20,000th subscriber today!

November has been a great month for World Vital Records. Today we reached a significant milestone by adding our 20,000th paying customer. We’ll highlight her in an upcoming newsletter. She is a genealogist from Delta, Colorado.

In August we issued a press release when we reached our 10,000 subscriber milestone, and here we are just three months later at the 20,000 subscriber mark.

Our entire company appreciates each customer who signs up for our premium databases and also those who try our free services such as FamilyLink.com. We also appreciate our wonderful content partners who have helped us grow our collection of genealogical information. We’re approaching 1 billion names in our databases. And we appreciate our affiliates and business partners for helping us share our services with their customers.

The 20,000 mark is also significant because that’s how many paying subscribers Ancestry.com got in its first year, from April 1997 to April 1998.

Of course Ancestry.com is the pace-setter in the genealogical industry and one of the greatest successes in the world of online subscription content. To be where they were after their first year is a great accomplishment. We look forward to many years of serving families around the world. And we appreciate everyone who is making it possible for us to grow and prosper: investors, partners, customers, affiliates.

Thanks to all!

UTC Hall of Fame Celebration tomorrow in Salt Lake City

My favorite Utah high tech event every year is the Utah Technology Council Annual Hall of Fame event. It is now in its 9th year. This year James Sorenson, medical device pioneer and billionaire, and Bernard Daines, father of gigabit ethernet, are being inducted. Intel CEO Paul Otellini will be the keynote speaker. The list of past inductees is pretty amazing–Utah has produced more than its share of technology pioneers. I probably won’t make it this year, even though I would really like to. I hope someone will blog about it.

Great domains for sale: mp3books.com, icount.com

I’m involved with two companies that are planning to sell two valuable domains, hopefully by the end of the year.

If you are interested in purchasing either mp3books.com or icount.com, please use the “Contact Me” form and let me know.

If you have worked with a great aftermarket domain reseller, or have seen auctions used successfully to get the highest possible value out of a domain, I’d love to hear from you also. Brokers welcome.

AlwaysOn Venture Summit West, Dec. 6-7

I missed the Stanford Summit (AlwaysOn) this July, but I am registered for the Venture Summit West coming up next week. I look forward to catching up with some friends on the VC side of things and comparing notes with some friends who are CEOs who will be at this conference. I usually attend the AlwaysOn Summit in July at Stanford, but I missed it this year, being in the intense startup mode still at WorldVitalRecords.com.

This will be a fun conference, partly because social networking is all the rage, and my company has launched a social network for genealogists, FamilyLink.com, that is getting increasing traction, but far more because our We’re Related Facebook application is getting serious traction, and even though we launched it later than I had hoped (5 months and 2 days after the Facebook Platform launch, which I blogged about), it has far surpassed our expectations.

Our strategy is to aggregate and provide genealogical databases to customers worldwide through our paid service, worldvitalrecords.com, and to attract millions of users through viral marketing, utilizing our own social network and building apps for other social networks. Both aspects of our strategy are now working.

WorldVitalRecords.com hits record traffic numbers every month and our subscriber numbers are really starting to climb. (The monthly option at $5.95 per month seems to have helped.)

For viral marketing, we love Facebook. But we also love the OpenSocial concept (which I have not yet blogged about) and providing our apps wherever users are. If we end up with apps and widgets on every major social web site, the big question is will our family users be able to interact seamlessly with each other and share family content and communications as easily as if they were all using the same dedicated social network? During the Social Networking 3.0 panel at the July Stanford Summit, I think the answer from the Facebook panelist sounded like a “probably” but from MySpace it seemed like a no. They were discussing how portable individual profiles would be on the social networks, and whether apps would be interactive with apps on other social networks. Of course social networks (like MySpace) probably want to “own” their customers, but I believe customers won’t allow for that, and will demand portability of profiles and interoperability of apps/widgets.

If you are going to Venture Summit West, and would like to meet up to discuss the future of online genealogy and family social networking (or social networking in general), drop me a line.

My monthly post :(

I am a huge believer in blogging, and have posted before that every CEO should blog, and now I find myself both so busy as a CEO and so concerned about how my blog posts will be read, even though this is my personal blog, that I find myself overanalyzing everything I want to blog about, and usually just concluding, “I’ll just do it later.” Sometimes I learn something incredibly important and want to blog about it, but then I worry about the impact on my industry and what my competitors will do–will they act on this news before my own company does? Sometimes I want to announce great things that are happening at WorldVitalRecords.com, but then realize the PR department ought to be able to do their job without me spoiling the news. Sometimes I find some fantastic news that I want to share, but just don’t have time. Then I find myself a week or two later thinking that what I wanted to blog about is now old news, and no one will want to read my post. (One example is the Amazon Kindle which I’m very excited about. Another is the Google energy initiative which was announced today. Very cool stuff.) I’m in an anti-blog cycle, and I’ve got to break out of it.

I thought I’d start using Twitter as my mini-blog post alternative, and I’ve downloaded Twitterberry, which works great on my Blackberry, but then I don’t connect my Twitters to my paulallen.net web site, so I find myself not Twittering because only 10 or 20 people will probably see my Twitters anyway.

I think I have a couple of ideas about how to break out of this funk. First, I’d like a local developer to help me split my paulallen.net blog into three distinct blogs, but all hosted at the same site and accessible with one click. My WorldVitalRecords.com/genealogy blog posts will go into one bucket; my internet marketing/entrepreneurship posts into another; and then my personal blog posts about religion, politics, philosophy, and current events will go into a third. I’ll also integrate Twitter with my blog, and then I’ll see if I find myself Twittering more.

My blog traffic has also dropped in half this year, since I blog so infrequently, and that is another demotivator.

But, I’m posting now, and have about 10 more posts that I’d like to do in the next few days. Hopefully I will be able to muster the time and energy to do it, and to overcome the psychological barriers that I’m facing.

I noticed Mark Andreesen blogged the other day that he was taking a few days off from posting. How have other bloggers overcome the barriers that I am talking about and remained very active. Phil (Windley): how have you done it?

Association of Professional Genealogists speech

I spoke today at the Salt Lake Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists. The meeting was held in the Family History Center.

I started by asking how many wanted me to talk about the history of Ancestry.com, (after all, these people spend all their time researching the past) and how many wanted me to talk about our vision for the future of genealogy at World Vital Records.

Everyone voted for me to talk about the future, and to explain what we are doing and what we plan to do to help them as professional genealogists. I was a little surprised that no one wanted to hear the Ancestry.com story, but alas, most people don’t want to hear about your family history either–they want to discuss their own. I think the bottom line for all of them was, “As professionals, tell us why should we care about World Vital Records.”

But I couldn’t resist. Earlier this week I gave two lectures at BYU’s Entrepreneur Lecture Series and in preparation I had relieved all the early years of Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com while readying my “entrepreneurial story.” So all of this stuff is really fresh on my mind, and as I told the APG members, by discussing all the painful stuff with them, it may help me in the healing process. :)

So I chose to take about 15 minutes to discuss the founding of Ancestry.com, and how it had grown out of a CD ROM publishing company that my friend Dan Taggart and I started in 1990, and what happened in the early years. I tried to highlight some of the key points in our history:

  • Broderbund (producer of Family Tree Maker) was the 800-lb gorilla in family history in the 90s. We designed our business model to provide free online access to most of what they were selling on CD ROM (family tree software, data CDs and family tree collections on CD) and to offer a premium data collection online as a subscription.
  • In April 1997 we launched our paid subscription service and we promised to add at least one new genealogy database to our web site every business day. To my best knowledge, Ancestry.com has never missed a day.
  • We offered all new databases free for 10 days, and we let people sign up for a free newsletter, the Ancestry Daily News, that would announce our new databases each day.
  • Our strategy worked and millions of CD ROM users flocked to our web site. Within a few years we had raised tens of millions in venture capital and become the largest genealogy company in the world. We were able to acquire Rootsweb, and then, after I left Ancestry.com, the company acquired all the assets that Broderbund had previously owned (Genealogy.com/Family Tree Maker/Genforum.com).
  • MyFamily.com was launched in 1998 and it attracted 1 million users in its first 140 days. At its peak, 20-30,000 new users joined the free site every day. And since in every family there is an active genealogist or one yet to be created/discovered, MyFamily.com was a key entry point for potential Ancestry.com customers. When MyFamily.com turned into a paid service back in 2001, it lost a huge amount of momentum.

In my speech, I ran through a list of 12 major mistakes that (IMHO) the company (now called The Generations Network) has made during the last 6 years. But I also indicated that Tim Sullivan, the current CEO, has addressed some of these and is trying to lead the company in the right direction again. For example, his international emphasis and making MyFamily.com’s basic service free again are definitely positive moves.

Now I know that some people would like me to elaborate on all 12 of the mistakes, as I see them, in this blog; while others are thinking to themselves, “you always spill all the beans, Paul. Why don’t you keep some things close to the vest?”

So I won’t publish my list of Ancestry.com mistakes right now. Neither will I list the 12 major ideas/projects that World Vital Records is pursuing in an effort to find a useful role in the genealogy/family networking space.

But I will touch on some general ideas.

First, someone asked if we were just copying Ancestry.com business model and trying to provide access to the same data they are. The answer is absolutely not. We are trying to innovate and find ways of being useful that are completely new. Why would we, as a startup company, want to compete head-on with a giant in the area where they are strongest?

Ancestry has already spent $100 million digitizing content during the last 10 years and are spending $10 million more each year. The LDS Church also has a huge budget for this kind of thing, as they work with archives and microfilm collections, as does Google and Microsoft, as they scan major libraries around the world. Many other companies, archives, governments, libraries, and societies are involved in digitizing and/or indexing content.

We will do some digitizing and indexing but it will be small in relation to these other organizations who make this their primary business. Our fundamental approach is to partner with content providers worldwide and to enable our customers to find records in their databases, whether we host them or not. (Which is why we are so happy that DearMyrtle gave us the “most prolific agreement-signing genealogy website of the year” award on her blog recently.) Our business model is built on paying substantial royalties to content owners.

With Footnote.com‘s growing traffic (see Quantcast chart on Footnote), it is clear that there is still room in the market for well-funded companies to digitize and index content and sell subscriptions to it–even as Google and Microsoft’s book projects are bringing an ever-increasing flood of old books online. The Quantcast chart for Google Books shows 8.8 million unique visitors per month; and one of the top correlating keywords for site visitors is in fact, “rootsweb,” showing that genealogists are becoming more aware of this resource. (The affinity for “rootsweb” to books.google.com is 2.6x.)

World Vital Records Plans

I described to the APG members several of the major initiatives that are underway at World Vital Records, but I won’t go into them now. They involve user generated content, history, geography, metadata, social networking, improving the quality of online family trees and source citations, and even online gaming theory.

One question that I found difficult to answer was a question about why families should trust my company (or any company) with their data, knowing that commercial firms need to find ways to make money, and once the data is out of their hands, they are afraid it will be exploited.

I intend to write an article on the topic of “Who Owns Your Family Data?” and submit it to a prominent genealogical publication, hoping that it will lead to a serious discussion of this issue.

At Ancestry.com, when we launched the Ancestry World Tree, we made a promise that all user-generated content would remain free. It was in our terms and conditions. Later (after the founding team was gone) the company decided to continue to provide access to the data for free, but to launch a parallel product where the data was merged into a huge single tree (the OneWorldTree), with some new technology features, and to sell access to this merged collection of user content, claiming that they were really selling access to the tools, and that the original data was still free (if you could find it.)

Like Broderbund’s World Family Tree collection, which made them unpopular with many family historians because they were selling user data, this move made lead to a lot of criticism of Ancestry.

So there is a valid concern that even a company like World Vital Records, which philosophically believes that user generated content should be free and should be controlled by its submitter, might eventually be acquired by a different company, or hire different management, who might change its policies.

Structurally, the founders of Google tried to address the issue of corporate governments and their control of its future philosophy and direction by creating two classes of stock, one with more powerful voting rights. Because of this, I believe that Larry Page and Sergey Brin have ultimate control of Google, and will, even if they leave the company.

I don’t know whether or not we’ll be able to deal with long-term control of World Vital Records in the same way, but I have seriously considered asking the genealogy community to nominate potential board members for World Vital Records, and to give one board seat to a genealogy expert who can be the voice for the community.

We have five total board seats–three have been filled (one was filled today–we will make an announcement soon about this) and two are open. One of these is reserved for an industry expert. This is the seat that I am considering filling with someone nominated by leading genealogists, to help us stay on course. The individual would also have to have significant business experience as well, and understand their fiduciary responsibilities.

In our board meeting next week, this will be a topic of discussion.

(To make it fun, maybe we could ask Roots Television to create a reality TV show called “Genealogy Idol”, and over a dozen weeks, one potential board member could be voted off each week. On second thought….Nah.)

Anyway, in the coming weeks it will become more clear what place World Vital Records hopes to fill in the family/genealogy community, and how we will differentiate our products and services from those that are currently offered by the leading online genealogy companies.

If you are into genealogy, I invite you to give me a list of the top 5 things you would do if you were running World Vital Records. I’m very interested in hearing from you. (But be careful–if your suggestions are too good, you might get recruited by the genealogy community to fill an open board seat!)