Using iPod savvy to mine a niche

HungryPod will convert your CDs to MP3s--for a fee--so you can load up your iPod.

The signature white earbuds of the iPod seem to be sprouting everywhere. So inevitably, perhaps, a service industry is close behind.

For those who lack the time or the know-how to transfer their record collections to their iPods, an entrepreneur has created a service that will do the trick. The service, HungryPod, converts CDs to MP3 format and loads them into an iPod or any other digital music player.

Catherine Keane, 23, is the founder and sole employee of HungryPod, a company she started at the end of September. For prices starting at $1.50 per CD (and a $15 delivery fee, which is waived for more than 100 CDs), Keane will go to a customer's home or office, pick up CDs and take them back to her office on Seventh Avenue near Penn Station in New York.

Keane's service is one of a few enterprises formed to serve iPod owners. Another New York company, RipDigital, started offering its services nationwide late last year to convert music libraries to MP3. RipDigital does not load music onto iPods directly, but burns it to DVD; for an additional fee it will load an external hard drive with music.

Keane said she got the idea for her business from a friend of a friend who offered $500 for someone to load up her iPod. It was then, Keane said, that she realized that there might be a market for such services.

"That was a lot of money for something that was fairly simple," she said.

Paying to play that funky music
In addition, Keane is a music consultant. For a $50 fee, she will recommend similar artists based on a customer's current tastes. After that, customers can pay Keane to purchase CDs from an online music service, like Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store. (For that service she charges $25 an hour, plus the cost of the songs, at 99 cents each.)

Her tastes range from indie rock to Bob Marley to Michael Jackson, but she acknowledges that she is still learning. "My edge is not that I'm an expert," she said. "It's more that it's my job, and I'm willing to do whatever research it takes."

Keane says most of her customers are in their 20s and 30s and work in the financial sector--people who are very busy and have disposable income. She has ripped CDs for nearly 30 customers and provided consulting services for about eight.

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So far, her marketing has been done through word of mouth and free online advertising at One customer, Joanna Lisi, 24, who works in sales for Gucci and found Keane through a mutual friend, said she had been very happy with HungryPod--so much so that two weeks ago she spent $750 on Keane's services, which included music recommendations and song purchasing from iTunes.

Keane uses an off-the-shelf PC with two CD drives to convert music from CDs to MP3, a process that can take a few days depending on the size of the collection. She loaded Lisi's 15GB iPod with 1,064 new songs in about 25 hours.

"Every day I find a new song on there that I didn't know was on there that I love," Lisi said.

Keane, who graduated in 2003 from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., with a degree in English, lives with her parents in Stuyvesant Town on Manhattan's East Side. She makes enough money to rent office space alongside her father, a self-employed financial consultant.

She arrives at the office at around 9:30 a.m. and stays until nearly 7 p.m., and moonlights four days a week as an assistant varsity basketball coach at Marymount School, her high school alma mater.

Keane currently serves Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, and she plans to expand. "I try to think about it in baby steps," she said. Her next goal is to engage a Web designer to work on her site to accommodate e-commerce, a move toward offering the service more widely.

In business, of course, nothing is guaranteed, and Ms. Keane is philosophical.

"The reason I chose this is because it's been fun," she said. "I don't have any regrets, even if tomorrow it tanked."

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