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Thomas Smale joins us today to talk about how to make the most money when you sell your ecommerce business. Thomas is a broker at FE International and even if you've never thought about selling your business you should still listen to today's episode. You never know when you may decide that you'd like to sell your business and if you aren't prepared from the beginning it can dramatically impact your future sales price in a negative way. Enjoy today's episode.

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Podcast Transcript

Intro: Hello everyone. Chris Guthrie here, host of Sellercast. And in today’s episode, I speak with Thomas Smale from It’s a brokerage of Internet businesses. They sell Internet-based businesses. And specifically, we’re talking about selling e-commerce businesses that are focused primarily on Amazon. So today’s episode, if you’ve ever thought about selling your business or this is something that you want to do, is definitely one worth listening to. Show notes at will get you those. There are a few blog posts that are mentioned as well that you want to check out too. So let’s start the show, and thanks so much for tuning in.


Chris Guthrie: Hello everyone. Chris Guthrie here, host of Sellercast. And today we have Thomas Smale from FE International. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thomas: Hey Chris. Thanks so much for having me.

Chris Guthrie: Yeah, I know your company. I met one of your team members at an event. Rhodium Weekend was the name of the event, 2014, I believe. It was about buying and selling online businesses. How long have you guys been running this company?

Thomas: We’ve been in business since 2010. We started out doing various things in the buying, selling, brokerage industry. Since 2011-2012, we’ve pretty much just been focused on brokerage.

Chris Guthrie: Okay. The main reason why I wanted you to come on here was to talk about selling e-commerce businesses, specifically about FBA type businesses. So any e-commerce business that’s primarily focused on selling on Amazon, that’s the main thing that we’re going to cover.

The first question that anyone is going to have that’s thinking about selling their business is what is it worth. What do they think that their business would be worth? Can you give some ideas in terms of what people can expect their businesses are worth?

Thomas: Yeah. Evaluation is a question that comes up quite often for us. And we spend a lot of time focusing on the actual evaluations. So I’d say the first caveat would be it doesn’t really matter if it’s an Amazon business or an e-commerce business or any other business. The same factors will apply throughout. Regardless of whatever business you’ve got, you can take these points quite consistently across the board. So lots of different factors that do go into evaluation. Our average sale in the last 12 months comes out to be about 2.7-2.8 times the annual net income of the business, and that’s based on SD basis, which essentially is the net profit of the business, and then what we call adding back any discretionary cost such as owner salary, any other benefits that your owner takes out, which is common in small business valuations. Usually anything under a million a year gets covered by that.

Chris Guthrie: So you take out the money that people pay themselves when it comes to valuation.

Thomas: Yeah. If you’re business is netting, say, $100,000 a year, and then you’re also paying yourself $100,000 a year, and then you’re also taking out $20,000 in other benefits, then we would adjust it to be $220,000. That’s our average. But the vast majority of businesses will fall in the range of 2 to 3 times annual net. And then we’ll have some that will be slightly lower than that, and some will be higher than that.

Chris Guthrie: Okay, cool. I want to dive into it in some more detail. But one question I have in mind is just what’s the main motivation that you see for people wanting to sell their business? I think that some people listening may be thinking that maybe they aren’t interested in selling this time. But maybe once they hear some of the reasons you suggest, maybe they think, “Hey, maybe it might be nice to take some chips off the table,” so to speak.

Thomas: Yeah, I mean that’s another common theme that comes up. I speak to a lot of people. And people say, “Hey, I’m not even thinking about selling.” A lot of times, the reasons they come up with are things that not necessarily have a problem with the business. But quite often, people have other projects starting on the side. I guess just in the general economy of online business in general, it’s quite difficult to raise capital. So quite often, selling one project to reinvest in maybe a bigger project or a project the particular person finds more interesting elsewhere is quite a common reason. For whatever reason, they might not have the time anymore. People having children, people moving country, people having just started a new job, that’s quite a common one – especially of really small businesses, say, under $100,000. It’s quite common for people. They no longer have the time to commit. I think with the general entrepreneur crowd, the main reason is just they’ve been running their business for a while, and they want to do something else. So quite often, we’re just dealing with entrepreneurs who have built the business up. And for most entrepreneurs, as you know, part of the fun is just building the business up in the first place. So a lot of people enjoy building, but they don’t necessarily like running. And then there are various other mitigating circumstances that come up, which is slightly rarer. But things like divorce, retirement, for whatever reason, they’re forced to sell, maybe a dispute between partners. But they tend to be less common. It’s generally, usually, just they’ve been running it for a while, and they want to move on to something else.

Chris Guthrie: Okay, yeah, that makes sense. I figure that like you mentioned, if an entrepreneur had the drive and motivation to start a business from scratch in the first place, then they likely still have that motivation to do it again in the future. So eventually, maybe they just get tired and they want a change, to do something different. So it’s great.

Now I want to talk a little bit about the overall market for these types of businesses. But I was curious too, before we go much further. The vast majority of people that I talk to have private-label products. But they have their own brand or they have some patent that they’ve done, therefore unique products. But I do talk to some sellers that are doing retail arbitrage or they’re doing wholesaling or they’re mass selling other brand products. Have you seen Amazon businesses that are selling on the market that are doing that approach, whether doing retail arbitrage or selling other people’s products? Or are those more difficult to sell?

Thomas: Yeah, we see a real range. I’d say retail arbitrage is less common, especially from a salability perspective. But they don’t really come up that often. In terms of selling other products, not white labeling or not private labeling or whatever you want to call it, they do come up with Amazon FBA specifically, not that often. If you’re running like 1000 or 2000 SKUs, quite often, they’ll have their own store running, like on Shopify or whatever separately. Most of those Amazon FBA specific businesses might only have one product. But usually, they won’t have more than 10. And those products are generally just a variation on the single product. We did a business recently that was selling bow ties and ties. So it was basically just different colors and styles. But it wasn’t necessarily selling 20 different other types of clothing items or anything like that. So I would say that’s probably the main differentiator we see between the standard Amazon FBA business, which might be specific to one main SKU, and then a general one like Shopify or Bigcommerce store that might have thousands, quite often, and then they’re buying it through a wholesaler.

Chris Guthrie: Interesting. Yeah, that’s surprising. I figure that more FBA businesses would be beyond just individual product with some variants. I suppose it just depends, I mean ultimately. But a lot of sellers I talk to have maybe 10-20 products, and they’re all complementary to each other. So they can do things like do promos where when you buy the other products, you get 50 percent off of the other one. And they can use that to try and help manipulate getting into the frequently bought together, for example. So they do stuff like that to help drive additional sales. 

Thomas: Yeah. I think once you have multiple SKUs, people running thousands of SKUs, it does make sense to open up your own store as well. A lot of people start FBA businesses because they’re relatively lean and easy to run, whereas as soon as you go into running 1000 SKUs and dealing with, say, 20 different suppliers, that’s entirely different game altogether. So Amazon then becomes one place you can sell below, say, sell through your own store, eBay, Facebook, paid ads. So I guess the biggest stores tend to be more of kind of advancement on FBA – although we have seen quite a few large FBA businesses that just have 1 to 10 products, and they still do pretty good volume without anything outside of Amazon.

Chris Guthrie: Okay. What’s the least amount of selling history that you’d recommend before someone considers selling their business?

Thomas: This is something we look at quite a lot because we constantly get people coming to us for businesses of all ages. The lowest we tend to go in terms of businesses we will take on is about 12 months old. If it’s really small, we occasionally make exceptions. We might go to businesses that are maybe 6 to 9 months old. But generally speaking, especially with FBA businesses where you can get quite a lot of momentum early on, it’s quite a risky purchase for buyer if it’s only 6 months old because there’s no real proof of the sustainability there. So generally, a year old, and you start getting the stronger multiples, so multiple that’s 3 times once the business hits, say, 3 years old. 

Chris Guthrie: Okay. You talked about this briefly when you were discussing valuation earlier, but I’ve always heard of using the trailing 12 months income and then doing average of those months to come up with the multiples. Is that also how you’re typically doing?

Thomas: Yeah, it really depends. It depends on the age of the business. If a business is quite stable and has been for, say, three years, then the trailing 12 months is usually the most relevant way to look at it – especially then because you can take into account things like seasonality. With a business that’s slightly younger and growing, we might look at, say, the most recent 3 months or the most recent 6 months and then extrapolate them out – assuming we can argue that the sustainability is there. So that comes up more regularly with things like SaaS businesses and anything where it’s recurring billing, where once you hit a certain baseline, it makes sense it’s going to continue in that manner. Whereas with an e-commerce business, let’s say you started it in June, and you have a really strong November and December, you can’t really then extrapolate that out. So it really is our discretion. But generally speaking, with e-commerce businesses – especially because most of them will have an element of seasonality in there and tend to have a pretty strong Q4 for shopping season – usually, the last 12 months is the most relevant way to look at them.

Chris Guthrie: Yeah, okay, that makes sense. And the final question I had about this… And actually, I want to transition into another topic, but are most of the businesses you’re seeing owner-operated? Or would you suggest that people add staff to help manage their business as well? I guess mainly where I’m trying to get at is how do the people that are listening today make the most money possible from the sale of their business if they decide to go that route?

Thomas: We deal with a range of businesses, anywhere from $20,000-$30,000 up to million-dollar and above mark. The businesses that are $30,000 and $2 million are completely different. And generally, once you get above, say, $0.5 million, it’s very rare to see a business without a team in place. But from a general value perspective, from a buyer perspective, the main thing they want is a business that’s relatively easy for them to take over and is relatively hands-off for the owner. So a business where the owner works 5 hours a week is always going to be worth more than an equivalent business where the owner is working 40 hours a week because generally, they’re going to want to work in a cost for like replacing them with a team member or doing the work themselves or whatever. And also from a scale perspective, if there’s a team in place, it’s a lot easier to scale a business where there is an existing team, versus the current owner just working more hours. But I would generally recommend any tasks that can be outsourced… There are obviously some things in any business where the owner or the CEO or the manager has to be in charge of. But there are always things that can be relatively easily outsourced. Things like customer service are quite a simple one to find a job.

It really does depend. But generally speaking, a business with a team and minimal owner involvement would be more desirable or worth more than a business where the owner is doing all the work themselves, especially if there’s a particular skill they might have. So if you’re a qualified chef, and you’ve got a great reputation, a really popular blog, and you’re selling, say, chef’s knives and cookbooks on Amazon, then that business is going to be a little bit harder to sell than the business where your owner is effectively not seen and isn’t really contributing anything to the sales of the business in that respect.

Chris Guthrie: Yeah. I want to touch on a few of the things you mentioned, but using that example, you’d almost have to assume if you’ve done some personal branding, you’re going to need to be involved still for a longer time transition-wise for a new buyer, correct?

Thomas: Yeah, I mean it depends on the extent of the personal involvement. If it’s entirely personal, that business is going to be quite difficult to sell. If you just happen to have a blog or a popular website in the industry that is sent some traffic or some sales, generally, we just agree, like an ongoing transition which might involve keeping links from their blog to the store for the next 36 months or so, along those lines. But generally, we try and standardize a one-month transition period for the buyer and seller, regardless of the business. 

Chris Guthrie: Okay, interesting. And even going back to your earlier point about anything that can be outsourced, should be… And I think that’s just a good point for anyone that is currently selling on Amazon. Maybe they’re a newer seller. Especially for first-time entrepreneurs, I don’t know what it is, but people just feel like they can only do it perfectly themselves – when in fact, once you finally hire someone and they take something off your plate, you realize how did you ever live your life without it. So I think that’s just another thing to really draw attention to because people are so caught up in trying to do everything perfectly and do it just themselves. But they really lose out on a lot of potential growth for their business.

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a lot of things. I think you hit the nail on the head with first-time entrepreneurs. A lot of people find it difficult to let go. But you often find once you start hiring people… I mean the majority people that work at FE International are better at their jobs than I would be. So that’s always the thing to focus on, especially from a growth perspective.

I guess the caveat there is really if you’re running a small business and it’s your single source of income, then while working less hours might be great, you might not necessarily want to be spending that $1000 a month on the customer support person if the $4000 a month the business is making as a whole is paying your rent and bills. But if you are really looking at it as a business rather than, I guess, as like a lifestyle business or an income stream or a job replacement, then it’s definitely sensible to outsource, I guess, not necessarily low-value task, but the task that you don’t necessarily need to be doing yourself or someone else can do better, ideally.

Chris Guthrie: Yeah, okay, that makes sense. I somewhat interjected there when you were going through what are some of the other things that help sellers get the best possible price for their business. I interjected in the middle there.

Thomas: One of the main factors that come into valuation is how old the business is and how predictable it is. So a one-year-old business, regardless of how strong the fundamentals might be, is always going to be riskier and have more unknowns than the business that’s five years old. But obviously, if you’re in a position where you have to sell, then you can’t really do anything about the age of the business. Having systems, processes, teams in place, as we just discussed, is definitely something that helps. And even if you are running the business yourself, at least have everything written down, so someone can come in and take over, you don’t necessarily have to be employing people. But if you have that backup option… One issue that we kind of touched on right at the start is Amazon FBA businesses specifically. Quite often, if you just have one product or a range of products in a particular vertical or space or category, then that can be quite risky because you’re effectively entirely relying on that one income stream. So the more you can diversify… You don’t necessarily need to sell completely different products. There’s no reason why you can’t sell all within one category, but it is important to try and get away from just having that one product or one SKU because then you can be in a situation where you could have a really popular product that has really great reviews. And then, for whatever reason, you could have supplier issues. And then you can be in a situation where you get a bunch of 1-star reviews, suddenly you kind of drop down the seller rankings. And you’re stuck in a position where you’re not really selling much. So diversifying in that respect is always helpful.

And the same goes for suppliers. While having one great supplier is a good thing, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t buy the majority of your products through them. Having a backup, or ideally two, is also helpful because you find that quite often. I’ve seen a lot of e-commerce businesses where one of the reasons they aren’t selling or one of the reasons the business hasn’t been performing lately is because of their current suppliers having stock issues. Either they don’t have the stock, or the stock is not of the same quality they’ve been used to in the past. Especially, if you’re using a third-party platform like Amazon where reviews really are key, it’s quite important to make sure that if there are any issues, you can react quickly. So if you start with one supplier, then you can be in a position where you’re completely at their mercy. And you can be in a position where you might not be able to sell anything for months, or you might completely lose all of the momentum that you’ve built up with some really good reviews at the start. Other than that, I know we’re talking about FBA businesses in general, but selling across more than one platform is also helpful. So don’t just sell on Amazon. Also set up your own storefront. I think setting up your own storefront is important from a defensibility perspective because then you can start owning your own client data. You can start building an email list. You can start running more tests. You just have a lot more control over the process. You start to build up a bit of an asset with value, rather than being entirely reliant on the Amazon platform.

So I think regardless of how solid your Amazon business is, the sales multiples are always going to be limited versus controlling your own store. So I think that’s definitely something to look into, especially as you start getting a little bit more established. Obviously, when you start out, you don’t want to start with like 20 products, 20 different suppliers, 20 different platforms. But if you do find that your one product or your 10 initial products are selling really well on Amazon, then either find some more suppliers and start selling more products on Amazon, or start diversifying to a Shopify store or something cost-effective and easy to set up. So I would say these are the main factors to think about.

Chris Guthrie: So kind of summarizing and putting everything together, it sounds like if you’re going to be selling your FBA business, make sure you’re in business for at least a year, ideally longer. So I guess you could potentially be hitting a couple of seasons of selling. Say, if you have a product that’s selling well during different times of the year, then you can go through two of those seasons, and then also ideally multiple products within that space and multiple suppliers just in terms of that. So that’s a rough guideline you suggest.

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Guthrie: Okay. Coming back to the supplier comments, you mentioned the supplier issues. This is definitely something that if you’ve been selling on Amazon, we’ve probably encountered an issue, beyond just an issue of I tried to order my product and it was Chinese new year, so it’s going to take longer to get it – which is a mistake that people can make. Are you seeing that there’s a greater demand for businesses that are using local, U.S.-based suppliers, as opposed to suppliers in China or other parts of the world? Or is it that it just depends?

Thomas: That’s a really good question. I think that’s where the diversification really helps. We don’t necessarily have people who… Some people only want businesses where the products are produced in China. Other people only want a business with products produced in the U.S. or Europe or whatever. So there’s always a real range. And one of the things we try to do as brokers is make sure we’re in a situation where we can sell a real range of businesses. But as a general point, I think having a single Chinese supplier is definitely a risk, especially to the majority of buyers in the U.S., especially as the business gets bigger. But the main issue being that any contracts you might have in place or any agreements you’ve got in place aren’t really going to be legally binding or enforceable. In a small business, if you’re making $50,000 a year, it’s fine. But if you’re trying to buy a business for $2 million, and there’s one Chinese supplier, and you don’t really have contracts in place, or any agreement you do have is just based on, oh, this is how it’s always been done, then that’s going to be riskier. So I think when you’re diversifying, in an ideal world, try and diversify on country as well. For example, you might be able to buy from your Chinese supplier for $1, and your U.S. supplier might be $1.20. So it’s sensible to keep buying from the Chinese supplier and having that U.S. supplier as a backup or maybe buying like 10 percent of your inventory from them, especially just to keep your account open if you are in a situation where you might need a short-term burst of supply that needs to get shipped significantly quicker. Even if it costs you a little bit more, having those multiple options is always going to be a good thing. But I wouldn’t necessarily say the buyers will write off their business based on where the supplier is. It’s mainly just the commercial risk of having a single supplier versus many.

Chris Guthrie: Yeah. Going back to the supplier part though, you mentioned something about contracts. And if you’re dealing with a supplier in China, then I’m going to assume that depending on the size of the business, it may be cost-prohibitive to actually try and enforce that contract. Do you suggest for U.S.-based suppliers to try and get a contract in place after a certain time of doing business with them? Or is it one of those risks where there are potential supplier issues, even if you buy a business that’s been selling for a couple of years?

Thomas: I think generally speaking, any sort of contract you’re going to have in place with a supplier, regardless of wherever they are, is never really going to be overly binding in the first place. It’s going to be difficult to get them to guarantee you the prices of products in the next five years or anything like that. But I guess the more you can get in writing the better. But selling small businesses in general, it is quite rare for us to see really rock-solid contracts in place. But I think if your business scales, especially when you get into the 6- and 7-figure range, it is important to have more formal agreements in place – even if it just means that with your supplier, you’ve signed those terms and conditions, and you’re an approved reseller or whatever. That’s better than emailing someone once a week, him sending you an invoice, and then you paying him cash or something like that. The more formalized you can make it the better.

And that’s another reason why age comes into it. If you have a business that is 3 years old, you’ve been dealing with the same supplier, and you’ve never had an issue with stock, then a buyer is not going to be so concerned about the supplier risk in that business. Whereas if your business is 12 months old, and you’ve had a month where you make no money because the supplier is out of stock, then that represents significantly more risk. So it does also really depend on the situation of the business, I guess.

Chris Guthrie: Okay, that makes sense. I think that a lot of people listening, just because of the nature of any market, are new or starting out selling on Amazon. And maybe this is the first business they’ve considered selling. Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe they’ve looked at selling one before. We’ve talked about a lot of different factors that can influence the price, other warning signs and risks. Are there any other really common mistakes that people make before they try and sell their business in terms of maybe not record… Probably the best example would be of not doing a good job of accounting. But are there other mistakes that you see? Or what are the most common ones, for people that are trying to sell their business?

Thomas: This is a difficult one. I was speaking at an event a few weeks ago, and I was talking about this on stage. And I was trying to caveat it quite heavily because you never really know. One of the things that come up quite often is people just sell their business too late. So going back to some of the earlier reasons why people might sell their business, they might be in a position where they’ve got a new job. But quite often, what people would do is they’ll get 3 months into their job. They weren’t really spending any time on their business. And they might’ve got a nice, consistent $10,000 a month net. And it started to drop to like $5000 because they haven’t had any time spent on it.

So if you are aware of any changes to your own schedule or whatever that are going to start affecting the business, then timing the sale is really important. So that’s probably the most common thing. People come to us saying, “Oh, the business used to be really well. In 2012, I was making all this money. But this year, I’ve been sick or I’ve got a new job or I moved, been concentrating on my new business. And the business has fallen. And while it might’ve done really well in the past, buyers are relatively fickle, and any short-term drops in the business are going to affect any sales price quite heavily.

Chris Guthrie: Yeah, that’s a great point. Never try and sell when something is on the decline. It’s going to really limit your options, and you’re going to end up with a much less attractive multiple option than the 2x to 3x that you described before.

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. I mean generally, you won’t even take them on if they were in a decline. We generally say you want at least 3 months of stability. The worst business you could be selling is a business that’s been constantly declining for like a month. If you’ve dropped for one month and then picked back up again, that’s fine – which is why if someone does come to us when the business is falling, we say to them, “Hey, look, work on the business for 3 months, stabilize it again, and then come back and sell it.”

Chris Guthrie: Yeah, that’s a good point. And I think that it’s worth repeating. If you are thinking about starting a new business, or you’ve somewhat lost interest in the business you have, make sure that you hold on just a little bit longer before you can go through a sale process. Otherwise, if you decide to sell afterwards, then you’re going to end up in a huge problem. And that’s something that I actually commonly see too. People email me and say, “Hey, I’ve been looking at selling this. It was doing ‘this much’ before. And now it’s doing this much lower number.” And it’s like, “Okay, well, should’ve come to me back when it was doing that better number. And I can give you better advice.” Yeah, that’s great.

We’re getting pretty close to wrapping up here. I know that you work for or you’re one of the partners at FE International. You guys sell businesses, and so you’re brokerage. Are there pros and cons to working with a broker, as opposed to doing other types of platforms? You know there are a lot of different ways you can sell a business.

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. There are lots of different ways you can sell. I’d say generally speaking, a broker starts to become more valuable to you or of most value is once your business is making at least $20,000-$30,000 a year, maybe $50,000 in value and up. It’s because at that level, from a broker perspective, that’s where the expertise is really going to come in. And any small deviances in value that a broker might add – either with advice before the sale or during – a small variance of, say, 5-10 percent in asking price for a $2000 site doesn’t really matter. But on a $200,000 deal, it can make quite a big difference.

Another thing, if you work with us, we have a success rate of 93 percent. Almost everything we take on, we sell. So if you listen to our advice, if you come in 6 months before you want to sell, we give you some tips to work on. You’re then in a position where your business is going to be a lot more sellable. From an economics perspective, if you’re short of time or you’re not really sure about the process, we do all the work for you. We’ve got a very standardized, consistent process that works for getting businesses sold. So we’ll do pretty much all the work for you and charge you a fee on completion. There are a lot of marketplaces out there. For example, if you sell on Flippa, you have to pay a listing fee. You have to do all of the work yourself. And then you pay them 10 percent on completion. With us, we do all the work for you. We have a success rate of 93 percent. And then we charge you 10-15 percent on completion. So your actual cost isn’t really… You don’t really save that much more doing it yourself. And obviously, even if you are saving a little bit on the percentage, in terms of what you’re going to actually get for the business, you’re going to get significantly more through a broker on average. So broker multiples would be Flippa multiples on average almost every single time.

There are occasions where running a public auction might make you a little bit more because there’s a chance you could get into a bidding war – whereas with a broker, you’re going to get slightly more consistent process. But overall, a broker is usually going to be better value than a marketplace over all the work that you get as well. And just the experience, I guess, also making it slightly more objective process. So we’re not going to bullshit you through the process. We want you to sell the business and get as much as possible for it, take a lot of the emotion out of it than when you’re selling a business yourself. You can be quite emotionally tied to it. You can start making rash decisions, saying the wrong things. So it definitely helps to have an experienced broker on a call.

Chris Guthrie: Okay, cool, that’s great. So people who are listening, probably the reason why I wanted you to come on and speak is I found your site. And then first of all, I knew your team from the last time I met them back in October 2014. And then also I saw that you put some great content on selling an Amazon FBA business, e-commerce business due diligence. I’ll link to those articles in the show notes. So I just wanted to elaborate on some of those topics and just give people that are thinking about selling their business… Or maybe they’re not thinking about it, and they’re just now curious, “Okay, what could I do if I wanted to sell it?” Some ideas that they can use for when that time comes. So thank you so much for coming on and sharing your expertise with us.

Thomas: Yeah, awesome, thank you very much. That was helpful.


Outro: All right, and that was the show. You can check out the show notes by going to to look at a few of the blog posts that I mentioned. And you can also go to if you’d like to listen to an interview I did with my friend Corey who built and sold not one but two Amazon-specific e-commerce businesses for a total of $365,000 in cash. So to check that one out as well. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you in the next episode.