Conversion Stories of Your Ancestors

Have you ever wondered how your family came to be Catholic or Baptist or Methodist or Lutheran or Muslim or Hindu or whatever faith they may be?

I have been fascinated by this question since learning about the conversion of my ancestor Tellef John Israelsen to the LDS (Mormon) faith in Norway in 1857. His story is a remarkable story of searching for something, asking questions, not finding satisfactory answers in the church he attended, and then having a remarkable experience that led him to be baptized by travelling Mormon missionaries. He was reportedly the 5th person baptized into this faith north of the Arctic circle.

I was in Malmo, Sweden two years ago wishing that I could take a day away from my business trip and go on a pilgrimage to Tromso, Norway, so that I could learn more about my Norwegian ancestor and the place where he came from. Unfortunately, Tromso is so far north it would have taken a full day or two just to get there. (Google Maps shows just how far away Tromso is from Malmo).

I did spend a few hours reading Wikipedia articles about Tromso and other towns that have been mentioned in family histories. I imagined what it must have been like for my ancestors to live through the Midnight Sun every May through July and through a winter that included dark Polar Nights from November to January. I read an article that claimed that about 50% of the people living in areas where there is a Midnight Sun require only 3-4 hours of sleep during the summer, and sometimes you will find people up in the middle of the night doing things such as mowing their lawn. But during the dark winters there is a lot of sleep and depression too.

I found it especially fascinating that my Israelsen ancestors were neighbors to the Sami people, whom I had not heard of before. This small group of reindeer farming natives sounds a lot like the Eskimo population that I also know so little about. (The singer and priest pictured in this Wikipedia article about the Sami people could easily be my cousins–they look a lot like my Israelsen relatives.) The geography and appearance of the Sami people make me wonder if I have any Sami ancestors somewhere in the distant past.

But the change that brought Tellef John Israelsen and his family to the United States in the 1860s to settle in Hyrum, Utah with other Norwegian and Danish immigrants, was his religious conversion. Thousands of his descendants were affected by his decision: it completely changed where the Israelsens lived and how they lived.

As I travelled to more than a dozen countries on genealogy business during since starting FamilyLink in 2006, I have read books about the available civil and church records that are available in each country. In order to understand genealogy in any country, you have to understand when the government started record keeping and which religious groups kept which records over which periods of time. I began to discover religious movements in every country that involved individual conversions from one faith to another. Some of these religious movements have grown and strengthened over the years, while others have faded.

While studying before going to Germany, I learned about an interesting religious group called the Hutterites, founded by Jakob Hutter. This Christian group is pacifist and shares its goods as a community. It was subject to much religious persecution in Europe for centuries, and then, in the 1870s, 400 Hutterites immigrated to Canada. Today, 42,000 Hutterites live there, mostly descended from these original 400. I was on a plane shortly after learning about the Hutterites and sat next to a young woman from Canada who was actually a school teacher working in a Hutterite community in Alberta.

There are countless religious movements which have arisen in various places over the past centuries, and today, billions of people are participants in their specific religious communities because of the decision of their ancestors to convert to that faith. I watched the film Luther on Sunday night and wondered how many Germans converted from Catholicism in the early 1500s because of Martin Luther’s writings, his translation of the Bible into German, and his subsequent excommunication from the Catholic church. I wonder how many subsequent conversions sprang from spiritual awakenings and how many came from political or nationalistic sentiment. The film ended with a note that 540 million Protestants worldwide can trace their faith back to Luther’s life and actions.

With that in mind, I have decided to start doing research for a book on Ancestor Conversions. I will probably limit the book to one conversion story per religious faith, because I really want to cover a broad section of both large and small religious movements. And I want to trace how a few conversions centuries ago has led to substantial populations of various religious groups today.

The religious conversion choices of our ancestors in many instances is the single biggest factor in the kind of lifestyle, values, and social opportunities that we experience in life.  And yet it was primarily their choice that shaped us, not ours. (Of course any living person is free to choose to not be religious, to disengage with the faith they inherited from their parents, or to embrace a different faith. But the majority of people living today — nearly 3/4th of adults in the U.S., according to the Pew Forum June 2008 study affiliate with the same faith as their parents.)

If your ancestor decided to join the Old Order Amish, then, you are probably not reading this blog post. ;)

So much of who we are and what we do hinges on the conversions of our own ancestors. Shouldn’t we all know more about how and why they choice the particular religious group that they did?

If you have an ancestor conversion story that has been published that you’d like to share, please comment. If you would like to suggest resources for me as I undertake this book project, please contact me. I look forward to learning from you.

FamilyLink hiring microfilm operator / manager

As part of our effort to turn FamilyLink into the most useful site for people to connect with living relatives and discover their recent family history, we are about to digitize our first major microfilm collection. We have 10 scanners in place, and 3 part time employees, but we need someone to manage this project and our team.

We need to fill this position immediately, as the first few thousand rolls of film from this massive collection are heading to Provo. If you have experience with microfilm scanning and post-scanning image processing (including OCR) and would like to join our exciting company, please apply today (by emailing jobs AT familylink.com).

Click here for complete job description.

BYU Family History Technology Workshop – Wed, April 28

This year’s Family History Technology Workshop will be held at the Salt Palace. NGS has been a magnet that drew all of the annual computerized genealogy and technology conferences to Salt Lake City. Obviously, conference organizers wanted to make it convenient for many NGS attendees and developers to attend as many sessions as possible.

The Program Schedule for tomorrow is available from the FHTW home page but I wanted to give the highlights here.

There will be three major sessions: Record Linkage, Data Extraction, and Geospatial Visualization of Family History.

At 3:30 pm I will be hosting a panel on Platforms for Family History Developers, where we will have developers on platforms such as Facebook, iPhone, iPad, and Google Android discuss the opportunities and challenges that each new technology platform offers.

I hope to see you there.

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.

This Week: Ancestry IPO, FamilyLink goes viral, Navigating Facebook Platform changes

This week is going to be amazing. Possibly, the most interesting week of my career. I’ll explain.

Ancestry.com is slated to go public on Wednesday. I always dreamed of being part of that IPO, but I’ve been out of the company (7 years) longer than I was in the company (6 years). But my excitement about watching a company I helped create trade on a public exchange is mounting. I cannot wait to see what happens when ACOM debuts on the NASDAQ this week.

I’m thinking about holding an IPO party at my house on Wednesday for the early Ancestry.com employees who are no longer with the company. It would be fun to reminisce a bit and see where everyone is now. If “public demand” for a party is high, I’m sure we’ll be able to pull it off on short notice. Between LinkedIn and Facebook, my blog and twitter, we should be able to get at least a dozen or two people to show up. If you’re interested already (and qualify as a “former Ancestry employee”), shoot me an email. (paul AT familylink.com) We’ll watch a couple of old company videos and hopefully some Tivo’d coverage of some of the business news about Ancestry from Wednesday.

This week is also exciting because FamilyLink.com is going viral. Our FamilyLink.com Quantcast chart shows that we’ve had more than 6 million unique visitors since we debuted last month and we are just getting started. We think our Flash-based family tree tool is the funnest online tree ever created, and it is getting tons of usage. We hope to be a top Facebook Connect site soon. In fact, Facebook’s Wiki shows FamilyLink as an example of how to create invites and requests using Facebook Connect. Facebook has been an incredible platform for our company to build on.

Even though Compete.com shows us as having more unique visitors than Ancestry.com, and even though we are classified by them as a genealogy site, we are actually a totally different creature. We are a family social site. Users of our Facebook applications (we have about 60MM users) can easily navigate to FamilyLink.com and enjoy an enhanced family experience there. We connect you to your living relatives. We help you share content and life experiences and memories with your immediate and extended family. Family trees are a fun part of our overall experience (because everyone loves to see how they fit into their family) but we are not currently a deep research site for ancestral records.

About 15% of our users consider themselves genealogists (which means 85% do not).  Many of them already subscribe to paid services like Ancestry.com or use free genealogy web sites for research. We believe that genealogy will likely be an important advertising category for us in the future, since we are attracting millions of families to our service and as the saying goes, “there’s a genealogist in every family.” But you can also say there is a photographer, event planner, scrapbooker, top chef, health nut, sports fanatic, vacationer and couponeer in every family. When we ask customers what additional features they want us to build into FamilyLink, we get everything from photo albums to recipe sharing to online chats and event planning tools. We will generate ad or product revenue from a  lot of categories as we try to meet the needs of millions of families worldwide.

This week is also intense and interesting because of all the upcoming changes Facebook announced for their Platform last week. Here are some links:

  • Video of Facebook’s platform changes. Ethan Beard, who heads up the Facebook Developers Network, describes the product roadmap in this nearly one hour video. Mark Zuckerberg introduced him.
  • Facebook’s developer policies have been condensed from 17 pages to 3 pages — all policies are now in one place
  • Nick O’Neill’s This Week in Facebook post shows how much is going on at Facebook right now. The pace of change is incredible, and it is hard to keep up with everything, but the pay off for being in the Facebook ecosystem can still be amazing.

More information has been coming out in the last few months about the best ways to monetize social web sites than I have ever seen before. The Social Ad Summit in NYC provided a lot of good information, especially about virtual currencies and virtual goods; PeanutLabs followed the Mike Arrington “Spam Facebook Like a Pro” blog post with some great survey data about how users prefer to pay for in-game virtual currency; and this article from VentureDig covers monetizing social networks with recommendations for 2010.

It’s a great time to be in social networking. Investor interest in social networking related companies seems really strong. For years the conventional wisdom was that social networks could not be monetized, but it turns out that for most of that time the fastest growing social networks (like Twitter today) weren’t even focused on monetization. They were sacrificing revenue or deferring even thinking about revenue to capitalize on the fact that millions of people would be joining social networks and that the network effect would lead to a few winners, with a winner-take-most outcome. That was a very good bet.

It is well known that Facebook has turned cash flow positive, Twitter raised money at a $1 billion valuation, and Zynga is generating a ton of revenue, some say about $250 million this year. But it is not so well known that teen social network myYearbook turned profitable this year (in Q1 according to CEO Geoff Cook) because of “Lunch Money” and virtual goods. There are other under-the-radar social networking companies and app/game developers that aren’t well known at the moment that will breakout in 2010 and become widely known.

Here’s to hoping that FamilyLink.com will be one of them.

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

Apology to Terry Thornton

Terry,
I want to add my sincere apology to Nathan’s. We have made more than one mistake in the 8 days since GenealogyWise debuted. Censoring your comment was completely inappropriate, and the moment I heard about it (I was in a meeting with FamilySearch in Salt Lake City at the time) I said, we need to apologize and to establish a policy of not censoring any criticisms of GW.
The earlier mistake was creating a contest that was a marketing gimmick that had the potential to spoil the legitimate community experience of GW users. I apologize for that too.
May I share with you a little background about myself and some of our team?
I founded Ancestry.com in 1996 and in the early years was very proud of what our company was doing, how we kept our prices reasonable, and how we supported and encouraged a thriving genealogical community. By 2001 prices started to get out of control (imho), the support for a free MyFamily.com disappeared, and Rootsweb started getting far less resources and attention. I had led the effort for MyFamily.com to acquire Rootsweb because I loved how that site operated and allowed so many people to set up mailing lists, host content, and enable genealogical collaboration–all for free. I was very disappointed when MyFamily (where I was by then 1 of 9 board members and a tiny minority shareholder) go from like 17 full-time people supporting Rootsweb to only 2 or 3.
So, I have a long history in the genealogical community. So does some of our team at FamilyLink. But some of our 60 employees and contractors are very new to the genealogical space. They are gifted entrepreneurs, designers, and product managers. Some have even built online communities before. But no community, in my experience, is anything like the genealogical community. And everyone on our team needs to learn what is unique about this community, and how to enable it, and never cross it. We aren’t off to a great start at GW, but we learn quickly. And as everyone can see, we connect in real time via Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this, so that we can respond immediately to concerns or complaints. We’ll add more personnel very soon so we can cover all the boards and forums, not just some of them.
I left Ancestry/MyFamily.com/TGN/Ancestry.com back in February 2002, but I missed this industry so much. Finally, in 2006, several of the original Ancestry.com team came back together and launched WorldVitalRecords.com first, then a social genealogy site which later became FamilyHistoryLink.com. But our first real, completely supported and very robust genealogical social network is GenealogyWise.
We are extremely excited about creating a very open, free, robust community with all the genealogical features the community wants. GW has the potential to become the next Rootsweb. But instead of cutting support staff, we’ll be adding to it as fast as we need to.
We are looking at building applications on top of the API that societies and individual genealogists will find very engaging. As we add GenSeek and GenStream functionality to GW and potentially free hosting for all kinds of society databases, we think GW will serve the needs of millions of genealogists worldwide.
For this reason, our missteps in our first 8 days are very painful for all of us that sincerely want to create the best social network for genealogy. Again, I personally apologize for our deleting your comments and for launching that $800 contest.
To put our money where our mouse is (and to show our good intentions and our sincerity), we will send a check for $801 to the Itawamba Historical Society, at the above listed address. It should arrive by next week. We will also send $801 to the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, which is an organization that does a lot of good for a lot of people. I know they have had trouble with hosting expenses and servers. If you don’t consider them a non-profit (I don’t know how they are organized or incorporated) then we’ll send $801 to another genealogical group.
Having been in this industry since 1996, I know hundreds of wonderful genealogists all over the world, and there are dozens of society leaders than I know personally and would love to find ways to support.
In fact, supporting societies has always been one of my goals, dating back to the “Society Hall” feature of Ancestry.com in the early days.
If you want to see something that is both interesting and also dates me, in terms of my involvement in the online genealogy industry, check out this Internet Archive link that shows the original Ancestry.com site back in 1996. http://web.archive.org/web/19961028055925/http://www.ancestry.com/
I personally designed the logo (I apologize for this too!) and have never designed one since.
My point in showing you the 1996 Ancestry which several people on the current FamilyLink team developed, is that we care deeply about starting small and creating something really useful and helpful for the millions of genealogists who devote so much of their lives to researching their ancestors, and preserving the records and stories which add so much meaning to life.
I don’t know what else I can personally say in this comment that will indicate how sorry I am, and how sorry we as a company are, that we made these mistakes. I will say that last night on my iPhone (after about a 12 hour work day) I read all of the 73 comments in the thread at GW about censorship policies. (Now there are 96)
Yesteday we announced a new full-time community manager for GW, Gena Ortega, who publishes the WorldVitalRecords blog and newsletter and has a lot of experience in the industry. In addition, we’ve added a full-time developer, Casidy Andersen, and we’ll be adding more personnel to help build the features of GW that I mentioned earlier and to interact with the community.
If the community flees from GW now because of our mistakes (and lack of a clear policy about inappropriate content), I think everyone loses. We can’t build a community site without the community–no matter how feature rich it is.
But we want to invest in building something you and others in the community will love. We’re in  a unique position to do this.
I spoke at a BYU genealogy conference a year ago and said that the commercial genealogy industry worldwide is actually tiny–far smaller than most of us think. I figure there are probably less than 10 companies worldwide that actually have 10 or more full-time people building genealogical products. There are hundreds of wonderful small companies, too, but very few that have a full team dedicated to building great products for the community.
Because we have 50 million users of our Facebook application, We’re Related, which is primarily an application for families to find living relatives, and because that application is advertising supported, we have had enough revenue to been able to hire dozens of people in the last 6 months to help build our family, genealogy, and history applications.
We want to build the best products that we can, to help everyone in their individual quests to find ancestors and connect with living relatives. We feel satisfaction from every success story we hear.
If you’ll accept my apology, and appreciate our sincerity, and if we (everyone at GW) will learn to respect you and all other genealogists for their opinions and the right to express them — then perhaps all of us can pull together and build something remarkable and free that will bring together the genealogists of the world (and their families) in a special way.
I truly hope so. And I hope you’ll accept this apology and receive the check as a token of our respect for you and all volunteers at all non-profit genealogical and historicalTerry,
I want to add my sincere apology to Nathan’s. We have made more than one mistake in the 8 days since GenealogyWise debuted. Censoring your comment was completely inappropriate, and the moment I heard about it (I was in a meeting with FamilySearch in Salt Lake City at the time) I said, we need to apologize and to establish a policy of not censoring any criticisms of GW.
The earlier mistake was creating a contest that was a marketing gimmick that had the potential to spoil the legitimate community experience of GW users. I apologize for that too.
May I share with you a little background about myself and some of our team?
I founded Ancestry.com in 1996 and in the early years was very proud of what our company was doing, how we kept our prices reasonable, and how we supported and encouraged a thriving genealogical community. By 2001 prices started to get out of control (imho), the support for a free MyFamily.com disappeared, and Rootsweb started getting far less resources and attention. I had led the effort for MyFamily.com to acquire Rootsweb because I loved how that site operated and allowed so many people to set up mailing lists, host content, and enable genealogical collaboration–all for free. I was very disappointed when MyFamily (where I was by then 1 of 9 board members and a tiny minority shareholder) go from like 17 full-time people supporting Rootsweb to only 2 or 3.
So, I have a long history in the genealogical community. So does some of our team at FamilyLink. But some of our 60 employees and contractors are very new to the genealogical space. They are gifted entrepreneurs, designers, and product managers. Some have even built online communities before. But no community, in my experience, is anything like the genealogical community. And everyone on our team needs to learn what is unique about this community, and how to enable it, and never cross it. We aren’t off to a great start at GW, but we learn quickly. And as everyone can see, we connect in real time via Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this, so that we can respond immediately to concerns or complaints. We’ll add more personnel very soon so we can cover all the boards and forums, not just some of them.
I left Ancestry/MyFamily.com/TGN/Ancestry.com back in February 2002, but I missed this industry so much. Finally, in 2006, several of the original Ancestry.com team came back together and launched WorldVitalRecords.com first, then a social genealogy site which later became FamilyHistoryLink.com. But our first real, completely supported and very robust genealogical social network is GenealogyWise.
We are extremely excited about creating a very open, free, robust community with all the genealogical features the community wants. GW has the potential to become the next Rootsweb. But instead of cutting support staff, we’ll be adding to it as fast as we need to.
We are looking at building applications on top of the API that societies and individual genealogists will find very engaging. As we add GenSeek and GenStream functionality to GW and potentially free hosting for all kinds of society databases, we think GW will serve the needs of millions of genealogists worldwide.
For this reason, our missteps in our first 8 days are very painful for all of us that sincerely want to create the best social network for genealogy. Again, I personally apologize for our deleting your comments and for launching that $800 contest.
To put our money where our mouse is (and to show our good intentions and our sincerity), we will send a check for $801 to the Itawamba Historical Society, at the above listed address. It should arrive by next week. We will also send $801 to the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, which is an organization that does a lot of good for a lot of people. I know they have had trouble with hosting expenses and servers. If you don’t consider them a non-profit (I don’t know how they are organized or incorporated) then we’ll send $801 to another genealogical group.
Having been in this industry since 1996, I know hundreds of wonderful genealogists all over the world, and there are dozens of society leaders than I know personally and would love to find ways to support.
In fact, supporting societies has always been one of my goals, dating back to the “Society Hall” feature of Ancestry.com in the early days.
If you want to see something that is both interesting and also dates me, in terms of my involvement in the online genealogy industry, check out this Internet Archive link that shows the original Ancestry.com site back in 1996. http://web.archive.org/web/19961028055925/http://www.ancestry.com/
I personally designed the logo (I apologize for this too!) and have never designed one since.
My point in showing you the 1996 Ancestry which several people on the current FamilyLink team developed, is that we care deeply about starting small and creating something really useful and helpful for the millions of genealogists who devote so much of their lives to researching their ancestors, and preserving the records and stories which add so much meaning to life.
I don’t know what else I can personally say in this comment that will indicate how sorry I am, and how sorry we as a company are, that we made these mistakes. I will say that last night on my iPhone (after about a 12 hour work day) I read all of the 73 comments in the thread at GW about censorship policies. (Now there are 96)
Yesteday we announced a new full-time community manager for GW, Gena Ortega, who publishes the WorldVitalRecords blog and newsletter and has a lot of experience in the industry. In addition, we’ve added a full-time developer, Casidy Andersen, and we’ll be adding more personnel to help build the features of GW that I mentioned earlier and to interact with the community.
If the community flees from GW now because of our mistakes (and lack of a clear policy about inappropriate content), I think everyone loses. We can’t build a community site without the community–no matter how feature rich it is.
But we want to invest in building something you and others in the community will love. We’re in  a unique position to do this.
I spoke at a BYU genealogy conference a year ago and said that the commercial genealogy industry worldwide is actually tiny–far smaller than most of us think. I figure there are probably less than 10 companies worldwide that actually have 10 or more full-time people building genealogical products. There are hundreds of wonderful small companies, too, but very few that have a full team dedicated to building great products for the community.
Because we have 50 million users of our Facebook application, We’re Related, which is primarily an application for families to find living relatives, and because that application is advertising supported, we have had enough revenue to been able to hire dozens of people in the last 6 months to help build our family, genealogy, and history applications.
We want to build the best products that we can, to help everyone in their individual quests to find ancestors and connect with living relatives. We feel satisfaction from every success story we hear.
If you’ll accept my apology, and appreciate our sincerity, and if we (everyone at GW) will learn to respect you and all other genealogists for their opinions and the right to express them — then perhaps all of us can pull together and build something remarkable and free that will bring together the genealogists of the world (and their families) in a special way.
I truly hope so. And I hope you’ll accept this apology and receive the check as a token of our respect for you and all volunteers at all non-profit genealogical and historical societies everywhere.

societies everywhere.

I attempted to post this entire apology on Terry’s blog “Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi” but it exceeded the 4,096 character limit for comments.

http://hillcountryofmonroecountry.blogspot.com/2009/07/my-short-tenure-at-genealogywise.html

So I posted part of the comment there, and the entire apology here.

Terry,

I want to add my sincere apology to Nathan’s. We have made more than one mistake in the 8 days since GenealogyWise debuted. Censoring your comment was completely inappropriate, and the moment I heard about it (I was in a meeting with FamilySearch in Salt Lake City at the time) I said, we need to apologize and to establish a policy of not censoring any criticisms of GW.

The earlier mistake was creating a contest that was a marketing gimmick that had the potential to spoil the legitimate community experience of GW users. I apologize for that too.

May I share with you a little background about myself and some of our team?

I founded Ancestry.com in 1996 and in the early years was very proud of what our company was doing, how we kept our prices reasonable, and how we supported and encouraged a thriving genealogical community. By 2001 prices started to get out of control (imho), the support for a free MyFamily.com disappeared, and Rootsweb started getting far less resources and attention. I had led the effort for MyFamily.com to acquire Rootsweb because I loved how that site operated and allowed so many people to set up mailing lists, host content, and enable genealogical collaboration–all for free. I was very disappointed when MyFamily (where I was by then 1 of 9 board members and a tiny minority shareholder) go from like 17 full-time people supporting Rootsweb to only 2 or 3.

So, I have a long history in the genealogical community. So does some of our team at FamilyLink. But some of our 60 employees and contractors are very new to the genealogical space. They are gifted entrepreneurs, designers, and product managers. Some have even built online communities before. But no community, in my experience, is anything like the genealogical community. And everyone on our team needs to learn what is unique about this community, and how to enable it, and never cross it. We aren’t off to a great start at GW, but we learn quickly. And as everyone can see, we connect in real time via Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this, so that we can respond immediately to concerns or complaints. We’ll add more personnel very soon so we can cover all the boards and forums, not just some of them.

I left Ancestry/MyFamily.com/TGN/Ancestry.com back in February 2002, but I missed this industry so much. Finally, in 2006, several of the original Ancestry.com team came back together and launched WorldVitalRecords.com first, then a social genealogy site which later became FamilyHistoryLink.com. But our first real, completely supported and very robust genealogical social network is GenealogyWise.

We are extremely excited about creating a very open, free, robust community with all the genealogical features the community wants. GW has the potential to become the next Rootsweb. But instead of cutting support staff, we’ll be adding to it as fast as we need to.

We are looking at building applications on top of the API that societies and individual genealogists will find very engaging. As we add GenSeek and GenStream functionality to GW and potentially free hosting for all kinds of society databases, we think GW will serve the needs of millions of genealogists worldwide.

For this reason, our missteps in our first 8 days are very painful for all of us that sincerely want to create the best social network for genealogy. Again, I personally apologize for our deleting your comments and for launching that $800 contest.

To put our money where our mouse is (and to show our good intentions and our sincerity), we will send a check for $801 to the Itawamba Historical Society, at the above listed address. It should arrive by next week. We will also send $801 to the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, which is an organization that does a lot of good for a lot of people. I know they have had trouble with hosting expenses and servers. If you don’t consider them a non-profit (I don’t know how they are organized or incorporated) then we’ll send $801 to another genealogical group.

Having been in this industry since 1996, I know hundreds of wonderful genealogists all over the world, and there are dozens of society leaders than I know personally and would love to find ways to support.

In fact, supporting societies has always been one of my goals, dating back to the “Society Hall” feature of Ancestry.com in the early days.

If you want to see something that is both interesting and also dates me, in terms of my involvement in the online genealogy industry, check out this Internet Archive link that shows the original Ancestry.com site back in 1996.

http://web.archive.org/web/19961028055925/http://www.ancestry.com/

I personally designed the logo (I apologize for this too!) and have never designed one since.

My point in showing you the 1996 Ancestry which several people on the current FamilyLink team developed, is that we care deeply about starting small and creating something really useful and helpful for the millions of genealogists who devote so much of their lives to researching their ancestors, and preserving the records and stories which add so much meaning to life.

I don’t know what else I can personally say in this comment that will indicate how sorry I am, and how sorry we as a company are, that we made these mistakes. I will say that last night on my iPhone (after about a 12 hour work day) I read all of the 73 comments in the thread at GW about censorship policies. (Now there are 96)

Yesteday we announced a new full-time community manager for GW, Gena Ortega, who publishes the WorldVitalRecords blog and newsletter and has a lot of experience in the industry. In addition, we’ve added a full-time developer, Casidy Andersen, and we’ll be adding more personnel to help build the features of GW that I mentioned earlier and to interact with the community.

If the community flees from GW now because of our mistakes (and lack of a clear policy about inappropriate content), I think everyone loses. We can’t build a community site without the community–no matter how feature rich it is.

But we want to invest in building something you and others in the community will love. We’re in  a unique position to do this.

I spoke at a BYU genealogy conference a year ago and said that the commercial genealogy industry worldwide is actually tiny–far smaller than most of us think. I figure there are probably less than 10 companies worldwide that actually have 10 or more full-time people building genealogical products. There are hundreds of wonderful small companies, too, but very few that have a full team dedicated to building great products for the community.

Because we have 50 million users of our Facebook application, We’re Related, which is primarily an application for families to find living relatives, and because that application is advertising supported, we have had enough revenue to been able to hire dozens of people in the last 6 months to help build our family, genealogy, and history applications.

We want to build the best products that we can, to help everyone in their individual quests to find ancestors and connect with living relatives. We feel satisfaction from every success story we hear.

If you’ll accept my apology, and appreciate our sincerity, and if we (everyone at GW) will learn to respect you and all other genealogists for their opinions and the right to express them — then perhaps all of us can pull together and build something remarkable and free that will bring together the genealogists of the world (and their families) in a special way.

I truly hope so. And I hope you’ll accept this apology and receive the check as a token of our respect for you and all volunteers at all non-profit genealogical and historical societies everywhere.

GenSeekers Wanted

A few months ago I twittered about wanting to hire someone to travel for the next 365 days throughout North America for a special project (which is still in the works.) I even suggested the person may have to legally change their name, in the publicity-stunt spirit of Half.com, Oregon or DotCom Guy from Texas.

Within an hour or so I had 9 candidates who direct messaged me on Twitter or replied on Facebook wanting to learn more! This amazed me, and a few of them have reminded me over the past few months of their strong interest in such an adventure — an all-expense paid year of travel to every state, learning, blogging, meeting people, getting local publicity, doing deals.

As I said, this project is still in the planning stages, but we are now considering another project for a different division of our company that may also attract the interest of some adventurous retired couples or young couples who want to travel for a year and help us form partnerships all across the country.

I call this the GenSeeker Project.

GenSeek.com is a forthcoming website being built in partnership between FamilyLink.com and FamilySearch.org. It features a new version of the FamilySearch Catalog, and a myriad of social and Web 2.0 features that will enhance the usefulness of what is already the largest catalog of genealogy sources in the world.

There are millions of sources of genealogical and local history contest that have not yet been catalogued by the team in Salt Lake City. The new web site will enable libraries, archives and societies to add their unique content to the catalog, which will bring it to life in a new way and make more people aware of it for the first time.

But how shall we make libraries, archives, and societies all over the world aware of how GenSeek can help them bring awareness to their unique holdings?

While driving through Idaho and Montana last week, I stopped at a couple of small towns, checked out some historical sites and even tried to visit a pioneer museum. (It was closed.)

I love travelling to places I’ve never been before. And I realized, as I travelled, that in every town, city, and county across this country (and the world) there are interesting local historians and genealogists, librarians and archives in every location. Someone in every community feels a need to preserve and organize historical records.

In Sweden, there are nearly 2,000 local historical societies that preserve records. And from a population of 9MM people, there are 450,000 paying members of these local historical societies. That is 5% of the population. Astonishing really. But many families in these towns and villages have lived on the same land for centuries. Same is true of much of Europe.

With the western migration and the mobility of modernity, we don’t seem to develop such deep roots here in the U.S.  But in the smaller communities we still do have roots. And individuals that are knowledgeabout about local history and genealogical records and are devoted to preserving them and providing access. Mostly these local history savants are probably old-timers with family ties to the area.

A lot of people live not too far from where they were born. (Source: FamilyLink survey, March 26, 2009)

How far do you live now from where you were born? (5071 responses)

  • Less than 50 miles
  • 18%
  • Less than a mile
  • 9%
  • Less than 10 miles
  • 15%
  • Less than 100 miles
  • 8%
  • Between 100 and 1,000 miles
  • 26%
  • More than 1,000 miles
  • 24%

I love driving to new places and meeting new people and discovering local history. I look up Wikipedia articles for virtually every place I visit (on my blackberry or iPhone) and am always excited to discover famous people or events, or in particular, entrepreneurs or inventors from these places. I love the stories that make local communities interesting.

If I had fewer responsibilities holding me back, I’d get a big kick out of getting in a car and driving for the next 365 days to visit interesting places. Someday, I think my wife and I will probably do something just like that. And if there’s a business model to support it, this kind of a road trip could last even longer.

So back to the GenSeeker Project.

What if we found some retired couples or other small teams who were willing to get in a car and travel for the next 365 days to thousands of communities across North America to meet with the genealogists, historians, archivists, and librarians in each community? What if they were armed with smart phones and smart applications that helped them find the right people to meet with in every community, and set up meetings as they went? And what if they had a group of people at company headquarters who helped them plan, communicate, document and publish things they learned along the way?

What if all the expenses were paid for by FamilyLink, including food, fuel and accomodations, and the autos were furnished as well?

Would we want one team, or two, or more?

Should we start by experimenting with a single couple/team for a month or two and see how it works out? Or should we jump in whole hog and recruit 3-4 teams and set them loose on this year-long historical and genealogical information-gathering expedition?

This project is also in the idea stage, but it is likely that if I start finding some interested participants, that we could start an experiment like this, for a month or two, as early as August or September.

So send me an email (PAUL AT FAMILYLINK.COM) if this sounds interesting. Please put GENSEEKER in the subject line, and make sure you explain the skills that you and your companion or team would have that would convince us to choose you to represent us (FamilyLink/GenSeek/WorldHistory.com) in hundreds of meetings with local groups across the U.S. as you immerse yourself in an historical travel adventure.

Near Death Experiences

No, this blog post is not about metaphysical near-death experiences, but I bet the title caught your eye. (As an aside, I read the book Life After Life as a teenager, and thought it was pretty interesting. Since reading that book, though, I’ve seen many efforts to commercialize near-death experiences that I think are bogus. I firmly believe in the immortality of all human souls, and I believe that some near-death experiences are genuine, but that is not the topic of my blog post today.)

What I want to say is that many successful startup companies go through a near-death experience before they figure out how to make their business model work.

I’ve seen this over and over again, both in companies that I have founded, as well as in companies that I have advised or just observed.

I know many startups fail, so I suppose it makes sense that many other startups nearly fail, before becoming successful, but it does surprise me a bit to know of very, very few startup companies that don’t have a brush with death. You’d think that with all the business schools and case studies and entrepreneurial blogs and all the expert advice that is easily accessible to founding teams that many entrepreneurs could conceive of a business idea, write a plan, build a team, raise some capital, find customers and execute on the business plan without serious setbacks.

But that almost never happens. Implementing ideas is not easy. Recruiting the right people to a startup company is extremely difficult. Version 1 products have flaws. Internal systems can break. Competition can be extremely intense. Reaching the right customers can be difficult. Sales cycles can be way longer than planned. Getting attention in the marketplace can be expensive. So many things can go wrong, and usually do. Even when you’ve done startups before.

Paul Graham, who runs Y Combinator, which may turn out to be the most successful incubator of all time, publishes the most excellent essays for entrepreneurs. Founders should read all of his work. But more importantly, they should study the businesses that have come out of Y Combinator and try to understand how they can build products so inexpensively and attract customers so quickly and have exit options so soon. Y Combinator’s track record is amazing.

Y Combinator businesses may appear to be pursuing technology for technology’s sake, sometimes without a clear business model, but like Google, if you first set out to build an incredible world-changing product and succeed, you will almost always find a business model to support it.

I laugh at the commentators who speculate about Twitter’s future. People think the sky is falling because Twitter doesn’t generate revenue, doesn’t have a business model.

As a Twitter addict I know that such comments are completely absurd. There is no doubt at all that Twitter, like LinkedIn before it, will find a sustainable revenue model. Both companies will be worth billions. LinkedIn has forever changed business networking. It is ridiculous for people to try to do business without relying on LinkedIn. So while LinkedIn focused initially on attracting millions of avid users, eventually they got around to monetizing the very valuable audience. Google did the same thing before it. And Twitter will do the same thing after permanently changing the world of communication.

Another conclusion I make when considering Y Combinator is that Guy Kawasaki was right in Art of the Start when he talked about early stage company valuations. Guy said you add $500,000 for every engineer in your company and subtract $250,000 for every MBA. Pretty funny, but often rather true.

Y Combinator funds technologists. A lot of entrepreneurs are “business” people without the ability to develop their own technology. (In my first startup I was the product developer–now I’ve shifted to a management/executive role, and it is therefore more expensive for me to build a company now than it was in the early days. I need a “team” to build products now.) 

Certainly a company needs management and sales and marketing and support eventually. But I think one reason that so many companies go through near-death experiences is that they hire their team in the wrong order. First you have to nail the product. Then you scale the team to be able to sell and support the product.

My favorite near-death experience of all time is the story of Enhance Interactive (formerly Ah-ha), a pay-per-click search engine that held a company meeting sometime back in 2000 or so, to let all the employees know that the business was shutting down. The company was out of money and while it has some customer traction and some revenue, there was no more funding runway–so the doors had to close. At the end of the meeting one of the employees said, “Can we go back to work now?” The CEO was taken back and said, “Don’t you realize what this meeting was about? We are shutting the company down.” The employee said, no, I’ve got some customers to service, and went back to work. Apparently so too did another dozen or two employees, who basically worked for almost nothing until the company turned the corner. A few years later the company was sold for tens of millions of dollars. 

I won’t go into the details right now, and it wasn’t anything as dramatic as what Enhance Interactive experienced, but FamilyLink.com (corporate site) had its own very intense near-death experience in the past few weeks. Amid the global economic meltdown, a bank loan was called, and we scrambled for weeks to find a way to pay it off. A few options emerged, some less attractive than others, and then finally, a couple of days after Christmas, we were completely delivered from our financial pressures. We have now finalized our Series B funding which will be announced shortly.

Amazingly, at about the same time, we turned profitable. Just six months ago we were losing nearly $300,000 per month. But through a combination of very painful cost reductions and the growth in our subcription, advertising, and product revenue streams, we literally turned the corner the week after Christmas, and hope to never turn back.

It won’t be easy, since the economy is in rough shape and there are all kinds of execution risks still ahead of us. But there is literally a night-and-day difference between where we were last year and where we are today. Our team spirit is excellent. We’re hiring lots more people for our call center. And we are carefully recruiting top technologists who can help us improve our current web properties and build new ones as well. We’re also looking for a Chief Genealogy Officer who will help guide all our efforts to bring the world’s genealogy records to internet users worldwide.

We still plan to launch FamilyLink.com, GenSeek.com, and WorldHistory.com in the coming weeks/months. Each one has the potentia to revolutionize a market. We put up our corporate web site late last week, so that people can see everything the company does and not just define us by any single web site or application.

I have said many times before that FamilyLink.com is most likely my last company. This recent near-death experience confirms that for me. There is probably no way I can go through something like this again. I’m too old for this kind of intensity. I had serious insomnia for weeks and wasn’t able to sleep for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time. I missed out on most of the holidays with my family. 

I am sleeping better now, thank you very much, but this near-death experience probably took a few years off my life, and I’m not eager to repeat it any time soon. 

If you are a blogger and have written about your startup’s near death experience, please comment and link to it. (Maybe someday I’ll collect a couple dozen of these stories and have them published.)

Top 25 Facebook App and hybrid business models

I remember when I first learned about LinkedIn.com, and was the 4th person to sign up for it in Utah County. Soon I got into a competition with two friends to see who could end up with the most (real) connections. I finally won that competition, but we all ended up with hundreds of connections. But I remember when one of my friends knew they were losing on the connections number that they claimed to be winning on "endorsements." They changed their key metric, so that they could claim that they had actually won.

The key metric on Facebook apps used to be total installs. Some apps were incredibly viral, especially early on, and got millions of installs. But some of these apps were also fluff and lost their appeal very quickly, so they actually didn’t get used much. Later, Facebook reporting started focusing more on Daily Active Users (DAU), and apps were being valued by third party reporting systems based on how many people were using them each day. Last night, our social team told me that Facebook just replaced Daily Active Users with Monthly Active Users (MAU), and that we are one of the winners in this changing in reporting. With this metric, our We’re Related application jumps up to rank #23 overall for all Facebook apps, with more than 2.1 million Monthly Active Users. It’s gratifying to see our application being used by so many Facebook users world wide to connect with relatives.

Quantcast is now reporting that our FamilyLink Network of sites and apps for families now has 2.77 million uniques globally and 1.15 million from the U.S. The chart looks great, with real steady growth over the last few months. If this trend continues, we’ll soon become a top 1,000 internet property globally which could lead to more revenue opportunities for the company. Our advertising revenue continues to grow as a percentage of total revenue, and we’d like to see that trend continue, even though we absolutely love the subscription business model that WorldVitalRecords.com uses to generate the majority of our revenue.

We’ll also be launching a storefront later this month for the first time with thousands of products available for purchase, so for the first time we’ll be able to advertise these products to our millions of users.

Our investors support our hybrid business model (subscription, advertising, e-commerce) but it is hard to forecast each one of these with such a short track record. We started seling advertising in January. And now e-commerce is just about to launch. I’m sure all of these revenue streams will grow, but at what rate?

Can anyone who has worked in a company with a hybrid business model privately email me, or comment publicly about what they think is typical for the revenue-mix going forward?

I need to carve out a few hours to read some SEC filings from some internet companies so I can find some of this info out myself. A friend of mine said he’ll try to make SEC filings available on the Amazon Kindle, and I told him I’ll be subscribing to a bunch of them, so that every quarter I’ll get them pushed to my device

That reminds me of a great domain name that Provo Labs once
purchased for a potential service to make SEC filings more accessible
and searchable. The domain was suggested by social media creative
genius and podcaster Judd Bagley. It was 10qverymuch.com. We might even
still own it, if someone would like to make an offer for it.

I find myself reading TechCrunch and Mashable every morning on my back porch from my Kindle. I was amazed when I found myself paying for a subscription to these blogs, when they are actually free online, but they are really cheap and the Kindle reading experience is much more enjoyable and relaxing than sitting in front of a computer, or even using my blackberry or iphone. Yesterday I wanted to subscribe to the Economist on my Kindle, but it doesn’t seem to be available yet.