Mo Money, Mo Problems

I pulled a little mid-course correction with this blog. I was initially going to write about a certain tweet that was posted several weeks ago by an individual—who will remain nameless because I don’t want him getting any more press than he deserves. The tweet was in regards to how women shouldn’t wear high-heels if they want to be taken seriously in the entrepreneurial world.

There was something else that caught my eye this week and hit a little closer to home, literally.  There have been multiple articles talking about how San Francisco has become (once again) the most expensive city in the US when it comes to housing. Take your pick of headlines and articles on the topic:

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There’s another story underlying this surge in housing prices in San Francisco. It’s a story about how techies are causing this inflation and ruining the Bay Area. VentureBeat did an article entitled“$4 Toast”—which, even they admitted, was a little tongue-in-cheek, but worth reading. The New York Times just wrote an article with a bit more background as to why this housing trend is happening and how the “Tech-invasion” is changing the face of San Francisco. To paint a picture of how ridiculous prices are for what you get, take a look at this stunner for a mere $750,000.

An astonishing statistic is that the Twitter IPO unleashed 1,600 new millionaires. Where do you think those 1,600 millionaires will live?

Unlike Chicago or New York, San Francisco is geographically confined. New York residents migrate to Connecticut, New Jersey or other outlying, less-expensive areas.

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San Franciscans can migrate to the Peninsula, but housing prices are even worse there because of Silicon Valley (aka Google, Facebook, LinkedIn). Here’s a lovely abode in the heart of Silicon Valley that’s a mere $1.7 million dollars. Then there’s Marin—with no BART service—where you have Sausalito (average home price of $2.0 million); Tiburon (average home price of $4.0 million); or more reasonable Mill Valley (average home price of $1.6 million).

Last but not least, you have the East Bay, which is by far the most reasonable with Berkeley (average home price of $950,000); Oakland (average home price of $523,000); and Alameda (average home price of $724,000). But even these housing prices—not to mention rental prices—are by no means a deal.

Arguably, you could move farther outside of these surrounding areas, but then you end up with the commute problem that my fellow bloggers lamented on: “There is No Such Thing as a Reverse Commute” and “Long Commutes are Normal Here, Right?”.

So where does that leave me and others like me who may not have the $1 million in cash to drop on a house? Or the $3,500 a month in rent?

Admittedly, we were lucky enough to move during what was the lowest San Francisco rental market in the last five years. We also have rent control, which means we don’t have to worry about our rent skyrocketing because I have no doubt that our apartment should be 50-75% more than it is right now.

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However, it’s a terrible feeling to be stuck. With my husband working in the city and my job in the Peninsula, finding a location that’s convenient for both of us is fairly limiting.

To be honest, I’m all for doing away with rent control. While I haven’t crunched the numbers myself, I actually think it would do a lot to normalize the market—at least rental prices. Anyone have thoughts on this one way or the other?

I don’t see the housing trend dissipating any time soon, especially given the continued success of Twitter, LinkedIn, Google and others. The Bay Area will continue to be a tech haven for the foreseeable future. Other than sticking it out in whatever their current digs are, I don’t believe SFers who aren’t millionaires have any other options. . .other than hoping that whatever tech bubble we may be in bursts. . .or at least starts to dissolve just a little bit. Ponder that over your $4 toast.

Google Alerts Can Cause Cancer

As the HMPIC (Head Marketing Person in Charge) of several wine brands and business entities (Clos LaChanceVegan Vine,Hayes ValleyMommyJuiceCougar JuiceBay Area Bottling, and CK Vines to be exact), I have a Google News Alert set up for each of my charges.  If any of my “babies” are mentioned anywhere on the web in a news outlet, I get an email telling me where. It’s pretty intuitive and saves me a lot of time. Back in the dark ages of tech bubble number 1, my fellow public relations interns and assistant account managers used to scan all the actual print publications for coverage of our clients. It made for a long day looking for clips about executives, software and servers. Fortunately I escaped that world many moons ago and went into booze. Wine is so much more fun than a CD-ROM game called “Gubble”(one of my actual clients back in ’97) on so many levels. image

I digress. Back to Google Alerts. I get a lot of, hmmm, interesting notifications from time to time. The most common—articles about drinking wine and its correlation, or lack thereof, to cancer. I read them all—scared out of my mind or jumping up and down for my good decisions.

One article covers a study that young women who drink wine before motherhood are more likely to get breast cancer. But then upon Googling that, another article references a study that claims no—wine will actually reduce your risk of cancer and then another that insists alcohol in general will raise your life expectancy.

WTF?  Do I freak out and overhaul my lifestyle or do I celebrate my choices? I need to know!  Google, help me!

Information is all around us—and it is becoming increasingly difficult to weave out good from bad, fact from fiction, important from the drivel, truth from bullsh*t—you get my drift. What comes out one day is often contradicted the next. The stress of all of it all may give me cancer.  Can I sue Google?

Oh, and as an alcohol industry professional, my recommendation for a long and happy, healthy life: everything in moderation. Like what this guy says. Note the reference to my MommyJuice in that link—my inspiration for today’s blog and received via Google News Alerts. Looking forward to coming full circle when this blog comes up in a Google Alerts.

The Top 10 Things I Did to Finally Write That Book

hands-typing1We all have a story to tell. And living in Silicon Valley, our stories usually center around innovation. I’m a “chupacabra” of sorts, since I was born and raised in Palo Alto and decided to stay after college to pursue a career in high tech.

I cut my teeth on some no-name startups, grew up at Adobe, became an evangelist at Apple and am now a “mompreneur” doing the contract gig. And like most working moms, I’m trying to figure out the whole work, life balance and not lose my identity.

I volunteer on a couple boards, help out at my children’s school, and I’m involved in my community. But every step of the way, I feel like I’m losing a piece of myself. Who have I become? What is missing from my life? I have a great career, family, and friends but what is that one thing that makes me feel whole?

I LOVE to tell a good story. I can’t count the number of times in high school, my imagination got me out of trouble. I observe life and rethink the possibilities through my writing. This passion began in my youth, in the privacy of my bedroom with a journal. When high school came along, my creative writing took a backseat to boys and homework. And then with college, the start of my career, a marriage and two young children, life got in the way. Would I ever write that book?

Then I began to think about my career and how I had created some real life stories with all of you. If I twisted things around, the fictional outcomes were endless. I slowly began to write whenever I had a free moment. You see, for me, I discovered  the writing process soothes my soul from the chaos of life. I can transport myself to another world, if only for 30 minutes. So, several years ago, I decided to take the plunge and go for it. I decided to write that book.

Last week, I finally did it. I published my debut novel, Privileged Corruption, a high tech thriller about the inner workings of a Silicon Valley start-up on the eve of its IPO. It’s been a labor of love that took YEARS of hard work.

The first question most people ask is “How did you do it?” That would require a long discussion over a bottle or two of wine. For this blog, I’ve come up with a list of The Top 10 Things I Did to Finally Write That Book.Privileged_Corruption

  1. Just Write! Easier said than done but it’s true. All you need to do is come up with an idea and start typing.
  2. Get a Support Network: You need at least one person in your life to support your dream. My husband was that person. And I put him through hell and back but he was my anchor, reassuring me ever step of the way that I could do it.
  3. Make Time: Carve out time every week to write. I work full time. I volunteer. I have two kids, a husband, a house, a new puppy, extended family and I wake up most days at that crack of dawn to exercise. My life is booked solid and I don’t even drink coffee — crazy right? But in between these events, I make myself write. And I always carry my laptop.
  4. Observe Life: Wherever you are, look, listen and feel. You will find the best material all around you. And you can capture any moment on your phone through a photo, video or your own words.
  5. Attend Writing Workshops: Learn the craft of writing for your genre. My favorite workshop was the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference in Marin County. I got the opportunity to spend three nights and four days immersed with people like myself and published authors. After that weekend, I realized I had found my tribe. I was born to be a writer.
  6. Read Books: Read books in your genre and see how other authors craft their stories. This is the cheapest and easiest way to learn the art of storytelling.
  7. Meet Authors: Build connections with published authors to gain their insight and advice. Attend readings or workshops. Don’t become a stalker. Be smart and ask questions to build a rapport. Almost all successful authors will help aspiring writers because at some point in their career, they were like you. Thank you Tim Maleeny, W. Craig Reed, S.G. Browne, Cornelia Read and Ellen Sussman.
  8. Know that the 1st Draft Is CRAP: I’m just being honest. No author can write words of gold the first time. The point here is don’t get lost in the process of editing. That can take you down a rabbit hole of distraction—and I know this from personal experience. Just complete the first draft and get the story down. Then you can begin the editing process.
  9. Be Open to Feedback: There is always room for improvement. But you need to be able to accept constructive feedback as you edit your book. Find a writing group to test your work and learn from others. But at some point, you will need to go beyond family and friends. Hire an editor who knows your genre and will be brutally honest. As famed novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
  10. Never Give Up: It took me YEARS to write Privileged Corruption. And it was not easy. Life always has a way of interrupting well thought plans. But stay on point and get it done!

The above is just the tip of the iceberg but hopefully it will resonate with some of you. Although I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon, I will continue to write — book #2 is already in the works. I’ll leave you with one last thought. When I worked at Adobe, they had a marketing campaign that said, “If You Can Dream It, You Can Do it.” If you have a dream of writing that book, what’s holding you back? Just go write!

Startup Job Hunting – Act Like a Venture Capitalist

If you work in Silicon Valley in technology, sooner or later you find yourself job interviewing. So what happens when you are at one company for so long that you forget startup assessment criteria?

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I had the luxury of staying with one company for seven years. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot about how businesses mature. In the meantime, my startup assessment skills went by the wayside. Not to mention that as I looked at more senior roles, the questions I needed to ask were different.  It took conversations with my mentors and about 30 different businesses to figure out all the considerations. Here’s what I learned.

Role:
Do you want to be part of a team or create your own team? This was a new question for me – and as I thought about it more, I realized that there were a lot of ramifications. Would I have to figure out the structure? Would I be inheriting someone else’s biases or problems?  I talked to a lot of companies with different reporting structures, so I could figure out which type of role was going to bring me the most satisfaction.

Business Health:
This is especially important in smaller companies. You need to understand a company’s monthly burn rate and how much runway they have. You don’t need to look at the accounting ledgers, but get an idea on how to predict the financial worst-case scenario.

TIP: Check out company profiles on Crunchbase to see where they are in their recruiting and funding efforts.

KPIs and Business Goals
The company should have some goals with key performance indicators (KPIs). How are they measuring success? If it’s revenue, have they met their goals as predicted? If you have this data point and know how much runway a company has, you can understand their appetite for risk.

TIP: Some people suggested asking for the company’s presentation from its previous funding round to initiate this conversation. Those presentations are also full of clues about business health too, of course!

Great Product and Happy Customers
I can’t stress this one enough. This might be the most important assessment point. Always get a product demo and talk to at least one customer. Then ask about the churn rate. It  should be less than twenty percent in a mature organization. If it’s a SaaS product with a free trial, download the product and go through the set up process.

TIP: Try articulating the product message and value proposition to one of your parents. If it takes you more than one try to explain, you might be facing some red flags.

People:
If you are going to work at a startup, be prepared to put in the hours. You will probably spend more time with your work colleagues than most of the other people in your life. It helps a lot if you like them. It’s hard to tell this in an interview process but pay attention to any flags no matter how small. Even a small issue can be indicative of a larger problem down the line.

TIP: If there’s been a lot of employee turnover especially at the executive level it’s usually indicative of a bigger problem. See Hitched to a Startup Cowboy for a different perspective.

Bonus: Executive Experience and Investors
You might come across companies that have very seasoned executives or investors that have a lot of previous winners (IPOs or acquisitions). People who have gone through the process before know where the hidden issues are and can avoid traps that sink less experienced companies.

TIP: Companies seem to be looking for teams of people who’ve worked together at successful businesses. Is it in your best interest to find your own opportunity or follow a business leader that you respect?

Even if you have great data points, there’s always inherent risk with going to work at a startup. The more you can look at a business opportunities the way venture capitalists do; the more likely you are to find a great and profitable experience. Regardless, you’ll always take away important lessons to apply to the rest of your career.

There is No Such Thing as a Reverse Commute

Twenty-two years ago when I first came to the bay area, we were (apparently) in the midst of the worst economic downturn ever recorded outside of the depression years.  Ok, maybe that is an exaggeration.  But in 1991, as a recent college graduate, everyone told me that I would be *lucky* to find employment.  And I put little asterisks around the word *lucky* because that is exactly how people would say the word, with heavy emphasis and waving of hands, arms and other limbs when they stated *lucky*.

Despite all the naysayers, I did wind up gainfully employed (after a two month stint in Emoryville at a chocolate manufacturer) at a leasing company located in Burlingame.  I happened to live in San Francisco and was curious about my commute.  Having spent a couple of months braving the bay bridge and downtown San Francisco traffic – I had no experience with highway 101.  Or, as I now refer to it, the 101.  I have other names for the 101 that are more colorful but may include profanity, so I won’t share those here.  And before you add a comment that says only people from LA call it the 101; I know, I’m aware, and I’m still calling it the 101.

The important takeaway here is that all of my new acquaintances told me that traffic would be a breeze, because I was doing a reverse commute.  And in 1991, before most of those .coms and non-.coms had launched themselves and started building out property up and down the 101 corridor that was kind of a true statement.  But ladies, it is most certainly not the case today.  So don’t be fooled by those misguided but well-meaning individuals who tell you how *lucky* you are that you have a reverse commute, because you live in the city and drive to work on the peninsula or vice versa.  And if you are new to the area, and trying to figure out where best to set up your domestic headquarters, there are some things to consider before settling down.  In the end, you will need to decide what is more important to you – time spent in the car, or time spent living your life.  I do realize that this is a difficult decision (everyone in California LOVES their car) so here are some pointers to help guide you:

    1. Do you thrive on darkness?  You laugh, but this is an important question.  Because if you live somewhere in the east bay or even San Francisco and work in Silicon Valley (let’s say between Sunnyvale and San Jose), your commute will often start in the dark and end in the dark.  In case nobody told you, a typical work day in the world of high-tech could be 10-12 hours.  Heading to work at the crack of dawn usually guarantees a pretty good flow of traffic.  And at night, you need to look at leaving after 7pm when the car pool lanes open up.  This is going to be a really long day, so you better make sure that you are thrilled with this job!
    2. Are you a type A personality?  Do you find your blood pressure slowly increasing as you try to maneuver in stop and go traffic?  Do you get agitated because nothing is moving?  Is there a specific time limit, that if exceeded will push you into full-fledged road rage?  If so, I would think hard about that time limit and make sure that your worst case scenario (ie:  one hour commute) is tolerable.  I would be sure to locate my home within that one hour radius from the workplace.  This will benefit not only your own personal well-being but the safety of other drivers around you.
    3. Is one of your requirements to have the big house with the big yard, but for a teeny-tiny price?  If so, you need to talk with your handlers about telecommuting.  Because that kind of real estate option is located on the outer fringes of the bay area (think Tracy).  This is especially true if your high-tech job is somewhere on the mid-peninsula.  Many companies these days actually have a category of employee labeled as telecommuter.  Generally they have no designated space in the office and there may be some other restrictions on activities, depending on your job.
    4. Are you crazy about San Francisco?  You dig the bright lights, the trendy restaurants, and wearing black?  (In case nobody told you, everyone in San Francisco wears black.)  Anyway, my suggestion for you hipster types is to find a job in the city.  That way you can avoid the 101 entirely, maybe even take a cable car to work.  Infinitely more satisfying than slogging down the peninsula.  And these days, business is booming in SF as they are constantly luring high-tech ventures there with tax breaks and other goodies.  The danger of living in SF and working 20 or 30 miles south of there, is that you won’t really get to live in SF – you will only be living on the 101.

To wrap this up – my ultimate suggestion to those looking to live and work in the bay area – find a home as close as possible to your workplace OR a home as close as possible to some form of rapid transit (BART or Caltrain come to mind).  The best commute I ever had was living within a mile of my office.  Yep, I could literally walk – it was even too close to bicycle.  Talk about a reduction in your stress levels.  Life in the valley is challenging enough without squandering precious moments sitting in traffic.  So, if you have the opportunity, locate your domicile in the nearer vicinity of your office and spend that extra time doing something more rewarding, like writing a blog?!  Feel free to share your best advice for eliminating or greatly reducing commute time, or better yet, what you would do with two more hours in the day….

A Glimpse into the Unglamorous Reality of One Working Mom

I launched a site the other weekend. Yup, it had to go live in time for a conference, so it had to happen on the weekend. Of course, this was just the icing on the cake – I had just been through a whirlwind messaging update, content creation and review process, and many days of QA. I love this kind of work, but it is really tricky to balance its demands against the really loud ones that come from my family:

“You were on your computer during my whole swim class. Did you even watch me?”

“Can I get picked up with the kids who don’t go to aftercare, just once?”

“Did you remember to have the cleaning lady water my plants? “

“Why are you always doing chores? I want to spend more time with you!”

“Are you really doing email and cooking dinner at the same time?”

I have explained to my kids that I work so they can go to college (which they don’t entirely understand) and have books and beer (which they do understand). They are beginning to realize that all of the good things in their lives cost quite a bit of money. But ultimately, they need their mommy. And when they drain my emotional energy or keep me up at night during the same weeks that my clients do, my sanity may hang on a very thin thread.

Things that help me keep it all together:

  1. Remembering to be thankful for what I have. It’s easy to think that someone always has it better than I do. I listen to people that imply that I’m selling myself short if I don’t “lean in,” when I know it will mean sacrifices that I’m not willing to make. But I am good at what I do; I enjoy doing it; and my clients value the results. At the same time, I treasure the time that I have with my kids, even if it seems like a race at times (OK, a lot of times).
  2. Investing in relationships with a diverse group of friends.  Listening to the perspectives of everyone from stay-at-home moms to single colleagues from three jobs ago and being a part of both sets of lives helps make #1 happen.
  3. Great emotional support from the spousal unit. An obvious one, but one that I can’t leave out, or live without.
  4. Limiting childcare hours to the work schedule I want to keep. As a recovering workaholic, it helps me to set screaming limits. This can be particularly painful during peak work periods, but it keeps the moderate periods moderate. I am just forced to look at bit harder at how much work I can really take on.
  5. Early rising. Confession: I’m a morning person. Like every working mother, though, it’s tempting to work late every night. For me, that always ends in exhaustion. The quiet hours and minutes in the morning, on the other hand, bring clarity of mind and the few good insights that end up really moving my projects forward.
  6. Cutting a few corners, when I know people won’t notice. Nope, I’m not going to tell you which ones..
  7. And of course, a bit of luck, in the form of great clients and great kids.

So what do you do to stay sane in the crazy world of tech?

Heads, California. Tales, Michigan.

Yes, I’ve got it right – the usage of “Tales” in the headline. I thought it appropriate, since this is my first post with this power group of Silicon Valley women, for us to get to know each other a little  better by sharing a few stories about what makes living here different than my home state of Michigan. So here it goes:

“You can take the girl out of Michigan but you can’t take the Michigan out of the girl.”

I spent the first 30 years of my life living in within 10 miles of where I was born. I survived K-12, 4 years undergrad at Michigan State University, and post-college, a practice marriage, 3 jobs, my own design firm and a gorgeous daughter. All of this took equal amounts of energy to get through as the 30 winters I endured as a warm-blooded resident in my arctic ecosystem (anyone reading this from Michigan – or any other bordering Midwestern state understands – there is something just terribly wrong about trying to scrape ice off your windshield in a horizontal snowstorm with 50 MPH winds and sub-zero temperatures. WRONG. It causes crying, trust me.)

I never thought I’d end up in California. Living in the Bay Area was so off my radar; if you would have told me 15 years ago where I’d be today, I would have called “BULLSH*T!” and challenged you to a game of Euchre in my basement. But the planets aligned somehow after meeting my now husband and business partner – Bryan Kramer,  a rare San Jose native, and the addition of our son, Henry – and  I’ve never looked back. That was 13 years ago February.

It’s not to say that the transition was , well, seamless. Here are some of the differences between living in Michigan and California that have stuck with me:

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Our amazing weather

Home prices vs. the Weather:  I remember having a conversation with some acquaintances at dinner shortly after I arrived in San Jose, and the first thing they opened with was “Do you own a house? How  much did it cost? Ours was $600,000 dollars, can you believe what a deal we got?!” I.was.mortified. Who talks about their mortgage? Where I came from, that was as secret as information got. I countered with how much my first home cost in Michigan – a mere $90,000 dollars for a 3-bedroom/2 bath house on an acre of land – and got them off topic. What I realized later on was that they weren’t trying to show off or boast; it was that people always lead with what ails them the most. It’s why those of us from the Midwest start conversations about the weather. We’re not trying to be trite, it’s just that we’ve been conditioned to be concerned about the weather and what our plan “A” and “B” was for the weekend’s activities. In Michigan, it literally can swing from 85° to 45° in a matter of minutes. That is no exaggeration, hand to God (or hand OF God, in this case.) I can’t tell you how awesome it is still to be able to plan a trip to the water park in the summer months in advance, knowing that not only will it not rain, it will be a gorgeous, sunny, mild day. Weather does not ail me anymore.

Bugs: Computer bugs we have; massive, giant, “carry-you-into-the-sunset” mosquitos we do not.

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The 87 at dusk

Traffic: Tracy posted a great, in depth post about the traffic here in the Bay Area. People have to commute crazy distances to get where they’re going. Distance is measured in hours, not miles. Parking is as elusive as Beyonce tickets. But as crowded as it is, it keeps moving. In Michigan, when traffic is stopped, it’s STOPPED. It means there’s been an accident, a cow blocking the way or a tornado crossing the road that people have pulled over for – not for safety, but just to watch it go by.

Cultural Diversity: There was one Asian guy and one African American in my high school. Even though I grew up five miles from a major university, the choices in our town to be exposed to any other culture were few and far between.  I grew up eating a consistent weekly diet of Mac and Cheese, Pizza, Burgers, Salmon Patty’s and Dinty Moore Beef Stew out of a can.  And believe it or not, I never tasted sushi until I was 30 (not because I didn’t want to, because we had no sushi restaurants in East Lansing until one opened when I was in my late 20s.) I drank Labatts and Molson and Falstaff beer and the wine I’d tasted was probably made of cherries or blueberries. Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things – but I am so grateful my kids are being raised in such a culturally diverse environment, being exposed to other ways of thinking, eating and playing. They love sushi at 9 and 15. My son’s favorite foods are oysters and lobster (including the eyeballs.) I am also thankful that they will never make the mistake of calling a Taqueria a “Ta-KARE-ia” because they’d never seen the word before. Yes, that happened to me, when i was 31.

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My friend Cheryl’s winery Clos La Chance – delish!

Time travel: Not in the Orsenian Wells way; in the rate at which progress, well, progresses. I am continually fascinated by the speed of business here in the Bay Area – start-ups emerge every day, ideas are iterated and iterated upon, getting more exciting as they morph into technologies that enhance our daily lives. There is a palpable spirit of innovation and creativity in the air here that’s addictive, contagious and delicious. Maybe living in the Midwest is for people who need a higher sense of continuity and consistency to survive? I just know that for me, moving too slowly causes me to lose interest and attention, which doesn’t serve my entrepreneurial spirit whatsoever (and another reason I am grateful for wine – it pairs well with us distractible personalities.)

So, as we often say at our marketing firm, PureMatter, “All roads lead back to Michigan.” Try it sometime; even if you have no ties back to the mitten state (of which I would have a hard time believing), I bet someone in the room with you right now does. I guess it goes to show that those of us who managed to get out brought with us the solid values and quirky sense of humor we all share, albeit transplanted into  a paradise of perfect weather, tasty wine and food and opportunity for miles. I can be at the beach from my front door to the water in 30 minutes. Yes, that.

I love being connected to so many other Michiganders here in the Bay Area (and for my favorite University of Michigan alumnus DJ Waldo, Todd WIlms and John Squire, so sorry about the football game last weekend, I have a green and white tissue for you to cry into if you need it). I’m sure, like me, you’re so happy to call California home too.