Episode 440 | How to Build Case Studies That Don’t Suck

Episode 440 | How to Build Case Studies That Don’t Suck

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Show Notes

In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike talk about the process of putting together a case study and reasons why you would do it. They also share some additional thoughts on this years MicroConf and its future.

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Episode Sources


Mike: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Rob and I are going to be talking about how to build case studies that don’t suck. This is Startups for the Rest of Us episode 440.

Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products whether you’re built your first products or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.

Rob: And I’m Rob.

Mike: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s going on this week, Rob?

Rob: I’m back from London, sir. MicroConf for a week and then I flew home and the next day flew out to London with my wife and the kids for 9 days, 10 days–it was a long time. It was a long time to be away from home. As much as I’d like being in new places, I find that I’m more productive at home and just being gone for that long with the kids and just being gone for basically two-and-a-half weeks including MicroConf was stressful. It kind of takes the toll on you plus the time change, plus all the stuff.

London was fun. Sheri and I had been there before. The kids have not so we took them around all the fun sites. We watched five-hour play called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It had a two-and-a-half-hour intermission, so you get dinner in between the two parts. That was really good though, very well done.

Mike: Wait, was the two-and-a-half-hours inclusive of the play itself?

Rob: No.

Mike: Okay. It was two-and-a-half-hours of play, a two-and-a-half-hour dinner, and then two-and-a-half-hours of play?

Rob: Yep.

Mike: Wow.

Rob: It started at 1:00 in the afternoon and ended at 9:00 PM.

Mike: Wow.

Rob: With a two-and-a-half, three-hour gap in the middle so we went out to dinner. It was quite expensive as well. It was a big expense being there. She’s like, “Do we want to do this?” This is one of those things, it’s getting rave reviews and it’s got Broadway quality play. It’s really pretty cool. J.K Rowling was heavily involved in this. She’s not writing books anymore but she’s now doing movies and this play.

I know when it started that it came out as a book format or in book format—I didn’t read it—but it was basically a play in book format. There was no description, it was all just dialogue, and people didn’t really like it but play itself got rave reviews. My kids loved it. I enjoyed it as well. I was surprised that we all made it through because it’s like 5 ½ hours-ish of sitting in a play is a long time, but I think it’s kind of one of those lifelong experiences of crazy thing to say, “Yeah, we saw it in the first year or two and it was good.” I imagine they’ll make it into a movie at some point and we’ll say, “We like the play better,” because isn’t that what you do? You always like the book or the play better, the pretentiousness of, “I saw it first, […].

Mike: I know. I think that that’s always whichever one you saw first; it happens to be the one that you like.

Rob: Totally.

Mike: It’s nothing else. I saw you were going to London. I was like, “Oh, god.” Because I got back and then I saw some things on Facebook I think, it was like, “Oh, yeah. We’re headed to London,” or something about the play. I’m just like, I cannot imagine getting on the plane after having gone to MicroConf for a full week and then taking the eight-hour flight back and then have to get on another plane.

Rob: It was exhausting. I don’t travel well as it is. I’d tire a lot. Sheri travels really well, I don’t, so it took a toll on me but all in all, I had a good time. It’s good to be back.

In addition, Sheri and I hosted a founder meetup. I had mentioned that on the podcast here and then tweeted it. We got about 30 people who showed up. I had to rent a space. This was kind of a misstep. I was imagining like, “Yeah, we’re getting 10 or 15 people together and we’ll just show-up at a restaurant or I’ll call them in advance and get a back room.” When we did that, I got 57 people who entered their email and contact information. I was like, “This is like an event now. I can’t just show up somewhere.”

It was a mistake because I didn’t want to plan anything. You know what I mean? I then had to get in touch with venues and do all this stuff. Actually, thanks to Stephanie who works for FE International. She actually stepped in. I was talking to Thomas at MicroConf and he recommended connecting me with someone there and she ended up researching venues and handling a lot of that for me but still with a lot of back and forth. Even just trying to get the venue paid, I’m in London and I’m trying to wire them money and bank transfer and of course, it has to text me in order to add a recipient and I don’t have my sim card because I’m in a London sim card. It’s just all that friction and you don’t want to be doing that when you’re sitting there on a bus going to Stonehenge.

Mike: Really? You don’t?

Rob: You don’t. But overall, it was a super good experience. The cool part is when we do that, there’s so many folks who listen to the podcast, or read your book, or follow us on Twitter or whatever, but then they don’t come to MicroConf so you’ve never met them in person. The original goal obviously with MicroConf, as we said, was to get everybody together back in 2011. Just people we knew that we felt like should be talking to one another. But there’s 10, 20, 30x that many people that are out there that have never been to a MicroConf but still are bootstrappers. They still are a part of this community. They still follow the movement and all of that stuff.

That’s where this meetup was cool was that being able to show up. If I’d planned it better, easily today, if I’ve actually emailed the list and promoted it and figured out the dates in advance, I could’ve had 50-75 people there. I have no doubt about it. I think that’s something that could be an interesting thing moving forward although it takes time and effort and such to do, I did enjoy meeting folks that normally we wouldn’t get to meet in the course of the year.

Mike: That’s always cool, to just drop into some place. I mean, I certainly am not the one who don’t want to go around and call the venues and stuff like that because that’s a total pain in the neck. But you’re right, there’s people all over the place that you know through various social media outlets, or through email list, or they bought your book as you said, and you know of them or they know of you. It’d be nice to get together but not everybody has got the flexibility to be able to do that. When you do travel, it’s nice to be able to just get together with people.

Rob: I agree. How about you? What’s been going on in the past week or two?

Mike: Well, I’ve been cleaning up after MicroConf. I’ve also been looking at 4K monitors. Bringing my computer into the 21st century I guess because my monitor is, I think it’s like eight years old at this point. But I’ve got a 30-inch monitor, so I haven’t needed to upgrade it because it’s been fine, but I’ve also got a pair of 20-inch monitors on the side. I’ve kind of been eyeing 4K monitors for a while now.

I was talking to Andrew Culver, who apparently—if people are not familiar or follow him on Twitter—he runs Bullet Train and he’s got a pair of 55-inch LED TVs that he uses. They’re both 4K. He’s got one in front of him and one he uses actually as the top of his desk and he just sits there and works between the two of them which is crazy, like that’s massive amounts of screen real estate but it works for him. I’ve seen pictures of it but I don’t think I would want to go to that level.

Rob: Oh, yeah. That sounds crazy. I’m still using, what do I have, two 24-inch Dell IPS and stuff. It’s probably time for me to revisit that because it definitely has been, I’m thinking it’s probably been about four years, I think since I upgraded my monitors. I actually have a ton of desk space here and so; I don’t know that I could do something that’s that large or that it would benefit me. It’s nice to rethink that every once in a while.

Mike: Most of the ones that I’ve been looking at, they tend to be 27-inch monitors that are 4K. The one I have right now is the 30-inch monitor and it’s 2560×1600 screen resolution. I basically get 50% more screen real estate by going to a 4K and it would be in a smaller area. I just question whether my eyes are good enough to keep on it.

Rob: Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve had some time to reflect on MicroConf this year. We recorded our recap episode when we were there still and you’re in the midst of it and everything. But after talking to more folks and reading their feedback and even just thinking about it over the past week, I realized that this was a less tactical MicroConf than in previous years. I guess I’m speaking specifically about Growth. I think Starter we’re still quite tactical.

It definitely gets hard to find qualified speakers who can speak at the level of Growth who everyone hasn’t heard from a dozen times. It included a diverse line-up of speakers and it’s about tactical things. That’s the challenge and it’s a needle we try thread every year. But yeah, I looked through the list and we had five of the nine Growth talks that should have been fairly tactical. Hanne from Thrive Themes talking about how to handle feature requests. It was Maron talking about hiring, and the Joanna Wiebe talking about copywriting. Taylor Hendricksen talking about SEO and Alli Blum talking about reducing churn through customer feedback.

Typically, I have more marketing talks. I think this year, I struggled. I asked a few other people who would’ve done talks more in line with prior years, but they weren’t available. Unfortunately, Marron had to cancel last minute due to a personal thing that came up. Really, we only had four of our nine talks were tactical and that doesn’t line up with prior years. We’ve tended to do 70%-80% tactical which is the couple of inspirational.

What’s interesting is that we’ve done 18 of these now. Some years, that’s just what happens. It happens because there’d be last minute pivots in a talk or the speaker’s like, “Hey, I just decided to do this other thing.” It’s like, “Cool, let’s do that.” And it changes the line-up. Or one year, we can’t get a bunch of people. Or one year, we’ll get good speakers who have delivered great talks in the past and they just have a bad year; they have a bad talk that doesn’t come across.

What I’ve learned, I think I’ve learned with the first three, four, five MicroConfs we did, I was always ranking them in my head. “Oh, this next one has to be the best one ever.” At certain point, you just can’t all be doing the best one ever. You just have to do the best that you can and hope it turns up. But there’s a bunch of stuff that’s not within our control, frankly. Whether it’s the speaker canceling or just someone showing up and not doing the best talk they’ve ever done, whether it’s someone who you’ve vetted, and they pivot the talk at the last minute.

I think that in my head, I’m pretty careful not to draw trendlines based on one event and say, “Alright, that’s it. Now, MicroConf is different than it always has been. It’s not tactical anymore.” And it’s like, “No, that’s not actually true because the next time, we’re going to double down on the same vision.” We’ve had pretty good consistency through the 18 events but it’s just an observation I made. Again, I heard a couple of people mention it to me and I was kind of like, “Yeah, that’s a good point.” I think that it’ll be different next time. No two MicroConfs are the same.”

Mike: Yeah. You and I have had this conversation before. I think that we had the conversation especially early on after the first two to three years where things were getting progressively better, we’re like, “Okay. How do we top the previous year? How do we make it better? How do we improve?” At a certain point, I think that’s actually detrimental especially when it comes to a conference where there’s so many things that are outside of your control.

What you really need to do is be concentrating on how can I maintain a consistently high-level of quality doing the same thing? Because you’re never going to consistently beat what you did before. You’re not always going to grow your numbers. You’re not always going to have better and better speakers. As you said, some people are going to have an off year here or there or a talk you think is going to go over well just falls flat or something like that. Those things happen and just aiming for consistently high quality I think is the better way to approach it because you’ll maintain your sanity a lot better as well.

Rob: Totally. I mean other examples I realized, again, I was reflecting. I was going through all the talks and thinking, “How are they different than I thought they would be? How is this MicroConf different?” There were more talks that had perhaps a hint of negativity in them. It wasn’t that the whole talk was negativity but during my talk I said, “Look, bootstrapping is getting harder. There’s more money coming into SaaS. It is harder.” Some people are like, “Oh my gosh, it’s just doom and gloom everywhere.” It’s like, “No, it’s not. It’s just a trend that I’m seeing.”

Patrick Campbell mentioned something that were part of his talk was, remote companies don’t grow as fast and have higher churn than co-located companies. We can talk about that probably in a future episode but there were just little tangents of it. Even Gumroad, Sahil’s talk, I’ve never met him, but his talk was more of a downer than I thought it would be and you just don’t know that going in. His story of starting Gumroad and raising the money and failing to become a billion-dollar company, it can come off inspirational, there could be tactics, or it can have undertones of thoughtful introspection.

Or even talking about bootstrapping versus not. This happened to be a year where there were with Chris Savage and Sahil talking about that weren’t necessarily super related to or in the wheelhouse of bootstrapping. Even patio11 having to step in. Maron wasn’t able to do it, patio11 stepped in and talked about what Silicon Valley does and this and that.

Again, one could paint it with a brush and look at it and be like, “Oh well, MicroConf now is about depressing talks that are less tactical and not focused on bootstrapping.” You could say that and it’s not true. No one is saying that, I am definitely just reflecting on this and looking at it, painting it in my head, but I think it’s one experience, one year, does not make a trend. It’s just the way things kind of fall in a given year. Again, it’s because a lot of the things that can be outside of your control that have changed last minute or just the way things fall certain years.

Mike: Your comment about Patrick Campbell’s data points about the companies that are remote growing slower than ones that aren’t, that maybe a general trend or a general conclusion that you could draw but it doesn’t mean that that happens every single time. Because there’s obviously individual situations that fall on one side or the other. Some of them are going to skew the data and some of them are going to stick pretty close to it. It’s more about what your path is as opposed to, “Oh, this trend line over here says this,” or, “This data point I have says X.” Well, a data point in and of itself doesn’t mean a whole lot. There’s a bigger picture that you’re not always looking at.

Rob: Totally. It’s been good. I think when you’re building anything—you’re building software, you’re building a personal brand, or you’re building a conference—you should reflect on it, figure out what went well, what went not so well, and figure out how to build an event or a thing that you’re proud and that brings value to people. That’s how we’ve done that. We’ve done that over and over for the past 18 conferences, so I think it was a good exercise. It was like a mini retreat. I had a lot of time on airplanes over the past two weeks, so I was able to think about this kind of stuff.

With that, what are we talking about today?

Mike: Well, today we’re going to be talking about case studies that don’t suck. I have a bunch of sources that I’ve drawn from and will put those into the show notes. But I want to talk about the process of putting together a case study and why would we even do it.

To start out, what’s the purpose of a case study? You can use case studies in a lot of different ways. But you can use them to drive traffic to your website, you can use them help convert leads, increase sales and the biggest thing that I’ve looked at for case studies is that when you have case study that is fully written out, it’s treated by people as different than if you have a conversation with them and you start relaying facts to them. Because there’s this, I don’t want to say a wall of, “I don’t believe you,” in front of them. But if you have something in a case study and it’s spelled out in black and white, they could look at it, and they can download it and see the data and pick it apart in their head. As opposed to trying to process it on the fly when you’re having the conversations. It feels a little bit more tangible to them.

You can use it as a reference point not just to hand to them but also you can relate back to those data points in conversations that you have during sales calls or demos or just everyday conversation where you point back to it and then say, “Oh well, we have a case study on exactly this. I will send it to you.”

Rob: Yeah. The cool part about case studies is they can function at the top of the funnel like you said to drive traffic, they can function in the middle of the funnel to convert leads, and they can function more towards the bottom of the funnel to convert leads and increase sales. They are very versatile piece of content depending on how they’re written. You can even do different variations of the exact same case study to make it more general and have a broader headline that could go towards top of the funnel or be super specific and just use the same content and tweak it to make it applicable to someone who’s deep in your sales funnel.

I’ve always liked them because they make your customer the hero which, in essence, tries to make your prospect the hero of the story. The prospect is thinking about it can look at it and say, “Well, I want that to be me.” In addition, the versatility to be able to be at all stages of the funnel is a unique aspect of case studies.

Mike: I think that one of the things you just mentioned is you’re positioning those prospects as the hero and that’s one of the reasons why this thing is so effective. It allows you to directly position your product as the best solution for that particular case study and you’ve got claims that are backed by results because you’re documenting them as part of the case study.

All these things combined make it helpful to have those because you can put them in front of somebody and it’s not something that everybody else has. Not every company puts together case studies that they can hand out to their prospects or their soon-to-be customers. And that makes them extremely effective in helping to convert those people into paying customers.

Rob: I think one of the critical things to think about when you’re building a case study is to identify who its targeting, or to be very specific. Oftentimes you’ll see a case study done for each of several market verticals. If your app serves other SaaS apps and WordPress plugins and info marketers, then you could do one case study for each of those three verticals. That could be a start.

If you serve different company sizes, whether they’re horizontal over the verticals, you can do Fortune 500 case study, and then a solopreneur case study, and then an SMB case study. Job titles, job responsibilities, is another one that you can look at. They have to go a bunch of course from the CEO of a small company or the CFO or even the marketing director or whatever. I think that doubling down, figuring out the 80/20 of this, and starting with kind of the one and focusing it on the place you have the most traction with. Like, what’s the job title or responsibility, is it founder, is it CEO, is it CFO, whatever; the company size whether SMB enterprise etc., and the market vertical, and then doing your first one based on that and seeing how it goes I think is how I would start.

Mike: I think the other thing that you mentioned earlier which was the fact that a case study can apply at the top, middle, or the bottom of the funnel, that’s another important thing to keep in mind when you are trying to identify who it is that you’re targeting because you want to know which of those types of people that you are targeting in your sales funnel. Is it somebody who you want to be able to run Facebook ads and promote this case study to? Or is it somebody who’s much closer to being a paying customer and they just need that last little bit of a push, and you can hand them a case study that maps them into the shoes of a current customer that you have who’s being successful with your product.

Once you have that information, you have to find customers who fit that profile and interview them. The very first thing you’re going to want to do is get their permission to use their name, photo, company, logo, things like that as part of a case study. Obviously, they’re going to want to be interested in being the subject of that case study. You want to look specifically who are being successful with your products. You don’t necessarily have to have had them for a long time, but they have to be excited about your product and using it a lot.

A lot of times this can happen when they just signed-on, if you’ve had a sales conversation and you maybe manually onboarded them because it was complicated. They were moving from another product to yours, and you had to do some upgraded or new feature improvements, or something like that, in order to get them over on to using your product. Those people are typically good candidates because they were experiencing pain enough from an existing solution that they were using. It also allows you to position your product against that other product as saying, “Hey, this was a better fit for this type of person and here are the reasons why.”

Rob: From there, you can use an introductory questionnaire in essence whether it’s a Google form or whether it’s just an email with four, five bullets on it. Get someone to give you their initial thoughts, initial feedback and you use that to then construct a deeper set of questions that you would typically ask during a phone interview that you then record. You can either then listen back, turn it out into the case study or you can transcribe it and try to manipulate that. But basically, what we’re talking about here is a do level of interviews. This first one is this short introductory questionnaire that’s typically done via email. What that allows you to do is to make the best use of this person’s time when you jump on the phone and interview for 30-45 minutes.

Mike: And that introductory questionnaire is something that you can inject as part of your marketing automation. When they have paid for the third or fourth time, they made three credit card payments, you can then send them a question that says, “Hey, would you be interested in doing a case study?” And then maybe highlight some of the other ones that you’ve done or if you’re early on, you don’t have a pool of case studies that you’ve done, what you could send them over is an individual email.

Rob: What you’re trying to dig into with all of this is you’re trying to find the through line for their story and then tell that story from start to finish. To be honest, I would look at The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, and you can just read a summary of that, you don’t have to read the whole book but just figure out what that is. You’ll see a lot of interviews. I actually base a lot of my talk outlines on The Hero’s Journey as much as I can. But it’s basically showing this person where they ended up and then tracing back and walking through the steps that they got to get there.

You want to identify who they are, what they do, what their goals were, what their needs were, what challenges they ran into along the way, how did your product meet these goals and help them get to that next level, helped them go from Mario to Super Mario, in essence, and what were the benefits that they received from your team or from your product or whatever to be able to level-up.

Mike: The most important thing that you want to keep in mind when you’re going through that story and identifying what that through line is to folks almost exclusively on the story. Because it has to resonate with whoever your target prospect is. The brand recognition for the hero of the story matters a lot less than the story itself. If you have a person or a company that you’re highlighting and nobody knows who they are, it doesn’t matter. But what really matters is making sure that the story is going to be relatable to the person who’s reading it because if it isn’t, then case study itself is not going to be nearly as powerful or as effective.

I’ve seen case studies where they’re written for a completely different type of company like an enterprise company. I read the case study and it means absolutely mean nothing to me because my problems are wildly different than that of an enterprise company. But if you have a different case study that is targeted at one or two-person companies then that’s something that resonates a lot better with me. It doesn’t matter to me if I know who the subject of that particular case study is or not.

Rob: Yeah. Story, story, story—those are the first three rules of anything, right? First three rules of starting a podcast, of writing a book—even if it’s a non-fiction book about marketing—having a story in there will […], writing a talk, there’s so many things, a blog post, that story can do and case studies are no different.

Something to think about once you’ve nailed this down, thinking about your formats. There’s a lot of formats you can put a case study into. You could obviously do a video, one. I hesitate when I say that because a, it’s expensive to do high-quality. I think fewer people watch videos than they listen to audio or read written version but if you can do a high-end one—if you could pay a videographer to actually put it together, if you can afford that—they can be pretty cool and they can have a lot of […]. There’s video, there’s PDF, there’s audio, there’s infographics.

The idea is if you can provide it in multiple formats, it’s kind of cool, because you can then take that same content and the content often takes the bulk of the time to produce but then you can rework it and reposition it and send it out in these many ways so that it feels like you have a bunch of case studies but it’s actually just one thing reworked into multiple formats.

Mike: Part of the reason you’d want to do that is just because people like to consume content in different ways. Some people like videos, some people like audios, some people like to read a PDF, other people will glance at an infographic and they’ll sign-up for a mailing list in order to find out more information. But all those things can be used in different capacities and in different channel. You want to make the most use of that content that you generated as you possibly can. The way to do it is using multiple formats.

One thing that we kind of skipped though or we didn’t talk about earlier was the fact that when you’re writing these case stories, try and drill in to find real numbers that you can reference. If you say, “Grew by 100% or 200%,” that’s a lot less meaningful than saying, “Grew by 97%.” That’s kind of a classic marketing technique but the fact is that having real numbers that prospects can reference and can relate to is a huge difference.

If somebody’s getting, let’s say, 10,000 visitors a month to their website and you have a case study where somebody is talking about growing from 9,000 to 17,000 visitors a month, that’s going to be powerful to them. Whereas if that same person reads a case study and it references 180,000 visitors going to 360,000, it’s not as meaningful to them because they can’t relate to it; it doesn’t mean as much. That’s why having those numbers in there helps you to position your case study directly towards the type of person you’re targeting.

And then the last thing is to make sure that you have a place where people can go to get these case studies. It’s not enough to just promote them through various channels or to send them into people when they’re asking for them or to put them into your marketing automation. What you really want to do is make sure that these case studies are available so that if somebody is just browsing through your website and they want to see some of the different case studies, they’re right there. That serves a lot of different purposes, but the bottom line is you want people to be able to see these out if they’re interested in them and then download them whenever they feel like it.

Rob: Of course, the thing that most people forget about and that is should probably be at least half of the work is the promotion. Maybe it should be 80/20 but it’s promotion. You’re going to build this thing; it’s not going to promote itself.

Mike: It’s not?

Rob: It’s not going to promote… Mike, if you have learned nothing in 440 episodes of this, “Build it and they will come,” is not going to work. This is where you have to inject this case study into your sales or your marketing funnel. It can be published on the website at a place where it gets a lot of traffic. You can put it in email welcome sequence. You can put it in an email marketing sequence. But just some way to get this in front of people’s eyeballs. Promote it on social media periodically, if it holds up, if it’s evergreen. If it’s a one-time thing obviously, promote it on social media for a week or two and then let it go.

Getting it out to folks via email really is probably the best way. We know that email engagement is so much higher than other things, but the idea here is to get out in front of people. I’ve heard folks doing the case study running ads to get people to go download or read the case study, is certainly a viable option. That’s a marketing tactic that you’re going to have to spend quite a bit of time honing the funnel and all that stuff but there are lots of ways to get people in front of it. If the case study is well-written, it impacts people, it can lead to people converting. It can have that positive ROI pretty quickly.

Mike: You could even go so far as to put these as a content upgrade on your website in various places throughout your content marketing. If there’s an article that you have about some particular topic and you have a case study that is discussing that topic or challenge that people were having and explicitly walks through how one of your customers was able to overcome it with your product, then that’s a fantastic content upgrade that you can promote inside of that particular blog post.

Rob: We have four sourced articles that you compiled this outline from as well as some of your own magic. We will include those links in our show notes, startupsfortherestofus.com, look for episode 440 if you want to learn more about this topic. With that, we’re wrapped up for the day.

If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or email us at questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt, used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes, Stitcher, Overcast, Downcast, Spotify or wherever podcasts are sold, just search for Startups For The Rest Of Us. If you want a full transcript of each episode, you can hit our website startupsfortherestofus.com. thanks for listening, we’ll see you next time.

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One Response to “Episode 440 | How to Build Case Studies That Don’t Suck”

  1. Sarah says:

    Great episode as always! You mentioned a book called the Hero’s Journey. There seem to be a few around with that name – can you give any additional details so I know I’ve got the right one?
    Many thanks