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Jules Pieri

Author Archives: Jules Pieri

Founder and CEO of The Grommet.

  • Surfacing the most viable and inspiring products

    Recently,  Peter Davison shared with us a speech he gave, during which he discussed the current state of crowdsourcing. We were honored to hear Daily Grommet mentioned (at around 10:06 of video) and to be included in Peter's TEDx speech.

    As Peter points out, some of the early iterations of crowdsourcing, like getting a graphic design project created at 99Designs, are just  scratching the surface of this cultural and technical advance.  He recognized that at Grommet we are building a powerful crowdsourced platform for deeply impacting the most central of all business activities:  discovering and launching products.  Until we pulled various technologies and media together, most new products were left to the wild to survive.  They would often die before getting discovered.  It was just plain unfair and wasteful that the playing field for innovation was not level.

    Now that we have built a way for an entire global crowdsourcing community to surface viable and inspiring products and even whole new companies.  Once launched on Daily Grommet they have a great fighting chance and are achieving great success.
    We are grateful that Peter Davison, as a domain expert, recognized the impact of what we are building, via crowdsourcing.

     

    Daily Grommet is mentioned at 10:06

  • Can People Learn to be More Innovative?

    One of the coolest things about mentoring another person is that they often force you to new realizations and insights.  This happened to me recently when I had a meeting with a 19-year-old Harvard freshman named Sam Peinado.  We met at a talk given by Reid Hoffman (Founder of PayPal and LinkedIn).  The audience was largely students.  Sam caught my eye because he went toe to toe with Reid  during the Q and A, with insightful questions and even some push-backs on one of Reid's answers.  I liked his mind, and I was amused by his feisty style.

    Sam subsequently visited me at Grommet and asked a very original question.  "As a designer, and now start-up person, how do you come up with your ideas?"  He wasn't asking about Daily Grommet, per se.  He was asking about my general process.

    I hadn't thought about that for a long time and I gave what felt like a very lame answer:  "Well I just observe a lot.  I'm very curious.  Then I try concepts out and start to look for, or create, data that supports these ideas."  The student probed: "You are curious about what? Observe what? What kind of data?"

    And I was forced to think harder:   "I read constantly--a mix of consumer and business publications.  I watch what urban kids say, what they do, what they wear--since they control many trends.  Same with moms, since they control the economy.   I look at cultural sentiments going mainstream--this used to be signalled via greeting cards but now I watch that kind of stuff on Pinterest.  Beyond general observations, I study new technologies.  I see patterns forming.  In a weird way, I often sense I am seeing the future.  I know what people are going to care about and I understand what is going to be possible to execute."

    But I also admitted that I don't always know the optimum timing, and that is the hard part of committing to a breakthrough idea.

    Anyway, I recently saw an interview with Clayton Christensen in my HBS alumni Bulletin where he answered the question "Can People Learn to be More Innovative?"  Short answer:  Some can.  Not all.  Christensen asserts that there are five discovery skills essential to innovation.  Here are some of his conclusions on how to be a good innovator:

    First and foremost, innovators are good at associational thinking, or simply associating. They make connections between seemingly unrelated problems and ideas and synthesize new ideas. I would frame associational thinking by asking this question: Has somebody else in the world solved a problem like this before? It turns out that most problems have been solved before by somebody in a different environment. Associating that other experience to what’s going on in my world may make me look brilliant, but in reality my brilliance was in seeing that this had been solved elsewhere.

    Observing and questioning go hand in glove. Innovators observe things, then question why. If you want to be an innovative person, when you see things, you have to pay attention and then wonder why.

    Networking is a skill that innovators use to identify and develop ideas by spending time with a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and experiences. By engaging with others, innovators increase the probability that they are going to gain useful insights.

    Finally, innovators are constantly experimenting. The critical insight here is that for whatever reason, when God created the world, he made data only available about the past. As teachers at HBS, we’re trained to nail students to the wall if they ever make an assertion in class discussion that is not backed up with data and evidence in the case. So our students come out of here with this elevated respect for data-driven, fact-based, analytical decision-making.

    The problem is that data are only available about the past. If you’re trying to be innovative, and you have this data-driven mindset, you can’t go forward. So experimenting essentially says, “I don’t want to wait until somebody provides data. I need to get out there and create data.

    So if student Sam is ever enterprising enough to meet Clayton Christensen, he can get this kind of stuff straight from the source.  The funny part is that academics like Christensen, and Jim Collins at Stanford, are excellent observers of creativity and leadership, but they completely deny having their own abilities in those areas.

    So Sam is still going to be stuck hanging around with less incisive and less articulate people like me, kind of like watching gorillas in the mist, and trying to figure out what makes them tick.

  • Paying Full Price is for Saps

    "I never pay retail."

    "You wouldn't believe what a deal I got on this."

    "I'll wait until it goes on sale."

    If you are talking about last season's clothes, or giant boxes of Cheerios, or a car, or a great product in an unpopular color, or a laptop model that is about to be upgraded, these are reasonable positions.  There are huge categories of products that have margin structures and lifecycles that support deep and regular discounts.  You ARE a sap if you don't get the best price you can.

    But if you are also the kind of person who loves new technology, or getting your hands on the latest clever invention, or you want to support sustainable products or entrepreneurs just getting started, or you appreciate having vibrant local (and even big chain) stores in your town or city, discounts become a much more complicated conversation.  Why?

    Mainly because new products and/or young companies have not reached a scale or efficiency to immediately begin discounting.  If anything, at Grommet, we see too many entrepreneurs underpricing their products.  This has two effects.  Either they can't cover their costs.  Or, if they are selling direct, they are setting a market price that does not allow for scaling via other retailers who need to make their own margin.  Either outcome spells death.

    When it comes to online discounts, there's another level of complication.  Namely, "showrooming."

    The television industry is recently fighting the pervasive discounts threatening both the manufacturers and retailers like Best Buy and Target.  Last week Sony and Samsung announced unprecedented new pricing policies--taking a page out of the Apple playbook.  "If you want to carry our product, you have to respect our prices." The Wall Street Journal did a nice job covering this news.  Here's an excerpt that pretty much covers it:

    "This allows us to make a reasonable profit," says Billy Abt, co-president of Abt Electronics, one of the country's largest independent consumer electronics retailers. "It got to the point where we were selling $2,000 TVs and making $10."

    Even a fourth-grader can do the math on that one.  Now it's time for the adults who control our economy (you and me) to stop deluding ourselves that someone else is paying for these unsustainable discounts.  We are all paying when we kill whole industries and our local retail.

    What are your thoughts on the topic?

    ...

  • The Motley Fool Take on 3-D Printing

    printing technology

    The just-released Mojo professional grade 3-D printer by Stratsys. It’s available for $9,999, or by lease for $189/mo.The just-released Mojo professional grade 3-D printer by Stratsys. It’s available for $9,999, or by lease for $189/mo.

    Ever since I saw a 3-D printer available for a $15/hour at a college design lab, I've been convinced of its eventual ubiquity.  Remember when only universities and large companies had mainframe computers?  Remember when you went to a professional shop to get something printed?  3-D printing is on the same trajectory--but for physical products.

    Right now, 80% of the materials consumed for 3-D printing are being used for prototyping.  In other words, it's still in the land of universities, big companies, hackers, and the military.  (And, coincidentally, Jay Leno has one in his garage for fabricating parts for his classic car collection.)

    But I predict that by 2020 we will be downloading products to home printers as easily as we print out emails or buy a song on i-Tunes.

    I've been writing about this for a long time.  Notably, so has been the normally unexcitable Economist.  (Here's my summary of one of the best Economist pieces.) The press corps is getting on the bandwagon.  VC's are funding upstarts in the space.  Daily Grommet is creating a business model that gives all this upcoming innovative product supply a place to get launched.

    But it's also interesting to see how the Motley Fool outlines the investment opportunity being created by 3-D printing.  They equate investing in the space now to investing in Apple in 1980 or Microsoft in 1986. I know they are selling a publication that pushes stocks...but their investment thesis for the 3-D printing space strikes me as solid and perfectly understandable.

    Here's a fast-paced, but extended, Motley Fool video on the topic.

    And here is a transcript of the same video.

    If you can't be Daily Grommet and build a whole business around this new industrial revolution, an investment in the 3-D Printing space seems like a pretty good idea to me.

  • Cranky comments: four lessons on how to deal with them

    With each Grommet launch, we open up a community discussion board with the Grommet's creator.  We recently had a very nasty comment that stopped me in my tracks.

    It was posted by the self-described "An Angry American."  He or she said:

    There are so many products in THIS country that need to be recycled, that I cannot understand why you would not want to give jobs to the unemployed here...This disgusts me....

    I do not wish you well with this venture....

    This barbed comment was in response to our story about a young company that is recycling food and rice bags in Cambodia into durable and interesting bags.

    TORRAIN, Recycled bags from Cambodia

    We tend to get one of these "Made in USA" fan objections anytime we talk about an international product.  I don't mind them--these are people expressing their values and they are normally respectfully delivered. (Here's a good example in the discussion about a very popular Grommet, GripStics.)  But this Torrain bags comment was so unbalanced that it made me think more deeply about how we manage our discussion board, and to share some examples and lessons learned.

    When one of these "tough" comments comes in, the team at Daily Grommet often waits with bated breath for our colleague Katherine Klinger to respond.  Why?  Because she is so skillful and continually surprising. In the case of answering "Angry American,"  Katherine wrote:

    Wouldn't it be wonderful if you used your passion to start a product line that employs Americans? We'd be the first to want to hear about it! You'd be especially interested in Grommet stories such as American MoJo or Blue Moon Bottles.

    Given our 800+ Grommet partners and 20 product categories, we have a difficult remit when we initiate a discussion. We cover stories about ground-breaking innovations ranging from mushroom growing kits, to alternative funerals, to feminine hygiene.  That's practically asking for complexity, if not trouble.

    The nature of any given website is going to be fairly predictive of its particular difficult dialogue.  If Daily Grommet only covered "sustainable/green" products, we would have activists in that space carefully watching us and contributing daily.  (And we do have a nice representation of those people everyday anyway.)

    If we were a fashion site we would have people commenting more breezily about the Grommets, and probably just giving opinions rather than asking a lot of penetrating questions.

    If we were a deal site, we would have community members monitoring pricing very carefully  This is exactly why you do not see open discussion boards on the deal sites (like Groupon, Fab.com, Gilt Groupe).  A CEO at one of the leading sites told me,

    Yeah, we [deal sites] all pulled our discussion boards.  People just post complaints about the prices and share links about where to get things cheaper.  I'm amazed you guys [at Grommet] keep such a positive tone going every day.

    I think we have such a positive tone because we are celebrating inspiring stories.  You might not groove on a given company or product, but it is hard to beat up on a Grommet creator for pursuing their passion. Yet the other reason for the tone of our discussion boards is skillful management by Katherine Klinger, who sets a high bar for all of us who contribute.

    I asked Katherine how she approaches the more difficult cases.  She said,

    I feel that we bring our commenters [Grommet creators] here as a special guest and as such try to stop conversations that are going down an unproductive road. We owe it to them to keep the conversation focused on their products and mission. If this were a discussion board with no special guest, I might instead explore what people think about some of these topics. When I write a reply, I try to not be defensive and I try not to give them any hooks to latch on to to come back with another similar post.

    Katherine Klinger
    Katherine Klinger, Wordsmith Extraordinaire--she could make the copy on a stop sign interesting!

    I also asked Katherine which recent responses were particularly challenging for her or the team.  In the screen shot case below, we had a rare instance of a person on a vendetta against the Grommet creator. The screen shot is hard to read, but basically we deployed the VERY rare nuclear option of deleting a community comment.  We hesitate to do that and always indicate that we have done so.  Generally we welcome negative comments as they might reflect some general concerns, and it is great to have a chance for us and our partners to address them.  But when a person just attacks another person for some matter outside of Daily Grommet, we don't let it stand.  (It is our digital equivalent of "take it outside, kids.")

    Katherine also cited the difficult tenor of the conversation around Spirit Hoods, which are playful faux fur hats.  This story brought out the wrath of a couple of animal rights activists.  Complicating matters,one of our very loyal Grommet fans came back at the animal rights person a bit too zealously.  It would have gotten ugly quickly, if Katherine did not tip in. Here is the strand.

    To try to summarize, here's what works at Grommet in creating a productive discussion board:

    • Think "sideways" when a tough comment comes in. Katherine is the master at looking at things differently, rather than frontally.  When we have a difficult email to write, we often consult her.  For instance, we like to check directly with a customer if we see an unusual order come in (like one for 20 pair of work overalls).  Katherine advised, "Don't send an email asking if the order is a mistake.  Just thank the person for the order, while clearly calling out the order contents.  If it is a mistake they will be the first to tell us."  (The 20 pair of work overalls were ordered by a drama teacher--they were costumes for a student play.)
    • If you are CEO or a senior leader in your company, pay close attention to the discussion board. I personally read every comment every day.  I answer many.  These comments are not "optional" to me.  They tell me what people are thinking and feeling, and I can also help set a tone in how we respond by taking on some of the dialogue myself.  I make it clear that it is worth my time to do this, and it is highly valuable work for anyone in the company.
    • Know the difference between an ordinary negative comment and one that is going to lead to a death spiral. Ordinary comments generally represent a criticism based on a different point of view, or a bad experience with the product or service.  NEVER delete those.  But comments that get personal, or are just an extended rant, need to be reigned in.  Make sure your posting guidelines are clear about that, as you do not want to create unique policy on the fly.
    • Understand the value of negative comments. Studies have shown that negative comments mixed in with positive ones actually increase the purchase rate for products.  Why?  People trust what is on the discussion board better, as being unedited and true.  This trust can be extended to any kind of discussion board that lets negative comments stand.  And in the case of product reviews and comments, people may not be concerned with the negative aspects that are raised, in regards to their own use of the product.  They understand that no product is perfect for absolutely everyone.

    The biggest piece of advice about discussion boards I could give is:  hire a Katherine!  When I read the comments at some of my favorite e-commerce sites I often see robotic responses to customer complaints.  These replies look like someone pressed the "send that canned [fill-in-the-blank] response" button.  It's admittedly a very labor-intensive effort to manage a discussion board (and not everyone at Daily Grommet itself agrees with our emphasis on this!), but I would not initiate one if you are not prepared to follow through with it in a real and human way.

  • Does Pinterest stimulate oxytocin production?

    Over the last three months I organized a lot of overdue home interior fix-ups.  Nothing truly major, yet this series of projects has had a surprising mood-lifting effect on me.  I used to come home every night to confront "death by a thousand cuts."  No, not emotional trauma.  I was much more tortured by cracked bathroom tiles, and ice-damaged ceilings, and countless scuffs on our walls.  Now I come home to crisp, freshly-maintained rooms (as long as I ignore the day to day mess).  I can breathe!   But my husband is continually surprised at how openly happy I am about this work.  I mention it a lot. Like almost every night. And he must be thinking..."if I only knew the difference a gallon of paint could make."

    I suspect that these home improvements stimulate the production of the natural "contentment" chemical substance--oxytocin--for me. There is something about taking good care of my house (and my family by extension) that is mood-enhancing.  And I believe that the enormous numbers of women who report the calming, mood-lifting effect of Pinterest to be experiencing some version of the same oxytocin effect.

    Why?  Take a look at a tiny snippet of my "Gardening" board on Pinterest, below, and an amateur deconstruction of my oxytocin theory, which depends on three key components of oxytocin production:  generosity, trust, and optimism:

    Generosity: sharing a project doubles its pleasure. In the first two photos I am pinning my spring garden.  Coincidentally, I do almost all my gardening in my front yard because I enjoy sharing it.  I am away from home most of the week and I like the notion that people are passing by appreciating it in my absence.  I feel generous and oddly connected to strangers, which is a documented oxytocin benefit. But now Pinterest enables me to share my garden with, literally, anyone with an internet connection, in a context that makes more sense than, say, Flickr, Facebook, or Instagram.   And I get a slice of that same enjoyment in looking at garden pins from other people.

    Trust: Pinterest enables people to help each other. In the third pin above, (the purple balls) I am sharing a photo of a garden sculpture I want to make.  I am having a little trouble copying what I found in this French garden, so I pinned the photo and asked for suggestions.  According to the neuroeconomist and TED talk-giver Paul J. Zak, I just produced an oxytocin moment for the people who follow me on Pinterest.  Apparently, one of the central ways to stimulate oxytocin is to give a sign of trust to another person.  Zak is publishing a book about it called The Trust Molecule.  It's very low-demand, but putting this project up and asking for help enables other people to have that feeling of being trusted.  Odds are, I will follow their advice and probably even report back.  According to Zak, the mere act of sharing trust is a tiny step to creating a more stable society.

    Pinterest is entirely optimistic. Pinboards roughly divide into two categories.  One is "here is who I am."  (Or at least the parts I am proud of, like my garden.)  The second is "here is who I am going to be."  This second category is very interesting.  It is optimistic and future-facing. Pinning is like losing weight, cooking fabulous food, dressing beautifully, travelling to exotic places, and displaying great taste...with none of the actual effort.  This is who I will BE, and no one can argue with that.  In my case, I created an "Easter Projects" board full of the charming and obsessive things I would make IF I had time.  I am telling the world:

    I am really am like THIS person, even though I don't, um, actually have that life right now. But I would if I could, and I will some day.

    And oddly, the mere act of pinning these projects, knowing full well I would never make them, gave me half the satisfaction of actually doing them.  And as proof (to myself) that these boards can someday be my reality, I used my "Need a new haircut" pinboard  to actually figure out a new hairdo. I made this board to show my hairdresser what I wanted, and to solicit input from a couple friends on my finalist choices.  So Pinterest can be concretely useful to organizing a project, which contributes to my optimism about the much more unrealistic boards I create.  (But for the life of me, I have no idea why 333 people decided to follow my haircut board.)

    It's a pretty rare and special thing for a bunch of pixels on a website to provide a consistently pleasant and personal experience.  The "oxytocin effect" of Pinterest is not dependent on delivering great new pins every day, or dumb humor, or exceptional stories.  I can look at my home page, find nothing of interest, but still wander over to fuss with  my own boards and feel...content.  I am tending my future.  (I have boards for trips I am actually planning, and trips I will never take.  Boards for house projects I am doing and houses I will never own. Boards for business ideas, meals, parties, inspirational people, gifts. Basically anything that I can capture online, visually, that I want to remember.)   And I probably spend a maximum of ten minutes a day on the site, so it is not as though it takes a lot of work.

    Pinterest is the site that gives and does not take.  Clearly, being the fastest growing site in history, Pinterest is playing with more than pins and pixels.

  • Kicking 2012 off with Tequila, Tears, and a CakeWreck

    Grommet team party, January 6, 2012

    The Boston-based Grommet team happily kicked off the New Year at Joanne's house.

    By the way, this is not the first time the front of this solid brick house has been broadcast online...alas, it was on the cover of a dozen online papers when the freak Halloween snowstorm felled a massive ancient tree in Joanne's front yard.

    AP Photo by Michael Dwyer

    The only accident at this party occurred when Joanne's favorite child (her dog Sydney) helped himself to our cake.  His ghoulish blue mouth clued her in before the team arrived.  (We just ate around the gashes.  Making do--in true startup fashion)

    Even at a party, we tend to be testing Grommets.  In this case, we had set up a tequila toast because JULIA GOT ENGAGED the very night before our party, to her sweetheart Damian.  The man has great timing.  Gadzooks....our first Grommet wedding!

    Julia and Damian had their celebratory tequila shots in a very cool upcoming Grommet:  Himalayan Salt Cups made by Spice Labs.  You freeze them ahead of time for the best tequila shot ever.

    We have a new software engineer who, in his first three days,  has experienced a tearful good bye party for our first employee Jen, a full-team birthday celebration, and a Tequila Shots/CakeWrecks party.  Hmmm, what will we spring on him next week?

  • Girls, Girls, Girls!

    As a girl, I formed many notions about entrepreneurship by devouring every biography in my elementary school.  I loved the stories about how a single person like Abraham Lincoln could influence the world.  The founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, was notably in the group of innovators and leaders who inspired me with her life story.  Thus I was thrilled to be asked to speak about being an entrepreneur at the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts for their National Convention in Houston.

    1300 girls converged from all corners.  They also organized their own Leadership Institute which was broadly assembled around the theme of Innovation and Leadership.

    national girl scouts

    It’s always hard to tell if a presentation or talk is “landing” with high school kids.  They are yawning and chronically sleep-deprived.  They are distracted by their phones.  They don’t nod and smile like adults often do in a talk. But the sharp questions from these girls afterwards revealed that they hadn’t missed much from our panel.

    The girls swarmed afterwards for photos with the speakers.

    Zubaida Bai of AYZH, Kim Karlsrud of Commonstudio and GreenAid, a Girl Scout, me

    They kept pressing little trinkets into my hand.  I didn’t understand the gifts until they explained their heart-warming tradition of giving each other things to collect and display.   They are called SWAPS:  Special Whatchamacallits Affectionately Pinned Somewhere.

    The giant George. R. Brown Convention center was packed with events and inspiring photos of Girl Scouts and their history.

    The hundreds of adults on hand were equally engaged, and many dressed in coordinated outfits that helped their regional groups stand out.  This Florida woman explained the little hats her group sported.  They were meant to be a specific reference to the fashions of the times 100 years ago, with symbolic details of daisies (the founder’s nickname), her pearls, and also the navy color to represent the new Girl Scout uniform being released for the next 100 years.

    I participate in a lot of tech conferences and competitions.  I typically only see one woman startup founder for every ten men who choose to compete or speak.  I told the girls that they need to change that.  Girls and women have to stop waiting to feel “ready” to create companies.  I can tell you that these girls are ready.  They are perfect.

  • No power? No problem. Where the Grommet team worked today.

    Our Boston based team got hit with an early snowstorm.  With the leaves still on the trees the weight of a fast heavy snow caused a lot of damage. The yards and streets look like some kind of Armageddon, with all the downed leaves and branches.  70% of the households and businesses in Lexington, MA have no power.  Schools were closed.  Halloween is postponed.  Our office was in the affected group.  Yet, the Grommets must go on.  Here's how we coped:

    Ray, Justine and Charlotte put on warm clothes and headlamps to "power through" getting the Grommet orders on their way.  Charlotte stayed warm by running up and down the stairs carrying stuff.  A few of us made a run to Panera for hot soup and sandwiches to keep their blood flowing.

    Jeanne had heat and electricity at home (after losing it for the weekend) so she cozied up in her office to make the Marketing doughnuts.If you contact Daily Grommet about an order, chances are very good you will talk to Chew-hoong.  However, you would have no idea how she was dressed when she chatted with you!  She says "Halloween is one of my fave American enjoyments. Now I look forward to cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin pie, hot chocolate, cookie swap & Yankee swap."

    Julia and June decamped to the public library to get the Grommets out.  (Wendy too, but we missed her for the photo.)  They report that the library was a popular place to hang out for the many displaced residents, but it was quiet and friendly.

    Jesse kept warm at home, editing videos, in his son's old Halloween headgear.

    Joanne sidled up to her kitchen island with coffee brewing and a candle burning.

    Adam hopped around.  He started at the local library  installed himself at home to take customer calls.

    My house has been without heat for two days, so this is me squatting at a friend's house.  I'm soaking up the warmth and looking forward to using the oven later to make a hot dinner.

    Kate had the coziest setup, under a thick blanket next to the fire.  She is also wearing two sweaters and a jacket vest.  There's been no heat in her house, since yesterday.

    Finally two of our remote team members reported in.  Tori said it is 85 degrees and sunny in Southern California so she did not dare send a photo.  But Katherine, in Minneapolis, has precious few opportunities to make us jealous of her weather so she forwarded this glorious shot, below.  Now that is what Halloween SHOULD look like!

     

  • L.L. Bean knows that even the store door handles matter

    I dropped $250 on new X-country ski bindings and boots this weekend.  That's a ton of dough to me.  And since I haven't bought ski equipment in 20+ years, the purchase destination was pretty much a jump ball. I might be more overtly reflective on this kind of decision than the average bear, but most people have a complex subconscious approach to non-routine purchases.  Their decisions reflect their personal values at a level that great brands know how to serve.

    Let's start with the reasons for the purchase.  First, below is a picture of me a week ago, at the point when my old cross country boot totally separated from the sole, on the shores of Lake Champlain.  I shouldn't be smiling as I had no idea how I was going to travel miles back to my car without a functional ski set-up.  (My clever friend Jill figured out how to use her gator and my boot laces to lash my foot to the ski.)

    Here are the broken boots:

    Here is the reason why I was feeling urgency to get back in gear for the season:
    Continue Reading

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