FamilyLink is (or soon will be) for genealogists

Randy Seaver is one of my very favorite genealogy bloggers. (Click here to visit his blog.) He has excellent insights about tools, technologies, and content that genealogists find useful, and he often provides better reviews (and screenshots) of new products and services than anyone else I follow.

He is into genealogy – not social networking – so he typically reviews things from the perspective of a genealogist. I think that makes sense, because he is an excellent genealogist and his readers look to him for genealogy advice. But I have sometimes felt that he and other genealogy bloggers haven’t appreciated the fact that our primary thrust at FamilyLink.com has been to expose literally tens of millions of non-genealogists to the first experience building a family tree made up of their living relatives (whom we make it easy for them to find on Facebook) and then to help them stay in touch with those relatives.

Most of the millions of trees that our users have created on our Facebook app or on our Flash-based family tree on FamilyLink.com are made up of living relatives. In fact, of the 80 million people who have used our application, the average user has 8 known relatives. We make it easy for them to drag-and-drop those relatives onto their family tree on FamilyLink, and then, if they want to, to add information about ancestors as well. (Randy is right that we haven’t enabled GEDCOM uploading on FamilyLink – making it almost useless to a genealogist wanting to share his/her tree with their relatives. The reason is that only a small percentage of our users even known what a GEDCOM is, while the majority of our users want to share and view recent family photos with each other. So it’s always been a matter of priority.)

Because of our unique focus on helping people find living relatives, we have attracted a huge mass audience since we first launched “We’re Related” on Facebook in October 2007. Clearly, far more people are more interested in their living relatives than they are in their deceased ancestors. (I recall data from my MyFamily.com days – a long time ago – that 7% of adults are involved in family history but 95% of people feel it is important to stay in touch with living relatives. That means we may potentially have a 13.5x larger audience than purely genealogy sites.) That said, many of us at FamilyLink helped pioneer the online genealogy industry, and have wanted to provide valuable and innovative tools and content to the family historian in every family – in addition to the living family tools.

Already this year, we have enhanced our photo sharing features for families, added instant messaging, and are rolling out a new sign-up flow, a new home page, and a desktop photo uploader in the next few days. After we complete two more major features in the coming weeks, we will take FamilyLink.com out of beta and formally launch it. We believe it will be ready for millions of families to rely on as their primary family web site. Other features and enhancements will be added later, of course, but the major features of our family social network will be in place, and no longer in beta testing mode.

With the social features well underway, we are turning our attention back to taking some of the “really good ideas” Randy gives us credit for – he’s referring to our genealogy ideas – and baking them into our FamilyLink experience. Many observers will say “it’s about time.” But as a company, we feel good about the fact that given our limited startup capital we had to choose between building (or completing) our advanced and innovative tools for genealogists and our mass market family social network tools, and we chose the latter. Now we are in a position to complete some of our earlier projects and roll them out as part of our flagship service, FamilyLink.com.

Randy recently wrote a blog post about FamilyLink Plus, the new premium (subscription) service that FamilyLink is introducing. Like most other companies in the family/genealogy space, we have chosen to introduce a premium service on top of our basic free service – and some of the main features in the Plus product will appeal primarily to the family historian of the family.

Randy raises some good questions about FamilyLink Plus, which I will attempt to answer here.

  • Regarding Ancestor Searching (letting members search more than 1.5 billion online names) he says, “This must be a subscription to WorldVitalRecords, right?” Yes, in fact, it is a subscription to the World Collection on WorldVitalRecords.com. This is an introductory price, and there is currently no way to extend your current WVR subscription for $59.40, but our call center will probably be able to do that soon. (Call 801-377-0588 in a week or two if you want to do this.)
  • Regarding Family Tree Matching he asks, “Does this mean they will finally accept a GEDCOM file upload?” I hate to disappoint, but the answer is our tree matching will be done before we support GEDCOM uploads. We have purchased technology that will enable us to support GEDCOM uploads soon – hopefully within a month or two – but the focus of our family tree matching will be to help you find more possible living relatives more than it will be to help you find more possible ancestors. As Randy says, others have done a very good job with tree matching for genealogical purposes.
  • Regarding Map My Ancestors he wonders if FamilyLink will “permit all localities to be shown for the family tree entries” and if this feature will behind the subscription wall. Since this is built on Google maps, it should support all localities that match current place names in Google (some historical locations will continue to give us trouble), and since we have far more engineering resources on FamilyLink than we have on worldhistory.com, we expect our location-support will improve on what we built before.

So even though Randy concludes that he will pass on subscribing to FamilyLink Plus for now (partly because of the very sound logic that he already has a subscription to WorldVitalRecords), I especially appreciate Randy’s sentiments about FamilyLink:

“I want them to succeed, because they have really good ideas and I believe that competition is really good for the genealogy world.”

In conclusion, we view ourselves as the world leader in social networking for families. Our priority has to be features that help families find and stay in touch with each other.

But at the same time, it is often true that the genealogist in the family is also the connector of the living family – the person who keeps track of marriages and births and family achievements and makes sure that family reunions occur to keep people connected.

When I was fund-raising back in the late 90s for my first genealogy company, I used to joke that there are two kinds of people who keep in touch with all their living relatives – genealogists and multi-level marketers – and that we decided to focus our company mission on helping the former gather families together online.

Building more features for the genealogist of the family will increase the number of people actively using FamilyLink to share and preserve their family heritage online — in addition to “what’s happening today” in their family.

Top 10 Family Websites – July 2009

I like rankings and lists.

This particular chart from Hitwise tracks only one metric — share of visits. In some ways that is more interesting than the more common “unique visitors” reports, which can easily be inflated by successful marketing campaigns. Share of visits can’t be inflated much by spending a lot of money on email or PPC to get tons of clicks in one month. But Unique Visitors reports can be.

Share of visits reports show ongoing engagement.

Now look at the top 10 chart. Legacy, the most robust obituary and memorial web site ranks #1. Ancestry, the world’s leading genealogy web site is #2. And below that is MyFamily.com, which used to be the top private social network, but over the past 7 years has lost most of its users.

This means that even though not that many people use MyFamily.com anymore, it still ranks #3 on this list because those who do use it still visit it frequently, thus giving MyFamily.com a large share of total visits.

According to Quantcast data (which is free and easy to obtain on any site) Ancestry.com has 5.5MM unique US monthly visitors while MyFamily.com has only 173,000. So if my math is correct, MyFamily has only 3% of the VISITORS of Ancestry.com, but almost half (according to the Hitwise chart) as many total monthly visits.

I’m sure that my wife’s family accounts for about half of all the visits to MyFamily.com. :) She and her 7 sisters have probably posted 10,000 times to MyFamily.com’s message boards in the past 10 years. Some of them are using Facebook now, more and more, so it will be interesting for me to see whether their usage of MyFamily.com — a paid, private family web site experience will continue.

Even Tim Sullivan, CEO of Ancestry.com (which recently filed to go public) apparently wonders about this. The company generates almost all of its revenue from its genealogy property, not from its family web site business. It always has. Tim was quoted in Fortune magazine in May 2009 as saying, “we’re still trying to figure out if it’s relevant in the age of Facebook.”

If I look at Quantcast data, I don’t understand why MyHeritage.com isn’t on this list. It looks like Geni and Footnote missed this list but are probably in the top 20 for family web sites.

Do you have a favorite family-related web site that your family uses, that you think is probably also close to making it onto this list?

Posted via web from Paul’s posterous

oh my gosh, facebook is for families

On Feb. 2nd, InsideFacebook reported that the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is women over 55. 

In just the past 120 days, usage of Facebook by women over 55 has grown by an astonishing 175.3%.

Our team at FamilyLink.com is particularly excited as social networks attract older users because our mission is to connect families to each other using technology, and the glue that keeps most families (and extended families) together often happens to be the older female family members–moms and grandmas.

As they come into social networks in droves, a very large percentage of them do so with the primary purpose of communicating with their children and grandchildren–and not necessary just with their friends.

My mom started using Facebook actively just a few days after Christmas. During the holidays we had a big family discussion about how we could all keep in touch better. Everyone talked about their Blackberries, iPhones, Facebook and even Twitter. 

I am now friends on Facebook with my mom, my siblings, my 82-year old aunt, and dozens of cousins, children of cousins, nieces, nephews, and other extended family. And we all use We’re Related. In fact, the primary way we found each other was through this application.

Time Magazine published a “Nerd World” column this week titled “Facebook is for Old People” in which author Lev Grossman listed 10 reasons (all in jest) why older people love Facebook. Reason #7 was:

We have children. There is very little that old people enjoy more than forcing others to pay attention to pictures of their children. Facebook is the most efficient engine ever devised for this.

That’s pretty funny. But more based in reality than Grossman’s claim that old people want to force others to see pictures of their children is the fact that most older people care more about their family members than younger people do and they themselves want to continually see new family photos

Young people are busy with school, friends, and work. All of life is ahead of them, and they are optimistic about the future. It’s well known that college students phone home mainly when they are out of money. ;)

On the other hand, as we grow older, everything changes. What once was important in high school, college, and in our work years, no longer seems to matter so much. We have so many more memories to think about and we become more thoughtful about the past. As we age, watching children (and from what I hear, grandchildren) grow, and learn, and experience life, and staying in touch with our own remaining family members, becomes the most interesting and meaningful part of our own lives.

I think there is quantifiable evidence for this. While working at a previous company (from 1998-2002) my team discovered that the older people were the more times per month they logged into their private family web sites. It was pretty astonishing to see this hold true even for people up into their 80s. 

Because older people are flocking to Facebook, the We’re Related application (by FamilyLink.com) has jumped in the last few months to become the #2 most popular application on Facebook as measured by Weekly Active Users. For a few days, it was #1 in daily active users, but that number fluctates often as various apps experience occasional surges in traffic.

When we launched We’re Related in October 2007, we reached our first million users in 29 days, and our second million a few weeks later. We were surprised that our application spread so quickly, especially because Facebook had already clamped down on the “unlimited invites” that had helped the first successful apps reach millions of users in just weeks or months. Our cap was 20 invites per user per day, so Facebook users with a thousand friends couldn’t tell all of them about our app at once. And yet we still grew like crazy.

But what surprised us even more was our discovery that half of our first two million users were from Canada, and that 17 of our top 20 cities were in Canada. We teased our product manager (who is from Canada) about making this happen on purpose.

We discovered, through further investigation, that even though the US population is about 9.1 times greater than the population of Canada, at that time there were actually more women over age 55 in Canada using Facebook than here in the US.

Then it made sense. Older people, especially women, love the We’re Related application. In fact, it might be the primary reason they use Facebook — like it was for my mom.

We weren’t 100% sure why Facebook had more members 55+ in Canada than in the U.S. But this is our theory: since Facebook was originally for college students (first at Harvard, then at 60 Ivy League schools, then for all US colleges and universities) and then for US high school students, and only in September 2006 was opened to the general public, the perception was widespread in the U.S. was that Facebook was for young people only.

In fact, the famous NY Times article from June 7, 2007 titled “omg, my mom joined facebook” reflected a reality at the time in the U.S. that young people didn’t want older people (especially their moms) to see what they were doing online.

For some reason in Canada Facebook spread quickly to all ages. Maybe it hadn’t really taken off in Canadian universities. Maybe Facebook had launched in U.S. high schools but not in Canadian high schools. Or maybe Canadian youth don’t have as many things to hide from their parents. ;) 

Who knows? But whatever the reason, there were literally more men and women over 55 in Canada than in the US on Facebook.

When We’re Related launched, it became especially popular in Canada, probably because the large population of moms and grandmas embraced it and shared it.

We don’t know if our growth will continue at the current rate, but if it does we will have more than 50 million users by the end of this year. Not bad for an app that will turn 2 years old in October.

The challenge for us now, is to design a user experience that meets the widely varying needs of millions of families. Families come in all different shapes and sizes. 

We are anxious to create an experience that works for your family, that helps you stay in touch regularly with your siblings, parents, children, and extended family, in meaningful ways.

We would like to know what you want We’re Related to do for you and your family. How can we make it better?

Please comment on this blog about what features or design changes would lead you to use We’re Related regularly to keep in touch with your relatives.

We would really appreciate your suggestions.

Or, if you want to vote on each other’s ideas, please visit our customer feedback forum on Uservoice, where thousands of our active users are suggesting ideas and voting on them.

Please let us know what we can do for your family.

AlwaysOn Venture Summit West, Dec. 6-7

I missed the Stanford Summit (AlwaysOn) this July, but I am registered for the Venture Summit West coming up next week. I look forward to catching up with some friends on the VC side of things and comparing notes with some friends who are CEOs who will be at this conference. I usually attend the AlwaysOn Summit in July at Stanford, but I missed it this year, being in the intense startup mode still at WorldVitalRecords.com.

This will be a fun conference, partly because social networking is all the rage, and my company has launched a social network for genealogists, FamilyLink.com, that is getting increasing traction, but far more because our We’re Related Facebook application is getting serious traction, and even though we launched it later than I had hoped (5 months and 2 days after the Facebook Platform launch, which I blogged about), it has far surpassed our expectations.

Our strategy is to aggregate and provide genealogical databases to customers worldwide through our paid service, worldvitalrecords.com, and to attract millions of users through viral marketing, utilizing our own social network and building apps for other social networks. Both aspects of our strategy are now working.

WorldVitalRecords.com hits record traffic numbers every month and our subscriber numbers are really starting to climb. (The monthly option at $5.95 per month seems to have helped.)

For viral marketing, we love Facebook. But we also love the OpenSocial concept (which I have not yet blogged about) and providing our apps wherever users are. If we end up with apps and widgets on every major social web site, the big question is will our family users be able to interact seamlessly with each other and share family content and communications as easily as if they were all using the same dedicated social network? During the Social Networking 3.0 panel at the July Stanford Summit, I think the answer from the Facebook panelist sounded like a “probably” but from MySpace it seemed like a no. They were discussing how portable individual profiles would be on the social networks, and whether apps would be interactive with apps on other social networks. Of course social networks (like MySpace) probably want to “own” their customers, but I believe customers won’t allow for that, and will demand portability of profiles and interoperability of apps/widgets.

If you are going to Venture Summit West, and would like to meet up to discuss the future of online genealogy and family social networking (or social networking in general), drop me a line.

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.

13 days without a word–hey, I’m focused

I started blogging in November 2003. I think 13 days without a post may be a record for me. (There may have been one time a couple years ago when I was switching blog platforms where I also went this long or longer without a post.)

My regular readers know how much I enjoy blogging, how I think every CEO should blog, and how much value you get when you participate in open, online conversations about all kinds of topics. So a 13-day stretch without posting indicates how incredibly busy and focused I have become recently.

To make up for the 13 days without a post, today’s post may be my longest post ever.

And unfortunately it’s about my current business–not about internet marketing or entrepreneurship in general. So if you only read my blog for tips for internet entrepreneurs, you may want to skip this post.

In business you need to balance your time learning and networking with time executing. And lately we’ve been focused on executing. Our top priorities include: 1) closing our funding round, 2) acquiring content, 3) online marketing, 4) creating a sales and support team, and 5) business development.

Funding

Our fundraising effort started last December when I attended a FundingUniverse.com Speed Pitching event. In 2 hours I met with 8 groups of angel investors (a total of 20-25) and gave each group a 5 minute pitch followed up some Q&A.

I know most of the angel investors who are active in Utah, so this event wasn’t so much a chance to get to know people, as to tell them my plan to focus on running one company. I have a reputation for having too many ideas and not being able to focus on one thing.

This reputation was earned from 1998-2002 when I stepped down as CEO of Ancestry.com (we hired my brother to run the company and raise venture funding for us) to become VP of whatever area I felt needed to be started or improved. As a founder of the company, I was given a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to do. So I went from marketing to corporate development to strategy and back to marketing.

I wasn’t a primary decision maker, so I felt free and I had time to explore new technologies, new internet marketing tactics, and to network like crazy. I had an incredible experience living in Silicon Valley during 1999-2000, and I really gained the business education during these years that I never had in school. (I was a Russian major in college.)

What I didn’t realize during my Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com days was that some managers in our growingly bureaucratic company did not like innovation or change, at least not rapid or constant change. (They probably all needed to read "Who Moved My Cheese?" and I probably needed to slow down.) I was viewed as a chance agent with a new idea every day, and I didn’t realize until 2002 what a negative view some people had of me. One mentor explained to me that not everyone loves new ideas, even if they are better than the current plan that you are working on, so he suggested that I keep my ideas to myself or to a small team (engineers mainly) who loved to hear about the new, new thing. During my final six months at the company I was VP of Marketing, and I really focused. I apparently did a good enough job that I was offered the Chief Marketing Officer position if I would commit to two more years.

But I was ready to move on.

In 2002 I started 10x Marketing, an online marketing agency, and we jumped to 26 employees in six months. We had some great clients, but we actually grew too fast, and didn’t have the systems or teams in place to effectively service all our clients. We bit off more than we could handle. We lost a couple key clients and had to cut back. It was really painful. At that point I decided to hire a great manager to run the business, and I decided to move on. 10x Marketing became profitable very quickly and stayed profitable. We were voted by Connect Magazine readers in Utah as the top internet marketing company, second only to Omniture. In June 2005, the company was sold to Innuity, which is now publicly traded.

My reputation as an idea guy but not a business operator was reinforced as I started a few more companies over the past three years, including FundingUniverse.com that I mentioned above, and invested in others.

So back to the December SpeedPitching Event.

Investors always want to know about the market opportunity, the team, the strategy, and they want to see traction–evidence that you will succeed. We had a little traction, since we had launched our web site last June and had started selling subscriptions in October, so we had some revenue.

But the main thing that seemed to be on investors’ minds was: are you really going to focus on one thing? Can you really do that?

I tried to reassure them that I in my first 8 years in business I was a focused CEO. So I have done it before. Plus, I told them that this genealogy/family business is really my greatest passion. I only left Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com because the company abandoned our vision to create a free web site/intranet for every family in the world and the role of the founders had been greatly diminished. In my way of thinking, our genealogy business was important, but connecting families through technology was even more important–10 times bigger, I used to say. In the end, everyone disagreed with me, so I felt I needed to move on.

The simplest way of stating my position is to share the fact that 7% of adult Americans are involved in family history research, but 95% say it is very important or somewhat important to stay in touch with family members. I think the emergence of social networking sites, photo sharing sites, and blogging sites, which often have a good deal of family content, indicates how universal the need to communicate with family really is. I think social networks for friends (Facebook, MySpace) will get far more usage than social networks for families (MyFamily.com), but social networks for families can become a part of a person’s entire life experience from cradle to grave. I don’t think they will come and go every few years like social networks as younger folks adopt the latest new thing for their generation. I think family social networks, once established, will remain forever.

Genealogy may be the single most important element that can tie families together, to create the online social community that will never go away. In the early years of MyFamily.com we had tons of sites created that were single person sites. This was a big problem for us. Some people apparently wanted to start a family site, but never got around to inviting anyone else to join it. Sites with many members were almost always active. And to prove the point about genealogy: at one point we learned that 95% of sites that had a family tree and at least one photo online were active sites. Sites with photos but no tree weren’t nearly as active. It seems that it is the genealogist in the family (and nearly every family has one) that keeps the family together.

So I have been successful this year in convincing investors from Silicon Valley, Utah, and Asia that I actually can and will focus on this one company, and that despite the exciting, competitive environment that exists in online genealogy and family social networking, that my team will create a valuable company. We’ll make a more detailed announcement in a week or two. It will be nice to have our bootstrapping startup phase behind us as we enter in our growth phase.

ACQUIRING CONTENT

Genealogy experts are expressing amazement about the amount of content that is becoming available online. FamilySearch has made recent announcements about how it will partner with commercial firms (we are an early partner) and archives around the world to bring billions of records online. TGN’s CEO has stated that the company has spent $100 million in the past ten years digitizing genealogy content. Google is investing more than $100 million in its book scanning project, with much of that content having significant historical and genealogical value. MSN is doing the same. Footnote.com and other companies continue to invest heavily in digitizing microfilm collections.

Our own data collection will exceed 400 million records shortly and our pipeline shows us getting to a billion records by the end of this year. With funding and more revenue, we look forward to joining the "billions" club in the future.

We are trying to purchase the definitive guide to genealogy sources in each country and to find experts for each country to help us identify collections that should be or already have been digitized.

ONLINE MARKETING

According to our Omniture reports, Worldvitalrecords.com had more than 200,000 unique visitors last month and we should reach 250,000 unique visitors this month. We’ll sign up our 10,000th subscriber this month. Our affiliate program is growing and our Google and MSN marketing campaigns have been doing well lately. Some of this growth comes because Google has indexed so many of our pages and we finally started getting high rankings on some important keywords. So our SEO efforts are starting to pay off.

We offered a 7-day free trial last week for the first time (no credit card required) and had thousands of people sign up for our trial and for our weekly email newsletter. We are now monitoring the conversion rates. We are also working to identify other ways to grow our e-mail lists into the hundreds of thousands.

SALES AND SUPPORT

Our new manager of sales and support is setting up phone systems, interviewing sales and support personnel, and making phone calls to customers and potential customers. The energy level here at the office has doubled in the past month because of the sales and support team.

It is difficult to make phone investment decisions. We’ve got some Avaya options and some VOIP options. We want our system to be scalable, potentially to hundreds of reps, but we don’t want to invest too much too soon. We also want our phone system to tie into our CRM system, and we’re looking at various options there as well.

Most of all, we want to be up and running with a full inbound/outbound team in the next few days, and it looks like that will be happening. There is no substitute for talking to real customers, and we plan to invest heavily in doing that.

BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT

Most of the 100 priorities in my CEO Strategic Plan (a Google document that I share with my management team) are business development related. There are thousands of genealogy societies, hundreds of national archives, and hundreds of genealogy software and publishing companies (and other content owners) that are important players in the genealogy industry.

Similar to the business philosophy in Wikinomics, our goal is to partner with many of these organizations and to create a genealogy ecosystem where we and our partners succeed. In the past, the network effect has allowed companies in some industries to enjoy a winner-take-all position.

eBay, for example, made it extremely difficult for any other online auction company to compete. eBay had the most sellers, so all the buyers wanted to go there. And it had the most buyers, so all the sellers wanted to list there.

In the case of online auctions, eBay winning didn’t mean that an entire industry lost. Online auctions was a new industry, so while there was a survival of the fittest race, the losing companies were mostly young venture backed companies, not companies that had been operating for many years. (Although I admit I don’t know the impact on flea markets or physical auction houses.)

Having one winner has been both good and bad. Good, because this online auction platform makes it easy for millions of buyers and sellers to conduct business easily. Billions of dollars in goods are sold every month. Bad, because eBay, lacking competition, has raised fees over the years and has not been as responsive to the needs of its customers as many would like. Real competition is usually good for customers, unless the winning company has a rare philosophy, like say Craigslist, which doesn’t take advantage of its leadership position to change its original policies in order to extract more from its customers, but continues to pursue the primary goal of the company which is to provide a great service to its customers.

But in the case of the genealogy industry, there have been researchers, and publishers, and authors and software developers working for decades to provide valuable tools and aids for genealogists. So if a single company wins by attracting all the data and all the researchers then most likely, many of the other companies in the genealogy industry will lose, unless the winner gives them a piece through partnerships and royalties.

When we founded Ancestry.com, we had less than $1 million in revenue while our biggest competitor had something like 30 times that much. Over time, our strategy put us in the leadership position in the industry, and we were able to consolidate the industry by acquiring Rootsweb and (after I left the company), Genealogy.com/Family Tree Maker.

I feel strongly that our original company Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com vision and philosophy, like Craigslist, Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia, was about changing the world rather than owning an industry. But I suppose that any company with investors, especially venture capital investors, whose business includes generating the highest possible returns on their investments, is going to be under pressure to increase revenues and margins.

Google’s IPO was very controversial because the Founders insisted on maintaining voting control over the company, like the Washington Post. But they pulled it off. This may be able to insulate Google over the long term from making decisions that will be good in the short term but bad in the long term.

Craigslist has remained independent and still has a very small staff. They have completely disrupted the classified advertising business, but they continue to remain small and focused on delivering a great service. They don’t feel a need to own the world.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook reportedly turned down an acquisition offer by Yahoo of nearly $1 billion. One VC commented:

At the iMeme panel last week I had the opportunity to sit next to Jim Breyer and watch him take some tough questions from Adam Lashinsky about why Facebook doesn’t sell at the huge numbers that are being whispered in the blogs and on the street.

Jim said something important that really wasn’t picked up in the chatter about his comments. He said that all this attention on what Facebook is worth isn’t doing the company any good. I commend Mark, Jim, and Peter for their obvious intentions to keep Facebook independent and private for now. I think Facebook will make a great public company at some point, maybe in the next year.

But selling the Company would be a huge mistake. First and foremost for the users. Any buyer will screw up Facebook. It’s greatness comes from the fact that the people who run the company live inside the service, they built if for themselves and it works because of that. They have their pulse on the community and they are not likely to screw it up too badly.

If you look at most web services that have been bought, they’ve lost their mojo once they were acquired. What has YouTube done lately that is so great? Skype? MySpace? Delicious? Flickr?

I really hope that in the genealogy/family industry that many companies will succeed, that winning companies will have a partnering mentality, and that customers all over the world will benefit from technology, tools, and content that can strengthen immediate and extended families.

FAMILYLINK.COM

We will soon be offering online family tree software. It will be free to our World Vital Records and FamilyLink.com members. We can’t wait to make it available. We are excited to integrate our genealogy search functionality and our social networking features into our members family trees.

Once a member submits their family tree to our site (it can be either private or public) then our forthcoming technology will be able to make recommendations (check this source or contact this genealogist) that will help them the most. And of course, we will provide a wonderful online environment for gathering all your valuable family photos and documents into a space that you can easily share with other family members.

RECRUITING

As we move from our startup phase to our growth phase, we are going to be adding some key employees. Given Utah’s 2.4% unemployment rate (the lowest in history, I think) it is not as easy as it once was to fill positions.

So just to start the ball rolling, I want to mention a few positions that we will consider filling in the coming months (not in any particular order):

1) International Content Licensing Manager
2) Controller/CFO
3) PHP Developers (including 2 lead engineers)
4) GIS Manager
5) Photo and Maps Collection Manager
6) Part time sales and support (10-15)
7) Community Outreach Manager
8) Mechanical Turk Manager (I’ll explain that one later)

I read that Facebook tries to fill every position with someone who knows how to code. So they can write their own tools whenever they need to. I think that is a brilliant idea.

I’d like to fill every position at World Vital Records with someone who loves family history, so that each of our employees knows intuitively what our customers want, and can help us create, support and market the most useful services possible.

I don’t know if it will be another 13 days before I blog again. (Actually, I need to blog about our Mechanical Turk position ASAP). But if it is, you will know that I am heads down along with my team executing on as many of the top 100 priorities as we can. We made serious progress on about 12 of the top 20 priorities in the last month, and I am confident that we will do the same in the next month.

Update from Washington, DC

I’m in Washington, DC for the American Library Association Annual Conference & Exhibition. I started an MLS program back in 1990 (Masters of Library Science), but had to drop out because my CD ROM publishing company needed my full attention. But I have the deepest admiration for librarians, particularly reference librarians, who are vastly underrated. They don’t know everything, but they know where to find the answers, probably better than any other profession.

So I’m hanging out with 30,000 librarians and service providers. (Someone told me normally 25,000 attend, but DC is a big draw, so they’re expecting more this year.) There are 1,600 exhibitors–pretty impressive. Yesterday I spent 5 hours at the National Archives listening to some of the premiere genealogists in the country talk about using the National Archives to find records of your ancestors.

I’ve been travelling a lot lately, and often getting cheap last minute fares, and I suppose because of that, my luggage was lost for the third consecutive time. What I’m learning is that if a travel site books one segment on one airline and then hands you off to another airline for the next segment, often you make the connection but your luggage does not. A few months back I used LinkedIn Answers to get about 40 wonderful suggestions on how to get cheap fairs with short notice for international flights. Now I think I need to use LI Answers to figure out ways to travel cheap without losing baggage. I used to travel with one carry on and my laptop bag, and I could go for a few days with just that, but since the ban on liquids and stuff, I just check my baggage and carry on my laptop bag. I suppose I could try the plastic bag approach and put my contact lens stuff in one of those and still carry it on. But it is such a pain.

If you wonder why I’m blogging about such mundane and personal things, check out Mark Cuban’s recent *very* personal blog post on getting a colonoscopy. (or you can just google “cuban and colon” and he ranks #1 in google. I think the Colon Cancer Testing Industry should adopt his “it’s easy and breezy” tag line for their advertising. He clearly doesn’t think personal fears should get in the way of having this important screening done.

I had my first physical exam in 20 years last year, and it was a bit uncomfortable and I never would have blogged the details–but then again, I’m not Mark Cuban, and I suppose I do still care what people think of me. I admire Mark in a lot of ways. I love the Mavs, and was sorry to see them lose in the first round of the playoffs this year.

Okay, so back to business.

This afternoon I get to hear a lecture from Google and five major libraries about how the Google Books Project is coming. I’m very excited to get a firsthand update. In various places I’ve read that it only costs Google about $10 per book to scan and OCR a book, they use some kind of modified open source OCR program. As a long time content publisher, I’m eager to know both how to keep costs down on scanning and indexing projects, as well as to see whether Google is just going to digitize all the world’s information and make it free, making it more difficult for anyone else to be an information provider.

But even if all the books in the world were free online (and they won’t be, because of copyright issues), there would still be a role for indexers, librarians, and organizers of that free information, and people would still pay for that added value, because it would save them time and make them more effective.

If open source applications commoditize some software, and force developers to work on top of the LAMP stack, then I think in the library industry, the open sourcing of the world’s books will force professional information workers to add value on top of the “stacks” of free books, as well. (There’s a pun in here somewhere with the open source “stack” and “stacks” of books.) Disruption always opens doors to new opportunities, and those who make the transition by gaining new skill sets and providing new services can do very well.

Yesterday I heard an industry leader in preservation say they now have technology to simultaneously digitize and microfilm the things they are scanning. That is cool.

This morning I hope to hear Ken Burns speak in one of the keynotes. But I’ll be late because I lost my blackberry recharger yesterday, and have to check with the hotel’s lost and found when they open at 9 am to see if they have it, and if they don’t, I have to go two blocks to a cell phone store when it opens and buy a new one. I am always losing laptop power cords and my phone rechargers. Can’t wait for wireless recharging, a technology that several companies are now working on.

Speaking of blackberries, it’s true that you see a ton of them in DC.

This week I’ve spoken with several decision makers about Facebook Platform. After my Paul Revere style midnight ride post–“Facebook is coming, Facebook is coming”–of four weeks ago, the night of the f8 launch event, one commenter called me the “hypiest” blogger he had ever read. I think the hype was legit.

In the last four weeks and one day, 945 applications have launched on Facebook, and it was reported this week that 1,000 developers per day are signing up to become Facebook Developers.

More impressive, 17 applications have more than a million users already, and six have more than 3 million users. Can you imagine getting that many users in a month, without spending a penny on advertising?

I finally signed up for Twitter last week, and hope to get in the habit of using it often. I think it will help me fill in the long (unfortunately) gaps in my blogging, because I don’t have nearly as much time to blog this year since I’m running World Vital Records. When I was in London two months ago, a little article on Twitter was on the front page of the Financial Times.

But the most interesting use, for me, of Twitter, is for parents and children to use it to stay in touch with each other. I think I’ll start experimenting with that. How often do you wonder what your kids are doing at any given time, who they are with, what their plans are? Not that kids will want to use Twitter to keep their parents up to the minute, but I think there might be some ways to pull that off. I’m all for finding ways to use technology to strengthen families, and a Family Twitter would go a long way.

Tim Russert has been promoting his book “Wisdom of our Fathers” and in an interview I saw this morning, he talked about his relationship to his father, and his relationship to his son. He told some wonderful stories (you can find the clip on Truveo) about his son, and expressed very well how family relationships are more important than anything else in life.

If you know any parents that use Twitter to keep up with their kids and vice versa, please let me know. I may write a Connect Magazine article about this in the next few months.

Predictably, my upcoming Connect Magazine article will be on how the Facebook Platform is changing everything in social networking.

I think I saw something yesterday about Ning enabling Facebook apps now.

I’m heading to London tonight and will be there for business meetings on Monday and Tuesday.

My airplane reading is a 600 page book on Germanic Genealogy that was just published this year. I have consumed books on genealogy sources in the UK, US, Germany, England, Sweden and Italy this year, and plan to do the same with every recently published sourcebook on genealogy for every country in the world, just as soon as I can.

Ten years ago, when running Ancestry.com, I had some wonderful subject matter experts to focus on acquiring genealogy records, and I focused on internet marketing and strategy. But this time around, I intend to do both, and to see what wonderful insights and product design ideas come from understanding the records of the world as well as trying to make them accessible to more people.

One more thing: two more entrants into the family social networking space, Famillion out of Israel, and Zooof out of the UK, both have funding, both are doing good things.

And finally, when I have an hour, I want to write a thoughtful post on genetic genealogy, with Google’s founder funding 23andme.com, and Ancestry.com rekindling an old business relationship with Sorenson Genomics, perhaps in response to what Google might do. More and more genealogists are talking about DNA testing these days, and I think it will become mainstream in the next few years. I’ve been interested in this subject since reading the Decode genetics S-1 back in 1999, and trying to acquire a DNA testing company for MyFamily.com shortly thereafter (I couldn’t convince others that it was strategic), so I have a lot of thoughts to share on the topic. Just not enough time.

Sundance: make room for the new family friendly film festival

My friend Brady Whittingham is a driven entrepreneur. He comes from a football family, and he played football in college. That intensity has stayed with him in business. We worked together years ago at MyFamily.com where he was our best product manager. Fast, smart, and completely results oriented. (Just like the BYU passing game.) He quickly realized that as companies get big they get slow–too slow for him (and later, for me) so he moved on, started his own internet business, and has achieve remarkable success.

He has begun doing some films. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Brady has decided to create a new venue for family friendly films to debut. The team he and his wife have put together to launch this festival is a good one.

Sundance Film Festival was started by Robert Redford just 29 years ago, and it has turned into a major international event.

I can’t wait to see what the Utah Family Film Festival becomes in the next decade or two.

Here’s how Brady describes the impetus for this festival and a little about the first year’s event:

There has always been some sort of draw for me to entertainment, and specifically film. . . .Having been exposed quite a bit to the industry through my passive role as Executive Producer for an newly completed independent film called “Take” (www.takethemovie.com), I’m more than just a little bit intrigued by the process of taking a movie from concept to finished product.

For years, my wife and I have attended the Sundance Film Festival. We have friends that fly in from NY and California every year and it’s always one of our most anticipated holidays (yes, we have made it a two week holiday around our house). As great as we think the Festival is, the film selection doesn’t cater well to the family (we have 3 little girls ages 6, 9, and 11), and we’ve been embarrassed more than a couple times after inviting friends and neighbors to a film without knowing exactly how graphic the material was going to be (there is no formal rating system for most of the independent films at film festivals). This past winter after one such experience, I told my wife that we are going to start a Family-Friendly Film Festival. She of course thought I was a little crazy for thinking that I have the know-how or the time to pull it off, but here we are, 1 week away from our first annual Utah Family Film Festival!

Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for much more than having the idea. My wife was right about at least two of three things…I don’t have the know-how nor the time to pull this off. I actually might be a little crazy too, so I guess she was 3 for 3. Referring back to my “job”, I am currently the President of a large division of a public company and spend a couple weeks each month on the road, and the rest of the time trying to catch up in the office. So to pull it off, I had no choice but to find great people and empower them to go out and make it happen. The initial stages of planning the event location, lining up vendors, notifying filmmakers of the festival, etc. were handled by none other than the 2006 Miss Utah International Brittany Bowden. She did a phenomenal job of setting this up. Once it was set up, we needed an industry pro to execute the plan, so I had to convince somebody both experienced in the Industry and crazy enough to take on the role of Festival Director with such a short time before the event. Tyler Measom was one of the Producers I met on the set of “Take”, and he was a perfect fit. Fortunately, he accepted the offer to become our Festival Director, and subsequently convinced his Partner Jennilyn Merton to join him as Festival Media Director. Add to that about two dozen close friends and family who have agreed to volunteer, and so far it looks like we are going to pull it off in a big way!

Now we just need people to come and enjoy some of the wonderful films that have been submitted by makers of Family Films all over the world. For movie descriptions and to purchase tickets, go to www.utahfamilyfilmfestival.com. See you at the movies!

When: Thursday through Saturday, June 7-9

Where: University Mall Theaters (Southeast of Costco), Orem, Utah

What: Independent Family Films, plus select retro films including Napoleon Dynamite (former Sundance film) and Goonies

Cost: $6 for adults, $3 for children

Info: www.utahfamilyfilmfestival.com

Please spread the word. Let’s make this first event a big success and set the stage for a future film festival that everyone can be proud of, and that everyone can attend without risk of embarrassment.

FamilyLink.com soft launch

I have been in NY and Chicago this week, and haven’t found the time to blog about this yet, but our wonderful sleepless team at World Vital Records has quietly opened up FamilyLink.com to the public.

We are hoping for a few thousand early users, experienced genealogists primarily, to set up personal profiles, tell us what cities they do research in (and where they live), create some ancestor pages, and most of all, give us lots of feedback about the site features and design.

So far, without any promotion, we’ve gotten more than 700 users, 100 pieces of feedback, and nearly 200 ancestor pages. Yesterday more than 300 email invitations were sent out by users to family and friends. Yesterday we had almost 20,000 page views on FamilyLink. That is for a three day old site. World Vital Records usually generates 30-40,000 page views each day, and it is 10 months old.

I have blogged recently about how FamilyLink, based on social networking and user generated content, is the key to our success at World Vital Records. Because of its unique value to genealogists, it really has a chance to attract millions of users worldwide.

I really appreciate our early users. At first, FamilyLink won’t be a tremendous experience, because like any social network, the main value comes from the connections you can make with others.

Can you imagine being one of the first 100 users of eHarmony.com? You spend 20 minutes filling out a detailed profile, hoping to be matched using 29 criteria with your soul mate, your true love, only to find out at the end of the process that you don’t match a single person? That must have been devastating to the early adopters at eHarmony. I hope they have all since recovered from the emotional trauma, and are among those that are now happily married eHarmony graduates. :)

As the eHarmony registrations grew into the millions, the likelihood that new users were going to see five potential matches, that would be in many ways compatible with them, increased dramatically.

Same thing with FamilyLink–although we are not trying to match singles with potential mates. We are trying to match you (the genealogy researcher) with other genealogy researchers who are experts in the very locations where you are looking for answers.

If you have an ancestor who lived in Groton, Connecticut, and you are not able to travel there, what do you do? Perhaps you go online and hope to find some databases that contain something about your ancestor. But it is very unlikely that you will understand much about how records were kept there, how far they go back, the local history, religion, and culture, and what the best strategy would be to get started in your research there.

Hopefully you will randomly meet someone at a Family History Center or at your local genealogy society that might know something about research strategies and available records for Groton. But the chances of that are extremely slim. (Although in the field of genealogy research, there do seem to be a high number of these kinds of “chance” meetings that turn out to be very serendipitous.)

Enter FamilyLink. For the first time in history, you can list all the cities where your ancestors lived or where you are doing further research, and in one click you can see a map of that city and the photos and names of other genealogists who live there or who have experience doing research there. Again, one more click and you are contacting those people to see if they can give you any suggestions or even do a local record search for you, or an online search for you to help you out.

A wonderful organization called Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) has thousands of volunteers who have been helping other genealogists with these kinds of lookups for years. (If you want to do something nice right this very moment, visit RAOGK and make a donation even a few dollars, to help the organization pay its expenses.) There are good, kind and unselfish people everywhere who love family history. There are tens of thousands of volunteers who work at LDS Family History Centers, and thousands of dedicated genealogy societies all over the world.

Our hope is to enable the wonderful people in the field to connect with each other in meaningful ways, far beyond what genealogy message boards have allowed in the past.

Our feature rich social network will enable people all over the world to connect around ancestors, cities, languages, and even the software they use for family history.

We are excited also to enable our experienced researchers in each location around the world to help us create lists of the best sources (online and offline) for genealogy research as well as the strategies they use to make new discoveries and to validate their conclusions.

People who are actively involved in genealogy tend to be older. Some of our surveys at Ancestry years ago showed the average age of our paying subscribers was 47.

People have asked questions about whether older people will jump into social networking the way kids jumped into MySpace and college students rushed into Facebook. But industry reports show that the average age of MySpace users is climbing fast, and now only 50% of Facebook users are college students. LinkedIn.com has demonstrated how people of all ages will join a social network with a serious purpose. And if Quantcast’s data about Eons.com is correct, then 4 million people over 50 are using that social network every month.

Increasing your odds of success in your family history research by connecting to other family history researchers in any location in the world is a very compelling reason for people to sign up for FamilyLink.

We haven’t yet invited the 100,000 genealogists on our mailing list to join the site yet, but as we improve the site experience, we will soon do that as well as start other promotional efforts to spread the word.

Please don’t check out this site and sign up if you are a 22-year old Techcrunch reader with no real interest in family history. There are a hundred other social networks for you to join. We aren’t interested in cluttering the site with inactive personal profiles.

But if you are into family history, and want to get help with your research around the world, or help others, or share information that you have about your ancestors with all your relatives, then please, try FamilyLink.com. There is a feedback link on every page of the site, so you can tell us what we should do to make the experience better for you. Together, with your help, we can create a social network for family historians around the world that will forever change how genealogy is done.

Genealogy doesn’t have to be a lonely, isolated and troubling experience where you are often stuck, wondering what to do next, and quite possibly duplicating the research already done by one or more people somewhere else. Genealogy can be a real-time, ongoing, exciting, social experience, where collaboration across time and space enables more discoveries than ever before, and more shared connections to important people and places.

All over the world are people who are extremely knowledge about locations where they have lived most or all of their lives. But when you are doing genealogy research 5,000 miles away, you don’t know who they are, or what they might know that can help you. That’s why genealogy travel is so much more productive than trying to do genealogy remotely, using only microfilms or online databases.

When I was in London recently, and mentioned Islington (where my wife’s ancestor was born) in a conversion with a stranger on a train, I learned in a few minutes a lot about that place several important facts about that town (now a borough of London) including that it had been the home of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, about 150 years before my wife’s ancestor was born. Those facts gave me an entirely new appreciation for the town where she came from (and some new ideas about where to visit next time I’m in London!)

Imagine every time you discover a place where your ancestors lived that you are just one click away from seeing names, photos, and profiles of a dozen experienced genealogists who live there now, or who have done extensive research there already, and that you are another click away from connecting with them, and getting the help you need.

That is our vision for FamilyLink–but only with the help and involvement of many thousands of family historians will this be possible.

So please, start spreading the word slowly to your more helpful genealogy industry friends. Then, when we’re ready for the big launch, we’ll let you know, and you can help us open the floodgates and invite everyone around the world with even a passing interest in family history to come join the party.