GenSeekers Wanted

A few months ago I twittered about wanting to hire someone to travel for the next 365 days throughout North America for a special project (which is still in the works.) I even suggested the person may have to legally change their name, in the publicity-stunt spirit of Half.com, Oregon or DotCom Guy from Texas.

Within an hour or so I had 9 candidates who direct messaged me on Twitter or replied on Facebook wanting to learn more! This amazed me, and a few of them have reminded me over the past few months of their strong interest in such an adventure — an all-expense paid year of travel to every state, learning, blogging, meeting people, getting local publicity, doing deals.

As I said, this project is still in the planning stages, but we are now considering another project for a different division of our company that may also attract the interest of some adventurous retired couples or young couples who want to travel for a year and help us form partnerships all across the country.

I call this the GenSeeker Project.

GenSeek.com is a forthcoming website being built in partnership between FamilyLink.com and FamilySearch.org. It features a new version of the FamilySearch Catalog, and a myriad of social and Web 2.0 features that will enhance the usefulness of what is already the largest catalog of genealogy sources in the world.

There are millions of sources of genealogical and local history contest that have not yet been catalogued by the team in Salt Lake City. The new web site will enable libraries, archives and societies to add their unique content to the catalog, which will bring it to life in a new way and make more people aware of it for the first time.

But how shall we make libraries, archives, and societies all over the world aware of how GenSeek can help them bring awareness to their unique holdings?

While driving through Idaho and Montana last week, I stopped at a couple of small towns, checked out some historical sites and even tried to visit a pioneer museum. (It was closed.)

I love travelling to places I’ve never been before. And I realized, as I travelled, that in every town, city, and county across this country (and the world) there are interesting local historians and genealogists, librarians and archives in every location. Someone in every community feels a need to preserve and organize historical records.

In Sweden, there are nearly 2,000 local historical societies that preserve records. And from a population of 9MM people, there are 450,000 paying members of these local historical societies. That is 5% of the population. Astonishing really. But many families in these towns and villages have lived on the same land for centuries. Same is true of much of Europe.

With the western migration and the mobility of modernity, we don’t seem to develop such deep roots here in the U.S.  But in the smaller communities we still do have roots. And individuals that are knowledgeabout about local history and genealogical records and are devoted to preserving them and providing access. Mostly these local history savants are probably old-timers with family ties to the area.

A lot of people live not too far from where they were born. (Source: FamilyLink survey, March 26, 2009)

How far do you live now from where you were born? (5071 responses)

  • Less than 50 miles
  • 18%
  • Less than a mile
  • 9%
  • Less than 10 miles
  • 15%
  • Less than 100 miles
  • 8%
  • Between 100 and 1,000 miles
  • 26%
  • More than 1,000 miles
  • 24%

I love driving to new places and meeting new people and discovering local history. I look up Wikipedia articles for virtually every place I visit (on my blackberry or iPhone) and am always excited to discover famous people or events, or in particular, entrepreneurs or inventors from these places. I love the stories that make local communities interesting.

If I had fewer responsibilities holding me back, I’d get a big kick out of getting in a car and driving for the next 365 days to visit interesting places. Someday, I think my wife and I will probably do something just like that. And if there’s a business model to support it, this kind of a road trip could last even longer.

So back to the GenSeeker Project.

What if we found some retired couples or other small teams who were willing to get in a car and travel for the next 365 days to thousands of communities across North America to meet with the genealogists, historians, archivists, and librarians in each community? What if they were armed with smart phones and smart applications that helped them find the right people to meet with in every community, and set up meetings as they went? And what if they had a group of people at company headquarters who helped them plan, communicate, document and publish things they learned along the way?

What if all the expenses were paid for by FamilyLink, including food, fuel and accomodations, and the autos were furnished as well?

Would we want one team, or two, or more?

Should we start by experimenting with a single couple/team for a month or two and see how it works out? Or should we jump in whole hog and recruit 3-4 teams and set them loose on this year-long historical and genealogical information-gathering expedition?

This project is also in the idea stage, but it is likely that if I start finding some interested participants, that we could start an experiment like this, for a month or two, as early as August or September.

So send me an email (PAUL AT FAMILYLINK.COM) if this sounds interesting. Please put GENSEEKER in the subject line, and make sure you explain the skills that you and your companion or team would have that would convince us to choose you to represent us (FamilyLink/GenSeek/WorldHistory.com) in hundreds of meetings with local groups across the U.S. as you immerse yourself in an historical travel adventure.

Utah Angel Investor of the Year

On Tuesday, June 23rd at the Hilton Hotel in Salt Lake City, FundingUniverse will be announcing the first ever Utah Angel Investor of the Year award winner.

The top 15 finalists for this award are Alan Hall, Craig Earnshaw, David Carter, Gary Williams, Hal Widlansky, JD Gardner, John Richards, Kent Thomas, Kyle Love, Mark Madsen, Martin Frey, Nobu Mutaguchi, Robert Kunz, Scott Frazier and Warren Osborn.

Having been a big fan of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards for many years, I think it is exciting that FundingUniverse is going upstream a little bit to recognize some of the many angel investors who help those entrepreneurs get businesses off the ground.

I personally appreciate several of these 15 angels because some of them were our early investors at Ancestry.com (back in 1998) and more recently in FamilyLink.com (2007-2009 funding rounds.)

I hope this becomes an annual event, and I hope it spreads nationwide too, because angel investors are the unsung heroes of our free market economy. VCs get a lot of attention because they back high-profile companies. But from what I’ve read, angels generally fund 30-50 times more startup companies per year than VCs, and they fund a ton of small businesses that never become high profile but do create jobs and add value to our economy.

Kudos to Brock Blake and his FundingUniverse team for launching this idea.

Hint to entrepreneurs: if you want some inexpensive networking time with Utah’s very best angel investors, I suggest you buy a ticket (it’s only $25 per seat) and show up Tuesday (with plenty of business cards for all!) :)

SpeedRecruiting

A few years back, inspired by the book “Angel Investing,” we founded FundingUniverse.com and started holding SpeedPitching events–two hour events where about ten entrepreneurs could have a few minutes at small tables with 2-3 investors.

FundingUniverse SpeedPitching events have been successfully held in six states, and are held bi-monthly in Utah. They are very affordable for entrepreneurs and they are popular with angels and VCs because they get a little exposure to a lot of deals very quickly–and save them a lot of time.

Most investors will tell you that they know within a minute or two if they are interested in a deal. But most introductory meetings between entrepreneurs (who think everyone should love their idea and can talk about it passionately for a long time) and angels/VCs are half an hour at least. Often, they go a lot longer than that, because it’s hard to cut a meeting short without appearing to be rude.

Many investors have told me they love this approach to deal flow because it saves them time.

As an entrepreneur, given the stage that FamilyLink.com is at, raising capital is not taking up much time these days. What is taking up as much time as I can possibly give it is recruiting–finding candidates on LinkedIn, responding to candidates who find us, identifying needs for positions we need to create and fill, and then doing lots of phone and in person interviews.

I blogged early today about our plan to use  a Billboard on I-15 to attract potential candidates here in Utah. But the more candidates that we get, the more time it takes to screen them, hold preliminary interviews, and then finally, get the top 3 or so candidates in face to face interviews with at least 5-6 hiring managers.

To streamline this process, what we really need to do is set up some kind of SpeedRecruiting event, where we can schedule 2 hours for all our top managers to meet with maybe two dozen or more potential recruits in a rapid-fire format. Each manager can have a prepared list of questions they want to ask each prospective employee. (It’s probably a good idea to ask the same questions each time to fairly assess the candidates for any given position.)

The goal of SpeedRecruiting would be to filter out candidates who aren’t nearly as impressive in person as their resumes suggest, and to identify top prospects for in-depth interviews with key hiring managers.

I can already see several potential flaws in this approach, but I’d like to know what other fast growing companies have done to speed up the recruiting process without ending up hiring employees that don’t end up as valuable contributors. Hiring too fast almost always ends in regret.

Have you seen any best-practices in this regard?

Help, we need suggestions here!

Recruiting with Billboards

Several of the best Utah high-tech companies have billboards along the I-15 corridor from Provo to Salt Lake City that are focused on recruiting. I recall billboards from Omniture, Mozy, Property Solutions, The Generations Network, Orange Soda, and Doba. I’m sure there are others as well that I just don’t recall. I’m wondering if Move Networks has used billboards–but I can’t recall.

Omniture can afford to creating an ongoing serious of recruiting billboards–most of them with messages that only hard-core developers would get. But more recently they’ve mainstreamed their recruiting message with interesting billboards like “We need more Dougs” or “We need more Kates.” They followed that up with a “We have too many Mikes” billboard and then more recently, a “just kidding Mike” message, though I can’t recall the actual wording. They are definitely the 800 lb gorilla in Utah recruiting and billboards seem to play a big part of that.

Mozy’s billboard talks about afternoon meetings (probably for the developers who like to work late and sleep late) and announces they have a Ninja-friendly workplace.

Property Solutions is always looking for top PHP programmers, but their latest billboard announces a run for the cure for Rabies. When you go to the Rabies web site, you do see a “We’re Hiring” link and they do have several open positions. I really like the design of their recruiting pages.

The Generations Network has billboards that focus on it’s “one million subscribers and counting” message, but I can’t recall if it is explicity a recruiting billboard or not.

There is an excellent billboard from APX, I believe, that says “Change your Facebook Status to EMPLOYED” and says they are hiring 85 internal sales people. Very eye-grabbing. Great message.

Does anyone at any of these companies know how important the billboards are in actually filling jobs? I would love to have reader comments about the use of billboards for recruiting. I assume these companies find the billboards a good investment, because they continue them month after month and year after year.

I decided yesterday that it is time for FamilyLink.com to try a recruiting billboard on I-15. I’ve asked our marketing department to put together some ideas for this.

It might be nice to combine a key message about our growth, with an explicit recruitment message. For example, we have more than 40MM users of our Facebook application, and we are nearing the top 100 of all US web properties based on unique monthly visitors. More importantly, we are profitable and will be filling at least 20 positions in the next several months, although only about 10 of the job openings are currently listed on our corporate web site.

What are your favorite recruiting billboards?

What suggestions would you have for FamilyLink.com? Most people have never heard of us, though about 1 of every 6 Facebook users uses our application. The app itself is called “We’re Related,” so most people haven’t heard of FamilyLink.com.

What is the best recruiting call to action you have seen to attract interest in a company?

I’d love to hear your ideas.

Brainstorm Breakfast for Entrepreneurs in Rexburg, Idaho

I worked this week in Missoula, Montana where my brother and his family live. On my way home, through Idaho, I decided to stop in Rexburg, the home of BYU-Idaho, and do some networking with entrepreneurs here.

In the tradition of the old Provo Labs Brainstorm Lunches (nick-named Twinkie Talks because the restaurant we ate at gave us all twinkies) I am holding a Brainstorm Breakfast at Joe’s Filling Station (diner) at 727 North 2nd East in Rexburg.

So far, 4 entrepreneurs have RSVPd with a couple others who hope to come, but I think we can handle 8-10 without disturbing the restaurant too much.

The way it works is this: everyone gets a chance to talk about their business, and share their #1 problem that they want help with or advice about. Then each person at the table gets to make suggestions, if they have any, about that particular problem. So it’s a very open format. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve learned a ton, and had the chance to share some things I consider important too.

If I recall, the idea was originally inspired by the book, “Never Eat Alone.” I used to do these often when I was running the Provo Labs incubator, but since leaving that to focus 100% on FamilyLink.com I haven’t held any. But I think I’m ready to start them up again, partly because these always lead to possible hiring opportunities or business development opportunities.

So…if you are in Rexburg, and want to join us at 9 am, please RSVP by emailing me tonight or tomorrow. PAUL AT FAMILYLINK.COM or DM me on www.twitter.com/paulballen

To Blog or Not To Blog

So I’m definitely not unique in thinking this thought or typing this phrase. Searching Google yields 257,000 pages that contain the phrase “To Blog or Not To Blog.” So clearly a plethora of deep thinkers have pondered this question.

But the reason I am pondering whether to blog and how often strikes me as somewhat unique. So I decided to share my thinking and see if other entrepreneurs out there have dealt with a similar problem. I’d like to know how others have overcome the stumbling blocks to blogging.

First some background. I started blogging in November 2003, inspired by Phil Windley of Technometria fame. I blogged actively for years, usually several times a week. My primary topic was internet entrepreneurship and internet marketing. I was also in incubator mode, looking for new ideas to turn into businesses.  

I sometimes blogged about things I knew a great deal about, from experience, and shared key things I had learned, particularly at Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com from 1996-2002, where my friends and I had built a highly successful venture-funded profitable dot com company, but had also experienced many of the disappointments of entrepreneurs who get caught in an economic downturn or bad business cycle.

I often blogged about new technologies and ideas that I had discovered but hadn’t tried yet, and I wanted to ask the blogosphere to comment on what they knew about them. I often remarked that blogging made me a better thinker and writer, but also made me much smarter because the community knew a lot more about most things than I did, and I would often get responses within 24 hours that changed the way I was approaching a new technology or an opportunity.

In the pre-Twitter era, I felt blogging kept me in touch better than any other way with the outside world, with employees, partners, and investors.  In June 2005 I blogged that All CEOs Should Blog, because I felt it had helped me so much with open two-way communication that I found invaluable.

My most famous post of all-time was my prediction on the day of the Facebook Platform launch that “Facebook will be the largest social network in the world.” My enthusiasm was unbridled and I compared Mark Zuckerberg’s influence on the world to that of another 23-year old, Alexander the Great. :) That was a fun post. I couldn’t sleep until I had fully communicated my feelings about the biggest opportunity for internet entrepreneurs that I had ever seen.

Since then, Facebook has dwarfed MySpace in usage, and is the worldwide leader in social networking, with the possible exception of the Chinese social network QZone, which I don’t know very much about. 

Thankfully my FamilyLink.com team and I drank the Facebook koolaid deeply, and have become in the past 2 years one of the top 10 Facebook developers in the world, with more than 40 million users of our We’re Related application and with many more exciting Facebook applications in the works.

We have become very profitable in the past 6 months, with monthly profit margins recently exceeding 20-30%.  Our cash balance has more than doubled since January. We are building a world-class team of architects, designers, and developers. We have a full-time recruiter and are trying to add another 10-20 full time employees. We are closer to launching our flagship web sites, as well as greatly improved social and mobile applications.  We are focused on family, genealogy, and history applications and content.

We are now starting to help other top Facebook application developers monetize their apps better, with our expert team at AdMazing.com, a division of FamilyLink.com. 

So here is my problem:

When we were an underfunded startup, trying to create something out of nothing, trying to bootstrap our way to some kind of initial success, I found that blogging was just about the best way to tell the world what we were trying to accomplish. The more I blogged about new ideas, and possible strategies, and goals that we had, and technologies that we were exploring, the more helpful feedback I got from my readers, and the more I found like-minded people who could potentially become employees or business partners. In fact, many of our early employees and partners at FamilyLink.com (and WorldVitalRecords.com) were initially attracted to the business because of my PaulAllen.net blog. 

I never specifically targeted investors in my blog posts, but I knew that dozens of my Utah business angel friends would occasionally read some of my posts, so they could see what we were up to.

I could easily write a blog post called “All Startup CEOs should Blog” because I personally found immense value by connecting with readers as a result of my blog. It may have been my most valuable recruiting tool, business development tool (I signed agreements with companies all over the world as a result of their feeling they knew me through my blog), and fund-raising tool–though I didn’t specifically use it for that purpose.

But how times have changed.

Now I find myself having dozens of important conversations about new ideas and new technologies and not wanting to blog about any of them. Our team is moving more quickly than any team I’ve worked with in the past. And our key metrics are all improving dramatically. And all the new ideas and technologies we are considering feel very proprietary to us. The last thing I want to do these days is to blog about our next big idea, or about the new technology we are using to gain a competitive advantage, or about tools we are building or using internally that make us more nimble.

I feel like I was in Startup Mode for several years trying to get all the attention I could from anyone who would listen, and now that our strategy is working,  I’m feeling a need to switch to Stealth Mode — and that seems odd, because most Stealth Mode operations are early stage startups.

Expanding to the Bay Area

In fact, I really need to blog regularly, since we are considering opening an office in the Bay Area, closer to Google, Facebook and Apple, where we may recruit nearly 10 developers for our social and mobile applications. That is a big deal for us, and I know blogging regularly will help us with recruiting more than anything else I can do. (Next to my readers in Utah, I have more blog readers — and friends — in California than in any other location.)

Bottom line: I don’t have a blogging strategy at the moment, which means I post very rarely and get little value back from the community. I’ve never been in Stealth Mode before. And I’m wondering if I’m entering a dangerous world where success means less openness and less sharing, and therefore less value gained back in return.

So please, if you’ve found yourself in a similar quandry, please tell me what you did to get out of it. Did you stop blogging altogether? Or did you modify your purpose in blogging, and find success in another way? Or did you force yourself to continue blogging openly about things that might be considered proprietary because the advantages of opennness outweighed the negatives?

I’ve noticed that the blog by entrepreneurial legend Marc Andreesen has been on hiatus since August 2008 while Mark Cuban continues his prolific blogging. Why do some entrepreneurs continue blogging while others stop?

I need some help here. I’d like to start up again with a daily blog post or two, but I can’t muster the motivation or overcome the negatives to blogging at this stage in the game. Especially when it is so easy to Twitter a few times a day with little effort at all. But then again, I’m finding myself wanting to Twitter less and less, for similar reasons.

Any comments would be very welcome. (Especially from Phil Windley and other blogging pioneers/legends.)