Monday, May 29, 2017

Do You Have What it Takes To Be a Business Leader?

Bill_Gates_speaking_at_DFIDRunning a business is not rocket science. As a long-time business advisor, and occasional investor, I have seen many successful businesses lead by college dropouts and people with average intelligence. Investors don’t look at CEOs for advanced degrees, but they do look for experience and emotional intelligence, often before they even evaluate the business plan.

Every business has to start with a leader – someone to drive through the thousand unknowns of every new venture, no matter how big the opportunity, or how amazing the technology. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg never finished college, and all started with virtually no business experience, but still they attracted the team and funding they needed to succeed.

So what are the right attributes of an aspiring business leader or founder? I just finished a new book, “The EQ Leader,” by Steven J. Stein, PhD, who is a leading expert on psychological assessment and emotional intelligence. I like his list of competencies, with my tips on how to highlight them, to score certain people as potential business leaders to peers and investors:

  1. Agility in learning. Agility in learning is the ability to diagnose the need for new skill sets and to acquire them quickly, despite incessant business pressures of change and no time available. In business, this agility is called “street smarts,” and is a coveted attribute. As an entrepreneur, even with no prior startups, you must highlight non-business examples.

  2. Communication skills. Effective communication in business requires an efficient flow of information to all constituents, and ability to share in any media, including speaking, writing, and listening. It also includes using and reading body language and state of mind. My angel group always asks the CEO to do the talking, to test their communication skills.

  3. Emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to work your way through tough business situations, and the ability to perceive, to understand, and to manage emotion, as well as to integrate thought with emotion when making decisions. Venture capital investors have been known to make controversial assertions to test your reaction.

  4. Resiliency/flexibility. Resiliency is the ability to recover quickly from failures, and pivot with lessor business changes. It includes the ability to discard experience that is no longer relevant or useful, and to change direction in accordance with new information. Be careful how you position any startups failures, and what you learned from the experience.

  5. Quest for excellence. A quest for excellence is the ability to hold your company and team to the highest standards, and to consistently exceed the expectations of customers. Leaders with this attribute always strive for the highest personal performance, as well. Positive examples from non-business experiences and efforts will help your case here.

  6. Self-confidence. Self-confidence is possessing and displaying credible assurance and self-reliance, without continual positive feedback from friends and advisors. It is the ability to envision business success and to communicate a sense of well-being to others. In business, don’t step over that fine line between self-confidence and overbearing ego.

  7. Creativity and innovation. These terms embody the ability to produce new ideas by thinking outside the box, and solving problems through calculated risks. In business, creativity and innovation are not a one-time thing, but must be done continually. When talking to investors, your examples from outside of business are equally valuable.

  8. Moral courage. Moral courage is a clearly articulated set of values and beliefs that drives business, as well as personal actions and decisions. Moral courage may also require physical courage when the consequences are lost business or physical peril. In business, actions speak louder than words. Associates and investors are watching.

  9. Accountability. Accountability is the willingness to accept full responsibility for all business actions and decisions, with a natural aversion to excuses. It implies the willingness to follow-up on fulfillment of all commitments, major and minor. I always listen carefully to the explanation, when aspiring entrepreneurs are late or miss a meeting.

  10. Cultural adaptability. Cultural sensitivity is the ability to perceive and learn from people strengths in different geographical regions, ethnic groups, and between different organizations and team subcultures, and to adapt behavior accordingly and positively. These days, the business value of cultural diversity is huge. Watch your team makeup.

  11. Decisiveness. Decisiveness is the practice of making a business choice or determining a course of action in a reasonable timeframe, by efficiently using and processing the best information available. It also means making good decisions with incomplete information. There is a reason that the savvy investors on Shark Tank often ask for a quick decision.

Of course, investors would prefer that all new businesses be led by entrepreneurs with a track record, and all the attributes highlighted here. But that never happens. All you have to do as a new business owner is highlight the strengths you have, and concentrate on developing at least one more than your key competitor. I haven’t yet found a perfect business leader yet.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/16/2017 ***

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Customer Service Can Kill Your Customer’s Experience

customer-service-experienceWith the advent of the Internet, social media, and instant communication via texting, customer expectations for service, as part of their entire customer experience, have changed. They expect you to be there, to know their history as a customer, and to treat them with priority and respect. They tell their friends and the world everything, and a bad experience can kill your business.

Everyone today is looking for a knock-your-socks-off customer experience, and they know the best companies out there are already doing it. I saw some great insights on how to do it in a new book, “More is More,” by Blake Morgan, a top thought leader and expert in this area. I particularly liked her points on the evolution of customer service as a key part of the overall experience:

  1. Now available 24x7 via multiple channels. With every business being global in scope and always-on, a phone-in service available in a local time zone during work hours only, is not competitive. As well as phone support, customers expect you to accept mobile messaging, and provide quick responses via social media and multiple Internet websites.

  2. Company finds customers based on interests. No customer enjoys being blasted by irrelevant banner ads, and they don’t have time to sort through all the noise of products out there searching for an audience. The best companies do their homework and find the right customers, based on demographics, prior purchases, and expressed interests.

  3. Technology must improve the customer experience. When you call customer service and it seems to take forever for the agent to help you, it’s likely that she is switching to different applications to get to the right information, or waiting for slow responses. Customers won’t tolerate being asked repeatedly for information you should know.

  4. Customer is in control of the support experience. Today’s customers expect you to find them when they need support, rather than the other way around. Witness the series of airlines public relations disasters, when customers don’t get the proactive attention they need. The days of brand control are over, so you need a strong outreach program.

  5. Customer service is a key part of the marketing budget. In the past, most companies treated customers like yesterday’s news – once they have the sale, the effort decreased. It was normal to find service as understaffed with no budget. Call center queues could put you on hold for thirty minutes or more. Great customer service is the new key to loyalty.

  6. Products must be designed for easy support. With the Internet of Things (IoT), your product can call home directly when it needs support, so you can surprise your customer with a solution, before he knows he has a problem, or the product can fix itself. Designing for support is now as important as designing for low cost, ease of use, and quality.

  7. Reward responsibility and creativity in support. Support has traditionally been the spot for employees with less skill and experience, and less motivation. Today you need your best team members, with the best incentives, focused on impressing customers with creative solutions. You too can be listed as a source of amazing customer experiences.

  8. Optimize experiences for the new generations. Generation Z (born after 1995) is a new major spending demographic, who expects to do everything via their smartphone, and lives on YouTube videos, instead of reading instruction manuals. Millennials really care about social and environmental impacts, so don’t ignore these support implications.

In fact, it’s no longer possible to separate customer support from the overall customer experience. Both are part of the relationship that you build with your customers through a compendium of all the interactions you have with them. Any one of these can be the key to an amazing advocacy, or the beginning of an aggressive visible campaign against you.

The world today is small, and there is no room to hide. Be responsive, do more, and you will get more.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 05/27/2017 ***

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Why Entrepreneurs Need To Keep Their Business Focused

business-focusEvery new business or product owner wants to attract the broadest possible audience, so they are prone to adding more features, multiple sales channels, and appealing to every demographic. Unfortunately, often the result is potential customers who are confused, the limited resources of your business are spread too thin, and customers and investors look elsewhere for a better fit.

Thus one of my key messages to entrepreneurs, as a business advisor and angel investor, is “focus.” It’s better to be known for and to do one thing extremely well, than to do many things poorly. For example, it’s all too common for a technology entrepreneur to highlight a new battery technology as the ultimate power for smartphones, medical heart pacemakers, and home lighting.

These are three different worlds from a business perspective. Focus simply means launching your first and most memorable initiative where you see a unique skill and experience fit, your best competitive positioning with the least risk, and the greatest potential return. People still remember Google for Internet search, Amazon for books, and Facebook for talking to friends.

Now, of course, they all do much more, but those things came later. In the beginning, like them, make sure you are focused on the following set of principles:

  1. Quantify one problem to highlight your solution. Focus means starting with solving a specific problem, rather than a generic list. Customers want a solution from you, not many. For investors, show the depth of your business potential by prioritizing a strategic plan for multiple later phases that capitalize on additional problems you plan to address.

  2. Pick a business model that you can best support. With limited resources, you can sell via ecommerce, but it’s much tougher to support retail as well, or hire a direct sales team. Consider a subscription model for a repeatable revenue stream, or full-purchase model, but not both. Your business model determines cash-flow, staffing, and funding required.

  3. Define no more than 3 to 5 goals and priorities. No organization can remember and deliver on a dozen goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective. Keep these balanced and aligned between people (customers, employees) and process (quality, service), and keep the scope limited. Eliminating world hunger is too broad.

  4. Zero in on a specific market segment. Targeting all the people in China as your opportunity gives you big numbers for a small penetration percentage, but will be seen as lack of focus by key constituents. The more precise you can be in your definition of the target demographics (location, age, income, education), the more successful you will be.

  5. Limit solution scope and features. Focus means creating a minimum viable product (MVP) first, and validating it in the marketplace. Feature-rich products take too much time and money to build, are hard to pivot, and will likely be slow and difficult to use. Your product will never have enough features to satisfy everyone, and it will never be perfect.

  6. Realistically characterize the competition. If you really believe that IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle are your competition, you have a big challenge that you can’t afford to meet. It’s better to focus on a niche that none of them do well, and build your plan around that opportunity. Claiming you have no competition also implies lack of focus on competition.

  7. Simplify your solution positioning. You can’t win by trying to position yourself as both a premium provider (high quality, high service, high price), as well as a player in the commodity end of the market. Your team, customers, and investors will all be confused with your lack of focus. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.

  8. Concentrate your marketing efforts around a single channel. You always need a budget for marketing, but don’t spread it evenly or randomly across digital media, social media, direct, and traditional channels. Focus on one channel at a time, measure results, and then move to the next. Too many channels has the same effect as no marketing.

I understand the pressure to grow and scale the business to satisfy investors and your ego, but premature scaling is seen by many experts as the number one reason for startup failure. Don’t spend money, or expand your focus, into domains you don’t know, with an assumption that all new customers will be additive to your current base. One plus one sometimes equals zero.

In the same vein, you can also have too many advisors, and too many investors. If you listen to everyone, and take money from everyone, your focus will be diluted to the point that you won’t be able to satisfy anyone, especially customers. In the long run, it takes a narrow and memorable core focus to build a sustainable company.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/11/2017 ***

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Friday, May 26, 2017

10 Behaviors That Highlight Your Leadership Ability

business-leadership-activitiesBased on my years of experience as a new business advisor, I always find leadership to be more important to business success than any new technology or innovative solution. The challenge is to adequately define leadership in terms of everyday activities. Most entrepreneurs believe they are leaders, even though the feedback I get from their team and partners may indicate otherwise.

Thus I’m always looking for more practical guidance on the right activities to be perceived as a business leader. I just found some great specifics in a new book, “The Leadership Challenge,” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. These authors bring a wealth of experience in this domain from their workshops, writing, and lecturing on business leadership worldwide.

They have identified ten specific behaviors of exemplary business leaders that I believe every entrepreneur and business professional must focus on to improve their leadership abilities, as well as the perception of others around them as a leader:

  1. Clarify values by communicating shared values. Being viewed as an exemplary leader requires first that you find your voice on your own deeply held values – beliefs, standards, ethics, and ideals. Then strive to understand the same for your constituents. Affirming all shared values is the way to building productive and working relationships.

  2. Set the example by aligning actions with shared values. People listen to what you say, but they follow what you do. How you spend your time is the clearest indicator to all what’s important to you. Your questions determine the path people will follow and focus their search for answers. Show that you actively listen to feedback and model the values.

  3. Envision the future by imagining the possibilities. Even as you stop, look, and listen to messages in the present, you also need to spend considerable time reading, thinking, and talking about the long-term view. Leaders today need to express passion for doing something significant no one else has yet achieved, including society and environment.

  4. Enlist others by appealing to shared aspirations. Enlisting others is all about igniting passion for a purpose and moving people to persist against great odds. You have to engage the hearts and minds of your constituents. To foster team spirit, breed optimism, promote resilience, and renew faith and confidence, real leaders look on the bright side.

  5. Seize the initiative with innovative ways to improve. Leadership is inextricably linked with the process of innovation, of bringing new ideas, methods, and solutions into use. This means making things happen where others don’t, and rewarding initiative in others. It means looking outside your experience, and promoting diverse perspectives.

  6. Experiment to generate small wins and learning. Leaders break down big problems into small, doable actions and initiate experiments that don’t paralyze others with major risks. This creates a climate for learning and winning, to build resilience and grit, as well as incremental progress toward goals. It also builds personal fulfillment, rather than fear.

  7. Foster collaboration by building trusting relationships. Without trust, you can’t lead. You can’t get people to believe in you or each other. Trust is the key to productive relationships, and relationships with peers, constituents and customers are key to great businesses. Building trust requires showing concern for others, and open sharing.

  8. Strengthen others by developing their competence. A well-recognized paradox of leadership is that you become more powerful when you give your power away. The best leaders spend more time supporting and mentoring their constituents to develop their competence and confidence, and then delegate effectively with accountability.

  9. Show appreciation for individual excellence. The best leaders are clear about the goals and rules, expect the best, always provide feedback, and personalize recognition for results. One of the most powerful recognitions is a simple “thank you” delivered in a timely manner. Find out the types of encouragement that make the most difference.

  10. Celebrate victories and a spirit of community. Fun isn’t a luxury at work. Smart leaders find and create occasions to bring people together to publicly celebrate accomplishments and build community. Get personally involved in as many recognitions and celebrations as possible. Show you care by being visible in the tough times.

Exemplary leadership behaviors like these will always make a profound positive difference in people’s commitment and motivation, their work performance, and the success of their company. Especially if you are don’t yet carry an executive role or title, now is the time to start practicing these activities. The most effective and satisfying leadership comes without a title to lean on.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 05/24/2017 ***

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

10 Qualities That Will Make You An Entrepreneur Idol

American_Idol_logoTo be successful as an entrepreneur, you don’t have to be a fabulous person, but it helps. Some people, and some entrepreneurs, have that something extra that you can’t quite put your finger on, like Ryan Seacrest is searching for on American Idol. But the entrepreneurs that have it, including Elon Musk and Richard Branson, seem to be able to effortlessly get team members, investors, and customers to follow them anywhere.

In her classic book on this subject, “The Essentials of Fabulous,” Ellen Lubin-Sherman, who has been tracking fabulous people most of her life as a writer and journalist, tried to net it out. She identifies less than a dozen primary qualities for fabulous people in general, and I have honed and tuned these to ten that apply especially to entrepreneurs, in my experience:

  1. Be passionate about life, as well as your business. Entrepreneurs who have passion in business, as well as their life, may drive us all batty, but there is never a dull moment. These moments are always being transformed into options to be explored. They make life interesting and an adventure, and everyone loves an adventure.

  2. Be delightfully authentic and honest. Authentic entrepreneurs are destined and determined to have fun, as well as move forward in business. They have an unerring confidence that’s inspiring yet attainable. They savor relationships, and are generous with themselves and their smarts, so they attract a savvy following.

  3. Be revered for an amazing positive attitude. Rather than cave when things get tough, optimistic entrepreneurs go analytic, looking for pivots that keep their goals in sight. They are disciplined, upbeat thinkers, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, and know how and when to laugh it off. A negative attitude takes everyone down.

  4. Be warm and completely accessible. Warmth comes from your smile, and facial expressions that indicate genuine interest. Investors and partners look for entrepreneurs that will look them straight in the eye when speaking, and give their full and undivided attention while you’re speaking. Everyone looks for “rapport talk” rather than “report talk.”

  5. Have impeccable manners and flair. Entrepreneurs who are always looking for opportunities to be gracious and considerate are going to be liked, admired, sought after, and trusted. In business, that means staying connected, showing up on time, with no signs of boredom or preoccupation. It’s not always about you, so dress and talk for them.

  6. Be competent and confident. Competent people accomplish more in business because they’re driven by a pronounced sense of purpose. They are willing to put themselves on the line, and have confidently done their homework to know what it takes. They are reliably consistent, and unafraid to ask for help.

  7. Able to just “get it.” Entrepreneurs who “get it” are emotionally attuned to peers and customers, so that their gut-level instincts become informed judgments that move the business forward. “With-it”-ness takes work, like reading the right blogs every day, challenging yourself to stay abreast of the latest technology, and social media marketing.

  8. Have a big bandwidth. Can you talk, with equal engagement and respect, to your company’s CFO and the guy who pumps your gas? Look for opportunities to praise and nurture the people with diversity. Get comfortable out of your circle of interest and expertise. Go for that black belt in networking.

  9. Be vivid virtually. Developing a superior virtual presence requires a mastery of several mediums – phone, email, text messaging, as well as handwritten notes – but the payoff is undeniable. But don’t overuse virtual communication to the exclusion of face-to-face time In all cases, don’t forget your sense of aplomb, mastery of tone, and the spell-checker.

  10. Attract a superstar board of advisors. The right board is a group of individuals who may not know one another, but know you, and know your business domain. Plus, they need to be willing to put their brains and their expertise at your disposal as long as you need it. No entrepreneur is an island, so take the initiative to build an advisory board.

Paying attention to all these things is how you become a fabulous entrepreneur, another entrepreneur idol. I’m sorry, but there is no magic, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Of course, it will never happen if you don’t start or don’t believe. But it’s worth the effort, unless you have something better to do?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, May 22, 2017

7 Initiatives To Streamline and Focus Your Company

Chatting-Team-Business-MeetingSuccess in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive business environment requires a total alignment between the needs of each business function and the priorities of all team members. If you see signs of internal misalignment, such as too many meetings, overload of emails, or lack of engagement at any level, now is the time to take action before customers and employees both sense it and leave you.

As an entrepreneur advisor and startup investor, it always amazes me how obvious these alignment issues are from the outside, and how hard it is to make them visible inside and get them corrected. What every investor, and every customer, is looking for is a company where everyone is focused on the same objectives, the same values, and the same customer needs

I just saw some real insights on this challenge in a new book, “Total Alignment: Tools and Tactics for Streamlining Your Organization,” by Riaz and Linda Khadem. They bring over 25 years of experience in alignment strategy deployment for large and small organizations across Europe and North America. They summarize alignment as an embodiment of seven initiatives, as follows:

  1. Define a unified focus and direction, shared by all. You must have a clearly defined and communicated company purpose, with buy-in from everyone. The alternative is that people focus on their own agenda or other activities that will divert energy, cause confusion internally and externally, and impede the progress of your company.

  2. Measure execution on a single strategy, rather than talk. According to business expert Paul Sharman, nine out of ten businesses fail to implement their strategic plan. Failed strategies erode your competitive position. You must provide your team with constant training and support on what good execution looks like, and a follow-up process.

  3. Improve reporting structure support (vertical alignment). All too often, employees pay lip service to their management, but execute their own agenda, due to lack of understanding or disagreements. The solution is people-focused managers, who practice empathy and coaching to check alignment, rather than looking backward only at results.

  4. Enable cross-functional collaboration (horizontal alignment). This type of collaboration prevents silos from developing in the organization, which often work against each other, and certainly take more time to make decisions. Top business leaders arrange their agendas and time, building and maintaining cross-functional relationships.

  5. Give people the right skills to deliver (competency alignment). Delegation doesn’t work if the people are not qualified to deliver. This starts with hiring the right people, matching roles to interests, and regular coaching and training to improve competency in the required skills. Update skill requirements as technology and the market changes.

  6. Assure team alignment of values with company values. Misalignment of values quickly erodes the trust that your customers, suppliers, and employees have in the business, and culminates with the loss of all of the above. Alignment is improved through day-to-day team and individual reviews of values, behaviors, activities, and results.

  7. Reward people for desired results (compensation alignment). When people see that their hard work is not recognized or appreciated, their motivation decreases, and eventually the best move on, leaving you with a weaker and weaker team. Rewards must go beyond salary, to include personal positive feedback, and recognition in front of peers.

The biggest challenge for most companies is turning even a great vision into reality. If all your people and processes are not totally aligned, energies are wasted and things move too slowly to keep up with the market and competitors. So how can you tell if your perspective is aligned with others in the company?

I recommend that you meet individually with your manager, any direct reports that you may have, and key peers, to compare notes on your top five priorities. If you find a big mismatch, it’s time to dig deeper inside your own perspective to find the root cause, and focus on one of more of the initiatives outlined earlier, to minimize the disparity.

The future of your career, and your company, depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/09/2017 ***

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

7 Key Strategies Will Assure Company Sustainability

Radio_Shack_in_West_Miami,_FloridaAs a new business advisor, I am no longer surprised that every new entrepreneur believes the hard part is creating the first product and the business. Perhaps luckily, they have no idea that scaling the business and maintaining vitality as a mature business is even harder. What most often kills a company is the illusion (or delusion) that all is now stable and everyone can relax.

The challenge is to retain the same sense of urgency, energy, commitment, and readiness in a mature company that you felt during the startup stage. The importance and reality of this need has been detailed well in a new book I just finished, “State of Readiness,” by Joseph F. Paris, Jr. He is a recognized thought leader on the subject of operational excellence and strategy.

He and I are both are strong believers that the keys to sustainable success start with building a solid business platform initially, with a strong support structure for scalability, sustainability, and long-term leadership. The proper support structure can only be built if you commit to and implement his following strategy elements:

  1. Learn from the past, build for the future. New and existing companies today need to press beyond what was, through what is, to what will be. Most importantly, this is not just in the products and services you offer, but in the way your company operates. You must proactively improve your business processes, even if they seem to be working today.

  2. Create and cultivate a leadership culture. Leaders in business these days are leaders because people are willing to follow. You can tell the capability of a leader by the caliber of their followers. The best leaders are mentors to their team, and they are stewards of a company’s assets and vision. They build trust, integrity, and respect from everyone.

  3. Communicate the vision, then execute. People will follow only if they know where they are going. Connect the dots to the vision to gain alignment and commitment. Set a course for the destination, but also establish intermediate checkpoints to assess progress along the way. Adjust as prudent and necessary, communicating all the way.

  4. Set-up for success and don’t set-up for failure. Delegate with accountability and responsibility, and keep your focus on the future. Let those to whom you delegate do their job, without micromanaging. Your task is follow-up in support, mentoring, and setting goals. Establish processes, incent innovation, and monitor progress along the way.

  5. Make innovation the requisite for long-term viability. Maintaining the velocity and flexibility to keep up with the market and competitors is a requirement for survival. Your team culture needs to expect failed attempts, but never a fear of failure, only of not trying. Fail quick, fail small, learn, and move on. Change should be expected as the norm.

  6. Construct a program for rebuilding capability. Continually redefine what success looks like into the future. Then you need to identify the talent, skills, and resources your company will need to succeed, as well as when and where they will be needed. Work hard at finding and filling the gaps. Hire and retain the best, and build the rest.

  7. Prepare for sustainability in the long haul. The journey will be long and difficult, so prepare accordingly. Build rock-solid processes first, then increase the through-put and accuracy by introducing the right technologies where it makes sense. Capture your own best practices and replicate them across your company. Constantly strengthen the team.

We can all name companies that started strong, but didn’t scale well, or let complacency drive them off the map. Examples include Webvan, Research in Motion (Blackberry), and Tandy (Radio Shack). To this list, we can add the countless family-owned businesses that could not survive the transition to the next generation. Beware of any sense of entitlement to continuing success.

For scaling and long-term success, every company today needs these strategies for operational excellence, to follow an innovative new startup effort, driven by a passionate and committed entrepreneur. It’s never too late to get started, but it gets harder the longer you wait. Don’t wait until your company is spinning out of control.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 05/20/2017 ***

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