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Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big

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The bestselling, award-winning classic on how maverick companies have passed up the growth treadmill to focus on gretness, now in a revised and updated tenth-anniversary edition. It has long been a business article of faith that great companies, by definition, constantly focus on maximizing their revenues year after year. Yet quietly, under the radar, a growing number of The bestselling, award-winning classic on how maverick companies have passed up the growth treadmill to focus on gretness, now in a revised and updated tenth-anniversary edition. It has long been a business article of faith that great companies, by definition, constantly focus on maximizing their revenues year after year. Yet quietly, under the radar, a growing number of undeniably great compabnies have rejected the pressure of endless growth to focus on more satisfying business goals. Veteran journalist Bo Burlingham takes us deep inside fourteen of these remarkable comapnies that have chosen to march to their own drummer. He shows the leaders of these small giants recognized the full range of choices they had about the type of company they could create and made the choice to pursue greateness by placing other goals ahead of getting as big as possible as fast as possible. And he shows how we can all benefit by questioning the conventional definitions of business success."


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The bestselling, award-winning classic on how maverick companies have passed up the growth treadmill to focus on gretness, now in a revised and updated tenth-anniversary edition. It has long been a business article of faith that great companies, by definition, constantly focus on maximizing their revenues year after year. Yet quietly, under the radar, a growing number of The bestselling, award-winning classic on how maverick companies have passed up the growth treadmill to focus on gretness, now in a revised and updated tenth-anniversary edition. It has long been a business article of faith that great companies, by definition, constantly focus on maximizing their revenues year after year. Yet quietly, under the radar, a growing number of undeniably great compabnies have rejected the pressure of endless growth to focus on more satisfying business goals. Veteran journalist Bo Burlingham takes us deep inside fourteen of these remarkable comapnies that have chosen to march to their own drummer. He shows the leaders of these small giants recognized the full range of choices they had about the type of company they could create and made the choice to pursue greateness by placing other goals ahead of getting as big as possible as fast as possible. And he shows how we can all benefit by questioning the conventional definitions of business success."

30 review for Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big

  1. 5 out of 5

    Besim

    This is a profile of 14 companies that chose to focus on being great at what they do rather than on growing their company in size despite many opportunities to do so. The author finds several links between them: 1) The owners realized they had a choice of what kind of company they would be and didn't just settle on following normal understanding of what kind of growth a company should aim for 2) They overcame pressure to give up control of their company to investors for the sake of growth 3) They This is a profile of 14 companies that chose to focus on being great at what they do rather than on growing their company in size despite many opportunities to do so. The author finds several links between them: 1) The owners realized they had a choice of what kind of company they would be and didn't just settle on following normal understanding of what kind of growth a company should aim for 2) They overcame pressure to give up control of their company to investors for the sake of growth 3) They were intimately tied to the community they were involved in 4) They had strong, real connections with their customers and suppliers 5) They had uniquely compassionate workplaces 6) They created unique company structures that likely wouldn't work for other companies 7) Their leaders loved what they did Burlington did a great job of reminding us that to succeed you should just be real and don't worry about artificial growth. If you care about what you do and about the people you serve you will succeed, insha'Allah. Although it was a near 5-star in the uniqueness of the books focus, there was something that seemed missing from the book. Perhaps it was a lack of passion that the author himself seemed to have (except when talking about his experience at Inc. Magazine), which seemed to bring down the passion of the profiled owners down a notch. It seemed to be a book that should have been manifesto to keep your company small but instead was just a profile in how you can succeed and still be small. Regardless this should be a required reading for any company owner who is thinking about how to grow his company and was worth the read.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jurgen Appelo

    Too much story, too little message.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    Once in awhile you read a book and feel an immediate connection to it / the stories within. I read this several years ago, at a time when we were struggling to find business advice that felt like it fit the way we wanted to run a business. And lo and behold, it turns out that there are companies out there running profitable, successful businesses differently than most conventional wisdom might counsel. This book, and the Small Giants movement gaining momentum around it (see Once in awhile you read a book and feel an immediate connection to it / the stories within. I read this several years ago, at a time when we were struggling to find business advice that felt like it fit the way we wanted to run a business. And lo and behold, it turns out that there are companies out there running profitable, successful businesses differently than most conventional wisdom might counsel. This book, and the Small Giants movement gaining momentum around it (see http://smallgiants.org/) have been and continue to be an inspiration and source of practical advice that have been invaluable in growing our business.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Beth Oppenlander

    What I liked best about the book was how well the author captured the spirit of the small business owners. He narrates their stories with compassion, keen insight and honesty. While I don't know that I experienced any great revelations as I shared in their journeys, I did find myself really wanting to experience directly some of their adventures. I don't think I can extend a greater compliment than saying, After reading the book, I want to go out there and play a role in shaping a small giant. What I liked best about the book was how well the author captured the spirit of the small business owners. He narrates their stories with compassion, keen insight and honesty. While I don't know that I experienced any great revelations as I shared in their journeys, I did find myself really wanting to experience directly some of their adventures. I don't think I can extend a greater compliment than saying, “After reading the book, I want to go out there and play a role in shaping a small giant.”

  5. 4 out of 5

    Alex Ikonn

    One of the best business books with case studies on how you can build a long term purposeful business and not just wanting to exit.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Tippy

    Loved this book, first 'business' book that I've really bonded with - a survey of innovative businesses across the U.S. that have chosen to conduct their bizzes with heart, 'mojo', care for their community, customers, and employees while being consistently profitable as well as have longevity. The survey includes: clif bar, a machine shop, fashion designer, document storage, AnchorSsteam brewing, Danny Meyer's restaurants in NYC, & Zingerman's Deli in Michigan. So glad that I found this gem Loved this book, first 'business' book that I've really bonded with - a survey of innovative businesses across the U.S. that have chosen to conduct their bizzes with heart, 'mojo', care for their community, customers, and employees while being consistently profitable as well as have longevity. The survey includes: clif bar, a machine shop, fashion designer, document storage, AnchorSsteam brewing, Danny Meyer's restaurants in NYC, & Zingerman's Deli in Michigan. So glad that I found this gem on my boyfriend's bookshelf & I highly recommend!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I don't typically read business books, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. The idea that a company can exist for a purpose other than just making the most money possible is very appealing to me. I found the companies in this book inspiring and it made me think a lot about how I approach my job and the company I work for. It was at times a little too lengthy/detailed, but overall a great read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Derek

    I love the concept. When I think of the company I will start some day, that's what I imagine. The material, from 2005, feels oddly dated. Perhaps that's because I work in tech and am constantly reading about business models in technology and software. The book reads a bit like "the age before the Internet".

  9. 5 out of 5

    Yuri Karabatov

    The book is a look behind the scenes of several very different companies which declined to grow beyond a certain size and focused on founders and employees instead. In the end, its all about the people: companies are very much a reflection of their management and workers. Each companys story is different, but they all managed to make the people and the humanity shine through. You can hide behind a corporate persona, or you can make a human connection. The book is a look behind the scenes of several very different companies which declined to grow beyond a certain size and focused on founders and employees instead. In the end, it’s all about the people: companies are very much a reflection of their management and workers. Each company’s story is different, but they all managed to make the people and the humanity shine through. You can hide behind a corporate persona, or you can make a human connection.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ganesh Muthupalani

    I have worked on a fair number of business cases the past few weeks. A no. of companies I worked on set their main objective to be the no. 1 player in their industry. I also came across companies driven by purpose, like Ant Financial which envisions to bring equal opportunities to everyone in the world, not just the rich. I have been wondering for sometime "Why must companies grow to become the market leader? Why must management seek to grow revenues by X% year on year?". Shareholders expect I have worked on a fair number of business cases the past few weeks. A no. of companies I worked on set their main objective to be the no. 1 player in their industry. I also came across companies driven by purpose, like Ant Financial which envisions to bring equal opportunities to everyone in the world, not just the rich. I have been wondering for sometime "Why must companies grow to become the market leader? Why must management seek to grow revenues by X% year on year?". Shareholders expect returns from their investments and the management is obliged to fulfill shareholder's expectations. List 5 companies that come to your mind first. I'm pretty sure most/all of them are public companies. Bo Burlingham's book opened up my view to successful private companies. The author chooses to highlight small companies which refuse to grow bigger. Their customers love their products and services but these Small Giants remain small because of these reasons: - Control over the Company & Operations - Intimate ties with the employees - Intimate ties with the customers / community Virgin is an example (not mentioned in the book) that you will relate to. Yes, Virgin is a small Giant! Virgin has 48 planes in its fleet, compared to British Airways' 272. Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Group is known for its stellar customer service and its hugely possible due to its size. The book felt a little long-winded. I felt the points were well communicated at the 70% mark. But nonetheless Bo Burlingham's insights were an interesting alternative to the traditional public businesses that cloud our minds.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    I bought this because it was on a clearance shelf and I actually started reading it simply because it was within reach when I was looking for a book to help me fall asleep...needless to say, I dove in without any expectations. But this was actually a decent, quick read. It describes a handful of businesses that opted to stay small rather than following the traditional path of expansion, and have consequently found success. I like the personalization that it offers in the detailing of the I bought this because it was on a clearance shelf and I actually started reading it simply because it was within reach when I was looking for a book to help me fall asleep...needless to say, I dove in without any expectations. But this was actually a decent, quick read. It describes a handful of businesses that opted to stay small rather than following the traditional path of expansion, and have consequently found success. I like the personalization that it offers in the detailing of the companies. It feels less like a dry business template, and more like an open narrative. You’re not going to get step by step details as to how to duplicate this sort of success, but you will find interesting insight into an array of small businesses that have figured out their own personal secret to success.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ivo Spigel

    This is such a great book, debunking the myth of forever trying to create giant companies ("growth at all costs") and showing how staying small - but great - can be a very worthwhile decision. But you have to make that decision in spite of the "bigness" hype. One of my favourite parts - I think it's at the beginning - is when the author compares entrepreneurs to artists. You start with nothing - only a business plan or an empty canvas or a blank Word page - and create something out of that This is such a great book, debunking the myth of forever trying to create giant companies ("growth at all costs") and showing how staying small - but great - can be a very worthwhile decision. But you have to make that decision in spite of the "bigness" hype. One of my favourite parts - I think it's at the beginning - is when the author compares entrepreneurs to artists. You start with nothing - only a business plan or an empty canvas or a blank Word page - and create something out of that nothing.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tadej Krašovec

    What to say about this book with catchy title? It is true, it's well written. But, that is about it. I always ask myself when I finish a book: What have I learned and what of it can I apply to my business or private life? In this case unfortunately answer is not a lot if anything. I would not read this book if I knew the content. Consequently only 2 stars.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Andy Hayes

    Enjoyed the stories about these companies. Missed this when it came out, but I'm now curious how those companies are doing many years later. Anyway, it's a great reminder that company founders need to decide what kind of company they want, and do that unapologetically.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jesse

    Ive never read a book quite like Small Giants. Most books, like John Maxwell books, are written with the chapters using the following format: -Principal -Anecdote -Three keys to the principal -Quote from famous person -Summary of Principal Small Giants takes a completely different format. Its 100% story. All anecdotes and case studies in an engaging narrative format. That said, its difficult to extract clear principles from each chapter when you dont have a framework for which each chapter is written. I’ve never read a book quite like Small Giants. Most books, like John Maxwell books, are written with the chapters using the following format: -Principal -Anecdote -Three keys to the principal -Quote from famous person -Summary of Principal Small Giants takes a completely different format. It’s 100% story. All anecdotes and case studies in an engaging narrative format. That said, it’s difficult to extract clear principles from each chapter when you don’t have a framework for which each chapter is written. If you’re the type of person who finds inspiration from pioneers and other successful entrepreneurs, and you can curl up next to a fire and read nonfiction, then this book is definitely for you. KEY THOUGHTS Each leader of the companies in this book was hyper-aware of what kind of company they wanted to create and why they were creating it. When growth comes, the temptation is to focus on sustaining and feeding this growth. True winners stop for a moment to evaluate what growth will do to the company and its values. The companies that burnt out or went bankrupt got so distracted by growth and success that it leads to being stretched too thin or compromising core values. Find your true North and do not deviate from it. Invest in people and legacy and building a quality product, and pursue greatness instead of bigness. The key takeaway for me out of this book was the fact that business should be fun. If it becomes overly stressful, stop and evaluate when it stopped being a joy. Life is far too short to be overworked and hate what you do. Build a company you love, build up others, and give more than you get. That is why we started this in the first place. CHAPTER PRINCIPALS (CHEAT SHEET) As I mentioned, you really have to read the chapter in order to find the principal. The brain is better at taking a principal and breaking it down instead of trying to figure it out themselves. Below is a metaphorical “puzzle box” to reference while you’re piecing together the puzzle of each chapter: Free to Choose. You are in control of how big or small or fast or slow your company grows. Getting big is not the goal necessarily. Building a company you are proud of is. If you want to have freedom and choice, you have to fight for it. You can say “no” in order to keep your options open and choose how far and how fast to grow. Who’s in Charge Here? You’re not a victim to failure or success. You are in charge. In this chapter, you’ll see business owners confronted with decisions to grow, get bigger, go go go. You’ll see their soul searching they did to find what was most important. The Mona Lisa Principle. The Mona Lisa would not be as famous if it wasn’t in the Louvre, France, if it wasn’t lit and guarded the way it was. Location means a lot. This chapter focuses on social good and how you can invest and grow your community and empower your people to follow suit. You’ll also see practical ways you can do so. Ties That Bind. “Enlightened hospitality” is a key concept in this chapter. It’s the emotional skill involving the ability to make customers feel that you’re on their side. The 5 values of hospitality are, in order of importance: caring for each other (team); caring for guests (customers); caring for the community; caring for suppliers, and caring for investors and profitability. A Culture of Intimacy. Create a culture where people feel like an owner and are treated like one. This is where company's core values are woven into the fabric of each employee and stakeholder. Mission statements flow out of this higher purpose, higher purpose does not flow out of mission statements. There are great stories of how a company can do more than provide financially for people, but really become anchors in people’s lives. This is really where legacy comes into play. Galt’s Gulch. Building off the last chapter, you’ll see leaders and founders figure out how to shape the world inside their company’s walls, and how that can go on to affect how that company shapes or reorders the world at large in some way. Think micro impacting the macro. How Small Giants Fail. Pretty straightforward here, but there are a lot of great financial tips and ways to consider profitability and growth. The three key components in here is how to focus on steady margins; healthy balance sheets; and having a sound business model. Pass It On. The most important thing in this life arguably is legacy. How does one build legacy and share what you have with others. Think of your 40 year goals and work backward from there The Art of Business. There’s no right or wrong way to do business. Focus on your strengths and be true to yourself. Hire for your weaknesses. Most importantly, enjoy the heck out of what you do.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rohan R

    I found the book to be a bit dated. And considering that it was published in 2005, it is. However, it sheds a very generous light on small businesses that choose to stay small (er than their full potential might achieve), but find meaning in other ways, be it by giving back to society or being a good employer. It got a bit tough to read towards the end. The small font in the version I have didn't help either.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    I was looking for a book about this exact topic and it delivered. My rating is because it resonated with me. I would take a good working environment over growth any day. Glad this version had an updated couple of chapters since it was originally from 2005. Honest about some of the companies not making it 10 years later.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ope Bukola

    The book profiles companies that choose to remain "small giants." The companies vary widely, from 1 person shops to hundreds of employees but all share what the author refers to as "mojo." The overarching theme is that that these companies have a deep sense of intimacy, and their founders feel deeply connected to employees and local community. The flip slide is that they must remain financially independent so that they can do things that don't result in shareholder financial value. In our The book profiles companies that choose to remain "small giants." The companies vary widely, from 1 person shops to hundreds of employees but all share what the author refers to as "mojo." The overarching theme is that that these companies have a deep sense of intimacy, and their founders feel deeply connected to employees and local community. The flip slide is that they must remain financially independent so that they can do things that don't result in shareholder financial value. In our current vc-driven business environment, it's a good read for anyone starting a business to consider alternatives that are possible.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    some good nuggets in here / anecdotes -zingermans and union square cafe restaurant group -high emphasis at the end of importantness of happiness and enjoying your job over high growth

  20. 5 out of 5

    Darryl Dash

    A good book on companies that choose to stay small and remarkable when they could have grown large.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Brilliant. What an excellent perspective on what it takes to be a great business.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    I think I learned some useful things from other's experience and I am inspired to follow their example. It also showed me how little did I know about the struggles of becoming a great company.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Remy

    I read this for work. I work for a small company transitioning from green energy venture capital to an energy services operating company. We spend a lot of time talking about "company culture" and "mojo." Thanks to Small Giants, I now understand the terms better, but I still don't understand why we have to spend so much time talking about it. I understand being intentional, but I had always thought that businesses - like every other endeavor/creation - is the product of many small decisions I read this for work. I work for a small company transitioning from green energy venture capital to an energy services operating company. We spend a lot of time talking about "company culture" and "mojo." Thanks to Small Giants, I now understand the terms better, but I still don't understand why we have to spend so much time talking about it. I understand being intentional, but I had always thought that businesses - like every other endeavor/creation - is the product of many small decisions applied in pursuit of a vision. It's hard to know what the product is going to look like without making decisions over time. It seems to me like you need a whole lot of doing before you can see what things look like. It seems to me that it should be more organic. But I'll save it for my own company. The format of the book was a little scattered. The author tried to isolate defining characteristics of Small Giants and then cite examples, but it felt like I was sort of bouncing around too much. I would have preferred a company-by-company analysis. There were a few excerpts that really hit home: "It's like you're sailing down a river with many tributaries running off. Yes, you pause to consider each tributary and whether it is part of your voyage, but keeping you on course is the knowledge of where you want to be at the end of the trip." "I would get up, and I'd be wide awake and full of joy because I was going to wok. I hear other people saying, 'I can't wait for my vacation.' To me, it's a lost day out of your life when you feel that way. It's such a waste to be unhappy when you can wake up in the morning anticipating the day. Your work should be something you enjoy. It all comes down to, are you happy with yourself when you tackle a new day?" "But being thankful does not necessarily mean being content. There are some people who want more out of business than the typical company offers. It's too boring for them. It's too limited. It's not worth the sacrifice. They have a passion, or perhaps just a burning idea, and they don't want to let their life slip away without every getting around to it. So they build companies that allow them to pursue their passion and follow their bliss, and they don't forget why they went into business in the first place and how they got where they are. They make sure that, as it grows, the business continues to be a mechanism for doing what they're passionate about and for contributing something great and unique to the world." "But while there's no recipe for making small giants, there is a pattern among the people who do it. For one thing, they all have a clear understanding of who they are, what they want out of business, and why. Accordingly, when aspiring small giants builders ask me for advice about how they should proceed, I urge them to focus on their vision, by which I mean the mental picture they have of themselves and their company five, then, fifteen years in the future -- what it will look like, where it will be located, what role they will have in it, how it will be perceived by outsiders, what employees will have to say about it, and on and on."

  24. 5 out of 5

    Yevgeniy Brikman

    Most business books focus on huge, public companies, or companies striving to become big and public. Most business strategy is all about growing as big as possible, as quickly as possible. Anything less than that is considered a failure. "Small Giants" is a refreshing read about companies that have chosen a different path: companies that, despite being financially successful and well respected in their industry, have chosen to remain relatively small, and instead focus on becoming great at what Most business books focus on huge, public companies, or companies striving to become big and public. Most business strategy is all about growing as big as possible, as quickly as possible. Anything less than that is considered a failure. "Small Giants" is a refreshing read about companies that have chosen a different path: companies that, despite being financially successful and well respected in their industry, have chosen to remain relatively small, and instead focus on becoming great at what they do and great places to work. The main value of this book is in making you aware of the fact that it's possible to build such a company. You don't have to chase IPOs and acquisitions. You don't have to raise money from VCs and obsess over "growth hacking." You can be a successful business by focusing on solving important problems and treating employees and customers well. The book profiles 14 such "small giants" to give you a taste of what such companies look like. To be honest, there isn't much insight here as to what made those companies successful, or what made other attempted small giants fail. This book is not an instruction manual or how-to guide, but more of a series of case studies and story telling. As a result, there are only a few actionable pieces of advice to take away: 1. Building a small giant is possible. Being aware of this is the key contribution of this book. 2. Building a small giant typically requires intentionally turning down significant and tempting growth and revenue opportunities. Success and conventional wisdom will always push you to grow, but it's not always the right decision for every business. 3. Building a small giant can inspire others. Many people love the idea of an alternative to big corporations, and that can be an advantage with customers, employees, and the community.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mihnea

    Bo Burlingham offers an attractive handful of examples of small successful companies, along with their stories, culture and way of working. Compared to large companies, the small companies described appear in a romantic light. This happens due to the leaders' motivation towards more than financial gain, and rather towards: - the personal growth and wellbeing of employees - a quality product - flexibility, comfort and peace of mind with running a tight, manageable business It is important to be noted Bo Burlingham offers an attractive handful of examples of small successful companies, along with their stories, culture and way of working. Compared to large companies, the small companies described appear in a romantic light. This happens due to the leaders' motivation towards more than financial gain, and rather towards: - the personal growth and wellbeing of employees - a quality product - flexibility, comfort and peace of mind with running a tight, manageable business It is important to be noted that the second edition of the book offer a small amount of extra information by revisiting the small companies described in the first edition and showing how difficult it was to maintain the small company culture due to: growth, bankruptcy, culture change, management change. You can find additional snappy reviews or book notes here.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    If you see that it took me nearly 5 months to read all 221 pages of this slim book, you might think I found it boring, or dense, or inaccessible. And while that seems a reasonable conclusion, you would be completely wrong. This is simply the most interesting and thought provoking business book I have read. Rather than struggling my way forward, I found myself connecting with the observations from and about these "small giants" and rapidly taking notes and enjoying extended flights of imagination If you see that it took me nearly 5 months to read all 221 pages of this slim book, you might think I found it boring, or dense, or inaccessible. And while that seems a reasonable conclusion, you would be completely wrong. This is simply the most interesting and thought provoking business book I have read. Rather than struggling my way forward, I found myself connecting with the observations from and about these "small giants" and rapidly taking notes and enjoying extended flights of imagination applying the insights to my own business. Often I would spend 45 minutes with my morning cup of coffee and only make progress on 8 pages because I spent so much time thinking about the day's reading.

  27. 5 out of 5

    John Kowalczyk

    You know all those fabulous restaurants, excellent delis, exceptional book stores and every other great establishment you've continued to patronize loyally year after year? Well, this book is about them and celebrates why they are still great without becoming HUGE companies. When it seems everyone is shooting for a quick startup followed by unsustainable growth and quick buy-out before they go bankrupt, it's good to know that great people with great ideas are still working hard to give us You know all those fabulous restaurants, excellent delis, exceptional book stores and every other great establishment you've continued to patronize loyally year after year? Well, this book is about them and celebrates why they are still great without becoming HUGE companies. When it seems everyone is shooting for a quick startup followed by unsustainable growth and quick buy-out before they go bankrupt, it's good to know that great people with great ideas are still working hard to give us something that is unique and personal; and for lack of a better definition "pure".

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sheila

    I loved this book. I enjoyed hearing new, independent, and unique styles of running a company; from how to deal with customers and employees to running day to day operations. Understanding the cultural needs of a company in all aspects is critical to a successful business.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alexander Morrison

    Excellent book on focusing on your core strengths and your core customers. It showcases examples of different companies in several industries and how they decided to stay small.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kalle Wescott

    Great concepts and examples. A little longer than it needed to be, but still completely worth reading (along with A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Building a Great Business by Ari Weinzweig).

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