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!)

2 Comments

  1. Tricia

    Add manuscripts to World Vital Records. For the average genaealogists they are one of the hardest things to find and access.

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