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Will Butler Adams, Brompton Bicycle – Breaking Routine, Long Term Planning & Organic Marketing


Will, lovely to meet you You're the chief executive of Brompton Bikes

Its rare that one of my meetings will start with a ride around the forecourt but Will, tell me all about it What is happening here at Brompton? WILL: Well, we make a bicycle, which is sort of in bits there, but actually, when it's ridden, it's not in bits, and it folds down to be pretty small, a bit like a Swiss Army knife of bicycles, which means, if you live somewhere where there isn't much space or you wanna chuck it in a car, or you wanna jump on a train, or you wanna take it into the office and hide it under a desk so it doesn't get stolen, but then when you want it, have an amazing bike to fly across town, then you need one of our bikes And are they aimed at people like me, Will? Or should I be an amazing cyclist to have one of these? So we really are targeting We aren't doing some amazing analysis in a A1, B, ladee dah, male 6'3" to 6'4" We are targeting geography

We're targeting a need, and interestingly, globally, there is net migration to cities We're becoming more urban, and we're living in teeny-weeny little flats, and we're spending hours stuck in a little square box that's jolly expensive and belches out nasty fumes called a car, or even worse, we're paying money to go under the ground and into some nasty little metal tube, and we've sort of forgotten about little bicycle, which gives us a sense of freedom, gives us a bit of exercise, helps with our mental health, 'cause when you cycle, you just dump all that stuff out of your brain So there's huge opportunity in the current climate to bring cities back to life with more walking and cycling And we hope we can deliver some great products to encourage more people to get back on a bike So Will, are these only meant for like big cities, like London or Amsterdam or Tokyo? If somebody has a need, then they ought to get themselves on a Brommy, and it doesn't matter whether you're in Massachusetts, Newcastle, Léon, I mean, we produce around about 50,000 bikes

We export them to 47 countries around the world, and we have people who are spending hours sitting in a car going nowhere Now have the freedom to ditch the car You might get near work, and then three miles out of town dump the car, get the Brommy out of the back and have a blast It's not a sort of one way ticket, and just introducing a bit more activity into your life, remembering the seasons are changing, feeling a bit of rain on your face, it's good for the soul And we're all in our hermetically sealed houses with the temperature at 22 degrees

Then we go in our air conditioning car, and then we sit all day doing this, and we wonder why we're getting miserable And we need to get out a bit more and live life I think that's certainly true for many of us I certainly consider myself a commuter Will, if we backtrack a bit, how on earth did you come to be working at Brompton? So we all have a funny old journey in our life, and mine started with a conversation with my parents in the car

I did maths, physics, and chemistry A level, and my parents were determined that I become an accountant like my uncle And I was determined that whatever they wanted me to do I wasn't gonna do And I'd heard about this thing called engineering I knew nothing about it, but somebody told me, if you don't know what to do, do engineering 'cause then it opens more doors than it closes So I decided I was gonna do engineering

They didn't like the sound of that, so I dug my heels in even more And luckily, in those days, you didn't have to pay for tuition fees So I stuck to my guns and I went and did engineering And then I was lucky enough to work for ICI and DuPont in Middlesbrough on the Wilton site, and that was a blast I had a huge responsibility looking after terrifying chemical plants, but I loved it

It was a real adrenaline rush Five, six years of that, I stumbled into the best friend of the inventor of the Brompton, and he told me about this bike I mean, I was trying to get into an MBA, and I thought I was gonna go and to INCIAD and do my GMET, but my CV was a bit boring, and all the cool people lived in London I met this guy with his bikes, and he looked sort of interesting I thought, well, I got nothing to lose

I was 28 Thought I'd do a couple of years of that, enjoy living in London, do my MBA, and go back and do something in the north Well, that was 17 years ago, and I'm still here But how did that journey actually help, and how did you physically end up at Brompton? Who did you meet, and where did it all happen? So I met Andrew Ritchie's best friend who was "chairman" of Brompton at the time Brompton was 24 people, turning over about 1

7 million, and we're maybe about 400 people with about 50 million this year You know, Tim said they were looking for some help, and you're an engineer, and you're just what we need So out of politeness, I went to look around I saw the factory Andrew couldn't make enough bikes

From what I could see, the factory was not well run There was so much work in progress It was just cluttered, and there was no order, and I thought, "My god, I can definitely help I can do something here" But the biggest attraction was it looked like fun

I felt I could contribute, and I liked the idea of living in London At that stage, that was enough I was 28 I just piled in It was later that I realised how this bike changed my life and changed the life of our customers, that it became addictive, and I really committed my life to the Brompton

So many people would say, if you've worked in chemicals and run plants, why on earth would you shift from processing to product? Was that a hard transition? It's all the same It doesn't matter I worked for Calsonic, which is an exhaust pipe supplier I saw what they're up to in Washington Then I worked for Nissan in Madrid

You could stick me on an oil rig You could stick me in a car factory You could stick me anywhere It doesn't matter It's the same

It's people It's process It's repeatability It's clever engineering It's heart and minds

It's waste It doesn't matter You could stick me anywhere, and I'd get it better because you just look for the waste You look for the bottlenecks You look for the missing bits

And it's all the same It's all the same Let's capture your mindset, age 28, did you believe you had the potential to be doing what you're doing now and be able to do more? Yes Why? Even before then I tried to do a management buyout of a chemical plant I was running in Middlesborough, and DuPont were prepared to sell it to me for a quid, and they were gonna sell me a 60 million pound chemical plant for a quid because it had all sorts of liabilities and decontamination of the site, and I got a team together And I chickened out, and stuck with the MBA

Right from the start, one of the things that was interesting, Brompton, even though I wasn't thinking I was gonna commit my life to it, you take decisions on the base of, look, the worst comes to worse, I'll do two years I've got nothing to lose I'll enjoy it But you've always got in the back of your mind, that's the one route, the worst-case scenario, but then you've always got the other, well, or it could go gangbusters But if you know you've predicted the worst-case scenario, you've got nothing to lose

That's always the one to protect first, and then the other one, well, happy go lucky But the bike was cool, and increasingly, it was amazing what it did for people, and Andrew, there was no succession in the company There wasn't that leadership, and Andrew is an incredible inventor, but he's not a builder of a business 'cause he was way, way too interested about controlling everything So tell me about the first few days when you were out at Brompton What was it like then compared to what it's like now? So we worked on MS-DOS

This is not in 1994 This is 2002 Our website was a farce We had no meetings We had no strategy

Andrew signed every cheque, I repeat, cheque We had no budgets It was incredible, but that's exciting I mean, I come from a "world-class company", DuPont, which had "world-class" operating systems, plans, and yet, there are businesses that you don't learn about at university, that you don't see, and there are thousands of them, hundreds of thousands of them in the UK which are not fulfilling their potential 'cause they don't have the right leadership, and yet, they've survived recessions, and they're still going They must be doing something right, but they haven't got that leadership

And I was jolly lucky to just roll in at the right place I mean, the bike is awesome, so I was struck lucky in that regard But I was running a chemical plant at 26 in Middlesbrough It was pretty incredible I was plant manager, not from the process side, but from the maintenance side, so I had 2

5 million plant budget I had 14 people working for me at 26 with a COMAH registered chemical plant, so that was exciting So already, I knew I wanted to get stuff done So you arrived at Brompton Arguably, there's a lot that can be done

How did you identify the potential of the business and where you were going to take it? So we had no meeting room We had no meetings We had no budgets, no plan, nothing So I decided that we needed a plan And Andrew was a sort of slight kleptomaniac

He wouldn't throw anything out, so he had tons of experiments, past experiments, keep it just in case, we might need it one day, everywhere And one of the rooms, the offices, was just full of junk So I just cleared it Got a skip Chucked all the junk in the skip

Got a hoover out Hoovered it Crappy old carpet, who cares Hoovered it until it looked OK We had no money

Went to a second-hand shop, bought a second-hand table, bought some old chairs from the army navy stores around the corner in Brentford And I said, "Right, I'm having a meeting, and I'm calling this meeting, and it's gonna be called 25K, and we're gonna work out how we're gonna make 25,000 bikes" People were like, "What? That's ridiculous Ridiculous We can't do 25,000 bikes

That's stupid Well, I mean, that's ridiculous" So we hadn't even had the meeting, just the name of the meeting was enough for everyone to throw their hands up and go, this is ridiculous We can't do this We can't even make 10,000 bikes, how are we gonna do 25,000

We haven't got the space We haven't, we haven't, we haven't, we haven't So the biggest challenge was getting people just to believe it was possible And by the time they came to the first meeting, I knew we cracked it 'cause they came round to the idea that we could do 25,000 bikes, and we did We got to about 36,000 bikes on that site before we finally had to move

But half of the trick is believing If you don't believe, you'll never succeed If you believe, you might succeed It doesn't mean you will, but you're definitely not gonna succeed if you don't believe So before you had that 25K target, how many bikes were you producing? What was headcount? So I think we were doing about 6,000 bikes, 6,500 bikes, 25 of us, and we're now doing about 50,000 bikes, in fact, a bit more than that, and there are about 400 of us

But the other difference is in those days, we made a bike, that's what we did Somebody turned up and picked up the bike and took it somewhere, to a shop, to a distribution depot But what's changed is we've become very international, but also, we are now the distributor in 17 countries That means in 17 countries, we look after the website We look after the customer service

We look after the technical support We look after the marketing, the SEO, search engine optimisation, social media in all these countries, in all these places, in all these different languages, all from the UK, with little teams dotted around the world We have our own shops So the business has become quite complex, and we've vertically integrated from raw material to shop So literally, we are taking raw material, and then we're taking that raw material, adding all the value, and presenting it to the customer

And 'cause I do know you've done quite a lot with your retail internationally, was that always part of the strategy to Oh no, no, you need vision, and then if you wanna climb a mountain, you'll decide, right, that is it That's what we're going for

You sort of reckon you know how to get to the top, but you don't know because you haven't got there yet What you will see, then, having decided you're gonna get to the top of the mountain is the first horizon That's as far as you can see You can only see the first You know it's a false horizon, but it's the first one

So you prepare yourself to get to that horizon Then you get to the horizon, and you go, oh my word, now look what we've got 'Cause you couldn't see that from down there Then you adjust your plan Hopefully, you've got enough kit, and you move on to the next bit, and the next bit, and the next bit, and the next bit

So that doesn't mean you're still trying to get to the top, but how you get there, you had to adjust your plan and adjust your thinking and who you need and what you've got to get yourself up there, depending on what you find on the way So the strategy keeps changing, but the ambition remains the same So we both, Will, have friends that are trying to grow businesses, significantly What is the key with getting the vision right without stretching it to the point it'll snap, where it breaks down? So I don't think the vision will be snapped, 'cause the vision is infinite, in many respects Our mission is to change how people live in cities, to make them happier, to make people enjoy their lives more in a city

And as more people live there, millions and millions, we need more of it That is how we measure success The implementation of that is the bit you can overstretch If you set a sort of three to five year plan that's too ambitious, you can break your team And I think the thing to remember is compound growth

We're surrounded by, I don't know, soccer stars who one minute were kicking a ball around the back streets, and the next minute they're earning 200,000 pounds a week, or a music star who was singing to a few friends in the pub, the next minute they're on top of the pops and they're some mega superstar What we see is, oh yeah, one day to the next you go from being just Joe Soap to gazillionaire overnight and with unicorns and these mega millionaires But the world isn't like that That's not the way the world is The world is graft

The world is bit by bit The best line I heard was from an industrialist in America, he said, "It takes 20 years to become an overnight success" And that's what we've done It's been 16% compound growth, year in, year out A few steps forward, one step back, bump yourself here, get back up, keep grinding forward, bit by bit

But compound growth is a powerful thing, and for the first three or four years, all your mates are going, oh, you're fiddling around with that silly bicycle And now they're going, bloody hell, you were so lucky to get involved in that bike company Well, that was 17 years ago It's just having a long-term view and being patient, getting good people, delivering a fantastic service, caring And having a long-term view gives you a real competitive advantage 'cause most people are sort of they wanna be in and out

But, we, the customer, don't want that We want someone who cares for us, sells us something, and then asks us three years later, are you alright? Can I look after you? Anything I can do to help? Most people, oh yeah, onto the next Who wants to buy another one? Deliberately make it break so you have to buy a new one And that's not what, we, the customer, want So if you can really care about the customer, if you can worry about them for the long-term, I think you're onto a winner

And you kindly took me for a tour of your shop floor and all your production facilities It's very rare to see such buy-in from the staff and such a united, friendly, proactive workforce What have you done to nail that with your staff here at Brompton? This is our company We have something special We all have a job

We like it If we don't like it, we ought to work somewhere else You know when staff like something because the product's good Their number one is the product But if your staff don't love what they're doing, their product can never be delightful 'cause you can feel it

It doesn't matter whether it's a service or product, if the staff don't really care, you can feel it in their product But this is our company Now, if ought to be here in ten year's time, we need to give a shit We need to care And I tell my staff everything

I'd rather have 400 people worrying about this business than five And if they don't care, they're damaging all of us If somebody doesn't care, they're affecting other people in the company's future, and most of us care deeply 'cause we believe we have something special, so we want to look after it So it's down to us, and we can't blame it on anyone else And if anybody's got an issue or they're worried about something, they come talk to me

That's my job to help people do their job And link into that as well, Will, I know we've chatted in the past about how you organise your business So you've got the people that are motivated, but the other part about how you like to disrupt, could you tell us a little bit about So the funny thing is human beings are creatures of habit When we're little and we have our children, the thing that we're all terribly keen to do is have we got them in a routine yet? Have you got them in the routine? Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, you have to feed them at this time They you give them the bath Before they go to bed, you read them a story, get in a routine, they love it We love routine, like dogs

Most things we all like routine, but the problem is routine isn't so good for innovation If we come to work, we sit at our desk, we put our packed lunch there, and we get our first cup of tea at 8:15 Yes, yes Oh then we have the coffee at 10:30 Yes, yes, yes, do, do, do, oh, it's quarter to five, oh, it's ten to six, whatever it is Dip, dip, dip, routine

Well, if that's what the whole company is routine, routine, routine, where's the innovation there? That's no good We need to shake it up We need to do weird stuff We need to try We need to burn our fingers

We need to accidentally just cut our finger You give a child a penknife when they're small They make a small little cut, and they learn to handle a penknife Otherwise, you suddenly get some business where they get to 200 million, and then some bloke goes and writes off another 100 million 'cause no one allowed them to make little mistakes So it's what is perfectly normal, but somehow, it's been driven out of us in business

And we over-professionalise companies We over systematise companies We think that order, process, box ticking is the route You need communication You need order

You need project management as you get bigger, but you can't take away the ability for the individual to think for themselves and innovate and make mistakes on their own two feet Do you think everyone can innovate? Or do you think it starts to upset people to start with, and then they get used to it? Everybody can innovate You look at what happens when there's turmoil You look at what happens when really nasty things in the world When you have awful things like the Second World War, every single person in the UK had to innovate

They had to change what they were doing They had to live in a different way They had to do things they wouldn't have dreamt of The human being is an amazing innovator, but we like routine, so we won't unless we have to We like they're the same

But you drop people into a difficult situation You see some of the things that you see around the world, and you think, my god, people will respond They will react They will come up with ideas We're survivors, but you need to bring that into business

You need to not be the same as everyone else And you don't need to be some radically different You just need to be a couple of degrees off from the same as everyone else And that two degree is the difference between OK and delightful, average and gorgeous, and that is what you're looking for, and you just need to not follow the crowd and challenge something and say, but why? Be a child Why? Why do we do it that way? Surely it can be better

Why don't we do it this way? That doesn't make sense And it's like we have the story of the emperor and his invisible clothes I say to my staff, if you are ever like that, it's the end If I'm wandering around naked and none of you are telling me, we got a problem I need you to be the little child that goes, (GIGGLES) you can see his willy

He's got no clothes on And in so many businesses everybody knows it's ridiculous, but they're all saying, yay, yay, yay, well done Well done That is a disaster And that goes on in so many

They all know it You ask them, they know it, but don't dare say it Absolutely

Talk to me about brand 'cause many would say Brompton is an amazing brand, but I think you have some quite practical views on brand and how that ties in both with your people and how it ties in with your customer So people perceive the brand to be the logo, the latest marketing campaign, their quip, whatever it happens to be, but actually, actually, actually, when you boil it down, the really great "brands" are the people who do a good job, that deliver something special and care about their customer and make the customer happy And then they associate that happiness with the logo or with this or with that or the other But particularly today in a way, actually, probably strengthens this argument maybe in the old days you could have a pretty ropey product, but if you chucked enough marketing at it, you could sort of persuade people that it's brilliant But now, you can spend all the money you'd like on marketing

You can come up with the best lines, the coolest, most perfect sexy looking people in your adverts, but if the product's crap, somebody, somewhere will post it online And in a moment, they can destroy your marketing campaign with the truth, and that truth can be picked up anywhere any time in a phone, and it will go round the world like that So there is much more pressure for businesses to have integrity, to care about the product, and because that's all we've ever done, we've got a competitive advantage We're not that interested in all the other stuff That doesn't mean we don't need to communicate

We need to let people know we exist We might be a brilliant product for somebody who doesn't even know that we exist So we have to communicate, but sort of top line, overexarggerated marketing guff is not my bag Caring about the product, trying to make it as well as we can, trying to look after the companyNot the company, sorry, the customer, five, ten, 15 years, even longer is what we're about And how do people find Brompton? Imagine if you've never heard of them How do you actually connect with your company and find So mostly, we've got 600,000 customers We've taken care, hopefully, that most of them are happy I would hope that if you've met a Brompton owner, they're a happy Brompton owner If they are, they have, probably, told their friends about the bike that they love or they've Tweeted or been on Facebook or taken photographs or something

They've probably reached 50 people Well, 600,000 * 50, that'll do That'll do Where is the future of Brompton going, then? So you've got these 600,000 customers, where is it gonna go, in terms of your vision for the business? So I think we need to start with where's the world going? And we've created a bit of a conundrum We've created a global climate problem, which is serious, needs addressing

We can contribute a little bit to that, but we aren't gonna solve the CO2 crisis that we have And you can't solve all problems You gotta decide which problems you're gonna contribute to in life and focus on them 'Cause if you try to contribute to every problem, you'll contribute to nothing But hot on the heels of the climate emergency is a health emergency, in my opinion

As we've migrated to cities around the world, so we have seen exponential growth in mental and physical health problems And mental is less obvious Physical is more visible, and we can see the physical 'cause we can see that people are not doing enough active movement We're designed to move, and it's too easy to have a double shot, double caramel, three foot latte or whatever it happens to be And if you're not doing the exercise, and we're spending all day doing this, and we get out of bed, and we get in a car, we get out of bed, and we sit in a tube, and all we do is just sort of literally move five yards and sit down, then who's surprised? And that is gonna cost us billions to our governments and society going forward, and it's not making people happy, but in parallel with that is mental health

We have mental health problems because exercise, outdoor, fresh air is good for the soul, and we live in amazing cities with wonderful architecture Most people don't even know their city So we need to get people out And so I think governments are realising the value of walking and cycling, and there'll be much, much more push, nudging, improvements in infrastructure to get people back out of under the ground, back out of their cars, walking and cycling in their cities, which is where most of us live So I think that macrotrend is coming, whether we like it, and it's the same in the UK as it is in the rest of the world

What our role is is to come up with amazing products that fit into that macro change, use material science, engineering, electric drive, apps to create something that's genuinely useful and makes people enjoy themselves more And that's what we've been doing for 40 years, and we got some quite cool ideas coming down the track Tell me about these electric bikes What is coming in the world of electrification? So we set off on this journey about ten years ago, and we did struggle, I must say, because unlike most electric bikes, you have to carry ours, and electric's heavy And eventually, we got a bit of help from Williams, the fast car people, and they helped us crack the engineering problem

They didn't exactly deliver a mass producible product, but they cracked the problem And with that, we were able to make it makeable, and we launched that last year Still early days Huge shift in this company, 'cause we've gone from being a metal basher to a software and electronics company But at the moment, we're about 4,000 bikes in, and we're being careful, not rolling it out too quickly, controlling the supply

But the customers that have bought it are having fun They're enjoying it It's great And so we're learning a lot They're enjoying it

And hopefully, we're on a journey And if you look at the electric phenomenon that's going on, the electric bicycle is bit like the smartphone In Germany last year, they sold more electric bikes than pedal bikes It's overtaken the pedal bike, and that was a 14 billion pound market just in Germany

So it's very, very interesting And you talked about trying things that are not quite working out Over this journey of your time at Brompton, have things ever not worked out, and you've looked back and thought, you know what, if I had my time again, I'd do things differently? I mentioned earlier that if you don't fail, you're not innovating I mean, I stumble from one flipping catastrophe to the next But those catastrophes are small

They are like getting an electric shock when you touch a fence They give you a shock You learn a lesson, but they're not fatal We are very, very, very driven about hitting our top line numbers We have very clear KPIs

We are absolutely on the numbers for our core business That's our homework But then we have 20% of playtime, doing weird stuff, trying But that 20% of playtime is doing stuff fast where we can afford to make a mistake, where we can afford for it to go wrong And as long as you protect the downside, you can relax

You can take risk because you're not betting the farm You're not falling from a three storey building You're falling from a two foot log And therefore, you can be ambitious You can take risk because you're not falling too far

Then if you find taking a risk, wow, that's exciting, ooh, there's something there, then invest, do the market research and start getting distracted Or if you take a risk and it goes, ooh, that wasn't very nice, you stick a big sign up and say, do not do this This is probably dodgy But you discover quickly and fast, and you move on Do you think that should be applied to all service and manufacturing companies? Absolutely

All business You've gotta keep making mistakes, but make them little, and make them fast And if they're bad, big sign If they're good, then decide to go at it properly Where do you think this sector's gonna be in ten years from now, then? It's funny, with the car industry and with all industries, people think change happens faster than it does

And I imagine in the 80s people were saying, in ten year's time we'd have flying cars And I reckon today, everybody would say we have flying cars We don't need flying flipping cars in our cities It's a nightmare They fall out of the sky

They break They kill people And what we need is activity We need to actually go back to basics We need people walking

We need them doing more cardiovascular We need some cool app to encourage them to do it We need better facilities, but we don't need to go sort of into back to the future In ten years' time, that'll be here in a minute We just need to keep evolving, iterating, and getting better

And if we can take technology and we can take awareness and learning that we see from Northern Europe, we'll have lots, millions of happier people in cities all over the world That's what I'd like to see And you've already got your bike hire boxes in London and other parts of the world Yeah How do we get them into the other cities that aren't as populous? So we have a really wild bike car scheme that's unlike anything in the world

We've been at it seven years, and that was us taking a risk, and we're still taking a risk 'cause it's flipping difficult, but it's super cool We're only in the UK We're in 20 cities, and it's so cool because you pick up a Brommy off your phone using an app, but the average hire is four and a half days So you can pick it up, you can take it for two weeks If you turn up into a city, you can pick it up for three days, and it's your bike

You've got it for the duration 350 pounds a day, it's a bargain So we're working with developers, councils, all sorts Give us a shout, desperate to get more of them across the UK

SPEAKER: And more and more, people will see your bikes, more and more, people will hire them If I was a young engineer looking at your business now and thinking, should I study engineering? What would you say, I guess, to yourself back as a young Newcastle grad then or even to people doing their A levels, what should we be saying about engineering? WILL: We have some really big global problems coming our way We are more than capable of solving them The technology exists What we need is brainpower

We don't want to waste precious brains moving numbers on a flipping computer That is a waste of good brains, and I saw plenty of my friends who did engineering who wasted their brains moving numbers around on a screen What we need is to solve some of these big, big global problems And you can often solve big problems in a little way Lots of little things would solve big problems

And it's an exciting time Technology is moving fast Innovation is going at 100 miles an hour, and the important thing is if you're in engineering in the right place, you can make the world a little bit better That's a really tremendously exciting opportunity for anybody to contribute to the world And your bikes are clearly making everyone's lives a bit better, which is part of the message of Brompton

If you weren't doing this, Will, what else would you do in life? I think I spent five years running a chemical plant I'm a greenie at heart, and friends of mine were like, "Will, what are you doing? "You're sort of working with the devil Chemicals, nasty" I said, "Listen, guys, there's two approaches You can either be the person outside with a banner saying I don't like this, or you can be the flipping person running it and determining how it's done

" My approach has been the latter I wanna get stuck in I don't know what I might have ended up doing I could have done anything, but I try and contribute That's what I try and do in whatever I did

I loved when I was working in Middlesbrough We had a riot We tried to deliver the best We tried to deliver it safely as possible We tried to contribute

And that's the thing, the challenge is the excitement And if you can contribute to your staff, if you can contribute to society, then you feel like you've done a good job Will, it's been delightful to meet you Thank you very much for your time Thank you

Source: Youtube

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