Rick shares his experiences in building Thingworx – one of the the first IoT Companies to be acquired with a spectacular return for early investors. Here he shares some of the lessons he learned in building the business before selling to PTC in 2014 for $110 million.
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Rick Bullota, ThingWorx: Thank you. Good morning. The crowd looks pretty alert. I’m guess there wasn’t too much pub abuse last night? That’s good to see.
So I’m going to start, basically what I’m going to talk about today is some of the things we went through when we founded Thingworx.
I think what I’d like to also believe perhaps some of the other start-ups or potential entrepreneurs in the groups with is particularly in the context of the IoT: some things to consider and maybe some opportunities to explore. I always have to start, particularly in these kind of talks, with my standard disclaimer: 80% of what I’m going to tell you is factual, 20% is bullshit and I don’t know which is which. So don’t bet your life savings on anything I say!
So I came out of perhaps a little different world or maybe a similar world than some of us in the room. I actually started in manufacturing. Working in the steel industry. Process control. A lot of stuff actually you saw the folks yesterday from Ubisense talking about right? The greedy kind of what you’d call today kind of the internets of things. Along that I had a really unique opportunity to work for some very progressive companies. This is also when I graduated from University, in the 1980s.
The company I worked for was really progressive in putting new technology – in the early 80s this was pretty unusual – into their manufacturing processes. So I got to learn a lot of cool stuff from them. I’ve been able to work for some very successful start-ups along the way. Ken Forester and I, who will be talking next, worked together at wonder-wear. A company now that is in 50% of the world’s manufacturing plants kind of really pioneered user experience in the industrial world.
And the other thing I kind of feel helped my career, and I encourage a lot of you know, younger people regardless of what their course of study is, everybody’s a salesperson. At some level, you’re selling your ideas, you’re selling your vision internally. Try as many different roles. So I’ve been in sales, marketing, CTO, you know you name it, I’ve probably done it. And I think those kind of, those bags of tricks help immensely when you start a company. We’ll talk about how to build your team to address that in just a moment.
And then, this is just my personal view, a couple of friends of mine joked that I should write a book called ‘Slackerpreneuring’ because there’s belief that you have to like bleeding yourself to death, you have to work 23 hours a day to start a business. I just don’t believe it’s true. You just work smart. I think a lot of us, with our career choices, were blessed to have that flexibility. Right? You’re not feeling the love one day, go for a bike ride, go for a walk or go for a hike. A lot of people don’t have that luxury bit. A lot of what we do is a creative process so there’s nothing wrong with that.
So what do I do today? Real brief history.
So Thingworx was acquired about fifteen months ago by PTC. So my day job is driving the product and technology strategy. A lot of what with do, we’re exploring a lot of M&A activity to kind of round out the T Suite. I work with a lot of my partners so that’s basically my day job is continuing the growth at Thingworx. I’m also trying to build our team. I think that’s, you know, particular as you go past start up level. We were 40 people when we were acquired, we’re 1400 now, fourteen months later. It’s just absolutely an incredible amount of change, the organisation, the way you interact with people is so dramatically different. I’m focused just as much on building the next generation of leaders now.
I also do some investing myself. A couple of ones that I think are perhaps of interest to this group: I’m involved in a group called Bolt. It’s pretty cool. It’s a hardware incubator and if you think about Kickstarter and some of the other crowdsource and some of the other mechanisms to bring a product to the market, it’s historically been a real challenge. How many of them do you know that got funded just to kind of fall flat on their face because they can’t finish the design, can’t get the production scale, don’t know how to distribute the product? So what these guys do is they bring together manufacturing expertise, connections to contract manufacturers, basically that whole value delivery chain from design to realizing your dream. I think there’s going to be more and more of these kinds of resources that are available to people who want to bring their product to the market. So I was pretty excited about that, got involved in that. I’m a very very passionate believer in science, technology and mathematics education. So I do some stuff now, pretty exciting, my little tiny high school where I live, outside of Philadelphia is actually going to the international youth physics tournament this year. So getting involved in those kinds of things as well.
So, everybody has a different reason why they want to start a company.
I’d probably could honestly say a little bit of all the above. For some people it’s purely a financial decision. For others it’s the satisfaction of what you do every day. There’s a certain autonomy that you get by working for yourself. Some people want to leave a legacy, you know, I’ve created something special, something that other people embrace and hold up as ‘Wow that’s an amazing technical achievement’. Some people love working the circuit. Becoming, having a lot of visibility in the industry doing to do talks and such.
I personally value creating jobs. That means a lot to me that I’ve been able to help create a lot of very good jobs for people over the next few years, because I could. Solving big problems.
Tim O’Reilly wrote an article about ten years ago about doing useful things and that really resonated with me that anytime you have the opportunity to do something that also has tangential impact like helping bring clear water to through IOT technologies to different parts of the world. Deliver health care to the elderly more effective. And one of our partners in the UK here, to me that’s is doing, really doing good, that’s somebody came up with a system, every pub has to clean out their lines every night. With traditional technology this results in a huge loss of beer. Well their new technology came up with a way that you don’t waste the beer that’s in the lines. That’s doing good for humanity.
The other thing I think everybody goes in or explores or reads about start up life is: it’s not going to be easy. There’s going to be good days and bad days. Who’s ever read “Oh the places you’ll go” or “read it to your kids”? I still look at it probably every three months. And if there’s ever anything that’s been written with an entrepreneur in mind, it’s that book. So if you haven’t, I highly recommend you do. But it basically talks about the fact that you’re going to have good days and bad days and challenges along the way. And some of those things are really what give you, you know, like every life experience, give you the strength to push through hard times. Half the, I think every entrepreneur once goes through, can’t make payroll. That’s a scary experience. You’ve got all these people with families. They’ve you know invested in you, they’ve teamed up with you and you’re worried whether you can pay them next week. But again, that which does not kill us only makes us stronger.
I used to joke with my wife. Simultaneously she was pregnant, we’d just bought a new house and started a business. And I, we’d say in case we lose the house, let’s get the kids real comfortable with camping [laughter], so we learned to get them out often then. You’ve got to be your biggest believer and cheerleader because it, it definitely pervades your whole team. How, your team is going to look to you, if you’re having a bad day and you know, you think it’s not going to work out and to that end, similarly, negative influence in your team, you’ve got to get rid of them quickly. You know hiring is not a perfect art, but negative influences in a small company are just completely destructive. And the reality is, you know the yield rate still on start-up is still not at 100% and part of that is to know when to stick with it and when it’s just not going to work out. That’s, I think there’s two dimensions to that. You might have heard the term pivot. You know, my original idea might not have been spot on, but if we kind of make a little detour we can build a better business. You’ll find quite often that’s not something you realise organically. Your customers, or the market kind of nudge you to tell you that. We all like to think we, you know we have the answers upfront. It’s really not true.
I do believe also that it all comes down to building something of value to your customers. And they really are an incredibly important sounding board. The gentleman from British Gas yesterday who mentioned how they created hive. Right? They spent a lot of time and I think he mentioned you know 100 or some interviews with customers as part of that feedback clue. And the way you develop products too. Much more iteratively. Look at that kind of feedback through your customers. I think it’s important nowadays even in an exciting place like the IOT, be cautious about going into a me too space.
Right. Where well we’re going to build a slightly better mouse trap. Or we’re going to do something, yeah we can do it better. There’s so many gaps there. Find those opportunities that are different and you can still, there’s ways to have differentiating better mousetraps. It’s a mouse disposal system or something like that. I think that’s a tricky way, it’s an easy way to fall into that trap that isn’t successful I’ve also found.
I did some time after, I’ll go through a brief story: I started another company in 1998 called Light Hammer. And what light Hammer was, it really was that kind of internets of things. It focused on the industrial space, manufacturing companies, tying together their assets and allowing people and systems to interact with them in a uniform way. We were acquired by SAP in 2005 and I went to work in the SAP research team. A couple of things I learned there that we pretty valuable to what I did in, with ThingWorx.
First of all, we did a lot of research about what happens when the physical world gets integrated with health care, public safety and security, retail, all kinds of other areas. The light bulb went off. Number one, there were a lot of parallels to what we had done and learned in the industrial automation space high. You know, we talked about big data in the IOT. A chemical plant generates more raw data in a day than the New York and American stock exchanges combined. I mean it’s just big data is really nothing new in that sector. Control, you know, happening at sub millisecond rates. It’s pretty demanding. Things go wrong, things blow up, people get hurt, the environment gets damaged, we’re able to learn a lot from that.
The other thing that I learned is that there are different kinds of people. I worked with a large group of researchers. Some people really love research. They really love to be doing the core, the primary research. And I think we all agree that it’s a shame primary research seems to be fading, as opposed to applied research. But nevertheless, there’s some people and that’s where they want to live.
There’s other people and they want to apply the research and build offerings and engage customers. So, knowing what you’re good at and whether, you know, whether your set of skills if appropriate to kind of lead the business side, I think that’s important to assess yourself. And I learned early on the commercial side and you know, the raising money, that’s not my strength. I’ll talk about building your team in a minute. But understanding yourself is really important.
The other mantra that we had early on, was that if you’re not creating product, selling product or supporting your customer, or customers in the application of that product, it’s probably not a function we should be hiring for. We should be outsourcing it. We should be. It just doesn’t make sense to have, use your precious resources in a start-up for things that are not directly adding value to your product or customer. So give that some thought as you’re doing it.
And then the other thing of course is timing. You know, there’s no substitute for luck. I mean sometimes you just hit the influx point of the market at the right time. Sometimes you’re too early. My experience in the early part is that it’s not that you’re not necessarily going to be successful, it just means you have a lot more work to do in defining your space, in evangelising the value proposition. So we’ve been pretty successful using analyst firms, social media, different mechanisms along the way to get the word out to try.
It’s really really hard by the way, when you’re creating something, a completely new space in the enterprise space in particular, which is where most of my experience is. You walk in to a buyer, there’s no line item for that, there’s no budget for that, there’s no planning last year that we’re going to buy xyz. So you find yourself in an evangelical role quite often. So you need to be prepared for that. So it could be, again, it could be one year, two years too early. Sometimes you’re five or ten years too early.
I don’t think this is particularly unique to a start-up in the IOT, but it just goes without saying that the people, particularly those first few people you bring into your company make all the difference. And I think it’s just as important to blend your team with people that have complementary skills. If you’re all clones of each other, you can kind of predict the outcome. And that’s that William Wrigley wrote.
He had a line once, it said “if two, two people in a company always agree, one of them is probably unnecessary”.
Now that’s a little bit extreme but the point is, I’ve brought in partners. Both of my start-ups, I shared, we shared one co-founder really strong kind of marketing mind, fund raising skills. The other guy was just fantastic, let’s say charlatan, showman, and sales guy. Right? I guess they’re all interchangeable terms. [laughter] But [laughter] so, so that kind of complement of skills is pretty essential.
I’ve done some pretty fun workshops with like teenagers in school about building, how would you build a business. And you know, the idea is you have to put together, really quickly, you have to come up with an idea and a pitch. And they start to realise very quickly there’s the person who’s good with the product idea, there’s the person they want to present, that’s the marketing guy you know, and so anyway, you need those skills.
The other thing, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about the six degrees of separation, the Kevin Bacon rule. You know, you can get, if you, who knows whom, who knows whom you’ll eventually get to Kevin Bacon and it’s true, I think it’s six or seven levels deep. We apply that for hiring. If it’s not someone we knew directly, it’s going to be a real stretch if we’re going to bring him in at a key role early on. Because it’s that kind of taking that uncertainty out of those key hires. No hard and fast rules. These are just kind of you know, some things that we’ve lived by. And, similarly, I’ve mentioned earlier, no one is a perfect assessment of talent. So you’re going to make mistakes.
The key is part ways you know, quickly if it’s not, if it’s not working out because they can be very counter-productive to the rest of your team. This is something I get a lot of disagreement on. But it’s been my experience, my preference. It’s that early on co-location matters a lot. I mean there’s awesome tools for remote collaboration but there’s no substitute for the white board and there’s no substitute to being in the same room and having a beer afterwards. Again, early on, maybe as you grow this becomes less and less of an issue, I’ve just found it to be 50% to 100% more productive when you can be together. It doesn’t mean you always have to be. And again, philosophically, I’m not a believer that if you bring talent early on every individual has things that are important to them. Some of your key hires might be interested in the equity part and willing to take the risk for a big upside. Some have bills to pay. They have kids in school, you know they have life choices that they would prefer to be paid, you know, market salary. You know. Think about that, every person is different.
So when you build your key team, find out what’s important to them and you know, structure their compensation accordingly. Another trap that’s easy to fall into when you start a new thing is giving away equity, too much, too early. And it’s not a bad thing. I think it’s critical that every person in your company has very measurable equity that can change their lives if the company is successful, but it’s easy early on to be a little overly generous. It’s funny money. Particularly your first one. It’s paper, it doesn’t matter. Later on you may, you may regret some of those choices.
So obviously there are things that you need nowadays to build a company is money. Financing.
Maybe not as much as we used to. But, I found that revenues without fail are the best form of financing. And think about it, you’re not diluting your equity, more than likely it means you have happy customers. Those are all great things. Sometimes that’s not actually possible.
You’re doing something new, you’re trying to prove it out, you’re giving away free deals in exchange for references. But you also need to define the metrics, what do you want to run your business by? Take a look at some of the early SaaS companies. For them it was far more important to even look at some of the very large successful public companies today, like Splunk, Salesforce. If you look at their financial metrics, on paper they might not look that great. They’re losing money. What they’re doing is building a customer base that’s an annuity stream for a long time. So you have to be, you know, aware of what metrics are really the appropriate gauge of success for your business and it used to freak me out, looking at those Silicone based companies and thinking how could you declare them a success, they’re bleeding money.
I’ve always, you know, been the more conservative, it’s good to make a profit because you can reinvest in the company, but anyway, your mileage may vary. It always takes more than you think. I mean, a lot of us are technologists I think at our core, so our focus is, oh, we need, you know, 500 engineers. Well If you look at the steady state distribution of costs in in even an early or medium size start-up, 50% or more of the spend is on sales and marketing. So don’t underestimate how important that is to get your message out.
I think that’s probably a pretty common source of failure, its failure to invest in those. Another thing I found that a lot of start-ups are getting bit in the butt on is going to a subscription and SaaS model, which is clearly what we all want to be because you’re building an annuity stream in the future, but not understanding that that puts you in the financing business. Think about it right. It doesn’t cost you any less to create your product or let’s imagine you’re subsidising a physical product. Right. You put your gadget master 9000 in. It costs you $5,000. You put it at a customer site and you’re going to charge them $3000 a year for the next, so it’s good business but you’ve needed to come up with the $5000. OK. So think about that as you’re looking at your finance options. Once again, equity is one of the worst ways to do that.
There are other vehicles like debt financing. Some SaaS companies now are going so far as to say, hey you’re committed you’re in for three years, there’s no way out. So minimum subscriptions, upfront! Just be aware of it because it’s easy for some of the larger global companies to be in the financing business. It’s much harder when you’re starting a business on a shoe string budget.
Free. Free is awesome. I mean, obviously free is the best money you can get out there. Other people’s money is good money; free money is good too. And there are so many tools now to help start-ups. To get your message out, you know, through social media, blogs, clearly kind of a growth hacking mind set. The ability to get your word out and your kind of a value prop out there. Tools. Like a lot of hardware companies, software companies, hosting companies, they happily give things away to start-ups for free because it’s a great way to see. It’s the old thing – we were talking at breakfast, you know, the first hit of crystal meth is always free. Right? The second one [laughter]. And so they, you know, there’s incentive for them to
The other thing is, that I’ve done, we’ll talk about channel in a minute, but share the cost right. So let’s say early on, you want to sell your product and you don’t have the finances to do the kind of financing piece, to get out in front of the customer all the time. So what? Overpay your channel, overpay your sales partners. Because, and that, that may change over time, it doesn’t have to a static relationship. But virtualise your company by compensating the people that are getting your word out, selling product for you. It’s OK. You can always change that relationship. But, it’s a great way again, to kind of push costs onto others.
And then the other, the gentleman from British Gas yesterday was talking about kind of, the lean start-up model Eric Reese book. The thing I find interesting about that is. It’s called MVP. Minimum Viable Product. How many companies focus on the minimum, and not just the viable? It’s really important when you, you know that old axiom of you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. Make sure if you’re going to get something out there it doesn’t perfection but that it’s viable. That customers and users will get utility out of it. And you’ll find as you build a company you’ll find that the channel and the market model particularly when you go past just being regionally successful and you want to go nationally and beyond. It’s very expensive. There’s an inevitable inflexion point where you, maybe you started with an indirect channel gives you kind of a global presence. And then you hit a point where you say you know we should probably have people in Asia, some people all over Europe and that’s where you get to that point. Well we’re going to have to raise $20 million or whatever to build that out. That’s a key decision point. As a small company is. Are you really all in for that? Or is it the time to start looking for a strategic partner that can help you extract more value from the business?
And in that end, I think we saw yesterday, you know, the diversity of people up on stage and the almost inherent, both complexity and breadth of things we can do in the IOT. It’s an ecosystem play. I mean, you have to go in with that mind set. So partnering to help deliver that complete solution from physical devices, and semiconductors, to communications, to application platforms, data store, hosting, whatever you think of, physical infrastructure, you’re not going to be able to do all that yourself. So think about partnering from the get go in this space. I think it’s absolutely critical.
But also you have to choose your partners wisely
Because I don’t know if you saw the Barney, you know, I love you, you love me. We call it the Barney relationships when you announce a partnership with something: I love you, you love me but you never actually do something with it. OK. [laughter]. So you know, and that’s OK. Sometimes that helps you have a larger than life image and you know, big visibility. But pick the ones that you want to make work and really invest in them.
We at Light Hammer, when we started our relationship with SAP, we decided this was going to be a really strategic partner, both as a vehicle to get our technology to market and also as a potential suitor later on. I would conservatively estimate that we have invested probably half a million to a million dollars in that relationship. Working their sales channel, working events. It’s not insignificant. I would say every relationship costs that but don’t underestimate it.
We talked earlier about kind of sharing costs with our ecosystem. Similarly, share the rewards. Well here, 50% of a lot is a lot, so don’t be afraid to kind of share the wealth with, with your channel partners. They live forever not just at the start so it’s pretty of important.
Be thinking about… we all know today, for a lot of start-ups, an acquisition is a likely outcome. The IPO market is heating back up, no question about it, but still those are the outliers. What do they call them, the unicorns in Silicon Valley? But, so I think for a lot of companies knowing and working those partnerships early on is setting up the dominoes for potential exits later on. So be thinking about that, be thoughtful in who you partner with but always have enough to create healthy tension right. So if partner A is your likely exit, it’s still good to have partner B, C and D because it puts healthy tension in case you do get in a kind of a negotiating discussion. Another thing I like about leveraging partners in the ecosystem is using them to help get that big marquis. Those big names those big customer success stories early on. We used to do things like a bounty if it was a household name that everyone knew and you agreed to build a success story, our partners got extra margins on those deals. We’re willing to share it because it’s like gold to us. You know most partnerships are useless. That’s the Barney axiom so be aware of that and invest in the right ones. And it’s all going to change over time. The ones that were important to you early one, might not, that relationship might change.
Clearly knowing when it’s time to make your exit, that’s one of the biggest challenges.
There’s lots of dimensions to that. For some people, you shouldn’t. You might have a very healthy successful lifestyle business. We looked at a company a few months ago: $5 million company returning about $2 million a year to the bottom line. Relatively small group in how close they are. Why screw with that? I mean that’s a very nice lifestyle business, and it doesn’t really have to be that extreme. So for everyone, an exit is not, being acquired is not necessarily the best move.
In my case, we talked about the IPO market. I just never felt as though I had the staying power to live through, you know, other ups and downs to get to a couple million dollar company organically. And let’s face it, M&A activities for most start-ups are the primary exit option. You see a, you know, some very visible, some not so visible, actually failure is the most common exit. So let’s just remember that.
But for positive exits, it’s usually an acquisition of some kind. And you know, I think we all see this interesting dynamic. Not all companies, not all larger companies are good at this organic innovation. Some are. Some are extremely good at it. But I think we’ve also found that it’s a great vehicle for entrepreneurs to build something of value and amplify its effects by working with a larger go to market organization. The other thing that used to keep us awake at night when we’re at that moment about, is it time to sell, not time to sell. It’s what we actually call the black swan.
So let’s say, you know we can probably go another year, double our revenues again but what if, what’s the black swan event some radically new amazing entrant into your market. Some global incident that totally changes the economic scenario. Another 9/11 or financial meltdown. You just have to kind of weigh the pros and cons of those and make your decisions. Realise that you know, your potential suitors aren’t going to value you for things that they bring to the party. Their go to market vehicle.
Absolutely do not forget the people that got you there. Whether it’s your partner, whether it’s your employees. When I hear about the companies that get acquired and choose not to vest their employees, I think that’s one of the most evil things you can do. I’ve seen that happen a lot in distress sales. But do not forget the people that got you there because they poured their heart and soul into it.
Get good advice.
I would say in both of my start-ups, our lawyer, our attorney was actually our best financial advisor. The banker was actually pretty useless, so pick your advisors. And actually this is another example of free. A lot of the business focused attorneys will work with you for free early on. Lots of things: contracts, deals, everything. Even some accounting firms will do this in exchange for being your partner for should you have that great day one time.
What happens after it. It’s not an exit. For some people it is. Some people just wash their hands, move on. For most, particularly if you’re a smaller company, the acquirer is looking to you. They’re buying you, they’re buying your business, your talent, your people. So you need to make sure it’s a place you’d want to work. At least for some period of time – at least you can tolerate it. So… I’ve been lucky enough to be working in two really awesome places. You know, some walk. Some, that was part of the decision process as to who we wanted to work with. As you structure your deal, you know, earn outs suck. They really do. But it’s sort of a way that a lot of companies want to retain the team. That’s a negotiating point.
Right, for what’s best for the business. And a lot of times, what was best for the business then, one year later is not the best business thing. The metric: Oh I want you to do that x amount of revenues or I want you to do this or that. That’s not consistent with what’s best for everyone. So that’s the reason why I kind of say they suck.
They sometimes lock you into a bad strategy. You know if you can, I’ve been blessed with working with PTC. A great deal of operational autonomy. We can kind of drive the product. They like to say we’re you’re VC and we’re your biggest OEM but we’ve been able to drive the business much like we were as an independent company. You also, it’s kind of cool particularly in this space, IOT right. Everybody is trying to add an IOT jewel to their crown. You’re the new shiny object. Take advantage of that moment in the sun. Right. You’re going to be able to get the mindshare of the sales channel, of the marketing channel, the customers. Use it.
OK. So let me just finish up with some thoughts. And this is sort of a random, not necessarily a random list, but a brain dump on some the areas we think there are lots of interesting opportunities.
The whole security space.
Hugo mentioned it yesterday. There’s many dimensions to that as well. I think that’s largely still an unsolved problem. There’s great progress being made but I think I expect some really interesting innovations in that area so that’s one to look at.
This fire hose of data that we’re generating. I don’t think there’s going to be a silver bullet for that. I think there are going to be a lot of domain specific kind of analytic engines and interesting stuff going on. So ways to start pushing the intelligence. We use the example a lot of what G is doing with their xxx engine. We’re not going to move a zillion terabytes of data across cellular link to analyse it in the cloud. Sometimes you have to bring the cloud to the device or the intelligence to the device. Some interesting stuff there.
Really excited with some of the change like you heard yesterday the folks working with cidfox. Other companies like that that are dis-intermediating disrupting the wireless market. It’s been sort of a monopoly for a while. I think the consumer in the IOT what apple would call the unboxing experience. I’ve got my new smart coffee machine. I’m setting it up. It’s got to be easy. It’s got to be a simple experience where you push a button and it magically you know registers. I don’t know what your experience was but mine is 20% good experiences and about 80% crap. And I’d like to think that I can set up network stuff and they tend to be really horrible experiences so on the consumer side it’s a big one.
You heard yesterday about the importance of data access and privacy considerations. I’ll kind of tie it in with the next piece as well: Data commerce. How do you share this information across an increasingly complex value chain with lots of people? Think of health care, think of you know servicing industrial equipment, smart agriculture. We see this where many people need different views of that data, some are consumers some are producers. There’s commerce to be done in those that provide and those that use it. So that’s a big space.
And of course applications.
10 years ago M to M IOT was all about vertical apps. It was fleet tracking and remote service management of expensive equipment. Now we’ve kind of widened it. It’s this awesome set of horizontal technologies and platforms and so on to build off some things. Now I think it’s time to kind of see companies blossom building really interesting vertical applications on top of that.
I’m here to help so here’s my contact information. If I can be, you know I’m sure you have some ideas some questions, you’re always welcome to ping me. Like I said, just remember that 80/20 rule. I might not be right. Thank you
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