate hearing that creative people have “rates”. The value that your clients are getting out of what you do, it varies wildly. I love what Aaron Draplin says: “I’ve done work for $30K and I’ve done a logo for a burrito.” And I love that! I feel that’s the way the world should work. That’s why I think we should price the client — and not the job.
[16:47] Allan: That’s so true. I think it’s valuable to take yourself out of trading dollars for time. I left LA two years ago. It wasn’t until I started working from home that I would get several paychecks. The clients are just happy with the outcome, while I can work on several jobs at the same time. It changes the game altogether.
Ben: To take that even further, time for money is a beginner… I don’t want to say “mistake”. I don’t think it’s wrong. There is a lot of freelance opportunity out there. I had a relationship with one agency for the longest time! The rate was $75 per hour. All parties involved thought it was a great deal. I made a ton of money with them. But by assigning your own value to your own service, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You could be working for a mom-and-pop’s store and it could go from $10K to $10 million in two years! It [happened] with this one client I worked with. For me to say the value of my services is $100 an hour or it’s $5,000 per logo — it’s crazy. You have to understand the value the client is putting on the job. We aren’t selling milk. It’s a totally different ballgame. There is no value on a creative service!
[19:08] Allan: I love that! What is your opinion about cheaper clients? How do you figure out the client with whom you want to work? Are there typical questions you ask to figure out the red flags?
Ben: I always ask about their previous engagements. “Have you worked with a designer or an agency before — and how did that work out?” “Oh, we’ve worked with 40 of them and we keep firing them every month.” If there is a problem, I’ll ask the client to dig into that. That will unearth how you’d want to approach things and red flags can show up. The other thing is: I ask about the budget on the very first call. There is a lot of tactics we talk about on The Futur’s Channel to unearth the budget. My favorite is to pitch a range: “Usually, on projects like this, the range is between $500K and $100K. Are you comfortable working in that range?” If they’re willing to say yes or no, you can tell they can be honest and upfront about money. If they say, “Oh, I don’t know” — that’s a red flag for me. If you don’t know what amount you’re assigning to my service, we’re already off to a rocky start!
[20:56] Allan: I noticed you said $500K to $100K? Is that intensional?
Ben: Yes! That’s called an anchoring. You want to drop the anchor high and then go low.
[21:10] Allan: Marketing and sales play such a big factor, and yet so many creatives think, “I’ll just let my work speak for itself.” There is so much psychology behind anchoring, even if it’s for that initial shock for the first second. I noticed on your website you have a lot of recommended books.
Ben: We recommend them all over our website.
- The Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns is the bible. It’s this tiny book. I don’t have any on my bookshelf because I give them away as quickly as I buy them. It’s a set of 13 almost commandments; starting with, “We will replace paper with conversations”.
- I love anything that Marty Neumeier does: The Brand Gap. The Brand Flip. Anything he writes, I love, not necessarily for the marketing content. But I love to see how he talks about his craft. Too often, people ask how to prove the value of design to clients. You just have to talk about it in a way that promotes it and Marty does it.
- And if you’re just starting out, this was my bible in the beginning: Burn Your Portfolio by Michael Janda. It’s a killer!
[23:36] Allan: I love that guy to death. I had Mike on my Podcast (www.allanmckay.com/221).
Ben: Have you met him in person?
[23:52] Allan: No. My wife is a designer and she was talking to him. Then they talked about my Podcast. I ended up being the third wheel in the conversation. Because of that, we’ve become friends.
Ben: I didn’t know that but that dude is tall. He looks like a small bald guy in his headshots.
[24:48] Allan: Even from the first few pages of his book, I realized I loved this guy’s thinking! Chris I’ve known for a while. But I knew Tobin Kirk when he was an EP. There was a point where I was going to share an office at Blind. Had I known about The Futur, I would’ve loved to! There is so few outlets for creatives to know what they should be doing. I love that you, guys, are doing that.
Ben: We try! The mission is to help a billion people make money doing what they love. I’m behind that a 100%!
[26:04] Allan: How has it changed from being Blind to being Blind and The Futur? There was a shift of doing this full-time, right?
Ben: For those who don’t know: Blind is a brand strategy consultancy and we’ve been in business for 23 years. The bulk of that was in motion design. Chris Do revolutionized the field by discovering many of the tools that are out there today. We have this enormous legacy. We’ve started expanding to include branding and digital services. For the first 2.5 years of my working with Chris, I was serving on dual projects. Blind was working with clients but The Futur was a very small startup. Now, Blind has been scaled down. We don’t take client work anymore. They have to be the perfect client with a perfect budget and they have to be willing to show up on The Futur’s Channel. In terms of how the shift worked, it’s revolution in this building. I’m no longer leading clients. I’m focused on customer acquisition and marketing, and on becoming a better teacher. It’s night and day. It’s exciting and scary!
[28:00] Allan: I can’t imagine going from being a service-based vendor to being a content creation facility! Was there any resistance?
Ben: Everyone in the building was supportive! We converted all of our staff to The Futur. Everyone’s got a home (unless they left to work for much bigger companies). All the staff is really onboard. They’re teaching. The conversion was pretty seamless.
[29:02] Allan: I’m curious about this too. With your students and audiences, what are the main pain points they come across? Most people don’t identify their pain points until they hear about them from someone else and realize they aren’t alone.
Ben: I think I would break it into 3 groups:
- Group one: There are people who are just starting out and they’re learning the craft. A lot of people will start off in a creative career and they will learn software. What they don’t know hurts them in the end: It’s the fundamentals. No one teaches those! Like grid systems or fundamentals of animation. A lot of people are comfortable using software but then they get a creative block. And that stems from lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of the craft. If you’re struggling with coming with ideas — take a look at the fundamentals.
- Group two: The second group are people who are trying to start a business or to go freelance. That is a really fuzzy box. The road to entrepreneurship is difficult and it’s different for everybody. A lot of people are starting out and they feel alone. They don’t know to whom to turn to for advice. They’re either out of school or changing careers. They get their first contract in an email and they’re like, “Wow, what is that?!” So identifying those gaps is what we’ve focusing on.
- Group three: These are people who’ve been in business for a while. They’re looking to scale. If you’re wondering how to take the business from Point A to Point B and to build repeatable processes — and to do the magic that you do — that’s another problem we tackle.
[32:41] Allan: I think a lot of people get stuck on soft and hard skills. They want to focus more on tutorials. They don’t want to learning about networking and it’s mind blowing.
Ben: And then there is a blend between the two. Sometimes, the skill is not there. The craft is not good enough. I know just saying this right now touched a nerve. Some creatives are screaming right now, “No! That’s not me!” It’s probably not you but that’s the first thing we check. How is your craft? A lot of people are starting out their business and their craft and they have to do it at the same time. That’s the most difficult thing.
[34:13] Allan: Do you think a lot of people race to being an expert? They don’t care about paying their dues or shadowing other people and learning. They just want to go pro right away. They’re naive that they need to pay their dues. Not having that backfires down the line.
Ben: I’m torn on that one, man. One of the things I believe is: Claim an expertise and then prove it. But at the same time, there are people who flat out lie. But everyone has to become do-ers to become experts. It doesn’t matter if you’re in denial, you will still have to go through the trenches. You will learn through fire and come out either better or not so great. The industry will help with that selection along the way.
[36:09] Allan: A lot of people do expect to get results right away. They expect the next month to work at ILM or at Blind. By sticking to it, that’s part of the natural selection. They’re the ones that will learn the craft and be there at the end.
Ben: Honestly, the people who do the best are the people who put their work out for feedback, in a [school] program or on social media. Or, you get that by being an intern at a larger agency for a while. That feedback cycle is vital in order to improve your skills! And make sure that you’re getting feedback from people that matter, as you’re growing and improving your skills. The commenters and trolls on YouTube will always find something wrong. It helps having a mentor.
[37:55] Allan: In a way, it’s about niching down and figuring out your expertise. But it’s also about positioning. I hate when someone says, “Here is my card. I’m a designer.” Even in design, that could mean so many things! If I’m looking for someone to do that opening titles for a movie or a tv show, if I get a more specific business card, that the person I will contact. How important do you think it is to niche down in order to stand out from your competitors?
Ben: [38:36] Oh, I think it’s vital. A lot of people think of specializing as a room with no doors and the room is getting smaller. “I have a bad feeling about this.” Specializing is not excluding all other sources of creativity from your life. It’s just the image you’re projecting out. If I were to reposition Blind from the start and all I had just the last 2 years, I’d say, “we’re an expert in real estate branding. We help fill buildings.” In my head, this makes me scream because I don’t want to work in commercial real estate forever. If I were redoing everything, I’d probably still learn Java Script and still take painting classes. I’d probably still do logos for burrito companies. But the image I would project online and social media would be around real estate. It’d be refined. You don’t have to change everything about yourself. It’s just the image you’re projecting.
[40:30] Allan: I think that’s the number one resistance point. Whenever I’ve talked about being a specialist, everyone say there is a space for generalists. This is just the one service you’re leaning into. You’re just making it into a smaller room.
Ben: We see this all the time! The biggest question we get is, “Where do we get more clients?” As soon as I hear that question, I will ask, “Who are your clients?” And 99 times out of a hundred, the person says something like this, “Anyone who needs a logo.” So you’re talking about every company in existence?! If you’re wondering about how to find your clients, you don’t know who your clients are — and specializing will help with that!
[41:56] Allan: Obviously, you know a lot about branding. Branding is really important! It’s about figuring out how to position yourself. What are the key things to focus on when building a brand?
Ben: I think thought leadership is a really big part of this. If you’re a service provider who wants to build a brand, thought leadership will be the biggest thing.
- First, pick a service — so specialize — and get to the point where you get uncomfortable with your speciality. I made an example for underwater basket weavers. But there are 3,000 basket manufacturers. But first, you have to specialize.
- Then I’d recommend doing interviews. A Podcast like this one is a great way to get in touch with your customers. I’ve done work for DreamWorks and Paramount. I was amazed at how far the marketing department is from the actual creatives. It was only through working with them that I got that knowledge. Start a Podcast and start inviting potential clients to be guests on that Podcast. Interview them about their successes, ask them about their struggles. That gives you insider knowledge and you’re seeing how you can help. And the second thing is that you’re actually creating contacts in the industry. The wrong thing is to ask for their business after. The right thing you promote the Podcast and you make them famous.
So pick an industry and a service. Then seek to create content and incorporate your clients into your content.
[46:00] Allan: People picture networking as being at cocktail parties and handing out their cards. Their version of building a relationship is a transactional thing. If you’re putting time into building these relationships, you don’t need to ever worry about work. People will know who you are.
Ben: Case in point: We’ve been creating content for 4-5 years now. In year 2 or 3, we invited the design director of Coca-Cola to our show and he came on. Since then, we’ve had these huge names on our show. They have a personal relationship with many of us. The fact that we were able to offer them exposure, it’s of value to people.
[48:01] Allan: Do you spend a lot of time doing outreach? Do you contact them cold?
Ben: I find that cold emailing doesn’t work. I’ve done it before. Everyone should go through that if you’re starting a business, just to learn. But organic and natural relationships — with value on both sides — build out way more opportunities.
[48:53] Allan: You’re absolutely right! I’m not saying to email them cold. I mean that you can reach out and offer help. Or you could say, “I love the work that you did.”
Ben: Oh, I’ve done that a ton! I invite people to lunch. Chris hates it! It’s awkward to talk business over a meal. I love meeting new people. A free lunch is a good way to get out of the office. There are things like the golf course — of millennials don’t take advantage of. No matter who they are, the CEO or Junior Marketing Executive, it’s enough to just start the conversation. And then it’s up to you to maintain the organic relationship. I still talk to people who’ve never hired Blind. We’ll be top of the list the next time a project comes down their pipeline.
[51:08] Allan: You never know what people will be down the line. So many people I grew up with are now feature film directors in Hollywood. People try to go after the big people. There are so many people who were students but now they’re decision makers. Focus on giving back.
Ben: It’s a long game. Entrepreneurship is a long game.
[52:33] Allan: Sequencing is important too. I have people who email me and they’ll put three emails into one: Here is my life story, can you meet up, and here is my business idea! One email can’t do that job. You need that jab-jab-right hook!
Ben: You want to provide value right up front. In the fruit industry, there is a Halo clementine. They branded them Halos. That’s the most successful rebranding of a fruit. I can’t find the agency that did that. But every other fruit company wants to see the story behind that rebrand. So if you send them a case study, they’ll want the insider information. By emailing them, you providing value up front. But you don’t make an ask!
[54:28] Allan: I think it’s important to sell through story. I remember a case study. Someone spent $800 on Ebay and then resold them with fictional stories for thousands of dollars. People want to know the story behind the painting. I thought that was always fascinating. That also applies to individuals. When you go into an interview and tell your story, people will invest in you. As a final thing, what would be a video would could recommend?
Ben: Honestly, I would head to the Channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-b3c7kxa5vU-bnmaROgvog) and sort by popular. The views are reflective of the quality. And then just dig in! A lot of time, people just get sucked in. But start with the greatest hits.
[56:47] Allan: How do you choose the content to create?
Ben: For me, it starts with an idea and then I write the script, and then I come up with a shot list. Then I talk to people about it. Chris just comes into the office and spits out genius stuff!
[57:33] Allan: Thanks again for taking the time to chat! Where can people go to find out more about you?
Ben: Mr. Ben Burns everywhere! The Futur everywhere.
[57:47] Allan: Thanks for doing this, man!
Ben: Thanks! This was a lot of fun!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Ben for taking the time to chat.
Please share this Episode. You can also rate or leave a review.
I will back next week. Until then —
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