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Business is on global rotation

Online exchange attracts buyers, sellers of vinyl records from around the world


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Discogs CEO Kevin Lewandowski talks about his company's move into a fifth-floor office space at The Round at Beaverton Central.When Kevin Lewandowski traded in his career as an Intel Corp. software developer to delve further into his favorite hobby, to say he was hotly pursuing the next big thing would be a mighty stretch.

If anything, he went chasing the formerly big thing — one that’s been replaced in recent decades by at least a couple other big things.

Lewandowski’s lucrative business venture? The one that led the Raleigh Hills resident and 16 employees last spring to a sprawling fifth-floor office space at The Round at Beaverton Central?

Vinyl records.

That’s right. Those round, black, groove-filled discs with the tiny hole in the middle. Once upon a time, before MP3s, iPods, Spotify, iTunes, CDs and even cassette and eight-track tapes, folks of all ages put them on turntables to hear their favorite tunes. In the past few years, an increasing number of music lovers are discovering — or rediscovering — the simple, warm-toned joys of the LP and its large-canvas cover art.

Lewandowski, 38, started his Discogs online vinyl exchange and database as a home-based hobby around 2000. Since then, he’s somehow positioned himself as a leading entrepreneur in a growing market for a product many considered obsolete before he even started the business. What’s more, when Lewandowski took the plunge from steady employment to hopeful startup, he says the woman who went on to become his wife was “100 percent supportive.”

“It was kinda scary, but I think I really believed in it,” says Lewandowski, a Baton Rouge, La., native, of his transition period. “I had all these ideas of what to do with it, but I had a job and didn’t have time to do it. I knew I was a pretty good programmer. I thought if it didn’t work out, I’ll just get a job somewhere else.

“Luckily, I didn’t do that.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Discogs CEO Kevin Lewandowski, who used to work for Intel, has found a way for music lovers to buy and sell vinyl records through his website, discogs.com.

Good move

Although he can tell the sonic difference between vinyl and digital, it wasn’t sound that got him hooked, but the music itself.

Some of his favorite genres include house and late ‘90s techno, some reggae and “a lot of jazz.”

“I started buying vinyl around 1996, when I was in college,” he says, noting a friend’s DJ father exposed him to the LP record world. “I liked listening to them and looking at the cover art. But that’s not the main reason I got into it. I liked unique underground music that not too many knew of — and vinyl was the way to get it.”

Now married with three children, Lewandowski serves as Discogs’ founder and chief executive officer. Dressed business casual at a table desk — adjacent to those of his keyboard-tapping, screen-scanning employees — Lewandowski comes across as laid-back and matter-of-fact about how his college-age obsession turned into a self-directed career.

“It’s a huge improvement,” he says of his jump from Intel. “I’d have to work there for 40 years to be where I am now. I’ve been much more successful doing this. I’m doing what I love, too.”

Despite its spacious digs, Discogs — which relocated in March to The Round from a smaller location on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway — has no inventory.

“It’s all sellers — connecting buyers and sellers,” he explains of the more than 7 million-strong international customer base that gravitates to Discogs’ website each month. “I had no idea it would turn into this 10 years ago.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Wes Rogers, who is a technical lead at Discogs, goes through resumes to hire a new employee in the lounge area of the Beaverton company.

Worldly pursuits

As Lewandowski describes it, Discogs started as a “comprehensive cross-reference database.”

A customer who’s curious about a particular record or artist can click on the artists’ name, record label, record title and so forth, cross referencing and exploring information related to the recording and performer.

“You can browse around and discover new things or things you haven’t heard in awhile and investigate who’s behind it,” he says. “There’s a tracking collection, a want list and a rating (system). It’s all user contributed. A community has developed around it.”

In 2005, Discogs expanded into an online marketplace. If a customer in Tokyo is craving a rare edition of a 1956 Miles Davis album, a collector in Topeka with a copy he is willing to part with can make a sale then and there. With advertisements visible only to those not logged in as customers, Discogs charges an 8 percent fee on every successful order.

“Sellers pay us the fee,” Lewandowski says.

At around 4.2 million selections, the Discogs catalog — which does include CDs, which are now where vinyl found itself in the late 1980s — is as wide as it is deep. It took just 500 sales of one record to become the top seller of 2012.

“It’s a very diverse range of records sold,” he says.

While there are other websites that have data about records and even sell them, Lewandowski doesn’t consider online services such as AllMusic.com and MusicBrainz — not to mention eBay and Amazon — as direct rivals.

“On the marketplace side, we compete with eBay and Amazon, but they don’t have our catalog and user-built database,” he says. “Others have the database but no marketplace, or it’s much smaller.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Discogs CEO Kevin Lewandowski goes through a collection of vinyl records that his employees play during business hours.

Parental notice

With plans to hire more employees, mostly software developers but also customer service associates, Lewandowski is confident the new space at The Round will accommodate expansions well into the future.

“This had everything I wanted,” he says of the complex and its proximity to the MAX light-rail line. “There’s been constant change here since we’ve moved in. There are four software companies in the building. There could be a lot of cross-pollination.”

Not the type to say “I told you so” to his parents, Lewandowski still can’t suppress a grin when asked how his folks now view his risky career change of 13 years ago.

“’Hey, it worked out,’” he says.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Discogs employees work out of an office space at The Round at Beaverton Central.

Database content borne of musical passion

Instead of being generated by a paid writer, artist and record information found on the Beaverton-based Discogs website comes from customers themselves.

It's not unlike Wikipedia, the wildly popular online encyclopedia that requires all user-supplied information to be documented and footnoted.

"We have a little more control over the content," Lewandowski says. "We request other people to review it and rate it on a one-to-five scale. The system really works. If someone damages a page, there are people who care about it, see it and correct it. And the person learns from their mistake.

"Discogs is created by users with records in their hands," he adds. "One of our rules is when adding something to the database, you have to have it in your hands. That's how we get the highest quality information."

Lewandowski insists the customer-driven content model is not a matter of being cheap or stingy.

"There's no compensation. That comes up a lot, but there's too much potential to game the system if there's a financial incentive," he says. "Right now, people are doing it because they care about it and they're passionate about it. If people were paid for it, a lot of people would come in for the money and not care about the quality."




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