Last week I listened for the third time to Marissa Mayer’s amazing
talk at Stanford about Google’s culture of innovation. (I can’t link
to it right now. I’m blogging from my blackberry.) She lists the top 9
reasons that Google is innovative.
One of them, of course, is that every Google engineer gets to work on
their own pet project for 20% of the time. Marissa says that in the
second half of 2005, 50% of the products Google introduced came from
Another was that "ideas come from everywhere," including customers,
employees, senior management, and through acquisitions.
Clearly Google folks are encouraged not only to have ideas but to
share them and to pursue them.
That is a very different culture from most companies I’ve ever seen,
where few people are energized with new ideas, and those that have
great ideas are often frustrated by politics or lack of resources to
the point where they have no hope that their ideas will be heard or
Also last week two things happened that struck me personally. First, a
genealogist ribbed me good naturedly after my keynote speech Friday at
He said, "why can’t we get you guys (meaning those of us who run
genealogy internet companies) to do genealogy yourselves so that you
know what we need you to build for us."
I defended myself by saying, "but you heard me say that I’ve read
2,000 pages about genealogy sources in the past year–I’m really
trying to do better this time around." (After I started Ancestry.com I
focused for 6 years on strategy and internet marketing and did very
little genealogy reading.)
"But reading about genealogy, and doing genealogy are two very
different things," he chided.
Later that day I came across a blog post from last September
complaining that I was travelling so much and blogging so little that
I might get out of touch with the needs of genealogists. The blogger
wished out loud that Dick Eastman could be the CEO of a genealogy
internet company so that it would be sure to do all the right things.
Both of these comments stung me. They have been haunting me all weekend.
So I decided to do something about it. I really want our company to
make genealogy easier for millions of people. And I really want to
create a Google-like culture of innovation and ideas. (One of the
reasons I left Ancestry in 2002 is that the culture of innovation had
We have a huge amount of data online and much more coming, thanks to
many content partners, but we need to make sure every feature of our
web site is easy to find and easy to use. We need to make it easier to
search by country, by database, by family. We need to address the user
experience to start to finish.
Like Google, who launches alpha (Google Labs) and beta versions of
their products before they are really ready, we have shown a
willingness to put new features up as quickly as we can.
But Google immediately seeks feedback from their huge customer base,
measures it, and then iterates as quickly as possible to make the user
I know we can do a better job of seeking input from customers and
iterating more quickly until we get the product right.
And I know that if we take the time to use our own products
continually, that we will have more insights about how to improve the
So, today I am announcing 10% time for all employees at FamilyLink.com.
I am asking every full time employee in the company to spend 10% of
their paid time working on their own family history. This includes
researching, collaborating, preserving, and sharing. It means using
our web sites and other software and web sites as well.
I will commit to do the same.
In addition, I am asking each employee to document the frustrations
and obstacles they encounter along the way. And whenever they have an
idea about how to improve something to jot it down.
I will regularly review the top ideas that are submitted by each employee.
As Marissa Mayer kept a list of the top 100 personal projects under
way at Google, I will keep a running list of the top 100 best ideas
for improving the online experience in family history.
To determine the best ideas, I may use my own subjective judgment or
have a few advisors review them with me, or maybe even rely upon the
"wisdom of the crowds" and use customer surveys to gather votes.
Each month, I will award bonuses to the employees who submitted the best ideas.
Once we have this structure in place, I’d like to open it up to our
customers as well, and reward them for taking the time to tell us how
we can improve our services.
Our company is here to stay. We are feeling the financial and moral
support of tens of thousands of genealogists who want us to succeed.
We have sufficiently matured to move out of the frenetic start-up
phase of our business, where maybe we sometimes cut corners or moved
too quickly or recklessly, to a more thoughtful and careful stage
where we can really understand customer needs and improve the user
And a major part of that stage will be doing genealogy ourselves every week.
I know my whole family would be thrilled if we can learn more about
Charles Allen, my distant ancestor on the Allen line. He shows up in
New Hampshire in 1635 and we don’t know where he came from. I now
believe that we are most likely to get a clue about his origins by
doing DNA testing and finding some related Allens in the UK.
But whether or not we can find Charles, I have thousands of known
ancestors to learn more about, and new ancestors and living relatives
I’m excited to get started.
And I know the ideas for improving the customer experience are really
going to start flowing.
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CEO, FamilyLink.com / World Vital Records
FamilyLink: connecting families
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