The Dead Pixels Society podcast

The story of developing a wall decor product, with Jeff Southard, Collagewall

October 17, 2021 Gary Pageau/Jeff Southard Season 2 Episode 55
The Dead Pixels Society podcast
The story of developing a wall decor product, with Jeff Southard, Collagewall
Show Notes Transcript

Gary Pageau of the Dead Pixels Society talks with Jeff Southard, CEO and designer, Collagewall. Southard describes how a fire in his home led him on a journey to invent a new system for hanging and displaying photos. Over the past decade, Collagewall has grown through direct-to-consumer marketing and through partnerships with photo labs and online companies.  Southard talks about product development, strategies and how to make a successful collage.

Collagewall is an easy patented solution to create photo collage displays on walls. Collagewall kits are simple to order, easy to hang & rearrange. Collagewall is available directly from Collagewall and from partners.

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Erin Manning  0:01  
Welcome to the dead pixel society podcast, the photo imaging industry's leading news source. here's your host, Gary Pageau.

Gary Pageau  0:10  
The Dead Pixels Society podcast is brought to you by Mediaclip, Photo Finale, and Advertek Printing. Hello again, and welcome to the dead pixel society podcast. I'm your host, Gary Pageau. And today we're joined by the CEO and designer of Collagewall. Jeff Southard. Hello, Jeff, how are you today?

Jeff Southard  0:32  
I'm doing great. How are you, Gary?

Gary Pageau  0:34  
Good, good. Now you're based in San Francisco, and you're in the software business, and you've been running collage wall. As a as you have said, a side hustle for about 12 years, can you talk about your experience in the software business and how that's translated into Collagewall?

Jeff Southard  0:53  
Yeah, I've been working in tech since, bubble. And just a lot of client work solving problems for folks, helping them figure out how to build, you know, technology websites, or marketing campaigns. And then occasionally, Link jumping into sort of more pocket of product development. So it's still just all software. So say, for example, working for Apple Computer coming up with, you know, prototypes and internal demos that they might like, roll into future products is sort of some of the more interesting work that I've done. And then, you know, huge number of kind of banking websites and, you know, San Francisco Symphony website, and all sorts of projects along the way.

Gary Pageau  1:39  
And then you get the the idea for Collagewall. Were you always interested in photography?

Jeff Southard  1:44  
Yeah, I was basically the chief photographer of her family. So I not just my own immediate family with my two kids. But before then, for my parents, my sisters and brothers, every year, for example, I would be the one who would pull together and make a family collage, as a calendar. So in that way, I was sort of the chief marketer. And I've always been using photos as a way to, to remember things. It's okay to sell products, but mostly just capture the memories and hold on to them.

Gary Pageau  2:20  
So what was the impetus for Collagewall? Well, can you talk about what Collagewall is, and how you came up with it,

Jeff Southard  2:29  
clutter was a picture hanging system, based on a grid of essentially every six inches, you can envision there's a peg on the wall, a custom kind of pushpin. And then there are panels that rest on those pins. So there are five by fives, five by 11, five by 1711. By lemons, basically, anything that six inches minus one inch, which becomes the margins between the panels. Sure. And by having just this grid of pegs, you have a freeform ability to make all sorts of different kinds of layouts on the wall. They float about a quarter inch off the wall, and can be found with either sort of photos mounted on hardboard, or metal prints as well. And they're now available in a number of retailers, which I'm sure we can talk about. But for me, it was created out of need. We had a fire in our house, and we had a chance to remodel everything. And I had this big blank wall. And I'd always been making these collages college photo cards every year for my family basically 20 photos in the same kind of layout I that matches Collagewall. And I wondered how I could get all the digital photos off my hard drive. They weren't hard drives at the time, right onto the wall. And so I just prototype something for myself. And then I was entrepreneurial. And I just wanted to see if I could have a go and build something bigger. And then I just started a long process of of iterating.

Gary Pageau  4:07  
What is the process if you go to you have an account or something, upload some pictures I'm just going and then what happens?

Jeff Southard  4:17  
Yeah, so through Collagewall or unpicks or any number of my partner websites, they have an online editor that you just drag photos into existing kind of templates. On my website, you can actually then rearrange panels completely that's the one benefit of Cosmo calm but for the essential experience, you can preview something on your screen and then just have the assurance that it will install and look exactly like that on the other side. So the cultural product is all about the installation process. The pictures arrive. They are neatly arranged. You have a guide that shows you the actual layout And then there's this giant peaches of grid paper that actually has, you know, markings every six inches, and it's already cut to the right size, you can put it up on the wall and really preview exactly how everything will appear. And then you go back and push it in the pin, sorry, the pins in all those different places go in. And then the panels themselves, everything's printed, everything's done. And you just slide them onto the pins, and everything stays perfectly level. They're very rigid how the effects to the wall, and you're done.

Gary Pageau  5:39  
So when you're doing a project on Claude wall, does it automatically prevent you from creating something that is not? suitable? In other words, is there like error detection? Like is too close? Or it's too off balance or anything like that? Is there any kind of design aesthetic? Or is it just like you throw it up there? And we'll just print, what do you do? Do you protect people from their bad taste is what I'm saying.

Jeff Southard  6:10  
I guess as far as layouts, you're protected, right? Because in most of the implementations, there are, say 40 layouts that I've refined over times with my partners, and figured out which which are the most popular and pleasing layouts. So you are limited to those choice of layouts of different sizes, anywhere from right, I think the smallest is maybe a foot and a half by foot and a half. And the largest is three feet by eight feet wide. And there's just a variety of different squares and rectangles and the shapes that you're going to want in the right kinds of distribution or numbers so that you can find what you need. So so there's always the hard choice of picking photos, right? That's, that's something that our system doesn't try to solve. There may be you know, machine learning or other techniques, that would be possible. But right now, we're really focused on the constraints of the grid, setup, this situation where you can easily use our system, you also uniquely have the ability to swap out the photos and move them around.

Gary Pageau  7:25  
Well, that was what I was going to ask is do you get people who order just can they order individual replacements? So let's say there's a divorce in the family, and they want to get rid of the husband or the wife, they can just Collagewalland right out of there?

Jeff Southard  7:41  
Right? With the product? Is life ready for all the ups and downs? Or you have a child you want to add a child? Yeah, absolutely. Yes. Recently, my daughter, who was just remarking that the Collagewall in our living room was getting a little stale. So she, she made a little update and swapped out photos. And she chose to mostly stay within the same size panels and pictures that we already had. But the grid itself makes it possible for you to change out the internal kind of layout and combination of pictures however you want. Also, the smaller photos, the five inch tall ones, have an ability to have a stand put on them. So you can psych physical things off of the wall onto the mantel or some countertop somewhere that gives them another life. And then you can always expand the claws outward, typically, symmetrically, right, like soon after left and right, I'm going to go another foot on each side. That kind of things. So it's very adaptable in that way. Overall, we see most customers just being delighted by the fact that they can design it, and then install it with ease. And they generally leave it in that way for a long time. And then they get excited. And they find like, Oh, well, I want to make another display on another wall.

Gary Pageau  9:01  
Is there an optimal? Have you found that there's an optimal number of pictures for your, for your customers?

Jeff Southard  9:10  
That's a fascinating question.

Gary Pageau  9:14  
Number for you. It'd be as many as possible, but

Jeff Southard  9:19  
Well, no, the it really depends on the space. I think it's easier to have, in a way more pictures just because you don't have to do as much editorial work. Right? Right. That's the hardest thing is picking down all the years photos or all the photos of a trip down to four photos. Right? Wow, that's really hard. You know, we'll take a photo and nearly impossible, but if I have like 12 photos, and they're clearly sums that I want to pop more than others, so like those will be in a larger panel. But then there are different details different moments or textures. Say For travel photo, I'm sorry, a travel collage, you might want to have like, oh, there's this one great group photo. And that's an 11 by 17 wide, because it's like sort of landscape. But then you have some textural things Oh, like, let's like that one beautiful flower that we were remarking about, or the, the texture of the tiles in the place where we are staying. That's a five by five. Right? The most interesting collages to me, personally, are the ones where people are bringing all many different kinds of elements together, right? Not just say, for example, in a photoshoot that they have with professional photographer, taking all the possible permutations of the family of two parents and two kids, all the four shots, like repeating just oh, here they are, they're looking this way. They're looking that way. There's no like really close ups, white shots, textural kinds of elements.

Gary Pageau  11:02  
You have this idea, you're in the software business, and there's a lot of people who have lots of ideas. But you've managed to turn this idea into a business that you've had now for, what 1012 years? What were the steps for you to realize, I'm gonna need, you know, some sort of output service. I mean, how did you work through those steps.

Jeff Southard  11:26  
First thing I bought was just a book, that is basically how to bring your product to market. And what was that, oh, I don't even know if it's relevant anymore. The now that I'm in software product design, I also have just many more years of this, essentially, you may have a vision as I very quickly got a vision for essentially what I want to do get photos onto your wall and this grid kind of structure. And then that just because a huge number of tests that you need to perform. For me, the first test was, did my family like it. So I made a on that wall I mentioned, I made a large collage, just packing together things with hardware store parts. And I was a member of Tech Shop, which at the time, was a maker space, and they had laser cutters, and I learned all about making custom frames, and I had a first prototype, and people liked it and went well. As I mentioned, I was kind of excited to make some products that I could sell. So I just started the process of just going for it. And so the next was sort of a, an MVP, you know, minimal viable product, something that someone will actually buy and value I pieced together and refined the design of it a little bit more so that I could actually deliver something that a friend would purchase and that continued to get some encouragement there. I knew I want to end up with something that I could sell for a long time and not just that stolen from me so I did the research and figured out how to do a provisional patent. So a provisional patent application is something that kinds of hold basically holds your place in line for a year for then he for you to fire file a full regular patent application. And I was encouraged there, there's there's nothing out there in the world of utility patents in the US for what I was doing. So okay, that was the next test.

Gary Pageau  13:31  
Of course, it's us only right I'm sure you may have maybe run into knock offs around the world perhaps

Jeff Southard  13:37  
not I haven't noticed any yet but I'm not really honestly watching it, I made a choice, you have to make a choice like are you going to pursue an international patent right front, and I chose not to go there. So that process was you know, at that point, then I was just I decided I was just gonna make these things and sell these things myself. So I wasn't even thinking about my partners you know, eventually became like a photo and take the care of Canada now you know, em pics, but back at that time, I was doing it all so I just set up and I found a way using Costco to print the large prints. And I just figured out the adhesion and the mounting and the rolling and became You know, my own little mini photo lab just to test out this product. And, you know, so I had you know, two sales then three sales, then eight sales, then 10. And it just kept going and I kept refining the product. And

Gary Pageau  14:39  
so so so how were you reaching people in those early days?

Jeff Southard  14:46  
Yeah, at the start with any product I've developed has always just been friends and family at the very start, but then quickly want to get past them because they'll just burn out on all the favors. You're asking them. Right so the first sort of strangers How did that happen? I really just picked what I actually it was 10 years ago, I, somehow a bloggers found out about it, they wrote up something, then she had a day job or a gig at the New York Times. And about in 2010, she wrote an article that included New York Times, and suddenly, you know, I had suddenly, you know, forth 14,000 unique visitors in a month and 60 orders. And I was kind of off to the races and I had this validation that at a wide level, people were interested in it. These days, any new product development will completely be solving this whole basics, how do people discover the product, right? at a much earlier stage, if I step into something like that's a completely new market, because that's the toughest part, and anyone out there, I don't really recommend that they really go into it. Basically, any product they develop needs to build up the sales and marketing simultaneously with the design work or the product work or the software design. Because there's really just no point in investing in all that work. Unless you can't reach the audience. And they're not interested in what you want. Well, I

Gary Pageau  16:30  
think that's interesting, what you've done is, you've gone the route, or you've avoided the route, I should say, that a lot of people go on where they had this idea. And they think, oh, I've got to buy a printer, I've got to build a lab, I got to start shipping all this stuff myself, I guess, or doing all this stuff yourself. And you've mostly focused on the part you do best and outsource the printing and whatnot to the to your partners.

Jeff Southard  16:58  
Yeah, that was the real innovation. For me, it's my little business was let others do what they're good at. And let me focus what I'm good at. So as you said, you know, bay photo Millers, and pics they have reach far beyond what I honestly want to spend my time, you know, generating and figuring out, I am much more comfortable as a product designer, this is a one person venture. I don't need to make huge amounts of money to pay myself a salary. So yeah,

Gary Pageau  17:35  
huge amounts of money are nice. Okay, yes,

Jeff Southard  17:38  
let's go there.

Gary Pageau  17:40  
I mean, obviously, this is a commercial venture, right? I mean, you're definitely want to expand it. And that's one of the things I wanted to talk about is you now have a partnership with photo finale, which for full disclosure is a sponsor of the dead pixels society. And tell us a little bit about that partnership.

Jeff Southard  17:57  
Yeah, it's, it's been a long sort of slow rollout for Collagewall back in 2011, I hit this show, I collect a whole bunch of business cards, I bothered everyone at every booth made all the connections. And that led to getting the names of people that photo finale, people, you know, at all the big labs, and that outreach just sort of sat there. At one point I had some partners that wanted to do a photo finale integration. So maybe five years ago, we did just the integration of basically collage while being a product that you could order in photo finale. But out of the excitement of a lab dance camera, they really want to offer Collagewall and their close collaborators with photo finale as one of their labs and that just rekindled that relationship and now now we're doing it right so you're going to see that photo finale is going to be promoting Collagewall displays as something that that all their partners can order using their software that's really been the key to all of our expansion has been the software partners because there's we're we're in complete alignment that they they want to have more sales on the systems that they build and and we want to reach more partners and Collagewall displays are inherently more complex than most products. Right? There's a unique beast that that most people there's book editing software and there's collage product software, but people don't have Collagewall displays as a typical off rate. So for the for the finale is doing it right and, and and figuring out how to have the software support that

Gary Pageau  19:57  
I think one of the things that you've taught Question is there's an innate desire for people to see their printed pictures. But I think a lot of people, you know, like, maybe they want to do a collage book or something like that, but they feel like, you know, I don't really have the eye for it. I don't know if it's gonna work. It seems complicated. So it seems to me like you've addressed that solution, that idea that you're trying to make it easy. Have you gotten to the point where you're looking at maybe doing some AR where people can pre visualize on the wall, what their collage will look like?

Jeff Southard  20:36  
I think that would be exciting. I was just recently checking out the current state of AR. And so far, I'm not seeing any great uptick, at least by software reviews on AR for this. But I agree there's there's got to be something interesting there. For there are some people

Gary Pageau  20:55  
doing it. I mean, with more for Canvas, though. So you can you can judge the canvas above the couch kind of thing, you know, is it the right size? That's right, I only see like a Collagewall or something that could also be an application for that.

Jeff Southard  21:09  
I look forward to photo finale and others making that happen. I don't know if it's something that I'll personally step into. Yeah. But

Gary Pageau  21:17  
that is your piece of it, even though it's sort of your interface for laying out you don't see that as something you'd want to approach.

Jeff Southard  21:28  
Art. So our sole focus has been on the, the actual installation process. Sure. And that has been where we've created the most value for folks. Okay, the pre visualization, I definitely agree there's something there to improve to get people more comfortable with what they're about to purchase, and that it's gonna look good and be the right size. I think that we might get into that. But since I developed custom software all the time for clients, I know how expensive it is. And even with the API's, and what say Apple provides, there's still a lot of work to really do it. Right. So it does take a big enough investment that i don't know if i personally could justify it for kind of where we are.

Gary Pageau  22:13  
Sure. So going forward, there's a lot of excitement in the photo output world for the various output services, the substrates, right, yeah, metal, ceramic wood, cloth, are there any limits in that way to what Collagewall can be, can be applied to.

Jeff Southard  22:36  
Right now our our backing is adhesive, and it attaches this kind of this rigid, right connection there to the pegs on the wall. So any rigid substrate, rigid back substrate works we've really tested it with with all of them. So the most popular variations are the metal prints, and hardboard, which is basically a Masonite or you know, three inch, that's sorry, three millimeter PVC. The system can support much heavier weights. So we don't have any partners offering wood. But our system would work on that. Right now, Canvas is not really compatible with our current product. But we're playing around with ideas there.

Gary Pageau  23:23  
Yeah, I can. Yeah, I can see that where that would be a challenge.

Jeff Southard  23:26  
Yeah. So variations of this product. And you know, grids that are like a one inch grid like has endless permutations and canvas Becky's that work right on the wood frame, and oh my gosh, so many things I've generated and never brought to market. In the end, we're happy that the right that Collagewall in this geometry and how it works is just a sweet spot of enough things that it's not made sense to kind of go beyond it. But I look forward to those opportunities, I could see a 2x variation of Collagewall for Canvas might be very natural thing. And that might be something I jump into in the next year.

Gary Pageau  24:10  
I appreciate your singular focus on the appeal of Collagewall, because I find that one of the things that can derail some companies is sort of the feature creep or mission creep, like we, you know, we want the solution that will make a great collage. And then it turns into, we want to be your entire home decorating solution, you know, so I appreciate your attention to sort of your core business.

Jeff Southard  24:41  
Yeah, focus is one of the hardest things for any new product team to have. I felt that many times

Gary Pageau  24:50  
or restraint, I guess is the word I'm looking for.

Jeff Southard  24:53  
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. But when it comes down to it, if you look at say those You know, 30 different layouts that our partners are offering, you'll find something that you like and works well. And there you have a whole set of choices figured out, like, and then the choices like oh well, two different kinds of panels, photographic prints on hardboard, or metal prints. Alright, that's about the right amount of choice. Don't even get me started on like all the permutations of possible finishes and tech strains on prints, or all the other things. I personally come at it with the perspective of the fewer choices, the better.

Gary Pageau  25:34  
That delves into the idea of storytelling as a business, as a business driver, his photo uniquely suited for that,

Jeff Southard  25:41  
I could say that my best collage work always tells a story. And that might be calendars that I put together for my family. And just even making a choice of four photos on a calendar well for the wall displays. collages are a really interesting way to, at the very least, maybe not tell a story but just have a sensible collection of things, right. So say for, you know, an architecture firm to show all the different work that they do, and then throw in a logo, that's, that is a very approachable collage that any marketing person can pull together, and it can look really good, right to go to next level of storytelling is a real crafts that can be quite hard, and takes a large amount of source material, and a lot of patience to really tease apart a complex story. I think those things are just so often beyond the reach of most people. I think that's the art of you know, film and professional graphic designers. Just even having some sensible ideas of just photos to put together a collection. So as simple as, you know, all the photos on our property, I'm sorry, all the flowers on our property, you know, is a fine, excellent kind of collage, or actually a friend that we visit has a whole collection of farm animals. So I made for her this great collage of all the animals and some of the wild flowers on the property. And it's probably one of the best collages I've made. You know,

Gary Pageau  27:27  
it's interesting instead, just because, you know what it gets into the challenge that the people who are in the photo book business run into, right? Because, you know, you're trying to sell a tell a story, in most cases, you don't want to have, you know, just random pictures scattered through a book. I mean, yes, you can do that. And I know people do that. But you know, I think the people the books that are valued the most by consumers are the ones that you know, tell a story of a, a wedding or a vacation or someone's life or a Year in the Life. And I've heard people describe like collages as you know, one, look photo books, you know, that sort of idea, which is great. But like you said, you have to have some sort of storytelling chops.

Jeff Southard  28:17  
Absolutely. It's pretty hard. That's again, why some occasions have the display option that lets you just throw a whole lot of photos up on a wall, right is delightful. And the story will just reveal itself. Some of the, my favorite customer collages are cases where people just, they just fill a whole wall, right? It's kind of like the classic overwhelming kind of family photo wall, but it is just the raw essence of you know, the whole collage together just says family life growing up, and that's the powerful stuff of life. So it works. And then other collages where people just fit pick, you know, just very precise subject matter. And just go for like my one of my favorite collages was this one guy in tech, pulled together all these photos of, of old 1960s computer equipment with big red knobs and four button cool buttons and just the industrial design of it was just stunning. When you just make a collage of all those things in close up displays

Gary Pageau  29:34  
going forward. What's next for Collagewall, more partnerships more what

Jeff Southard  29:40  
definitely we're hoping to expand this some more because honestly, there are many more people that don't yet know about it. So expanding there, I'm playing around with a small version of Collagewall that works for a fridge and I have some interests from partners on that. The product actually has many other permutations. But I'll just leave it at that.

Gary Pageau  30:07  
The fridge is the universal display device.

Jeff Southard  30:10  
Well, it's it. Yes, it The fridge is probably the first place that people would use this new, these new kind of magnetic blocks, but they actually could then be put anywhere.

Gary Pageau  30:25  
So Jeff, one of the characteristics of a really great Collagewall. For me,

Jeff Southard  30:30  
like with photo books, good wall display comes down to the photo selection, which can be its own dance and complexity. Say, for a family, photo wall, or any kind of collage, you need to have the fairness how much how much screen real estate, I mean, you know, picture real estate is dedicated. Each child, let's say, is a concern, and each parent and each person. And that's can be a complex puzzle. When I make collages for myself every year, for that exact purpose, I actually have a format where I just lay out, okay, collect all the pictures of each child, and write them the best one, and then I just pull from those, those sets of photos, and I drag them into the collage. So there's, you have to be diplomatic, with a good collage. I think there needs to be a lot of variety in photos, not just a whole bunch of, Oh, I love these shots of the four of us together, let's just put all those together, like no, there used to be obviously a lot of different variety of shots. So a group photo of, you know, 12 people, and then a shot of two people, but then a lot of shots of single people and close ups. And you know, so just variety.

Gary Pageau  31:50  
Is there a ratio? Let's say you're doing like, most people for design, per se, you'd really don't want even right, you want varying sizes, and, and maybe an uneven number of things. of let's say you're doing seven pictures in a collage? And would there be like one big one of the gap, and then an individual shot of some people? And then

Jeff Southard  32:14  
yeah, you need to have some focus. So say we have collages that have like really, you know, bold 11 by 11 panels in sort of a nice asymmetric, adjacent, or I'm sorry, spread out from each other. That might be for your to do to kids, if you have, you know, two kids, and we have other layouts that have like three, kind of highlight it. And then the other photos just sort of work their way around that. So yeah, any wall display needs to have some anchor large images that give shape to it and give you some first glanceable thing that your eyes are attracted to?

Gary Pageau  32:54  
Would there be a benefit to almost like a wizard type approach where you're saying, you know, why are you making a collage while I'm making collage? Well, to show off my family, how many people in your family? Absolutely. Oh, and then today, I would almost think you should walk people through it to that point.

Jeff Southard  33:13  
Yeah, and I've thought about developing that some more because I do live it every year personally. The first way to do that with any product is just start offering the service. So you know $50 on cultural comm you know, design service will help you out. I've I've had that unofficially available, and some folks have taken me up on it. And I haven't seen enough interest to go and spend more effort in automating that and figuring out the right steps or wizard as you describe. But there's definitely something there. Because that really is the hardest part of any of these multi picture projects is selecting the photos. At this point. Everything else is relatively straightforward.

Gary Pageau  34:01  
Do you have any insight into how many people start a project and then bail?

Jeff Southard  34:06  
Oh, I'm embarrassed to say that I don't as as someone I should know that one. guys in

Gary Pageau  34:12  
the photo book world because you and I talked a little bit of that Collagewalls are kind of like photo books in some sense in terms of editing the the abandoned rates quite high. quite high.

Jeff Southard  34:22  
Yeah, I I completely believe that. I was impressed by the frame bridge website, where they do everything they can to walk you through the entire thing on one screen. Yeah. I think that's that's a good approach. Because it's a big it's a big commitment. Yeah, I've had customers. Recently I was helping a customer over the phone and we actually got a screen sharing sessions, so I could help her put together what ended up being three giant cultural displays with a total Cost of $4,000.

Gary Pageau  35:02  
Well, I think that was worth your time.

Jeff Southard  35:05  
In the end it was. But it's just, yeah. Some people. Well, she had all the photos and she had an existing wall and she scanned all the photos and she just knew I need to redo this thing. I wonder do it. I like the look of this thing. Right? And she just took it on. But it's a project to do any of these things and the more we can simplify it, the better.

Gary Pageau  35:31  
Well thank you, Jeff, for your time appreciate your explaining Collagewall and sharing its history and what makes it special. Where can people go for more information or if they're looking to become a partner

Jeff Southard  35:42 is the best starting point for customers. And then is the best place for partners.

Gary Pageau  35:54  
Great. Well thank you, Jeff, for your time and have a great week.

Jeff Southard  35:58  
Thanks, Gary. You too.

Erin Manning  36:02  
thank you for listening to the Dead Pixels society podcast. Read more great stories and sign up for the newsletter at

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