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How to start an online business – a comprehensive beginner’s guide

By Will Stevens - July 24, 2019

Want to know how to start an online business? This guide is packed with everything you need to know about getting a business online, from the idea phase to online marketing.

No two entrepreneurs will go through the same process, but everyone starting a business will have to tackle the topics discussed in this book. This guide can help you break the whole process down into practical steps that can help you along the way.

1. Come up with an idea that works
2. Craft a winning business plan
3. Test the market
4. Find a good business name and domain
5. Build your website
6. Keep your website on top form
7. Promote your online business
8. Fund your business
9. Get legal advice

1. Come up with an idea that works

Every business starts with an idea. Whether it comes from a hobby you have, work experience or a skill you’ve built over the years – if you have something to offer people that can help them or enhance their lives, you can turn it into a business.

Let’s bust two popular myths about business ideas.

Myth 1: Your business won’t be successful unless your idea is a brand-spanking new one that nobody has ever thought of.

There are billions of people on the planet – and more often than not, someone has thought of the same idea as you and already turned it into a business. Here’s why this is a good thing – you can learn from the mistakes they may have made and save yourself time and money by not doing the same.

Originality is key, and you can still be original even when creating a business that’s already out there. This is where your Unique Selling Point comes into play – rather than coming up with an identical business, you’re putting your own spin on it.

Businesses take inspiration from one another all the time. The social media application, Snapchat, has seen huge success from allowing users to create ‘stories’ by uploading their pictures and videos to a feed that disappears after 24 hours. Instagram shortly followed suit with their own offering named ‘Instagram Stories’.

Watch and learn from the giants – taking a popular idea and putting your own, original spin on it could be the best thing you’ve ever done for your small business.

Myth 2: Your product has to be the next best thing…ever

Take a look around the room you’re reading this book in right now. How many small, seemingly insignificant things are you surrounded by that you simply couldn’t live without? Remember that these were all business ideas that became basic necessities – a winning formula. From the humble nail file to a simple post-it note – these were at some point just business ideas. So no matter how small or silly your idea may seem, remember that it will always have the potential to go far. Even if it’s just a local hit rather than a global one, if people are buying it and coming back for more, you’re on to a winner.
person working at laptop

2. Craft a winning business plan

Start putting a business plan together at the earliest opportunity. It will guide you when running your business and help you make crucial decisions. Your business plan gives the business model structure – it tells other people, and reminds you, of what your business is all about and where you want it to go.

The other reason a business plan is crucial is because you won’t be able to secure any funding you might need for your business without one. Banks and investors will pick your business plan apart to make sure you know what you’re doing with the money and will be able to pay it back, so it needs to be clear and written impeccably too.

What to include in your business plan

You’ll need to start with a complete summary of your business plan – this can be up to 2 whole pages long. The more detail you can go into here, the better. Be sure to include key objectives and goals, and make sure these are attainable and realistic.

You’ll also need detailed studies of your competitors to show you’ve done your research and know the industry you’re going into.

Of course, you’ll have to include a detailed plan for your sales and marketing and an honest, in-depth financial summary. Also, remember the following points:

  • Make sure it’s easy to read – eliminate jargon from your business plan. Show you know your stuff, but remember you’re primarily writing your business plan for you.
  • Show you understand the market – you can do this with a brief analysis of your sector, competitors, and demographics – and how your business can fit into all of this.
  • Keep it realistic – especially when it comes to the financial details. However, you can still show your passion and the dreams you have for your business when you speak about your development plan. Don’t be afraid to think big!
  • Show your business can appeal to a need or solve a problem – and don’t forget to explain how you’re going to do that.

Once the business plan is complete, don’t leave it sitting around and collecting dust. Refer back to it every so often to remind yourself of your goals and objectives, especially if you hit a speed bump and need a boost of inspiration.

Remember that you’ll need an up-to-date version of your business plan whenever you apply for a new investment too. The plus side of regularly updating your plan is that you can include actual figures your business has amassed and adjust the plan accordingly, plus reviews on performance and how you’ve implemented what you’ve learnt since the launch of your business.

Not sure how to structure your business plan? A quick Google search will bring up lots of free business plan templates you can download. You can find one from gov.co.uk here.

3. Test the market

If there are two things you’ll want to save when launching a business, it’s time and money – and testing the market before you officially launch your business is essential to help you do this.

When you’ve spent ages coming up with a business model that you truly believe in, it can be hard to spot the flaws in your vision. Sure, you’ll speak to your family and friends about it and get their thoughts, but what you really need is an impartial opinion to show you what you’re doing right, and where there’s room for improvement.

Friends and family are a good place to start though, because they can put you in touch with people you don’t know, who can then test your product and offer their opinions.

Ways you can test:

  • Hold a small focus group
  • Find volunteers on social media
  • Use SurveyMonkey to create quick surveys your audience can answer
  • Attend industry events where you’ll find your target market
  • Build a prototype or beta test
  • Use Google Trends to see how people are searching for your product or service online
  • Monitor your competitors – how are they doing things? What mistakes are they making? Where are they going right?

Remember that it’s best practice to keep your testing scale small – that way, any problems you encounter will be easier to rectify. Don’t skip on the testing – it’s a great way to find out what works and saves you from having to go back and make time-consuming changes to your product or service once you’ve launched. Testing gives you an idea of how your target market is going to receive your product and allows you to make crucial tweaks and changes before you go live.

4. Find a good business name and domain

First impressions are everything – and your company name is the first impression customers will have of your business.

Coming up with a name might seem simple, but it’s a very important part of launching a business, and a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. You’ll brand your whole business around the name you choose for it, so you’ll want to be 100% sure you’ve picked the right one– changing it later down the line can be a pain once you’re established, especially for a small business.

Things to consider when coming up with a name

Depending on the type of business you’re launching, you might want to go for a conventional name that tells potential customers what you do at a glance (eg. ‘West London Plumbers’). However, these don’t make the most exciting business names in the world.

You could go for a more unconventional name that will evoke curiosity towards your brand, but will still be catchy and memorable, like ‘Spotify’. Great for drawing attention to your brand, trickier if the name is totally random and nobody gets it.

No matter what kind of name you go for, it will need to be easy to spell so you can be found in search engines without trouble. The ideal business name is short, snappy and easy to remember. It’s also a good idea to do a search of your potential name online to make sure it’s not too similar to another business. This could confuse potential customers and possibly even bring you unwanted legal trouble. Search the trademark section of gov.uk to be sure you’re not infringing on someone else’s intellectual property.

Devote a good amount of time thinking about your business name. And even if it sounds funny or strange, believe in it. Think Mozilla Firefox, Skype, Hulu and even Google. Bet those names all sounded pretty funny at first – but the success of their businesses are no laughing matter.

You’ll probably also want to draw up a shortlist of potential names, in case your preferred business name isn’t available as a domain name.

Once you’ve settled on a list of names for your business, check for the domain(s) as soon as you can. Again, keep it short and simple, and avoid using numbers and other characters that you’d have to explain when giving out your web address out loud.

You might want to snap up as many different extensions for your domain as you can, to avoid losing out on useful domains to other people.

Which extensions should you register?

Well, .com needs no introduction – it’s one of the most popular domain extensions out there, but availability is low, meaning that chances are whatever you’re trying to register will already be taken. Don’t stress if you can’t get one, as there are plenty of other domain extensions out there that can work just as well for your business.

  • .uk or .co.uk – Perfect for UK based businesses. You can let customers know that you’re a reputable trader in the UK at a glance.
  • .co or .net – Great .com alternatives with good availability
  • .org or .or.uk – Good choice of domain for not-for-profit businesses
  • Industry specific extensions – eg. .shop or .blog, brilliant for targeting specific audiences.
  • Location based extensions – eg .london if you want to be really specific! Bear in mind that this could be limiting if you have global dreams for your business.

5. Build your website

You’ve got a business name and the domain to match. Now what?

It’s time to get your business online, and it’s easier than it used to be to have a fully-functioning, professional looking website at your fingertips without breaking the bank.

Chances are when you’re looking for a product or service the first thing you do is an online search. Your potential customers are no different so if you want your business to be found, you need to get online. A website is also a cheap and efficient way to promote your business and communicate with visitors from all over the world. Customers have access to your business 24/7, allowing you to make money around the clock.

Keep costs down by building your website yourself. It’s easy! WordPress is always a great option for DIY website building, as its feature rich and beginner friendly. Just pick a theme and get going. Not sure you’ll have the time to do that?

An even easier and quicker option is a website building tool. They tend to come at pocket-friendly prices and are very easy to use in most cases. The 123 Reg Website Builder allows you to create a professional website from scratch using expertly designed templates and drag-and-drop tools. It’s simple and inexpensive, but you’ll undoubtedly be pleased with the results.

There’s also the Make Me a Website service from 123 Reg, where you simply explain what you want your website to do to our experts and they get to work creating it for you.

In the spirit of building a professional web presence, the Website Builder package also comes with a personalised email address, which means you can match your domain name to your email address instead of having customers contact you via a Gmail account, which doesn’t scream professional business! However you decide to build your site, personalised email is a must.

If you want a more hands-on approach to your building your site and know your way around some coding languages, you could purchase a web hosting package and build your site from scratch. 123 Reg Web Hosting comes with access to many free applications like WordPress and ecommerce software so you can easily add blogs and e-shops to your site. Going for web hosting means you will also have to consider the size of the website you’re building and the amount of bandwidth you’ll need so you can find the perfect hosting package.

If you need a large, complex website you’ll likely end up hiring a professional designer.

Things to consider when building your website:

1. Images and design
2. Avoid a cluttered web page
3. Simplify colors and fons
4. Avoid blocks of text
5. Mobile design
6. Stay up to date
7. Copywriting
8. Security

1. Images and design

The website you create for your business needs to be visually appealing or your visitors won’t want to stick around for long. The images are what is going to catch your visitors’ eyes, so spend some time making sure you get these right.

Remember:

  • Always use sharp, high-quality images to give customers the best impression of your business
  • Try to avoid generic, overused images – you want your images to set your business apart from others
  • Don’t skip ALT tags when uploading images to your website, as it might have a positive impact on SEO
  • Save money by taking your own, original photos for your website

If you’re selling a product, high-quality product photos are crucial.

You also need to ensure that you have the right to use any images included on your website.

Remember, the design of your website speaks for the business. For example, a sloppy design says “sloppy business” loud and clear. You don’t need to be a professional web designer, but you do need to remember to:

2. Avoid a cluttered web page

You should be guiding your user’s journey on your website from start to finish. Remove unnecessary distractions from your page and remember you don’t need to fill every gap with something – white space on a webpage allows viewers to focus on what you want them to see. Stick to one or two call-to-actions so the user has a clear idea of what they should do next on your site.

Is all the content on your homepage necessary? Make sure that what you sell, how the customer can purchase it and how much it costs is crystal clear.

It’s frustrating for a user to log on to a website and not have access to this information straight away. Make sure your customers can navigate from page to page of your website with ease, and check that all links are working.

3. Simplify colours and fonts

As tempting as it might be to use lots of different colours for an eye-catching effect, it’s better to stick to a simple colour scheme for a clean, professional look. Too many colours can also lead to unsightly clashes and a garish, chaotic look. Instead, opt for colours that complement each other. Speaking of clashes – It’s also a good idea to stick to just two or three fonts, used for different effects that complement each other. Like colours, not all fonts will work well together and not all fonts will look good, so bear this is mind.

4. Avoid blocks of text

Think about the most simple and effective way you can make your point. It may be tempting to provide paragraphs upon paragraphs of information on your website – after all, you’re excited about your business and you want to give your visitors as much information as possible. But blocks of texts are a major put off and unlikely to be read anyway, making it a waste of your time and effort.

Try to cut the information down into what is essential, and split the text into paragraphs grouped by headings and sub-headings. Differentiate the extra important information your customers need to see with bold text to grab attention.

Visitors to your website should be able to scan your page briefly and still get the information they need.

5. Mobile design

It’s vital that your website is mobile-friendly. Your Google ranking could suffer if it’s not, and you could be missing out on a lot of customers, with so many people accessing the internet through mobile devices these days. Most site-building software like WordPress or even the 123 Reg Website Builder use mobile-ready themes and templates, so there’s no excuse. If you’re building your site from scratch, don’t neglect your mobile audience – it’s likely to be huge!

And for new websites, Google will use mobile-first indexing, so good mobile design is crucial.

6. Stay up to date

Keep your website fresh and exciting with seasonal design. The seasons are a great way to make money by catching eager shoppers and enticing them with promotional offers.

Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Back to School – the list goes on. Don’t go overboard – add a coating of snow to your logo for Christmas or a few love hearts around your page for Valentine’s Day to get your customers in the spirit.

7. Copywriting

Thoroughly proofread anything written for your website – grammatical and spelling errors won’t do any good for your reputation. Careless mistakes will make your business look unprofessional and amateur – exactly what you don’t want.

Establish a strong brand voice for your business – do you want to be informal and chatty or corporate and serious? Language is the tool you have to inject some personality into your brand – so use it wisely! Even if you are going for the more corporate tone of voice, you can still use descriptive language to make an impact – make it fun and exciting for your customers to read.

A tip on call to actions – keep them clear and descriptive. After all, they need to encourage your visitors to click that button or link. Tell them what’s in it for them if they click – ‘Learn more’, ‘Get your discount’, or ‘Start your free trial’ work so much better than a bland and uninformative ‘click here’.

It’s important that your website visitors know what to expect once they click your call to action. You can learn more about writing good calls to action in this guide.

8. Security

Once you’ve got your website up and running, you’ll need to think about keeping it secure for the sake of your business and your customers. What a shame it would be to have your beautiful new website hacked by scammers or plagued by spam. Here are some things you should consider to keep your site secure as can be:

SSL certificate – Essential, especially if you’re running an ecommerce business or processing payments through your website. An SSL certificate will reassure customers that their transactions on your site will be secure, building trust in your business. Google also favours secure websites, so you may see a boost in your search engine ranking. The opposite will happen without an SSL and Google will alert visitors to your site that it is ‘Not Secure’. You can get an SSL certificate from 123 Reg.

Antivirus and malware protection – A must-have. Invest in some high-quality anti-virus software and always keep it up to date to avoid catching any pesky viruses. Malware is another thing you’ll want to protect your website from, and with 110 million variants of malware floating around the web today, you can’t take any chances. SiteLock from 123 Reg is great malware protection that can scan your site for malware and vulnerabilities, plus fix and prevent any further instances.

6.

Keep your website on top form

Making your business website is only the start. You’ll have to keep updating it to make sure that you are always maximising your chances to make sales.

Tools like Google Analytics can help you monitor your site and its visitors to help you make improvements, including:

  • Finding out who your website visitors are, where they’re visiting from, what devices they used to see your site and much more
  • Seeing who are first-time visitors and who is returning
  • Seeing how long a visitor was on your site, and how long they stayed on each page
  • Finding out how your visitors are finding your site (eg. search engine, social link)

This information can help you make improvements to your website by showing you what’s working for your visitors and what isn’t. Another way to make sure your website is being received well is to create polls and surveys and reach out to your visitors, asking them for feedback.

7. Promote your business

Of course, you’ll need to promote your website in order to attract potential customers. In this section we’ll go over the basics of the main online marketing techniques and link to some useful resources to help you learn more.

SEO

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is one of the most important marketing techniques for any online business. SEO ensures that your business appears in search engine results, and this is very important because a large amount of your business will come from online searches. There’s a lot to take into account when optimising your website for search engines, and it’s an ongoing process of consistently checking everything on your page to make sure that you are always maximising your chances of being found easily on the web. Search Engine Optimiser from 123 Reg can help you improve your SEO.

Here are things that are important for your SEO:

1. Clear website structure

Having a clear website structure won’t only help visitors find their way around your website, it will also help Google discover your webpages and understand what they’re about. In turn, this will let the search engine include your site in its results.

What makes for good website structure? A good place to start is by using a clearly named and logical menu system to help users navigate. Your pages URLs should also be clear and unique, and ever page on your website should be linked to by at least one other page.

2. Keyword research

Using the right keywords on your website is vital, as it lets search engines know what your pages are all about.

What keywords should you include on your site? The ones your potential customers are searching! In some cases this will be obvious – for example, if you’re a carpenter serving a specific area your most important keywords are likely to be variations on “carpenter [name of location]”.

In other cases, you may wish to use a tool like SEMRush to identify keywords for inclusion on your site.

It’s also important to remember not to go crazy and use your keywords too many times on each page. In most cases, you’ll find they occur naturally as you write your content.

This guide explains more about researching your keywords.

3. ALT-tags for images

Including ALT tags on your image is SEO best practice and also help people using web accessibility software to understand the content of your website. Make sure your ALT tags are always descriptive of the relevant image.

4. Attracting links to your website

Attracting links to your website can help boost your search engine rankings, but you need to do it in the right way.

  • Acquire links organically – focus on creating and promoting great content, and you may find other sites naturally want to link to your website.
  • Reach out to influencers – sending your best content to influential people in sectors relevant to your business can boost the chances of you attracting links.
  • Add a content-rich blog to your website – a great way to earn organic links as you’ll be consistently producing fresh, new content.
  • Using social media – it will help you build a network of followers who will want to share your content. This can help spread your content.

Avoid buying links as doing so won’t help your site rank well in search engines.

You should never ask for specific wording to be used when someone else links to your website, and internal anchor text linking to your own content should always be descriptive and use keywords, but you should keep it varied – repeating the same anchor text over and over again could bring up a red flag for search engines.

There’s a lot to remember about keeping your website optimised for search engines and to be truly effective your site needs to be monitored consistently. That’s why some people may turn to agencies that specialise in SEO services. However, this can be costly, and as a new online business you might want to consider a cheaper DIY option – for example, the 123 Reg Search Engine Optimiser, which will provide SEO tips and guidance once your site is up and running.

PPC

Pay-per-click advertising (PPC) is a marketing strategy that allows you to use paid advertising to target and drive specific audiences to your website.

Let’s say you want to create an advertisement and have it appear at the top of Google’s search results, in the paid ad section. You can use an advertising service like Google AdWords and pay to get this done. You’ll create an account and then a campaign, where you’ll need to determine the keywords people will search to find the kind of product or service you offer – for example, “buy perfume”. Then you’ll create an ad that will appear in the Sponsored section when people search on Google using these words or phrases.

This works as a fast-track as you’d have to wait a lot longer to show up in the search results as a new online business. When it comes to pricing, you decide how much you are willing to pay (by bidding) when your ad is clicked, and you only pay if it is. However, how high up in the search you appear depends on the amount you bid.

Remember that there are other businesses you will be bidding against. The keywords you choose determine how much you’ll need to bid too – competition is fierce for the popular words so you’ll need to be careful to ensure you can still make a profit on the things you’re selling.

PPC is a great marketing strategy that has to be executed carefully and in a strategic way. If this isn’t something you feel you can devote your time to, it might be worth trying 123 Reg Pay-Per-Click Ad management. That way, you can reap the rewards of a successful PPC campaign without having to lift a finger.

Social media

Social media is undoubtedly one of the easiest and cheapest ways to promote your business and engage with your target market. Having a strong social media presence can work wonders for your business by allowing you to build a reputation and a following for your brand. Like every other marketing strategy we’ve discussed so far, social media success requires patience and persistence as you build and grow your brand. It’s important not to let low follower counts and shares discourage you in the early stages – remember that social media gives your business a platform and an opportunity to target and reach people interested in what you have to offer all over the world. With some dedication and consistency, you will see your numbers grow.

There are so many ways a business can use social media, from building your brand and customer relations, to providing customer service and generating sales. Once you have a clear goal set it will be easier to decide the kind of content you want on your page.

Email Marketing

Building an email list isn’t easy, but it is worthwhile. Email gives you a chance to reconnect with people who’ve shown interest in your business in the past and make a sale (or more sales).

Email marketing can be tricky – it’s up to the customer whether they choose to sign up and then open your emails or not.

Here are some basic tips to help you send better marketing emails.

First, it’s important to tailor your messages to specific customers, giving them a more personal experience. This is done by using audience segmentation – which simply means you divide your audience up into groups such as gender, age, location and purchase history and send each group an email that really matters to them, rather than sending out the same email to everyone at once and risking sending certain people something totally irrelevant.

Personalisation is a must – “Dear Customer” is simply not good enough in this day and age, when any decent email marketing tool should allow you to email each customer by name with ease. Email marketing is your opportunity to show your customers how much you value them.

Subject lines are crucial – it needs to entice the recipient to actually open the email. But avoid using trick tactics such as overpromising or exaggerating in the subject line – you’ll only leave the reader frustrated when they discover that what they were hoping to find is not in the email.

Scheduling is important to ensure the customer knows when they are going to be hearing from you. Let customers know they’ll be receiving a weekly newsletter or a monthly update and stick to this timeframe – it’s just not credible for a business to not stick to its word.

Sales and deals lose value if they are too regular – so emailing your customers every week with a new offer is not enticing or exciting for them. A big deal every once in a while is more likely to get opened than the same offer every week

Measure the results of your email campaigns – we recommend Google Analytics to do this. You’ll see what emails are being opened and converting sales, and this is how you can be sure of what campaigns are working and do more of the same. It’s a lot to think about, so you’ll more than likely need to invest in a good email marketing tool to help you manage. Email Marketing from 123 Reg allows you to do all of the things discussed and more, plus creating a professional email campaign is made simple thanks to drag-and-drop the interface.

8. Fund your business

This is something every business owner needs to think about carefully, especially if you don’t have your own money to start up with. There are a few options:

  1. Bank loan – Not easy to get, but if you can get approved you’ll have lower interest rates and longer repayment periods to play with.
  2. Business overdraft/credit card – A great way to get the quick cash you need for your business, but you risk spending more than you can afford to pay back.
  3. Crowdfunding – You’ll save time and money without having to go through a drawn-out application process, but you may not be able to get a large amount of funding from this option.
  4. Angel investor – You’d have to give up a share of your business if you win an investment, but you’ll also have the guidance of an experienced entrepreneur and you won’t have to pay all the money back if you fail.
  5. Micro-loan – Easier to get than a bank loan, but if you need a large amount of funding this wouldn’t be the best option to go for.
  6. Grant – Hard to find and even harder to apply for, but if you can get one you’ll be given the funds for your business.
  7. Bootstrapping – essentially the business pays for itself here, and you reinvest as it grows -which is great as you own 100% of it. However, if the business doesn’t make money, neither do you.

9. Get legal advice

It’s advisable to seek out some legal advice before starting your business. If anything goes wrong, it’s important to have your back covered so you can avoid fallouts and delays.

Plus, showing your bank or potential lender that you have considered possible risks and downsides can show them your business plan is credible and that they can invest in you.

A legal professional can advise you further, but here are some things that are often overlooked that would be good to remember:

  • What kind of company you will be – you can do business as a sole trader, working as self-employed or as a limited company owned by shareholders. Both have their pros and cons, so do your research and decide which option suits your needs the best.
  • Website comments – you could be liable for comments posted on your website, especially if they are posted by an anonymous person. Moderate comments left on your website and remove anything that could cause offence.
  • Data protection – online shoppers need to know what is done with their data, if it will be transferred to third parties and what their rights are as a customer. You must also ensure you comply with GDPR.
  • Contract laws – every business will have contracts it operates by, and you need to fully understand them and have knowledge of the basics of contract law.
  • Cookie Policy – You’ll need to provide everyone that visits your website with clear information about the cookies being used, and get their consent to the storage and reading of cookies on their device.
  • Supplier Identification- If you’re selling online, you are legally required to disclose your identity to your customers. This includes your full name, registered address, contact details such as your telephone number and your VAT number.

Free legal advice

If your budget won’t stretch to advice from a legal professional, you can check out www.gov.uk or contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau for free legal advice. You now have all the information you need to guide you on your journey to setting up a new online business. Let’s sum it all up:

Conclusion

  1. Brainstorm your business idea. Have confidence in it no matter how silly it seems – it could be a winner.
  2. Write up a detailed business plan as soon as you have an idea. Keep this updated regularly
  3. Seek out some legal advice and look for sources of funding
  4. Test your market before going live with your business idea – you can catch any problems and rectify them before releasing your business to the public
  5. Draw up a shortlist of clear and memorable business names, then find your domain
  6. Take the first step to building an online presence by creating a website. Refine your design and copywriting, and secure your site
  7. Develop a marketing plan – it should consist of a mix of SEO, social media, PPC and email marketing
  8. Monitor the results of every step you take, so you know what to do next

In most cases, it won’t happen overnight, but with a solid plan of action, you could be running your very own successful online business in no time. If you have any questions about setting up your own business, 123 Reg is always here to help. Just get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.

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