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Season 4, Episode 3

Balancing Your Business and Your Life

With Founder & CEO of Design Pickle, Russ Perry

About the Episode

In this episode, I’m talking to one of my best friends, Russ Perry, who is the founder and CEO of Design Pickle. They’ve got close to 500 team members in six different countries around the world. What I love about this conversation is that Russ who runs this huge company, you know, flat rate creative design services. He’s built this over the last five years, but what he’s really been building this whole time is a foundation at home. He’s been investing in himself. He’s been creating the family, the lifestyle that he wants and his business has succeeded around that. And because of it, I believe. Russ dives into everything from his story and journey into creating Design Pickle, to the filter of how he made his decision to create this business, to how he does annual and quarterly planning and keeps his life just integrated personal and business life on a day-to-day basis. He’s an amazing friend. He’s been an inspiration for me, and you’re going to learn a lot from this.

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Full Transcript

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33:15

Chris:
I’m Chris Ronzio, founder, and CEO of Trainual. And welcome back for another episode. This one’s a little bit different. We’re interviewing one of my best friends, Russ Perry, who is the founder and CEO of Design Pickle. They’ve got close to 500 team members in six different countries around the world. And while Russ genuinely loves pickles, he says that he’ll get along with anybody regardless of their affinity for cucumbers. So weirdest intro I’ve ever read. But what I love about this conversation is that Russ who runs this huge company, you know, flat rate creative design services. He’s built this over the last five years, but what he’s really been building this whole time is a foundation at home. He’s been investing in himself. He’s been creating the family, the lifestyle that he wants and his business has succeeded around that. And, and because of it, I believe. And so what Russ dives into is everything from his story and journey into creating Design Pickle, to the filter of how he made his decision to create this business, to how he does annual and quarterly planning and keeps his life just integrated personal and business life on a day-to-day basis. He’s an amazing friend. He’s been an inspiration for me, and you’re going to learn a lot from this. So enjoy.

Chris:
I’m your host, Chris Ronzio. And as you heard in the intro today, we have a very special guest and this podcast interview is going to be a little different than our normal interviews because Russ Perry has literally been my best friend for like 10 or 11 years now. So what’s up, Russ.

Russ:
Excellent. Are we going to talk about not business or we can talk about business?

Chris:
Well, both. I mean, I think, I think the main topic should be not business though. So just some context, like, I feel like the question I get asked so often when people follow me on Instagram or see presentations, and I talk about the family stuff so much, and they’re like, is that a facade? Or do you really have that kind of balance? And it’s something that I can’t articulate as well as you because I learned a lot from you. So I want to dig into this idea of like, how, how you merge together growing a massive company, which we’re going to talk about in a second with having just like an incredible family and incredible look on, on your personal fitness and just, just how do you balance it all? So that’s what we’re going to get into.

Russ:
Excellent. Well, I mean, I think it’s appropriate to start on all the mistakes that I made because, uh, you’ve known me long enough to know that, like, it wasn’t always that way. And, and I think I have journeyed through ups and downs and depending on how deep you want to go, but, uh, I want to share that, you know, this, the results of today were because of not doing this very well for the first half of my career, almost nine, nine years of, of keeping things very separate. You know, there was work-life, there was personal life, there were compromises in both areas, and often me putting work at the expense of my personal life, which didn’t work out so well.

Chris:
Well, let’s get into that. So before we do, why don’t you give some context, what is Design Pickle look like today?

Russ:
So where I’m sitting today, design pickle, we are a global creative services company. We have approximately by, excuse me, I’m getting emotional. We have approximately 500 team members. A lot of those team members are international. Uh, we have a huge international group that focuses on our creative services, which are graphic design, custom illustration future services later this year. And what we essentially do is we match a business, an entrepreneur, a marketer, a salesperson, wherever roles they are with the perfect creative for their needs. So that could be as simple as, Hey, I need online ads on a regular basis. I need to shift my messaging. You know, COVID was a huge boost for us. A lot of people changing all of their collateral and content and our model is designed to be the best of both worlds between a W2 employee in the sense that you can create a relationship with your creative, but also super flexible. So month to month flat rate, you’re never going to get billed hourly or per project. And we have almost 4,000 clients around the globe and it’s, it’s actually 24, five 24 hours a day, five days a week. There’s creativity happening on the Design Pickle platform.

Chris:
Okay. So 500 employees, 500 team members in, is it like 10 countries now?

Russ:
Um, six countries, we were in seven. We had to put a pause on one, unfortunately for some global infrastructure issues.

Chris:
Okay. So six countries, and it’s only been like five years,

Russ:
Five years. Yeah. January 2021 will be our six-year anniversary.

Chris:
Okay. So for anyone listening to this, it’s probably unfathomable to build a company with 500 people across six countries in only five years. And so I want to go back to the days before Design Pickle when you didn’t have a global team and you didn’t have a really cool brand and you were kind of like the rest of us with just a startup in a garage. Right. And that’s where you and I met. We had both gotten married, I think within six months of each other. And we were trying to learn how to be entrepreneurs that also needed to have a family life. So what were those early years like for you?

Russ:
Well, as you said, you know, we were young, I never took the business courses. I went to a public school, a public university, unlike the host here today. And the point is business was, and I still don’t think business is accurately reflected in the school. Anyway, it was, it was, I want to have a business and I have a skillset, but I have no clue at all how to do that. And my business at the time, when we met was a creative agency. So really what I was, the only thing I was good at was sales. That was it. The rest of my business was miserable. I wasn’t good at delivery. I wasn’t good at retaining, client services. I wasn’t good at even the creativity was hit or miss. Although we ended up having a really great creative team towards the end of it.

Russ:
And I, you know, today we talk about churn. We talk about retention. I mean, I had like a 90% churn rate with my clients. So every time I was going out, it was always to get new business. And I just thought that was normal. Like, I just thought that that’s how it was. And long hours, lots of travel, lots of stories in my mind that when this business is successful, then I will be able to have the family and the life and the lifestyle that I desire. And I kept those two things mutually exclusive. And it wasn’t until I really had to face a lot of my personal challenges that rose through this experience that I realized I was creating that chasm myself. I was voluntarily putting these two things so far apart that it was causing conflict in both worlds. My marriage was struggling. I was stressed. I used to struggle with alcohol. It was drinking. My business was in no better shape. And I had this epiphany was like, this is not how it should be. Like, this is going to tear people apart. And, you know, we both have seen probably people listening to this experience that it truly can when you keep them in such isolated buckets.

Chris:
So when your company is really stressing you out and you feel like you’re on this hamster wheel, I mean, I remember the same thing. Like I would sell a big contract and you get that rush of, you know, the deposit hitting the bank account or something. And then you’re like, ah, I’ve got to actually do work now. Like I gotta build this. And that’s where all the problems happen. And so, so as you were going through that with your, with your agency at the time, like you had iterations of it, or like what, what finally made you decide that you couldn’t do that business? How did you reach that brink?

Russ:
Right. There were two distinct chapters in my agency. And the second chapter was, was actually developed a little bit of a skill set that I’d been later used for Design Pickle. The first chapter was about me on my own here in Tempe, Arizona, and we were a branding and creative agency. And I kind of went through my, I say, business awakening during that time, really driven by my decision to get sober. And the second chapter was at the tail end of my career as an agency owner, where I had forged a partnership with an amazing husband and wife in Argentina learning how to do design remotely. And we manage the accounts. And that very first year I quit drinking was like the last year of my agency life. And that was when I finally had the self-awareness because I was able to kind of get beyond the stress in a healthy way where prior I was going to really unhealthy destructive habits to manage it.

Russ:
And I was sort of able like almost viewed, like I kind of rose above it into the clouds, and I could see the stress. And I wasn’t, I wasn’t distracting myself from the stress. And I just was like, this is a terrible business model. Like, I don’t want to be in this at all. And it was a personal life decision to say, you know what? I don’t know what’s next. There was no Design Pickle. There was no recurring revenue model. There was no, none of the ideas that I currently have today were, in play, but I, I knew this, this type of business and this type of life type of lifestyle I needed to end it. And that’s what I did. You know, I didn’t sell my business. Uh, we could have continued on. The analogy I always use is it was like putting a dog to sleep that you love.

Russ:
Like, you know, it was at a compassionate shut down to have space and the openness to see what was next. And I remember, I don’t know if you know, Chris, I probably told you, but we had all, we did so much print work and we always collect samples and things. And I remember the last days of the agency taking the drawers of all the work from almost the last nine years and throwing it into the dumpster and I’m like crying. Cause it was just like, this is no longer me. I don’t really know where I’m going, but I was committed to finding out the answer and I was committed to saying, you know what, there’s gotta be a better solution for who I am as a creative entrepreneur and the way that I could create value in this world, as well as value for my family income and so on.

Chris:
Yeah. Okay. So, so during that time, I guess, for, for anyone again, that’s listening, that’s heard me and Russ in the past, I was renting a desk from you in your agency and running my little solo operation at the time. And I remember you going through this change, but what was really inspiring coming out of the other side of that was that you really reoriented your perspective on where business and personal life intersect. So talk us through how you laid out the blueprint for this next chapter because I think that’s something that a lot of people wish they could do is just scrap everything and start over. So how did you do it?

Russ:
Well, first I did not have the skillset to just do it on my own. And I thought really practically about this. And I thought, you know, what, if I was going to go learn a new physical skill, let’s say swimming, or let’s say rock climbing, the best way to do that is to go hire a coach and learn from an expert. And so I invested in around that time, three different personal development slash coach people. One was a one-on-one coaching relationship. One was more of an ongoing coaching relationship. And the third was a conference that I went to. And between all of that, like I wasn’t too selective. I just kind of was like, whatever. I remember the conference, um, as an entrepreneur here is her name is Vanessa Shaw. I didn’t realize it was actually kinda more like a women’s conference. And I showed up and it’s like, me and, and the only other man, there was her husband who was a really cool guy, Robert, but I like rolled with it.

Russ:
You know, it was like, cool, like I’m here to learn. And so I recognized that for me to solve this problem, I couldn’t do it with my current skill sets. And we know that intrinsically in business, but sometimes we’re, we, we don’t realize it’s the same thing for personal stuff. You know, whether it’s relationships with a partner or kids or whatever, there are people out there doing it better than you are. Go learn from them, go read a book. And in that process, I came to this really simple technique, which was, and I’ve used, I haven’t used it this weekend. It’s, you can use it on a big scale. You can use it on a small scale. It’s got clear on what you want first before trying to come up with the plan to get there. So for me, at this point in my life, I didn’t know what my professional path was going to be.

Russ:
Like. I, I knew what my skill sets were. I knew what my passions were. I knew what there were some like tangible things that I wanted, like a nicer car, you know, these, these, these, like not super meaningful things, but things that I could say, yeah, I would like a nicer car than what I currently have. And so I sat down at a coffee shop, press coffee here in Scottsdale, Arizona. And I just made this list of what I wanted. And, and it was like in the next three years, that was the timeline. Like in the next three years here is what I want. Some were tangible goods. Others were relationship. Like I wanted to have another child. It wasn’t clear at the time with my wife ended up being a daughter or our youngest. And so I put that down. Like, I want another daughter, I want another child.

Russ:
And I want a nicer car. I’d like to own a, I want to be in creativity. I still want to be a creative professional. And then that list became my compass. It was that list that I could then start evaluating decisions and, and saying yes or no quicker because I could say, look, this decision’s going to get me closer to these things, or it’s not. And it, and it was really nice. And a practical example was a business opportunity. I had with another guy to do what, like a HubSpot agency. And, and in my list was I want to travel. And I want a remote team where I don’t have to necessarily be tied to a desk. Well, this HubSpot agency was very much visiting clients, traveling, presenting, pitching in person. And while it was a cool opportunity and it did not fit this list.

Russ:
Yeah. And so six months went by until the Design Pickle pieces started to come together. And that was truly no joke. I mean, I just got goosebumps talking about it. The aha moment for me was when the idea of Design Pickle didn’t have an amazing brand name yet came to about it’s like subscription, graphic design. Let me check my list and boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, everything. Except for maybe like one little thing, which I was like, ah, it’s close enough. There were it matched it passed. And now was the motivation, as well as the confidence for me to, to now focus on this idea and what it did to kind of come back to it. It ensured my personal priorities were the foundation of my professional concept and idea and venture, because really that list, it was a personal list. It wasn’t a professional accomplishments kind of thing that I want to do. And, um, and then that was the, you know, that was then the domino that kicked off the pretty much the last five and a half years.

Chris:
So before we go into Design Pickle, being able to make that list really relied on you taking an honest look at your current reality, right? You had to be real with yourself, that snapshot. And so was there some tool or some, you know, was, was it through the coaching? Like how could people do that right now? What would you, what, what would you instruct someone to do to take that snapshot?

Russ:
So the content of this process was actually lifted by one of my coaches and he gave him credit by Ray Dalio. He just published a book last year called principles. And he had an earlier essay on these principles, but it literally is this process. I’ll teach everyone right now, how to do it. And the next three years, what would you like to accomplish, to be with your life, put it down. And the caveats here is don’t get into the weeds of the specifics. So again, personal professional family, relationships travel, whatever it is you want. And the term satisfied is super important because we’re not seeking perfection and the most exciting things. It’s just that, you know, post-Thanksgiving, dinner kind of vibe like satisfied. Yeah. And that, and that’s the list that was the last six to seven things. You know, you want enough on there, you want to not, you will not want 50 things.

Russ:
And you imagine this thing just sits in your back pocket. And then what you do is you use this inside of your decision-making. When an opportunity comes knocking at the door, you can take it out either mentally or actually, and say like, look, does this match, or when you’re brainstorming your, your business, your plans, the next thing you can say, well, will this still allow me to keep on the path for this list? And so Ray Dalio has a much more complex version of this, but you can, you can go into it and check it out. It’s built on his values, but that was it. And it’s radically simple, but I think that’s why it works. And I have now done this in so many different ways. What vacation do we want to go on? You know, let me make a list. I’m not going to pick a place. Let me just make a list. We want a beach. We want to rent a house. We want to do these things. What kind of clients should we go after for a new product? Well, we want clients who have this, this, and this and this. Okay. Now we can understand what kind of product it is that we need to serve. So the process works both professionally and personally. Um, I mean, I have so many notes on my iPhone I have with these ones.

Chris:
I know me, and I remember making a version of the list, like on one of your whiteboards, how we wanted to be able to buy our wives nice purses or something like that. Do you remember that? Totally like a meaningful thing. Yeah, really, really big picture, still working on it. We got better at it, but something we have done every year together, which I think would be useful for everyone is we get together for this like vision day of, of what do we want out of the next year? And we’re making both personal and professional kind of goals for the year. Right. So maybe you share that process. Yeah.

Russ:
And so, um, there’s a lot of personal development models out there that talk about, you know, your whole life, whether it’s the wheel of life or, you know, 12 categories of this one that Chris and I, you and I have done is one based off of a, uh, a program called warrior. And it’s four quadrants, body, being, balance and business. And what we end up doing is we look at, you know, bodies or our mental as our physical health or wellness or sleep or diet, um, being is more of our mental health and, and or spirituality balances are our immediate important relationships. So that can be a partner that can be kids, a close family and friends. And in business, typically in an annual planning process, people just look at the fourth quadrant business. What have we done? Where do we want to go?

Russ:
And you and I, we sit down and we say, first we reflect, which is super important and it’s, and it’s mind-blowing. Um, and I, and our processes, you’ll be on the board writing for me. And I’ll just lift off all the stuff we’ve done. And then we’ll flip-flop. So that way you can just brainstorm and brain dump. And then when you take a step back on the reflection part for now three or four years, we’re like, Holy crap, like, Whoa, it’s been done. This is amazing. It’s maybe we set out to say, what do we want in the upcoming year, in these four quadrants? And I’ll add that it’s important to realize you can only grow as far in your life as the lowest-performing quadrant. So if you’re suffering incredible challenges with health, it doesn’t matter what your game plan is for your business. You will be pulled down and be in the weeds of the health issues. Similarly, if you have crazy business challenges that aren’t being addressed or resolved, it’s going to affect your relationships, it’s going to affect your mental health. And so by being proactive about the focus on those other areas, you’re also ensuring that those areas aren’t going to fall by the wayside and they’re going to continue to grow, which is that, you know, a rising tide raises all ships analogy. It’s the same concept in your own life.

Chris:
Yeah. So these big targets that we set are kind of aspirational, you know, it feels daunting a lot of the times when we do should be scary. Yeah. It is scary. But the piece to connect to that is like, how, how do you on a daily basis, make sure that you’re making strides toward those big goals. Um, you know, when people talk about work-life balance, a lot of times it’s, it’s down to the instantaneous moments where you’re deciding whether you’re going to stay late at work and miss dinner, you know, it’s, it’s those kinds of things. So how, how do you maintain that sense of balance, I guess, on a day-to-day basis?

Russ:
Well, I’m, I’m a very visual guy, as you can imagine, running a creative company. And so I have two whiteboards that I’m seeing all the time, but first is when I drive my car and I parked my car. There’s a whiteboard right by my car, like when I get out. So I ensure that I have enough, uh, the, not so much stuff where I can’t park in my garage. So that’s a prerequisite. You have to be able to park in your garage or somewhere where you can hang a whiteboard, or maybe you don’t have a professional organizer, right? Yeah. Or maybe if you don’t have a whiteboard, put it in your bathroom, put it in when, in your entryway, you know, that part of the room where no one really sees or whatever. And I have my, my, my 90-day version of the year-long outcomes.

Russ:
So you, we set down our year-long plan. And then the key is to say, okay, well, in the next three months, what it is that I want to do, and now that coordinates really nice with business planning because most business planning follows the same process, but I’ll do that in the, in the other three personal areas. So I’m visually seeing that every day at home. And then I have a more expanded version of just business at the office with, with everything else. Yeah. So that’s number one is you have to make it visible. If it just sits inside of Trainual, where you’re not seeing it all the time. Actually, you should see it inside a tracheal, but if it sits in a book, it sits on a note on your phone or whatever you, you, you will forget. And it’s, you know, all the great, great intentions.

Russ:
So put it somewhere. Yeah. The next is then that, that quarterly review. And I think that’s the important part too, is we don’t just meet in January and say peace out every 90 days, I am looking back and having a mini version of what has been accomplished and where do I want to go in the next 90 days? And how do I course correct? And that cadence and know the discipline to do that is surprisingly challenging with how busy we all are. So I will, every 90 days block out one full day, 90 days out for this review. And I always am making sure I have one day protected. Every it’s usually more like every 90 to 120 days that I’ll, I’ll do that one day, um, by myself. So same idea, just repeating it with smaller time increments and, um, and ensuring that there’s actual visibility of where it is you want to be.

Chris:
Yeah. And so how do you make sure that you’re on track? You know, like if you have great annual goals, you’ve got great quarterly targets that you set, you’re seeing your whiteboards. I think it comes back to that filter that you created, right. To make sure that your, your life day-to-day is, is maintaining that balance of keeping all of the relationships with your family in good standing, keeping your relationship with yourself in good standing with, with your mind, with your, your fitness, right?

Russ:
Yeah. And it’s not easy. My filter list from 2014 is completely outdated today. So you’re balancing the near-term things and challenges and aspirations of what you want with the longer-term vision of who you want to become. And that’s really the D the two differences between the 90 days and the year-long plan are, here’s what I want to do. And the list, if you will, is who here’s, who I want to be. And here’s the things that I want to become. So as things cook are accomplished, thankfully, I was able to get a new car. Like that’s now not on my list and a car won’t be on my list because I love my car. I’ll pay it off in a year or so. And like, that’s going to be my car. Um, so I now have other things which are more like, like next year, my oldest daughter turned 16 and, and, um, I want to take her to New York City.

Russ:
She’s never been, I want to have a really cool experience there, she’s into the theater. So, so, you know, if I am looking, if that’s on my list and there’s some huge, um, conference we’re planning for work, I’m going to make sure that I can still do this trip with my daughter. And there’s not going to be a conflict with, with the traveler, with work, or I’ll put that in my calendar first. So that’s the first priority. So you’re always evaluating it. And I will say, as you mature and grow in this process, you’ll find your list grows or shrinks. Um, but I think it’s quite asking yourself, do I have enough self-awareness to even go through this process and discipline? And if the answer is no, go hire a coach and find someone that can guide you through it. Cause there are 20 different versions of what we’re talking about out there. Um, second is, do you have the time scheduled to do it? Yeah, that’s it.

Chris:
I was just going to say, like, it sounds so easy, but you just reinforcing the calendar, put it on the calendar, but the trip on the calendar, put date nights on the calendar but driving a school on the calendar. But you know, like the things you want to do, the, the event, your, from your planning sessions to the little family, family dinners, that if you put that stuff on there, then work fills in around it.

Russ:
And people feel like it’s, it’s, it’s like impersonal to be like, Hey honey, I’m scheduling. I’m putting date night in the calendar. I’m scheduling a Friday night dinner with our family. But the reality is we will not do it. Like the truth is we won’t do it unless we do that. So it’s like, don’t worry about it. It might be weird. Your significant other or your kids might be like, why are you doing that? But look, we do an like in work, if we want to have a meeting, we schedule it and it happened. So why would we treat our personal life any differently?

Chris:
A hundred percent. So if you get one takeaway from this, put all your personal stuff on the calendar. All right. So, so we talked about goal planning, quarterly annual planning. We talked about the daily occurrences, making things just a priority. So you’ve really been able to put that to work, to build a huge business. But like you said, in the beginning, it took working on you first, like old Russ Perry could not have built, designed payroll. I know that. And, and, and so I think people see what you’ve created and they wonder how to copy the business principles. But I think what they miss is how much work you’ve put in on the personal side. And I’ve gotten a lot, you know, from inspiration from you. Um, you forced me to run around a mountain a bunch of times when I was first getting into the fitness thing. So thank you for that. Um, if, uh, are there any other little tips or hacks or things you’d recommend for people trying to take the reigns in this area?

Russ:
Well, I think it’s, it’s the advice, but also, you know, the concept that the same applies for your teams and it’s important to lead and live a life of example for personal growth, but know that your teams are watching. And while obviously with, you know, HR rules and things, there’s a certain limitation of, of what’s appropriate. And, and, and, uh, you know, you can’t force your team to say, Hey, let’s talk about your marriage or something like that. But I do believe that part of our success has been that I have given opportunities for my team members, even at a small level, to a large level, to also invest in their own personal growth. And that’s created a really tight network because there’s pardon me real, real-life here. Um, that’s something that has allowed them to know that, Hey, the same concepts apply. Like it’s not just about to show up every day and work.

Russ:
We want to make sure you have the skillsets and the knowledge to manage what else is going on out there. And so we have extra benefits that support that we have reimbursements that support that, and that goes for a global team. So that’s like, the other thing is don’t, don’t hold this just for yourself. How can you enable this to be something that’s part of your company culture? And, and ultimately it will create a really trusting culture. And what we’ve seen is a pretty high-performing culture because people are happier, which in turn leads to just a better environment. Yeah. So

Chris:
If you’re listening to this and not happy where you work, come work for Design Pickle, or Trainual, we will invest in you, but Russ you’ve put out so much content on this too. So if people want to dig deeper into this, where should they go?

Russ:
So, uh, it’s a, it’s a bit of a weird library. You’ll see a lot of different phases of my life, but the blessed best place for this kind of content is just on my personal website, which is russperry.co. I also have a nice little handy daily time planner that I use. It’s printable where I actually, um, get into the nuances of time blocking timeline, which is a whole other podcast episode we could do, which I’m really a big nerd about it. Um, but you can go through the blog. There are podcasts. There’s lots of content. I’m not currently publishing stuff there, but it’s a huge library of a lot of stuff I’ve done over the years with tons of tons of content on this topic. Awesome.

Chris: (
So check that out and for design pickle, where do they find that

Russ:
Man, go to designpickle.com. I mean, again, flat rate creative services and, uh, it, and it’s, I’m not just saying this. I mean, obviously, I love my company, but what you’ll feel is people who care and that’s like a huge, huge part about what we do, um, inside of. So if you

Chris:
Need help, creating need help, pivoting, um, need help to build a vision board for your new life, designing it. We’d love to help. Awesome. All right, Russ, thank you. Uh, obviously love hanging out with you. Thanks for spending some time here. Um, for anybody else that’s listening to that follows me online on Instagram or YouTube or LinkedIn. You’ll see Russ pop up in my stories all the time. I’m always with them or tagging them in something. So it’s been really fun to build a business alongside his, but Russ. Thanks again for being here, dude. Thanks, man. I’m so lucky. I finally got invited to come after all of you.

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