Building a Better Toothbrush with Mihran Papazian

How I Built It
How I Built It
Building a Better Toothbrush with Mihran Papazian

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Mihran Papazian is the CEO of Brushette, a company that plans to revolutionize…toothbrushes! In a rare episode, we cover what it’s like creating a physical product, from the deep research they did, to visiting over 1,000 factories in China to find the right manufacturing partner. Mihran’s experience and deep knowledge means there’s lots of great takeaways here – no matter what you plan to make.

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Intro: Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 121 of How I Built It. Today my guest is Mihran Papazian. He is the CEO of Brushette. Brushette is a little bit different from the normal things that we talk about here on How I Built It, in that it is a physical product, and it’s a physical product in the health space. I was excited to talk to Mihran today because it is a whole other industry, and generally I get very excited about talking about whole other industries. Mihran did not disappoint. He talks about doing things like reading the content on a bunch of American Dental Association websites, and he talks about manufacturing and how he visited over a thousand factories in China to find the right connections and the right people he needs to work with. It’s an incredibly interesting conversation, so I don’t want to spoil too much of it. Mihran has lots of fantastic advice for us, and his story is incredibly interesting. I get to ask him a question that I normally don’t get to ask people because they are usually already web developers, specifically WordPress developers, so I get to ask him specifically about how he built his website and some of the troubles there. Let’s get to the show, but not before a word from our sponsors.

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Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today my guest is Mihran Papazian, the CEO of Brushette. Mihran, how are you today?

Mihran Papazian: Hi, Joe. Thank you. I’m good, How are you.

Joe: I’m very good. I hope I pronounced that name correctly, for you and for everybody listening. We talked a little bit about pronunciations before we hit record here. Thanks so much for joining me. Why don’t you tell us–? First of all, somebody from your team reached out to me and asked if I would like to have you as a guest. I thought your idea for your company was super interesting, and generally off the beaten path of what I talk about. I usually talk to developers or people who found software companies. But why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are, and what Brushette is?

Mihran: Sure. Thanks for having me on your podcast. So, quickly, I’m born and raised in Paris for 20+ years. I attended school in New York for a year, and then I was off to China for ten years. Then I learned all the grass roots of business, from manufacturing to handling all type of products and visiting all type of factories. Hardware. I would say hardware background created that background in me. Then about four years ago I moved to LA, and we’ve been specializing in designing and distributing electric toothbrushes and replacement heads. Brushette is born out of the vertical which are the replacement heads. We have re-engineered it to make it more affordable and more hygienic for everyone to use.

Joe: That’s cool. My wife and I recently– Not recently, on Amazon Prime Day, we got electric toothbrushes that set us back a little bit. You’re supposed to replace those things every three months or something like that, so I liked the birth of this idea. I don’t know anything about manufacturing, so I’m excited to pick your brain on that stuff. It sounds like you’ve been doing that side of things for a long time.

Mihran: Yep. As far as the timing goes, you mentioned the three months. That’s true, that’s what dentists recommend. As of now, we should replace your bristles every three months. We’ve done– We’ve run a lot of studies that show that the bacteria accumulation on your bristles even after a day used is pretty insane. So after 90 days, after three months, you’re shoving back about 100 million bacteria back in your mouth. Because that little saliva or residual toothpaste, all these together with the moisture that are in the bristles that you just rinsed, it creates a breeding ground for bacteria. We figured that there must be something, there must be a solution that leaves everyone else here more hygienic and more healthy, to replace the bristle more often. Then we understood that with the current economy of $10 dollars a head, or even if it’s cheaper if you get on– If you hit generic products on Amazon it’s still pricey to replace those, so we engineered the system where it will only cost $1 dollar to replace the head.

Joe: Wow. That’s impressive. Maybe before we get into the research aspect of it, maybe we can talk about that. Let’s say I get a Brushette toothbrush. What am I looking at, as far as replacement? What’s the process like? You have a really interesting animated gif here on your website that shows how everything comes together, but what would I as the consumer be doing?

Mihran: You have the Brushette, and Brushette is competing on the replacement head market. We do offer electric toothbrushes as well, but it’s important to– We are literally on the replacement head market. What happened is that we’ve created what we call the “Neck.” Your current brush head has two parts, it has the neck, and it has the top part with the bristles. So, the top part with the bristles we call it the “Brushette,” it’s a small brush. Then the neck is an adapter that fits on your existing Oral-B toothbrush. We made the Oral-B version of the neck, and then we have another adapter which are compatible with Phillips Sonicare, which are coming a later this year. As of now, you could, and you won’t have to replace your electric toothbrush to switch to Brushette. You can literally use your existing Oral-B brush and then get one of our neck, and it’s a one-time neck adapter that you buy. Then after that every month you’ll swap on the fresh Brushette on top.

Joe: Wow, that’s cool. That’s very smart. Because electronics– I got the cheap electronic toothbrush, I know that other ones go for $100 or $200 bucks on Amazon, right?

Mihran: Yeah. They go for, I think, up to $200 plus. Then you will have these great Bluetooth seven mode capabilities, playing Spotify while you brush your teeth. The thing is that you will– It would certainly help thinking that you’re cleaner mentally, but what is touching your teeth are those bristles. The way they’re tufted and the quality, the stiffness of the bristle, the length. All those together, the impact that they have on your teeth, on each of your teeth. So that’s really where we focused, on the bristles.

Joe: Gotcha. That’s cool. It sounds like you’re very knowledgeable about this, and you have a lot of interesting copy on your website. What kind of research went into not only accumulating that information but solving the problem and finding and understanding that there’s definitely a market for this. Because there’s probably some percentage of all toothbrushers that have electric toothbrushes, and then another percentage that’s like “I’m paying way too much for replacement heads.” I would be interested in your research process.

Mihran: From all the regular homework that we’ve run, like looking at the toothbrush market and the replacement heads market, all the subscription service models. Right now everything is on subscription. From our toilet paper to aluminum foil, every single thing in a household that is coming on a regular basis got to be an Amazon Subscribe and Save process. Then when you look at the competition, not on the subscription service but on the electric toothbrush and the replacement head, there is not many people who offer a price point that we got to offer which is a dollar per head. The research that we’ve run are a lot of, and I guess you call them street interviews. Randomly hitting people in Hollywood Boulevard, which is a very scattered and a very– That is not necessarily presenting any specific target market but like the mass as a whole. Could be a lot of tourists, a lot of locals, and ask them how often they replace their toothbrush and did they ever knew about the amount of bacteria that are on their toothbrush, and if they would like to have their next refills whenever they come if they would like to have them  delivered to their home. Because they can think of, “When am I reaching these three month threshold? When is it the time to replace those brushes?” So we don’t have those reminders. There are some reminder on the bristles that are very, and I would say, on the bristles that turn– There are some indicators that turn from blue to white to show the wear and tear. Those come after past two months, and I think you will start seeing them in two to three months. We’ve run a lot of micro studies, and micro meaning a couple of hundred people answering questions from our own direct experience, and then also we had a pretty solid consumer base of people already buying these products before Brushette was born under another underrepresented brand. We have knowledge of the market and how often those same people were coming in and repeating their orders. They just bought it, and then the following month they would still buy a pack of six. We started to ask ourselves, and they might be like “What are they stocking up for. Is there going to be like a war where there will be people who will prevent them to brush their teeth? Why are people stocking up on brush heads?” We realized that the actual demand was here because people were actually– For a reason that we ignored, people were renewing their purchase of a replacement head. From there on we started to reach out.

Joe: Gotcha. That’s interesting. I’ve never heard anybody on my show mention them doing the street interviews on Hollywood Boulevard, but I like that because it is a diverse group of people there. It’s like walking down Times Square and trying to interview a bunch of people. In Scranton, which is where I went to college, you get a lot of the same people and a lot of the same demographic I should say. But not the case–

Mihran: Then that might not be– Today we figured out our demographic is more like moms and early adopters. So mom is one target, early adopters and tech savvy would be another target. The third demographic that responds well are older, healthy, yoga LGBT and wellness people who would– Those would be the people who would embrace Brushette as the healthy lifestyle they can take with you. They can swap and play with the function, etc. People who care a little more about their hygiene levels. Those are– Which are people that you won’t find necessarily in Union Time Square if you’re going to run a little research, but we’ve tried all the different avenues from Facebook ads to running around questions. One out of all these studies, because that was the question, the type of research that we did. We read a lot of articles, a lot of content on the ADA website, on the American Dental Association, and figured “What was the problem that they were raising?” One of the problem that they were raising, they were saying “Since there is nothing that prevents the packaging and the bristles to be fresh right out of their packaging, there is no compliant nor from the FDA that requires your toothbrush to be sanitized and completely sterile. So, we came up with a sterile packaging that will prevent the growth of bacteria in your toothbrush in the packaging. So when you buy it from the shop, then you know that it’s clean. There were, those type of problem that were raised by the industry leader themselves, by the ADA, we took them, and we found a solution for that. So that’s those type of research that were helpful.

Joe: Yeah, that’s cool. I don’t want to spend too much time here, but I do have two more questions around this. The first has to do with you specifically found that it was moms, early adopters and then health-centric people. Which health-centric people, that makes sense. My brother is a bit of a germaphobe. He would probably jump all over this. Then, early adopters, I’m a tech guy. This is interesting tech to me. What was it specifically about moms that you realized they would be good for this demographic?

Mihran: Our subscription box. All our audience, our test audience bought subscription model, and moms are responding better. So, from old school even when you target school, you’ll see that those are moms that are getting hit by these ads. Moms are the ones that are the head of the household, and they’re the ones who are shopping for everyone in their household. They would know if they will have to toss in two Brushette or 20 Brushette in that box for this month for their kids and their husband. It’s a subscription service, and generally speaking those resonate a lot with moms.

Joe: Gotcha. That makes a lot of sense. It was a mom friend of ours who told us about the Amazon subscription service when our daughter was born, and now my wife is letting me know every month what we need as far as our Amazon subscription goes. So that makes perfect sense. Cool. Then you mentioned that you had a pre-existing audience, was that one that you specifically built around Brushette? Or maybe you said that was from another company?

Mihran: Right. We started four or five years ago in the field, and we joined the brand Prodental that is distributed in over 40 countries, and they’re more traditional doing electric toothbrushes and replacement heads, and mouthwash and toothpaste, etc. Great design, much cheaper than the competition, and very nice looking brand. But nothing very disruptive as far as an invention like Brushette, like it’s [inaudible], etc. We had the experience, the supply chain, the manufacturing and then the audience while selling Prodental. We were leveraging that for our first Brushette customers.

Joe: Cool, very cool and that is a nice segue into what I want to talk about next, which is how did you build this? I’m very interested in the full process because again you’re building a physical product. You have to prototype, and you need a relationship with a supply chain and manufacturer, things like that. So what was that process like, maybe from the first idea to execution?

Mihran: In China, where again I’ve been spending ten years of my life there, full time. Our first son is born there. I’ve been, I don’t know how many factories that I’ve ever visited, but it goes in probably over a thousand, but the ones that I’ve worked with on a regular basis what I like to do is I go, and I sit at every single place on the assembly line. I sit on the different production stages, so I understand what the pain of manufacturing this product is, what the problems are that those workers are going to face, how complicated it is. Is my great looking packaging a real burden to make it happen and to do it? With your fingers, when you have to fold the paper and put this in bag, etc. For me building the product starts in the factory on the assembly line with the engineers, etc. So it’s never complete unless you went and validated yourself, then you can do it. Of course, you will not do it as good as a worker who has been trained for hours, and they should do it. But my way of doing it is going through the assembly line and from there on to improve, and I go both on the assembly line, and then all day all the way on the other side on the market, and talk to customers so I can literally shape a product that the market wants and not the other way around.

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Joe: You understand the process inside and out. You can say, “I want this crazy, good, beautiful looking packaging,” but you also understand the headache that the folks who are going to be doing it are going through, and you can probably make a determination on time, on quality. Because if it’s overly complicated, maybe you won’t hit that quality every time, or it’s going to raise your costs considerably.

Mihran: Yeah. The most important is your user quality right now. People are buying, and trying to buy cheap. But people are more importantly, the more it goes, the more people are trying to buy sustainable products, a product that is not going to break the next day. Yes, price factor is important, but if you deliver crap regardless of how you price your product and how great is your marketing, it’s not going to work. The problem often with new products is that you don’t have necessary quality standards to actually to get inspired from, for example, the snapping system of Brushette. There’s got to be something you like about the noise, about how many times you can snap it on and off, all these type of testing that you can run. Those are standards that you have to set as you see the product evolving and getting hit a thousand times. Then you’re like, “All right. Maybe we should use this material, and maybe the spring inside should be done this way, and maybe the whole– Maybe we can’t use that thing.” It’s a lot of testing and a lot of self-determining, like as the product goes and as the product start coming out from the assembly line, and then you give it away to people to try, and they have feedback, and you have your own feedback, etc. Then you’re building from there on, you want to build something that does not break, or if it does to at least, to be honest about it. In our case, we know that it’s a great thing, it’s a great device. You can keep it for a year and then replace only the Brushette. I say for a year, but the tests that ran it for two years. I’m not going to– I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to say “For the rest of your life you don’t have to buy a neck anymore.” It’s still a small piece of plastic, and it’s still–  There is a knob, there’s a spring inside. It’s not like a rocket science thing, but it’s in time. It can very well wear and tear, too. What we’re doing is we’re replacing– we’re replacing it and guaranteeing replacing it free of charge so long as you have a subscription. That way you come up with your product, you know what people are getting, and then you’ve got to stand behind aware on others. So that’s how we’re doing.

Joe: That’s cool. Again, it’s a physical product, and it’s going to break down. It’s not made of titanium, or whatever.

Mihran: Right.

Joe: That’s cool. Again, you’re mentioning a lot of things that as a software developer I might not think of. Like the noise that the snap makes, or the number of snaps you can get out of it. That sort of testing. There’s a company called Studio Neat, and they make this cool notebook called the [Penotebook], but they also are making a clicky pen. They built, 3D-printed a machine to click this pen thousands of times over and over again to see how well it holds up from the manufacturer. So, cool stuff like that that you would never think of in software development.

Mihran: Right. You’re monkey testing when you’re using an app, and it’s the same thing where you’re touching that product a thousand times. So, it’s different processes, but at the end of the day you’re trying your thing out, you’re trying it out, and you’re making sure it works.

Joe: Absolutely. Maybe as we are approaching, we’re coming towards the end of the show, what advice would you give to a listener that wants to make their own product? What should be their step one? At what point should they look for a manufacturer, and what should they look for in a manufacturer?

Mihran: In our case, I had a factory with 450 people. I was in there, so it’s not really– Maybe it’s not the same way, but if I were to start from here with no knowledge whatsoever of manufacturing, regardless if it’s in China or in the US, I would start and call my first MVP a prototype or even a drawing or anything that is that people can try and test without having not even approaching one single manufacturer. It’s very important to understand that there is a fit for your product, that there is people would want that. If yes, don’t get lured, how much are they going to be ready to pay for that? Then from then on, you have your two, like “Is there a product?” “Yes.” “Can you make a profit?” “Yes.” “All right, now start. Start pushing the studies, start looking for people who would work with you for people who can come up with a CAD drawing so you can get the first–” You were talking about the 3D machine, a 3D printing machine. We have a lot of shops in LA, and throughout the country, we can first prototype for you before you jump into the actual manufacturing process. I think manufacturing is important, and it’s the main– Of course, it’s the most important thing. If you have everything ready and then you can’t supply, then there is no point. At the same time it’s the least of your problems should you have validated that everything else runs smoothly, then I think manufacturing is an easy piece of the puzzle.

Joe: Gotcha. That’s great advice. Manufacturing is the least of your problems if you validate the rest of the process, and you’ve said, “Is there a product? Is there a market?” And “Can you profit?” Because that’s a really good thing a lot of people, myself included– I used to think “Do you think this is a good idea?” was validation, but it’s not. “What would you pay for this?” Is where the validation comes in.

Mihran: Yeah. If you need a million people to pay for these, maybe it’s still good to that, and maybe still a good idea. But you’ve got to make sure that you’re going for that size, for the big, for that a risk, for raising this much money, etc. At the end of the day your profit margins are important, so if it’s a great idea, yes that’s good. But if you can’t have any margin, if you don’t have any room to even– Forget about manufacturing, you just– I mean, manufacturing with the problem that manufacturing would offer. Which means that you’ll have quality batch default, you will have a transportation problem, and you’ll have compliance problem, you’ll have a lot of different legal problems. If your margin is getting eaten up by those line items, I don’t think your great idea would go anywhere. It’s the two valuation before jumping into manufacturing.

Joe: That’s another important distinction to make between a physical product and software, is there is cost associated with software, but that cost is mostly my time or someone else’s time if I’m paying a developer. But with a physical product, there is all these steps along the way. You send it to the manufacturer, there’s transportation, there’s regulations probably in your case, or maybe there’s not. But I know in certain cases there are regulations that you need to pass through, at least here in the United States. Then you get the product, and if it’s not up to your standard then you have to account for that, and other things like that as well.

Mihran: Right.

Joe: Awesome. I guess first before I ask what are your plans for the future, is that something that I can buy today? And if so, where can I get it?

Mihran: Right now it’s on Indie Gogo. We’re not fundraising per say, and we are open for pre-orders. Our products are already ready, and we’re manufacturing. We manufactured our first batch of about ten thousand products that are ready to ship right now, so we decided to open the pre-sales on Indie Gogo and then shortly after the campaign will go live with the subscription model on Brushette. So, right now if you wanted the product, you could get it on Indie Gogo.

Joe: Gotcha. With that, what are your plans for the future? This is a subscription model, so how is that going to work? Do you have anything else in the works as far as the actual product goes?

Mihran: The goal is to start out with Brushette to get something, to get a solid consumer base of people who are interested to get these boxes every month to their doorstep. But then in this box, you can definitely add a lot of different items from the bathroom, and especially from the dental hygiene– where we are in, and we want to stay specialized in. So all the dental consumer, dental hygiene, you could have a small pops of toothpaste and mouthwash and the monthly supply of floss and a lot of different things that would come up in that box. That’s one thing, and then the other most– Since you’re, you’ve been talking about software the whole time we also have an app that is in development right now to be able to go through your saliva to understand your health problem and your hygiene problem and to put that in a block chain so that everyone would get its own health block chain. So, we have quite some different project there in the pipeline, right now it focuses on getting Brushette out there.

Joe: That’s super interesting. I will be sure to link everything that we’ve talked about so far, and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this app because that’s– Block chain is the new hotness. I do like to ask my non-web development guests, people who have a product but they’re not necessarily web developers, what are you using for your website and what was– What would you say is the hardest thing about developing a website from your point of view?

Mihran: I’ve done a lot of them, I’ve done a few startups before. They were software oriented, so I’m not complete, but we’re not using– We’re using a custom e-commerce CMS, and it’s called Zanno. To develop the website, I’m just opening XP and then working wire frames, and then giving it to my designer and then to the dev team. It’s a regular e-commerce website, and there is nothing amazing code-wise behind it. There is nothing crazy that the app is supposed to do, so I can’t say that we’ve been facing a lot of difficulties in the website so far.

Joe: I’m glad. When I got into the game, it was– Making an e-commerce website was the gold standard. It was hard. You hired the real professionals for that, and nowadays with– Zanno, I’ve never heard of it, but I’m definitely going to research it after this. Or like WooCommerce or Shopify, you can have an online e-commerce store in an hour or so. Cool. We are coming up on time, and I do want to ask you my favorite question, which is, do you have any trade secrets for us?

Mihran: That’s a good question. Do I have a trade secret for you? I can certainly make an open invitation for everyone on the show if you want to reach out and want to tour a factory in Shenzhen, and I’d be happy. That’s probably the best place where you could find the trade secrets. Other than that, I wouldn’t– There’s no secrets in– There is no secret in the product, there is no secrets in what we’re doing. Everything is open. Other than showing you exactly the manufacturing part and what’s being cooked for the future, those are the only trade secrets that I’ll be able to happily share.

Joe: That’s cool. If I’m ever out there, I will take you up on that offer, because I’ve never been on an honest to goodness manufacturing floor before. So, I’m very interested to see. On that note–

Mihran: That’s interesting. Sorry, I’m cutting you off. What’s interesting is that when you’re the hardware software startup, you are getting it. You already have difficulties when you’re doing a software startup with deadlines, with everything. Hardware is just adding more difficulties, but I think at the end of the day if you get along well,  if the team is able to put them up in a nice fashion together, I think there is a lot of value in software and hardware together if they can work together. It can be very valuable.

Joe: That’s fantastic. That is a great way to end the show, though I do want to ask, Mihran, where can people find you?

Mihran: Where can people find me? I’m an e-mail away,

Joe: All right, awesome. I’ll be sure to link that and all of the stuff that we talked about today in the show notes. Mihran, thanks for joining me today. I appreciate your time.

Mihran: Thanks for having me, Joe.

Outro: Thanks so much for Mihran for joining me today. Things I loved about this episode, how he talked about how he sits on the assembly line in factories in China at different stages of creation to understand how everything is made. I love how he talked about getting the first MVP, the minimum viable product. He talks about how he answers these questions, “Is there a product? Can you make a profit?” For creating physical products, which generally cost a lot more than creating software products in the beginning. He says at the end of the day that profit margins are important. I liked how he talked about his website, and I always like hearing about websites that are not built on top of WordPress, and the reasoning why. His plans for the future which include things like an app, block chain for help, which is– A block chain is a little bit of a buzzword, but it’s also an incredibly cool and important technology moving forward for a whole lot of things. So, I think that’s pretty cool. I like his outlook on business, and I love a lot of the advice he gave us. I hope you enjoyed this episode as well. My question of the week for you is, “Have you ever considered building a physical product?” Let me know by emailing me or by letting me know on Twitter @jcasabona.

Miniseries: To continue our conversation from last week, I talked about how I built the first iteration of my podcasting course. I also talked about how I made a grave mistake in assuming that people just wanted to buy a course on how to make the website. It turns out, based on a lot of the feedback I’ve gotten, that people want the whole process. What microphone should they buy, how do they set up that microphone, how do they record, and the whole nine. So I’ve decided to take that course and expand it to answer all of those questions. Last week I talked about how I built the course as far as just focusing on the website. Focusing on the website is now just a small section, or will be a small section of this course. The new goal of the course– The previous goal of the course was, “Launch a website and submit to iTunes.” The overall goal is now “Record a podcast, launch it and submit it to iTunes.” I dug deep, and I thought, “What were the questions that I had when I first started podcasting?” Of course, they are the questions that I get the most often. “How do I know what microphone do I buy? How do I record? Where should I upload it? How do I build an audience? Is artwork that important? How do I figure out a name?” So the new outline for this course has all of that stuff. The new course is going to have videos on I bought the microphone that I recommend, and I’m going to record how to hook it up to your computer, do a test, and make that first recording. I’m going to show students other software besides just web based software, how to record with Quicktime and Garage Band or Audacity. Audacity more likely, because I want this to appeal to more than just Mac users, so those are the things that I’m rebuilding in the podcasting course. I came to a very important conclusion, I might have mentioned this in a previous episode in this miniseries, but the reason that I didn’t do this at first was because other people like Pat Flynn and John Lee Dumas already have this covered. But what I didn’t realize was that they don’t have it covered cheaply and affordably, and what they have that I can’t possibly offer is their own time. That’s what a lot of people are buying. If people are buying the knowledge, I think my course is going to be the best option for them because it’s going to be the most affordable. They still get my time, and they get access to a deeper wealth of knowledge in the areas of website creation, site building, and the more technical aspects of things. That’s– I look up to especially Pat Flynn, I think he’s an excellent resource, teacher, podcaster and business owner. He has knowledge that I don’t have and I may never have in the areas of business and building an audience, but I believe I’m a little bit more technical than him. So that’s what I bring to the table, and I can do it in a different manner, and that’s the thing that I need to remember. As I build out part two of this course, or maybe the course revised, those are the things that I’m focusing on. The new goal for the student is record, launch and submit a podcast, and not just launch a website and submit your podcast. So that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening. If you liked this episode, be sure to leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps people discover the show. Until next time, get out there and build something.

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