Operating an startup accelerator, a VC fund, & a Venture Studio in tandem - Michael Cardamone, CEO, Forum Ventures
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Sanjay is a co-founder and Managing Partner at Blume Ventures.
Blume typically invests in pre-seed to pre-Series A startups and has built a large portfolio over the past decade, holding positions in edtech firm Unacademy, quick-commerce platform Dunzo, micro-mobility startup Yulu among many others.
Recently, Blume announced the close of it's $250 Million India-focused fund.
It's always interesting to talk about genesis and the story and the story we started. So I'll call myself accidentally, we see. In the sense that just coming to background, I'm a Bombay boy. The first time I went out to BITS Pilani. As it's equidistant from Delhi and Jaipur, so you have to take the train or bus to either one of those places and then make it from there. And then I was in the US for quite a while. I was not exposed to ventures or startups at all. I was a management consultant with PwC, but I was in Silicon Valley, so that does influence you. And was actually part of the boom and the bust around the turn of the century.
So obviously for some of our younger viewers who were just getting born around there, the millennials saw that from the outside. And the first brush with Ventured startups was the Mumbai angels group, where I met my cofounder, Karthik Reddy. And Karthik's background also similar in the sense engineer, MBA and spent time in the US.
Just like India being a vast country, we didn't know each other, even though our paths had crossed. And at some point around the turn of the century, we were both in San Francisco and we may have seen each other in the streets, like you sometimes think. And that was the start. The idea was very much what is called a super angel fund or a micro VC, like a seed index fund. And that's how we started.
But for me, the start was really Naveen Tewari of InMobi and his cofounders, one of the first investments of the InMobi engines. I was very intrigued where the first wave of entrepreneurship had started. Junior of mine. Phanindra Sama of Redbus had started and then Avneet Rana had started Baazi and was very intrigued because I have a US lens of how some of these founders, especially the Baazi founders, had come back from the US. From Silicon Valley, from the land of innovation, and were seeking to build something in India, not here. And I was very intrigued and it's just so worked out. And that was the genesis why I decided to move back, Karthik Reddy moved back from the US. And we started so it wasn't the traditional path where we see in the valley and you come back to try and replicate the same in India, but it was actually the Mumbai Angels, far away from Silicon Valley that was the birthplace of Blume.
We've stayed quite true to our playbook, which is really essentially being the first institutional check. And so I'll just break it up sectorally. We would do about 60% what we call built in India for India, which is really the India story. Backing India story, true transformative sectors so broadly consumer internet, but fintech, agritech, edtech.
You see the team also writing about these. Sajith Pai writes a lot. He's our resident thought leader, writer cum VC. And of course, Fintech is very transformative. And then the 40% is what we call built in Bangalore, Gurgaon, Pune, Chennai for the world, which is really deep tech IP led SaaS Enterprise SaaS led global market.
Our core has moved up, the core check that you cut. Because if you look at it, we become so much more of a robust and mature economy and industry. You have two ex-founders, seasoned founders, coming out from Freshworks on the SaaS side, from Flipkart on the consumer side, from so many of the IPOs that have happened. And so the second time founders are raising larger rounds. And also since “Winter” is here, some of them also want to raise one or raise once and get back to building versus just keeping on the road all the time because it's immensely time-consuming to be on the road.
Ironically, we would love the VC community all needs to move much faster and cut by companies. But we take our time and it's very time consuming for the founders. So I think we want to be cognizant of that. So sectorally pretty much the same as 40-60 split. And check wise, the check size has moved up to about 2 million. But we also actively support companies in the earlier stages. We have a formal program which we manage, we call it the Early-Stage Network Program. And we will also back companies just to help them and get them started and then look at them in later rounds.
I think for us, a lot of people also throw around this word of being “founder friendly”. We looked at it like with the first principle lens and said, how do we design this around the founder? How do we help founders? And I think one part that's differentiated about us is a platform.
It's quite a tricky sort of a math problem because the smaller that you are, the earlier stage a founder is, and the smaller the fund is, the more help the founder needs. But the lesser fees that you have, you have less to spend on things beyond investments. But we spent very early on, Karthik and I made a couple of trips. We met folks like First Round capital. We met Techstars in the US. We met Andreessen Horowitz. And we just were very intrigued by the idea of a platform.
Everybody talks about smart capital. So we said, if we can design a platform and actually have a lot of non-capital functions also to help the founder, that's really what they need. If you dive into it, board meetings are not really, I mean, of course they're value added, but it's more of updates and discussion. But the real secret sauce happens in that time between board meetings. How are you rolling up your sleeves and helping them?
And when I was at IBM, I was at PwC for about four years. IBM acquired it, so I spent about eight years across it. They kind of invented the concept of on demand and one of the lines was they would go to enterprises and say, we'll fix your mess for less, we'll do your mess for less.
And if you think about it like a startup, managing it can be messy and you want the founders to focus the way I think about it, I want my founders to focus on just three things. On talent, on hiring, on building products and selling. That's it, nothing else. Now, what about all the other stuff? Whether it's taxes, it's compliance and it's managing of finances, it's reporting everything. Who's going to help you with that? You don't want to be distracted. So we set up a platform team. I think that is something that is special, different, and it's not easy to do. It's not about throwing money at a problem. You really have to design it from the ground up and bring in people who are domain experts who really care about that. So I think that's one thing that's different. Also I would say that we are also very real estate and we are not prescriptive. And what I mean by that is a lot of people will look up to us and because you have things, but we always remember that we are not running those companies, we are not running the startup. We are very realistic that we are not running the companies and we are not prescriptive in the sense we listen, we're sounding boards.
But I think what's different is we're also not telling the founders that this is how you should run it and change your business model because you're backing them. If you are running a company, then you'd be doing a startup and not running a VC fund. So I think the platform and less prescriptive and more of a supportive orientation is, I think is special about Blume.
So I'll give you an interesting line. I was talking to a founder of a private equity firm and said that essentially our business is about four levels in this value chain, which is really finding, grinding, minding, and harvesting.
And if you think about the first, everybody wants to find, right? It's the most exciting thing to talk about. If you look at media, also writing about it is oh, ex-Flipkart founders and Freshwater founders get a 5 crore angel round, and then all the angels are named, which is fine, but we need to really focus on the stories and the outcomes. Not just these things.
Then the grinding part is interesting, but the minding, which is the most important, nobody wants to do, everybody wants to move to that next new deal. So I think the nurture part is the real secret sauce and I think that's the toughest part that will lead to outcomes and differentiate these larger AUM funds from the others.
I think great question, because the volume is so high in India, I would say that it's almost like how do you filter out what you don't want to do? First, if you think of the power law like Peter Thiel talks about, how do you quickly filter out what you don't want to and then spend disproportionate time of what you want to. Because I think the challenge in our business is it is not a leveler, it is not about equal businesses.
We always feel you have 100 deals, let's spend five minutes filtering each. And that is not exactly that's not at all what we should be doing. So the mechanism is we have a large team. I would say one of our most incredible parts is actually the team itself. And we have a young team. The average age keeps on getting younger every year. And one way we've done it is by being sectorally specialized.
We believe that the era of generalization is over and the era of specialization is beginning. I mean, starting from my own perspective, I won't say I've moved, but I've moved back to California and moved back to the US. Because I'm sectorally focused mainly on Enterprise SaaS cross-border. And so my sub team or my colleagues are sort of built around that.
Similarly, like Sajith Pai would look at Marketplaces, at Tech Consumer, and his sub team is built around that. That's the way to do it, because you're becoming sectoral experts, but you're still pulling in the best of the platform for Blume for the others. Every week we're filtering to every lead or every sector is looking at their companies, probably, and then they'll invite others to join the call, very much like the Zoom. And you'll have about five or six teams pitch every week for half an hour, and then the requisite team members are allowed to join. And I think Zoom is very interesting because it allows you to filter.
I mean, think about human nature. It's not even good form. You can't go to a coffee shop and if you don't like it, you can't wrap up in ten minutes. You can't tell the waiter, don't bring the coffee. So I think the filtering is really key. Every VC has its own way. The way we are doing it is by being specialized and by trying to filter out very quickly what we want to look at and then spending more time on what we will do.
I think it's really important for founders to equally diligence the VC. Remember, we are spreading our bets. We are doing many deals. The founder is putting their life in the hands of the VC. A lot of people feel it’s one way street, I feel the other way street is equally, sometimes even more important.
Is that VC right for you? Are they even looking at the sector, sorry to say but are they killing time because they have to fill out a log book that these are the startups they met this week.
Not only is it important to pick your VC, but also what structure you do. You actually sometimes see that that's the time the startup is most vulnerable, the most open, because they have to get started, that getting from zero to one is the most difficult part, and Peter Thiel titled his booked on that. The tough part is not only you have to pick the right partner, you have to pick the right partner with the right structure because it's like a relay race. If your shoelaces are tied if, even if you start at 100 meters, you're not going to win.
So the structure, and the partner has to be set up right from the get go. Very difficult to undo later.
I'll begin with just a quote I heard from somebody, just in Hindi and quotes like this, “Suno sab ki karo khud ki” and I'll tell you what I mean by that. I think the good founders that have succeeded, or tend to succeed, are the ones who are just constantly listening and adapting and adapted. They know that they have to improve. They look at self-awareness. They're listening to the market, customers, investors, but essentially at the end they're doing what they do. And they have to because think about if you listen to everybody, you'll do nothing. You'll be a disaster.
So I think one aspect which is very critical is that constantly listening and learning from the market, from customers, from investors, from their peers, that I think ability to listen and to be open to feedback is critical early on.
I'll give you an example. If you're a SaaS founder and your customers telling you, almost helping you design your product, they're partnering with you. You make them a partner and ally and you design your product, you have to be open, right? You don't say, oh, no, but I started with this being AI platform, and it's a technology, but I'm not listening to your feedback. Just some kind of example, right? So I think constantly listening to feedback is very important.
I would say what we like to do is we also make intros. We like to be helpful when we meet founders. We like to make intros to potential customers, to sometimes a couple of micro VCs, sometimes just to domain experts. And we do feedback loops and we see what they thought about it.
I think the ability to obviously very passionately convince and persuade, of course, is important because I think Mike Maples at Floodgate had an interesting podcast and said something very interesting, which stuck by me, which is an entrepreneur basically paints a picture of the future, transports you will and time capsule, ten years ahead to believe in that future and then brings you back. And then you have to fund it. It's almost making the impossible possible. How do you do that if you can't convince people?
I think the most important people to convince are your cofounders. Co-founders are more difficult to convince an investor than anyone else because the cofounders with you throughout the day, throughout for ten years, investor may exit after four or five years, angels may go, you may have to get secondaries. So I think that ability to convince and persuade with real mission and passion, not just being a salesperson, but mission and passion is very important.
I think the last one, which is very difficult to assess early, but is are they afraid how comfortable they are hiring great people, sometimes for better than themselves, and also letting people go who are not performing, it is very difficult to assess. When you see somebody on a zoom or see them in a Costa Coffee in Bangalore or SDA in Hauz Khas, how do you kind of assess them?
There are small cues, actually. I think the social cues are very important. You see how they deal with, I'll use the word ordinary people. For me, it's very important. Does somebody talk differently to me but they're ordering coffee when they talk very differently into the waiter. You do one meeting on a zoom, the other meeting to a restaurant. As an example, just allow them to order, just see how they will interact with everybody around you. That gives you a feeling of how they will deal with people. This is a people business, which is separate from your domain. You have to brilliant product wise.
So I think that aspect of how they able to surround themselves with good people, because that same orientation will go to her building your board, let's say a customer advocacy group, advisory council, your first hires. Will these people want to come and work for you? Will they respect you in that aspect? So I think that comes with experience sometimes that you're trying to judge a person. Those traits are very important.
So it's a really interesting question. I would say if you look at most startups, almost all successful startups, at the end, they're usually associated with one person, right? I mean, right from, let's say, Ola, it's almost like you have like a rapid fire. You ask about Ola, you hear about Bhavish, you ask abou, I think flipkart both the Bansals are there. But you could still have the same last name. But think about it. Facebook, Meta is Mark, Tesla, SpaceX is Elon, the list goes on.
That said, two things. I think the reason to have a cofounder is not to have a cofounder, but to not drink your own koolaid. Right?. My Pin tweet on Twitter is exactly about this. It's an extremely lonely journey. At the top, most people who don't believe you will not tell you the truth. Or sometimes there are people who don't want you to succeed. There are people who want you to succeed who is truly in this with you, right?
The Forbes article has this at the end. They always have a topic on something. So once it was about siblings, right? And they said, your siblings, if you have a sibling, the sibling is the only person in the world who knows what it was like to grow up like you. Nobody else knows, right? When you have a cofounder, they are the only person along with you who knows what that journey is. So when you're a single cofounder, Some people say, oh, I'll keep the equity for myself. I've got 80% equity. “Kyu share karu” (why share?). I'll share it with the others.
The other is that it's very lonely. Who's there with you in this journey? You're actually putting tons of weight on your own shoulders. Who do you have to share it with? Now, sometimes you have 4 or 5 cofounders, which I think is sometimes it may be too many cooks spoil the broth. I think two or three is always right, but I think they have to be very complementary roles.
So if you look at, let's say look at InMobi, look at some of the others, typically one person is product oriented, one person is very sales oriented and one is, let's say, the face or the people person. But two is good. Three is also good. I think it's a lonely journey if it's a single cofounder. That's not to say that there won't be one main cofounder. Of course there will be always, like I said. But I think it's a very lonely journey and it's a tough one to do by yourself.
It's good to look back in history. Also, the US venture capital industry is extremely old. We're talking about 56 years old. Sequoia has a tree. You have lots of those in the valley. We see that around trees where there's Redwood and all those kinds of things, which are trees that sort of perennial green trees. And of course, we are also Blume, helping startups and blume forever.
I think that gap has narrowed. If you think about it, our industry, I would say, started about 20 years ago, in the mid early 2000s, right. A couple of aspects I think we didn't have the concept of so they are different. I'll highlight the differences and how the differences have narrowed and changed. We didn't really have the concept of 2X entrepreneur, seasoned entrepreneurs.
Most of the entrepreneurs who came in were from the services background. They were like legends from service industry, the founders of Infosys and Wipro and stellar bellwether companies like that. If you look at I think that is a huge difference, the maturity of 2X serial entrepreneurs, founders and operators now in the ecosystem, that has changed and that is becoming. I don't think we have to be similar to the US at all. I think we are very proud to have our own ecosystem. And I'll talk about that.
I think another thing that has changed is the sort of depth and scale of M&A and also corporate activity in the valley. Corporate VCs and corporates are very entwined and they speak the same language and they very often are. Ex VCs there's a lot of commingling pollination between corporates and VCs in India.
Traditionally, you had a corporate just like, let's say Reliance, and then you had startups and it would be almost like ten years ago, like a favour. Okay, let's meet the startup. Let’s see what they’re building.
And today, if you look at it, just see how active Jio is. I mean, Jio is arguably the world's biggest startup. Corporate startup, tremendous change there, right? If you look at all the corporate ventures, whether it's Mahindra, Reliance, Tata. So I think that's been a huge sea change.
I think what is different is our youth and our massive consumer market, right? I think we have, I would say, the smartest young population in the world. I would say our talent to cost ratio is the highest. Our average age, I think Blume is a great example. Average age keeps on getting younger and younger. Local languages, I think differences, whether it's dialects, our differences become the opportunities start from vernacular content. We have a company called Stage, which in Haryana has paying customers. It's just doing Haryanvi content. I think that's staggering. And that's amazing, right? So those local opportunities are tremendous and just scale and replicate that across India.
I would say that I think on the SaaS side, the ACV ie. Average Customer Value and the sales cycles are typically long and sometimes frustrating for startups. But that's also changing. You have Israeli startups today selling deep tech solutions to India and we become far more responsive. So that gap is narrowed.
I think IPOs, of course, there's been a huge gap in tech IPOs between what happens in Nasdaq and India, but that's also changing. So I would say they're different, they should be different. We're very proud that our ecosystem is different in India, but I think that scale and the next decade should be very exciting.
If you look at the scale, I mean, I've lost count, but we have more than 100 unicorns today, I would honestly tell you. I remember there was an India Internet day that happens in Delhi. I remember Hans Tung of GGV being on the podium and a keynote. And he's interestingly because though they invest in China and the valley.
And I remember he threw the gauntlet and said that there will be 100 unicorns and there are. So I think youth is super interesting because it's a consumer segment. Secondly, youth are also the ones who are going to create startups of the future. So I think that demographic is so interesting. They're incredibly tech-savvy. You are basically growing up.
I'll tell you what's really interesting. When I come back to India and I come often and I see a Yulu bike, which is one of our portfolio companies. And then you see a Dunzo driver sitting on a Yulu bike. Maybe using Google pay code. Of course, Google is a global company, but when I see that Dunzo driver on Yulu, not only is it very dear to Blume, but it's dear to India. Then you see the person riding the bike is young. The founders of these companies are young. And you're basically backing India's youth.
I think that is very special. The move to remote is that for product led growth, for SaaS, especially, it's moving because today it's shown that you can build these, build fantastic software companies from anywhere. Canva got built from Australia, UiPath got built from Romania, and I think Bangalore, Gurgaon, Pune are already the next stops. So it's a huge, incredible opportunity for India to build.
I would say that the other opportunity is in “Bharat”, right outside the metros, whether it's Agritech, whether it's impact. Today we have companies like Stellapps looking at, of course, Jai Kisan looking at like fintech impact lending. Interesting trend is impact and private equity meeting venture, the meshing and happening earlier, they're all very different.
Impact investing would be just rural. Private equity would look at infrastructure, roads and venture capital would be just digital and tech. But now all these are coming together and I think that is very exciting and we just have the numbers to keep it exciting.
The last thing I would say is we just have to narrow, we have to just get our physical infrastructure much better so that people spend less time commuting and spend more time being productive.
We have a family of hundred. In one sense, on the consumer side, the big brands are also the ones that have spent and are well known, of course, advertising, IP and things like that. But we have some very interesting companies, here in the US. We have a company called Dataweave, which is doing digital shelf analytics. And what that is really here, if you have like a Dunzo or DoorDash, what they're doing is they're helping them find out what SKUs are selling, what they should stock. Of course it's more enterprise, so it doesn't really tell the customer, but they're helping Walmart and everyone sell more. Very interesting company. We back from the first one called Dataweave.
LBB is interesting, but it's also known, especially known in Delhi. And they just had an exit. Let me see who else we have. We have a company called Tartan Sense, which is doing very interesting work in precision robotics. So they basically help farmers inland and find out exactly there's equipment and infrastructure, find out exactly what crops should be sprayed, when they should be sprayed. Jaisimha, the Carnegie Mellon Allumni came back as applied robotics to impact to an impact area of agritech.
And then we have some newer companies from fund 3 and fund 4. Of course, we like all our companies to be known, and I'm sure they hold much that we're forgetting. But the family is growing. The family is growing and is growing in very different areas.
I think that has been one of the knocks on Asia and India venture is that there's lots of scale, there's a lot of paper value, marked up value, but where are the exits? I think as an industry, we all try to be a little more outcome driven. And how do you help these companies? Now, if you look at the recent history, especially a company like Delivery, I think that is a great example where it's rewarded profitable companies that are basically built on pretty sound fundamentals. And if you think of in our own portfolio like Purplle, which has become a unicorn. Manish and Rahul have built a fantastic platform that's very focused on a large swath on cosmetics and going after the women's segment. Or if you look at a Shivakumar & Ishwar building Exotel, Cloud Telephony, these are, I would say, India plus Pan-Asia companies. Solid, fundamentals, profitable.
Of course, Purplle is in a very different industry, but these are candidates, right, that could go public. Similarly, on the SaaS side Locus in Logistics SaaS or Lambda, which is doing global automated, a full stack testing platform, they will similarly, nobody plans for an M&A, right? You plan to go public and stay independent. But along the way, if you get very attractive M& A, do it.
I think one change in behavior that we're seeing, positive change that the founders that start along the way, they actually become trained and they develop that muscle to kind of operate like public company CEOs. Even today, people talk about Mark and the others, even top founders, did they know what they were in for when they took the company public? You have to operate it. You have to operate quarter to quarter. You've got to give Wall Street numbers and then beat those numbers consistently so that discipline that comes in is helpful. You have fiduciary responsibility to deliver numbers. And I think that's changing, that's happening.
The sort of winter has sharpened the attention on that in a good way, that there's certain responsibility to do that. So I think Delivery and others that are coming up are positive. Who is not touched by tech today, right? Every single person you mentioned, whether you're involved in this industry or not, everyone knows the brand, is ordering something on Dunzo. I mean, today Yulu bikes are powering the likes of Zomato to deliver. They're using Euler Motors, another one of our companies to do that. Everybody is touched by tech in some way or has a nephew or niece, who is working for a tech startup or a VC.
So I think the IPO orientation is more important for founders to get that. This is a long term journey you start, but essentially you should be in this to build a sustainable, long lasting company and not think of the IPO as just a flip to return money, but really to a new journey starts there. So I think the ones that have done it like a MakeMyTrip, Deep, who's poster child and role model from very own Delhi. There fantastic examples of people are building very long term, long lasting, sustainable companies.
This could be a separate 1 hour interview. I'm looking at the the white hair and that's where all this has come from, from all the mistakes that we've made. I think one of the things that we did in Fund One was this is a very exciting business and excitable business. So you have a thesis in the space and I think in some cases you got excited by the first founders that came your way.
So we had backed somebody in the real estate space and very storied founder came from a broad background. This was in the housing broad space. And of course, housing failed for other reasons, but it's a very big space to transform real estate and classified. And we backed this founder because we like the space. But we just met the first founder. So I would say one lesson is that don't back the first founder you see, if you like a space, meet others, contrast them. And I think that's one learning. We just sort of rushed in. In one sense, when you're young, you rush in also. So I think that's one.
The other is to also have this develop this what is called a prepared mind. And I'll tell you what I mean by that. We meet so many startups who are all going after very interesting but very diverse problems. So the prepared mind is really can you have a certain thesis? You have a thesis and you just park it there at the back of your mind and you think about, for example, how should we be thinking about lending to farmers? Or how should we be thinking about SpaceTech? Just to give you two very different examples.
Then when you come with the startups in that it's like a prepared mind, which we didn't have in Fund One. And the prepared mind is really you can kind of put them somewhere in that thesis. You map them, they're great founders, but if you don't have a thesis, then you're backing it a little opportunistically, you don't have a playbook. So I think that was the other learning that to match that prepared mind, which is a thesis with founders. That's important.
Another part is also you don't overfund the company. You right size the company at that stage. You saw that in some cases, like housing.com or the others, where you give them too much money whether they're young or not. Think about it. You get money, you're going to spend it, right? Whether it is on a Friday night, a teenager or whoever it is, you're going to do it. So how do you space that out and how do you sequence that? I think that's important.
The list goes on. I think the most important one is to diligence both sides. That is the most difficult thing in a very compressed frame of time. How do you say that this is going to be a ten year partnership. So I think I think, testing them or meeting them in different situations, not doing one massive IC and for 3 hours and saying we are going to back it or not back it, but tracking companies over time, testing them, making intros, doing feedback loops, this is a very people intensive and time intensive process. I just say that if you don't like working with people, nobody should be in startup. It's a people business. It's a people flow business, not a deal flow business. Everything in startups has to do with people.
The later stage you go is start investing in balance sheets. So I think building that ecosystem to have your own team members interacting with startups, we started with a very small team. You can't do it when we backed Anirudh and Pratik at Carbon Clean Solutions or backed Grey Orange is a very small team. Today we can have separate experts, analysts, analyze the space, somebody meets the founders, then you do a zoom.
But I'll tell you, there are no shortcuts. If you don't have learnings and if you don't make mistakes, then you've just not done anything great. So the mistakes are the most interesting parts. Even the best investors, the mightiest investors, will first tell you about all the mistakes they've made.
It's important to learn from the other mistakes. But it's very important to make your own mistakes. Because just imagine you have a young VC tomorrow on this panel and you ask him the same question, him or her, and she can't talk about mistakes somebody else has made. She has to talk about her own mistakes. So I think it is important to make your own mistakes also.
What are the sectors and regions you invest in?
All India focused, also cross border as long as the Indian angle and sector would be consumer 60% and SaaS built for global 40%.
What's the typical stage of investment?
Stage is PreSeed and Seed.
What’s the typical check size?
2 million and below. Let’s say $250k to $2 million.
Where can founders pitch you?
My Twitter is open on DM, via our pitch form or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where can our listeners follow you?
I would love to share, tweet, and write much more. I don't get a chance to do that. I think Twitter is probably the best, but I would love to take more time for doing things like this and share because they're so busy running on a treadmill. But I think for now, Twitter.
Blume Ventures website - https://blume.vc/
Follow Sanjay on Twitter - https://twitter.com/sanjaynath
Pitch Blume at email@example.com
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