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Origins of BrickLink

By Larry Hawthorne, Former General Manager of BrickLink

BrickLink went live on June 19, 2000. Its modest beginnings were the work of Daniel Jezek, a computer programmer and an Adult Fan of Lego, then working and living in Honolulu, Hawaii. BL’s debut year 2000 was not simply by coincidence. The “Y2K scare” caused businesses around the world to hire augmented but temporary computer programming help out of fear that come the first day of the new millennium, computers everywhere would suddenly crash trying to handle a double zero modification to the date stamp. The threat was overblown and Jan. 1, 2000 came and went with hardly a whimper. Still, many of those hired on a temporary basis were given their walking papers, and Dan was no exception. Although his full-time position at First Hawaiian Bank remained open to him – he rose to become their “go-to” programmer for their proprietary software – change of company ownership and cost-cutting measures sent him out the door in the spring of that year.

Models representing the two sides of the original BrickLink site: the public-facing one (blue logo) and the admin pages (black/yellow). (Credit: Alex Jones, MOC Designer; Eliska Jezkova, Dan’s mother)

Dan had earlier attended the University of Hawaii and was pursuing computer science studies. He felt well qualified to work for another computer company in Honolulu, but opportunities were limited. For several months while he sought new employment, he researched additional ways to make money. While his resumé circulated among potential employers throughout the island of Oahu, Dan fell back on a tried and true means to earn an income: He sold LEGO.

A few years earlier, as a teen growing up on Oahu’s Windward side, Dan had come across a cache of bulk, unsorted LEGO at a neighborhood rummage sale. He went up to a relatively new website called eBay and discovered a ready market for his bricks. That relatively recent memory of successful online selling stayed with Dan as he continued to comb the island looking for a job. The search also turned up more cast-off LEGO and he even began selling some of his own collection, dating back to when he was a child. Again, the bricks moved on eBay and Dan felt he’d always have a fall-back alternative in case he needed to generate income outside of a steady job.

The search for a new job led to a series of interviews with a Honolulu IT startup that appeared promising.

His potential new boss was impressed by Dan’s knowledge and recent experience. He was especially struck by Dan’s ability to learn new programming languages – like Visual Basic and JavaScript -- in order to compete for available positions. After personal interviews, Dan was sent home with a stack of books and the challenge to learn new programming languages in time to return for a test in the next several days. Dan learned the new languages and aced the tests. But there were still hurdles ahead and others vying for the same job. Dan came away still unemployed as someone else got the position. Had he not suffered this temporary failure, however, the major success that would become BrickLink might never have happened at all. This was the spring of 2000.

Without steady employment Dan still was left with plenty of ambition, a love of LEGO, and new and sudden expertise in web development programming languages. It proved a fortuitous residue of his unsuccessful job search. So, it was back to selling LEGO again. That led to the Internet where he put his newly acquired knowledge to work building and launching his own store, which he originally named BrickBay. (Interestingly and contrary to popular myth, Dan did not steal the name “bay” from eBay. Rather, it signified where he lived, Kailua Bay, along with the colors of Hawaii, green and blue.)

Other online AFOLs soon took notice of Dan's store. Dan was busy expanding its functionality daily and listening to “like to have” suggestions from fellow LEGO marketers as he modified BrickBay. A few began asking Dan if they could join as “hosted” stores, using his online model as a base. Dan quickly realized that BrickBay could potentially be to LEGO what eBay is to online marketing in general. Although BrickBay’s focus would be narrow, he was convinced it could still be a viable marketplace. As he continued to absorb stores he also began hosting buyers as well. By necessity, he restricted the membership to individuals able to enter legal contracts, those at least 18 years of age. Thus, an online AFOL community was born.

Constant volunteer work from BrickBay members and other AFOLs led to accelerating growth. Dan soon developed a multi-featured search function that made it easy to find LEGO parts and sets and identify store availability, along with prices. He established a tiered fee assessment of around 3% of sales from hosted stores, a modest amount that remains to this day. The advent of PayPal and the ability to execute monetary transactions off-site was also a major development that gave BrickBay – and many other online sales sites – tremendous life and a window to further growth.

That first (half) year for BrickBay was a start. The website hosted $171,417.77 in business. The next full year, 2001, saw nearly $900,000 worth of LEGO change hands on BrickBay. Business has been climbing ever since.

In 2002, BrickBay had finally grown large enough to attract the uninvited attention of eBay. It was not long before a not so subtle request “to cease and desist” with any reference to “Bay” in the name of the website was forthcoming from their legal department. Dan, who up until the day he died ran the website essentially by himself, wasn’t of a mind to fight eBay over this, not in 2002 while there were still plenty of alternative names available across the URL universe. We – myself, Dan’s mother Eliska and Dan – sat around the kitchen table in Honolulu bouncing around possible new names for BrickBay. There were plenty to choose from: Brick this, brick that, and various permutations thereof. Eliska looked at the list and said she liked “BrickLink”, because it had a “nice sound to it, and, hey, the website is a link to buying and selling bricks”. Dan agreed and that was that. BrickLink it was and BrickLink it is.

Whatever the name, BrickLink began growing in earnest. Dan worked day and night for 10 years to “administer” the website, make functional improvements, adding features like a chat room and a forum, and all the while expanding the catalog with help from the online community. His philosophy was quite simple: The business aspects would keep BrickLink running and the AFOL community would profit the most. And, in the end, it was all about LEGO and the love of the brick. Dan was open minded, self-effacing and not one to seek a lot of attention. A few disagreements on the forum led to distractions and he became much more reserved, preferring the anonymous title of “Admin” with little more.

In his Hawaii garage apartment (1997), Dan, age 20, experiments with online selling of LEGO on eBay and develops the idea to create a site of his own.

In 2002, BrickBay was changed to BrickLink and Dan runs the operation from his 25th story apartment in Honolulu’s Salt Lake area.

Had he had more time to reflect on what he had built, Dan would have realized that he had created something unique to the entire LEGO world: a place where someone could actually find that one piece, or those parts needed to accomplish that MOC that was just a thought and not yet even a design. It was a place to find the long discontinued set that now lay at the bottom of a landfill that was just a distant memory from childhood. It was a catalyst to re-ignite the fire of respect and legitimacy needed to bring folks out of their “dark ages” and back to an enjoyment of LEGO, for themselves and to share with their kids, once again. Dan revolutionized the AFOL movement, probably without even knowing it.

He really was the right person, at the right time. His international background – born in then Czechoslovakia in the heart of Europe and raised to adulthood in the West in Hawaii – gave him a world-wide perspective from the start. BrickLink, AKA BrickBay, was always designed to have a global appeal and Dan was alert to try and translate information in multiple languages, although English easily became the common denominator. Not long before he died he developed an international monetary exchange engine on BrickLink that allowed sellers – almost anywhere in the world – to sell in their own currency and their customers to buy in theirs as well. Every two hours the website is updated with the latest exchange rates for dozens of currencies. Both sides of the deal know exactly how much they are paying in a currency they can easily understand. Fielded in April 2010, the currency exchange module was an innovative addition that significantly expanded the international nature of BrickLink and led to more stores being opened outside of the USA than within.

Few knew, but Dan was a very generous and compassionate person. He gave freely of his time and the money he had to support his local church and promote aid for the homeless in Hawaii. He gave to relief efforts for Haiti earthquake and Katrina hurricane victims and provided support to children’s charities around the world.

On September 24, 2010, Dan died suddenly and unexpectedly in a tragic accident. At the time, he already had plans and tickets to travel as part of the first vacation he would take in more than a decade. After it happened, we arrived in Honolulu two days later. Eliska, in heavy grief and trauma over the loss of her son, felt an urgent need to carry on Dan’s beloved BrickLink in his memory and in response to so many who counted on the website, some for their very livelihoods. From Sept. 24 to around Sept. 29, BrickLink ran on autopilot. Having limited understanding of how BrickLink worked, we still knew full well that if billing did not occur on the first of

October concern could lead to panic. We contacted Eric Smith, who owned the company that hosted the website. We asked him to join us, if possible, and perform admin duties that Dan had done alone. Luckily, Dan had been contemplating taking some time off and had left some instructions for a “backup admin” to perform daily and periodic duties to maintain BrickLink. With us and Eric as Admin, BrickLink continued. We felt a need to maintain silence regarding Dan’s passing until we could manage affairs for several weeks, until Dan’s funeral Oct. 22, 2010. Eliska and I will always remember the way the BrickLink community pulled together upon learning of Dan’s passing. Volunteer moderators and administrators took it upon themselves to handle things after we made the public announcement on the website. The chat and forum moderators kept the discussions within bounds and did their best to limit speculation. Eric Smith and I handled day-to-day operations to keep BrickLink running smoothly during this troubling time.

Dan with his mother, Eliska, at the Aloha Tower Marketplace (1996).

Eliska, Dan’s mother, assumed the position of CEO of BrickLink and I assumed a position as general manager. Together with Eric we managed the website for nearly three years. Meanwhile, early on, BrickLink began physically slowing down – lots of time outs – due to the tremendous growth in membership and business activity. A major development we implemented was the addition of expanded hardware to better handle the web application and the database on separate servers. That done, BrickLink operated efficiently for the next year and a half, during a period of unparalleled growth.

We weathered a few security breaches and hacking incidents, the most serious being June 1, 2012, but most on BrickLink were too busy buying and selling to even notice. It would be easy to blame the hacking incidents for business drop off on BrickLink . . . if there were any. But, other than June 2012, which saw a noticeable monthly decrease, business was and is brisk and rapidly growing. So, the hacking incidents were more just a blip in the continuing increase of the accelerating level of business being conducted on BrickLink.

What the hacking did do, however, is delay our plans for the modernization of BrickLink. Instead we refocused our attention to securing the original BrickLink, which we did without notice or fanfare. We enlisted and contracted a number of outside security experts to assist in this project, which was undertaken in three major phases. Eventually, the entire website was secured once and for all. That “world class security team” was actually just that, world class. Among their long list of clients were on-line gambling sites so it is not hard to understand that they had to be tops in their class to be able to secure sites like that. They built and fielded – not without some adjustment pains – a complete customized security shield for BrickLink. BrickLink is safe and continues to grow. The new BrickLink is on the way.

A final word about our sojourn running BrickLink after the unfortunate and untimely death of Dan. Eliska was devoted to keeping Dan’s dream alive and – with the tremendous, selfless support of the BrickLink Community – she succeeded. The skyrocketing growth of the website and a need for subsequent updating and modernization pointed to a real need for additional resources. Although the announcement of the sale may have seemed sudden, the process was anything but. Our extensive search for the right person took quite a while.

During the period that the Jezek family managed the site in the name of Dan Jezek, the business more than doubled in size. The counter at the bottom of the home page of BrickLink read 50 million the day Dan died. The day the website changed ownership to BrickLink Limited, the counter read nearly 150 million. That is a testament to the work Dan accomplished and the legacy he left behind.

The rest of the story of BrickLink is still being written.

We miss you Dan.
Walking Admin

 

 

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all AFOLs around the world who stood by BrickLink after Dan died. BL is a living monument to Dan and his vision that I hope will be here for generations to come.

Eliska Jezkova,
Dan’s mother and BrickLink Ambassador at Large