Catching the Geni that’s out of the bottle: introducing FamilyLink

On January 16th, an amazing, innovative, well-financed company (especially now, after raising $10 million!) launched a brilliant, web 2.0 based online family tree building tool called Geni..

After getting TechCrunched more than once, Geni caught the fancy of many bloggers and started spreading through word of mouth, but more powerfully, its innately viral application started attracting thousands of users very quickly. (Geni’s Alexa chart doesn’t look great, but Geni’s Quantcast chart looks better. No “addicts”, however, which comprise 38% of Ancestry’s traffic.)

I was both thrilled and disappointed. You see, I want interest in family history to spread all over the world. The family is fundamentally the most important unit in society, and modern societies with the ever weakening family are bring hosts of problems that will never be solved by government, which relies on force to tax people and create policy. The Old Testament ends with two haunting verses: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD; and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6).

Getting families to pay more attention to each other is important not only to those who believe in the Old Testament. Phillip Longman, author of “The Empty Cradle” which decries the falling birthrates in industrialized countries from an economic standpoint ends his book with these powerful words: ” If free societies have a future, it will be because they figure out or stumble upon a way to restore the value of children to their parents, and of parents to each other.”

Even the Soviet Union, when its birth rates kept declining, spoke out. Andrei Kirilenko, the ideology chief, said at a Kremlin rally in 1979, “Our common responsibility for the country’s future requires us to strengthen the family, to elevate the prestige of motherhood and to increase the demands made on the parents as to how their children are growing up.” Note how the language implies the power of government (which is always coercive) to get parents to do better. (Cited by Longman)

So I was thrilled by the launch of Geni, the best free online family tree building tool since MyFamily.com/Ancestry.com launched its free online family tree building tool back in 1999, and excited by the new attention that was being given to the family history category by the blogosphere. The first time ever really, since Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com are rather mature web sites and The Generations Network, which owns both of them, is more in its “monetization phase” than in a “build the market” phase. The blogosphere has never gotten all that excited about what Ancestry.com does and since MyFamily.com hasn’t been free since 2001, it has experienced “negative population growth.”

(Speaking of negative population growth, no less a thinker than Peter Drucker said that negative population growth is the single biggest issue facing civilization today. So on my recent trip to Europe it was very interesting to read “The Empty Cradle” completely and to consider the factors there that are leading to fewer children. Italy used to have a million births a year–now it’s 500,000.)

Not that Geni or MyFamily.com or any site that connects families is going to increase the worldwide birth rate. We’ll leave that job to matchmaking sites like eHarmony.com.

The CEO of eHarmony.com spoke at Stanford on Valentine’s Day, and casually pointed out that on any given day, 200 marriages occur where the people met on eHarmony, and that by the end of this year, there will have been 100,000 babies born to couples married because of eHarmony. No wonder he says doing any other job seems trivial compared to this most-satisfying company. Maybe the solution to worldwide negative population growth is to make sure eHarmony rolls out worldwide as quickly and inexpensively as possible!

Okay, so back to Geni. I was disappointed by Geni’s appearance because I had decided late last year to stop running my Provo Labs incubator, and start focusing on just one company, and turn that company into a raging success. I had chosen to focus on World Vital Records, along with the very talented team that is already there, for many reasons, one being that we felt we could be the first genealogy company to launch a social network for family history, and social networks are generally the fastest growth web sites today.

We were planning to do something entirely different than what family history web sites have done before, and we still are. But Geni’s launch has caused us to change our time table for many of our product features.

To be honest, my disappointment has entirely faded. It’s been swallowed up by an overwhelming feeling of excitement about family history sweeping the world, about families actually using technology to connect, rather than to disintegrate. The Geni launch, as well as all the great moves that Ancestry.com is doing (like launching international sites, kicking off its first-ever integrated advertising campaign — worth $10 million — to boost interest in the brand) and the newly formed alliance between werelate.org (see what Dick Eastman said about werelate.org last June) and the Allen County Public Library, the second largest family history library in the country — all of these things add to the level of excitement.

Anyway, the big question is can another family history social network take off? Can anyone catch Geni?

I’m not going to answer that question, because I simply can’t predict it. And it really doesn’t matter. Geni provides a great service to people who want to build their first family tree and to invite family members to collaborate on it. Geni is obviously great at listening to customers (Geni blog, Geni forum) and at responding to their requests quickly.

And of course Ancestry would certainly dispute the need to “catch Geni” in the first place. Ancestry is loudly defending its leadership position in this space. They have made it clear through recent press announcements that the Ancestry family tree software is attracting millions of records, photos, and more. And with revenues of $150 million per year, they have a very good chance to defend their leadership position.

So where does World Vital Records stand? How we can think that we have a chance to compete in this venture-capital driven world of online genealogy?

The key for us is to attract millions of users to our new free social network for family history which we call FamilyLink. We are some days away from our beta launch, and we can hardly wait. Our site will offer unique and valuable help to every serious family history researcher, and it will nicely coexist with all of the TGN web sites as well as Geni.com.

Our team is cautiously optimistic about our initial launch, and wildly enthusiastic about the long-term potential that we have to provide value to family historians worldwide. And we believe that by adding new databases every day to our World Vital Records web site, that our revenue will be able to keep up with our expenses. It won’t be cheap to run FamilyLink. But World Vital Records continues to generate record revenue each month and we are getting ever closer to being a sustainable business.

Thanks to the GEDCOM standard for data exchange, anyone who downloads a family tree from familysearch.org or Ancestry.com or Geni will be able to import their family data into virtually any genealogy software program or upload it to sites that accept gedcom uploads. And based on Geni’s March 15th blog post, any gedcom upload site that gets 100 uploads of family trees with at least 1,000 names in them, will end up with bigger trees than Geni has right now.

Of course, the magic in Geni is not in the size of its trees, but in its virality. Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn says he keeps a list of 12 people in the world who truly understand viral marketing (and he is one of the 12.) I wonder if anyone at Geni is on that list. Probably so, given the common PayPal connections. I doubt that anyone from TGN is on his list. But I hope that FamilyLink might convince him to add one more name to this list…and soon.

You can visit FamilyLink today and sign up for the beta. We’ll let you know when it is available. It won’t be long.

6 Comments

  1. […] I had always seen genealogy as more interested in finding and connecting with generations past. Obviously this can lead to making connections with other relatives further from your immediate family. I found Geni through a post by Paul Allen who is actually working on an online genealogy collaboration site called FamilyLink. Based on what I could see I thought that FamilyLink might be more what I would have expected. […]

  2. […] I like how on Paul Allen’s blog today it’s not just family history, it is people getting married and making babies (yes, sex: something so alluring that even on academic Wikipedia it’s one of the most read topics). Suddenly it’s not a dating site, it is the beginning of a conversation about future families. That is something I can resonate with. This leads me to how the best businesses start and continue important conversations. After all sex and business, though not at all the same thing, are really about creation. And creation starts with conversations. Dig it? Share it:These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  3. Thank you for your kind words about our site.

    I can’t speak for the company, but what I, personally, hope will happen is that the genealogical records will be converted to open formats so they can be integrated into all genealogy sites.

    One of the promises of Web 2.0 is having users clean, verify, and link all this data in a distributed manner.

    Take care…

  4. Interesting name that you chose. “FamilyLink” says a lot more than “Geni” (and it’s fairly easy to figure out how to pronounce except for the fact that you are a Utah company…). When I googled the name without a space I did get 39,000 results. Noted that there are a number of others using this as a trademarked and logoed term so I hope that it works for you. Good luck I look forward to seeing how this grows. I’ve always had an interest in genealogy but still have not figured out how to get around to it.

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