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.

My European Awakening

I just returned from 7 days in Europe. Thanks to LinkedIn Answers, I probably saved $1,000 on airfare on this trip by taking the advice of some of my connections who are more experienced last-minute travellers. (I’ve joked that with all this great advice, I could publish an ebook on last minute European travel and probably sell it for $10 on our ebook site.)

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, said in his excellent podcast from Stanford University last month that he hopes LinkedIn Answers becomes the first truly useful Answers service online. He told about asking a question (took him 2 minutes) and getting 26 answers, 18 of which were very helpful.

My experience was similarly helpful. I asked about 200 of my 600 LinkedIn connections how to get a cheap last-minute flight to Europe. I got 37 responses, most of them were very helpful. (One told me jokingly to pretend there was a funeral in the family and get the bereaved family discount. Another said I could be a courier and fly for free.)

From these answers, I learned of about 10 online travel sites that I had previously not used. SideStep.com was the most useful on my trip. (Venere.com, an Italian site, turned out to be the most useful for booking last minute hotels in Paris and London.)

I booked a flight on Air France two days before leaving for Europe, for $980 round trip from LAX to Rome, with a stop in Paris at CDG (Charles De Gaulle) airport. (Air France serves great food, by the way.) After Rome, I fly one-way to London, got a hotel downtown for 69 pounds per night, then on Saturday morning flew round trip to Dublin on British Airways for under US$200. Rather than fly back to Rome, I took the Eurostar train from London to Paris, and arrived in Paris Sunday night. I think it was US$229. My hotel was across the street from the Gare du Nord station and cost only 60 Euros.

So all in all, the travel costs weren’t so bad, considering the last-minute planning. What adds up was the cost of transportation within each city (taxis, metro) and the cost of food, which was surprisingly high.

But the trip itself gave me a sweet taste for world travel. I grew up with a very tiny reality map (see my Connect magazine article titled “Expanding Your Reality Map” in March 2006.) But it has been expanding every year. And especially now.

Reading Russian literature in high school, I dreamed of travelling, and meeting with the kinds of fascinating souls that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky described in 19th century Russia. Their characters had great depth, education, and were master conversationalists. My favorite novel of all time, Brothers Karamazov, explains human nature better than any other book I have ever read. I wanted to be Alyosha.

So in college, I studied International Relations, which soon led to my talking a Russian class and then switching my major to Russian. I loved the language and the culture and the history of Russia. After graduation I went to DC looking for a job. I applied with the NSA and started undergoing their 6-8 month long background check process. But I never ended up interviewing with them. Instead, I started working at Folio, my brother’s search engine company.

For the last 19 years I’ve been in various high tech startups. But I’ve had a latent interest in world history, international affairs, foreign languages, and cultures and religions of the world. That interest has grown lately as my reading list has started including more books about the flat world we live in, and the economic booms in China and India.

But nothing has opened my eyes and piqued my interest in world affairs like my recent trip to Europe. Though my entire trip was business focused, I was able to visit several historic sites in Rome, including the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Vatican Museums which includes the famous Sistine Chapel, and in London, and in Dublin I saw the Book of Kells, created by Irish monks in 800 AD, and walked through the library at Trinity College, the largest library in Ireland, with more than 4 million volumes, including 200,000 very old tomes in one great hall. (Wikipedia says that the Jedi library in Star Wars may have been modeled after this great library.) Years ago I read “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” Now I must re-read it, after having seen these historic artifacts.

I had some excellent ideas for a mobile application for history travellers, which would be built for worldhistory.com, which is likely to become part of World Vital Records in the future. (History and genealogy are really inseparably connected.)

I couldn’t stop considering that Utah, where I was born and raised, was settled by the Mormon pioneers (including my ancestors and my wife’s) started in 1847–just 160 years ago. While most of the places I visited have recorded history going back at least 10-15 times that far back.

More importantly, on this trip I met many wonderful people. Genealogy is a great subject to start any conversation with, because everyone has some knowledge of where there family came from, and how they fit into the world. My discussions with people from England, Ireland, Poland, Italy, and France were very enlightening, albeit sometimes rather depressing. Life is hard in many countries. Many people aren’t having children because they can’t afford to. They have to live in big cities where costs of living are so high, that they don’t know how they can possibly have a family. And it is important to face the realities of what people around the world actually think of the U.S. More than one European told me that the US was exporting materialism to all the world through its media, and causing people to be disatisfied with anything except a fast-paced materialistic, hedonistic lifestyle. (Coming home to a ton of billboards, radio and TV commercials, and seeing how everything in the US centers around selling stuff, I see their point.) And of course, most people strongly oppose the war in Iraq.

So I get to learn history and meet people. I’m in heaven really. I’m a former humanities major now working in a high-tech business (online world genealogy) that requires me to travel to many different countries of the world. In each country, I must learn its history and politics to determine when governments started keeping records, what kinds of records they kept, and where they are preserved now. I must also understand the religious histories and cultures of each country, since so many records of births, deaths and marriages were created and kept for religious reasons. I get to revitalize my knowledge of Spanish and Russian, and start studying bits and pieces of French, Italian, German, and hopefully Mandarin and Arabic as well. I’m planning to buy a mobile translation device soon, probably a high-end Franklin Publisher dictionary that handles 400,000 phrases and also supports audio. I know I’ll never have time to really learn these things, but a little exposure to them is extremely interesting nonetheless.

Besides my Blackberry, which worked nicely in Europe (I called T-Mobile on the way to the airport last week and they took care of it all in a few minutes), the most useful tools I had were LinkedIn.com, which enabled me to set up some last minute meetings, and Wikipedia, which basically enlightened me about every place I went, and all the things I saw. What a marvelous invention for travellers!

My dream is to travel with a Blackberry 8800 (with its GPS and Google Maps integration) and have a fully-functional mobile version of LinkedIn, and a mobile version of Sidestep so that I can plan trips on the fly (I usually procrastinate trip planning, but then while I’m there I want to make the most of it). I also want a business version of Dodgeball, so that I can find out if anyone that I’m connected to is also in the area. I may need to try out Twitter, since it’s getting so much positive buzz. (In fact, the Financial Times had it on the first page last Friday or Saturday as the next big thing from Silicon Valley–they called it miniblogging.) Perhaps it will be a helpful tool to let people contact me when I’m travelling… this would sort of be a pull approach to getting meetings, rather than a push approach. Finally, I need a database of all the LDS Family History Centers on my Blackberry, as well as a Genealogists Address Book, so that wherever I travel I’m seconds away from finding out where any local repositories or societies are. (Oh, and the Blackberry should support all the functionality of the Franklin device I described above. I don’t want to have to carry multiple devices.)

If I were young and without responsibilities, perhaps I’d take off and travel the world for the next year, visiting nearly every country, and just running World Vital Records from wherever I happen to be. As it stands, I’m currently planning a week a month for a multi-country trip. I guess I’ll see if I have the stamina to pull this off, and if it continues to make business sense to do so.

So…if you happen to be highly involved with genealogical records anywhere in the world, and would like to see if partnership makes sense between you and your organization and World Vital Records, please let me know. I don’t mind last minute trips, since my LinkedIn friends have shown me how to pull them off.