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Financial Wellness for Arts Administrators
Episode 54

Financial Wellness for Arts Administrators

CI to Eye with Darren Sussman

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Darren and Erik talk about why it’s crucial for arts professionals to have the freedom of financial wellness. They also discuss financial planning offense and defense (trigger warning: sports metaphor), and growth lessons from Darren’s years at TheaterMania and OvationTix.

Erik Gensler: Darren, thank you so much for being here.

Darren Sussman: Thank you so much for having me.

Erik Gensler: You’re the founder of TheaterMania and its national ticketing platform, OvationTix. Once you sold the company, what were you thinking was gonna be your next chapter?

Darren Sussman: Well, like anyone else it was sort of a big “take a deep breath.” Wow, you know, who am I gonna be now? What am I gonna be now? And most importantly for me is how can I stay relevant? How can I keep contributing to the arts space? Because this, after nineteen years of Theater Mania and OvationTix, this is the people I know, this is the industry I know, and this is the industry I wanted to serve. So, the big reflection was just, how can I continue to serve the industry with something that needs to be served? So, that was the sort of overarching thought process that I was going through. So, from there, you know, I actually did stumble and fall a couple of times before I came onto this new project with the Institute of Financial Wellness. But (laughs) you know, it didn’t work out. So, anyway, as I was progressing, my brother … My brother Eric Sussman has been in the financial services industry for 25 to 30 years. He’s been helping people plan their retirements, make sure they have successful financial lives, and he’s now a CEO of a Fortune 500 company out of South Florida that provides financial services. So it was literally a conversation between us. He was in New York attending the gala for the La MaMa Gala. They were honoring me for some of my work to the theater community. And he literally said to me as we were walking down the path, having a morning walk, he’s like, “You know, Darren, do arts organizations have good financial education and financial wellness programs or benefits? I mean, what happens?” I was like, “I don’t think so but let me find out.” So, that was kind of the impetus for the whole thing was when he asked that question and the reason he asked that question was because it’s something that his organization does for traditional industries. You know, Google has plenty of financial wellness, law firms, accountants, medical offices, teachers. So that was what sparked it.

Erik Gensler: Very cool. So, tell us about the Institute of Financial Wellness for the Arts. What is your mission and what do you offer?

Darren Sussman: So, the mission of the Institute of Financial Wellness for the Arts is pretty clear. The mission is to provide valuable financial education, and personal planning services for arts organizations and artists everywhere. So, what does that mean? That means that we believe that every artist, arts professional, actor, dancer, musician deserves to have a well planned financial life. And many of them do, but many don’t. And one of the reasons, once the light bulb went on to try to do this, we did a lot of due diligence and what we found was that most arts organizations will start with … A lot of them offer good health insurance and, you know, these are real companies with real people working. However, there was a bit of a gap there with financial companies coming into their workplaces and targeting them as potential prospects or leads to be able to offer good benefit programs, or financial wellbeing services for those employees. So, the first thing we did was we tested the waters to make sure that these arts organizations were interested in having wellness in the workplace. A) it’s a good retention tool, it’s a good recruitment tool, and they care about their employees, so it’s a compassionate way to make sure that their employees are making good financial decisions and have the access to the financial resources they need in order to execute on that.

Erik Gensler: And so, how do you help an organization and the administrators and the artists there?

Darren Sussman: So, on the arts organization level … Cause there’s two facets to our business. The arts organization, then there’s the individual working artist. So, we’ll start in with what you just said.

Erik Gensler: Okay.

Darren Sussman: So, we help the arts organization, first and foremost, by usually meeting with someone at the executive level, or at the HR level, talking to them, learning a little bit about what they do already, what they don’t do. Who are there employees? What’s important to them? So, for example, here in New York, in the last couple days, I was talking to the Managing Director in Lincoln Center and the CEO of TheaterWorks. So, those are conversations having, making sure this is something they value—and they always do. And then we learn, we find out, do you have a 403(b)? Do you offer whole-life group insurance for your staff? Do you have disability plans? Do you bring education into the workplace? Do your existing vendors or providers actually care? Do you know who they are? Does your staff know about their benefit programs? Do they have any idea how they work? So, we ask a bunch of questions and then we learn. And then, from there, generally speaking, what happens next is, put something on the calendar and usually it’s a financial wellness workshop that we come in and do for the entire staff, no strings attached. We don’t charge the organization. We come in, we do a little intake before we get there, so all the employees get to tell us a little bit about what really matters to them. So, it becomes somewhat curated for them in a way.

Erik Gensler: And on the artist side, how is that different?

Darren Sussman: That’s different … and that’s another reason we exist. And this was the secondary light bulb that went on once we started getting out into the market, cause at first it was truly just to serve the arts organizations. And then all the sudden we started finding that, you know, I have a lot of friends that are actors, musicians, dancers, and when I’d be talking to them about this, literally, they’d be like, “Oh my God can you help me? Oh my God can you help me?” I heard that many times. And so, it was very organic. We started saying “Oh, you know, sure.” You know? The traditional financial services industry don’t know how to find these people. How do you find a Broadway actor? How do you find a musician on tour? How do you find the dancer at Alvin Ailey? They don’t even know who they are, how they exist, and they’re not top of mind prospect-wise either because they might not think that they make a lot of money, but we know that Broadway actors make a real good living. We know that there’s a lot of working musicians out there that make six figures. And so, these are real people that need to really think about their retirement. The other problem they have is, maybe they have a pension with the actors’ union or with SAG-AFTRA, or possibly they have a pension with the musicians’ union. However, that’s kind of usually about it and they’re not really speaking to anybody about creating a well- rounded financial plan for themselves—a traditional financial advisor of sorts.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Darren Sussman: So, that’s what we do. We help them fill the rest of those gaps out and complete that circle for themselves so they can go on and focus on their work.

Erik Gensler: So, this podcast is mostly for arts administrators and I know a lot of arts organizations … Like, when I worked at New York City Opera, we had a 403(b) and it was a really great savings program. Beyond a 403(b), which is automatically pulling out money every month and in some cases matching it, what should arts administrators be thinking about for their financial future?

Darren Sussman: Yeah, well, let me start by saying, I’m not a financial coach with the Institute of Financial Wellness. My job is to raise the conversation, amplify it, and to make sure that we have the best coaches that understand the working artist, the working arts administrator, and have empathy and knowledge on how to serve them.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Darren Sussman: But I can answer this question-

Erik Gensler: Great.

Darren Sussman: … because I’ve learned quite a bit doing this. And the 403(b) is super important. It’s a super good thing, but there’s lots of different kinds of 403(b)s and usually what happens is an arts organization, ten employees, twenty employees, 30 employees, a small amount of them contribute, there’s usually not a match. So, the first thing that’s missing is most of these employees don’t actually know what’s in their benefit program, don’t know where they’re being invested, don’t know the rules about it, and don’t really understand how it fits into the context of the rest of their financial wellbeing.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Darren Sussman: So, that’s the first place, oftentimes, we start is making sure people understand any existing benefits they may or may not have. And then, from there, the work begins on making that person understand, what does retirement look like in reality? What does a real financial plan look like? And that includes offensive approach and a defensive approach. So, we help them understand offense and defense, and what do I mean by that? I mean, offense is about things you do to accumulate money over time, the things you can invest in. 403(b), 401(k), Roth IRA, traditional IRA, money market, savings plan, stocks and bonds, mutual funds, electronic fund accounts. I mean, there’s all different kinds of ways people can accumulate money. And it always depends on the person’s goals. So, there we look at the offense and then we help them understand defense: what happens if you get hurt? What happens if you get sick? Is your family taken care of? What types of insurances do you have in place? Anything defensive to make sure that if something were to happen, they’re protected along the way. Cause if you don’t have defense, you could deplete a lot of things in a scenario. The other thing that’s really, really important—and this is something that many people overlook—there’s two parts of retirement planning. Part one is accumulation. The second part is distribution. And what does that mean? At some point, you have to start paying yourself back. So, the choices you make as you’re growing your nest egg are very important, not just to think about getting my six percent, getting my five percent, getting my seven percent, I’m gonna take this chance on this bigger, higher yield. However, you also have to be thinking about when it comes for that to be able to pay me back, the distribution phase, going down the mountain of life, how does that work? What are the tax consequences? Can I … Is this only market correlated? What if the stock market’s down when it’s time to distributes back to myself? Not a great time to pull money out of your mutual fund if the market’s down by 20%. You want to have alternative asset classes in place so that you can use imaginations and pull money where it’s best pulled out from at such time when you need it.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. So many in the field are not here for the huge paychecks. In fact, I was an early career arts administrator and, frankly, money was really tight. I’m curious given that fact, how should arts administrators, particularly in their early stages of their career, be thinking about their financial futures?

Darren Sussman: The good news is so many arts administrators are young when they start out. The good news also is they’re usually highly educated and they’re usually quite ambitious and they’re in for the long haul in this career. The bad news is, like you said, it’s not the highest paying entry-level jobs in the world and oftentimes there’s student debt involved. But what we try to do is get to people early cause I could really say, you know, the most important thing is to start early. The second most important thing is to start (laughs). But taking action is really important. So, what we try to do, really … A core part of our entire mission and our job is to raise awareness, raise the conversation so that people could understand that they can take action and then help them take action. And what that means is there’s a really direct correlation between time and money and it’s really fascinating when we do one of the exercises in our programs where we show people, what does it look like if you’re 25 and you put X away until you’re 65? And it’s usually a very small amount we show that almost anybody can afford. It’s usually the cost of Starbucks once a week or something like that that they can reallocate. And so, by doing that and they see what happens over those years, they get excited, enthusiastic, and they realize, “Wow, this really makes a difference.” And that begets more savings and that begets more options to them and it creates a real sense of security in the workplace, too, because then what happens is, “Wow, I’m putting money away. Even though I’m not the highest paid person at the dinner table when I’m sitting around with my friends, I’m also saving and I’m on track for a healthy retirement and I know that I am through that awareness.”

Erik Gensler: It’s the magic of compound interest.

Darren Sussman: It is exactly the magic of compound … Magic!

Erik Gensler: (laughs) What is compound interest?

Darren Sussman: Compound interest is when you have one dollar becomes two dollars, but then you get interest on that two dollars. So, as your money compounds, you’re getting interest on the money as the money gains interest as the interest gains money and on and on and on.

Erik Gensler: It’s a virtuous cycle.

Darren Sussman: Yes.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. So, which of your offerings is free and how does your organization make money?

Darren Sussman: Well, I’m having the time of my life doing this because for many years, through TheaterMania, I’ve produced Broadway shows and a lot of the work I’ve done, you know, I’m often asking people for money, to raise money, hopefully they’ll be a great return, buy media or whatever it is, which is all good cause it was all good things we would deliver for whatever money was spent. In this particular business model, everything we do in the workplace, one-on-one on the website, whatever you access, the education, all of that is totally free. So, that’s a very good thing for the artist and the arts organization. We go into the workplace. We don’t charge for any of that stuff. It’s all part of our wellness. It goes even further because then we facilitate our business model you asked about. We facilitate the relationship with a coach and advisor either for the individual or to come work with that organization to see, perhaps, if they want to put new benefits in place or if just individuals in that organization want to work with one of the coaches. So, then what happens is in the advising economic model, the institutions by which assets get deployed generally remunerate those advisors for the work. So, we also don’t have to charge the organization or the artist any fees to do the work and each of our coaches are planners. They have to do what’s in the best interest of the client, both on compliance from the organizations they work for, as well as just their licenses and their regulation and their business model. They’re not product-specific, they’re planning-specific. So then we get … We do earn revenue when a coach or an advisor goes to work with an organization or an individual. We get remunerated from the coaches, actually, as a percentage of whatever they’re earning from the institutions.

Erik Gensler: Great. So, beyond investing in 401(k)s and Roth IRAs, what are the other areas where you’re thinking about financial management? As a working individual, what else should an administrator be thinking about?

Darren Sussman: The first thing almost every coach, financial advisor, works with with a new client is budget. It’s the first place to start. Is to really … How many people do it? I mean, I’m guilty of that. If I asked you right now what’s your exact budget each month? What comes in? What goes out? Where does it go? It’s a discipline and you have to sit down. And it’s also a little scary, cause, you know, we want to avoid it. It’s like let’s put our head in the sand for a minute, especially if things aren’t good. So, that’s the first work that goes on and when you do that work, oftentimes, you realize, “Wow! If I just do this here, and do that there-“

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Darren Sussman: “… that creates a little space.”

Erik Gensler: Yeah. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Or where you don’t measure.

Darren Sussman: You can’t manage what you … Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Darren Sussman: So, it’s exactly. It works a lot like interactive advertising.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Darren Sussman: You know? (laughs) You gotta know what’s going on. So, that’s the first work we do. And then from there, it’s a very unique situation. Planning is really all about what matters to you. Do you have children? Do you not have children? Do you need some type of protection because of the work you do? If you hurt your finger, you’re out of work. What kind of investments do you currently have? So, the next thing they do is the second-most important part is setting goals. You have to learn about the individual and then set goals for that individual and those goals are time-based. So, the advisor or the coach learns about what are your goals the next one to five years? Five to ten? Ten to fifteen? And 25 and later? So, what’s important to you and your family? And then, from there, then you circle back and then you look at the scope of possibility. You say, “All right, on the offensive side like I described before, there’s these six or seven options that we can use to put money away. However, the consequences of these two options are different than the consequences of these two.” And it becomes a strategic game. These coaches and advisors, they’ve studied all these different things. They change all the time. They relate to tax laws. They relate to different distribution rules of whatever the asset class is that you’re purchasing. So, all that stuff matters. So, there is no quick answer to that. That’s where the work becomes in, and it always depends on the situation.

Erik Gensler: Right. And I know this is specific, too. But if you can think of, what is one small step everyone listening can take to make their financial future one percent better?

Darren Sussman: Save one percent of everything you make, at least. But the real rule of thumb is if you could save twenty percent of what you make, you’re gonna be in good shape relative to whatever your lifestyle is today to where it’s gonna be. You’re doing okay today. You’re breathing. You’re loving. You’re living. You’re eating. You’re sleeping. So, based on that lifestyle, if you continue through your progression of your career-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Darren Sussman: To make it a goal to save twenty percent of what you make—you make $1,000, you’re gonna save $200. If you can get to that goal, you’re gonna be okay no matter what. Now, the better you save that and the better you allocate it, that’s where some of the more work comes in, but the first thing is save twenty percent of your income. The 80-20 rule exists in financial planning.

Erik Gensler: So, Kristin Chenoweth is on your board. I’m curious how she got involved.

Darren Sussman: Yeah. So, for the Institute of Financial Wellness, we felt it was important, especially cause you’re talking about money … The first we do is make sure all of our coaches are vetted, and have rules about their professional and personal requirements so that we know that we are aligning people with the right people. The second thing I thought was really important was to make sure that we had advocates and people in our corner and I also wanted to do that because I wanted to make sure that this was important to people and that it mattered. We didn’t want to create something that wasn’t wanted or needed. So, I started with some of my personal network and personal friends and Kristin’s one of my friends and I just ran it by her and spoke to her about it and she loved it and thought it was such important work, she volunteered and was happy to come on. And we call them “inspirational board members.” They’re not traditional board members. We don’t have board meetings. There’s no fiscal connection to the organization. They have lent their name, they’ve lent themselves to be available to speak for media, to help spread the message and raise the conversation. So, Kristin’s one of our marquee members, and we have David Bar Katz, Malik Yoba, the list goes on. We have about eight to ten really great inspirational board members.

Erik Gensler: What are some of the organizations in the nonprofit space that you’ve started to work with?

Darren Sussman: We’ve worked with numerous ones already. We’re working closely in Florida, I’ll start, with the South Florida Theatre League and arts organizations throughout South Florida. We have worked here in New York already with organizations like La MaMa, The Barrow Group … We’re in conversations with the organization called TheaterWorks USA to speak to their employees and their touring artists. We’ve met with numerous Broadway show casts. The Kennedy Center, we did some work.

Erik Gensler: Amazing, cool. Well that’s such an important thing and I think it’s something … You’re right. Like, traditional organizations and banks are not looking at the arts as a viable market. And I had some stats here. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts and cultural sector generates 4.2% of the US GDP, contributing more than 763 billion dollars to the economy yearly. I feel we’re not talking about that enough. In 2015, the sector employed 4.9 million people with a median income of close to $50,000. So …

Darren Sussman: That’s … Those are great stats. And they matter because these are so many people working in full-time capacities with real families and real careers that are real important. Not just to themselves but to the community around it. So, I told you our mission before, but our overarching mission, really, is to help make the arts organization and the artist more sustainable in general-

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Darren Sussman: … because with financial wellness, you become more sustainable in your career or in your craft.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. And you have a safe … You feel safer.

Darren Sussman: You feel safer and you can be more creative.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Darren Sussman: Which-

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. I think one of the reasons there’s not been a ton of education in our sector is that. like you mentioned earlier, we’re harder to find, right?

Darren Sussman: When we started TheaterMania in 1998, part of the reason we were able to raise capital and part of the reason we were able to scale so quickly was because we could prove to the investment community that there was a huge market of not-for-profit theaters across the country that were real businesses that would be using our services that sold a lot of tickets. It’s staggering. There’s, like, it’s over 700 viable arts organizations in New York, 273 in Chicago, 350 and some-odd in LA. They’re all over the country. Every single city has an umbrella organization that has … All you got to do is go to one of these conferences and you start seeing all these different companies and the more you get out of New York City, actually, the bigger the theaters are, the bigger the arts institutions are, the more beautiful the lobbies are, the bigger the seats, the bigger the- the stages. So, it’s a big industry. So, that is part of our value proposition is that I know this industry exists. I’ve marketed to them once before.

Erik Gensler: Mm (affirmative)

Darren Sussman: So, that was part of why this works for us to do the IFWA, because I have this connection to the industry. I kinda know where these people are already. I know the organizations to get the message out. It’s why we’re moving quickly. And then, the other half of it is my brother connected the dots to the financial services industry. So, that’s why we’re able to bring this to market.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. So, I’d love to turn a bit to one of my favorite topics which is personal growth and personal evolution. And TheaterMania, OvationTix, very successful. And you founded that. So, I’m curious, what do you think are some of the big lessons you learned? I mean, running a business is emotionally very challenging and I’m curious what you think were some of the secrets to your success that would be helpful for our listeners.

Darren Sussman: Thanks for saying all that. I guess reflecting upon what happened (laughs), I didn’t even know I was doing it at the time, but I know I know that I actually did. I surrounded myself with the right people. A lot of it was just gut instinct. “Wow, that person makes me feel good. That person makes me feel icky. This person makes me feel like I’m gonna learn something. This person makes me feel like I’m inadequate.” Whatever it may be. Somehow, my inner self aligned myself with the right people and we had a really good team. Some of our key investors, key staff members, mentors, advocates in the marketplace, and that mattered a lot. We had a real business model that we knew had some meat on it. After that, there’s no secret sauce. It’s one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, two successes, one failure, one foot in the right direction, one foot in the wrong direction. But deep down, you know, you’re with the right people, you’re working with people you like. You’re growing your team with people you like that … who have good judgment, do good work and you just keep going, one foot in front of the other. And then one day, you have a business (laughs).

Erik Gensler: You’re hitting on something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, which is this sixth sense that, I think, particularly when you’re younger, you ignore. But I find, every time I ignore that sixth sense, I get in trouble. So now, I’m so hyper-aware, especially, like, in a job interview and you’re like, “Oh this person’s great on paper.” But you’re feeling this thing. Never ignore that thing!

Darren Sussman: (laughs).

Erik Gensler: Cause that-

Darren Sussman: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … Thing is so powerful. And it’s just like, we are animals and we have this innate sense that sometimes, we turn off for whatever reason. It’s usually not wrong.

Darren Sussman: It’s always right and it actually lives in our body and we can feel it. We all have places in our body where we get messages to our body that tell us what’s right or wrong for our spiritual growth-

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Darren Sussman: … or our professional growth, or whatever it is. Listen carefully.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. What’s one of the biggest mistakes you made in your last role?

Darren Sussman: You know, it’s funny you say that—and I’m not making that mistake now. In the beginning, we lost a little focus. I felt like we had to earn revenue in these four different areas. We had to be all things to all people. And in doing that, we spread ourselves a little thin. We grew a little too fast and we never that great at one thing.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Darren Sussman: Eventually, for example, when we built the OvationTix platform, there was a decision process. The decision process was should we create a platform that can serve everybody and all things to all people or should we drill deep and wide and really build something that services a specific type of arts organization that has these core functionalities within their own organization and just aim right for that and go really hard at that? And that’s what we chose and that was the right choice.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. I couldn’t agree with you more. The days of mass are over. The more specific and targeted and focused you can be, the more successful you’re gonna be, generally. I also say this a lot on the podcast: when given the choice, it has to be a “hell, yes” or it’s a “no.”

Darren Sussman: (laughs) Hell, yes.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, yeah. What’s something you’re most proud either in your role now or during your time at OvationTix?

Darren Sussman: I’ll speak first quickly about the things I’m most proud about Theater Mania and OvationTix is that every now and again, often more now than again, people mention how we helped their organization or consumer, I’ll find … I met somebody in Florida a couple weeks ago at a restaurant. I was with my daughter and she says, “Oh, where are you from? What do you do?” And I just said, “Oh. Da, da, da,” and I mentioned TheaterMania and she goes, “Oh, my God! I love Theater Mania. I get all my tickets there,” and that’s not an ego thing. That just makes me happy cause that was the goal, you know?

Erik Gensler: It’s amazing.

Darren Sussman: Help people get tickets.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Darren Sussman: Help arts organizations sell their tickets.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Darren Sussman: And so, that makes me feel really good. With this new project it’s kind of humbling, too, because we’re kinda getting out of the gate now and already the inbound communication we’re getting from the people we’re going to serve, and the people we serve, artists, arts organizations, it’s a resounding, “Oh, my god. Hell, yes.” They’re going, “Oh my God. Thank you.” And so that’s really nice, and we didn’t even do anything with them yet.

Erik Gensler: That’s amazing. Yeah.

Darren Sussman: They’re just saying, “Thank you for thinking of us,” and we’ve helped a lot of people already. We call them alumnis. So, in this new role, we often shoot videos with our alumnis after they’ve done the work with the coach, after they’ve been through the process. I want to know the facts, not the fiction. And so, when the facts are in and the three months after they’ve done the work and they make that video and I get to watch that video of artist A and arts organization being really grateful and excited and feeling more creative and feeling more empowered, that feels really good.

Erik Gensler: That’s amazing. You know, Seth Godin says the product is the marketing. If you have an amazing product that’s helping people, you don’t have to work that hard to sell it.

Darren Sussman: It’s very true.

Erik Gensler: So, this is your last question and it’s called your “CI to Eye moment” and the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff and board of a thousand organizations, what advice would you provide them to help improve their businesses?

Darren Sussman: Care about your employees as if they were your own family. And most arts organizations do that, but I think we could always do it better. You know, at TheaterMania, that was one of our core things was care about our people. And somehow, someway, that resonates and they work better, they work smarter, and even when they leave your organization, they often become supporters and allies and you never know, they might wind up becoming some grant-giver at some other (laughs) umbrella organization, gets you the biggest grant you ever had.

Erik Gensler: That’s right. That’s awesome. Thank you so much.

About Our Guests
Darren Sussman
Darren Sussman
Co-Founder, Institute of Financial Wellness for the Arts

Darren Sussman is the co-founder of the Institute of Financial Wellness for the Arts (IFWA). The IFWA provides financial education and personal planning solutions to artists and arts professionals. Before launching the IFWA, Darren was the co-founder and president of TheaterMania and OvationTix.

Read more

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