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Future of the Custom Installation Business?

By Michael Puttré September, 2000

According to Dante, there's a place in Hell for fortunetellers. So we'll tread carefully when parting the veils for a glimpse of what might await the custom electronics installation industry in the years ahead. The purpose of this article is not so much to predict the future as to present insight from some of the people who will most certainly help shape it.

The marvelous thing is that there is a community of makers, doers, and commentators that can be described as an industry. While the concept of consumer electronics was well advanced twenty years ago, only a handful perceived custom installation and integration that sold service—not product—could be a viable business. Common wisdom today says that product–oriented installers are doomed to a meager existence and probable extinction. But what do the makers, doers, and commentators think about tomorrow, specifically?

Leaders in the manufacturing, integrator, and analyst segments of the custom installation industry agree that the market can only increase, perhaps exponentially so. But growth is in itself a form of change, and we all know that change is opportunity. For you, or for someone else. If history is any guide, opportunity and threat are two edges of the same sword.

Many people in the industry thank the little reptile in the brainstem that demands entertainment when it's not clamoring for food and shelter. Sam Runco, president of Runco International (Hayward, CA), a manufacturer of customized home projectors and display systems, reaches into recorded history to project that popular entertainment will be the industry driver in our life times. “From the campfire to the Romans—who really got crazy—people get addicted to storytelling and spectacle,” he says. “Are we that different today? Not really. People with the means get addicted to home theater. I don't think it's going to stop.”

Technology has enabled a marketplace of enthusiast consumers, where people addicted to entertainment are able to take that next step and possess and control it themselves rather than wait for others to deliver it. The age of the entertainment enthusiast has seen the audiophile aloft in his listening room, and more recently the movie fan pinned down in his home theater by 5.1–channel DVD. As technology continues to evolve, tastes will increasingly grow accustomed to it. “There will be a day when people will walk into a house and say, ‘Let's go to the home theater,' expecting it to be there, like running water,” Runco says.

Maybe the experience of superior A/V is rather more like that of drinking fine wine: One taste and it's hard to go back to the lower shelf. Consider the person who finds a $10 bottle of wine perfectly acceptable—until he has a $20 bottle. If he likes wine, and can afford it, he will almost certainly favor the more expensive vintage in the future. The guy with his 32–in. TV hooked up to his college stereo system will be delighted with his handiwork—until he goes over to a friend's house to watch Monday Night Football from a 9–in. CRT projector with a line–doubler, professionally installed and calibrated.

This dynamic is time–proven. “Upscale people always lead the market in any technology–based item because they have the means to adopt leading–edge technology while it is still relatively expensive,” says Jeffery Jerome, vice president of Home Systems Plus (HSP) (Owings Mills, MD), a manufacturer of integrated home control panels. “These technologies generally filter down to less affluent consumers after a few years.” This is the case with all consumer technologies. Take lighting control: A 1500–sq.ft. town house is small enough to manage without automated lighting controls and heat controls. After all, there are only a few lights and a single thermostat. Contrast this with a 10,000–sq.ft. home on a five–acre estate. This homeowner absolutely needs help with managing 126 lights, six thermostats, managing his music, etc. “Small homes will still see much more integration over time, but they have far fewer requirements than a very large home,” Jerome says.

Integrator Sean Fields, president of Audio/Video Entertainment (Laguna Niguel, CA), and treasurer of the Custom Electronics Designers and Installers Association (CEDIA) (Indianapolis, IN), the industry's premier professional association, echoes Jerome's assessment: “We are always providing our services to the upscale consumer, i.e. larger homes and higher income people, never to the masses. Smaller houses; under 1,500–sq.– ft., don't need much automation since everything is within reach, so to speak.”

Entertainment–oriented electronics dominate the coverage of home installations, largely because of their natural appeal. However, some believe that A/V's high profile, relative to the other disciplines of residential systems integration, confuses the issue of what is driving the industry forward. “I don't know that A/V specifically is what's been driving us; rather, it's availability,” says Steve Hayes, president of Custom Electronics (Falmouth, ME), and current president of CEDIA. “In the minds of many consumers, it's all we've got. Fifteen years ago, the custom installation business was nearly all A/V. However, new technology has arrived over the last nine years, and now A/V is just 30 percent of our business. We're not atypical. I think that one of the best mediums for letting the customers know what's available is the dealer showroom. Walk into a showroom, and people know the industry is about more than just retail electronics. It tells them that we offer an experience that goes beyond A/V. Talk about lighting control, and it isn't exciting. Touch a button, and show a lighting control scene, and suddenly the person is excited. We have to provide that excitement.”

Others agree that it's market awareness that's made home theater a household term. “Entertainment will be a driving force in the market for the immediate future, but that doesn't preclude the market from broadening,” says Randy Klein, vice president of Crestron Electronics Inc. (Rockleigh, NJ), a maker of commercial and residential control systems. “Public awareness of multimedia, the Internet, and other media delivery systems will create demand, and as these things become more affordable to consumer, the market will continue to grow.”

The Internet, in particular, has established itself as a force in the minds of consumers to rival television and recorded media. Whether or not it is the perfect technical vehicle for the delivery of entertainment, networking, and other distributed services in the home, the Internet has the distinct advantage of being on everybody's lips. David Nash, director of marketing for the Connected.Home Initiative at Intel Corp.'s Intel Architecture Labs (Hillsboro, OR), doesn't equivocate: “There's a huge mega–trend here. The Internet will have a profound impact on what we do at home. The resulting lifestyle benefits are going to be the sources of a host of new opportunities for residential electronics.”

The purpose of the Intel Architecture Labs is to create new uses for computing by researching and developing capabilities that enhance users' overall computer experience. Nash's particular focus is the connected home, and not surprisingly he sees no shortage of places for Intel inside. “Today, home automation is very compelling to a very small group of people,” Nash says. Of course, when Intel says “small” it means hundreds of thousands or even millions, rather than the many millions the chip–maker typically trades in. “We're talking about Internet appliances for the other 100 million people in this country who are not yet connected.”

The strength of the Internet as a driver of new residential systems development is that it is technically well understood by the engineers who will design them, and fairly well understood by the people who will market them. The question is whether the Internet is understood at all by the people who will install the new technology in customers' homes. “Ignore it at your peril,” Nash says.

It is hard to ignore the potential power generated by popular enthusiasm for home entertainment—which is only increasing—and the pervasive and invisible infrastructure enabling Internet access. “Obviously the Internet will continue to drive entertainment products through broadband access and, more importantly, the networking of that broadband access,” says Doug Fikse, president of OnQ Technologies Inc. (Harrisburg, PA), a manufacturer of residential structured wiring systems. “Entertainment continues to be the prime focus of the consumer's discretionary dollar, yet the lifestyle of the consumer is becoming more ‘Internet exposed.' The trend seems to be the convergence of entertainment with the information world, or making work and education more entertaining.”

Human nature has shown that information and convenience are what drives technology, and the Internet is the nexus of both. “In this day and age, information is more important to most people than traditional entertainment,” HSP's Jerome says. “In fact the Web is also entertainment. On any given evening AOL has far more people tuned in than the three ‘major' networks. In the near term, the enabling technology will be to bring the Web to the people wherever they are. In every room will be some kind of Web device.”

The Internet as application–enabler is different, very different than the Internet as marketing and distribution tool. Parks Associates (Dallas, TX), a leading think–tank and market analysis firm for residential systems installation, says the Internet is not a distribution business in and of itself. “Instead, every company must incorporate the Internet as a marketing tool,” says Tricia Parks, president of Parks Associates. “While key early and exciting plays have occurred, such as Amazon in books, CDs, and so forth, or an X10 moving much of its retail distribution to an online model, the Internet is part of nearly every company's future as a marketing tool. It is part of nearly any business, not a business in and of itself.”

Parks advises custom installers to either divert marketing dollars or bolster the marketing budget to include the Internet in the company's efforts to promote itself. “The Internet allows one factor unavailable at the price in any other way: the space to explain,” she says.

While the Internet may pose a threat to dealer–manufacturer relationships for true plug–and–play products, the threat to products requiring installation is much lower. “The Internet has given consumers tremendous knowledge of brands, prices, specifications and reliability,” says HSP's Jerome. “Consumers will certainly buy certain individual pieces over the Web, but few will assemble a whole system that way.”

“The Internet and other media delivery systems will create demand and, as these things become more affordable to the consumer, the market will continue to grow,” says Crestron's Klein. “However, people still want the sensory, see–it, touch–it, feel–it experience when investing in this kind of technology. That simply can't be duplicated by selling solutions through e–commerce. You can certainly sell products on–line, but to understand how an overall solution works, you have to experience it for yourself.”

Custom Electronics' Hayes says the Internet has the effect of turning certain products into commodities. For example, a person can go to the L.L. Bean Web site and order a shirt. He knows the shirt he wants, he checks out the colors, and he just wants to buy it. This is a real challenge to brick–and–mortar stores that sell products that lend themselves to commodity status, like shirts, books, and CDs. “Fortunately for custom installers, we are not selling product, or at least we better not be,” Hayes says. “We are selling experiences. You can't get that off the Internet.”

Custom Electronics has been successful in using the Internet to make commodity sales of some of its older and used equipment. The sales more than make up for the cost of maintaining the Web site, plus they free up valuable stock space. “In the future, I see the Internet as having a true impact on my business when I will be able to create a true business portal for managing all business activities, from communicating with customers and employees in the field to managing inventory and scheduling,” Hayes says. “Right now, the Internet is more like an electronic brochure.”

Given that entertainment and the Internet are widely perceived as the residential systems market drivers for the foreseeable future, installers can surely expect a host of new products and technologies to leverage them. “If you think about it, there are four networks in the home that custom installers are addressing,” says Sunil Mehrotra, president of GetPlugged.com (Westlake, CA), an Internet portal for connecting consumers with installers. He identifies these as the home theater (entertainment) network; the automation (control) network; the security network; and the home telephony network. “Each of these four clusters is being driven by giant industries, each of which is a $100 billion industry. And each of these industries is saying that the future is in the home. This is a long–term trend, and the trend is excellent.”

Parks Associates predicts that for the short term, i.e., the next two to three years, broadband access to multiple PCs will drive home networking in existing homes. “Following along shortly after that in both scale and growth will be distributed entertainment as sources for entertainment multiply,” Parks says. “Structured wiring, an enabler, is increasing dramatically in new homes. That will continue. Parks Associates believes that structured wiring will move to nearly standard within five to seven years.”

According to structured wiring manufacturer OnQ, the push for home networking will spur technical advances for key broadband access technologies such as digital subscriber lines (DSL), cable modems, and wireless that in turn will open new options to the consumer. Additionally, many discrete applications will finally have a reason to become integrated through the sharing of the Web. “Home Automation of the past has been seen as a significant entity (with significant cost) in the home,” says OnQ's Fikse. “Consumers had to parade it around to help justify the expenditures and would often not acknowledge the lack in value of the their investment. With the network becoming a reality, and the continuing reduction in cost of the home automation function, these systems become an add–on benefit to the whole–house system. HA will become part of the home network¼not the other way around.”

Intel's Nash thinks that simple mathematics indicates that in the future existing housing will command a huge chunk of the residential systems market. The main thing that prevents installers from realizing this market is aversion to retrofitting existing homes with structured wiring. Without the basic infrastructure, the devices required for many custom electronics applications cannot be installed. “I'm a big fan of structured wiring,” Nash says, citing Intel's support for the Wiring America's Homes initiative. “However, if you want to think about new business for this industry, don't just think new construction.”Nash reasons that the various “no–new–wires” technologies (RF and IR wireless, powerline communications (PLC), and phone line networking) will be critical for opening up the vast potential of the existing housing market to installers. It is the promise of this market, with its “many millions” of customers, that is luring the research and development efforts of giant technology firms, such as Intel and Microsoft. A major technology currently under development by a consortium of manufacturers and technology firms, led by Microsoft, is Universal Plug and Play (UPnP). The term describes a peer–to–peer network connectivity of computers and like devices, intelligent appliances, and wireless units. UPnP uses TCP/IP and the Web to enable no–new–wires networking, in addition to control and data transfer among networked devices in the home and office.

The Universal Plug and Play Forum, formed in 1999 to develop and promote the technology as a de facto standard, has the sort of 800–pound–gorilla clout required to see the plan into the marketplace, a la Windows. The hype surrounding UPnP is that devices conforming to the standard will be interoperable and self–configuring once plugged into the intelligent network, which in a peer–to–peer situation consists of the devices themselves and the “wireless” communications infrastructure. So where's the installer?

“I don't see this happening, not for a long time, if ever,” says OnQ's Fikse. Not that the efforts of the UPnP Forum will come to naught, but it is very unlikely that trained installers and skilled integrators will be taken out of the loop. “Plug–and–play has never panned out to be universal in the uncontrolled environment of a home. We can't even use plug and play software without our computers crashing, so imagine a person's house crashing every time they purchase the latest device labeled ‘XYZ–compatible.'”

“Plug–and–play is Microsoft's pipedream, and consumer behavior doesn't operate that way,” agrees A/V Entertainment's Fields.

“Plug–and–play is nice but is by no means the be all, end all,” says Crestron's Klein. “As long as technology continues to expand, people who can afford it will want the latest and greatest. Therefore, they'll always want a custom installation.”

Others agree, but only up to a point. “Someone will still have to install much of the equipment (gateways, wiring, etc.),” says HSP's Jerome. However, it will not necessarily be the caliber of installations many “CEDIA–class” firms would be interested in: “It will take less custom engineering skills, and the installations will be more repeatable. Since less esoteric knowledge is required, it will open the door for the big telcos, cable companies, and large security firms to try to meet this need in a cookie–cutter fashion.”

On the retail side, a homeowner might buy additional network “nodes” from a Best Buy, but it is unlikely that many homeowners have the patience to set up the infrastructure and components of their own home network. It is Jerome's opinion that professionally installed home infrastructure will be left to a number of big players. On the manufacturer side, it is no secret that the Intels, Microsofts, Suns and Ciscos are very interested in this market. These companies don't have the “trucks on the road” that the telcos, utility companies, and the cable have. “Because of this I think we will see alliances where hardware and software makers team up with various service providers,” he says.

As appliance manufacturers begin their march to connect appliances to each other and the Internet, they will make easy installation, or even no installation, a priority. However, the custom installers are not terribly involved in that arena today. Custom installation, as it has been used by the various industries requiring it, remains an upscale item. Yet “non–custom” installation occurs every day in all home segments. The rise of networked broadband access, as in DSL modems and cable modems using wireless or HomePNA (phone line) solutions to multiple PC households, requires installation that will be complex or too annoying for some households. “These householders will seek installation help from entities as diverse as telephone companies and RadioShack,” Parks says. “Custom installers will also be employed as an adjunct to other, bigger jobs such as whole–house entertainment. Homes adding structured wiring or that already have structured wiring and also want multiple device usage for modems will use custom installers along with other installers.”

In addition, Parks offers the following analysis of the competitive environment in the home installation market for the near future:

Parks Associates uses home automation to mean the elimination of customer action to operate systems within the home. So, once a programmable thermostat is set and working, the change of temperature has been automated. A category of growth, such as networked broadband access, is not a home automation category.

For categories such as energy management and lighting control, the future holds improvement as a consequence of more affordable control products and more capable technologies. This is not a beginning, but rather a continuation.

Drivers to the speed of deployment include items such as energy pricing, marketing of benefits, and broadly based availability. Certainly, Honeywell will continue in this arena.

A more radical arena for progress lies in multiple system integration within homes. This is not new conceptually, but is still slow to grow and is certainly not yet mass market. Examples include security systems that integrate with lighting or energy systems, or even PC–based home control across categories. This is an area where a company like Home Director will shine. I believe the security manufacturers have a solid opportunity in this arena also.

Pacesetting manufacturers will be the giants in each category. The newest entrants to this vision of the integrated, smart home are from the computing and networking industries. Giants such as Cisco, Microsoft, and even AOL see new application opportunity. Their speed of action and technology capabilities are their key assets. Their money also helps, and as press darlings, their ventures and innovations receive attention from industry, general, and financial press. That media combination is a friend to growth.

The telecom industries overall will make their key moves in infrastructure, leaving specific applications beyond telephony and broadband access to subsidiaries (SBC with SecurityLink from Ameritech) or others. They are busy deploying broadband and meeting the growing telephony needs spawned by our robust economy inside their traditional installation divisions. While they will seek and respond to partnerships and alliances, Parks Associates views them as “too busy” with core category build–ups for the next two to three years to have the time for much more innovation beyond those categories. They will, Parks Associates believes, offer networking for multiple PCs, but this is to enhance and ensure position for broadband services and not just to network.

The classic, giant retailers will enter this fray to enhance the sales of their already existing businesses in installation or to promote their hardware sales. Examples now include Sears Roebuck, Best Buy, and RadioShack. These will and can cut into some custom installer businesses. However, there is enough business at this time that we do not see a short–term (two to three year) effect. The longer future may tell a quite different tale.

Subsidiaries or special divisions, for example BACCSI or Bell South's newly announced activities, will focus on structured wiring opportunities. Some applications relating to broadband and entertainment (DBS, for example) will accompany this effort, but we do not see “home automation” as telecom's goal at this time. It will be left for others to build upon the infrastructures deployed in new starts or remodels.

A/V Entertainment's Fields considers it only natural that as the market gets bigger it will attract bigger players. However, the market will change as it grows, adding new segments and opportunities, and this will not necessarily result in new players competing with the traditional custom installer and his “core competencies” of design and above all, service.

“The utility companies have it tough because of deregulation and its effect of creating a fragmented market,” Fields says. “I see them fighting it out to get the consumer in the same ways that cell phone companies fight it out for customers, such as lower prices and greater roaming abilities. The computer industry will change too: Consumers are now getting more sophisticated about their computer and telecommunication needs and what the Internet can and can't do. The major electronics manufacturers like Sony and other ‘big' players are always investing in the most up–to–date research and equipment. They will change with the market and will continue to dominate. The chain retailers will always be there because they can supply cheaper–priced equipment for those people who can't afford the big–ticket type stuff. The chain retailer will continue to provide that forever! I don't see them getting into big–league integration, because chain suppliers can't give the customer the level of personal service or quality that custom does.”

Intel's Nash is less certain that “mass market” automatically translates as “lousy service.” Each of the players out there, be they traditional installation firms, new start–ups, or established players in other fields entering the market, has a very strong imperative to invest in high–growth segments, of which residential installation is certainly one. If investing in service is what's required to succeed, then that's what they will do. “Make no mistake, they're going to get good at it,” Nash says.

The custom installation industry of the past decade has emerged and thrived in an era of unprecedented economic growth. This era of plenty has enabled many consumers to explore the possibilities of sophisticated home electronics, and it also has supported new installation firms to serve them. The boom times mean that many installers have all the work they can handle on referrals alone, and allot little if any money for marketing. Most agree that if the economy goes south, there will be a Darwinian die–off of firms that have not had to compete in the past.

“Booms can cover a multitude of business sins,” Parks says. “Tight markets do not allow egregious operational inefficiencies, shoddy quality, or poor customer treatment. Companies that are getting by with those conditions now will fail or change in a downturn.”

Thus, the major challenge dealer/installers will face in their businesses will be the businesses themselves. As OnQ's Fikse puts it: “Consolidation or bankruptcy will drive this concept into their heads.”

“If there's one aspect of our business that is lacking, it's that we need better business managers,” says Custom Electronics' Hayes. “This situation is not so much the result of a lack of leadership, as the dynamics of a new, growing industry. People need stress and competition to pay attention to the business, and the only stress most of us have had is how to handle all the customers. But this won't be the case forever.”

Crestron's Klein views residential systems integration as essentially a cottage industry that's growing rapidly. As a result, lots of business considerations are really unfamiliar territory for many firms. “We as an industry need to continue to emphasize education and business development, to teach not just about products and technology, but about how to run this kind of business,” Klein says. “For example, CEDIA did a great business development workshop in Scottsdale, Arizona, last November. That's the kind of thing the industry needs more of.”

Hayes agrees: “The businesses out there are technically solid, but they need more business savvy. CEDIA recognizes this, although perhaps we should have done a better job at communicating it. But we're really working on it now: In addition to the Management Conference, CEDIA will be launching a new initiative aimed directly at business owners. These owners, then, are going to have to stand up and lead themselves. As leaders, we have technical expertise and excellence that is unmatched. Looking ahead, though, Silicon Valley might have the technical capability to come in here and assert its leadership.”

“I think we have had great leadership for a fledgling industry,” says HSP's Jerome. “What we haven't had is an 800–pound–gorilla like the computer or A/V industry. We don't want to confuse leadership with clout. Gandhi was a great leader, but Stalin had clout. We can live without clout.”

Jerome points out that the custom install business is very labor intensive, and dealing with labor these days is any small–medium business owner's biggest nightmare. Once a business reaches “critical mass,” then the owners have a backup if someone quits. Then they can start concentrating on better business practices. “You know the old saying about trying to drain the swamp while you are up to your neck in alligators,” he says.

“Right now the main concern of dealer/installers is adequately handling the overflow of business,” says A/V Entertainment's Fields. “Most companies have more than they can handle. As far as the future, the people who are leaders now will continue to lead, and the longer we are all in it the more sophisticated we will become and the better we will be able to handle the business. I would say that most of the installers are increasing their knowledge at a very rapid rate. They are quickly becoming aware of the market opportunities, and with organizations like CEDIA to help them in their business matters, it will make them even savvier.

In a nutshell, the consensus is that the firms will be bigger, with more back room service support. Less sure is what form these bigger, savvier, more departmentalized companies will take; and what sort of people they will employ. If CEDIA has anything to say about it, some of these firms will be the mature instars of the successful designer/integrators that have built the industry over the last two decades, essentially from nothing. However, these top–shelf integrators are not the sorts to pursue the “mass–install” market that many observers say will drive the industry forward, in terms of both new business and new product development.

OnQ's Fikse looks to the security industry for a view of what the future might be like for custom installation: “It follows that both major players (like ADT) and minor players (like the corner mom and pop store) can survive because the consumer just is not a homogenous mass willing to accept the same thing for everybody.”

So–called CEDIA–class firms will continue to favor the rich and famous, where high margins and glory await them. The principals of these firms will be savvier business people, with designers, engineers, project managers, and a well–oiled back office at their command. The front end, dealing with the client, is the cultured professional—rather like an architect or an electronic interior designer. Who, then, will be the front end on the high–volume, low–margin jobs? The telco and utility–class companies, perhaps partnered with retail–chain suppliers, that step in to address the waiting multitudes will need to have a different sort of person in the customer's family room than the lineman or cable guy.

“Think of him (or her) as the digital plumber,” Intel's Nash says, with all respect intended. (“I know some very comfortably off plumbers!”) Like a plumber, the individual could be a professional independent contractor providing house–specific (custom, if you will) installation and maintenance that enables a utility service. Or he might be on the utility payroll. “Either way, the digital plumber is the career path of the future,” Nash says. “Once his foot is in the door, the residence is potentially open to a huge volume of recurring business.”

The service providers know this. Nash points out that Deutche Telecom in Germany recently acquired a broadband provider for an amount that works out to $20,000 per new subscriber. Obviously, they expect to be able to sell a variety of products and services to these households and others over a long period of time to justify the investment. The individual that goes into the residence to serve these customers will have the wherewithal to capitalize on this access.

“Nearly every industry providing fundamental change versus incremental improvement has struggled with acceptance, consumer understanding, and a changing business model,” says analyst Parks. “Home systems integration, requiring multi–disciplinary talents, has this struggle. Powerful benefits [that are recognized by the consumer] are the solution. They take time.”

Custom Electronics' Hayes sees an engaging parallel between custom installation firms and a slice of Americana. “Why has our industry developed the way it has? Because there's been a lot of enthusiasm, and a lot of fun,” he says. “I see a great parallel for us in the neighborhood hardware store. The independent hardware store had the local market all locked up. Everybody was having a good time. Then Home Depot showed up. Overnight, independent hardware stores went out of business. This could easily happen in our industry, if we're not careful. Some independents responded with alliances, umbrella organizations that gave them efficiency, such as True Value. These efficiencies of group marketing and business expertise combined with local talent and service could help ensure a bright future for us all, including the Home Depots of the world.”

Fellow installer and CEDIA officer Fields takes a slightly different but not contradictory view. In his opinion, custom installation is such a unique industry that it defies comparison with any other. “Who knows what will happen five years from now?” Fields says. “There is so much going on in the electronics and communications field right now that we have enough trouble just keeping up with what is happening day–to–day. Five years from now, we could be dealing with an entirely different world that we, currently, have not even conceived of.”

Cast your memory back to 1995. Where was the DVD, or even the Internet? The key, Fields concludes, is to know the customer: “To know we have what they need and to know how to deliver, whatever it may be.” If the custom installer of today can't do that, then his future is clear. He will be doing something else for a living.

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