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Most Startups Fail, How Will Yours Be Different?



The large majority of startups fail, several sources say 9 out of 10, but this proportion only includes those that have reached the stage where they could be noticed and included in these statistics, hence excluding all those people who worked for months on an idea (and maybe launched something) without being noticed.

We should ask ourselves: “Why should my startup be the exception?”.

In the last few years there has been tons of literature explaining the typical mistakes committed by startups and how to avoid them. Why then, haven’t startups used this wealth of information to increase their chances of success?Present failure rates are still extremely high, leading many to be sceptical that a newborn startup could ever accomplish anything, despite the existence of dedicated methodologies.

I’d like to first summarize in one sentence the main reason why the majority of startups fail despite being aware of the appropriate methodology:
Most Startups do only what they enjoy to do.

In the first chapter I’m going to list the typical activities of a fictional average startup that are more useful to live the startup dream rather than getting concrete results: some points are a bit exaggerated for the sake of fun, but still pretty close to what usually happens.

In the second chapter I suggest how you can seriously distinguish your startup and enter an elite club, and why yet almost nobody does that.

Preferred Startup Activities

(a.k.a. How to keep dreaming as long as possible)

  1. The CEO spends nights designing a detailed wireframe of the app, including UX and all possible functionalities.
    … without wondering why anybody should download that app in the first place.
  2. The Marketing guy creates the Facebook Page and Twitter and Instagram profiles, and by spamming all team friends and acquaintances they get a number of likes and followers!
    … unfortunately this doesn’t indicate whether these friends intend to actually use the offered service.
  3. The team gets bigger by including numerous and enthusiastic friends! And it’s never a problem to find an appealing title for each of them. (I swear I saw “Business Development Africa” for a person who didn’t have any experience in Biz Dev but was originally from Cameroun and had a friend who worked for Orange Cameroun).
    … it’s not clear which service exactly the startup wants to offer, but the worldwide expansion is crystal clear.
  4. The team goes through a lot of Board of Administration meetings, spending hours in brainstorming about the planning of the app and of the conquering of the world.
    … after months of brainstorming it’s still not clear what the Unique Value Proposition is, but the team had a lot of fun. Above all they can keep dreaming and postpone the time when they should start to face reality.
  5. The Marketing guy and the graphic designer prepare a super cool deck and a super cool video, where they describe the app which would change the world once everybody uses it
    … but that everybody will use it has yet to be verified.
  6. The Analyst runs the market research: “Nobody is offering a service like this!”
    … great, but you should wonder why (in most cases it’s because nobody wants that service or there is an intrinsic problem to make it useful, but not necessarily of course).
  7. The Business guy looks for investors,
    … without knowing how much money the startup needs, because there is no plan, and without wondering why anybody should fund a startup where the founders have not invested a cent in it.
  8. The Business guy writes the Business Plan, a very professional one (The guy has an MBA, man!): 70 detailed pages, including hiring and firing plan (if something goes wrong, fire the sales guy) and a financial plan where lines always goes upward and rightward.
    … 70 pages of sheer hypotheses that could be trashed by the first customer: “no business plan survives first contact with customers” (Steve Blank).
  9. Thanks to a connection, a national newspaper publishes an article about them, where they can complain that their idea is worth millions of Euros (it’s proven: it’s written in the Business Plan!) but in their shitty country nobody funds them.
    … see point 7.
  10. The Developer writes the code, using the technology he knows best and successfully coping with interesting challenges.
    … without anybody in the team wondering whether the product under development will be useful for anybody.
  11. The team participates in every possible Startup Weekend or similar event across their country, and eventually they win one!
    … which doesn’t get the team any closer to success: these kinds of events can be useful during embryonic phase (just got an idea) in order to find co-founders; during these events the teams usually prepare beautiful empty boxes. If you already have a team you can work anywhere anytime, not just at the event, and if you need the basic mentorship usually offered during these events you definitely have a long way to go (I’ve stressed the word “usually” as there can be exceptions).
  12. The team participate in any possible competition (private or public), and finally they also win some money from state funding!
    … investments should be used to scale, but any number multiplied by zero is still zero: many startups burn this money to develop something that nobody wants; others realize they don’t even have a clue how to spend this money in a useful way (they don’t have anything to be scaled).
  13. The CEO reads the Steve Jobs biography and watches every movie about him, an undoubtedly hard activity since there is a new movie every year and they are terrible.

While the team hums with activity, they also receive some encouraging signs:

  • Talking about the idea with friends and acquaintances, “the feedback is positive”, because they receive comments like “nice idea!”, “ingenious!”, “The video pitch is super cool!” “I think it could work”, “it would have a worldwide reach!”, “I believe a lot of people would use it”
    … unfortunately there is not a single person so far who has concretely demonstrated they are willing to pay or at least to sign up for the offered service.
  • Positive feedback arrives also from an investor!
    … the investor has not given a single euro yet, he’s just said “interesting idea, work on it” …why not?! Regarding this, we shall add that Steve Blank warns also against those investors who have actually funded a startup and urges it to launch asap (I wrote about this here).

The elite club

(a.k.a. The hard truth)

“…you have to assume that running a startup can be demoralizing. That is certainly true. I’ve been there, and that’s why I’ve never done another startup.” (Paul Graham).

Very, very few are brave and patient enough to cope with the challenges listed below, because they are definitely less exciting, more boring and often frustrating. Accepting these challenges means to be part of an elite club of people who have much higher chances of being successful:

1. Admit to not knowing anything and learn humbly.

Creating a startup requires methods that are rarely taught in an MBA and can hardly be intuited with common sense. On the contrary, in the case of startups, common sense usually leads to disasters. There is a wide literature from Silicon Valley about methods for startups, written by people who learned from experience and from mistakes. To learn the basics I suggest Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup” and two short introduction chapters included in Steve Blank’s “The Startup Owner’s Manual”, which you can read here and here. In addition, I suggest to get mentorship from those who have been studying and applying these methods for years (there are excellent mentors not only in Silicon Valley but I guess everywhere in Europe now).
“That’s it?!”
It’s not that simple apparently: I met several startuppers who had got to know these concepts (very appreciated according to them), and yet they kept doing the opposite of what it’s taught. That’s because applying these methods implies a rigorous and sometimes frustrating job that most people are not willing to undertake (they prefer to keep living the startupper dream). Some of the following points are in fact the surface of concepts that need to be examined in depth through the books mentioned before (and much more than those), and with the help of a professional mentorship. But be careful, there are tons of incubators/accelerators and startup events and competitions everywhere. You will meet many people who introduce themselves as expert startup mentors despite their knowledge being close to zero. Do your research first, and you should be able to distinguish expert mentors from the posers.

2. Build a team comprehensive of all core competencies.

The founders have to be (or to become) experts about what they offer: if their core business is a digital service it’s fundamental that (at least) one of the co-founder is a developer, and not anyone, but a developer with the (main) skills required to develop the startup specific service: this is hard because (roughly speaking) there are not many developers able to deal with the different aspects of a digital platform (e.g. full-stack: both backend and frontend). It’s dangerous to just pay somebody for developing what is the startup core-business. First of all, hardly anybody will fund a startup whose team lacks the main competencies, because having the money to pay the development doesn’t solve the problem: those working just for money do not work with a long-term view, they are not interested in what happens once their job is done and they have been paid; they are not interested, for instance, to write a code which can be easily be modified by somebody else; this means that if the a tech confounder is finally taken in, he/she will likely have to re-write the code from scratch. A more acceptable option is to have a tech co-founder who, if he/she doesn’t have time for coding, is held accountable for it and supervise the (paid) development making sure it is done properly.

3. Quick and Dirty.

We are all proud of what we do and we don’t want to show something with flaws, but during a startup beginning phases (when the idea is under test), numerous product iterations are always required. Hence it’s unthinkable to have a perfect product each time, because iterations cycles would become endless. On the contrary, different MVPs will have to be built and tested quickly (after understanding MVP Strategy meaning and Blank’s Customer Development process thoroughly). This means showing things which are very far from what you thought you would have proudly shown to your friends and relatives.

4. “The Audacity of Zero”.

As Eric Ries pointed out, before launching a startup the only existing numbers are forecasts (and usually they are awesome), which is why startups tend to postpone the release of their service. Releasing a service means facing the real numbers, which are inevitably low during first phases, and often remain low forever. This fear can be fought off by understanding that it’s obviously wrong to launch a product toward the whole market all of the sudden without testing it in a niche market first. Again, MVP meaning must be mastered: here we will just say that the objective in this phase is to test the idea rather than achieving a great number of users. Like mentioned in point 1, it’s not that simple: many people who said they understood the concept of MVP do not in fact create and test it, fearing to discover that their idea doesn’t effortlessly convert into an overnight success; instead they keep planning the big launch, so big that it obliges them to procrastinate forever the day in which they have to face reality.

5. No exciting numbers to boast, only boring percentages.

Once you start testing the idea with a series of MVPs (lo-fi, hi-fi) your users base will remain low. In some cases it has to remain low, and you have to resist the temptation to make it increase too much. This means that most of people will judge you and your team a bunch of delusional fools. Quoting Paul Graham, these people are “like someone looking at a newborn baby and concluding ‘there is no way this tiny creature could ever accomplish anything.’” Many successful startups kept a very small user base for a long time before taking off. Yet your friends and acquaintances will be aware that you have been working on some elusive idea for months and the number of users and facebook likes are still very low, and they will pity you. You will have to ignore them and focus on getting actionable metrics, which are much less exciting than the number of facebook likes. This requires first to know the concept of actionable metrics vs vanity metrics, mentioned on Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup”, here we will just say that we are talking about, respectively, relative vs absolute numbers.

6. Fail, try again, fail again…

We all get to know successful startups as they are once they achieves success, but we usually don’t know what they were before and how many iterations they went through. The history of Facebook is the most dangerous ever told, because it’s a misleading exception: not only because his young creator was a prodigious coder like few others in the world, but also because it grew without having to iterate much (although they wisely proceeded little by little during the first year). It’s an outlier, hence not be taken as example. Regarding all the other startups (Twitter, GroupOn, Pinterest, Airbnb just to mention a few) the founders went through a lot of failures and had to start again many times before getting to the solution as we know it today. The hardest challenge is not to cope with an obstacle, but admitting that the chosen path does not lead anywhere and that you have to throw away months of work and restart from a previous point. That happens because a startup is trying to offer something new, so it’s obviously not clear who are the users and whether they will appreciate this novelty. Plans are based on sheer hypotheses, and some of these are likely to turn out to be incorrect and hence to be revised. It’s perfectly normal for this to happen, expect that it will.

7. “Get the heck out of the building”.

There are no truths in our office, only untested hypotheses. Only users can confirm these hypotheses and indicate which direction the startup should take. It’s almost impossible to achieve success without a rigorous Customer Development process (explained by Steve Blank, see point 1), which requires the startup to reach the users/clients wherever they are and manage to get face-to-face meeting with them. Some founders dodge this strenuous activity by quoting Henry Ford and explaining that users don’t know what they want: true, but the founder should explain to users what he/she thinks they want, and verify that they agree. Online questionnaires are certainly an easier alternative and they can be useful, but they will never substitute the truths that you learn by talking with users/clients in front of a coffee, meaning that you will have to spend a lot of time in reaching them and running behind perfect strangers.

8. “Recruit users individually”.

There is another job to be performed outside the office besides face-to-face interviews. In order to build a community of active users, a startup usually have to look for and recruit the early-adopters (often) one by one, and have to offer them a dedicated service like if they were unique in the world, in a often manual mode: this can appear counterintuitive for a digital service aiming to get millions of users, and it’s definitely not a job that the average startupper was expecting and is willing to do. It’s about spending a huge amount of time in a meticulous job which includes doors slammed in the face. This is how Airbnb and many others managed to build their first community of engaged users who then acted as evangelists. For some more clues about this topic I suggest to read this Paul Graham’s post.

9. Move if required.

To increase your (already low) chances of success, you should be in the most suitable place. If you intend to launch a digital startup, you will probably have better luck in Silicon Valley for several reasons (some of the advantages are mentioned here). Being there has its drawbacks as well. There might be more suitable places depending on the field and focus of your startup. What is sure is that when you launch something in the US, you can reach to a population of over 300 millions highly-digitalized people whose language is understandable for most of the world. Hence reaching critical mass and consequent worldwide expansion are much easier if you launch from the US. This is an enormous advantage you don’t have in any European country. So there are many reasons why moving might be suitable. In that case, no matter what, you should be ready to leave everything behind and move for undefined time.

10. Complete this list.

I didn’t say I know everything 🙂 …the previous 9 points are just those that I happened to tackle with during my short and incomplete startupper experience …watch out: there will be other challenges! If you are wondering what else we are still missing, we can simply add that a startupper should be ready for everything: to act in sometimes chaotic and hard to plan situations; and to tackle with unexpected challenges, where the founders must be determinate, up for self-sacrifice, result-oriented, pragmatic, and creative. The previous 9 points are just a summary of how hard the startupper job is, you can have a better idea by reading the example of Airbnb here. The good news is that there are mentors who have already coped with these challenges and/or helped others to do the same. Thus, for the non mentioned challenges …see point 1!


Before engaging in a startup adventure and spending a huge amount of time and money (and making others do it) you need to be aware of what you are to expect and to be ready to tackle the challenges mentioned above. Start with putting point n.1 into practice before anything else.

Whoever receives an offer by a startup (usually developers are reached by startuppers who have the idea but have no clue about coding) should first investigate whether the startuppers in question are going to waste a lot of their time, or if they are aware of what is awaiting them and are willing to do their job.

The growing scepticism toward the startup ecosystem is understandable: many people want to live the startupper dream, but very few of them face the hard truth, either for lack of method knowledge, or for laziness, or both. Optimism per se is naive, but it can be justified if a team masters all the core competencies and decides to undertake the methods mentioned above, thus becoming part of an elite club, which is just as small as the number of startups that achieve success.


About the Author

This article was written by Alessandro Balbiano


Women on Top in Tech – Dawn Dickson, Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. and Founder of Flat Out of Heels



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Dawn Dickson is the Founder and CEO of PopCom, Inc. (formerly Solutions Vending, Inc.), the company behind PopCom Kiosks and the PopCom API, which provides a software solution to make vending machines more intelligent. She created the company after her own struggles to find vending machines that could sell her roll-up flat products, Flat Out of Heels, at high-traffic areas like airports.  She was awarded First place in the PowerMoves NOLA Big Break pitch Competition and second place in the 2016 SBA Innovate Her Challenge.

What makes you do what you do? 
I love solving big problems and working with amazing people to get it done.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
After working in the vending industry for three years selling Flat Out of Heels in vending machines in airports and nightclubs, I was frustrated with the lack of data I was able to collect from my hardware. I also wanted more engaging and interactive experiences for my customers and after speaking with several retailers they felt the same way. That is when I decided to focus on PopCom and developing a software solution to solve the data problem in self-service retail.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)? 
The fact that I am not the usual, leadership demographic is the main reason why I was up for the challenge. The industry is in need of a change and I believe someone with a unique and different perspective and experience is needed. I look forward to collaborating with the industry leaders and veterans to build a product that everyone loves and finds value in.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work? How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him/her?
I am involved in several different industries and sectors – retail, self-service retail, hardware, software…so I have to learn a lot of information quickly.  There are several people that I look up to, follow their career, and seek advice from. I was fortunate to be able to participate in some of the country’s top accelerator and entrepreneurship development programs, including Techstars, Canopy Boulder, and the BIxel Exchange – the mentorship and network I gained from these programs has been invaluable and very instrumental in our progress.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent? 
I have learned that spotting talent takes time, it takes patience, and building relationships with people and networks to meet new people, most of my connections come from introductions. I focus on finding the right fit for the company culture, there is a lot of great talent out there, but the culture is different, I want us to be on the same wavelength. I am fortunate to have met some great people through the programs I was in that came on as mentors, advisors, and eventually full time team members. I take time to get to know my team individually and understand what their personal goals and ambitions are, ask them what their dream job looks like, understand their needs so they can be happy at work and be fulfilled. I believe in self-care and making mental health a priority, if a person is good within themselves they radiate positivity and are more productive.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I am a black woman so I am diversity. Naturally, we attract people we can relate to and have things in common, so I found that my team was heavily female and my diversity initiative was finding more men…when I thought about it I found it funny. Now I have a balanced team of men and women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives which is exciting.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb? 
To be a great leader you have to be a team player, my rule is I never ask someone to do something that I would not do myself. I also have a rule to give the team the freedom and flexibility to work when and how they are most productive. That means some of us working different hours and being in the office different days, but happy team builds the dream!

Advice for others?
My advice is never give up if you believe in it. I started my company selling shoes in vending machines in 2011, it took me 7 years, a few failed hardware attempts, and many people telling me it would not work because the market was not ready. I was patient and what I believed would happen is happening. In May PopCom is bringing the PopShop to market, a next gen smart vending machine to sell and sample products. Our API will be ready in July and for the first time vending machine and kiosk owners can understand their conversion rates and have the level of data and analytics available that eCommerce stores have, but better. It has been a long journey and I feel it is just getting started, but I am only here because I never gave up.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dawn Dickson, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

To learn more about PopCom, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Elaine Zhou, Co-Founder of China Women Equipping Center



Elaine went on a journey of self discovery and once she knew her true self she could be successful in her own business.

What’s your story?
I am very proud of where I came from and I am grateful for where I am living and working today. Singapore is my adopted home and it is my aim to always contribute to and serve this country and its people.
Twelve years ago, I moved to Singapore for an internship opportunity. I was twenty one years old and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t understand the culture or the customs. Everything was new and strange to me. Everything was difficult, but my parents had tremendous faith in me.
My parents have worked diligently on the family farm to raise us and send us to college. My parents had a huge influence on me. The important things I learnt from them are to love, to never give up, to be a hard worker and to have a can-do attitude. These are the qualities that I embrace in my daily life.

What excites you most about your industry?
We offer more than just training. Our business is a resource to be leveraged for transformation, improved teamwork, leadership behaviours, communication skills, relationship skills, coaching skills and increased job satisfaction and productivity.
Our passion and purpose is to help people grow as leaders and to create tremendous results by serving others well. We take people to daring destinations, beyond their imagination.
My greatest joy is to see people grow, change and transform and live a purposeful life; this is what motivates me to do more and do it well.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in China and I have spent all my adult and professional life in Singapore.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore and China.
Singapore is a very sophisticated and systematic country. It is a structured and highly efficient business environment and people are generally nice and honest. Also, the convenience and diverse culture is a great advantage for people who want to settle down there, no matter if they are from the East or West. You always feel at home in Singapore.
I also like China because of its fast growth. The population and the market is here. However, it takes time to settle in because of the language barrier and the very different traditional culture. But you will also find it is very interesting and you’ll want to learn more about China. The people are nice if you know them well. It is always about relationship first and business second, and when you are in a business meeting, you really have to master the skill of “reading the air.” It is a skill to let people know and understand you; your values, your background, why you think in that way or why you do or do not do certain things. Doing business in China is like swimming in the ocean; it is an abundant ocean and it is full of risks. Always know your values and stay true to yourself and make decisions close to your heart. It will help you see things more clearly and get things done in a way that doesn’t violate your values.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Be yourself, Elaine.” That is the best advice I have ever received. It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. It was also the moment I truly and honestly looked within myself. I realized that when I am being my true self, and not trying to be someone else, I am able to connect with people instantly in a genuine and authentic way. It is a great feeling.

Who inspires you?
There are so many people who encourage me, lift me up and challenge me everyday. My mentor, John Maxwell who helped me discover my purpose in life; Michael Griffin, for his passion for Christ which is contagious and Wayne Dyer, my spiritual mentor who passed away in 2016. Also, people who are living with a purpose and striving everyday for their dream, they really inspire me. My clients, mentees and students. When I see that joy and peace in them, that inspires me to do more and do well. My team inspire me, especially when they said, “Elaine, I joined the business because of you.” They inspire me to make it work for the team and the business because it is beyond my own self interest. I am grateful for having so many people in my life who inspire me.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
China is a big country, we all know that, and it is also an internet giant. Recently on a team meeting, one of the directors who manages a successful beauty business, shared with us, that everybody is on the internet, especially on WeChat. People are obsessed with online communities – for ordering food, getting taxis, forging relationships, connections and friends. Almost anything and everything can get done online. But right now, there is a new trend; more and more people want the “offline” experience. It usually takes one to two hours from one place to another in Beijing, but people want to make the effort to have a real connection with other people, to attend networks, seminars, workshops and business meetings.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I started my first business when I was 24 years old, it failed. One year later, I started my second business and after a year and a half, I closed down the operation. After several painful experiences and two failed businesses, I started to look within myself, and seriously and intentionally invested in my personal growth at the age of 28. If I could turn back time, I wish I could have grown a lot earlier. I strongly believe that the level of our success is determined by the level of our self growth and we are always learning, everyday. But I also understand it is not the only way to live. I also consciously and intentionally try to live in the now. It is a beautiful and great way to live. In fact, I am grateful for what I have gone through; the pains, setbacks and challenges in my earlier life.

How do you unwind?
I like to stay connected with nature. For example, taking a walk barefoot on the grass and smelling the roses on the street. Having a beer or coffee along the riverside with friends; reading a good book; hunting for nice restaurants; swimming or running.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand – nice beaches, food and people.
Bali – fantastic beaches and food, great people.
Malaysia – Nice food and people, particularly Langkawi, Penang and KK.
Of course Singapore, it is always a place dear to my heart. It’s my home.
There are a lot of other interesting places in China which I am still exploring.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill
The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Tao Te Ching: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life by Wayne Dyer
Developing the Leaders Within You by John C.Maxwell
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
These are some of the books that truly transformed my thinking and shaped my values.
I used to read a lot of different types of books, from sales, marketing, branding and management to different business models. I found it is really hard to master all of it and I was not optimizing my own strengths.
Entrepreneurship is a skill to be learnt. But it is really important to recognize what we are good at and what we are not so good at. We can not be everything.
Entrepreneurship is a journey of self-discovery and soul searching. It is all about learning and striving. We should try and always remember why we started our business in the first place.

Shameless plug for your business:
The China Women Equipping Center, is something both my team are I are very proud. We have put our hearts and souls into it, to help women in China grow and transform. As a developing country and with the rise of China, people are not lacking in money, everywhere is full of opportunity, but the challenge is the civilizations, values and faith. In fact the Chinese government puts a lot of effort into improving and shaping the international image to ensure it is making progress. But people are still facing a lot of pressure, especially women.
One of our business partners who is runs traditional Chinese medicine retail stores, shared that 80% of his patients are female, and the reason they are coming to see him are anxiety and depression.
Our China Women Equipping Center creates a safe and comfortable environment for women to help build their values and characters. My local team and I are very passionate about our mission and purpose. Beijing is our headquarters in China. We are planning to take three to six months to establish our business in Beijing and grow and expand to other major cities in China after that.

How can people connect with you?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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