Impact Pricing Podcast

Ep113: When to Use a Subscription Model with Axel Kirstetter

Axel Kirstetter is a global and multilingual technology executive with start-up and large-cap experience for companies achieving accelerated growth targets, category leadership, and successful exits (Datasite, COLT, TomTom, Intralinks).  He has been in the cloud space since 2000, subscription economy since 2003, SaaS sector since 2006, and tackling product-led growth since 2017.

In this episode, Axel shares how you start from a transaction nature of a product, then find your best market fit, work around what pricing is relevant to support it. Eventually, you look at the genuine subscription model that best gives you the chance to achieve your revenue objectives.

Why you have to check out today’s podcast:

  • Find out how to build a business so you can get subscription revenue and, more than that, finds opportunities for upselling and cross-selling
  • Find out which subscription revenue model is best to go after considering the growth rate mode at which you are at the moment
  • Learn how to combine the subscription revenue model with the consumption-based notion to achieve revenue objectives better

 

“Keep optimizing, keep iterating; it’s never done. Don’t overthink the quantitative elements because you do have the possibility nowadays to quickly and rapidly adjust once you are in market. So really keep optimizing, keep working away at what the price point is.”

– Axel Kirstetter

 

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Topics Covered:

01:24 – How he became so good at all issues around pricing and started a career at it

02:26 – How does he define his title as Content Marketing and Pricing VP?

03:51 – Product people talk about Pricing but don’t really understand in the detail level what Pricing does

05:17 – A degree of maturity and sophistication as to how you do pricing discovery and value discovery

07:06 – Axel’s thoughts about a subscription

09:17 – Taking a look at Salesforce subscription pricing

10:02 – What do most associate 3.0 with?

11:07 – What is 4.0?

13:46 – The difference among consumption, subscription, and recurring revenue

16:49 – Are Coke and Uber a recurring revenue model?

22:24 – Combining subscription with consumption notion

24:57 – Which one to use: subscription business model or recurring revenue business model

25:55 – Axel’s perspectives on these three revenue buckets of winning customers, keeping customers, and growing customers

28:23 – Which one to focus on: going after recurring revenue or asking what’s the right business model

 

Key Takeaways:

“There has to be a degree of maturity and sophistication as to how you do pricing discovery and really value discovery. And that takes understanding the sort of product-market fit; it requires a bit of understanding of how your salespeople would negotiate.” – Axel Kirstetter

“A company is willing to be very clever about a subscription versus a consumption mode. I think being online is fantastic because it makes you findable that you don’t have to gravitate towards the notion of you know, subscribe to over 12 months, when all you do is you need it at certain peak times at certain convenience levels.” – Axel Kirstetter

“We need to think beyond just the gold-silver-bronze approach. Because it’s more than just a subscription. It’s more than just sort of meeting the needs of investors; you have to meet the needs of the end consumer.” – Axel Kirstetter

“Subscription has varied flavors to them. Think which type of subscription model works for the client circumstance.” – Axel Kirstetter

 

Resources Mentioned:

 

Connect with Axel Kirstetter:

 

Connect with Mark Stiving: 

  • Email: mark@impactpricing.com
  • LinkedIn

 

Full Interview Transcript

(Note: This transcript was created with an AI transcription service. Please forgive any transcription or grammatical errors. We probably sounded better in real life.)

Axel Kirstetter 

Keep optimizing, keep iterating; it’s never done. Don’t overthink the quantitative elements because you do have the possibility nowadays to quickly and rapidly adjust once you are in market. So, really, keep optimizing, keep working away at what the price point is.

[Intro]

Mark Stiving 

Welcome to Impact Pricing, the podcast where we discuss pricing value, and the confusing relationship between them. I’m Mark Stiving. Today, our guest is Axel Kirstetter and here are three things you want to know about Axel before we start. He is currently VP of Content Marketing and Pricing at Datasite. He’s a founding member of the Product Marketing Alliance. And he has a global mindset, which means he speaks several languages, he’s lived in several countries. And I thought I was global when I moved from Ohio to California. Welcome, Axel.

Axel Kirstetter 

Thanks for having me. Great introduction. Always nice to be speaking on a podcast.

Mark Stiving 

It’ll be fun. So, let’s start with how did you get into pricing? I’m not even sure if you think you’re in pricing. But how did you get into it?

Axel Kirstetter 

Yeah, it’s, when you learn about marketing, sort of product, place, price, promotion, and the price aspect always is sort of the least thought about. But I sort of fell into it about 20 years ago when I was basically being done too with, ‘Hey, we got a new product coming out which we charge first.’ I was like, ‘What do I do?’ Start to research. And the one thing about pricing that’s always interesting is lots and lots of research out there, lots and lots of really smart minds. You can never really go wrong with doing a bit of effort and trying to find things out. And ever since then working in software space. I’ve always been heavily associated via Product Marketing, pricing sitting on large companies, Pricing Councils, and working with sort of large consultancies and the pricing field and domain. And over time, I just became very good at all issues around pricing.

Mark Stiving 

I love the answer. Now explain your title to me, because I find it interesting, rarely do you see Product Marketing and Pricing in the same title.

Axel Kirstetter 

In my view, pricing sits in a couple of different fields. It can sit in a product, especially with smaller companies, older companies, when the value is really closely associated with what the product does. As you go to a multi-tier product offering so when you have more than just one thing, and when the relationship and the optimization, the value you’re trying to deliver, it tends to migrate either to a sales and or marketing function. Usually, when it says Marketing, it means within Product Marketing. The third alternative is when it’s not about pricing for revenue growth or for growth at large, but more for margins, it tends to be with the finance team. That’s not so much related to how big or small companies but more one of the pricing objectives. I tried to grow; I tried to achieve margins. I’ve always been associated with growth, growing, and revenue optimization. Hence, I’ve always held that responsibility as part of product marketing and sort of my entourage of people not that uncommon.

Mark Stiving 

Yeah. Do you think many product marketers understand that pricing should be an important thing? They think about even if it’s not their responsibility. It’s an important part of their role. And why don’t they?

Axel Kirstetter 

I think many product marketing lines, for example, you mentioned that introduction, have a couple of modules as part of the certification. One of them is being a pricing specialist. Usually, I find product marketers covered quite loosely, quite superficially. And more in the sense of, took a few customers, they’ve been told some salespeople, and here’s sort of the price that you should be charging at, not really able to go into the research methodologies, some more, they might have heard of conjoint. But that whole, that Western worth, which gets a little bit trickier. And so yeah, I think there’s just a lot of need to get more custom, more specialized. And when I criticize my own product marketing crafters, a lot of people talk about pricing, they don’t really understand in the detail level what pricing does; intricacies with revenue recognition with a sort of licensing, contracting elements, where things gravitate more towards a genuine pricing professional.

Mark Stiving 

My approach to pricing is almost always starting with understanding our customers and how do they perceive the value of our product? And I would expect product marketing folks to just glom on to that and say this has got to be the most important thing ever. And yet there are so few people in a company, let alone product marketing, who truly understand what a customer’s value is; what do you think about that comment?

Axel Kirstetter 

Other than spot on, the challenge product marketing has is you read, starts off with having to create content, sell sheets, webpages, and really sort of putting an infrastructure in place. It takes a while before you can mature, graduate to the more sophisticated elements of like you said what does the client value, the sort of customer analysis. Also, it’s not that you can just go up to someone say, ‘Hey, would you pay this for that?’ Because it’s like, if I can get it for less, then of course, we get it for less. There has to be a degree of maturity and sophistication as to how you do pricing discovery and really value discovery. That takes understanding the sort of product-market fit; it requires a bit of understanding how your salespeople would negotiate. Really what the product does in the wider context of competitiveness. It takes a while before you get to the, I hate to say the word, more sophisticated levels of product marketing, but that’s kind of where pricing would fall under.

Mark Stiving 

Yeah. So far, I’m loving every answer you’re giving. Let’s see if we can start a fight. Is that okay?

Axel Kirstetter  

Local fight and it’s virtual.

Mark Stiving 

But we had a brief pre-call. And we talked the first time, one of the things we talked about was subscriptions. And do people overuse subscriptions? Now, we’re not going to bash subscriptions because both of us love subscriptions. There’s no doubt. But I think what makes a lot of sense for us is, let’s have a conversation about when a subscription makes sense. And when it doesn’t make sense. And the mistakes we see people making as they try to go to the subscription when they probably shouldn’t, or haven’t thought through that yet. I’ll just toss that to you as a giant softball and go ahead and swing at it. What do you think about subscriptions? Who should go and who shouldn’t go?

Axel Kirstetter   

Yeah, maybe let me take a step back and just regurgitate a little bit the subscription history from my perspective, and especially with tech and B2B tech and also came out to be, I think we’re now possibly in SaaS pricing, for one or two, which in many ways is sort of classify as post-purchase pricing, product and growth pricing, consumption type of pricing. And when you go back, what came before was very much driven from the shared server notion. We did a big shift from as opposed to paying a big license fee, perpetual license, how about you rent it? Now, renting such wasn’t exactly new. But it really created a lot of wave with paying monthly subscriptions. It had a big impact on how clients needed to think about how users needed to think about an asset’s amortization. You don’t own it anymore, you lease it. They realize no cost benefits whenever. That entire wave was really subscription pricing, one or two. Then came SaaS pricing 2.0, which was an extension for that. Usually before you spend billions on perpetual licenses, you want to have some kind of a PLC? Well, that’s a lot of money, as well. With SaaS, what you have to do is try before you buy, so the entire premium-freemium, look who really came about and that’s a trial for 30 days, will wrap into a contract and it provided a lot of alternative ways to reduce the entry point to the purchase that you’re trying to do. We are interested in that mix around that and then.

Mark Stiving 

Pause you for just a second. We’re at 2.0 so we’re going to remember to go to 3.0 in a second. The first one was… I’m going to rephrase it, and I would call it a payment plan. We think of it as a way to pay for the product as opposed to an upfront fee where we’re doing it over time. Your second one was an easy entry into the product and easy way to try it. Is it really going to fit our solutions? The company that I think of as driving SaaS or starting SaaS is usually salesforce.com. The Salesforce fit into either of those two categories, or do you think they’re going to go into one of your next two?

Axel Kirstetter 

Salesforce, the earlier message, no software was exactly that you’re buying. You’re renting software as opposed to buying it. And the notion of subscription existed before, obviously. My own personal experience started before Salesforce was around with just renting and micro capacities that you could buy over time. But yeah, I mean, Salesforce was exactly that journey of rent the stuff instead of buying it on the CRM front, and then it started to do interesting things contractually, whereas set up a micro-tenant and grow it up over time. They very much participate in all of the stages including 3.0.

Mark Stiving  

Yeah, well, what is 3.0, let’s hear it.

Axel Kirstetter 

Yeah, 3.0 is that most would associate with gold, silver, bronze, small, medium, large packaging optimization, value-based pricing. This is where you combine what pricing did with what software allows you to do, whereas you can have certain functionality on, off, and then allows you to put it together, thereby providing greater value at different entry points, different consumption points. A lot of companies were able to do really, really interesting things. When you go back at Salesforce’s own history, some points, a couple of years ago, 10 years ago, they would have these sort of five packages according to different team sizes. And it was really interesting to see that they wanted you to commit to control how big you are. But then over time, they started to realize that well, depending on how big you are, but who you are, you might have to just offer things in a different way. Salesforce led the way in that front as well.

Mark Stiving 

Okay, so we’re going to, I’m going to call that packaging. I’m completely with you. So far, these are awesome. What’s 4.0?

Axel Kirstetter 

4.0 also is really a consumption-based subscription. Post-purchase pricing, you engage on the basis of either a freemium or small platform commitment. Then via that newer notion of product lead growth, you’re able to define to over the journey of not buying stuff, but consuming stuff as to how you can make what kind of offers to a user. That also includes single-user to departmental to the enterprise user, the slack-type of model, but there are plenty of other companies that are using it as well. I think right now, yeah, it’s all about that consumption model. When you kicked off the initial throw it my ways, he was going to do with it. I think this is really where we’re at now. Whereas a lot of product marketers, for example, coming through the ranks, who haven’t really gone through the experience of nuances between what’s a genuine subscription versus a consumption-based model, they just want to see gold, silver, bronze, because that’s kind of how a lot of startups came up. That’s what the VCs, Ps investors value like to see, but they forget about what you know what you said at the outset, which is, it shouldn’t be about value for the client, the customer, the user, not necessarily for the sort of producer, manufacturer or investor.

Mark Stiving 

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely spot on. There’re several different ways I want to take this because I want to get some thoughts on things. First question, though, this confuses me a lot. ‘m starting to get my arms around it. I want to know the difference between consumption, subscription, and recurring revenue. Let me give you an example, as I think through this. A subscription is no-brainer, I’m going to get the New York Times. I’m going to pay him 20 bucks a month, or whatever it is, and I can read it however much I want. That’s fine. Alternatively, the New York Times could charge me based on how many articles did you read through the month. Now, people who read it cover to cover are getting more value than people who don’t read cover to cover. It makes sense, I’m going to charge based on consumption instead of based on a subscription or monthly rates. That’s what people are trying to get to they’re trying to get to this usage-based model. How do I charge people who use it more and more, but then isn’t that just full circle back to charging for the item? Because if I eat a hamburger every day at McDonald’s, I pay more than if I eat a hamburger once a month at McDonald’s. I’m trying to separate all that and make it make sense in my mind, have you thought through those?

Axel Kirstetter 

Yeah, and I think about it, in terms of descriptions are actually totally spot on. What’s in between that is also a subscription model within the newspaper world, digital subscriptions, and is based off the back of price point times users. Think of Netflix classical AR subscription; because of the strength of their brand, they can keep cranking up the price point, and hence that’s the revenue. But there’s no upsell, there’s nothing, there’s no other thing. Whereas on the consumption side, it’s more about, and many, many molds exist. But I think the one that maybe highlights the issue most is sort of the PC, sort of consumption area, CPU consumption, I should say, where you got to run some kind of a CPU, and off the top of that services are being provided. You have to commit a little bit to get access to the CPU. This is what Amazon’s business model is all about. Then you choose what works for you. Here you have a combination of the more you choose, the bigger your consumption is going to be. But depending on workload, depending on the type of workflows that you want to utilize, you end up getting to different degrees of consumption levels. Now, in the case of Amazon, and many other companies, you can throw into the mix as well, snowflake and others, they will have the same issue, which is, what is the average ticket price consists of? I think in some ways, because with recurring revenue, investors look at it because it’s guaranteed as we’re coming in future, which is true, you look at churn, what have you. With consumption, what changes is not so much the notion of recurring but the predictability of it. When you are a company like Amazon, you know what your cohort typically spends given past; therefore, you can project going forward what the predictability of the revenue will be. I think the mindset shift that needs to occur is not recurring revenue being sort of that glorious state of value for company, but predictability of revenue. Maybe we come up with a new term here from ARR to APR annually predictable.

Mark Stiving  

Right. I mean, that makes a lot of sense because when I think of, I’ll give you two other examples that I think of often when I think through this in my head; one is Uber. Now, forget the subscription part of Uber, just the ‘Hey, I want to go from point A to point B, I call Uber, they’re going to take me, but I do this every week or twice a week or four times a week’, and there’s absolutely recurring revenue for them from me, which means they should be treating me just like they would treat a subscription customer. How do I retain you? How do I grow you and get you to buy more things from me? And then I’ll take that to the next level and say, I used to drink a ton of Diet Coke. Isn’t Coke a recurring revenue business as well? And I just find this whole conversation fascinating to try to sort it out in my head.

Axel Kirstetter 

Yeah, I totally agree with you. The challenge for the likes of Uber or Coke is, we know you’re going to be using us for a certain amount of time. You take 10 Uber trips a month. Maybe you are a high consumption user. Why not try to lock you into some kind of subscription agreement? Now, the alternative to that is, Mark is only using us 10 times a month, why bother looking into an agreement? Instead, we can maybe find alternatives on charging him more for those 10 times a month. I think in the case of Coke, it’s similarly when you’re a Coke drinker, you’re going to drink it. For them, the subscription idea is, why don’t we get you to buy Coke, so that you can then buy the other secondary products, as well. Here, the pricing objective changes a little bit, not from your touchpoint with the brand, but rather adjacencies that you can buy. One thing I’ve been fascinated by is the coffee subscription models, Starbucks, Panera, Pret, all coming back with a subscribe to coffee and have a look, I can see you go to the office, you just come in out of the biggest thing, you can have the Subway, and you grab a coffee on the way to the office, you do that probably every morning or at least two, three times a week. Multiply by multiple weeks. Next thing you know, you probably have a 15 times consumption of coffee. Why not offer that person a subscription? Then you look at the pricing. For Panera, it’s 8 bucks a month for Mike. How you make money? But I think from their perspective, the subscription becomes more the stickiness aspect. I think it’s a fantastic thing which companies are injecting into their relationship models, whereas you probably don’t just want the person to buy that single cup of coffee, which they would if it was just a matter of Subway offers stop at Panera, but rather, how about since you’re already committed to coming why don’t you give us also the money that you’re spending on breakfast, pick up a little sandwich at lunch or whatever might be. I think that’s the real interesting business model for non-tech and depends on companies used to see where it’s going to be heading. The other trend that I’m also observing is manufacturing, IOT type of companies. When you think of light bulbs, you just put it in them. It’s a works. But at the industrial scale, Philips lighting, they actually have a different name now but the Philips, the manufacturer, they have introduced a subscription to the light bulbs for electrical stadiums. Why? Well, it’s not about the physical aspect of the hardware, the light bulb, and we’re not talking normal light bulbs more than fluorescent stuff, which they have at large facilities. What’s the maintenance that comes with it? Again, for manufacturers, what’s interesting is they have a high-cost point to drive someone out to the site and figure out well, is it our fault? Is it your fault, and where are we at, so why not wrap that sort of higher cost point into a subscription offering? You have a guaranteed level of income next to it. A different way of thinking about it; this is not a sort of subscription for revenue. This is more subscription for cost, in this case margin management. But fascinating.

Mark Stiving  

Absolutely. I think in a lot of these cases, subscription isn’t just about how do I build a business so that I can get subscription revenue. I think for a lot of startups, it is; a lot of SaaS companies, it is. But for companies like Panera or my favorite Burger King did the same thing. You can pick at your $5 a month coffee subscription, but I know you’re coming to Burger King, and you’re probably going to get breakfast. For me, that’s really about an upsell opportunity or a cross-sell opportunity. Much more so than I’m using the subscription to make money on the subscription, I’m really using it as a way to get you into my store, which makes a ton of sense, right? Totally okay.

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Mark Stiving

Now, we started this conversation out with, there were companies who didn’t, shouldn’t have gone to subscription and we haven’t touched on that yet. What kind of mistakes do you see people making when they go to subscriptions and probably shouldn’t have?

Axel Kirstetter 

Yeah, and I come back to this notion of gold, silver, bronze. In some transactional environments, it makes little sense to offer that. I was looking at when you were talking about it, I just recalled Harry’s razor a couple of years ago, they were doing, advertising — subscribe to your razors and pay like 12, 15, 20 bucks a month and get your refills every month. I like the idea that it takes the convenience of going to the store out. But who needs those razors? There are many companies like that subscribe to, talk about coffee; there’s plenty of coffee subscription services, subscribe to chocolate, wine and so forth. At some point, the issue becomes how much of this stuff can you actually consume? And it’s back to the issue of perpetual licenses in many ways. Well, you are selling all the stuff and everything is not shelfware. It just sits there doesn’t do anything. I think a company is willing to be very clever about a subscription versus a consumption model. I think being online is fantastic because it makes you findable that you don’t have to gravitate towards the notion of, subscribe to over 12 months when all you do is you need it at certain peak times at certain convenience levels. Some of the food subscription services have actually changed their model as used to be, you must subscribe to your weekly package of your food, even though you’re on holiday, and for weekend, it’s going to get spoiled sitting in doorstep. A lot of now have pivoted tomorrow that says, switch on switch off. You pick your bags, you can get protein, three bags, one, whatever else, or you can get six proteins and 25 eggs or whatever else. But then switch it on if you need it three times a week and three times a week. It’s once a month, once a month. And I think that’s very smart and really learning from some of the challenges in the past. It’s about combining the subscription with that sort of consumption notion which is really the way forward. We need to think beyond just the gold, silver, bronze approach. Because it’s more than just subscription. It’s more than just sort of meeting the needs of investors, you have to meet the needs of the end consumer.

Mark Stiving 

Absolutely. I want to try to summarize what you just said, using words that we’ve already talked about, and tell me if this is what you really intended or thought or not. There are a lot of companies who are using subscription business models today, where they should instead be thinking recurring business models or recurring revenue business models, but not necessarily a subscription. Does that make sense?

Axel Kirstetter  

It absolutely does. I like your nuanced definition. Yeah, that’s absolutely right. Subscription have varied flavors to them. Think which type of subscription model works for the client circumstance.

Mark Stiving 

I think that’s spot on. Next question, I have to ask then, if we can differentiate in our minds between a subscription, which I’m going to say is the same payment month after month or year after year. And recurring revenue, which is the payment changes with usage or with something on a monthly basis, or year after year. When I teach companies to manage subscriptions, I think of three revenue buckets. I think of winning customers, keeping customers and growing customers. And I think those exact same three buckets apply to the recurring revenue companies. It’s just slightly different. What’s your perspective on that?

Axel Kirstetter  

Again, spot on luck. That’s why you still could have what you do. Yeah, if we look at it, winning clients is all about investing BPOs, inside sales and activation in the consumer world and the B2C world keeping customers is that big growth that we’ve seen on the B2B side in terms of customer success in B2C environments, community and sort of things you can do around that. What Zappos would have pioneered with just easy exchanges, which nowadays, you’re almost not going to buy something unless easy exchange is part of the deal, which you do that keeping customer loyalty. Then indeed, growing companies that are one-product companies will struggle, because it’s about first you establish a product, the brand, then you can establish the loyalty. But people keep coming back. And what else is there? Hold those fantastic shoes, love them? I remember a couple years ago, five years ago, six years ago, like, Okay, what else? I bought your shoes, what else am I going to find? Then finally they got around to offering brand extensions and more, and other adjacencies, what have you, that’s a natural way for companies to grow, obviously in the tech space, it’s a little bit easier to think about that sort of growing on from the start, you acquire someone, convert them via a website, a free trial experience, and wants to sit on the platform, ‘Hey why this, why that?’ I’m not a gamer. But I understand that many gaming technologies do exactly that sort of fairly low entry points, and then in application purchases that allow you to be part of that community and grow the entire customer base.

Mark Stiving 

Okay, I want you to summarize our conversation with answering the following question. I’ve been reading a ton for the last year about how subscription companies need to go to more usage-based pricing. And I would interpret that to say the exact same thing we’ve been talking about, which is going from subscription to a recurring revenue model thinking of it that way. Now, does that really make sense? Should companies be focused on ‘Hey, I really want to go to recurring revenue?’ Or should they be focused on, ‘What’s the right business model?’ I guess that was too easy of a question. But go ahead and summarize.

Axel Kirstetter  

I think a lot of companies start off with what is a transactional nature of a product or service, and they are forcing a subscription model on top of the transaction engagement. I think the right answer here is more, get your product-market fit, have flexibility around what kind of pricing is relevant to support that product-market fit. But then as you go to an accelerated growth mode, see if a genuine subscription model is better to achieve revenue objectives, margin objectives, or if you can move more towards a consumption usage-based model, which is more supportive of what most products do, which is a transaction of its nature. Was that a good enough summary?

Mark Stiving 

I think that was spot on. Actually, that was great. Axel, I had so much fun having this conversation with you because you’re forcing me to think and I love trying to think through these problems. But we’re going to have to wrap up. If you could give one piece of pricing advice to our listeners, what would that be?

Axel Kirstetter 

Keep optimizing, keep iterating, it’s never done. Don’t overthink the quantitative elements because you do have the possibility nowadays, to quickly and rapidly adjust once you are in market. Really keep optimizing, keep working away at what the right price point is.

Mark Stiving 

I got great advice so we can always tweak our prices. We can always get better. I think value-based pricing is a journey and a goal, not as, I’m done or I got it right because you never get it right. Axel, thank you so much for your time today. If anybody wants to contact you, how can they do that?

Axel Kirstetter 

My LinkedIn profile is a AxlKi.In LinkedIn, Axel Kirstetter, A X L K I, whatever the slash is before LinkedIn slash AxlKi, but getting to these where to contact me.

Mark Stiving 

Excellent. Episode 113 is all done. Would you do us a huge favor, tell a friend, leave a review, I would be very grateful. And finally, if you have any questions or comments about this podcast or Pricing in general, feel free to email me at mark@impactpricing.com. Now, go make an impact!

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