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How I Made $19,000 on the App Store While Learning to Code (nathanbarry.com)
498 points by nathanbarry on Nov 15, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 137 comments

Reminds me, I should write my own story of how I made $190 on the App Store while exercising 15 years of coding experience.

He made something people want. That trumps programming excellence.

Totally get it. I'm very happy for him, and I'm fully aware of why I only made $190 :) As the parent of an autistic child, I'm really happy that app authors like this can disrupt entrenched and overpriced industries and make tech like this available to a lot more people. Someone will eventually compete with him too (App Stores totally grease the wheels for competition) and then consumers will benefit even more.

May I ask you why, being an experienced developer with an autistic child that know the actual state of the industry, you overlooked this opportunity?

It's a genuine question, because I do it all the times as well and then, when I realize it to late, I wonder why I didn't think about it in the first place. I would like to know if there is a pattern or something.

In this particular case my child is fairly high functioning and not non-verbal, so I wasn't aware of this particular need. We do use some small pictoral cards with him to help prepare him for transitions, but it's literally like laminated clip art. Don't really need something high tech. In that case presenting him with an ipad would likely just distract him...

But I sympathize with your general lament over "why didn't I think of that?" Haven't we all experienced that SO many times?

What I don't understand is why don't you make exactly the same app to compete with him right now?

Spotting commercial opportunities is its own skill. Any experienced programmer could have made the v1 of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc... but figuring out that people need that is nontrivial.

Is that how it works, or do lots of people build lots of things, and when a tiny handful of them go big the creators are retroactivley deemed prescient?

I think that there's no question you have to do some things right to succeed, but many people do things right and fail, because ultimately, a lot of it is just pure luck.

A lot of it is that the people build things they know will work (rather than things they think will work) tend to succeed more often. (At least in my own admittedly anecdotal experience) The hard work of research, initial sales and market validation is later retroactively glossed over as "vision" by onlookers.

Everyone is convinced that their startup is the next big thing. Some of them end up being right. Part of that was prescience, part of it was the "luck" to be obsessed with the right idea.

It's more about recognising when you're on to something, and when you're flogging a dead horse.

And being able to double-down quickly in the first instance, and trash-can it in the second.

And getting what you built into the hands of the people that need it is nontrivial and I'd argue it's the hardest part.

True. The reason why this went well for the developer is that he did direct sales to find early advocates, and didn't rely on an app store magic wand. Of course, that is possible with a $199 app, not so much with a $1.99 one.

I think it would become more obvious if you are actually writing a check for a $X000 piece of equipment, and thinking "my iPad could do this".

If it makes you feel any better I wrote another simple app and have only made $15 from it.

My HP-41C has made maybe $5 so far.


edit: Just adding the name in case anyone wants to buy it; Calc41C. The source is up on github.com/watmough

You may laugh, but this is exactly the type of story we need to hear more about to balance the super hype around apps. Yeah, you could hit gold, but with a random roll you're much more likely to fire a dud.

Anyone else with a crap-app story?

It is not a crap-app story per se, but I and many other developers I know have made all of our money from client work, not a dollar from the app store.

Since we manage the provisioning etc. for the client and walk them through the initial paperwork, no one ever knows who built the (admittedly sometimes faddy) app.

We do build our own apps but just for fun and personal use.

I'm curious how the mechanics work for publishing an app to the iTunes store for a client? Does the client create the account and handle publishing the app? (Do they need to sign the package, deal with XCode, etc.?) Or does the client create the account and turn it over to you to publish the app(s)? Or do you - the developer - publish the app yourself and pass the money through (which doesn't seem good)?

We manage everything. We hold their hand through the initial paperwork for company registration with Apple. They never deal with Xcode. Services like TestFlight are really their only point of interaction pre-App Store.

For financials, developers can be given only development level privileges.

Serious question, if I outsource my app idea to be made elsewhere through a freelanceer or agency, should I be worried? How would I protect myself here? NDA?

Trust is important. Go with your instinct (this is why a face to face meeting, if only initially, is so important - you cannot evaluate someone virtually, the nuances get airbrushed over). Basically, if we were to screw a client, the grapevine would know. Relationships are everything and that is why we get work that others could do 80 to 90 percent of.

We do sign NDAs from time to time. But really most of those NDAs are to protect the client from us revealing we did the work.

Truly unique ideas, you will need to build your own trusted network. And sell the developers on the idea (they will not commit just for money, you want to capture their heart).

I outsourced my app http://finaltouchapp.com

Its so simply anyone with a little programming flair could do it.

It's never a real problem. People most of the times, don't see what you see. Worry less get more done.

I think I may have told you this before, but your sales website there kicks ass. Very nicely designed.

"Theme" it and sell it on ThemeForest or a similar site. You'd make more from that than from your app! I would buy one.

Thanks :) It still need a lot of work though but I will make a theme soon.

I wrote an app to display traffic images for my local city - I followed all the correct avenues and got permission to use the images from local traffic authority. Part of our signed contract is that I'm not allowed to sell the application. I've had about 200,000 downloads and was number 1 on the Australian app store for a week.

There are people who don't seem to have followed any path to keep their applications and content legal (with the same app idea) and are selling theirs with the same content as mine, they seem to be on the app store with no repercussions. I guess I have that piece of mind that I won't get sued or asked to pull my app..

I've made about enough from my admob ads to pay off my developer subscription :)

I made a game in high school and sold it in the android app store along with a free trial version. The trial version got about 300 downloads and the paid version sold a whopping 3 copies.

Ah well, it was a learning experience. It now no longer works despite not having been changed at all; perhaps some new android version broke backwards compatibility, or the API I was using depended on some undocumented functionality.

The first web app I ever built (about 6 years ago) was related to sharing photos of home design and architecture. I got something like 4 signups, and it was free...

Being my first effort, I did everything wrong. Too many features, delayed launching, awful code, unrealistic traffic expectations, fear of billing systems (probably warranted at the time) - pretty much everything.

But... not giving up too easily, I tried selling links on the site. (I had no traffic, so ads were a bust. I figured it might have some SEO value). Turns out that's not a bad niche for that sort of thing, and the site wound up making a few hundred dollars a month in link sales. That has since dried up (across every site on which I've sold links - I think Google is figuring this out), but it was nice that it wasn't a total waste of time, financially speaking.

Every stinker is a step forward.

It would be great to actually see these apps you talk about making no money so that we all could look at them and think about what went wrong with them.

Spent a few months making a (poorly conceived) "lifestyle" app, sold one copy to a user in Egypt.

Total profit -$98, Many lessons learned ;)

Sure - and I wrote a blog post about it: http://philbarr.blogspot.com/2011/11/experience-and-lessons-....

End of first week and I've made a full $0.40. Woop!

But of course my good sir.

My awesome puzzler fetched me a whopping $55.

Wow, you all are making me feel slightly better about the apps I've published.

I remember ordering 65 of these calculators from the states (I'm in SA). They worked out to be about $200 each. If the varsity students knew about this app, the benefit for them would've been insane.

Pretty much the same here. Then again I'm targeting cross-stitchers (pretty small market) and went with iAd over any form of payment. All things considered the fact that it's made any money at all is kind of astonishing.

Was a bit of a letdown to figure out that Apple had sent me a check at one point and I didn't notice it until two months later.

And I almost fell off my chair that it wasn't a fart app - nice to see someone put in real effort, create something useful to an under-served segment and see success from that.

This made me smile. Thanks!

Keep in mind -- $20k over 10 months is a pretty low return on the investment involved in an application.

Perhaps the revenue will trend upwards ... but if we put our team on an application like this and only saw $20k in revenue in 10 months, we'd be out of business.

You're mixing up development time with sales time. Your team would probably bang this out in a few weeks and then move on to another app. In the meantime, the app would be selling in the store not costing you developer resources.

I'm not mixing them up. $20k over 10 months would barely cover the development and support costs.

For 1 guy coding alone that is a good return. $2000 per month doing something you enjoy and that is changing peoples lives is great.

It might not be the kind of project a team or company would take on because their main goal is profit but for an individual it is great.

Our average individual software engineer salary is around $10k/month, not factoring in insurance, payroll taxes, office space expenses, etc.

But he is working on your terms. It's a choice between working at home, without a boss, on anything you like. Or working for someone, on a specific project or piece of code.

Also, I doubt you would pay a guy just getting started learning objective-c $10k/month :)

if you do pay $10k/month for entry level skills my email is....


I pulled in a good amount as a lead designer at a software company (though not 10k/month). You are absolutely right that the success of OneVoice is not enough for even a small company. But for my tiny company it is good.

Also my Objective-c skills are not worth anywhere close to $10k per month. Though someday I'll be a good programmer.

Good for you. Not having to tolerate micromanagers and pointy haired bosses? Priceless. Also the world is not America. $20,000 can feel more like $100,000 in another country. Tons of competent programmers working 12 hour days, 6 days a week, make like 1400 dollars per month (exc insurance) in my country --if they are lucky.

Though I think the point still applies. If the best computer scientists of the world had built this app, it still would have unlikely achieved greater success.

Pssh. I lost $99 on the App Store, with 20 years experience!

I said almost the exact same thing in December when my first android app only made $150 in 5 months.

Hang in there. I took that as education time, improved my marketing and added a new app, and now its more like 350/m avg. Its no business but not bad for a few weekends building apps I wanted for myself.

Only $190? I made about $1k with a small learning app I put up. The goal was just to recoup the developer fee and it made more than that. I still get $5-$10 from Apple deposited in my account every so often :)

$190 is probably even high for an "average" app. Plenty of $1 apps languish with sales that round to zero. Either they're no good, or they have too much competition, or they have insufficient marketing so nobody knows they exist, or they got unlucky somehow (bad choice of name, who knows).

Actually rather than being unlucky, I think it would be more correct to say that they failed to get lucky somehow. In the absence of doing something right (promotion, naming, hitting a niche at the right time, having other successful apps by the same developer) or getting lucky (being featured by Apple or a blog, etc.), I expect the natural state of an app is to have sales that round to zero.

With hundreds of thousands of apps in the App Store, it's not much different from building a random website and expecting people to somehow just show up.

Whoa, Nathan Barry was my first boss. He was 19 and designing websites—I was 14-15 writing PHP CMSs. We worked in an incredibly hot 2nd story office above a bike shop in Boise Idaho. Good times.

Glad to see you've found success in the iOS realm, while helping improve people's lives in a real tangible way.

Dustin, those were good times. Glad to see you frequent HN. Hope everything is going well for you now.


Great story and way to find a niche that was unserved. There are so many out there (niches that is) with archaic products/services that are begging for right person to come along and improve them.

Good luck with the dedicated venture!

Cool to see other developers who were/are in Boise. I wish we had a way to find each other besides linkedin (and not get sucked into pitching/getting pitched a job)

Email me (nathan@thinklegend.com). I know quite a few developers in Boise.

Also I think I was 16/17 at the time.

Yeah, that actually sounds more correct.

I want to see you super-succeed, and in a lot of ways you already have succeeded.

The most important part is not that you made $19,000 while teaching yourself how to code, but that you are actually making the world a better place. I would angel fund this idea (if I had the money) the minute I would read gives a voice to anyone who cannot speak. I would venture fund your product that minute I would read replaces a $7,000+ medical device that is bulky and difficult to use.

Thanks. It really has been a huge success. I haven't given funding much thought since the product is already developed, but it would definitely help with marketing.

Amazing. I'm so glad someone coded this. The price is a bit high for our institution(a struggling community hospital with 10 ICU beds) but hopefully I can get IT to consider it in our budget. The machine we use is a one-off and rarely works properly. I'm embarrassed to say that most of the time we avoid communicating with patients that are intubated. Coding a replacement has been on my to-do list for the last 2 months and I'm happy to strike it off.

Please get in touch with me (nathan@thinklegend.com).

Will do.

Good job. I think one of the most important things you did is you knew who your customer was before you started your application. It seems obvious, but most apps in the app store have no target customer.

Yes, it was very targeted development.

A good designer can score on the Appstore even if he is a novice programmer.

Unfortunately that's not true for good programmers that suck at design.

Maybe. Though Apple gives you a lot of tools to help you make good (though simple) looking applications. UIKit is pretty detailed.

Here is my simple design advice if you don't know how to design:

* Use the provided UI elements, they look great.

* Choose a primary color and an accent color, don't get carried away.

* Make sure everything lines up. Choose a number (10 pts) and align everything off of that. Aligning your UI elements will go a very long ways to make everything look good.

* If you have paragraphs of text set the line height to around 1.5 (depending on the font).

* The only thing provided by Apple that is Ugly is the UIButtons. Draw a simple, clean button or ask someone to make one for you.

If you follow these simple ideas you can make a pretty good looking application without knowing how to design.

Also, a programmer who can't design is able to release an ugly, but functional application. A designer who can't program will only make a beautiful but useless design. In this case I think the programmer has the advantage.

Though my philosophy is to learn both.

> Though my philosophy is to learn both.

How many of your friends are designers or artists?

I have a couple friends who are designers. But many more who are programmers.

This is true everywhere, not just the app store.

A well-designed, but poorly coded site is going to do a lot better (generally), than a well coded, but poorly designed site.

This is why I'm trying so hard to level my design skills.

This is why, as a developer, I married a designer.

Ok, that's not the only reason why, but it's worked out really well.

Now that is a clever idea.

Very true. I think that it is because of the form factor (small screen, full touch) that design is essential. Fortunately there are some great designers out there for programmers to hire. I've had my most success with iOS apps where I hired a designer (I'm a programmer).

What made you decide on the $199 price point?

Additionally, do you think the $199 price point might it out of reach for a lot of people who would benefit from the app but who have tights budgets?

I struggled a lot with how to price it. Initially I didn't think I would sell very many because I underestimated the size of the market. Because of the low volume I was going to price it at $99, but the speech language pathologists I talked to said that people were so used to paying so much, that $99 was too low.

There are definitely people who can't afford it, but this price allows me to spend more time on development. Also I do give away a fair number of copies.

> Also I do give away a fair number of copies.

I believe I have seen you do so on reddit quite a while back. :)

You're doing great work and I am extremely happy for you.

Yeah, that was me. That Reddit thread was a lot of fun.

Link? What subreddit did you post on?


It is a long thread so just search for "nathanbarry" or "onevoice"

I'm not OP, but one way to reason is that he's not competing with $.99 fart-apps, but rather with an expensive specialized medical devices. From this perspective $199 is a very reasonable price point. Maybe he could charge even more for that, but it depends on what feedback he's getting from his customers.

That was my first thought as well. People with disabilities aren't exactly rolling in cash. I think it's great you're not exploiting desperate people to the same extent the people entrenched in the medical-industrial complex are, but imagine... what if you released it much, much cheaper? How many people would you help then? Or even did it as a kickstarter and open-sourced it and put it out for free. Then people with disabilities and their families could contribute. My other reaction is that you mention talking with speech pathologists. It might be a good idea to get input from people actually using AAC, i.e. people with disabilities.

I totally appreciate your awesome effort and am glad you make a living. I just would suggest if you want to take it further, learn more of the landscape and think about it politically and where you want to make your profits from.

I've struggled with this a lot. But ultimately I decided I want to create the best product possible, and charging more helps me do that. If I gave it away for free I wouldn't have the financial ability to focus on it and put in the time to make it better.

Thanks for the feedback.

"and think about it politically and where you want to make your profits from."

What, do you want him to not make the app at all and work on enterprise software?

Your comment is so short-sighted it annoys me in multiple ways. All this whining about how things that make the lifes of people better should be cheaper cheaper cheaper or free - guess what, if he sold it for 5$ he wouldn't spend any time on developing it further. You don't ask doctors to work for free either, do you? Or otherwise, why don't you take a few months out of your own life to make something that others will find useful?

Same people who bought thousand-dollar boat anchors. At 199 it has a known customer base.

It's a $200 alternative to a $7,000 device. Seems like a bargain to me.

Especially if it changes the life of its user. It has tremendous value.

This is not the same kind of purchase a fart app, a coffee, a nice T-shirt you like or even a bigger TV, this application changes what its user is able to do, in that sense it is closer to the purchase of a car, or household appliances.

This kind of story always reads like a financial fail. He should pay himself a normal programmers salary (something around 50k/year for a beginner might be fine, also he is not a beginner, because he knows a lot about presentation and UX design) and THEN calculate his profits. Probably this App is way in the minus. Also you must consider that he just has around 1k customers and all of them on the same plattform. Also these customers only paid him once and not regularily. That are 4 big risks: low number of customers, no guaranty to get any dollar next month and a high dependence on one plattform and high dependence on the success of this one app. Another risk, I nearly forgot about, is that the core feature of his app, the speach engine, is not even his own. What if Acapela decides they make their own App in this direction.

Concluding everything I think he has a low income, unprofitable, high risk business. Not the position I want to be in, when I quit my dayjob.

edit I just now see that you posted the link yourself, Nathan. Please read all "he"s as "you". ;-)

You are right in a so many ways. From a business perspective it isn't the best model (I am looking for ways to add recurring revenue), I probably made minimum wage if you break down my time, and I don't have many customers.

But here's what I do have: emails from customers every single week saying how what I built is changing the lives of their child. Does anything else matter beyond that?

I'm working on something I care deeply about and am able to still provide for my family while doing it. That's the position I want to be in.

And there really is nothing to fear. You can supplement that income by building apps for other people in their spare time now that you have a valuable skill. There's no reason you can't have it both ways.

Also a valid argument. I think it's the first time in my whole life that I got valuable content from 2 counterarguments in the same thread. HN is awesome!

I see what u mean. Maybe there is not the money, but u have a purpose for doing what u do.

Money aside, it's great you've created an awesome product for a group that really could use more assistance. Thanks for building something to better the human condition, and showing others they don't need to sacrifice everything to do it!

Thanks for the kind words! You really can build a lot in your spare time.

This storey shows its not necessary to sell a million to make an app worthwhile.

How many other niche apps are out there? Anything where you carry a computer or clipboard around is eligible. Specific to a task, or a general fill-in-a-spreadsheet-and-email-it app would fit the bill.

When I released an exercise-tracking app for the iPhone I got contacted by a zookeeper who wanted to adapt it to manage animal's feeding schedules.

I didn't take him up on it, but you never know what under-served niches are lurking at the fringes of the market.

Exactly. Not a huge amount of money or customers, but a few people find what I made very valuable which makes it worth my time to create.

I'm sure plenty of people have a moderate success story like mine.

My buddy did a basketball scoring app. Much nicer than what was there, certainly better than the NCAA DOS-based crap. Makes a little money. Had a ball writing it.

Here's what I would do.

1) Get a copy of it in the hands of special ed departments at schools (for free). And the people who oversee the IEP's, counselors etc. You will then get referrals to sell the full priced product after people see a demo.

2) Lower the price of your product so it's a no brainer for parents.

Having the price so high is going to invite competition that will sell the same app at a lower price. While that can still happen with a lower price it is more likely at the price point you are at because people will be more motivated to compete (and anyway you will sell more at the lower price..)

3) Come up with a different name or buy onevoice.com. If the product is recommended you need people to be able to easily find your website. Not only don't you own the domain name onevoice.com but you don't come up (now) in any search results.

Edit: "search results" - as in when someone hears about it and they google it not the app store.

He has http://onevoiceapp.com/ redirecting to his homepage. I agree that it would probably be a good idea to use the domain instead.

Yes, I do need to work on search rankings. I've been giving out free copies to educators and speech language pathologists to get them familiar with it. I also have a free demo copy coming out in the next couple weeks.

Thanks for the advice.

This is fantastic. I hadn't heard of many apps that target this niche specifically. What are you planning in terms of marketing?

PS. I love the UI I see in the screens... and would love to play with it. I wonder what type of animations you're using etc. Also, beautiful and simple website.

Nathan, that's a great market to develop applications in. There's a general need for your application, and you're helping society at the same time.

I recently saw a short segment on 60 minutes, "Apps for Autism", which demonstrated and explained applications in your applications field, autistic children. Here's the video URL: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7385686n&tag=cont...

Cool. I've been noticing more of these apps (that virtualize an expensive custom device) lately.

Here's another example, an app that replaces whatever gadget piano tuners used to carry: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/tunelab-piano-tuner/id3355683...

I have a similar non-technical background (UX/design) and was curious how you were able to not get frustrated and outsource the development work rather than doing it yourself. If I was in the same position, I would get too restless and want it built right away.

Any advice on how you got through that situation? Thanks.

Well I started with the goal of wanting to learn programming, so outsourcing it wasn't planned at all. Though I did ask a lot of questions of some very talented friends and hired them to do some development of the things that I just couldn't understand.

My goal is to be both a designer and programmer, so that made it so I had to write code myself.

From experience...it also helps to have some patient programmer friends around to help (I'm one of the developers that helped Nathan build the app). :)

So true. I recommend every get themselves some smart, patient friends. Makes all the difference.

If you are going to outsource you best have a lot of money. Remember you will go through several iterations or smaller changes before you get it right. That is extremely costly to you. You would be better off taking 3-6 months learning. This way, if your product fails (like the other 95% of all businesses), you won't come out empty handed.

Thank you, Nathan. I'm glad to see an application for pediatric patients. Hopefully, the price will go down in a future. You could try to advertise it among neurologists:


Very impressive Nathan.

I like that it is not just another one of those app products that is targeted at the masses.

Instead, you found a niche, talk to customers and found a nice selling price, which from the user's perspective is a bargain.


He's actually disrupting the market for the $7000+ device, I wonder how many the $7000+ people sell, presumably he could take most/all of their sales + a load on top who couldn't afford it in the first place.

I assume at this point the $7000+ device people think they have some better features that make it worthwhile and are reluctant to do their own iPad app. (Innovators Dilemma).

I think that the price paid for a $7000+ device is that they're buying the whole package, hardware, software, AND support as a whole package. So that when there's a problem there's one person that they need to contact to get it resolved (in the ideal case).

I'm sure the author could go that way, buying iPads or other Android tablets (if the software gets ported), package up they software, make it auto boot, etc and form it into a complete package. The price then wouldn't be just the app, but the tablet, installation costs, and future support as well.

It would be cheaper, but not by the same order of magnitude that the app is cheaper than the $7000+ device.

That market desperately needs to be disrupted. No, they don't think they have some better feature, they think they can charge insurance companies and Medicare whatever they want for their crappy hardware and software, and the people who can't afford it are out of luck. They're like parasites on people who are as a class incredibly disempowered.

There are efforts to open source this kind of project, but they're few and far between.

Congratulations Nathan! I'm extremely encouraged to hear about your success - especially since it's an application that addresses a real need and helps create value in society. I'm really inspired that you can do good in this world and make some money at the same time. Thanks so much!

This is a really great and inspiring story, IMO. Shows how modern technology can truly change people's lives. Sure, this kicks some speciality device companies out of the market (like I'm sure was done many times now by smartphone & tablet apps), but who cares about that?

Please give us list of companies making these overpriced $7K+ devices. Any of them public?

Dynavox is the largest of the companies. Just search for augmentative and alternative communication devices.

Great story, and nice work! This happened because you decided to push ahead and make something you saw the need for clearly.

Sometime soon I might share the story of how I made $100,000 on the (... what to call it?) browser while learning to code.

So, why is it better than Proloqu2go? (My relatives have already bought that for their nonverbal son, so this we are unlikely to be a sale unless you're really convincing).

Ease of use is the big difference. OneVoice is very user friendly compared to all the other applications. Also it uses realistic looking icons rather than stick figure / cartoon drawings.

Great job.

Although, I'm particularly interested in how you made the decision to quit your full-time job and create a startup based on one-time sales? Is there a service behind this startup?

There isn't a service behind the startup. You're right that one-time sales is the ideal model, but I haven't thought of a great way to do recurring revenue.

In app picture pack/vocabulary expansion purchases? "New voices"?

Very inspiring. Do you use AdWords or any other forms of advertising? What percentage of your sales are to people you contact personally?

I contact Speech Language Pathologists personally, and it is their clients that purchase the application. Maybe 20% come from personal contacts in some way.

No, I haven't used AdWords yet.

The rest primarily coming in from natural Google ranking + the app store pages then?

A lot from reviews that have been written on different industry sites and blogs. Also the Facebook page has 500+ fans.

Great story. You might market some to colleges and universities that have speech pathology areas. They would love this sort of app.

Does this work well for people who have suffered strokes as well?

Yes, it does.

Seems very inspiring. Thanks.


A lot of people will focus on the money and come away wondering if they can make a quick buck too. Hopefully people don't miss the point. You made a cool app for a really niche market that had a huge need for this inexpensive tool. And you helped some people really needed it. Kudos, man.

You learned to code for iOS, helped people in need, and made a buck off it. Awesome.

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