What our genealogy customers want

We use Qualtrics survey software (which we really like) and have a panel of customers who have agreed to answer survey questions every month. We appreciate the customers who are willing to take time to give us their opinions. We pay a great deal of attention to the feedback. We adjust our work and investment priorities based on what our customers tell us.

Our last survey had 15 questions. We received answers from 1,041 customers. Here are some interesting facts:

  • Half of our customers like to our full newsletter articles in the emails we send out; but half would prefer to see only a portion and then click through to the web site to see the rest if they are interested. (It’s not easy to decide what to do when our customers are split 50/50!)
  • Half of our customers would like a daily email about our new databases. (We offer databases that are free for 10 days.) Years ago, when I was at Ancestry.com, we had the same response: half of our customers wanted a daily email, and half wanted a weekly.
  • The top six states where our customers want more databases are New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Illinois and Massachussetts. These were followed by Missouri, Kentucky, and Indiana. The top three Canadian provinces are Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia.
  • 84% of our customers feel that genealogical and historical societies are important or very important to their family history research!
  • 64% of our customers already belong to at least one genealogical society. 11% belong to “five or more” societies!
  • 70% of those who do not currently belong to a genealogy society would like to join one.
  • Only 5% of our customers are dissatisfied with our browsable census images collection, even though we don’t have full text searching. (It appears that our customers are satisfied with our ongoing efforts to put more data online, even when it is not exactly what they eventually hope we will provide.)
  • We received hundreds of customer testimonials, with many specific examples of how people have found ancestors in our pedigree collections, newspapers, and other databases.
  • Based on these survey results, our management team met and decided the following:

    1. We want to find and hire a genealogist in each of these states and provinces who are willing to help us to find more local databases for our web site. (If you live in our of our top states or provinces and are interested in earning some part-time income helping us find new databases for your state/region, please call World Vital Records at 888-377-0588 and ask for Amy Rhoads, or send me an email using the “Contact Me” link on my blog.

    2. We would like to help our 325,000 monthly visitors and our 10,000+ new daily users of our Facebook apps to find and join a genealogy society. Societies play a very important role in organizing local information and spreading knowledge about how to properly research genealogical sources. I have been to many society meetings and conferences over the years and I am always impressed by the depth of knowledge that society leaders have. There have been concerns for many years about societies slowly losing membership and trying to find sources of revenue and leadership to keep them around.

    Dave Rencher, from the LDS Church Family History Department, spoke at the 2007 FGS conference about how societies could become more virtual and attract members and leaders from outside their own geographic region. I found a powerpoint Dave used in 2005 to share a similar message.

    At World Vital Records, we would like to help societies by encouraging our customers and site visitors to join and support and get involved with societies.

    We are creating a program that can help societies attract more members by providing them with free traffic and leads (from our social networking sites) and benefits/incentives for their members, such as discounts on genealogy subscriptions and software. We have a separate opportunity to help societies generate revenue from some of the indexes, databases, and publications that they may have created in the past.

    For membership help, please contact Carin Green.
    For content partnerships (a source of revenue), please contact Yvette Arts.

    Both can be reached at our main toll-free number: 888-377-0588
    For societies outside of the U.S., please call 1-801-377-0588

    Soon we will be creating new Customer Panels for our We’re Related App on Facebook (it lets you connect with relatives, build a family tree, and share family photos and news) and also for our FamilyLink.com social network for genealogists.

    If you are a genealogist, please feel free to comment on this blog post and provide whatever feedback you think will help us provide better products and services to you. Please help us design the future of family history research!

Utah Events: Blogging for Business; Facebook Strategies

So my friend Robert Merrill (Utahtechjobs.com) reminded me to plug the upcoming Blogging for Business conference in Salt Lake City, scheduled for Monday, October 22nd.

I’m coming up on 4 years as a blogger, and I can attest that blogging has opened up a world of opportunities for me. I think every CEO should blog and businesses should use blogs to communicate with all stakeholders. Frankly, it amazes me that so many businesses are willing to go for years with so many believers/practitioners extolling the virtues of things like internet marketing, search engines, blogging, and social networking, without so much as even assigning employees to try it and see.

I think this conference will be terrific, and I’m encouraging one of my company bloggers to attend. About half of our employees at World Vital Records blog, and I think the other half will be soon. I have said that blogging (people find you) and LinkedIn (you find them) is an incredible 1-2 combination punch for making important business contacts.

While I’m blogging about this Utah event, I also want to plug a new group on Facebook that I set up called Utah CEOs Who Have a Facebook Strategy. We have 20 members after just one day, but I’ll be emailing about 200-300 other Utah CEOs this week and hoping that we can get about 40-50 of them to come to our first event. It will probably be in Provo in the next 3 weeks.

I’m not sure what you will happen if you are not a Facebook member and try to click on this link; somebody please let me know. Maybe there is a better way to link to Facebook groups than what I am doing.

Big news from my family (dot com)

The Generations Network, formerly MyFamily.com, announced today a $300 million acquisition by Spectrum Equity, a $4 billion private equity fund with offices in Menlo Park and Boston. It is expected that the current management team will continue to lead the company, which is headquartered in Provo, Utah.

The company has an interesting history. Wikipedia’s article on The Generations Network gets most of the facts right. Ancestry, a print publishing company, was founded in 1983 by John Sittner. John sold Ancestry to my CD ROM publishing company (Infobases, Inc.) in 1997 and in July 1997 Dan Taggart and I spun Ancestry out, and left Infobases to run Ancestry.com full time. By July 1998 we were cash-flow positive with more than 20,000 subscribers to our $49.95 per year content subscription service.

I could write a book about what happened next, and maybe someday I will, but I won’t bore you with the details now. I loved being a part of this company during its first six years. I loved watching the idea of MyFamily.com capture investor interest (the “Geocities for Families” tag really struck a chord with investors), and attract so much capital. Reminiscent of the IBM web commercial, we watched in amazement as MyFamily.com signed up thousands of people a day after its launch. We got 1 million registered users in our first 140 days, making us the fastest-growing community site of all time, beating Talk City’s record. At our peak, we were adding 20-30,000 new users per day.

Of course, any records we set and any vision we had for connecting families online has since been eclipsed by the social networking companies that now have tens of millions of users. After the bubble burst, the company retreated to genealogy, and MyFamily.com — a very early social network — was almost shut down, surviving only because it turned into a paid service (read: cash cow) with no developers working on it for five years.

MyFamily.com initially hosted just private family sites, so some may argue that it wasn’t truly social networking, but we also developed back in 2001 a “front porch” — which has since been shut down — where families could start posting content for family friends to see. Some of us tried to convince the company to buy the MyFriends.com domain and launch web sites for groups of friends, but that idea was shot down, because it wasn’t part of the company “mission” as many people saw it. In fact, MyFamily.com wasn’t part of the genealogy mission of the company in some people’s minds.

I left the company in February 2002 and have watched from afar ever since. I have not been a company insider now for more than five years. I have been pleased in the last twelve months to see the company’s very exciting international expansion and also the relaunch of MyFamily.com as a free service, with a Web 2.0 type feel. Revenue growth has slowed, but with all of its assets the company has the potential to be re-invigorated like other older internet sites such as Classmates.com, whose revenue last year grew from $85 million in 2006 to $139.5 million in 2007 based on its pre-IPO filings.

As exciting to me as this acquisition is, it is even more exciting to be back in the same space with my new company World Vital Records (staffed by several of us from the original Ancestry team) building genealogy and family web sites. It is still only the third or fourth inning in the internet space, and there is still room for new companies to emerge.

WorldVitalRecords.com, a domain name that only genealogists could love, is quickly becoming a major genealogy site with more than 500 million records, lots of strategic partners, and new site traffic record levels every month–316,000 unique visitors in the last month according to Quantcast. We will end our first year selling subscriptions with almost the same number of subscribers we got at Ancestry.com in our first year.

Our FamilyLink.com web site is a social network for genealogists, and with some new features that are planned, we think it will become an essential tool for every genealogist.

But most exciting of all is our new Facebook app that at yesterday’s growth rate will attract more than 5 million users in the next year.

Launched just last weekend, We’re Related will have 50-60,000 users by the end of the day, and we think we can double or triple the growth rate in the next few weeks.

My how the world has changed! It took us a couple of years at MyFamily.com (remember, we launched it in December 1998) to reach 20-30,000 new users a day. Back then, few people had digital cameras or broadband; in fact, the internet was just beginning to reach older demographics, which tend to be the most avid users of both genealogical and family-related web sites.

Now, on Facebook Platform, we launch an app and 4 days later get 14,373 new users in a single day. (You can now see why I was so excited back in May when I blogged about the launch of Facebook Platform.) And you can also see why I was frustrated last month when we had not yet launched a successful Facebook app.

Also, back in 1999 we had to invest millions of dollars in servers in order to handle the load. Today we are working on switching from our single beefy server to a cloud of servers on Amazon’s EC2 web service, giving us virtually infinite scalability with no cap ex expense.

When we are fully scalable with Amazon’s EC2 and turn on the marketing and PR machine, we think our app will get tens of thousands of new users per day. It’s already the 153rd most popular app on Facebook based on daily usage. We think we can reach the top 50 by the end of the year, and maybe even the top 20.

A lot can go wrong in any startup (like with our server problems the past few days), and we are certainly not celebrating yet, but we are heads down, working hard, and totally determined to provide tools, technology and content that will connect and strengthen families worldwide–millions of them.

The Generations Network is certainly the biggest company I know of that has the same mission as we do, and I am glad for every improvement and advancement they make. In fact, to provide competition that would spur them on to make the right decisions for families and genealogists was one of the many justifications I considered when deciding to get back into this business and compete with my former friends and investors.

So here is to the future success of The Generations Network, Geni, Footnote, FamilySearch, Verwandt.de, FamilyOne.de, and other companies that are building tools to bless the families of the earth. The family is the most important consumer value worldwide. It is the primary building block of a strong society. It is the source of more human happiness than anything else. (Which may explain why Nigeria is the happiest country in the world–women there average 6.5 children, and why Mexico is second.)

In the face of social and economic and international and demographic issues and even technology advancements that have been pounding on and separating and tearing apart the family for decades, it’s about time that companies emerge that can bring families closer together, including extended families, and increase the quality of life and the measure of happiness that people around the world enjoy.

So there you have it. A founder’s take on the acquisition of The Generation Network. I know some people are hoping that I will throw dirt or cry foul, but you won’t get that from me. I’m very satisfied with what has been announced today and I look forward to a bright future of competing to see which company can help and strengthen the most families worldwide.

a few thoughts

World Vital Records is running more smoothly, and is closer to achieving our near-term financial goals, with sales 136% higher in September than in our best previous month.

As we get through some of the early start up pains, and as our organization and systems mature a little more, I should be able to budget some time each day to blogging. I have missed it terribly. I love the feedback from readers. I love being part of the conversation. I love that to intelligently blog I need to read a lot first to see what is going on and what people are thinking about, and then organize my own thoughts. As Susan Easton Black, author of more than 100 books told me, you need to “read to write.”

If or when I have time to think and blog more fully, here are some of the topics I’d like to address:

  • Fortune says that Josh Kopelman (who I believe is the top seed stage investor in the country today–a few years ago I would have said Steve Jurvetson of DFJ) and partner Howard Morgan are likely to raise a $75-100 million fund for First Round Capital, which has already invested in more than 40 companies in the past two years. Josh is a fantastic blogger. I encourage entrepreneurs to read his blog as well as anything Paul Graham writes.
  • Josh is also on the advisory board for a new $10 million fund that Facebook has set up to provide grants to Facebook apps developers.
  • Josh Coates, a Silicon Valley transplant to Utah, recently sold Berkeley Data Systems which created Mozy.com, the award-winning free online backup solution, to EMC. Last week Josh told me he be teaching a computer science class at BYU (CS 405) starting in January. I bet Josh will inspire the next generation of Drew Majors and Alan Ashtons.
  • I heard Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) speak at BYU last week. He gave a great speech on faith, family and public service.
  • Last week we rolled out a new App on Facebook called We’re Related. It is starting to pick up some serious steam. I’ll blog more about it later.
  • Trying to find Facebook developers is not easy. I may encourage the Utah Facebook Developer’s Group to have another get together soon.
  • I am so happy to be working with Kent Thomas of CFO Solutions again. He is the leading financial consultant/advisor to Utah startup companies. He has helped 75 companies raise more than $300 million during the last 10 years. He and his dozen employees keep books, do financial modeling, and help CEOs make the right decisions. He will be acting CFO for World Vital Records, and help us get ready for future growth.
  • I’m impressed at how much traffic GodTube.com has, shortly after launch. The most popular clip is of a little girl reciting Psalms 23.
  • Techcrunch says the MySpace Platform will launch this week at the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. MySpace is opening an office in San Francisco and will hire as many as 200 employees.
  • I’m amazed at how legal bills can mount, given our Series A financing and the dozens of contracts that we are working on with genealogy and technology partners. I intend to find a great US firm that outsources a lot of the contract drafting to India or elsewhere, but still reviews, oversees and approves all of the work. My friend told me there was a major story in the American Bar Association Journal this past month on legal outsourcing to India. I want to learn more.
  • I am researching virtual currencies, point systems, and reward systems that might be useful in our family/genealogy social networks. I came across something from china called the QQ–a point system developed by a private mobile company in China that is now being used by millions as an alternative currency. I believe the online genealogy world could use a virtual currency of some kind to help reward the volunteerism that already happens and help people trade value for value.
  • My brother gave me a copy of “Made to Stick” and said it is one of the top 5 books to read this year.