Category Archives: Business – General

October 2010 – Another Black October?

a tale of two lottos
Image by jordi.martorell via Flickr

There’s an interesting phenomenon surrounding October as regards the stock market – it’s probably the single most feared month of the year, with the three biggest crashes all occurring (or starting) in October. Will October 2010 be another bad month?

The Great Depression was triggered by the sharp slides which happened in October 1929 (and kept going), although the biggest one day drop was that of 19th October, 1987, when the Dow lost nearly 23% in one day, and then kept dropping for some weeks until finding a new bottom, with losses of somewhere around $1 trillion. Most recently, October 2010 was seen as the worst month for the stock markets after the banking crisis came to light – and the economic repercussions are still being felt strongly in most parts of the world.

Although there was hope that economic recovery would continue throughout this year, there are growing concerns about whether this will happen, or if we will see a further drop – the infamous double-dip recession. Behind this are the questions of whether governments put too much money into trying to boost recovery too soon, or whether they haven’t put enough in for it to be effective; how and when countries are going to be able to afford to pay for the economic stimulation so far given, and how they can pay for any more if this is needed; and whether the idea of such government intervention has been effective at all, or whether the market needs to sort itself out.

I’m certainly not qualified to answer these questions. To be honest, I’m not sure that anyone really has the answers, especially given that we’ve seen fairly convincing proof that markets are far from rational as they had previously be held to be. Watching the daily rise and fall of the main indices like the Dow Jones it seems to me that the smallest piece of news is magnified in terms of its impact on the market overall, with billions of dollars being added to, or taken from, the value of companies on the strength of relatively insignificant items.

If this is the case and we go into the last quarter of the year without some strong positive news, will the markets over-react once more and lead us back into a “Black October.”  What do you think?

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Not Really a Global Economy

My Pocket Contents
Image by William Hook via Flickr

The news continues to be full of stories around the Global Economy and how companies increasingly operate independent of national boundaries – so that one could be forgiven for believing that we really do live in a global economy.

However, as my current experience of relocating to a “First World” country – England – shows, where one would expect that things do operate in this way, the reality is very different and the Global Economy seems a long way off.

Certainly, some things work well – one can move money between bank accounts across multiple geographies easily (provided, of course, your accounts are all with one bank, otherwise it’s far more complicated). Mobile telephones also operate well across boundaries, although you pay handsomely for making and receiving calls when away from the country where your phone is registered – profiteering, perhaps?

However, the rather large holes in this Global Economy story (myth?)  have really been exposed when trying to establish myself with the basics here.

  • Renting a home – this is far from simple. You have to get credit reference agencies involved and they require enormous amounts of information. Simply giving them details of your bank/s and relationship managers isn’t enough: you have to do all the leg work yourself.
  • Insurance – amazingly, motor insurance companies apparently don’t give credit for a no-claims driving record in countries like Dubai (an extremely challenging environment as anyone who has driven there will attest), although they are happy to do so for comparatively tame driving countries like New Zealand, so no more no-claims bonus on motor insurance…
  • Telephones – it took me a week to establish that I COULD get Blackberry Services on a Pay As You Go basis (I was told by some mobile operators and some phone shops that this was impossible for the first week, but kept researching until I found it could be done).

In fact, for most general things (even using your new bank account’s debit card) the over-riding requirement is for a local Post Code (you’re asked for this the whole time), so if you’re still trying to set things up and don’t yet have a fixed abode, you end up having to borrow a post code and address from a willing friend or relative for even simple transactions.

Why is it, that with a 30+ year history of banking, credit, insurance, telephone, etc., etc., usage in countries like South Africa and Dubai (countries that have “First World” standards of traceability on such things) I have to start over? One would think this information would be available to the relevant companies and authorities in other countries, but it seems to be only the case for adverse information and anyone else is “guilty until they prove themselves innocent.”

So much for the Global Economy – or is it just a case of laziness and profiteering?

———-

P.S. This relocation process is, of course, the reason for my lack of blogs recently – I hope to be back to regular blogging in September.

Regular readers will notice the banner picture change to reflect my new home…

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Service – the Quick Way to Kill a Brand

I took my car for a service this morning – an experience that once again underscored just how easy it is to chase customers away and kill your brand.

Some background – I currently live in Dubai in the UAE, where the climate and conditions are not particularly vehicle-friendly, so that 4 wheel-drive vehicles such as mine need to be serviced every 5000 kilometres (3000 miles). Because the car is still under warranty this necessitates taking it to the dealership from where I bought it.

This particular vehicle, a Mitsubishi Pajero (also known as a Shogun in some markets) is extremely popular in the UAE – providing a well laid-out, spacious interior, good quality and reliability which is what one needs, especially when the temperature outside is somewhere over 45C. We greatly enjoy the vehicle. What I don’t enjoy is the regular service experience – and come the end of the lease period, I’d switch brands for this reason alone.

And this in a market where new car sales were some 82.5% down last year against 2008 according to ArabianBusiness.com. So you think the dealerships would be delivering exceptional service to maximise what few sales there are. Yet the Mitsubishi agents here seem to be oblivious to this simple approach, as today showed.

Yet, a pre-booked service that should take 30 minutes and be done while you wait, means being without a car for 11 hours – I take that car in at 7:30am and can only pick it up again around 6:30pm in spite of asking for it earlier (bigger services take 2-3 days with these people)!

What amazes me is that they seem to live in perpetual chaos. You book vehicles in advance, turn up at the specified time/day and they still seem to be unable to do the job quickly and painlessly because they’ve always got an unexpectedly full workshop. This sort of approach is, incidentally, quite commonplace here – service lets so many brands down (I have another still-unresolved issue with Bose).

What companies really have to recognise is that the after-sales service experience is one of the quickest ways to kill a brand. Customers are not – or should not – be a one-transaction experience. Lifetime value is what  companies need to focus on, as that’s where the real profits lie – repeat customers that become brand advocates. When are they going to understand this simple concept?

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A Failure of Leadership

A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted many problems – problems with the technology for drilling at depths where the water pressure is around a ton per square inch; problems with BP not being transparent from the outset as to the extent of the spill; problems with oil companies putting short-term profits ahead of ensuring that these issues cannot happen; problems with the US Regulators who seemingly have been extremely lax in applying the regulations and have been granting waivers freely to the oil industry; problems with our ability to clean up oil spills even 21 years after Exxon Valdez (what’s happened to Kevin Costner’s centrifuge-based cleaner?)…

But for me, one of the most surprising things to emerge from this has been the failure of leadership. BP’s leadership issues are, to an extent, understandable – although not excusable – in that they have been focused on protecting shareholder value by trying to downplay the size, scope and likely cost of the problem. This doesn’t excuse the behaviour, as I’ve said, but one can understand it, so it’s not too surprising.

No, the leadership failure I’m referring to has been that of President Obama.

I realise that this statement might cause something of a firestorm from some readers of this blog, but bear with me on this for there are lessons to be learnt and actions to be taken – so it’s not (yet) too late.

We need to recognise that when running for office, then-Senator Barack Obama focused on the need for change – a need that the US population clearly believed in, given the fact that it propelled a largely-unknown junior Senator to the office of President. Central to this theme was his strong belief that things could best be accomplished by working together on the issues with all concerned parties – no matter on which side of the fence they stood.

This, of course, has not been a great success in the Congress and Senate as the divisions have, in many cases, simply been too deep to facilitate working together. The oil spill, though, is a different matter – for there is no question that everyone has a common goal: to stop the leak and clean up the mess as quickly as possible and with as little damage to the environment as is possible.

However, apart from being slow off the mark in terms of visiting the Gulf Coast, President Obama has spent most of his time publicly berating BP rather than being seen to work with them to address the issue in the most comprehensive way. Perhaps he was trying to cover up the shortcomings in his own administration – those regulatory bodies that were not doing their job properly – given the looming mid-term elections, or perhaps his anger simply clouded his judgement. Either way, instead of seeking to work shoulder-to-shoulder with BP and for them to jointly marshal the considerable forces that could be at their disposal if they, and other oil companies, worked together, the situation has become one of adversity. And an adversarial relationship never produces the best overall result.

It’s time for President Obama to put personal feelings and party politics aside on this problem; to work with all stakeholders – oil companies, state and local government (of all political persuasions), and anyone else that can play a positive role. He needs to remember his campaign promise to change the way things are done in Washington, and to work for the best result regardless of personal feelings, of politics and of attribution of blame. There’s plenty of time for all that after the mess is cleaned up.

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The End of Cash?

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

It’s interesting to see the number of recently introduced products coming to market which are designed to, in effect, remove the need for cash.

One that has garnered particular attention recently is, of course, Square. This comprises a small application that resides on your iPhone (or iPad, iPod Touch) or Android phone, together with a little reader that plugs straight into the audio input jack of the phone and turns it into a personal credit card payment machine that will allow the user to accept credit card payments from anyone for a small fee (typically 2.75% + 15c). With no costs for set-up, application or card reader this is sure to change the game for those tens of millions of small businesses, traders and professionals that have, until now, fallen outside the electronic payment net because they are too small for the card companies to serve cost-effectively.

But Square is not alone – Obopay allows anyone with a  mobile phone to set up an Obopay account and, for just 25-50c (plus 1.5% if you’re using a credit card to fund your account) send money – in other words, make a payment – to anyone else with a mobile phone, whether or not that person already has an Obopay account. Again, there are no setup costs.

And then there’s Intuit with its GoPayment service that also enables credit card payments from a mobile phone – this time with a Bluetooth reader – at a cost of 1.7% + 30c per transaction, although this service does have a monthly service cost of $12.95 attached to it (I wonder for how long, though, given the competition above).

Doubtless there are many others, too, either in stealth mode at present or on the drawing board.

What’s more, these systems allow you to build purchase histories by customers, offer loyalty programs and great levels of service more simply than the straightforward cash systems did – so even the smallest businesses can step up their marketing at little or no cost.

At present, all these products only work for you if you’re a US-resident/business, but it’s only a (hopefully short) matter of time before they go global and the way of transferring value changes forever from cash to electrons. No more looking for change, worrying about how the currency in a new country you’re visiting works, being concerned whether anybody’s watching as you withdraw a large amount of cash from an auto-teller…. And, of course, if you’re a small business, no more concerns about having the right change for those large notes that auto-tellers like to give, about the value sitting in your till, or being worried when taking your cash to deposit it.

It’s going to be interesting to see how society changes over the next generation as we move from cash altogether. Will the nationalistic bonds to a currency (and the resulting issues of payments from/to different countries and with travel) be removed, and could we find a common global currency?

And, of course, we’re seeing the continued drive for the mobile phone to be less a telephone and more a personal digital assistant in every way – clock, alarm, calendar, address book, diary, music player, radio, newspaper, camera, voice recorder and now, wallet. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how many of the Generation Ys don’t wear watches – their phones tell them the time. Has the watch industry got an answer to this, its potentially biggest threat?

We’re at a very interesting point in the 5000 year evolution of money as we know it. Will it disappear completely as a physical object in the next 20 years?

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Living Your Brand – do companies really care about their Brand?

Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City
Image via Wikipedia

2010 certainly seems to be going down as the year when the proverbial corporate skeletons are coming out of the cupboard:

  • Toyota – which had built its brand on reliable, safe vehicles – recalls many millions of cars all around the world in an apparently ongoing saga, with new recalls being announced almost monthly;
  • Goldman Sachs – viewed by many as the pre-eminent merchant bank – being sued for fraud by the SEC and now under investigation by the UK regulators, too;
  • Many airlines – especially those using words like “Favourite” and “5 Star” in their advertising – simply refusing to abide by their legal obligations, in terms of Regulation 261/2004, to provide accommodation and refreshments for their stranded passengers during the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

And this is just a sample of the more recent headline-grabbing issues.

Are they really “Too big to fail” – or just too big to care?

I suspect they believe the latter, not recognising the truth in the old adage that “Pride comes before a fall.” Remember, almost none of the largest and then most successful companies in, say, 1900, are still in any position of strength today – in fact most have disappeared altogether.

These corporates need to get back to basics, to remember that it is their customers that pay their salaries and to start treating their customers as the company’s most precious resource, rather than as a necessary irritant. Simply repeating a marketing mantra branding themselves as the pre-eminent company in their field doesn’t make it true…

The fact is that branding is a lot more than just a logo with a catchy by-line – a company’s brand is everything to do with that company, and the logo is just something to recognise it by as we’re visual creatures. Branding is about customer service, branding is about the way customers interact with the company in all ways, branding’s about staff training, branding includes corporate governance and social responsibility, branding is about all the materials that company produces – from marketing through packaging to the products themselves – in fact, branding is about everything to do with a company.

And this is where so many companies are falling down: they’ve lost sight of everything but the short-term pursuit of the bottom line. And I use “short-term” advisedly – as without attention to all aspects of their corporate brand, those companies will lose customers and start to fail.

Just look at the consumer backlash against many banks that they perceive to have been complicit in the economic downturn. Imagine how consumers who have been poorly treated will feel about giving more of their hard-earned money to those airlines that left them high and dry. Will former Toyota buyers be as happy to buy another Toyota?

Companies need to start refocusing on their entire brand, they need to recognise the power of instant communication for their customers and embrace it to make a positive difference, and they need to once again really put their customers first instead of just saying they do.

What do you think – do companies no longer care about their brand in pursuit of profits? Have you joined the growing ranks of disgruntled consumers and, if so, which are the brands you love to hate?

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Can Europe Survive? Life after Katla…

Katla
Image via Wikipedia

The recent chaos surrounding the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland – with effects being felt globally in terms of significant financial losses, disruption to travellers, disruption to food supplies, and so on – needs to provoke some serious discussion as to what actions are needed to prevent even greater, and much longer-term, chaos in the event of a more significant eruption.

After all,  history has clearly shown that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, it’s very much larger neighbour Katla is generally not far behind, and Katla is overdue for an eruption anyway.

While the size of eruptions can never be accurately forecast, the historical evidence shows that Katla’s eruption is likely to be at least ten times the size of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption – and quite possibly more. This could mean not only significant floods of fresh glacial-melt water into the sea (a volume equal to the combined flow of the Amazon, Mississippi, Nile and Yangtze rivers is estimated to have occurred following its 1755 eruption), but a column of ash rising 20km, or more, into the jet stream and being spread over a much greater part of the Northern Hemisphere.

History has already shown some of the worst effects from major volcanic eruptions in Iceland – that of Laki in 1783 resulted in famine across Western Europe, and as far south as Egypt, one of the longest and coldest winters on record in North America, and the death of tens of thousands of people from gas poisoning and famine. It was even linked to the start of the French Revolution, where the lack of food played a significant role.

Admittedly, these are somewhat extreme examples, but they show what is possible should Katla’s eruption be a big one – and almost all experts agree that with Katla, it’s not a question of “if” but of “when” it will erupt.

So, what are some of the possible effects of a big Katla eruption?

  • Air travel – the recent 6-day chaos would potentially be dwarfed by one that could last months. This would not only impact passengers, but freight, too. Tourism would certainly be impacted negatively, but so would food imports and general freight movement.
  • Agriculture – the impact of a prolonged cold spell would drastically affect crop production in Europe and, potentially, elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. For Europe, this would just add to the difficulties faced by the lack of air transport to bring in fresh produce from elsewhere.
  • Power – of course, a lengthy period of exceptionally cold weather would push up power consumption dramatically. Could Europe cope with a prolonged extra demand for power for heating?
  • Wealth – potentially a significant shift in the wealth of Europe as the combination of food shortages, collapsing tourism, freight reduction and prolonged cold takes its toll. Where would this wealth go, and who would benefit?

Disturbingly, though, little attention seems to being paid to this, in spite of the lessons we’ve learnt from Eyjafjallajökull. And if it’s not Katla, how long before another significant eruption – perhaps in Iceland, or perhaps elsewhere (Yellowstone?)…

European, and other, governments need to get together as a matter of urgency on this: the planning for overcoming the potential problems is not something that can be done overnight in a reactive manner. Rather, they need to start work today on ways to reduce the reliance on current modes of air transport (could the airship make a comeback?), to find additional reliable power sources, determine ways to source sufficient food, and so on.

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The obligations of Airlines to their Passengers

Europe
Image via Wikipedia

The current chaos following the six-day shutdown of almost all European airspace has thrown the issue of passengers’ rights firmly into the spotlight – particularly with the fact that so many airlines are refusing to take any responsibility for assisting stranded passengers.

With my son being among those stranded (he was stuck in England, trying to get home to Dubai) I have been active in understanding this in order to help him, and so post this in the hope that it will help others in a similar predicament due to the massive problems caused following the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.

The governing regulation behind all this is one entitled Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council. The Regulation is available in full from various sources on the web, while this Wikipedia entry has a good summary, and this BBC post has one too.

The summary bottom line is:

  • All passengers stranded in Europe are entitled to their choice of: rerouting to another airport for onward flight to their destination (difficult for this in Europe at present); accommodation, refreshments/meals and communication services (basically 2 calls) while they are stranded (the most applicable option); or a refund of their ticket (not sure why they would want this as they generally want to get home).
    • This is regardless of the nationality of the airline on which the passenger is flying, as the European rules apply to the airlines while they are operating in Europe.
  • All passengers stranded outside Europe with tickets to a European destination on a European airline are entitled to the same choices detailed above.
    • The key points here are firstly that the carrier must be a European airline (if on a code-share flight, the ticket must have been issued by one of the European airlines on that code-share), and secondly that the destination must be a European one.
    • Unfortunately, if you are stranded outside Europe with a non-European airline, they are not obliged to provide this assistance.

Many airlines are claiming that as the volcanic eruption is an “Act of God” (or “Force Majeure”) they are absolved from any responsibility for such assistance and are turning passengers away. This is patently untrue as the regulation only makes provision in such circumstances for airlines to be excused from paying additional (cash) compensation that they are normally liable for in the event of delays. They are still required to accommodate, feed and provide communications for stranded passengers, regardless of the reason.

Other airlines, such as Qatar Airways (on which my son is booked – so much for the “5 Star Service” they like to advertise!), are saying that they are not required to provide any assistance as they are foreign-owned. Again, this is simply not true. Although they are not obliged to provide assistance for those passengers stranded outside Europe, they are absolutely obliged to do so for the passengers stranded in Europe.

Should your airline have refused you compensation at the time, you should retain all receipts for accommodation, food, etc., while you have been delayed and lodge a claim with the airline on your return home.

I hope this will help clear up the confusion surrounding this issue and enable people to claim appropriate assistance.

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Twitter – The “Next Big Thing” for Business

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

With Twitter set to pass the magic 100 Million user mark later this month, or early May, and the company having been valued at around a Billion Dollars last year, it’s moved from the realms of novelty. So, should business sit up and take note; is it the “Next Big Thing” as a business tool?

Speaking with business leaders and marketers, one gets mixed responses – the enthusiastic advocates on the one hand, and those that hope it will fade away as it can potentially damage their company, they believe, on the other.

There’s no question that any public forum can be used by people to disparage, or worse, a company, but is that a reason to abstain from that forum, or should one take the opportunity to embrace it and counter any adverse remarks? After all, unhappy customers that are turned around tend to become the most loyal advocates…

Others look at Twitter and ask whether 140 characters is really enough for any sort of meaningful dialogue with customers and dismiss it on this basis. But in our information-overloaded world, is brevity not a blessing?

Properly used, there is no question in my mind that Twitter really can become a significant business tool:

  • Customer service – probably the first Twitter application area to be embraced, companies like Southwest Airlines, Staples and Zappos have found it invaluable to track unhappy customers, respond quickly and show a great service ethos.
  • Sales leads – of course, great customer service leads to sales, but many more companies, like Dell, Sony and Starbucks are using Twitter to promote products; in fact an article last month reported Sony measuring over £1 Million in sales directly attributable to its Vaio Twitter account.
  • Promotions – an extension of the sales leads application is using Twitter for promoting special offers to followers. As the integration of GPS technology with phones increases, these could even be location and time specific, making them highly targeted.
  • Product feedback – companies are often accused of making products that customers don’t need, or of not including “obvious” features. Twitter can give a window for listening to the needs and views of a very wide customer base.
  • Order tracking – an area I’ve yet to see, but one I think is an obvious one: imagine being able to Direct Tweet to a courier company and get an automated response as to where your special delivery is in the system…

In fact, the possibilities are endless – limited only by imagination. With Twitter, companies have access to an incredible mass direct marketing tool without the dangers of being considered spammers – people would simply unfollow those they consider annoying – and one which can provide real-time, real-person feedback on an incredibly wide range of issues.

Twitter, I firmly believe, is poised to be the “Next Big Thing” for business, and companies that ignore it do so at their peril.

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Does “The Cloud” Make Sense for Business?

HANOVER, GERMANY - MARCH 01:  Illuminated plas...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The interest in Cloud Computing has grown exponentially in the past few months with a quick Google search on “The Cloud” and on “Cloud Computing” yielding over 25 million articles between the two phrases.

Suddenly, it seems, this is the panacea for all that ails in the technology space – or is it?

There is certainly a good deal of ongoing investment in giant data farms – although the cost of power required to run, and cool, these massive installations is now causing serious concern. I’ve seen estimates of up to 100MW for a giant server farm under development, with 50MW farms apparently not being unusual. Consequently we’re seeing imaginative schemes to overcome this in advanced stages of investigation – ranging from hydroelectric schemes in particularly cold countries with good water, like Iceland and Finland, to Scottish tidal power, to some companies even investigating building sea-platforms that use wave energy for power and sea water for cooling.

However, there is equally a slow but steady increase in governments wanting to monitor data traffic – apparently for security reasons, although I suspect there may be oversight by the fiscal authorities, too. Even Australia is talking about Internet filtering…

All of this is adding greatly to the conversation, of course, with equally strong lobbies on both sides of the debate – much around whether Cloud Computing is taking us back to the old “mainframe and dumb terminal” computing days or whether it’s taking us forward to an more secure, cost-effective era, albeit with the possibility of less flexibility with systems and information.

In my view, though, the issue of whether to adopt a Cloud architecture or not comes down to individual companies and applications – and for the purposes of this discussion, I mean a public Cloud architecture, rather than one owned by the end-user company.

To my mind, the companies that should strongly look at this approach are the SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises). The reasons here are straightforward economics – few will have the staff or the capital resources to have a fully secure IT infrastructure, complete with Disaster Recovery. This means multiple servers in multiple locations, interconnected by very high speed links and a significant IT team managing it all, with a strong security system. By adopting Cloud architecture for most applications – including that most critical one of all for most businesses, email – the issues of security, availability, backup and full disaster recovery are outsourced to the experts and the SME gets on with running its business. That’s not to say you dispense with PCs – they will still have a strong place in many areas, from detailed individual analysis of data to creative writing, design, etc.

For large corporates, though, the issue is different. They have large IT teams. They have multiple locations, many servers and, generally, already have high-speed connections between them all. Therefore, ensuring adequate levels of security and availability while having a proper backup regimen and a full set of disaster recovery plans for each location, should be routine and already in place. For these organisations, Cloud Computing makes little sense – except, perhaps, for some specialist applications that are not available in another form.

And, of course, if all the world’s large corporates had all their corporate systems in a few locations, what a tempting terrorist target that would make – SPECTRE, of James Bond fame, would seem tame by comparison with the havoc that could be wrought in such a scenario.

So, to answer the question about whether “The Cloud” makes sense for business, my view is that for most SMEs, certainly. For large corporates, probably not. What do you think?

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