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John Feigenbaum: The Bill Gates Of Coins
Published on October 30, 2018
There are stunning similarities between computer-software-for-the-world developer Bill Gates and computer-software-for-the-numismatic-world developer John Feigenbaum. Gates pioneered computer technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the launch of the first commercially successful personal computers.Editorial Coin Dealers Currency Dealers Media Stamp Dealers U.S. Coins
Editor’s Note: This article formerly appeared in the June 2018 edition of COINage magazine.
There are stunning similarities between computer-software-for-the-world developer Bill Gates and computer-software-for-the-numismatic-world developer John Feigenbaum. Gates pioneered computer technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the launch of the first commercially successful personal computers.
Feigenbaum developed software pricing platforms and cataloging for coins in the 1990s and 2000s with the development of coin tracking technology at his Virginia firm David Lawrence Rare Coins, later followed by CoinPlex (now CDN Exchange), Greysheet.com, and the CDN pricing app for mobile devices.
Gates has authored books about developments in computers and the integration of technology in business. Feigenbaum is the publisher of The Coin Dealer Newsletter, a leading price guide for coin dealers throughout the United States to which consumers are also able to subscribe.
Gates founded and ran Microsoft, probably the most widely known computer company. Feigenbaum owns CDN Publishing, a greatly trusted source for numismatic wholesale pricing. At 55 years old, CDN Publishing is still the industry’s only company doing what it does. In an effort to streamline its offerings, CDN has rolled its numerous publications into one monthly Greysheet that offers wholesale pricing reports on U.S. and modern Chinese coins.
CDN Publishing publishes the long-running Coin Dealer Newsletter, the iconic price guide widely dubbed the “Greysheet.” In 2015, the company was acquired by Feigenbaum, a man who has long been known by many in numismatic circles. Feigenbaum rose to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s when he helped his father, David Lawrence Feigenbaum, turn what was a relatively small coin business into a well-known industry dealer.
Though the elder Feigenbaum passed away in May 2002, John continued building David Lawrence Rare Coins into a major coin business and, eventually, handled some of the rarest, most valuable coins known. In this interview we learn how John Feigenbaum turned his passions for coins, marketing, publishing, and technology into a colorful career.
You’re the son of David Lawrence Feigenbaum, a coin collector who eventually built his hobby into the successful business now known as David Lawrence Rare Coins. Did you get into the hobby as a kid?
I got into the hobby with my father, who was a coin collector all of his life since he was a kid in the 1940s riding subway trains in New York City. He would have the subway toll booth collectors hold Barber coins and other older coins that were still in circulation. So he was a true collector in that sense. And then he took a hiatus when he was in college and starting his early work life.
He eventually became a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. But when he was a graduate student in Miami and in times between, he was an avid collector and would go to coin shows on the weekends at shopping malls, which were prolific in those days. He would set up at these little shows where they had a $10 rental fee for an eight-foot table and put out extra coins to sell, which he always needed to sell to facilitate more buying because funds were very limited in those days.
Do you have any special memories with your dad at those shows?
It was an accidental situation for both of us. The fact is that he did it the same way someone might go fishing every weekend. It was never thought of to be a career for any kind of financial means. He just really, really loved collecting coins and we met lots of people. Usually we were in the local and regional coin shows. I grew up in South Florida, so we would do all the shows in South Florida, of which there were many. We spent a lot of time at the Hialeah Coin Club.
I met lots of people, even people like [rare coin dealer] Robert Hughes, who’s still around at the Florida United Numismatists (FUN) show, because the FUN show back in those days was in Miami Beach, later to be held in Tampa and then Orlando and so on. But originally, they were Miami Beach shows, so I got to go to those shows as a kid, and I remember seeing [Bobby Hughes holding a $50 Pan-Pac one day and thinking “My, gosh …”
But I never really considered myself an avid collector. I collected like a kid might with his father. I had a type set, whereas he had a much more sophisticated idea of what he was doing. But we spent a lot time together in the hobby and going to shows, which numbered in the hundreds because there was one every weekend.
As you got into your adult years, what was it like working with your dad as he became a full-time dealer?
That was also accidental. He had no intention of becoming a full-time coin dealer, and I certainly didn’t. I went to college from 1986 through 1990, and about 1989-ish my dad came up for tenure at Old Dominion University, and in those days they would review you and you either got a job for life or you were terminated–they didn’t have an “in-between.” So he did not get tenure, as he wasn’t a very good political player among faculty members, as I recall him saying, and there were also budgetary reasons.
By then, he had developed a nice following of people at local and regional coin shows up to Pennsylvania, New York, and other places with shows that he would travel to. And he had a nice mail-order following from running classified advertisements in Coin World week after week, offering for people to send in for a free price list, which was a typed-out listing of mostly Barber coins in circulated grades. Even when I was in college, the person whose job it was to prepare those lists was me, because I was an early adopter of computer programming. So I was preparing his monthly price list for him all the time.
When I had graduated from college, I had gotten into further what we called desktop publishing in those days. We used early Macs and a laser printer. I really enjoyed it, as I was a marketing major at Virginia Tech, and I knew the concepts of marketing strategy, which I saw almost nobody at all using in the coin business. It was mainly coin dealers going from week to week from this show to that show and having no real plans about how they were going to grow their business.
In the meantime, I had my own marketing business that was keeping me too busy. I approached my father in a serendipitous moment, and I asked: “Why don’t we stop working so hard independently of each other and work together?” The business was tiny back in those days in terms of revenue and profits. I thought that we should just suck it up and help each other, and we could also have some quality time. I remember it was a very difficult decision for him to say, “I don’t know if I can split what little apple there is on this table in half to give it to my son.” I recall him saying that we should just try it out, as we can always decide within a year not to do it. Within a year, we had already doubled the business David Lawrence was doing, because it was much better to work as a team. This was about 1992, and the market was just starting to come back after the market crash in 1990.
The February 1990 Long Beach show was a major turning point down to the rock bottom for the coin industry, especially for slabbed coins, and David Lawrence didn’t deal with slabbed coins in those days. We only had Buffalo nickels and Indian cents and Barber coins in circulated grades. If you look at statistics of coins, those coins in those grades in that era only went up in price; they never declined because they were so inexpensive. You had Barber dimes in MS-65 peaking in 1990 at about $3,000. Today that coin is still forever [only] a $400 coin. And yet an XF 1895-O [dime] is probably worth five times more than it was in those days. Key date coins had not been appreciated yet.
Everybody was going after this commodity concept of slabbed coins and high grades. So we just happened to catch that well by accident. We just loved circulated coins because it’s what he could afford, and he just had no interest in MS-65 Morgan dollars–they were just a curiosity to my dad, but not anything he dealt in.
And eventually you merged your coin knowledge with your marketing and computer skills and developed CoinPlex (now known as CDN Exchange). Isn’t that right?
CoinPlex really fell into the category of project management for me because at that point, John Albanese of Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC) had conceived a trading platform for CAC coins, of which CCE was not receptive to at that time. So for John to see the vision of CAC through, he wanted a trading network but didn’t have that available to him. I eventually talked my way into joining the project to help see it through to completion and was invited to be a minority partner. So I did that, and that’s where the project of CoinPlex came into my life. We eventually later merged it into the company of CDN. But that was maybe eight years later.
And that takes us to 2015, a big year in your life when you acquired CDN and its flagship publication, the Greysheet, from the Downing family. What was that process like for you, acquiring CDN and taking the company to where it is now?
I guess like many other things, it was sort of accidental and unplanned, because you couldn’t plan for such an event as it unfolded. Historically, anybody who’s been in the coin industry a majority of their life is familiar with The Coin Dealer Newsletter (“Greysheet”), and we’ve all had our gripes over the years how the Greysheet can be better, and, of course, it can be better. But we had those gripes back then, and I had strong feelings about what I could do if I ran it, and I also have that publishing background that we described: My mother was the editor of a newspaper for 35 years. So I have a journalistic background, and then I had that coin knowledge from trading coins for about 30 years of my life. So I really sat in the shoes of the traders, whereas I think the former management of CDN hadn’t.
Unfortunately, what tragically happened was that Shane Downing, son of the owner of the Greysheet, had cancer. He was the second generation, and he and his mother ran the company for many years and did a great job of keeping the reputation of The Coin Dealer Newsletter at its peak. And while we all could think of improvements, it’s really difficult to improve on its reputation. Well, someone called me and told me, “I heard you’re really retreating from your day-to-day role at David Lawrence Rare Coins and might be looking for a new project”–which wasn’t necessarily true–and I said that sounded interesting. So it really just happened serendipitously.
Unfortunately, Shane, who was terminally ill, passed away while we were in negotiations. So his mother, who had been running CDN, and his sister didn’t have the emotional energy to stay on. So I worked out a very friendly, amicable deal with them. The timing was ideal in that regard and everybody was just ready, and it just happened. In any other scenario, you probably could never foresee a situation like that unfold as smoothly as it did.
When you first walked into the CDN office as publisher, did you have a vision for where you wanted to take the company, or did that unfold as you went?
I did not go into it with any grand vision. The goal was to acquire the company and move it East. I have a family with three kids, and I didn’t want to spend time on the west coast–that was one reason I was retiring from the coin business because the amount of travel was too much for me. I did this with the aim that I would move it east so I could stay close to home. We ended up retaining only one full-time employee from the company, CDN Senior Editor Patrick Ian Perez, and he’s been wonderful.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, our team has never stopped incrementally improving the product we had been given. That most obvious iteration is just coming about now, as we’re merging all the Greysheets into a monthly sheet. But to anyone who would look at this company from afar and see seven or eight different publications produced, some weekly, some monthly, some quarterly, it’s just a nightmare from a production standpoint and from the standpoint of explaining it to subscribers. It makes sense to do what we’re doing, to merge this into a single sheet. I couldn’t know that when I took over the company, I could only have learned that as I was going along, finding out how the production cycles work and how the subscribers feel about the sheets.
One of the things subscribers love is folding the sheet in thirds and putting it in their back pockets. That is unfortunately not going to happen with the new sheet, which is 96 pages in length. However, we are now offering pricing columns in grades such as AU-58 and MS-62, which were never available in the Greysheet. Of course, anybody who’s involved in the market knows those are two of among the most important grades for dealers and collectors.
We have to make changes to adapt to the fact that we’re a 21st-century business, and we also know that everything’s moving online to some degree. So, we’ve developed smartphone apps, and we’ve revamped the website several times, providing better access to information. And the website looks good on a desktop and on a phone. Nowadays you have to program websites for everything. It’s just amazing what you have to do in this day and age to be competitive even in the publishing business.
And, of course, with the evolution of technology we’ve seen just in the last 15 years or so, there’s a change from the industry being predominantly bricks-and-mortar dealers to more online trading. What does that mean for coin dealers who are trying to figure out where their place is in the market today and in the years ahead?
That’s a very tough question. Obviously, I have a bias toward the model that we built at David Lawrence Rare Coins over several decades. That bias meaning, in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s to build a mailing list of people and to provide that group of people with a monthly list of inventory and what’s new. Then the internet comes along. So you build a website, and there’s something new every day. If you do it right and there are some new coins available, you give people a reason to visit your site every day. You also need to communicate with these people and answer emails on a regular basis.
In the broadest sense, it’s important to do several national shows and regional shows, wherever it is. If you’re a small dealer and want to be known, that’s how you build a presence. But there’s absolutely no substitution at this point for having an online presence; that’s critical. If you’ve got a restaurant in the city of Virginia Beach and you’re physically oriented, you have a bricks-and-mortar location where people are going to find you and, other than advertising on Facebook, that’s how you’re going to get customers.
For the rare coin business, which has a relatively small number of people, you have to build a web presence–maybe it’s a website or a store on eBay–and tell the world: “I’m ready. I can talk to you by phone, by email, by text–I just want to help you build your coin collection.” You don’t have to have the world’s greatest website, but you certainly have to have fresh inventory, and you have to be available to coin collectors when they contact you. I’m a stamp collector; it’s my hobby. I can tell you the stamp business is very similar to the coin business and in some ways, the dealers feel like they’re even more disconnected from the collector base, and they only do shows–and nothing in between.
Something that drives me crazy is when reaching out to typical stamp dealers, they’re never around and rarely answer your questions. Further, their prices are never appropriate. I think they’re trying to sell for too much because they don’t sell enough inventory. Therefore, they sell at a higher price to make up for it. It’s a vicious circle.
You have to price competitively with the market. Our industry has the Greysheet; so you have good pricing guidelines. But if you’re not competitive within your industry, you’re going to have problems, even if you’re selling online. However, if you’re willing to work at a fair markup and turn your inventory over a lot, I think those are your keys to success.
Why did you take on this project?
It’s because I really want to help the industry more than anything. It’s like a legacy issue for me to say I want to leave the industry better than when I started with it. That’s my goal with CDN.
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