In this episode, we dig into how Miles Parkhill from MilesTshirts grew over an 18-year period to employ 15 team members, pass $1m in revenue and overcome growth obstacles.
Bruce: Hello everybody. This is Bruce from Printavo here, simple shop management software, and today on our Business Lessons and Learning podcast we've got Miles Parkhill from Miles T-shirts down in Springfield, Illinois. Thanks for joining us, Miles.
Miles: Thanks for having us, Bruce.
Bruce: Miles is running a print shop. He's been running it since 1999. He's got about 15 people there. Where are you guys at revenue-wise, Miles?
Miles: We're hitting the one and a half million mark.
Bruce: Okay, and where are the majority of your customers coming from?
Miles: I get asked that a lot and it's really all over the board. I mean I think sometimes if you focus on one thing too much and that market kinda dies out, you're in a pinch so we do tons of schools, we do tons of sports, tons of small businesses. Everybody has an Etsy shop, everybody has a clothing brand so you help out those people and help them grow and it takes off, so all across the board. There's nothing that I can really say, "Hey, that's all we're doing."
Bruce: So tell me about the beginning a little bit, and then I wanna get into more...because I know you guys are moving to a 15,000-foot square warehouse. And as a side note, Miles has...you said two autos, three manuals?
Miles: Two autos now. We're gonna buy another auto and we have two manuals and we may add some other stuff. We've got some other small presses as well.
Bruce: Gotcha. Tell me about starting, I mean 1999, what got you into the business?
Miles: I was in high school. There was a movie called "Brad." Anybody that's ever seen it, it's a BMX movie. They show printing some shirts in that movie and it wasn't really printing, it was like a stencil and they were painting on shirts basically and that was really what triggered me wanting to make shirts. I was into skateboarding, my friend owned a skate shop, I was in a band, so we were printing stuff for ourselves and as other friends started other bands or other businesses we kind of kept doing it. It was a great business for me to be in when I was in the band because I could travel and when I would come home I would be able to work for myself or pick up orders while I was on the road for other bands, make money while I was home and then go back out and hit the road.
Once the band kind of slowed down and people started having kids, I had to get serious about what I was gonna do for a job and then it just kinda took off from there.
Bruce: Gotcha. And when did you hire your first team member?
Miles: Johnny has pretty much been with me since the beginning, he worked at the skate shop and he had actually worked at another print shop as well as I did. We actually worked at the same place just at different times. but he kinda knew how to do stuff and we printed at the time skate shop at the time so whenever people weren't in there buying decks and stuff like that, we were in the back printing shirts. It was easy for both of us to kind of like double our income by getting paid hourly to work at the skate shop and make money printing t-shirts so it was a good little bonus for us.
Bruce: Very cool. I wanna kinda jump a little bit ahead to now...because I'm curious as we've gotten a lot of questions. We just put out the podcast with a Barrel Maker and how they're moving and you guys I just saw on Facebook too are selling your building. What choice did you make when you bought it originally versus lease it? Did you think it was just a good real estate play or it was good just to continue paying it off or?
Miles: I think the biggest thing is, you know there's people that lease and there's people that buy. I was actually working for a property for a couple of years when I bought this building so I was learning a lot about owning property and how to maintain it because that is a big thing. If you don't wanna deal with that, leasing is the way to go, but I found a building at the right price in a neighborhood that wasn't really expensive for the amount of space that we had, so it was affordable and I think that's the biggest thing. Every part of the country's different. I know friends in other parts of the country that are like, "Man, I can't buy anything for less than a million." That's a big jump for somebody small. We were able to purchase a building for $150,000 which was manageable and the mortgage on that versus rent up here this size was about half the cost.
Bruce: Okay, gotcha.
Miles: But that's really the big thing. If I wanted to rent 6,000 square feet somewhere, I'm gonna be about $3,000 a month. As to we're purchasing it with a mortgage and taxes, insurance, all that kinda stuff, you're probably just a little over half of that cost. So it just depends on what you can afford and if you're in it for the long haul. and it's different across the country.
Bruce: Sure. So that process... What was the size of that first warehouse? Is that the one you're in right now?
Miles: Yeah, the one we're in right now is 6,500 square feet and before that when we were at the skate shop and even when I was in like my grandma's garage, they were probably 400 square feet, so we just continued to grow and continued to expand.
Bruce: Got it. Very cool. That's an interesting... We talked to a lot of shops that are around us here in Chicago and others in big cities in LA and, yeah, it's definitely very hard to find a spot to purchase that's actually affordable. So a little bit of background, Springfield, capital of Illinois, if people don't know it, but your shop is also like further outside the city too from the photos I saw?
Miles: Are you talking about that drum shop?
Bruce: I think I was looking at the real estate listing actually of the one that you're selling now.
Miles: Okay. Actually, the building that we're buying now is like a few blocks away, it's really close. We're not... Sorry, I guess I should turn the phones off.
Bruce: No. That's okay.
Miles: We're not right in the downtown area but we're definitely within the city limits. Actually, the building we're currently in is in the county but two blocks away is the city so we're still within Springfield city limits.
Bruce: Do you guys have an office front? Like, do customers come into that spot? Or is that in a different location?
Miles: Yeah, we have a retail storefront people can walk in and check out samples and that kind of stuff. It's not on the main road but obviously, that goes back to the whole costing. If we wanted to be on the main road it just adds more to the cost.
Bruce: Sure. Where do you think a lot of your growth over time has come from to reach the size that you're at now? Obviously treating customers well and just doing a good job is kind of like a foundational thing but were there other organizations that you got into that helped or meeting certain people or things like that?
Miles: Yeah. We do a lot of stuff with the local community and dealing with schools. Obviously with the online stores now that's helping things be able to sell more without being there all the time. I have a disc-off brand as well so we print a lot in the sporting market of disc balls across the country and around the world.
I think the biggest thing is having good design. Anybody can print a t-shirt, there's a ton of people out there doing it, but like making sure that you have good designers with creative ideas, original ideas. I mean, I know it's easy to go...hop on the internet and Google something and do it but coming up with something unique and different and people will appreciate that. And you know our radio campaign is always [inaudible 00:07:53] that's there because it stands out. So that's how people know us, by our...we're unique.
Bruce: Yeah, gotcha. How did you get into the schools? I'm assuming the schools were using some sort of printer before. How did you get into that business or take the business from them, I guess?
Miles: Well, some of the schools actually don't use local printers, so the way I was able to get into schools was contacting the schools that I went to as well as having friends being teachers now. Now that I'm older, a lot of my friends are teachers or maybe even in the administrative role so they're calling me. They wanna send me the business. They wanna keep it local.
So, yeah, just kinda networking with people and I think that's really what it comes down to is networking and maybe going to a couple of PTL meetings or any other sort of sponsorship for it, whether it's a basketball tournament or a school play, anything that you can maybe give back. A lot of people appreciate that and it just only goes both ways. It's not all about taking money for print work but it's also about giving back to the community.
Bruce: Sure. So like you guys did some more like charity-type printing to help get your name out there a bit and then ask them, "Hey, we can print a job for you guys," or something like that?
Miles: Yeah. The big thing for us is a big basketball tournament all of the schools do. They're a lot of shirts and we did it for one school one year and then the other schools saw, kind of the designs and the unique ideas that we had, and then now we do three out of the four schools. It's been [inaudible 00:09:28] years in a row, so if you do good work, people at school notice it.
It just takes time. I think some people will get into the business and they wanna do that huge order right off the bat, but it takes time you know. Like you said, I started in '99. I've been doing it a long time and not only till about four years ago did I have more than three employees. So it's taken a long time to get my feet wet. Living in a smaller town, you know everybody kinda knows everybody. We're like 120,000 people here so everybody kinda knows everybody within...
Bruce: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So four years ago you mentioned then, what was the turning point there? How did you go from the 3 say now, to 15 after that period?
Miles: Right. It went fast. When I was working the other job, I was in another office, and that's when I purchased this building. So I wasn't even working here during the day. I had two employees working here and I was working remotely. So that was actually a big turning point when I was looking for software and found Printavo which was very helpful so I could communicate with the guys at the shop and do invoices because before it was horrible.
So that really helped me because I was able to handle more customers more efficiently and get more orders done with less mistakes because I was dealing with a lot more people that I didn't know pertainably [SP] that just found out about me. So I think really it just...you make those jumps and you commit to hiring someone and then you have to push yourself to make enough work for them to be here 40 hours.
A lot of times people would come on and I would be like...it would be part-time and then as soon as we know we're ready to go and then within like a week, it seemed like it happened. But I think just making that commitment and doing it slowly. You know I hired one person at a time, little by little and over the course of two years, we hired ten people.
Bruce: But that's interesting because you started in '99 and kind of 1, 2, 3-type people for quite a while, 10, 13 or so years, and then all of a sudden to 10 more in the last 2 years, like you're saying. What was the change there? And the reason I ask is because I definitely have seen shops that are still in that smaller phase, still kind of getting their seeding, still growing slowly and they're looking to either make that jump where they're full-time or just to start garnishing more of the market share in that area. What was your change? Because that's a big shift, right? It's definitely like...
Miles: The big shift was me not doing it full-time. Like I said, when I was in the band I was traveling so I was... Back then what we did in a year is what I do on one invoice now. We were working...everybody had their job. Back then, everybody was doing everything. So I was traveling... And then really when I got the other job doing the commercial real estate business stuff is when I hired the other two guys on full-time. And then a bunch of property got sold, I got laid off and it pretty much forced me into, "I've got to do this full-time or not."
So I made a lot of...I never really advertised other than doing small little ads with local groups, but I did radio. Obviously, I was in the office 10, 12 hours a day then instead of working at the pub and only doing this at night. So it really just happened when I finally committed to doing it full-time, and once I committed we pretty much had a 100% growth, four years in a row to get to where we're at now.
Bruce: Gotcha. Okay, so you just started grinding pretty hard on it.
Miles: Yeah, just pushing hard, adding more people and adding the right people at the right times.
Bruce: Yeah. So right people was it more so just seeing, okay, this person just completely bogged down, or was it, we just need to do this type of printing. We need to hire someone who knows this area. Where did you kind of choose who to bring on next?
Miles: Well, I know a lot of people will say it's not good to hire your friends, but luckily I had great friends and one of my friends Brandon who was the second person that I hired, he was absolutely horrible. Bringing him to shop. He knew nothing about screen printing. He was so messy, and now he's like living in [inaudible 00:14:11] working at bigger shops, he's gone on to do so much great stuff.
I look for that work ethic. You can't fake work ethic. People either have it or they don't, but for people that are willing to work hard, you can teach them how to do anything and they can learn how to do anything. It's not an automatic [inaudible 00:14:32]. You can learn how to do that, but you have to have somebody that wants to show up to work every day and is decided about putting out a product that they're proud of. And that's pretty much what we did. Friends that wanted a job that...obviously we're pretty flexible here. We're laid back. We're in jeans and a t-shirt or maybe no t-shirt in the summer, whatever it is, and people enjoy that versus maybe working at a restaurant or something like that where they don't have a creative outlet to whether it's music or art, whatever it is.
Bruce: Right, right, gotcha. Yeah, that's pretty interesting. So you talked about advertising and ads that you started to play with. Did you start to put out a marketing campaign when you went full-time as well and what did you do?
Miles: I think first off getting a website obviously and as we kind of got that under... I mean really Instagram wasn't around. Facebook was not around when I really first started, so it's like a lot of these things have changed. You know, I'm still learning them as I go. But radio for some reason worked for me here locally on a local level and I didn't do anything crazy, I didn't spend a ton of money, I just stayed really consistent and continued to change out the ads on a quarterly basis.
It's different for everybody, but for me, that has worked. I've gotten a lot of great customers from that, and a lot of times being in the print business it's not about getting a customer, it's about waiting for a customer to go to another printer, have a bad experience and then you can show them how a good an experience they can have. So luckily we had a couple of shops that weren't super-great, and they had some bad experiences with some customers so then when they did finally give us a shot, they were really impressed and continued to do business with us for the long-term.
Bruce. That's solid, yeah, and that's part of the whole part of not trying to undercut people's prices as well all the time and racing to the bottom. That's interesting. So radio ads was it very targeted around within some radius or was it...?
Miles: Yeah. I know it's like now that especially you being like a tech guy, you think of Pandora, you think of any of those things, the way you can target, you know, direct people across the country, but, yeah, it was just the local stations here. They do a lot of different events, sporting events with high schools and semi-pro teams, so you get your name out there in a couple of the events or maybe even print shirts for...they do bus trips down to Saint Louise to go see the Cardinals or go up to Chicago and see the Cubs. So do shirts for those kinds of things. And a lot of times, the people that do those are in the corporate world and maybe they need shirts for their business for their next event. So it all grows. It just keeps growing and growing.
Bruce: Yeah. Did you record those yourself or did they record them and you gave them a script?
Miles: Usually when we first started out, they did most of the work, and back then... So many things in the last four years have changed and now we're getting to the point where we're doing more of it. I'm not saying that they're not doing a good job but the music needs to be better and the voice overs need to be better and that kind of stuff so we've been doing a little bit more of our own as we've learned what works and what doesn't. But at the beginning, they really did all the production on the audio work.
Bruce: So what doesn't work in a radio ad, because that's interesting?
Miles: Well, that is the thing. There's things that we've done that don't work but it worked in a sense of people talked about it. But that works even if you do something really dumb. Like I said, our tagline was "Dude, where did you get that shirt?" and we do vehicle wraps so we did, "Dude, where did you get that shirt for your car?" and lot of people thought that was really dumb but they all talked about it and we got some jobs out of it, so it worked.
Bruce: Interesting. Do you guys...is there some sort of guidelines that you stay to? Like, mention our name four times, the phone number five times, that kind of stuff like to create an effective radio ad?
Miles: No, I think we definitely did the phone numbers twice and obviously...it's more about the name because right now nobody is calling us. If they're in their car they probably have their phone, they might just type in Miles T-shirts so you've got to make sure that your name comes up when you search that Google and it pops up. Or they might say t-shirts, Springfield, Illinois. Make sure you pop up there. I would say very few people actually call the phone number from hearing it on the radio...that I know of, but how do you gauge that? You don't.
Bruce: All right, so are you doing Google AdWords to bid on those keywords or it's just showing up naturally in the results?
Miles: I think it's pretty natural because we've had our website for so long, and we have done some things but I definitely haven't pushed it to the full extreme on all the keywords that we use probably.
Bruce: Got it. Has positive reviews. and do you guys do... Let me actually look at this. I'm looking at Miles T-shirt on Yelp real quick here.
Miles: Yeah, Yelp is a touchy subject. I did that for a year. There's not a whole lot of traffic in Springfield for that. They give you a budget...and I didn't really do a ton of research on them, but after I signed up for the contract and talked to some other people, they were not happy with how Yelp worked. So pretty much every month, they would max out with the amount of clicks that I would get so I would always pay the full amount. It's a pay-for-click and I wasn't seeing any really real return on that, and then as soon as I canceled, which they were really easy to cancel with, I was kind of surprised. I started getting all these people asking for quotes and some of them more obviously fake as well as...
Bruce: Oh, so you think they started generating fake interest so that you'd wanna sign up again?
Miles: Yeah, it definitely felt like that, and I can't say that is the truth but why would somebody contact me through Yelp for a quote on shirts and not leave any business name or anything, just a first name, that's it. I don't know. People do weird things. People try to order stuff on Instagram in a comment, so I don't know. But the numbers as far as views and clicks and calls on the monthly, went up when I canceled, so I thought that was weird. I haven't gone back to it, I'm gonna let it sit for a while too, but the amount of money that I was spending I thought could be spent better in other ways.
Bruce: Interesting. That's a little interesting topic.
Miles: Even if you do it...there are some people out there that have really dissected how they work. I think some people have sued them too maybe. Don't hold me to that but if you're gonna do it, I think for restaurants it definitely works. I use it for restaurants when I travel all the time.
Bruce: Oh, of course, same.
Miles: I mainly look at the pictures. I know I was in Phoenix not that long ago and we searched for a breakfast place and just by the pictures of the food alone, I was like, "Yeah, we're going there." And it was great. We actually ate there two days in a row so that worked. Do they spend money with Yelp? I have no idea. I know they have a lot of good reviews, and that obviously looks good as well.
Bruce: Yeah, I do get Yelp gets a little bit fishy especially if you try to pay them to hide or show reviews and things like that. But the funny is, I'm the same way, I swear by Yelp reviews for restaurants. If it isn't four-stars or above then I just don't even go.
Miles: I know we kinda jokingly do it here at the office. We look around at the local restaurants that we like and see who's got good reviews and bad reviews. We got a bad review once on Facebook and we looked at the customer and she had left a one-star at Burger King, you know? So obviously anybody that sees that she's gone to Burger King and leaving them a one-star at Burger King, what do you expect? You just don't get bad reviews like she didn't leave good reviews for anybody. So you can't always take that as how you're gonna choose what you [inaudible 00:22:48].
Bruce: How did you handle that one-star review, did you respond to it on Facebook or...?
Miles: Yeah, we did. We just tried to handle it as professionally as possible and not get offended in any way. Really just tell the whole story, but online. You know that happened but one good thing is we had all the messages from Printavo to where we could be like this is when you approved it, this is when we said it was gonna be done, this is when you picked it up, this is when you paid, everything was there, the times we had done. So we were able to lay it out there for the customer and then show that even though they're deliberately attacking and just say here's what we did and this is what we offered. You know, we replaced it. It was one t-shirt basically, and she was upset about it and we redid it. You can't please everybody. Things happen. Every printer knows you're never gonna please everyone, but we did the best we could with it. And a lot of people liked the way I responded, and then we just left it there. She continued to respond, and we just kinda let it go. You address it and then just move on.
Bruce: But I think that's good. It's absolutely always important to definitely address things in a positive way. It goes to help, in my opinion, protecting the brand as you spend so much time. You...in your case since 1999, right? And someone can post that and literally potential customers can see it if it's not responded too and there is lost business for something that's probably not a full view of your business. So, yeah, very cool. Now you're moving, so that's a huge change and after putting it in our podcast, how're you guys planning that? So first I'm assuming you're buying this new one too and so...
Miles: Buying the new building. Luckily it's only two blocks away, and luckily we're expanding. So we're gonna be adding new equipment. So the idea is to basically get the new auto, the new driers, everything kind of set up over there so we'll have no downtime. Really we'll be printing here on Friday and then be printing at the new place on Monday.
We'll probably spend two months doing the build out of all the offices and everything else. Some other stuff will be a work in progress but for the most part, the last two times that I've moved [inaudible 00:25:13] it's pretty much been that way - close down Friday. Move all weekend. Get it set up and be printing again on Monday because obviously, you can't afford to not be printing.
Bruce: Sure. Okay, so that plan, you said you're moving all the driers and everything after work on Friday over the weekend?
Miles: We're gonna be purchasing a new automatic and new gas driers.
Bruce: Oh, gotcha so that way it's very quick transition.
Miles: Yeah, those we'll have time to get set... Actually getting new compressor too, so we'll have the time to set that up. And you know that may even be set up weeks before we actually move, but if we need to burn screens here and take them across the street, we can do that. So that was pretty fortunate, you know, to not be too far away.
Bruce: Yeah, interesting. What was the motivation or what was the trigger that said we needed to get another auto?
Miles: I think just a newer auto. We have two Javelins. So they're older now and they're not as efficient. They do the job, but as we get these bigger orders, it's all about efficiency. So if I can print 280 prints an hour or 700, that's a big difference in how much work we can put out in a day. So getting newer, more efficient, have some features that we don't currently have is a big determiner on that.
Bruce: And that initial process, when you guys first bought your auto, what was the trigger there? Was it this output as well going form manuals to auto?
Miles: Yeah. I was getting bigger orders. We had two manuals at the time and I was getting thousand shirt orders. And obviously, in the middle of the summer, you're trying to do maybe two-colored front, similar colored back manually. That's a full day or so and we were needing to do those quicker so that we weren't getting backed up.
So I was contracted playing with larger printers that had automatics that could knock that out in a couple hours and I could still make money so really it was always scary to make that jump to the auto, and it was intimidating. I thought, "Oh, I'm not gonna work on these things and I'm not gonna fix it if it breaks." You know a manual printer is pretty simple, you can figure it out, but we bought a couple of used autos as time went on and we've learned how to fix everything and now we know how to work on this, everything else came together.
Bruce: Got it. So you've actually seen a lot. You've been around working on the business for a long time. You've been part-time, full-time, gone through some great growth, starting to move warehouses, a lot of those shifts. What would you say are maybe a tip or two for someone who's kinda seeing you in maybe a couple of years behind where you're at.
Miles: I think some people jump out and go buy all new equipment. I've never done that. My bank loves me for that because I don't go out and go buy the newest and greatest thing and spend all this money on huge... A lot of shops have gone out of business around me and even other places. I've bought out five shops in their entirety, so really I piece together my equipment and make things work the best that I can with what I have.
Some people don't like that, they want to go out and spend the money and they have that big overhead. I think that's...maybe that's the right choice for some people but if you're starting small, take your time, grow it, make those jumps when you're ready. Sometimes you've got to force the jumps. Obviously, if you get big orders you either got a contract it out or you gotta get an auto, but don't try to buy an auto to print one job. Know that you're gonna have jobs lined up and just going to feed them in. I think taking it slow and not biting off more than...
Bruce: Got it. Very cool. Shoot, you just mentioned something that I wanted to bring up as well actually. I'm blanking on it now but, yeah, I definitely appreciate the time, Miles, you're spending here. I think this is super helpful. It's just very interesting to watch people go through different paths like when they invest, when they make that next step, because each one of these steps, the first person, hiring five people, ten and so on and keep moving up, let alone the equipment investment, can definitely be scary. So I like being able to share your story and have others hear that too. Oh, you know what, I'm sorry I remember. You talked about buying out five other shops. What is that about?
Miles: There was three of them here locally that basically were like one-man shops but they had grown probably up and down like fluctuated. Either the guys had gotten older or maybe they just had to get out because of sickness. A lot of times if people wanna get out they just wanna get rid of everything in one shop.
So I would go in and just buy it all out. Take the things that I needed for my shop, maybe a press or a drier or an [inaudible 00:30:49], whatever it was. And then whatever I didn't need I took the time to sell it out for a little bit better price to kinda recoup a little bit of that money. And I also helped out a lot of other friends build their shops. There's a couple of other people that I sold equipment to that I'd used it and then they sold it. So I mean, a lot of used equipment market has tied a lot of people together, but it's a way to get everything that you need at a very good price.
So, people that wanna get into it, you can go out and buy those brand new starter packages, but then you've still gotta buy all these little stuff so sometimes going and buying a shop that's been in business for 10, 15 years, 20 years, the one guy had been in business, there's everything. He's got old stuff that you can't even find any more like rulers, t-squares, all the little stuff that you do need, but you hate to go out and buy and pay full price for it.
Bruce: How did you value these businesses to pay for it? Was it just figuring out the revenue and that's it?
Miles: I wasn't buying out the businesses. Most of the people that wanna sell their...people that wanna kinda sell their customer list, their books, I find that really hard to value in the print world, because if you don't have a contract, people who go anywhere they want to print their shirts.
I don't do contracts. When people come to me they're gonna come back to me if they want to, if we did a good job. That's how I know we keep our customers. So the other people, if they had a contract that's one thing, but none of these guys did. They did business with a lot of the people and most of those people as soon as they closed down, they were calling me or one of the other local printers already. So why I'm I gonna pay for their book? The only thing I really wanted to buy was their phone number, but I wasn't able to do that because if people called them and said, "Hey, now we're here", but that didn't work out. But people still find me. People still call me.
Bruce: So what was the biggest motivation? Was it the equipment side like to buy the stuff inside of it?
Miles: A little bit of the equipment side of it. Obviously, any printer looks at just the amount of stuff they have in the business whether it's blank garments, whether it's ink. You buy that over time. You don't realize how much money is there especially the ink. If you look at all the ink that we have and it's sitting there, there's probably tens of thousands of dollars in just stuff sitting there...squeegees, all that stuff adds up. So if you're able to get that stuff for pennies on the dollar and it's still in good shape, and it's stuff that can't go bad, especially non-electrical things. I mean, obviously you're not excited to go buy some old computer or some old printer, but if it's an old MNR or Chameleon or Bluemax, something that's still good, that's great. If you can get that for $400, you're gonna make money on your first print. But, yeah, I think it's getting all the tools at the right price and piecing things together and just making it work, making it work.
Bruce: Sure, got it. Very cool. That's pretty interesting. Well Miles, I definitely appreciate the time today. I know you're super busy. We are actually as a sign, we're definitely gonna be heading there. We wanna to stop at some shops on our way pretty soon here with the team. But thank you again, Miles, and I appreciate the tips. We definitely know it can help some others out there.
Miles: Definitely, thank you.
Bruce: All right, have a good one.
Miles: You too.
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