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.

3 Comments

  1. Paul Allen’s post on the Spectrum Equity buyout of The Generations Network…

    Paul Allen, one of the original two founders of Ancestry.com (not the Microsoft co-founder), blogged on the Spectrum Equity buyout of The Generations Network.
    The Generations Network, formerly MyFamily.com, announced today a $300 million acquisition by…

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