Tech Innovations Transforming Credit Union Services – [FULL INTERVIEW]

In this conversation with Andrew Duncan, CEO of SOAR, a platform supporting credit unions and CDFIs, we discuss insights into the evolving landscape of credit unions in the wake of the cost of living crisis and technological advancements.

Andrew highlights the shift in borrowing purposes towards essential needs, the challenge of technology adoption, the significance of community bonds, and the potential growth of the credit union sector through technological innovation and consolidation.

Find out more about SOAR -> Here.

Key Points

  • Borrowing purposes have shifted from discretionary spending to essential needs due to the cost of living crisis.
  • Credit unions and CDFIs are becoming more accessible alternatives to traditional banks for individuals facing affordability issues.
  • Technology plays a critical role in facilitating loan applications and processing, despite adoption challenges.
  • Community bonds within credit unions provide valuable insights for underwriting loans but limit their size.
  • Digital communities and social media could help expand the reach of credit unions and overcome marketing challenges.
  • The consolidation of credit unions into larger entities with broader common bonds is anticipated, enabled by technology.
  • Regulatory challenges and the importance of cybersecurity are growing concerns.
  • Artificial intelligence has the potential to automate processes and assist credit union staff.
  • The credit union sector is expected to grow, driven by technological innovation, political support, and an improving economy.
  • The Glasgow credit union model, thriving on community bonds and word-of-mouth marketing, could serve as an example for the wider UK market.
  • Small credit unions could benefit from new technology platforms, enabling them to compete with larger entities.
  • The shift towards software as a service (SaaS) models and embedded technology partnerships is notable in the sector.

Key Statistics

  • The value of loans processed by credit unions has decreased.
  • Credit union membership is around 2 million consumers in the UK, with a smaller proportion fully understanding their benefits.
  • Most credit unions have fewer than 30 staff, indicating the scale of their operations.
  • The number of credit unions is expected to diminish over the next 5-10 years due to consolidation.

Key Takeaways

  • The cost of living crisis has fundamentally changed borrowing habits, focusing on essential needs.
  • Credit unions and CDFIs offer viable financial alternatives for those failed by traditional banks.
  • Technological adoption, while challenging, is crucial for the operational efficiency and reach of credit unions.
  • Community bonds, though limiting in size, enhance underwriting effectiveness and member loyalty.
  • Marketing and awareness of credit unions remain significant challenges, with potential growth through digital outreach.
  • Consolidation and technology can broaden the impact of credit unions, offering services to a wider audience.
  • Regulatory burdens and cybersecurity are increasingly pressing issues for the sector.
  • AI and technology promise to reduce operational costs and enhance service delivery.
  • Glasgow demonstrates the impact of community and word-of-mouth in the success of credit unions.
  • SaaS and technology partnerships are becoming more prevalent, offering scalability and efficiency.
  • The future of credit unions is poised for growth, driven by a combination of passion, technology, and potential political support.
  • Financial education and leveraging digital communities could be strategic focal points for credit unions moving forward.
Interview Transcript

Hi, everyone, I’m here with Andrew Duncan today, and he’s the CEO of soar in the credit union CDFI platform supporter of providing platforms for that kind of industry, really. So Andrew, thanks very much for for joining me. Thanks very much for having me. This is my pleasure. So I suppose just given your speciality, what are some of the trends that you’ve kind of been seeing in terms of that kind of space? Yeah. So as you said, We basically work with credit unions and CDFIs. And what we’ve noticed, largely since the cost of living crisis started is that the purpose of borrowing has changed largely from borrowers. So applicants are coming to their credit union. And rather than looking to borrow money to do up their house, or look after the car, or whatever, it’s more, or just the absolute basics. And it’s like a bit of a sad story, really, because when the applications come through, and you’re reading, the purpose of application and things, you realise just how hard up some people are. So that’s really been a big thing. That’s, that’s changed. And I suppose from a technology standpoint, we’re facilitating an easy way for applicants to get their data into the credit union to be appraised and processed, and so on. But as a result of that, I think that also means that the credit unions are having to handle more of it, because they’re seeing more and more loan applications come in. Certainly, this is in our customer base anyway. And the value of the loans that they’re processing tend to be smaller than they were previously. And do you think that volume of loans of people coming in is really because the big banks, although the rest of the financial services industry is not servicing them? And they almost like getting excluded from them? So they’re going to the credit union? CDFI? Space? Yeah, no, absolutely. I think that’s exactly what’s happening. I think even though you may have a good credit rating, the reality is, if you can’t pass the affordability checks that the lenders are putting you through, then your options become more and more narrowed. And the credit unions actually represent a really good alternative to to any other lender anyway. Because their rates are cheap. And the they are offering like a personalised service where they’re basically going to listen to you and then try and help where they can it’s like slightly different is a good thing that the consumers are coming to the credit unions. But it’s also sad when it’s not possible for them to help if, if in reality, they just can’t get over the line with regards to affordability and everything. Yeah, do you think there’s a bit of a realisation amongst almost like a wider population or a wider market than there was historically the mean, because they do really do offer really good rates? Right? They offer competitive rates versus banking, both for lending and for saving? Do you think there’s a I think there’s a realisation that actually, this is quite an interesting market to either park your money or to borrow money versus the traditional kind of lenders read as it’s now a bit of a hidden secret, in many ways. Yeah, that’s the problem. And so my answer is just a flat out. No, I don’t think people really know, I think the credit union movement and market has not yet managed to market itself appropriately to the British public, so that every consumer is aware of the fact that it exists, why it exists, what’s good about it. And I think, actually, that people in Britain could really get behind credit unions, because what credit unions believe in is such a good thing. And I can’t imagine why any consumer would not want to also believe in the same movement and passion that they have for that. That’s why I got into it in the first place. I didn’t really know what a credit union was about six or seven years ago. In fact, I actually made an app for a credit union in Glasgow, back in 2013. And I didn’t even know what a credit union was, even after I built the app. So we got the app live and everything. And it wasn’t for another five years at another credit union and approached and points I properly read up on what the market was about. It’s started to pique my interest. And, yeah, as a result of that, I my passions changed. And I found something that I felt I could get behind and believe in. And, yeah, I can’t see why there wouldn’t be millions of other consumers that would be in the same boat. But as it stands, just know, there are only about 2 million consumers that consume credit unions, at least an even smaller proportion of them will actually be the ones that really understand what it is it’s good about a credit union. I actually think that I suppose the common bond is quite a big thing within the credit union movement, it seems like either be a geographical or an employer or whatever it is, how much do you think that sort of provides a constraint around growth to a certain extent? And I suppose the other kind of question, interesting question around that is, how much do you think that common bond almost helps the underwriting of the loans as well, because much more about where they where someone actually might live where who they work for it is particularly one as well, because it gives you extra information, doesn’t it in terms of the underwriting, so it’s almost like it’s, it also constrains the size of the market that they can work within. However, it also provides me with some pretty useful information around underwriting the risk for people as well. Yeah, I think the common bond is a really good thing, but you’re absolutely right. It does constrain the size of the credit unions. The only thing is, although it does it

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The common bond can be broadened enough to enable the credit union to really market itself to a very wide range of consumers. So I live in the just on the outskirts of Glasgow. And in Glasgow, we have loads of credit unions, a lot of them have very narrow common bond, this will be focused on just a few postcode ranges. But there are others that actually have a common bond that can span all the way up the west coast of Scotland. And so in reality, the consumer pool that they have access to is well over a million people, probably 2 million people or something like that. And the others don’t, there are ways in in the way that you picture a common bond where you can really break down the barriers. So you could open it up so that you could really live anywhere in Scotland and still join the UK credit union in Glasgow or Edinburgh. I’ve seen that done.

But you’re right, there’s also an advantage to the fact that it’s it is constrained, in that the credit unions do get to understand more about the consumers that are applying. And yet they will know more about the areas that they live in Pross, possibly a lot of people that join credit unions end up joining them through word of mouth and its neighbours of neighbours, and people that meet in the pub and things like that. And so as a result of that, you get a bit of an influx of people that share their own micro common bond. And then as a result, they then got this sort of common bond with the rest of the members. So yeah, so I think it’s, it is a constraint. But probably what’s going to happen, because we’re seeing this already, is that smaller credit unions are going to consolidate and merge with other credit unions and make larger ones. And we’ll probably end up with wider common bonds across the board. And we’re, a few years ago, we had hundreds of credit unions, that number will diminish over the next sort of five or six years, or 10 years perhaps. And yeah, we’ll probably end up with common bonds that are wider. Yeah, I suppose when you look at like thinking, particularly here as social media, but also the fact that we’re becoming much more to some ways quite community led, right, although be digitally digital communities, they become quite big, and you have quite a lot of bonds, or creation of these almost like sub communities, you just wonder if those are going to be leveraged. And there’s actually opportunity there. Because we’re cut in some ways, if you look at social media, we’re almost like going the other way and becoming more community focused or breaking into more communities. And maybe that maybe there’s a niche there for people? I suspect there is. Yeah, and the thing is, tech technology is enabling credit unions to kind of market in the wider pool of the UK on the digital platforms that exist, but it is possible for the technology to focus to the search results and things don’t we’re seeing that more and more happening on price comparison websites and things like that, for example, where it’s possible for you to apply for, or to put your details into apply for lending and see what options are available to you. And it will know which credit unions are actually in your common bond or in your postcode area, or whatever, and then pitch those to you as well, which is good. So I think that will happen more and more over the next few years, too. And what role does technology play, particularly in terms of when you’ve got creating scale, or if you don’t have scale, like being able to create leverage economies of scale, maybe a smaller kind of size to a certain extent, because the tech world has just changed, like beyond recognition in the last 10 years in terms of like software as a service. I’m sure you guys are at the centre of all of this. It’s just changed beyond recognition, where the ability for you to get economies of scale and put in new processes just seems it’s night and day different than it was even in reaching the history. Have you seen that change? And what’s the opportunity, but where do we go from here? Yeah, I think the thing that I keep remembering, reminding myself Is it underwriting loans, and having having the desire to offer this personalised service to each of your members is the really expensive part of running a credit union, there’s a lot of people involved in supporting the people that then they’re, they’re lending and offering savings to. And so the technology is really there to try and bring down and the cost to serve as much as possible in the situations and circumstances when it’s possible to offer the solution in a digitised way. And to be fair, a lot of younger credit union members, I think, are quite happy to receive that style of service anyway, there’s still a need to have some conversations and things like that. But fundamentally, I think a lot of people are quite happy to log in and do things through an app and expect to see the results just come back via email or push notifications or whatever it might be. So yeah, technology definitely for the credit union movement has is really enabling that no so that they can keep their costs low for the majority of the members that are either not engaging very much or they’re just able to engage through digital means anyway and quite happy to so they won’t be a burden to the credit union in terms of how much time and therefore money that’s costing to the capital that person and then the flip side of it is the the extra team that the loan officers or underwriters or the credit union members specialists have to spend with the people that need it, because there are a lot of

People will consume the services of the credit union for a lot of different reasons. It could just be loneliness or something along those lines. It’s not necessarily that they’re looking for financial services at that moment in time. But there’s their affording or coming into their credit union to that takes obtain, but it’s still a sort of valuable service to that particular consumer. So how ready do you find when you look across the market that readiness to make that shift in terms of adopting digital and there’s because Because also within the market, they’ve, they’ve got a very say, as we say, a very strong bond with the local community, they’re like, often in high streets, they got often got a physical presence, those kind of things in terms of that adoption, do you come across challenges in terms of getting people to adopt it really, I suppose it means that they can do more. But there can be a fear around technology sometimes, because it’s quite a big change for even for employees to a certain extent. Big time, I think it’s, it surprised me how much of a challenge it would be actually, I know that the passion of the staff at the credit union is to go digital and offer like the like a better service to their members. That’s ultimately what they want. But the fear of migrating systems, turning on new digital channels, that they don’t really understand how they’re going to operate and run, just knowing how they’re going to connect things together. I think they really struggled with that. And it’s because they’re small businesses, most credit unions have less than 30 staff. And there is not necessarily a dedicated IT specialist in the in the business. So there’s, they’re run by a lot of people who have an awful lot of knowledge and information about what it is that they do as a credit union. But when it comes to them running the tech, for the credit union, they tend to be quite lacking in sort of skill there. And so there’s often

an ask that we will be their partner in that part of it as well. But also, it’s quite a difficult thing for them to interest technology partner to do that. Because, yeah, we’re not a credit union. We’re a technology business. And whilst we are very passionate about supporting the financial services sector, particularly when it is in the credit union and CDFI space, I think they’re still there. We’re not owned and run by them. So it’s a different paradigm really. So yeah, I think they they do struggle with that. And on top of that, the last sort of the technology, incumbents haven’t really made that easy, because you’ve updated old fashioned systems that typically run on servers and things and they’re not keen to open up API’s or develop that product to have open API’s. That doesn’t make it easy for other technology providers. But it also doesn’t make it easy for the credit union to have the conversation with other technology providers. And I think the ones that have found that they’ve just hit quite a lot of roadblock blocks and impact to give up. And then you’ve got the other issue of a lot of IT projects do feel that it’s in the news that week in week out, basically. And those that don’t really understand technology and and implementing it, probably think because it’s not for me just know, because this is going to be this could cause serious problems for us. Yeah, there’s a lot of reasons to shy away from it, even though everyone knows that they need it. They do want it and it can reduce costs, and all this sort of stuff. I think there’s a little bit of if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. If he’s mean, I think that’s right. But if it if you don’t fix it, then you don’t get any of the new functionality. You don’t get any sort of like new opportunities that kind of come through. Right. So it is that kind of conundrum is doing certain pieces of paper sort of it kind of work to works on it 30 years ago, but you got to move along route with it with a new kind of tech and the new kind of thinking that’s out there. You really do. And yeah, and yeah, I think the other thing is that there’s a concern about what what will it really cost, I think a real advantage of a company like Sora is that we as well as providing this, this solution that we provide, which is a cloud platform for people to buy into. We also have contracts with other companies. And so we basically enable purchasing on an economies of scale basis to reduce costs, the credit union isn’t necessarily having to subscribe to other fintechs or other providers where they would have lengthy or quite like, like, contractually like punitive contracts, that’s mean that you basically got to keep going. So it can help to reduce all of that type of thing. And I think that’s one of the advantages of having a partner like soar in a credit union. Do you think that whole sort of like SAS Type approach has become quite popular? I think really, since the pandemic, actually, I’d say that sort of really kicked it off because it doesn’t like to create that economies of scale to certain extent. But we’re coming into this much more almost like embedded technology type world where it becomes like it becomes partnerships, doesn’t it across multiple businesses, or multiple relationships, rather than it being like, I’m going to send you I’m going to send you the tech, you’re going to instal it and then we own everything. It feels like it’s a much more sort of fluid, kind of like relationship time management process we’re getting into rather than it being like

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You know, I’m buying that I’m buying the tech and more of a retail type. Yeah.

I think you’re absolutely right. And I think it’s particularly noticeable in services like the ones that sort of provide because it becomes such a core bit of the, the organization’s Yeah, really like when I

like handle the ongoing day to day support of source customers. Most of it’s done on something like teams or something like that. And we’re normally chatting backwards and forwards. If anything, I think we’re probably like an extension of the team that’s operating within the credit union or the CDFI that we’re working with. And they know that they can basically just ping us anytime. And we will answer them as if we’re with their IT department. And in that way, from from the platform’s say a bit, we’re not going to pick up printer requests and things like that, because I have no idea.

But ya know, you’re very much, right. And then I think the thing is, like some technology vendors go down the route of well, we will build our platform and publisher API, and then it’s up to other technology vendors to connect it together, or the businesses that want these two technology vendors to work together to then put some something in the middle to make that happen. My approach so far in this space has been to try and take that pain away from the credit union or the CDFI, just on the basis that I know they’re small. And that’s another, like pain point for them to have to worry about how do I get to technology partners to talk. So we’ve just tried to do our own integrations and make them available. And as and when work become available, we just make them available to everyone else. So that you can pick and choose what it is that you want to use. So it’s almost like this, like you become part of the ecosystem, and then you can pick and choose those things. Yeah, and obviously, from my perspective, as well, we’re a new company, we’ve really actually only been building the current version of our product for two years. And the thing is, we need time to make it all happen. It doesn’t just integrate overnight, it is actually like quite complicated some of it and to make it right as well, given that it’s financial services, it’s got to be trustworthy, and all that stuff. How do you feel about as was talking about financial services, specifically, the regulatory landscape just seems to be ever growing? You’re getting it ever more complicated. There’s more evidence has been required and those kinds of things. How do you feel about that, I suppose from a technology almost like owner, but also in terms of what the implications are for for some of these smaller kind of clients is that another sort of driver towards economies of scale, and like standardised kind of service? Have you seen that change in the last sort of five years or so? Yeah, it definitely has become a bit larger, the burden is a lot worse than that was, what we’ve found is the number, the request for a number of reports that the system will produce on the fly has gone up so that they can basically be submitted and the like extra analysis and things like that can be done internally at the credit union in response to whatever it is, it has changed. I think there’s there is more knowledge out there about things like security, and data privacy, and all that sort of stuff that the only thing is, and so in pockets, I would say rather than across the board. Like we’ve noticed it, some of our customers are more aware of it than others. But that’s the sort of thing that I think it’s going to continue to be challenged more and more consumer juicy has obviously become like a major thing in the last I guess it’s been talked about for the last 18 months or so. But that is the biggest change that we’ve really seen. And so from a technology standpoint, we’ve got to record more information, which we do, and then provide that back, and even our own compliance requirements internally at SOAR. And the partners that we work with aspects of that information have to be recorded and then monitored on an ongoing basis as well. So it’s a yes, it’s made it even challenging for us as as, as we can, or interconnected things like cybersecurity fraud, or, or those kinds of things. I know that’s a burgeoning area that’s happening almost like beneath beneath the scenes in most places from a consumer point of view. But I mean, all of that stuff has to be there doesn’t, it feels like that’s not good. That’s not going anywhere, that’s getting more complex to just getting more complicated. And it’s just expected to to happen out the box. And I think that’s why Previously I’ve seen you’ve got to give some of these things tend to come about because they’re complicated. And it’s because it’s easy to see, oh, we need a system that will do a back office or record loans or whatever. But actually, when you get into the nitty gritty of it, and all of the little facets of that type of thing.

Grows arms and legs. Yeah. So in terms of readiness for adoption, I mean, across the sector, what are you seeing in terms of that, like, where do you see us or where are the areas where you think there might be growth as well. Ya know, we’ve what we’ve tried to do is build products that can be adopted really by any size of organisation. We surprised ourselves in that we have basically on boarded quite a lot of commercial lenders onto our platform. And yet we were quite focused on credit you

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And to start with, but yeah, we’ve seen a growth in that market for ourselves. So I expect that will continue, we imagine will happen know that source got like a bit of a proven track record and we’re going to start tweeting about that, we’re imagining that we’ll be able to demonstrate to credit unions that migrating data isn’t as challenging as as the might worry that it is, and therefore, more will join. But it could be from this this smallest week, you could be a 500 member credit union and still go to a technology platform like soar. It doesn’t necessarily have to cost the earth, which is good. So it’s interesting. It’s interesting how, how how we’re getting to the point now with technology where you got smaller companies can get the same size, same economies of scale, as you said, in the same sort of like adoption of some of the technologies that even some of the largest ones can and it removes quite a big sort of barrier to entry and barrier to growth, I think very much. Yeah, no, I think that’s the beauty about sore also being a small company where, like minded with the credit unions that we’re serving, we’re basically one of them, but just a technology provider instead. And yeah, we there’s no reason why this smallest credit union couldn’t just start out the box with one of these new platforms, rather than having to go with what would have been one of the traditional systems before, it probably worked out cheaper, actually, to be honest.

So you mentioned before you use Salford Glasgow, one thing I want to ask that maybe it’s a local question, which is, what is Glasgow do differently in terms of credit unions, that the rest of the UK doesn’t, because I know that credit unions, they’re a burgeoning and they do really well. And so what’s the secret sauce that the Glasgow has, that maybe you don’t see as much in the rest of the country? It’s quite an interesting, unique sort of like microcosm, to a certain extent, because they’ve been doing really well, the

they have done well. And yeah, the credit union movement is larger, proportionally here than it is anywhere else in Britain. I think the thing is, we’ve got some large credit unions, a couple of very large credit unions that have started as employer based credit unions, like Glasgow City Council, and so on, and then had the opportunity to expand into other areas. But on top of that, yeah, we’ve just got, I don’t know, there’s, it’s probably something to do with the overall like, political landscape in Glasgow being just slightly different. And the Yeah, just like the history of the city, it’s been quite a working class city with shipbuilding and things like that. There’s been a lot of manual based jobs in and around the city. And I think that still, there’s still a feeling of that in amongst the citizens that live within the city, just now. And so therefore, we feel more compelled to be a member of a credit union, perhaps, than our counterparts in Edinburgh, who who probably just don’t have it’s, it’s almost baked into the psyche of a Glaswegian. And it’s been talked about by the Grands, and the, through the generations, and therefore, it’s actually quite acceptable to be a member of a credit union. So it sounds like as much as we can say, it’s about marketing and those kind of but it comes down to word of mouth, isn’t it almost like generational word of mouth, and it’s it’s bedded within the within, like, culturally, it’s embedded within that. But it’s also like a recommendation like that you do this? Because this is actually a good deal. So totally. Yeah. And I don’t think credit unions across the board are very good at marketing at all. But it really is boil, it does boil down to two things like that. Just the fact that your family members and friends and the chat down the pub and things like that results in more people becoming a member of the credit union. And then nowadays, I suppose the expectation is that a lot of marketing’s delivered to us via social media, on TV and radio adverts and things like that. And definitely credit unions have gone there that does it does exist, but I’m sure a significant proportion of growth is still through the fact that somebody knows that you can get a good deal at your credit union. So you should go and give them a go to I know,

since I’ve been looking at the sector is just a is a really compelling compelling argument isn’t really compelling sectors really is worth people looking at. So is a fantastic. next five years, where do you think you guys go? But then also, why do you think the industry in the market goes? What’s your sort of Outlook? Yeah, I think I’ve touched on it. I reckon there’s going to be less credit unions than there are no but there’ll be bigger. I do believe that the credit union movement is going to grow because I’m passionate about it. And the people in the movement are passionate about its growth. And they will bring more people I hear that the political parties as well like labour, for instance, if they end up winning the next election, then the likelihood is that there will be more money available. So that movement or the sector so that we can market and achieve that. And then I think from a tech standpoint, credit unions are going to adopt more and more automations there’s going to be more migrations of systems from old technology to new because there are more options available now. And that will continue to be the case. I think there’s going to be companies like sort of growing in that space. Obviously, we haven’t really talked about AI at all in this session. These days. Yeah, I know but undoubtedly AI is coming into

The excess? Well, I certainly use it every day to do my job. And I think we’ll see that will be the case for credit union staff members as well, they will be using it every day to do their jobs, either through technology platforms, like this source and so on. Or just because actually there’s there are other tools that they can add benefits that they can get from it. And yeah, overall, I think I believe that the UK economy and the economy generally is going to improve, I think it’s on a slow pathway to that. And so five years, I think it will be, we will get back to a place where the loan applications aren’t coming from applicants that just need to get their next food shopping paid for and things like that. And that’s certainly what I hope, but I believe that will be the case as well, I think the aspects of the situation that we’re in will have gone away and things will be a bit more stable. I think, a couple of interesting additional thoughts. This was really around, like, how can the movement provide additional financial education as well, which then also helps going forward as well, which is, I think that’s also part of it. And then the other thing around AI with a lot of being a lot of talk around AI. And it’s kind of the hand that we used to automate things. But I also see it a bit of almost like, it’s a way of getting extra resource for less cost, right. So it’s not around automating something. But if you need someone to do something, or you need to do something that maybe you don’t want to do, or you need to get done quickly, it’s a way of getting that extra resource to help you a little bit like a helping hand as much as a replacement very much. Yeah, in my industry, we have like a way of working, which we refer to as pure programming. And a lot of software engineers basically say one computer, but it’s two people. And it’s generally more efficient to code that way. You make less mistakes, and you get through more work, even though it’s only one person typing but two people sitting there and AI really acts like that. No for us. There’s a lot of automations that are available for in my space anyway that make it seem like I’ve got up here a programmer sitting next to me when I’m working. Very interesting. Andrew, thanks for thanks very much for making the time really appreciate it. Fascinating sector. I love the enthusiasm around the credit union sector in the CDFI space. I mean, it’s it’s fantastic. So thanks very much for making the time. You’re welcome. It’s an absolute pleasure, and thanks for having me.


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