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a question of scale
growing into your customer base
page three of three | previous page

patrick arnone: growing to scale

          Good morning. I am Patrick Arnone. I am a native Washingtonian who spent 32+ years in the information technology industry, starting in computer operations, then into sales in 1970 in the timesharing industry, then hardware, software, consulting, professional services, and systems integration. About six years ago I launched my own retained executive search business, Arnone & Associates.

          I've been through most of what you have been through in these various levels of challenges that a business faces. I was with three different companies that grew rapidly from zero to a billion dollars, including Storage Technology Corporation, Oracle, and Sybase. All three also hit the wall at a billion dollars. I was involved in five different startups, three back to back, not necessarily as the founder, but, in several cases, either as the President and COO or as the sales executive. I’ve also been involved in some turnaround situations.

          My experience in the technology industry has helped me with my clients relative to the retained searches that we conduct. We work only on a retained basis, from vice president level up to board members, and most of our searches tend to come through a VC, a board member, past client, or CEO referral. Eighty percent or so of our clients are between zero to perhaps $20 million in revenue, with the balance being in $500 million to multibillion dollar clients. My preference is to work with smaller companies because that's my passion, and, hopefully, the CEO or hiring executive can take advantage of some of the experience that I might be able to bring to the table.

          I'll try to keep my comments today at a macro level. I feel like I've experienced a number of things in my time in the industry, and it really was a blessing in many ways. I was very fortunate to have been associated with some of the high growth companies that I was involved with. There's not enough time here to go through the details of the lessons I learned, but they're enormous.

          I see the challenges of a growth company as breaking in stages from the zero to $5 million mark, from $10 million to $25, then $50million, $100 million, $250 million, $500 million, $750 million, and a billion dollars, and beyond. Many of the issues faced are similar, but, at the same time, they are a different set of challenges and a different set of issues that I experienced at those various levels. I've been in several pre-revenue companies. They are very exciting and also very challenging in terms of finding those early adopters.

          I would like to share what I believe are the five most important things I learned. It sometimes amazes me, as simple as these are and as often as we all hear about them, that they are so often ignored. It’s just like when the doctor tells us don't eat this and don't do that. We all know these things, but we tend not to do them. Here they are in some relative order of importance, and, to me, the first is: Recruit the best team.

          We all know that. We hear it. No one ever confesses that they hired a B or C player. I have been associated with some of the best companies that I could have imagined, Oracle probably being the best example of bright and talented people that I had the good fortune of working with. We did two things at Oracle. Those two things were so important that they were Priority 1, which was revenue, and Priority 1A, which was recruiting. Recruiting was so important that it couldn't be Priority 2. It was about building a high performance business unit, a high performance organization, and a high performance company. We had plenty of other things to do, but I'll tell you, there wasn't much time to get beyond revenue and recruiting. Recruiting the best team is critical, but I still see mistakes made time and time again. Even if you conduct the search yourself, if you don't want to go to a contingent or retained search firm for whatever reasons, there are five basic steps to a search with critical things you've got to do.

          The second major tenet to me is: Know your addressable market cold. I truly mean that. It's critical. Know your addressable market cold.

          Third: Have a compelling product and service. Not compelling to you. Not compelling to your investors. Not compelling to your board. All are important, but it has to be compelling to your market, to your clients, to your suspects, and to your prospects. No matter what stage you're at, that is critical.

          Fourth: Strong marketing. You need a crisp, succinct, powerful, compelling value proposition, differentiators, and elevator pitch. All of those things are essential.

          Lastly: Position and sell business solutions to business people, not technology to technologists. That was something I had challenges with early in my sales career—selling features and bells and whistles. It’s the challenge of transitioning to more of a value proposition or consultative sell. Understand the client's business, what their problems are, and how to sell and position effectively to them.

          To me, those are the five critical tenets. We could spend hours on each of those points, but I’ll just wrap it up with that and save it for the Q&A.

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deepak hathiramani: the ceo’s perspective

Thank you very much. I am Deepak Hathiramani, President and CEO of Vistronix. I'm going to take a somewhat different spin and talk a little bit about what needs to be done from a CEO perspective.

          I'm going to go back a little in history because I think it's relevant to the discussion. Right out of school, I looked for a startup company with the intention of doing exactly what we're doing today. I was fortunate enough to find a small one in Austin, Texas, where I went to school. This was back in 1986 and 1987, and we had a great product. We built software that tested other people's software. Great product. Great concept. Great time. We just didn't know how to market it.

          Unfortunately, after three and a half years, the company fell flat on its face. We tried everything from raising money on the Penny Stock Exchange in Canada to private equity. We couldn't do it, and that taught me a very important lesson.

          Moving forward, to gain more experience, I looked for another startup which was slightly ahead in its business life cycle. That brought me to this area, and I joined a company in Herndon which, at the time, was called Netrix. When I joined them in 1989 we were about 30 people and $300,000 in revenue. We had just closed a second round of venture funding, and the venture capitalists brought in a CEO who was instrumental in taking the company from $300,000 in 1989 to $30 million in 1992. We took the company public in October of 1992. In November of that year we were the second fastest growing company on the NASDAQ market. In February of 1993 we were the fastest falling company on the NASDAQ stock market. We lost 70% of our stock in a week's time. That also taught me a tremendous lesson.

          To scale a business from zero to $30 million is one challenge. To scale from $30 million to $100 million is a different challenge. If you don't adjust the management team or the strategy to go from $30 million to $100 million, you will never get there. I think that's the mistake we made.

          We founded Vistronix back in 1990. It was sitting as a shell. Since 1992 we've pursued business very hard and we've grown it to about a $34 million company today. We are exactly where Netrix was back in 1992. It's back to: How do you get from $30 million to $100 million?

          From my perspective, there are a few key lessons to it. One of them, which Patrick mentioned, is that you've got to have the right management team. We, as entrepreneurs, tend to delay decisions based on the fact that things might get better. Maybe tomorrow it will happen, maybe the day after. Trust me, if you've got the wrong person in the wrong place, you've got to make the decision as fast as possible. Time is the enemy of business, and the longer you wait the more you're passing the business. You've got to get the wrong people off the bus and the right people on it.

          The second issue from my vantage point is: What inherent skills do we have in the company that are going to enable us to scale the business to the next level? I'll give you an example. As a company, we developed a product for the State of Maryland back in 1999 specifically to address what, at that time, was called Perkins grants. Being in the services business, we didn't think about what else we could do with that product. After looking at it for a while, we recognized that if Maryland had this problem, the 49 other states had the same problem. We successfully managed to convert it from a product to a framework, and we have cross-sold it to a number of states. The lesson is, it's much easier to up-sell and cross-sell than to acquire a new customer.

          The last point I'll mention in this discussion is a personal point. We get very entrenched in our businesses, and what suffers is your personal commitment to your family. It's instrumental that we entrepreneurs recognize that besides work we have another life and another commitment. It brings me to a story which I hope is not true, but I believe it probably is. It's about this small boy who comes to his father who is an entrepreneur and works extended hours. The boy goes to him and asks, “Can I borrow $20?” The father looks at him and says, “No, you cannot.” The son goes back to his room disappointed. Later, after dinner, the father goes up to the boy’s room and asks him, “Why did you want to borrow $20?” The son says, “I asked you how much you made last year. Based on that, I figured that $20 would buy me an hour of your time. Can I buy an hour of your time?”

          Those are the challenges that we face as entrepreneurs, and we must not lose sight that besides business we've got a personal life and we've got personal commitments that we must hold. Thank you.

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the audience: q&a

Mr. Becker: That's a great closing comment.

          Let’s go to questions, and I would like to start us off by asking, at the different stages of a startup, as the company grows, is there a role for outside help, say a sales consultant, to help an entrepreneur with developing their sales processes or to do training for the sales organization? Have you ever used one?

Mr. Masri: We have, but mainly to make introductions as we rolled out our business model.

Ms. Marsan: Yes. I used to be one, so I'm a proponent of it. I think it can be particularly beneficial when you can't afford to bring somebody with certain skill sets on the payroll full-time. You can outsource it. In fact, one of the things that initially brought me to ServiceBench was a consulting engagement to help them take a look at their processes and what they were doing in sales and marketing. I think outsourcing that expertise makes a lot of sense, particularly when it doesn't make sense to have it on a full-time basis.

Mr. Arnone: Yes, whether it's in a tactical area, a strategic area, motivational speakers, or anywhere you need to strengthen your organization. Outside consultants, whether for a half a day engagement or a multi-week engagement, absolutely can help.

Mr. Hathiramani: Absolutely. That brings me to a point which I did not state earlier. You've got to recognize when you're in over your head. That's a challenge as an entrepreneur. It's very, very difficult to recognize that you're wrong. My goal has always been to surround myself with people who know more than I do in their respective domains, and that has been extremely helpful to me.

Q: Deepak and Patrick, having been involved in multiple companies and multiple stages, what are the times when you need to look at your team and ask: These are the people who got me here, but are they the same people who will get me there? It's such a difficult decision for a CEO because these are people you've been in battle with. What are the times when you need to take that hard look, and when do you have to make those difficult decisions?

Mr. Hathiramani: I think you've got to do it all the time. You have to constantly evaluate your team and make sure that you're at the right place at the right time. Certain individuals are great in growing a business from $5 million to $20 million or from $5 million to $30 million, but they lack the ability to scale the business from $30 million to $100 million. That's when you've got to make a decision, and some of these decisions are extremely difficult. I had one that was especially difficult. I had to tell the sixth employee of a company that it was time for her to go. She happened to be my wife. Those are tough decisions you've got to make. She had been the backbone of everything that we had and provided the support for which I'm very grateful to her, but, at a certain point, it was time for her to step aside and we had to bring in somebody else.

Mr. Arnone: I agree. You do it continually. Assuming—and this is not a trivial assumption and I don't want this to sound self-serving since I'm in the search business now—but assuming you've hired the right person, whether that's a salesperson, your marketing executive, your CFO. This is a classic problem that most CEOs and hiring executives have. They don't spend enough time thinking about and defining in writing the basic requirements, attributes, background, and experience that's required. They'll spend more time brushing their teeth than they will on that.

          But assuming that you've hired the right person, you've got to evaluate continually. I'll give you an example. When I joined Oracle, they were a $55 million dollar company worldwide. That was 1986. Four years later they were a billion dollar company. In 1986 the business unit I took responsibility for had 12 people and $2 million in revenue. Four years later it was 350 people and $100 million in revenue for both products and services. We were continually evaluating. Priority 1A was recruiting. We continually looked at our people, and, yes, we made bad hiring decisions anyway. As much time and effort as we put into it, which was unbelievable, every 90 days we looked at our people, certainly our salespeople who are very easy to measure. They were gone if they weren't on their number. It was that binary and that simple.

          The most difficult experience I had was also at Oracle. The business unit I was responsible for was profitable and making its numbers. Still, you weren't able to invest in your business unit, whether additional people or infrastructure, unless it came from your own margin. Ellison—I was one removed from Ellison during that period—didn't send us money to build our business. We had to fund it ourselves, which was fine. We were held accountable for that P&L completely. The most difficult thing was that Oracle forced us to rank our people serially every year. You know, rank them one through 150, or however many people we had. Regardless of where we were, and we were always way above our revenue number and way above our margin number, we had to prune the bottom 10%. That was the most difficult thing I had to do.

Mr. Becker: It's tough.

Mr. Arnone: It is a difficult thing to do, and I didn't totally agree with it. There was some value to it, but I didn't agree with it to the extent that Ellison did.

Mr. Becker: There's a great book called Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching and Keeping the Best People by Bradford Smart, about the program that GE and others used to assess and counsel that bottom 10% out.

Q: Is there a role for using testing, such as skills assessment, personality profiles, or psychological testing in the hiring process for both management and salespeople?

Mr. Arnone: We were a big user both at Oracle and at Sybase for virtually everyone. To make a very long story short, we used it as an indicator, not as the ultimate decision element in our hiring process. It was used extensively, as was the report that we got back. It was a great data point that helped us in our decision process. We used both personality and assessment in trades and skills. It was a well-rounded assessment. We also used it to determine which of our salespeople were better suited as “hunter/killers”—the ones who go out and generate revenue no matter what obstacle—as opposed to what we called “farmers.” You need both. The farmers are the great account managers who grow it once the account is sold. It really does take a different skill set. Typically, you don't find many salespeople who are equally skilled at doing both. Most salespeople have difficulty admitting that. The big caution, and I'm not up on the law here so you've got to talk with your corporate attorney or your outside counsel, is that there are some serious legal considerations with testing. Sybase shut us down in doing it because it was not done throughout the whole corporation. There had to be some uniformity to it.

Mr. Becker: At Sterling we have a full-time human resources executive. We do assessments during the due diligence process—it's actually in all of our term sheets—and then we encourage our portfolio companies to do an assessment on an annual basis.

Q: How do you compensate your sales executives at the early stages? Also, does anybody have any innovative ways of figuring out how to compensate the sales executives when sales doesn't have a track record yet?

Ms. Marsan: You always want to have a commission or incentive component to your sales compensation plan, but, in the beginning, you will have to pay a higher base salary because you don't have the traction. Unfortunately, that can lead to a situation where you have very high base salaries. Then you get the traction and suddenly your compensation isn't where it needs to be. It should probably be a lower base and a much higher percentage tied to performance. How we avoided that is we would typically set a timeframe that would involve a non-recoverable draw to get us to a certain stage or milestone level.

Mr. Becker: That's a good idea. We've also worked with our professional search firms to get the studies on the various compensation models people are using, so you can be competitive in the marketplace, which is critical. We used to joke that for a sales compensation plan we wished we had an ATM in the office. If you got an order, you came back to the office and the ATM would pay out a commission on the spot.

          Well, I see that we are running a bit late, so that will have to be our last question.

Ms. MacPherson: Let me just note that we'll take written questions in The Loop discussion group even after the event. You can subscribe online, and send your email questions to, mailto:loop@listserv.morino.org.

Mr. Becker: With that, I would like to ask Mario to come up. Thanks to all of our panelists. You were terrific.

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mario morino: wrap up

First, thanks to everybody for again showing up so early in the morning. It's amazing. At 6:30 people were already knocking at the door. I also want to thank Mary and Ben and the Netpreneur team, and especially our panelists, Eric, Rob, Cory, Patrick, and Deepak.

          For those of you not in sales, you heard some great wisdom today. I had a lot more hair before I began to understand sales. For those who don't appreciate sales, I'm going to try to impress upon you that it's probably more important that you learn it than any other thing you're going to do as a CEO. Otherwise, you’ll put a glass ceiling on your business. It's probably the hardest lesson I had to learn.

          What I want to do is narrow this down and see if I can summarize the comments. I brought it down to six fundamental points, and I'll try to elaborate on each.

          Number one, know the fundamentals. Number two, it's about the entire business. Three, you need seasoned, professional distribution management. Not sales management, distribution management. That's sales, it's marketing, and it's support. You're going to find how complex sales management actually is at the end of the day. Number four, to Deepak's point, it's about scaling and the changing definition of excellence. Five, it's about compelling knowledge of your field and your competition. Six, it's all about values and culture.

          I want to go back and talk about that first item, “know the fundamentals,” and start by mentioning an individual, Bill Gorog, who recently passed away. Shannon Henry wrote a column about him in last Thursday’s Washington Post. I had the pleasure of knowing Bill, and he was a remarkable gentleman. He was the creator of LexisNexis, a company he built and sold to Reed Elsevier, Inc. In Shannon’s article he discussed one of the hardest lessons he learned. When he first brought LexisNexis out, he picked the wrong buyer. He originally thought that the logical user would be doctors, but he found out that although they wanted it, they wouldn't buy it because they couldn't go to their client—you, the patient—and admit that they were using another service. It appeared to show a weakness in the doctor. They also didn't have an easy way to pay for it. Bill found that the profession that would pay for it was the legal profession because they could easily pass the cost on to their clients.

          That lesson is about the fundamentals. I can't stress this enough, and I'm going to try to dig into it a little bit. You’ve already heard it in different ways, but you have to know what you're doing with your product or service and how it's going to reach the buyer. If there's an absence in most business plans, that's it. Entreprenurs tend to gloss over this with baloney like, “We're going to get 1% of the market.” Every time I see that, I want to throw the business plan away immediately because they’ve just told me that they don't know dink about their business. Sales is logistics, and there's a series of mechanics that gets that product or service into the buyer's hands.

          The question is, who is the buyer specifically? Patrick touched on this. Will they actually buy? That's different from whether there is a need. There could be a need, but there may not be the ability to pay for the solution. You've got to confirm it. After that, what will be the steps, the specific steps in the process, from the time the sales process starts with a cold call or lead to the time a purchase takes place? That's where all the complexity comes in that we talked about: Is it direct sales? Indirect sales? Consultative or point sale? What kind of compensation systems? It’s all that management process that gets you there, and the panel did a great job and covered a lot of it.

          The point I'm getting at is that those specifics are important. A person came in from the field last week, after talking to somebody who happened to be from a nonprofit that's trying to market a software product in the health services area. He was very well intentioned, and he had no idea of my background in software, unfortunately. I asked him, “Who do you sell to?”

          He said, “We sell to communities.”

          I thought to myself, they don't stand a chance. I asked, “What do you mean you sell to communities?”

          He said, “You know, we sell to communities.”

          I said, “No. Who do you sell to?”

          It kept getting more and more vague. He didn't understand the point I was trying to get at. You've got to know the type of organization that will buy your product and who in the organization you’re selling to, specifically, and where you’re going to get paid from. As basic as that sounds, you've got to think those fundamentals through because they’re going to dictate everything you're do.

          The second point is that it's about the whole business.

          Patrick and I go back a long way. There was a period of time when we had this ongoing battle. He was a VP of Sales, and he always said, “Never confuse selling with installing.” I was a CEO. I said, “You should always confuse selling with installing.” That’s because, at the end of the day, it's about the whole business. You can never forget that. It's not that someone is on the sales team; they're on the business team. That means every developer is there to support the salespeople, and every salesperson is there to support the developers. It's a culture you've got to build. If you're going to win long term, it's a team that sells. Selling is not just a point in time. If you don't service that client, you've got a problem when you go back for repeat business.

          What you have to do, and it's important, is to create respect between the various factions in a business. Often, you see anything but that respect, and that creates a tension that's quite unhealthy. Tech people don't want to come to the support of a salesperson, and salespeople will look down on the tech people. You've got to overcome that. Now don’t get me wrong. In a functioning organization everybody is not going to become bosom buddies, but the idea of respect, we can get behind that. It’s that we're all trying to solve a problem for a client. It's orchestrated by your account manager and by your salesperson, but you may need to bring in development people, executives, support people, and others to work on the issue. Creating that holistic environment and mental attitude is key.

          Once a developer was hired into our company. He wanted to make some brownie points and was explaining something to me by writing all these formulas on the board. I looked at him and asked, “How would our customer look at that?” He said, “I don't care, that's a sales job.” I said, “You're finished.” It's that quick. You're finished, because you don't understand what we're about. Every technical person in our organization had to be able to go out and talk and walk and be with a salesperson because that was our life. I think that's very germane for a CEO as well.

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          Number three, you need seasoned, professional distribution management. If you heard what was said here today, you're going to gain an appreciation of how complex good sales management is. Cory touched on compensation, for example. I’ve been amazed watching various compensation plans put together. There's an awful lot of thought that goes into creating the right incentives, and you can actually dis-incentivize a sales force with the wrong point systems. Territorial makeup is another critical issue. One of the lessons we learned was that continuity of territory coverage was our single most important indicator of sales. Not proposals. Not calls. It was territory continuity, meaning an experienced sales rep in place in the same territory for a period of time. We began to track that as the most important indicator for our sales management. Let's say we had 300 reps, which meant 300 sales months in a month. How many of those months were occupied by an experienced, trained salesperson who was on board with the company for at least a year and had been in that territory for more than, let's say, 18 to 24 months? Anything less than that was a sub-par performance in that slot. If you're looking at your sales numbers and, out of 300 potentially productive rep months 150 aren't at par, you've got a problem. That's taking it down to logistics levels.

          To Deepak's point about scaling and the changing definition of excellence, we find the same issue in both the investing we do professionally and the investing we do socially in nonprofits. It's so difficult to get somebody to realize how their life will be in the future. The comment was made to hire the best, and you should, but the question is, do you know what the best is at a point in time? That's the problem. I went through five evolutions of my business in which we thought we had the best. I get so sick of seeing business plans that all say, “We have a world class team.” It’s baloney. You don't know what a world class team looks like yet. You're too young. You'll get to a point when you actually have a world class team, but it typically doesn't start too early in the cycle. It's when you have established pros in place.

          Get experienced people around you who know where you're going, rather than where you've been. It's so important to have somebody on your board who has seasoned distribution experience at a company multiple times your size. The most important thing we did when we merged—we were at about $100 million in revenue—is that we made it a point to recruit three CEOs to our board who had built similar software service businesses of between $750,000 to $1 billion in size. I can't begin to tell you how much I learned in the following two years. You've got to talk to people who have been where you're going. If you're hiring in sales, you've got to get a salesperson who has been where you've got to get to. If you’re still an emerging business, don't hire somebody who sold the same thing you sell today because their experience base is not going to push you. You're not going to grow, and you're going to find yourself unable to scale, as Deepak put it, when you're at that next point.

          Always hire out in front of your needs and hire the very best you can get. The challenge is understanding what the best is, and I'll challenge you to think high all the time. Hire upwards all the time, and, whenever you hire, ensure that the person is going to raise the level for all the management on the team. I can't stress that enough, and I think everybody else has made the same point about the critical nature of hiring.

          Next is compelling knowledge. When a CEO comes in with a business plan, I always try to ask about competition and the field right away. That's going to tell you an awful lot about what they know about their business. You never, ever stop learning about the field. Every time you lose a major order, you had better dissect why, and you had better understand why you won the business that you won. This was Cory's point.

          You have to know where your competition is coming from. This story goes back into the late 1980s when we were talking to IBM about what was happening in the distributed systems area. They really did not read their market. They weren't listening to the right customer bases. They weren't out there collecting the right intelligence. As they focused on DEC as the player infringing in their market, they didn't see Novell or Microsoft eating their lunch in the distributed systems area. They also didn't realize how much the database management area was changing by the mid 1980s. They were listening to their standard voices as opposed to being out in the field, one step off the competition.

          How far do you go? All the way. We used to have telemarketing teams that followed the competition. If they ran a seminar, we would debrief the area to find out who went and we would come right in behind them. It was terrific. They created interest, and we would come in and sweep behind them and pick up the business. We knew what they were doing, and we stayed right on their trail the entire time. You breathe, eat, and sleep your competition. You have to.

          Next, the values and culture. I think great sales organizations start with the CEO. If it's all coming strictly from the EVP of Sales, you're already making it hard for that person to be successful. The culture of an organization starts with a CEO, and you don't have to be a salesperson to eat and breathe it. I began to really respect sales. I realized that with all the great technology around, nothing mattered if we couldn't sell. As basic as that sounds, it's a huge admission to realize that your great product can't sell without a good sales force.

          I emphasize the importance of the CEO setting that culture, and it's not just in sales, it's a continual process with the client. At one point I went to 25 CIOs that I knew pretty well in the industry. We were trying to bring a message to our own sales force. I asked the CIOs, “What is the most important thing you see in salespeople? What do you want to see?” What came back were not words you often ascribe to some salespeople, unfortunately, although they should be because your best salespeople live up to them. The words were values, integrity, and honesty. Twenty-five top CIOs in the country, and notice what they said. What did they want? “I want salespeople to help me solve my problems and I want them to be straight with me.” Pretty simple, isn't it? Part of that is having that “compelling knowledge” we talked about, because it's about the value to the client. It's about how your products and services relate to their issues. It's about understanding their priorities. Sometimes you have to back off because you're simply not on their priority list, and you have to figure out how your products are going to solve one of their priority needs. Their other interesting comment was, “Stop treating me like a customer and start treating me like a person. Take me from being an object, a quarterly stat, to realizing that we’re people.” Pretty basic stuff. Great salespeople and great executives realize it's about relationships and people. You set the tone and you give them the confidence that you're going to be there to help them solve their problems, that you're going to marshal your resources to get it done. It's not about sales. It's not about support. It's not about development. It's not about contracts administration. It's not about collectables. It's about you as a team solving that client's problem. That's the ultimate sales machine.

          Thank you all very much.

[End]

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