Sean Harper is a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder of Kin Insurance. In this interview, Sean shares how he's leveraged technology to disrupt the home insurance industry and how that set his company up for success during the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns.
John Meese 0:01
Shawn, thank you so much for joining me. How are you doing today?
Sean Harper 0:04
I'm pretty well, thanks for having me.
John Meese 0:06
Well, good. I'm so glad. So, you know, Shawn, actually, like, you know, we got introduced through a mutual friend. So I was actually familiar with your work until then. But I did a little poking around. And I'm impressed. And I'm super intrigued in your experience in the current crisis, but I don't want to put words in your mouth. So actually, I would love for you to take a minute and just share for anybody that hasn't had the pleasure of getting to know you online or any of the work that you've done the business that you you're focused on. Who are you, Shawn? And what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Sean Harper 0:39
Yeah, um, so I have been an entrepreneur a few times now, mostly focusing on the intersection of technology and finance. And the business that I'm working on right now is called Kin. And what we did is we built an insurance company from scratch and You know, most insurance companies have been around for 100 years. And they they don't do things all that differently than they did 20, 30, 40, 50 even more years ago. And what we did is we said, well, gosh, we can do this a lot more efficiently. And so what Kin does is it's a tech company built from scratch, to insure homes and other structures in areas that experience extreme weather. And, you know, that's actually a lot of the country like a lot of people live in areas where there is extreme weather. If you think about what's going on with wildfires in California, hurricanes in Florida, the East Coast, the golf, it's, you know, it's more than half of the country is exposed to extreme weather and, you know, we we do things pretty differently, then a legacy insurance company, you know, one one thing we do differently is we're direct to consumer. So we cut a lot of costs out you actually run half of the costs that legacy insurance company has goes to pay these agents who are really kind of a relic. Yeah, we also use a lot more data, we use a lot of weather data and satellite and aerial imagery that allows us to quantify the risk a lot better, and have much more accurate pricing. So we're not always the cheapest, like on average, we're cheaper because our cost structure is lower, but we're a more accurate representation of the actual risk that the building is exposed to.
John Meese 2:25
That's pretty cool. Yeah, so Kin Insurance right? And insurance?
Sean Harper 2:28
Yeah, again, Kin like family and that's sort of the last thing is we, you know, normal insurance company might have a net promoter score of 40 is pretty good for insurance. Ours is 80. Wow. So we just take much better care of our customers than that's been legacy insurance companies do and we try to treat them like family and that's, that's our name, and we take that seriously.
John Meese 2:51
That's great. Okay, so that's super helpful. And that kind of sets the stage for our conversation today. So but I would love it if you actually go wait. back in time with me too early 2020. So yeah, yeah, if you remember, ancient history, I would love to know, you know, back back in the days of like crowds and sports stadiums and food trucks and all that kind of stuff. I love to know. Well, first of all, I should ask, by the way, where are you located Sean?
Sean Harper 3:20
We're, I'm personally located in Chicago.
John Meese 3:23
Okay, Chicago. Got it. So when did you first realize that COVID-19 was a real threat? Do you remember where you were what happened that made you go wait a second. This is, you know, not business as usual. And I think, by the way, that it's fascinating that part of your job is actually like, basically assessing risk through technology. So I don't know if that played a factor. But you tell me I mean, when did you first realize that COVID-19 was a real threat,
Sean Harper 3:45
The week before COVID, the week before everybody shut down or before Illinois shut down, which is what I care the most about. I was traveling. It was like the heaviest travel week ever. And I was in San Francisco. Vail, which was like one of the early outbreak hotspots in New York, and also in Tampa where our second offices, and it was, like, a completely different world at the beginning of that week, where, you know, and I was exposed to it very early, because, you know, I left the conference in San Francisco. And by the time I got to Vail they were saying, Oh, actually, there were four people at this conference that were exposed. And that it was Ted. And then when, by the time I left Vail, and was in Tampa, I was like, well, and that was a much smaller event. You know, I was hearing from people who I'd had dinner with, you know, right across from me were like, Oh, yeah, I just tested positive.
John Meese 4:47
Sean Harper 4:48
Yeah. And, and that was crazy, because, like, a huge it was this reinsurance conference. And it was, you know, more than 10% of the people that were there reported that they tested positive shortly thereafter. Wow. And then by the time it was Thursday in New York, everything was shut down. And I was like, wow, no one wants to meet with me. And it's probably smart because I've been contaminated, like crazy. We're like, well, we're shutting down the office. Everybody go home. Yeah. And it was really, it was eerie, you know. And I think for me, and as well as a lot of other people, it went from being something it was abstract to being something that was concrete and immediate, like, over the course of a couple of days and second week of March.
John Meese 5:31
Yeah. Yeah, no, that's that. That seems to be the consistent experience for a lot of people that it was very sudden. So your case we will be able to get home safely. And did you end up having COVID-19 yourself after all that exposure?
Sean Harper 5:45
I don't think I did. It's hard to tellcto tell I mean, so many worries. I think it's Eric. You know, I felt a little sick when I was in, in Denver and Colorado, but you know, could have been the altitude or maybe I drank too much.
John Meese 5:58
Okay, yeah, either way. Yeah,
Sean Harper 6:00
Yeah, it's hard to tell I test I got myself tested for the antibodies and I didn't didn't have them. So
John Meese 6:07
Sean Harper 6:08
Yeah, it's uh, I got home and then we had to figure out what the heck to do with our business because you know, we were a very digital company like we can operate from anywhere, but we're also a company that really enjoys being together. Like, right we have a lot of fun in our office. And that's part of what makes working at Kin great. And, and that has been the hardest thing really, you know, we can do it everything over Zoom, you know, our software runs in the cloud. It doesn't we don't need the office for anything except to you know, be together.
John Meese 6:46
Right. So are you still have you? Have you ever reopened the offices since then?
Sean Harper 6:50
We haven't no.
John Meese 6:51
Sean Harper 6:51
Yeah, our office in Tampa is open, optionally. And there are a couple of people who go and just because they don't have a nice place to work at home, or they really like to get out of the house. Yeah. And there's a lot of space there. It's it's easy to stay distance.
John Meese 7:06
And then you have an office in Chicago as well.
Sean Harper 7:08
Yeah, our main offices in Chicago. It's a big office. It's like 140 people. And uh, we haven't gone back at all. It's it's just, it's different. You know, most people go to work on public transportation. And that, maybe being in the office is safe, but being on the L probably isn't
John Meese 7:28
Getting there. Yeah. Well, okay. So let's talk about that. So you said, you know, part of the things right away as a business owner, is you had to figure out, Okay, how do we do business? So how did you respond as a business owner, how did you respond to the crisis, both in terms of like, you're talking right now with the office, but also just in terms of your business model?
Sean Harper 7:47
Um, you know, this has been a positive for our business model. You know, we compete against companies that rely a lot more on having a physical presence. You know, one of the things that I've always thought was really nuts Is insurance is this virtual good? It's entirely digital. Yeah, people buy it in a physical store. That seems really strange.
John Meese 8:10
When you put it that way.Yeah.
Sean Harper 8:11
Yeah, I've actually there are more insurance agencies in the United States than there are fast food restaurants, which seems also kind of crazy. Because, well, before this happened, I would eat fast food at least once a day.
John Meese 8:24
Yeah, you know how I can't get fast food digitally. You can't get fast food digitally, at least not yet.
Sean Harper 8:29
But yeah, well, you can you can order
John Meese 8:32
That's true. was just thinking like 3d printing. We're not quite there yet. Yeah. It's not mass avaialble at least.
Sean Harper 8:38
That would be cool. So yeah, it's from a business perspective. We're used to dealing with our customer and most of our customers are not anywhere near Chicago. We don't even insure people in Chicago.
John Meese 8:51
Sean Harper 8:52
Yeah. It's just a different market. You know, we're really good at these sort of, you know, coastal and fire exposed areas. In Chicago isn't the weather here is very stable, it gets awfully cold in the winter. But But beyond that, it's it's very safe weather. So, we're used to dealing with customers from afar. And then we have to figure out like, what do we do with the company culture? You know, what do we tell people? Are you allowed to go into the office if you want to? Or are you banned from the office? You know, we decided at least initially, we're sort of banned. We just didn't want anyone there at all. And then we had to figure out, you know, well, how do we we're still growing very quickly interviewing people for a job.
John Meese 9:35
Sean Harper 9:36
We're so used to meeting somebody and getting a feel for them that way. And now we're doing all of our you know, we've hired probably 40 people since COVID started and that's been entirely digital we've never met before, which is really strange.
John Meese 9:53
Wow. So how has the economic crisis impacted your business so far? I mean, you just mentioned that you guys are growing and that it's been good. For you, as well, in part because it's kind of hurt some of your competitors, unfortunately. But so how was the economic crisis impacted your business overall?
Sean Harper 10:07
Um, it's, you know, the, the negative part is that a lot of people switch their homeowners insurance when they're buying a new home. less people are buying new homes right now. So thta's been a negative for us. Yeah. You know, there are still a lot of people switching homeowners insurance and and I think a lot of people have become maybe more cost conscious. You know, they're looking for ways and and, you know, as a low cost provider of the service, that's benefited us as well. There have been some really, really strange second order impacts, you know, we often you know, we have an entirely online product, but a lot of the times customers will have a question they'll want to call in and get advice from, from a customer service agent. And you require you need a license to give somebody advice about insurance you need be a licensed insurance agent. Otherwise it's illegal actually to give insurance adivce. And we found it was very difficult to actually get people insurance licenses. Because the state, you know, we're, we're an entirely digital company, but the State Department's of insurance often aren't. And so when they went home, they actually were sort of shut. And so for a couple of months, we actually couldn't get people licensed. So they could help customers on the phone, which is very inconvenient.
John Meese 11:31
Yes. But also do that, is that limited to just phone support? Or even like email or live chat to
Sean Harper 11:38
Both really, if you're giving advice about insurance in any medium? You, You really have to be you have to have the license. Yeah. And which is is is good. I mean, you don't want like these rules are here for a reason.
John Meese 11:52
You don't want random people being like, No, no,
Sean Harper 11:54
Yeah, it's an important thing. You know that people's homes are there, their largest asset let's listen And you, you want to make sure it's protected adequately. So that was a big one. Um,
John Meese 12:07
have you been able to overcome that?
Sean Harper 12:09
We, you know, the state insurance offices have for the most part opened up again. You know, some of them have been slower. California has been pretty slow. Florida and Illinois, we're we're faster. Florida was really fast, which was great. Okay, you know, they, they just, you know, we're more scrappy, I think and making sure that even though they're working from home, they're still getting stuff done. Which was good. So that will, Oh, go ahead.
John Meese 12:37
Well, I was gonna say so how are you adapting your business to survive the crisis? I mean, like, you know, that's obviously you've got these different things going on. I'm just curious in terms of like, Are there changes you're making to your business right now that you think will probably either in terms of finance marketing infrastructure that you think will affect your business strategy moving forward?
Sean Harper 12:54
One of the big things that we've we've done is, you know, our our product is sold and serviced and entirely online. But when something bad happens and your home is actually damaged, we, you know, we're still pretty reliant a few months ago on sending somebody out to help you sort of sort through the damage and figure out, you know, how to get it repaired. With COVID, we've been a lot less dependent on that. So we're, we've automated much more of that and put it online and, you know, many of our customers are now doing that sort of claims adjustment experience entirely on their phone.
John Meese 13:33
Interesting so what does that look like?
Sean Harper 13:36
We basically asked you to take photos of the damage, okay. And, you know, in that in that way, we can avoid sending somebody out and we you know, we have somebody you know, in an office or I mean, while at home, really go through the information, you know, almost like, like using FaceTime or Skype. You know, we have an app where you we asked you and we can even take like measurements and stuff from these, which is pretty neat. You know, if I need to figure out like, oh, there was a water leak in the section of your wall needs to be replaced, let's, you know, take a photo of it, and then we can actually sort of measure it and adjust that. So we're getting the actual dimensions of the part of the wall that that needs to be replaced. So we've invested a lot in that and, and that's one of those things that like, that's actually useful, even when we're not in COVID. It's worth it. So that's, that's, uh, you know, it's good. We should have done that before. We just never were pressurd in that way.
John Meese 14:40
Yeah. You never pressured the same way. Does that lead to some cost savings in your site, even though you have to invest in the software to do it?
Sean Harper 14:46
Yeah, I think it's cost savings, and it's also better for the customer. You know, they get their claims adjusted faster.
John Meese 14:51
That's true and I don't wait for somebody.
Sean Harper 14:54
They don't wait for somebody. Absolutely. Yeah.
John Meese 14:56
Yeah. Well, what about opportunity wise? I mean, is there anything you're doing right now? To pursue I mean, that's an example of sort of like an internal system. But I mean, I'm just thinking also on the external growth side. You guys do exclusively offer home insurance?
Sean Harper 15:11
Yes. Yeah, we do, like homes and condos and manufactured homes, but they're all like structures. We don't do, right, you know, auto insurance or anything like,
John Meese 15:20
Okay, cool. I'm just curious, because I know, like I saw, I saw one graph that showed that when COVID-19 hit life insurance, like new life insurance policy Shut up, like 300% because suddenly people were faced with their mortality. I guess they were suddenly, I mean, that's my theory as to why but um, but so your industry and your business, how are you pivoting to pursue opportunity is Are there new things you're doing to pursue new customers or offer new products that you would that you would have otherwise?
Sean Harper 15:44
Not really, you know, the product that we sell is just, you know, will provide coverage for your home. The way that we write that has changed, you know, the claims example is is one. You know it's become even more of a virtual product. You know, we're and we're thinking through things like, you know what happens when a hurricane happens? It's gonna be completely different. Yeah, you know what you're supposed to do, because it used to be that you would evacuate and go to a shelter. You don't want to do that these days. You know, there may be in some cases you do, maybe in some cases, the risk of the hurricane is sufficient that that you do want to go to a shelter, you know, you put we're weighing risk in a very different way than we were before because now there's a risk of being or other people that we didn't have before.
John Meese 16:37
That's interesting. So how does that relate to like, what's your primary, like marketing and growth channel? for your business? Has that changed?
Sean Harper 16:44
Not really, um, you know, we've been taking, we're taking some Yeah, we just advertise online. Really? And, you know, the, and offline, we do direct mail. We do some television, radio. You know, one one thing. That's great an opportunity for us is as other advertisers that have more cyclical products, our advertising, really, you know, yeah. A lot of consumer goods companies know travel companies are advertising right now it creates some, you know, opportunities for us to buy traffic at low costs and get our word out to get our message out to other customers.
John Meese 17:21
What about the infrastructure and the inside of your company, like in terms of Has anything changed based on how you approach your own financial strategy? In other words, like how much cash you keep on hand, or how you how you authorize expenses? I mean, has that changed because of the economic crisis? I mean, because obviously, it's not just a health crisis we're talking about,
Sean Harper 17:38
It is definitely an economic crisis. You know, one thing that we did that we'll see if it turns out to be a good strategy or not, but when, when this started, we went and raised more capital immediately
John Meese 17:50
Oh from investors
Sean Harper 17:51
From investors. Yeah. And, you know, we we probably did it on worse terms than we would have if we had waited, you know, until the stock market rebounded in the way that it has. But for us, the most important thing was just making sure that we knew the company had enough money to last us for years. Because who knows how long this is gonna last? And we knew it would be harder to raise money for new companies. And so we took that as an opportunity to go out and just, you know, really raised more money than we needed and make sure that we raised enough money to take us to profitability.
John Meese 18:28
Yeah, so what does that I mean, what does that allowed you to do financially? Like? Is that been what's been allowed you to pursue these low cost advertising opportunities in different markets or...
Sean Harper 18:37
A little bit and it's allowed us to hire as well, you know, and, yeah, that's another opportunity is, as you know, there's a lot of supply right now of labor of very skilled labor. And, yeah, that's a lot of add, some really awesome people to our team, which is great, that's good. But you know, you need money to capitalize on that. So
John Meese 18:58
Yes, that's awesome. Are these like full time, full time roles primarily.
Sean Harper 19:01
Yeah, for the most part, we don't really have any, any part timers. You know, we have customer service agents. I have a lot of software engineers. I've actuaries and data scientists, and that's pretty much mostly people at Kin are one of those three types of people.
John Meese 19:16
Okay, cool. That's good to know. Yeah. I mean, I asked about the full time thing, because I know I was actually hiring a part time. Well, a couple part time roles, like right after the big economic crisis said, you know, 30 million unemployed and I was like, Oh, this is, this will be great. I'm hiring right now. There's all these unemployed people. But one thing I ran into was that because it was part time, people who are saying like, well, I'm really making more money just sitting on my couch cgetting an unemployment check. And it was like, these are like people who like even apologize for it. They're like, you know, these are, I mean, I do have friends who were telling me they said, they said two months ago, I was probably the guy making fun of people and unemployment. And now this you know, it's a choice to support my family, and I can't take a part time job and risk losing unemployment. You know, with this bonus money coming from the Government on top of that, so it was just this weird situation that like all these unemployed people, but they could but they wouldn't actually. Like they didn't actually want that. Like, I was like, Okay, I will hire you and you're like, Oh, no, I can't.
Sean Harper 20:10
Yeah, it's funny. It's, you know, with government actions. It's rarely, almost always the first order impact is positive. Right. And it's all the second and third order impacts that are hard to understand. Right. Like I, I don't know how much attention people were putting towards, you know, these sort of, like motivational impacts,
John Meese 20:32
Oh man, like, just the incentive structure. I saw somebody post online and she was like, she was like, okay, you know, as an essential, like, aa this quote essential worker, you know, like, in a restaurant, she was like, my paycheck, you know, $317 You know, my sister's paycheck, like laying at home in the bed was like, $700. You know, whatever it she's like, she's, you know, it's hard to, you know, wrangle with that. And I know people have the best of intentions when they design these programs. I genuinely believe that but yeah, it's the second or third in order impact people aren't thinking about so, I actually have a friend who's normally a he's normally a like touring constantly as the guitarist for like a well known Christian music artist and so obviously that's not happening right now. But he did get offered August coming up in August next month he got offered a couple small gigs. It was like the you know, like they're kind of like sneaking back in with like saying, okay, we're not going to do big concerts but like, here's a couple smaller events that are gonna be you know, safe and and then he offered got offered a couple small gigs paying gigs and he had to say no, because he was like, Well, my family is getting you know, the rent paid and the food in the fridge because of this unemployment check. So even if you're gonna pay me to do two gigs, that's not enough to replace that so I have to, and you know, in risk losing unemployment. And so it kind of like removes the ability for this sort of like, like ramping up like basically you have to go straight from like, unemployed to full time. And I think that's, that's probably gonna, that's that's gonna be really tricky to recover from just it's just making it it's making it harder to for the, For the employment market to recover.
Sean Harper 22:02
Yeah, I think that's probably right. Yeah.
John Meese 22:05
So, you know, you've mentioned that you have been an entrepreneur a couple times over. So I'm curious what other businesses? I mean, you mentioned like technology and finance. So what other business models you've been involved in before?
Sean Harper 22:18
Well, so my last one was really similar to this one. You know, here, we built a insurance company from scratch using modern technology and sold it directly to the consumer. My last one was a payment processing business. You know, similar to like stripe or square, if you know, those? You know, and that was similar, you know, most payment processors were built 30, 40 years ago, many are still using the same technology now. And, you know, we were able to build one that, you know, it had it had really modern interfaces and API's for the developers to use. And we also could underwrite the account so you could start processing real money transactions immediately without having to go back to the bank for for underwriting, so. Yes. And that's now like, kind of, you know, the good, the good companies all have that
John Meese 23:16
Yeah, that's kind of center now, but yeah, I mean, I was, yeah, I mean, five years ago, five or six years ago, I was the executive director of the Tennessee Bitcoin Alliance. And so we were very much right there in that game of like, trying to shake the banks by the shoulders and be like, wake up and grow up, or try to do business at the speed of light, you know?
Sean Harper 23:33
Yeah, but you have to I mean, it's, it's like, so I sold that business to to Groupon. Right. after they went public. And, you know, I think if we expect incumbent companies in industries like banking and insurance to drive innovation, I think we'll be sorely disappointed. Right. These are protected industries. They're oligopolies. These businesses make a ton of money, just by they're doing the same thing they did yesterday. Right? And it's sort of up to you guys. It's up to the startups and the tech companies to go and push things like, you know, Bitcoin or you know, redoing the technology stack or getting rid of the, you know, old distribution methods you know, and so I always think about like, you know, ways that the government can help us the market to benefit people. And you know, the government regulators I think are not often focused enough on creating healthy competitive environment they get really focused on like protecting the existing guys you know, which isn't always best for the consumer,
John Meese 24:43
Which they they're thankful they said no to a few times over the years like there was apparently you know, I wasn't around for this I just read about it, but you know, like when the Model T Ford became more kind of standard and this sort of automobile started to pick picking up then the, the horse and carriage industry, which is Point employed like, I'm not I'm gonna misquote the number if I say it, but you know millions of people, you have to think these are people, they're people that were raising horses that were building, you know wagons to attach the horses. There's people who are actually the drivers of the wagons and the horses on the streets like the taxi type things. Then there was an entire crew, every city had fully employed people just cleaning up manure on the streets every day. So there's like they're like, so when the automobile started coming out, people were like you were destroying jobs. And so this is massive campaign from the horse and carriage industry to protect their protect their business to stop the you know, death machines as they would call them, you know, like the and into subsidize their industry. Thankfully, for whatever reason, at that time, the government people at play didn't do that. And so that's what we got the car, but you know, there's so many other times now where that's become like the standard responses like oh, yeah, don't worry, we'll protect you. We don't wanna lose jobs. Like I said, it's like, well, what would it be if they had protected all the jobs for all those people? And we still had, you know, manure, cleaner uppers, walking up down the street getting paid to just clean up crap. But just I'm just I'm thankful that we've moved on from that. And I do wonder what other innovation is currently being held back by our current culture of protect and preserve?
Sean Harper 26:21
Yeah, well, you know, it's, it's the government's job to promote stability. Right. You know, so we, we probably don't want the government like we, you do, I think, want that we prefer them to be somewhat more cautious. You know,
John Meese 26:36
that's a good point, the reckless governments out there aren't really helping anybody.
Sean Harper 26:40
Exactly. You could leave the VCs or the tech companies to do reckless things. Yes, you know, but, but ultimately, you know, these two things work together to make sure that the market functions, you know, in a way that's that's beneficial, at least most of the time.
John Meese 26:56
So, Sean, what advice do you have for other business owners About how to build or rebuild a profit versus in any economy. And I mean, this is obviously a very unique economic crisis, but it's not the first economic crisis we've had, nor will it be the last. So what advice do you have for business owners? You know, whether they're small brick and mortar business owners or tech based companies like yours, trying to figure out like, what do I how do I how do I do this? I mean, how do I build a proper business in any economy? That's not just dependent upon when things are going good?
Sean Harper 27:23
Yeah, I mean, I, I think, three pieces of advice. One, you know, just because you were doing it yesterday, doesn't mean it makes sense to keep doing it today. And, you know, you have to sort of be watching for where the opportunities are now. And this created some big ones, you know, the, the, in our industry, the shift from, you know, physical to online, it's been really hastened by this and, you know, we're lucky we're in a spot where that helps us. But, you know, that's gonna create more opportunities for more people if they choose to go after it. The second is, you know, I think as an entrepreneur, you're you're basically every day you have a chance to discover something amazing. You know, that'll be the next great product, the next great like marketing thing, but only if you survive that long. So you need to make sure that you have enough resources that you're around to make that innovation and capitalize on that opportunity. You don't run out of money basically. You know that those are those are probably the two biggest you know, even if the money is expensive, or even if you have to make cuts that you didn't necessarily want to make, you know, it's it's worth it to make sure that you'll survive.
John Meese 28:46
Well, Sean, that's great. I think it's good advice. What did you mention? You got three pieces?
Sean Harper 28:50
I forgot a third one.
John Meese 28:51
Okay. Yeah. So 1 and 2
Sean Harper 28:52
I think I had 3 in my mind, and I don't know where it whet it's out there somewhere.
John Meese 28:56
Okay, that's the third thing is just follow your gut right or so. Like that?
Sean Harper 29:00
I don't know.
John Meese 29:01
Yeah. Okay. All right. Well, anyways, that's helpful, Shawn. I appreciate that. Um, so where can we find you and learn more about you online Sean and your business?
Sean Harper 29:09
Yeah. So Kin.com - K-I-N, like family .com and you know, we've we've got a media and Twitter and all the all those shows off. We're always writing things, which just hit us up at the website.
John Meese 29:24
That sounds great. Well, thank you, Shawn. I appreciate you. Keep up the good work.
Sean Harper 29:27
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
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