Hey everyone, today I share the mic with Howard Marks, CEO of StartEngine, a company that provides investment opportunities for new startups to help entrepreneurs realize their dreams. He was also the founder and CEO of Acclaim Games, and before that he was a co-founder of Activision.
Tune in to hear Howard reveal his value investing strategy that allowed him to buy video game companies Activision for $400K and Acclaim for a mere $100K, how he had a vision of finance as a crowdfunding platform when no one else believed it possible, and how StartEngine has raised over $30M in capital for over 40 companies in his mission to help entrepreneurs realize their dreams.
Download podcast transcript [PDF] here: How Howard Marks Broke All the Barriers by Building StartEngine as an Equity Crowdfunding Platform and Raised $17M from 6,300 People TRANSCRIPT
Time-Stamped Show Notes:
- 00:45 – Leave a review, rating and subscribe to the Growth Everywhere Podcast
- 01:03 – Eric introduces Howard Marks
- 01:06 – Howard is the CEO of Start Engine which provides investment opportunities for entrepreneurs
- 01:15 – He was the founder and CEO of Acclaim Games and cofounder of Activision
- 01:46 – Howard got into gaming through Activision
- 01:59 – It was bankrupt and paid $400,000 for ⅓ of the company
- 02:11 – They restructured it and brought it back to a 35 billion dollar market cap
- 02:19 – #1 Video game company in the world
- 02:30 – Lessons Howard has learned from the Activision days
- 02:38 – Most people quit too early
- 03:08 – Give yourself the opportunity to turn things around
- 03:19 – 90% quit and end their vision too early and that behavior will never make them successful
- 03:41 – Howard shares about a critical moment where he could’ve quit
- 03:49 – They bought the company in Nov. 1991
- 03:59 – No one would work with Activision; Wal-mart wouldn’t work with them unless Activision took back their inventory
- 04:14 – They couldn’t hire people because they were bankrupt
- 04:37 – They had offers along the way that wanted to buy the company
- 04:44 – Even Walt Disney did not see them as a real business with intellectual property
- 05:14 – “The resilience factor is something that you don’t see very often; but when you see it and understand it, that’s success”
- 05:31 – How they made a deal with Wal-mart
- 06:05 – Howard’s background
- 06:22 – He is a computer science engineer from the University of Michigan; grew up in France and was a technology person
- 06:38 – Howard felt he was a more of an “ideas” person than a technology person
- 07:11 – Howard left before the Blizzard transaction
- 07:33 – He took off because he wanted to get into the internet in the late 90s and felt he left too early
- 08:03 – The company survived the dotcom crash and a lot of its competitors got into trouble
- 08:16 – Acclaim got into trouble, so Howard bought them in 2005 (Acclaim is known for Mortal Kombat, NBA jam)
- 08:47 – How Howard finds these deals
- 09:29 – He would read public documents regarding the state of Activision and found out they were really struggling
- 10:29 – Howard got ahold of the largest investor that owned 30% and bought their share (the investor wanted out)
- 10:52 – With Acclaim, Howard called the trustee and signed up for the auction
- 11:17 – He put in a bid for $100,000 and they were laughing
- 11:29 – The auction was in the beginning of August and Howard was the only bidder because it wasn’t publicized well—he got the deal
- 12:27 – With Activision, Howard focused on the CD-ROM business as opposed to the cartridges
- 13:08 – With Acclaim, they went with online games
- 14:42 – Howard discusses the beginnings of StartEngine
- 14:59 – There was no accelerator available in LA; so they became the first
- 15:14 – They invested in 16 companies over 3 years
- 15:30 – 90% of them quit and gave several excuses
- 13:08 – He felt the system for raising funds was broken
- 15:58 – Howard read bill that was undergoing approval—it stated for the first time in 80 years, companies could raise funds from any person
- 16:42 – In 2015, Howard turned StartEngine into an equity crowdfunding platform
- 17:25 – Howard waited a year and the bill passed
- 17:38 – Elio Motors was their first company and they raised 17 million dollars from 6300 people
- 17:51 – Howard explains how they made a Kickstarter campaign for Elio Motors
- 18:03 – “Everyone said, ‘I want to own a piece of this’”
- 18:09 – Since then, they’ve done 40 companies, their goal next year is 100 companies
- 17:51 – Howard explains how they made a Kickstarter campaign for Elio Motors
- 18:24 – Howard gets their companies from referrals or from online searches; they also do lead generation
- 18:51 – They contact a CEO and ask if they’re interested in raising capital
- 19:06 – They’ve raised over 30 million to date
- 19:39 – Howard’s mission is to help entrepreneurs realize their dream and create jobs for the economy
- 20:00 – The largest companies in the world are NOT great employers
- 20:15 – Growth will come from the next Snapchat, Facebook or Uber companies
- 20:32 – Howard want’s StartEngine to finance these companies
- 21:03 – Howard’s tip for young entrepreneurs: “If you’re not passionate about what you do, just don’t do it—find something you are [passionate about]”
- 21:31 – Find a company with a mission statement that you can stand behind
- 21:36 – Second tip: “Do NOT quit”
- 22:07 – Howard describes the mission statements behind Activision and Acclaim
- 23:53 – Howard explains how he was able to fund his initial investment for Activision while he was still so young (29 years old)
- 25:24 – Howard reinvested his money from his prior company into his new company, Activision
- 26:17 – What’s one must-read book you recommend? – Zero to One, Lean Startup or Innovator’s Dilemma
- 27:20 – What’s one new tool that’s added a lot of value? – Slack
- 28:08 – Contact Howard on his blog or visit his company website if you’d like to invest in a company or raise for your own
3 Key Points:
- Go with your passion—if you can’t stand behind the mission of the company or the work itself, pivot to where your passion lies.
- Do NOT quit; having this attitude can prevent you from reaching your biggest wins.
- Don’t mess with someone who has the resilience factor—resilience equates to success.
Resources From This Interview:
- Acclaim Games
- Elio Motors
- Must-read books:
- Howard’s blog
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Full Transcript of The Episode
Our first company that we put on StartEngine was Elio Motors. It's a car company, and we raised $17,000,000 from 6,300 people. It was unbelievable.
Do you want to impact the world and still turn a profit? Than you're in the right place. Welcome to Growth Everywhere. This is the show where you'll find real conversations with real entrepreneurs. They'll share everything from their biggest struggle to the exact strategies that they use on a daily basis. If you're ready for a value packed interview, listen on. Here's your host, Eric Siu.
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All right, every body. Today we have a special guest, his name is Howard Marks, and he's the CEO of StartEngine, which provides investment opportunities and a platform for entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams. Howard was also the founder and CEO of Acclaim Games, and before that he was a co-founder of Activision, so I'm sure everybody has heard of these companies. Howard, how's it going?
Going good, and you?
It's going great. Thanks for being on the show. Why don't you tell us a little bit of kind of who you are and what your background is, especially in the gaming world. How'd you go to Acclaim and Activision? That's crazy.
Yeah, well this has been a very fruitful journey for my career mainly as an entrepreneur because that's what I've done since college when I started my first company in college, and the game business came in because as much as we love our software company, we were looking for a way to get into the game business and we found Activision. It was just a dead company, basically bankrupt, and we bought it for very little money. Basically we paid $400,000 for one third of the company, and that gave us enough shares to takeover and restructure it and bring it back to where it is today.
Where is it today? How big is it?
It's about a $35,000,000,000 market cap. It is the number one video game company in the world.
Wow, that's incredible. So $400,000, you take it all the way, well, you help get it to where it's at today, which is a $35,000,000,000 market cap. What are some lessons that you've learned from your Activision days that translate into kind of what you're working on nowadays.
Well, it's pretty simple. Most people quit and give up in what they do, and they don't wait to see if around the corner there will be an opportunity to grow your business or survive. You see that with a lot of entrepreneurs. It happened to me. We had several moments in the Activision days where things were so bad where if would have quit or sold the company for a little bit of money and get out, we would never experience what happened to the company becoming the number one player. In a way, you have to give yourself the opportunity. People tend to quit at what they do. I made a lot of investments in companies, and I would say 90% end of quitting and not pursuing their vision or even pivoting. They just decide to leave the opportunity, maybe go get a job, maybe start something new, but that behavior will never make them successful.
Right. You talked about some of those critical moments that you face. Stories are always good, so can you talk about one of those critical moments where you could've just thrown in the towel.
Yeah, and it's very simple. We bought the company, realized things were bad. We had to take in bankrupt in November 1991, and when we came out of bankruptcy basically no one would work with us. We went to see Wal-Mart and they said, "Oh, great. Activision, I remember you guys. We'll buy your new games but you'll have to take back the $50,000,000 of inventory we have that we can't sell," so that's the kind of things. We couldn't hire people because they would say, "Well, you guys went bankrupt. Why should I work for you guys?" Uncertain future, worried about risk, because we were still a small company. We were 30 people, whatever we were. At that point it would've been easy to say, "Oh, look we did a good transaction. Let's sell the thing for $10,000,000 and let's walk away." We even had offers along the way to buy our company, but nothing really that exciting. Even at one point Walt Disney looked at us and said, "We're not interested in you because you guys are great at squeezing every dollar. There's no real value here. There's no intellectual property. There's not enough."
For them even though we were doing okay, they just didn't see this as a real business. They struggled to do anything in the video game business when we just soared. If we didn't wait for the hits to come, and they came, but we didn't wait, we would have never succeeded. The resilience factor is something that you don't see very often, but when you see it and you understand it, that's success.
Wow. At that moment, you go to Wal-Mart, you said it's $50,000,000 worth of inventory?
Whatever it was. It was a big number. We found a way. We had to find a way to ask them to keep it, so we made them a deal where we would be able to sell them our new games but at a steep discount, but they would eat the inventory. They realized legally we didn't need to take it back, frankly, but you can't burn your bridges with a large customer like that.
Wow, okay. We met a couple times, just so everyone knows. Howard and I know each other in real life, and you strike me as a guy that's very, you know how to do deals, no BS kind of guy, so what is your background and what has kind of lead you to being good at negotiation, because I'm assuming to get through these waters and navigate, to get Activision to where it's at today you had to negotiate a lot of different things, so what is your background?
My background, I'm a computer science engineer from the University of Michigan. I grew up in France, and I'm a technology person, but I was not necessarily the best technology guy where I would want to just make a career as a programmer. I actually felt that I was more of an ideas person. Like, I can come up with an idea, build it, and see if it works, right? My skillset was, I'd say, a combination of understanding market opportunities ahead of everybody else, and also understanding how to make it. How do you make a product, a software product, or anything?
Got it. Makes sense. Just so everyone knows, Activision, we're talking Call of Duty. Were you involved with the Blizzard transaction?
I left before that transaction, and that was an extraordinary transaction.
You talked about resilience beforehand, powering through things and knowing when to reach out with these different offers, how did you know? When was the right time to leave, because you left before that transaction? How did you know it was the right time to take off?
I didn't think it was the right time, I just took off because I wanted to get into the internet, and it was the late 90s, and I felt there was an opportunity to do something new. I probably left too early if you want to maximize your values and your return, because obviously the company went into difficulties in the year 2000 because of the big dot com crash, but it recovered. Many didn't by the way, so there was no guarantee the company would've survived, but it did. The management was smart and conservative enough and a lot of the competitors got into serious trouble. Acclaim sure enough got into trouble from number one on the spot of largest video game company to bankrupt. That's when I bought them in 2005.
That's interesting. Acclaim, just so the audience knows, what were they most known for? Was it the fighting games? What were their most popular games?
The most popular games were games like Mortal Combat, NBA Jam, these kinds of games.
Got it. Okay. Just so everyone knows, people are probably wondering in the audience right now, it's like, wow, Howard's out there, he's buying companies like Activision, he's buying a company like Acclaim Games. How do you even find these transactions in the first place? How do you get them to actually happen?
Well, that's where it comes where I think your audience will be interested. It's not programmed. So for example, Activision came by because me and my partner were in the software space. We were making software before the DVD, the CD-ROMs, and for personal computers, and we didn't like the business. We felt that it was too limited and you have giants like Microsoft. You'll never catch up to them, so we thought video games was a good way to go, but how do you get in? We started reading the public documents on all the video game companies, and several of them were public at the time we were doing it. Acclaim was a good example. When we looked at Activision public documents, the company was in a free fall. The CEO was suing his own employees.
It was a very bad time for the company. The board was not proactive. They let the company continue to lose market value. The market value got to the point where it was under $5,000,000, it was small, and everybody was upset. The employees were upset, the shareholders were upset, the only guy that seemed to be happy was the CEO who was paying himself quite a lot of money. We said, "This is an opportunity," so we found a way through phone calls to find the one investor that owned 30% because you can find a list of who are the investors. That's public by the way. We got hold of the largest investor who owned 30% because they were an original investor with the company before it went public. They never sold their shares, and we bought it. They were happy to get out. Believe me. They had other problems. They were a division of a tobacco company. They just wanted out, so we bought it, and that got us the opportunity.
For Acclaim, it was the same thing. I was reading in the newspaper that Acclaim was going bankrupt and filed for bankruptcy, and I picked up the phone. I called the trustee at the bankruptcy court and said, "I want to buy the company." They said, "Great, there'll be an auction, we'll add you to the list." I said, "Okay," because that's how it works. I put my name down and I signed a contract to invest to buy the company for a hundred grand and they were laughing. It was like you'll never get it for that price because the auction, there's a lot of interested parties. I said, "Yeah, I understand. I get it." Turns out I got lucky because the auction to sell the company was beginning August when a lot of people were on vacation. They published the auction in the newspaper, but no one obviously read it and I was the only bidder.
Wow. You got Acclaim for a hundred grand?
Holy crap. Mortal Combat, all these games I used to play. You bought it for a hundred grand. That is insane.
Great. The concept here, if you look at Warren Buffet's concept of value investing, both of your transactions here are value investing the way you see it, right?
You have to be somewhat of an insider to know what you're doing, right? You have to find a company, and you have to know what to do with it once you buy it. Because we're entrepreneurs, we get to call the shots, we get to make the decisions, and if the strategies sound. I think what you'll see with Activision and Acclaim is the strategy we had was sound. The strategy with Activision was forget the cartridge business, which was the bulk of the business. Let's focus on the CD-ROMs or the DVDs, and we think all the new guys, Sony, Nintendo, Sega, and at that point Microsoft didn't even exist, but they're going to go with the CD-ROM. Of course they will. It's cheaper. You can put a lot of storage, but no one agreed with that. No one saw it. We saw it, we went big with it, and we were right. You needed 3D graphics, you needed video, you needed good sound. All of this was possible when you had the media, but before it was not possible because the cartridges were too small, so the strategy worked.
With Acclaim my strategy was simple: go online games. Forget package games, forget all the stuff. Just online games that are free to play. It sounds obvious today because 12 years later everything is free to play and everything is online, right? At that point it was not obvious.
Okay. God, there's so much around here. There's so much nostalgia around this because when I look at Activision, your strategy there, that is the first computer game that I played. It was Mechwarrior 2, and it was on CD-ROM, so that's crazy.
Right. I made that game with my team, and I canceled that game. I canceled Mechwarrior 2 a year before we shipped it because the team couldn't figure a way how to make it fit. Basically what happened is at the time computers had only 640k of memory, and the new chips came out where you could have 2 megabytes of memory, and our game was built for that 600k, and they said we can't make it work, so we don't have enough room to make the 3D graphics that you remember playing feasible. I canceled it. I said, "Look, I'm going on a trip. You guys canceled. Figure another game to make." I came back from my trip. In ten days they completely converted the game into the new chip which allows you to have more memory and the game became a smash hit.
That's a hell of a story. Cool, man. I do want to talk about what you're working on now. Your story on Activision, Acclaim, I think we could talk all day about it, but I do want to talk about StartEngine, so what is StartEngine and what was the impetus behind it?
After I sold Acclaim, I realized that LA was not strong enough in a technology world. We were not on the map, and I felt that LA has it's place. I looked around, there were no accelerators. There was no way for someone who wanted to start a company to get an investment and get support. I built StartEngine initially as an accelerator, and launched it as the first accelerator in Los Angeles. We invested in 60 companies over a period of three years, and I was very happy. I thought, wow, you have all these young entrepreneurs, these very hard working people who are going to build businesses. It turns out 90% of them quit, and the excuses they gave me was, "Oh, I can't raise money," or "I'm fighting with my co-founder." There's always an excuse, right?
Then I had some women lead companies that couldn't raise any money clearly because there was some bias going on, so I felt the system for raising money's completely broken. Just at the time where my frustration's at the highest it was, a new rule come out unbeknown to everybody out of congress called the Jobs Act. I read it, and in that Jobs Act, it explained that for the first time in 80 years, companies will be able to raise money from the general public. Their neighbors, not wealthy people, anybody. I said to myself, "This is a revolution." I read it, I spent time with lawyers. All the lawyers told me it will never pass. This is a bill that will take ten years or more to pass and then it will never go through because the SEC, which is the Securities Exchange Commission, will never want ever to let ordinary people invest in these high risk ideas.
Anyway, I believed it's going to go, so maybe I was a little naïve, but in 2015 I decided I'm going to start StartEngine as an equity crowdfunding platform, so I took the kickstarter model, which exists, and I said, "instead of giving rewards you sell shares." Simple. To me, my vision was the future of finance is going to be crowdfunding. The reason is because it's democratic. Everybody can access it. It's very inexpensive to make a transaction compared to tens of dollars. Most companies have to spend $30,000 just to raise their seed money. It's crazy stuff. Anyway, we broke all the barriers completely and I had to wait. I waited about a year, and the rules came out as I expected, not the market. The marketplace said they will not happen. Our first company that we put on StartEngine was Elio Motors. It's a car company, and we raised $17,000,000 from 6,300 people. It was unbelievable.
Wow. How'd you do it?
Well, we built like a kickstarted. A platform, and then Elio Motors came out. We did a lot of marketing with them. They did the marketing through their fans, we did marketing to the general public, and people looked at it and said, "I want to own a piece of this," and they bought. Since then we've done over 40 companies. Our goal this year is to do 100 companies. Next year, 500 to 1,000 companies.
Wow, that's crazy. How are you, it's two-sided right? How are you getting these deals with these companies right now and how are more people finding out about StartEngine?
We get companies by referrals, people who find out about us, by people who type in on the search engine, "raise capital." We appear somehow somewhere, not necessarily as well as we would like, and then we do advertising and we also do lead generation, which means we find companies that we find through lists, trade shows, that kind of stuff, and then we contact them. Contact the CEO, we say, "Are you looking to raise capital? Are you interested in more capital?" They say yes, then we meet with them or we exchange emails, and then they can go on StartEngine.
Awesome. How much have you raised to date so far overall?
Wow, crazy. You had that one deal that did over 50%. That is nuts. Great. Okay, so everyone check out StartEngine if you're looking to figure out a way to get some capital for your business. I've checked it out in the past. Great. I've spoken to you in the past. What does this company mean to you personally, I guess?
Well, because I did it and when I was very frustrated with the way how companies were not able to raise money, my mission became to help entrepreneurs realize their dreams. Entrepreneurs like myself. My goal is to create 1,000,000 jobs in the next five years. My mission is very well aligned with what our country, our economy needs today, which is job creation. When you start to understand that the large companies, the Fortune 500 companies, the largest companies in the world, are not really good employers. They don't hire that many people. They hire as many people as they fire every year. There's no growth from them. All the growth is from the next Snapchats, the next Facebooks, the next Ubers, those next technology or non-technology companies who are putting the stake and saying, "We will build the next big thing," they're the ones who create all the jobs. Guess what? StartEngine is the one that's going to finance all those companies.
Awesome. That's really admirable, and I think the goal of 1,000,000, I don't think it's very far away given your work ethic, which actually brings me to my next point. There's two guys that I've seen you develop and kind of mentor and train, and it seems that you're pretty good at fostering young talent. Do you have any feedback around that? Do you have any tips for people around that?
Well, look. First thing, here's my tip. Simple. First, it's not worth being an entrepreneur to do something you don't like. If you're not passionate about what you do, just don't do it. Find something you are. Even if it doesn't seem to you as something you would make a lot of money from, that's not really that important because you can always find ways to become wealthy if you're successful, but first pick something you're passionate about, where you find a mission statement that you can get behind.
The second thing is do not quit, because if you quit it's over. That's a failure. Maybe you sold it for a little bit of money, maybe that makes you feel good, but that's not enough.
Right. Do you remember your mission statements at Activision and Acclaim?
I was not that sophisticated. When I did Activision I was 29 years old, and the concept of finding mentors and learning on how to build a business was not that popular out there. Our mission maybe at the end of the day was to make money, but really without explaining it, we wanted to help people enjoy their entertainment with more value than before. The video game market, games were addictive, but they didn't look that great. They were all pixelated. For us it was trying to create the art and the feel behind the game so it would be more conducive, more engrossing, more engaging, but it was not a mission statement that was strong. The people that came to work for us at the end of the day wanted to make games. That's all they cared about. In that sense it was a hobby becomes a reality.
In Acclaim my mission statement there was to introduce games for free that are multiplayer because it's a community, and really bring multiplayer gaming in a very honesty way because you don't have to pay to get in. Because a lot of games you would buy, pay $60.00 and hate it after an hour or two. You just go, "You know what, I don't want to play this anymore," and then you're stuck. I felt that that model was broken, and the idea of playing for free where 5% of the community pays for the 95%, I thought that was genius. I found that in Korea. There was a company called Nexon that was doing it and I just went, met with them in Korea, and I said, "I want to bring that to the United States." I was the first to put out free to play games.
Smart. Actually, this just popped into my head. How did you get the 400k to invest in Activision when you're 29 years old? This is a long time ago too.
We had a company prior to Activision that was making CD-ROM software for the personal computers like the IBM, the Apple 2, all these machines that were called personal computers. They were used in the home. Today, there's no personal computer, just a laptop basically or a desktop. At that time it was a differentiated market, and we made $2,000,000 from selling all these software products to manufacturers. Some of them don't exist anymore. Most of them don't exist anymore. I think the only one that we were selling to that still exists today is IBM, but they're out of the market too. Basically no one survived, but we sold the software to go into their computer boxes and printed some beautiful graphics and packaged it all up and they were able to sell it to retail. At that time computers were starting to get sold in the retail stores. Like you said, the Sears of the world and JC Penney's. All these chains, Best Buy, they wanted to sell computers. Computers used to be sold in specialty stores, so we found a way to help these companies go from specialty to mass market.
We were first, so we made some money. Not that much. We took every penny we ever made and put it into Activision. We went double down.
Right. That's the entrepreneur spirit. You see Elon Musk, I'm going to bet the whole thing. Take the PayPal money and bet it on SpaceX and Tesla and all this other stuff, right? That's basically what you did. You did well with one business, basically you took that money, you didn't want to just cash out and then relax. It's basically let's reinvest and let's keep going. That's how you're put together.
That's correct. That takes a lot of guts to do, and at the end of the day you could argue now that it was the right decision, but a lot of people thought we were crazy.
Right. Because your parents are like why don't you just take that money and keep it and be happy for the rest of your life? You can live comfortably.
Get a job. Just get a job. Just make life easy, right? To me that was depressing. That was not something I was willing to entertain.
Totally. Just a couple more questions from my end wrapping up here. What's one must read book you would recommend to everyone?
Well, I'm reading the Elon Musk book right now, and that's pretty good. Although, you have to be a fan of his to really appreciate it. I would say the one book for entrepreneurs, there's several books that I recently read. Peter Thiel has a book.
Zero to One?
Zero to One I read. It was good. I would say The Lean Startup is the one that is very easy to digest and probably has most of the truth that you need to get things off the ground. It really teaches you how to do some experimentation. That was a very good one. Then you have the classic business books like The Innovator's Dilemma. Then you're getting into more the large business kind of thinking. If you want to stay small and lean, The Lean Startup is a great place to start.
Great book. We'll drop these in the show notes. Then one more question. What's one new tool that you've added in the last year that's added a lot of value? It could be like Slack or Evernote.
I use Slack. Great tool, by the way. Then actually those guys were making a game that failed and that's how Slack came about, so it shows you don't give up right? Think of it. If they said, "Oh, we're done with our game, and we're done," but no. It turns out into Slack, which is a billion dollar plus company. In terms of other tools that I use, I'm like everybody. You go on your browser, you subscribe to a lot of services. There's nothing really extraordinary that I'm using right now that I'm that excited about.
Great. Well, Howard, this has been fantastic. It's certainly brought me back into my old days. What's the best way for people to find you online?
Best way is I have my blog at HowardMarks.com. I write a lot about technology entrepreneurship, and then you can go to StartEngine.com and see if there are companies you would like to invest in or raise money for your company.
Love it. Howard, thanks so much for doing this.
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