January 25, 2010
How much is a good idea worth? According to Derek Sivers, not much:
It's so funny when I hear people being so protective of ideas. (People who want me to sign an NDA to tell me the simplest idea.) To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.
To make a business, you need to multiply the two. The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20. The most brilliant idea takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000. That's why I don't want to hear people's ideas. I'm not interested until I see their execution.
I was reminded of Mr. Sivers article when this email made the rounds earlier this month:
I feel that this story is important to tell you because Kickstarter.com copied us. I tried for 4 years to get people to take Fundable seriously, traveling across the country, even giving a presentation to FBFund, Facebook's fund to stimulate development of new apps. It was a series of rejections for 4 years. I really felt that I presented myself professionally in every business situation and I dressed appropriately and practiced my presentations. That was not
enough. The idiots wanted us to show them charts with massive profits and widespread public acceptance so that they didn't have to take any risks.
All it took was 5 super-connected people at Kickstarter (especially Andy Baio) to take a concept we worked hard to refine, tweak it with Amazon Payments, and then take credit. You could say that that's capitalism, but I still think you should acknowledge people that you take inspiration from. I do. I owe the concept of Fundable to many things, including living in cooperative student housing and studying Political Science at Michigan. Rational choice theory, tragedy of the commons, and collective action are a few political science concepts that are relevant to Fundable.
Yes, Fundable had some technical and customer service problems. That's because we had no money to revise it. I had plans to scrap the entire CMS and start from scratch with a new design. We were just so burned out that motivation was hard to come by. What was the point if we weren't making enough money to live on after 4 years?
The disconnect between idea and execution here is so vast it's hard to understand why the author himself can't see it.
I wouldn't call ideas worthless, per se, but it's clear that ideas alone are a hollow sort of currency. Success is rarely determined by the quality of your ideas. But it is frequently determined by the quality of your execution. So instead of worrying about whether the Next Big Idea you're all working on is sufficiently brilliant, worry about how well you're executing.
The criticism that all you need is "super-connected people" to be successful was also leveled at Stack Overflow. In an email to me last year, Andy Baio -- ironically, the very person being cited in the email -- said:
I very much enjoyed the Hacker News conversation about cloning the site in a weekend. My favorite comments were from the people that believe Stack Overflow is only successful because of the Cult of Atwood & Spolsky. Amazing.
I don't care how internet famous you are; nobody gets a pass on execution. Sure, you may have a few more eyeballs at the beginning, but if you don't build something useful, the world will eventually just shrug its collective shoulders and move along to more useful things.
One of my all time favorite software quotes is from Wil Shipley:
This is all your app is: a collection of tiny details.
In software development, execution is staying on top of all the tiny details that make up your app. If you're not constantly obsessing over every aspect of your application, relentlessly polishing and improving every little part of it -- no matter how trivial -- you're not executing. At least, not well.
And unless you work alone, which is a rarity these days, your ability to stay on top of the collection of tiny details that makes up your app will hinge entirely on whether or not you can build a great team. They are the building block of any successful endeavor. This talk by Ed Catmull is almost exclusively focused on how Pixar learned, through trial and error, to build teams that can execute.
It's a fascinating talk, full of some great insights, and you should watch the whole thing. In it, Mr. Catmull amplifies Mr. Sivers' sentiment:
If you give a good idea to a mediocre group, they'll screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a good group, they'll fix it. Or they'll throw it away and come up with something else.
Execution isn't merely a multiplier. It's far more powerful. How your team executes has the power to transform your idea from gold into lead, or from lead into gold. That's why, when building Stack Overflow, I was so fortunate to not only work with Joel Spolsky, but also to cherry-pick two of the best developers I had ever worked with in my previous jobs and drag them along with me. Kicking and screaming if necessary.
If I had to point to the one thing that made our project successful, it was not the idea behind it, our internet fame, the tools we chose, or the funding we had (precious little, for the record).
It was our team.
The value of my advice is debatable. But you would do well to heed the advice of Mr. Sivers and Mr. Catmull. If you want to be successful, stop worrying about the great ideas, and concentrate on cultivating great teams.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
Testing your spiffy new comment system. I'll miss "orange", and I think you should have just left the comments a perpetual "when I get to it" feature and posted a little more frequently instead. But that's just me.
Not sure if it's an issue with Google Reader or your comment system, but it seems that every time a comment is added to an article, Google marks the article as unread.
Along the lines of the "lazy programmer", looks like you're extending it to being a "lazy" administrator too, outsourcing your blog to people who specialise in blogs.
By the by, I posted this on the wrong post (oops). I meant to comment on your post about comments
Aaaand the first comment on-topic. :)
I do agree that execution is the far more the key to success than the idea itself. I've seen crappy/mundane ideas become successful through good execution and marketing, and I've seen brilliant ideas fail because the owners failed to executed them anywhere near the level of "acceptable".
But the rant by Mr. Sivers made me think about one thing - what do you do when you have a great idea but lack the resources (time, money, skills, etc) to execute? Actually most of the time it's the money that's lacking because it can be converted to any other resource necessary.
Do you not do the same thing as Mr Sivers and make your rounds with the rich people? And does it not hurt when afterwards one of them takes your idea and executes it (with his resources) as his own? I think this is what the rant is about. It's not that Sivers didn't understand the importance of execution or was too lazy to do it.
And I still wonder what the correct course of action would have been - especially since I have a few such ideas myself... :P
Execution and the skill of your team is of course important, but there's little execution without money. The wealthy and established get a head start on execution by virtue of their posistion.
It's not impossible to succeed without backing, but it is more difficult. I can understand why people want to protect their ideas. Companies like Google/Microsoft could get a product built and used by millions within months of having an idea. Additionally being the 'first mover' is often critical in the success of software, so you'd want to ensure you have enough of a head start before competitors start copying you.
I agree about the execution, it's a no brainer really, but...
The real problem here is MONEY, and how the VCs DONT address it as they should.
Remember the webvideo fad? the only startup that actually got paid was youtube, in stock, and google won't recoup the money until 2050 so the ROI is extremely low. Even then that idea which is as old as the internet itself (realvideo anyone?) got so hyped up and so much funding that all those wantrepreneurs out there with no skills but lots of connections got all the money they needed for a few years of fancy lifestyle and parties until their companies went bellyup, more recently Veoh.
The same with web gaming: Newgrounds and others have been around for years yet the newcomers like Zynga get the money, why? in this case two reasons: the guy behind it knows everybody so he managed to get over $100M in funding, way more than what you need to make crappy flash ripoff of old games. And to top it off, his site relies on the kind of shaddy scam ads none of his competitors dare to touch. Quite a role model huh?
You can be a great coder, you can be the best graphic designer around, you can come up with the best business plan in years, but without money you're going NOWHERE, it will be a billion to one shot if you ever get an invitation from a VC just due to your dev skills.
On the other hand, if you already have the money OR the contacts that can get you the money, it doesnt matters you're chasing after the same dusted idea everybody does, it doesnt matters that you need to hire a guy to hire you devs because you dont know shit about programming or design, it really doesnt matter that you dont have any idea of how you're gonna make money to repay your investors, after all they'll keep giving you money for your stupid attempts at technology, just like others keep pumping money into these funds that, as a matter of fact, cant even BREAK EVEN.
Honestly, 90% time is these douchebags the ones that dont know about execution, but because they have the money they had a chance.
"...it was not the idea behind it, our internet fame"
I think it is perhaps a bit naive to think that the internet fame wasn't a large factor - at least in getting the initial community to create the content for the site - I think it is perhaps unfair not to recognise this.
Indeed, I missed that. For any social network (and SO *is* a social network) to take off you first need to achieve the "critical mass" of users. I think either Jeff himself or Joel Spolsky said that (or something along those lines). People join social networks because there are other people there they want to meet. If your social network is empty, nobody will join it. A chicken-and-egg type of problem.
To further emphasize this point, go to this link:
It lists some of StackExchange sites. And the vast majority are virtually dead with just a few questions/answers per day, if at all. Yet the engine (and indeed EVERYTHING else besides the topic) is the same as SO.
So yes, Jeff, you wouldn't have been able to pull off this StackOverflow-thing without the internet fame of both you and Joel. The combined readership of both your blogs provided the initial critical user mass to get off the ground.
Good article, however the execution of any idea need lot of things with maintaining your normal life. Majority are fail and Minority get success because of their enthusiasm and passion. This is true for ideas for any discipline (reference to Ford bibliography).
Aleem Alvi (www.cs.queensu.ca/~aleem)
There are a couple of comments above questioning what you do when you don't have money.
If you expect to get funding when the only thing you are bringing to the table is an idea, you're acting like an employee. Entrepreneurs take risks, make sacrifices and most of all figure out how to get round problems like this. If you really don't have anything to offer and you're starting from the bottom, you need to fight your way up. Learn to code, spend the time getting domain knowledge, work at start ups, work evenings, save some money then quit your job, inspire others to help... do what it takes. VCs or angels only want to invest in people they believe can succeed. So you need to be someone (well, part of a team) who has a chance of doing so and you need to demonstrate it.
@Vilx: I agree. If you have some idea and try to get people for it and those people have executing power, then you are risking getting left out from the venture. That can happen even if you do have executing power, but some other group that you are co-operating with has more executing power than you.
So you need an idea and executing power. Good way to accomplish this is to gather the people first, then get an idea and make it happen. Too bad if you are in some company as an employee and have ideas. Bosses might like your ideas and you might get to execute them or then not. More likely not, because there is always someone better or in a better position than you and gets to execute. You might be considered some minor detail on the floor level who should stick to your work instead. You might not have the people that you need to support you.
It is very frustrating to try to balance how much you spend your time on inventing ideas for the company and how much actually sticking doing your job. The company might just want you to stick to your work or the company might just expect you to stick to your work. That way your work will be as efficient as possible and no time wasted on "inventing" things. So for all the hassle, many people choose to stick to their work or watch ideas being taken over.
Nice point from Alan Pritt. Projected on myself, it's true - I do feel more like an employee than an entrepreneur. I'm one of those types who is a programmer and has very little wish to ascend to management. And I hate to take risks - well at least ones where it's likely that you might fail. I guess that rules me out as an entrepreneur and thus - getting revenue from my ideas.
Funny though - does it really mean that the only people who can actually profit from ideas are entrepreneurs? It's a point which I didn't seem to realize before, although in retrospect it's pretty obvious. The only person with the idea AND execution will be the entrepreneur that keeps it all together. Individual people might have one or the other, but it takes an entrepreneur to put it all together, execute, box it, wrap it and sell it. And the entrepreneur will be the one who gets the profits in the end. Not the employees.
Sucks to be like me. :D
>>>Funny though - does it really mean that the only people who can actually profit from ideas are entrepreneurs?
Well, no. Writers aren't employees and many are not businesspeople, but they can make profits.
And these days, there's a LOT of business talent out there that's unemployed. This is an opportunity to hook up with those people and form a partnership. You do the code, they do the business end. Just have a good lawyer for the contract, however.
As some have said, I'd go further than say to cultivate a great team.
You have to cultivate the A-Team.
You need a leader. This is a guy that has a plan, knows how to get the members of his team to work at their best and pulls his weight while doing all of it.
You need your grease monkey. They guy that does heavy lifting, gets his hands dirty and generally is amazing at stuff. This person does not necessarily have to be a people person.
You need your lunatic. The guy who has big ideas, wild and insane thoughts and is generally brilliant but needs to be reigned in. He'll think out of the box and with the grease monkey will get problems solved.
Finally, you need a faceman. He knows everyone, is able to make, call in or get favors and is able to generate funds. He can smooth over any complaint from an irate client, help with everything the others do and shines when asked to get the impossible done with connections.
You can get by with just 3 of these, but you will never be as successful without all 4 on a team.
A great idea can't get anywhere without guidance, elbow grease, some brilliance, and the connections to make it happen.
@Jose Perez: So if you are in a company and you happen to be a grease monkey that has an idea, then at the end of the day you are still a grease monkey and your boss has now one idea more. You cannot start your own company either, because you are not a people person, just a grease monkey.
Just as people who don't succeed sometimes blame other people, or begrudge other's their success, people who succeed sometimes assign themselves too much credit, or don't give less successful people their due.
Sometimes the difference between someone who succeeds with an idea, and someone who fails with a similar idea is best attributed to luck. Some people are willing to admit that, far too many others try to deny the role of fate. They talk about the importance of execution, or the team. It's true, those things can make a difference, but they are rarely enough.
If pressed, they'll admit that timing might have been the difference between success and failure, but then gloss over the fact that good timing probably had at least as much to do with luck as hard work or excellent execution. I know I'm right about this too, because when it comes down to it, even people who make it their business to identify who the winning startups will be get it wrong most of the time, and even when some of them get it right and pick a winner, chances are someone else passed on that winner.
The other thing successful people do is underestimate the importance of their earlier success in their later success. I think Viix is right on the money, however well the Stack Overflow team executed, your baby would have had a harder time making its way in this world without plugging in to the community you an Soplolsy have built in your earlier endeavors.
None of this is to begrudge you your success, but don't think your success makes you an expert on either success or failure.
For what it is worth, Marc Adreessen (you may have heard of him) has a different view on all of this. He divides success factors into product, team and market (http://pmarchive.com/guide_to_startups_part4). What matters most of all is the market. A mediocre product in an exploding market is going to be a bigger financial success than a great product in a mediocre market. For a given market, then what matters is product/market fit. Team and execution matter here, because you need the product, and you need to keep tweaking it to get the fit right.
So where are ideas in all of this? Andreessen doesn't talk about them specifically, but I think ideas matter a lot in his formulation, because I think the idea can encompass both identifying the market and the product that fits it. You still have to build the product, but if you've got a good idea, then you are building the right product for the right market, and there is no substitute for that. Being able to learn and course correct is important, but heading in roughly right direction in the first place can give a big head start.
All this discussion leads me to three thoughts.
First - It seems that success depends on a great deal more factors than just the idea and execution. Luck, money, entrepreneurship, timing, choice of market, advertising, tweaking are just a few from all. The more of them you get right, the more successful you will become. But the list itself is long, and there are probably very few people on the planet that understand but a half of it.
Second - I think what we can conclude from all this is not that the execution is the most important factor, but that it is more important than the idea. And that the best way to get a great execution is to make a great team.
Third - it's "Vilx-" with a minus sign and all, not "Viix" or "Vilx". XD
Here's a quick thought experiment:
Let's say it's 2 AM and the StackOverflow team al have just finished up the first release of SO ready to deploy the next day. Now, some
idea-and-execution-stealing bad guy is somehow able to steal the
entire SO codebase for themselves and delete all of your the original copies. The next day they are able to launch BizzaroStackOverflow, and the SO guys have nothing.
How successful is BSO? Is it a function of how widely they can market
this new website? If the original SO team was able to recreate SO in a
month and re-launch, would you be able win more followers than BSO, or
is that too much time?
Alanis Morissette called. She wants her definition of irony back.
"does heavy lifting, gets his hands dirty and generally is amazing at stuff. "
They can have great ideas. But if they want them to succeed and want to make their own company, they need the others.
How many grease monkeys had a great idea but failed to make them work?
They tried to make the idea happen but didn't have everything they needed.
Heck, the article we are commenting about started with a person that had a great idea but failed to have what was needed to get the idea off the ground and a success.
Grease monkeys may have good ideas, but without the leader, faceman, and lunatic to help direct, connect, and shape those ideas, their ideas are worth pretty much nothing.
Any one of these people can be brilliant and have an idea that shapes the world. Steve Jobs strikes me as a cross between faceman and leader while Bill Gates is more leader and grease monkey. They both knew making their ideas work required the right people and they both made sure they had them available.
If you are in a company and a grease monkey with a great idea, find the people you need to make the idea work. Find that guy that knows everyone and can get you starting funds, find that brilliant guy that everyone knows is nuts but who loves a challenge, and find the guy that can work with all of you and make you all shine. No one said being a grease monkey sucked or had to suck.
@Tom Hazel: I think that rival system can get a lot of user base if they happen to launch first. But if the original site fights back, they win in the end, because they get the loyal people. Though if the rival site is much better, then some people stay and or move there. If the rival site has lots more executing power and hype and marketing, they might become winners if the original site doesn't have much that kind of muscle. But the original site can still have some users.
Take for example Windows vs Mac. Both have some culture behind them now, so they are competing though both are quite powerful. Linux has been in the minority, but it is gaining muscle through popular server software and open communities. Amiga is struggling and pretty much dead, because it has not much power left and only a small community.
@Jose Perez: Yep, it is about peoples first, then about the other things. Even grease monkey that has an idea can get people around him and start a business. But there are also those grease monkeys that never start. They are so called lost cases in that sense that they just choose to be "only" good workers.
I've been in a dozen companies that slowly died, declined or went belly up because they did not know how to find new ideas or execute them. They ignore the resources in their midst. I have ideas. Other employees have ideas. In every case, their employee base had from hundreds to thousands of years of collective experience. It's not good enough just to found new businesses on ideas. In my experience, old businesses are where the idea execution is really needed. I see no structure inside any business I have been part of for soliciting, choosing, growing and executing ideas. I see stagnation instead. We are assigned our jobs and there is no budget for the future of the business. I'm an idea person without the execution genes, and it is very frustrating to see one business after another get into severe trouble or die because they could not use my or anyone else's ideas.
Good to see other comments besides the usual pile of me-too smucks spamming their blog everywhere...
If you really don't have anything to offer and you're starting from the bottom, you need to fight your way up. Learn to code, spend the time getting domain knowledge, work at start ups, work evenings, save some money then quit your job, inspire others to help... do what it takes.
Yeah but how? if people is too young they cant afford to pay for college, or cant afford to quit their jobs because they got tons of student loans to pay, and if they're older then there's a family they have to support so it's the same situation.
You'll learn little from the average startup since they might be in the same situation you're but with the funds to give it a shot. Plus you'll be working for free in most cases, or paid in worthless stock.
And saving money isnt as easy as it sounds, specially in this economy. Or else there wouldnt be so much people trying to get into incubators like Y and techstars.
Finally, you need a faceman. He knows everyone, is able to make, call in or get favors and is able to generate funds. He can smooth over any complaint from an irate client, help with everything the others do and shines when asked to get the impossible done with connections.
Actually this guy is more important than all the others put together
He can get the money, he can get the greasemonkeys, and he can get the business guy, simply because he already knows all of them (and can convince them of joining him) or he knows other people who can provide him with said workers.
If you get this guy you're SAFE: not only he gets you the people and funds necesary to boot, but also some of his contacts, so if everything fails he can get even more money for another idea you have, or land in another company/startup/project and take you with him.
Problem? they dont grow in trees, and there's a much bigger chance that he will use you and take over the company both made than actually helping you. After all he's a player, and you're not.
If anyone still dubious about my remarks, just check Steve Jobs: here is a guy who cant code nor design, he just smooth-talks his way to the top: got Woz to do all the heavy lifting for him (stealing the credit most of the time) got the people and funds for Next mostly off contacts and yet he makes most people believe he's the only guy behind all of apple's products
Reminds me of this:
"Lay hired new C.E.O. Jeffrey Skilling, a visionary joined Enron on the condition that they utilize mark-to-market accounting, which allowed the company to book potential profits on certain projects immediately after the deals were signed, whether or not those projects turned out to be successful."
@jonrgrover: Or even if there is a budget for developing new ideas for existing company you work for, then you don't have the budget. Someone else has some budget while you are still assigned to your job stagnating.
If you have some idea, then that might bring something new on the table, but there is also chances that someone else starts fostering the idea and you have no budget and you are assigned to your job. So it would be important to get a budget, and you could get some from the management, if you get any.
Many times they might think your idea is good but that there is no excess money for it, maybe because someone else got some money and has similar ideas or other ideas and you are assigned to your job. You also don't have time to make the idea better, because you don't have a budget.
astrologie : I still wonder what the correct course of action would have been - especially since I have a few such ideas myself thank u
As much as I agree with your idea, the US Patent office begs to differ.
Many companies do nothing but sit on piles of patents on ideas. They siphon off the success of others with royalties and court settlements, while doing little to actually further the development of said ideas.
I am a Homeless Disabled Veteran with many years of work experience.I became ill and am now better.I am now trying to start a non profit with some associates and we find that even with solid Best Practices ideas it will take Public Relations and plenty of Political E-Bombardment.This site has given me some more ideas on just how to approach the facebook and You Tube part of our PR Stunt.Yes breeding and money means much when it comes to a head start.I was the second in my family to graduate from college.My Uncle Maurice Lim Miller being the other one.He is on many foundations but it still will take a solid proposal sent to THe Hatachi Foundation or The other foundations we plan to solicit.We also plan to really go after sponsors to get Homeless Working.Google This: John Joebee Homeless in SF ..Read about THe Unknown Homeless that are there every day in The Financial district.or timgiangiobbe.blogspot.com..Not all the homeless are the same some want redemption and to be productive,THey are the ones that will build Laughway House.That is Laughway House by implication we are going to work for the walls and a roof and the foundation will be the credibility we earn.A sponsored homeless work Kiosk where the Trans Bay project is on Beale street where the homeless encampment is.What a PR Boon it can be with the right You Tube exposure and a Press Release of THe Unknown Homeless Man seen in The financial district and then a fe homeless with the Bags just like THe Unknown Comic miliking The Public Relations and eventually obtaining a sponsor.Seems simple enough.LOL
I completely didn't include the fact that Writing simple code for a simple cause can make something happen.Individuals that have a hard time with team work and politics may have much to offer and will never have the opportunity unless they capitulate or do it themseleves.Ideas can be under an orginizations nose and they are not letting that individual be part of designing.I was a production tech and software engineer in a Production setting.I worked on analog to digital interface design and had ideas but they were never taken seious.I wanted more,This was Meyer Sound also and Paul Kohut was in charge and even though a HIPPIE owned the company and grandfathered a couple hippies in The head engineer played the education ticket and breeding ticket AT MEYER SOUND.Because of politics and breeding they WILL NOT NOTICE even at Meyer Sound.Better have a PHD or at least a Masters degree.THere are many who have simple degrees and Certificates(LIKE ME)I had a simple job writing code for analog to digital interfaces mostly Assembly language and some Pascal at the time so it was compatible coding and then I want to be a simple part of the design team and I find it is ALL or Nothing.Stress can be a factor quick when you are constantly having to live up to someone elses expectations of you.I left them and went back to construction for a few years and now I am back learning a kind of subroutines and such for Java and Java script and am finding it actually enjoyable even though I am not rich.I am now going to use it for a non profit and that will be fullfiling,screw Brown nosing and STATUS and all that other crap that I honestly ran from.I could not stand the HIERARCHY everywhere I went.Business at such a Large scale Never seems simple and inclusive with few exceptions like GOOGLE,Durie Tangri(attorneys),Facebook,and some other internet companies THAT GET IT and they MINE their ranks for talent and even SCHOOL them before outsourcing or hiring contractors thus pissing off long term(less educated) employees when they feel overlooked.Then SOME of the Old School thinkers can be stuck in an exclusive RUT.These corporations are wondering why there are so many stress claims and they are outsourcing so much Labor.DUH!!THey are ALSO wondering why there has not been many start ups DOUBLE DUH DUH!!Start ups now better have an educated line up with a proven nbusiness model or no risk will be taken.Steve WOZ and Mr Jobs would have been blown out of their Garage now in this climate and APPLE never born,thank goodness they were funded.That was SIMPLE start up and repeating this has not become the NORM.America got out of the Engineer making business and other countries took notes well and are now making sacrifices that will have a pay off.These countries MINE their best minds and they cultivate these future inventors and educate them. I say once AGAIN talent is in some very obscure places.I KNOW there is Talent being wasted on the streets.There are a few rebel coders out here and old analog dogs who have IDEAS and no RESOURCES. Read timgiangiobbe.blogspot.com thanks GOD BLESS ALL
That comment about companies sitting on ideas reminded me about the "ever lasting matchstick" that was developed in the early days of last century. Still unused even in today's world.
What I hate about companies and various other corporate pains in the *** is supplement companies. (sorry if this seems like a random rant) I've just finished using poorly developed supplement crap and I never want to go near any single supplement ever again. I've been looking for ways to put some weight on and everything's failed so far.
I've just found this website a couple of minutes ago, doesn't look like any money, buying etc is involved with it so hopefully it's good info. Should i follow it or what? what do you guys think?
Google Wave is a good example of a poorly executed good idea.
The combined readership of both your blogs provided the initial critical user mass to get off the ground.
This reminds me of the Russian designer Lebedev (of the Optimus keyboard fame), who argues that a more accurate estimate for the worthiness of any idea in and on itself is probably -$1,000,000 rather than +$20.
See here: http://www.artlebedev.com/mandership/161/ (in English).
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