My New Personal Facebook Strategy

I have been a serious user of social networks since joining LinkedIn several years ago–the fourth person in Utah to join, as I recall. My friend Michael Tanne, now CEO of Wink.com, turned me onto it. Of my 858 connections, I think I personally know about 98% of them. I have turned down a ton of connection requests because I really did want to be part of a trusted network. But I read that you should connect to a couple recruiters and a couple of the most networked people in the world, and I did, and it has dramatically expanded the reach of my own network. I am three degrees away from 3.74 million people. I use LinkedIn all the time to make contact with people from other companies.

I tried many other business social networks early on, including Ryze, Spoke, Xing, ZeroDegrees (first caught on with entertainment execs in So Calif) and Tribe.net but nothing had the ease of use of LinkedIn, so I’ve dropped them all except Xing, which is strong in Europe. Someday I’ll beef up my usage of that site.

I’m not a fan of MySpace, but have been active in Facebook for quite some time. I have about 300 Facebook friends, but probably 90% of them are just casual acquaintances, and the reality is that less than 10% of my actual close friends use Facebook. So how useful is it to me really? I’m married and have kids, so much social life is pretty much limited to work, family, church, and my kids’ school activities. The vast majority of Facebook apps are useless to someone like me. For business I rely on LinkedIn, and for family stuff, my own family and my wife’s family still use MyFamily.com, the social network for families which I helped build in 1998.

With all of that in mind, I’ve decided to dramatically change my usage strategy of Facebook. I’ve got 130 friend requests that are pending–almost all of them from people that I’ve never met. Many of those requests are from people in different countries. I am certain that many of them think I’m the Microsoft Paul Allen so they friend me. Or maybe they are entrepreneurs or members of the same Facebook groups that I belong to, and they just want to beef up their friend network.

During last week’s Robert Scoble controversy, where he was using the new Plaxo tool (in Alpha) to mine email addresses from his Facebook friends, I learned that he has about 5,000 Facebook friends, apparently the upper limit of what Facebook allows. I read recently that one person with more than 1,000 Facebook friends uses it to get a first hand glimpse of how Facebook apps spread, and who is using what apps. I got to thinking…maybe my Facebook connections can become as valuable to me for market research as I watch what they are doing and ask them questions using My Questions or other surveying/polling tools, and I’ll get a much better sense of what my own company can do in Facebook.

I see some serious downsides.

  • My newsfeed will become interesting mainly as market research, kind of my own mini zeitgeist, and not very satisfying in terms of keeping up with people that I really care about.
  • Reputation comes in large part by association–you are judged by the company you keep. So anyone who knows me and then clicks on any of my “friends” may assume certain things about them, based on what they know about me, and now, that trust by association will be almost completely lost. In fact, my own reputation, may be damaged.

I am quire worried about the reputation thing. Just last week a friend of mine told me should couldn’t believe I ever worked with so-and-so, who had tried to defraud her and take credit for her idea, and there was clear guilt by association. Thankfully I told her that I had met with him a couple of times and talked about doing something together but had such serious disgreements with him that we never actually worked together.

But the upsides are interesting also. I envision getting 5,000 friends like Scoble, with most of them being international entrepreneurs and older consumers. FamilyLink.com’s products and services are primarily of interest to family historians, who tend to be older, often over 50. Canada has more Facebook users over 50 than the U.S. does, with only about 1/9th of the population.

I’ll publish my blog into Facebook and attract more comments since I’ll have more readers. I highly value reader comments, and love to get 10-20 comments per post.

When I travel internationally, I often have very few good contacts in a given country, and it is hard to have a successful first trip when you don’t already have some kind of network there. I usually use LinkedIn to make some initial contacts and to set up some meetings, but now I may have some Facebook “friends” who may be willing to give me advice about where to stay, how to get around, and who to meet with.

For the last few days I’ve gone back and forth about the value of meeting new people through Facebook vs. the risk of a damaged reputation and the possibility of friends trusting people that aren’t trustworthy.

I’ve decided to go ahead and try an experiment. I’ll accept the 130 other friend requests that I have, and actively start seeking friends in countries that I’m planning to travel to this year. I’ll try to find a way to “warn” my own friends and acquaintances that I’m using Facebook in this way, and that they can’t instantly trust people in my friends list. I’ll also start using the new Friends List feature of Facebook, so I’ll have my own way of communicating instantly with all my real friends.

I was on the fence for several days. But I finally decided to go ahead and get a zillion Facebook friends when I realized that if this experience turns out badly, I can just reboot. I can delete my Facebook account and start over from scratch.

So, tell me what you think about my decision. I’m starting right now, and if you really think this is a bad idea, post a comment and tell me so, and maybe you’ll save me from a disaster. Or if you have any advice for me, please share it.

Association of Professional Genealogists speech

I spoke today at the Salt Lake Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists. The meeting was held in the Family History Center.

I started by asking how many wanted me to talk about the history of Ancestry.com, (after all, these people spend all their time researching the past) and how many wanted me to talk about our vision for the future of genealogy at World Vital Records.

Everyone voted for me to talk about the future, and to explain what we are doing and what we plan to do to help them as professional genealogists. I was a little surprised that no one wanted to hear the Ancestry.com story, but alas, most people don’t want to hear about your family history either–they want to discuss their own. I think the bottom line for all of them was, “As professionals, tell us why should we care about World Vital Records.”

But I couldn’t resist. Earlier this week I gave two lectures at BYU’s Entrepreneur Lecture Series and in preparation I had relieved all the early years of Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com while readying my “entrepreneurial story.” So all of this stuff is really fresh on my mind, and as I told the APG members, by discussing all the painful stuff with them, it may help me in the healing process. :)

So I chose to take about 15 minutes to discuss the founding of Ancestry.com, and how it had grown out of a CD ROM publishing company that my friend Dan Taggart and I started in 1990, and what happened in the early years. I tried to highlight some of the key points in our history:

  • Broderbund (producer of Family Tree Maker) was the 800-lb gorilla in family history in the 90s. We designed our business model to provide free online access to most of what they were selling on CD ROM (family tree software, data CDs and family tree collections on CD) and to offer a premium data collection online as a subscription.
  • In April 1997 we launched our paid subscription service and we promised to add at least one new genealogy database to our web site every business day. To my best knowledge, Ancestry.com has never missed a day.
  • We offered all new databases free for 10 days, and we let people sign up for a free newsletter, the Ancestry Daily News, that would announce our new databases each day.
  • Our strategy worked and millions of CD ROM users flocked to our web site. Within a few years we had raised tens of millions in venture capital and become the largest genealogy company in the world. We were able to acquire Rootsweb, and then, after I left Ancestry.com, the company acquired all the assets that Broderbund had previously owned (Genealogy.com/Family Tree Maker/Genforum.com).
  • MyFamily.com was launched in 1998 and it attracted 1 million users in its first 140 days. At its peak, 20-30,000 new users joined the free site every day. And since in every family there is an active genealogist or one yet to be created/discovered, MyFamily.com was a key entry point for potential Ancestry.com customers. When MyFamily.com turned into a paid service back in 2001, it lost a huge amount of momentum.

In my speech, I ran through a list of 12 major mistakes that (IMHO) the company (now called The Generations Network) has made during the last 6 years. But I also indicated that Tim Sullivan, the current CEO, has addressed some of these and is trying to lead the company in the right direction again. For example, his international emphasis and making MyFamily.com’s basic service free again are definitely positive moves.

Now I know that some people would like me to elaborate on all 12 of the mistakes, as I see them, in this blog; while others are thinking to themselves, “you always spill all the beans, Paul. Why don’t you keep some things close to the vest?”

So I won’t publish my list of Ancestry.com mistakes right now. Neither will I list the 12 major ideas/projects that World Vital Records is pursuing in an effort to find a useful role in the genealogy/family networking space.

But I will touch on some general ideas.

First, someone asked if we were just copying Ancestry.com business model and trying to provide access to the same data they are. The answer is absolutely not. We are trying to innovate and find ways of being useful that are completely new. Why would we, as a startup company, want to compete head-on with a giant in the area where they are strongest?

Ancestry has already spent $100 million digitizing content during the last 10 years and are spending $10 million more each year. The LDS Church also has a huge budget for this kind of thing, as they work with archives and microfilm collections, as does Google and Microsoft, as they scan major libraries around the world. Many other companies, archives, governments, libraries, and societies are involved in digitizing and/or indexing content.

We will do some digitizing and indexing but it will be small in relation to these other organizations who make this their primary business. Our fundamental approach is to partner with content providers worldwide and to enable our customers to find records in their databases, whether we host them or not. (Which is why we are so happy that DearMyrtle gave us the “most prolific agreement-signing genealogy website of the year” award on her blog recently.) Our business model is built on paying substantial royalties to content owners.

With Footnote.com‘s growing traffic (see Quantcast chart on Footnote), it is clear that there is still room in the market for well-funded companies to digitize and index content and sell subscriptions to it–even as Google and Microsoft’s book projects are bringing an ever-increasing flood of old books online. The Quantcast chart for Google Books shows 8.8 million unique visitors per month; and one of the top correlating keywords for site visitors is in fact, “rootsweb,” showing that genealogists are becoming more aware of this resource. (The affinity for “rootsweb” to books.google.com is 2.6x.)

World Vital Records Plans

I described to the APG members several of the major initiatives that are underway at World Vital Records, but I won’t go into them now. They involve user generated content, history, geography, metadata, social networking, improving the quality of online family trees and source citations, and even online gaming theory.

One question that I found difficult to answer was a question about why families should trust my company (or any company) with their data, knowing that commercial firms need to find ways to make money, and once the data is out of their hands, they are afraid it will be exploited.

I intend to write an article on the topic of “Who Owns Your Family Data?” and submit it to a prominent genealogical publication, hoping that it will lead to a serious discussion of this issue.

At Ancestry.com, when we launched the Ancestry World Tree, we made a promise that all user-generated content would remain free. It was in our terms and conditions. Later (after the founding team was gone) the company decided to continue to provide access to the data for free, but to launch a parallel product where the data was merged into a huge single tree (the OneWorldTree), with some new technology features, and to sell access to this merged collection of user content, claiming that they were really selling access to the tools, and that the original data was still free (if you could find it.)

Like Broderbund’s World Family Tree collection, which made them unpopular with many family historians because they were selling user data, this move made lead to a lot of criticism of Ancestry.

So there is a valid concern that even a company like World Vital Records, which philosophically believes that user generated content should be free and should be controlled by its submitter, might eventually be acquired by a different company, or hire different management, who might change its policies.

Structurally, the founders of Google tried to address the issue of corporate governments and their control of its future philosophy and direction by creating two classes of stock, one with more powerful voting rights. Because of this, I believe that Larry Page and Sergey Brin have ultimate control of Google, and will, even if they leave the company.

I don’t know whether or not we’ll be able to deal with long-term control of World Vital Records in the same way, but I have seriously considered asking the genealogy community to nominate potential board members for World Vital Records, and to give one board seat to a genealogy expert who can be the voice for the community.

We have five total board seats–three have been filled (one was filled today–we will make an announcement soon about this) and two are open. One of these is reserved for an industry expert. This is the seat that I am considering filling with someone nominated by leading genealogists, to help us stay on course. The individual would also have to have significant business experience as well, and understand their fiduciary responsibilities.

In our board meeting next week, this will be a topic of discussion.

(To make it fun, maybe we could ask Roots Television to create a reality TV show called “Genealogy Idol”, and over a dozen weeks, one potential board member could be voted off each week. On second thought….Nah.)

Anyway, in the coming weeks it will become more clear what place World Vital Records hopes to fill in the family/genealogy community, and how we will differentiate our products and services from those that are currently offered by the leading online genealogy companies.

If you are into genealogy, I invite you to give me a list of the top 5 things you would do if you were running World Vital Records. I’m very interested in hearing from you. (But be careful–if your suggestions are too good, you might get recruited by the genealogy community to fill an open board seat!)

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.

Ancestry.com “Thrilled” With New Genealogy Startups

The Salt Lake Tribune published this interesting article two days ago:

Utah-based Ancestry.com, with 900,000 subscribers the reigning king of commercial Internet genealogy services, welcomes Geni.com and a spate of other online family history newcomers to its world.
“For years, we were the only ones driving growth in this category,” said Tim Sullivan, CEO of Generations, which owns Ancestry.com, MyFamily.com and related sites.
“So when we see Geni or any number of new genealogy upstarts, we’re thrilled,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan maintains that once someone gets interested on online family study, “they eventually will make their way to Ancestry.com” and its 23,000 online databases of births, deaths, baptisms, military service, censuses and more.
The 9-year-old Ancestry.com family also offers a number of free services to Web visitors, among them its One World Tree.
More than 1 million user-generated pedigrees have been uploaded to Ancestry.com in the past month, and 170 million names and 500,000 photos have been added to online records over the past six months.
“People can go to Ancestry.com and build family trees, invite their family members to upload photos and precious stories and documents – and all of those experiences are free,” Sullivan added.

I share Tim’s opinion that new online family tree building sites will lift the whole genealogy industry. I’ve made the same argument as CEO of World Vital Records.

You build a tree with help from other family members and pretty soon you’ve entered all the names you can from memory and now you need to start doing more in-depth research. That’s where genealogy research sites like Ancestry.com and WorldVitalRecords.com are needed.

But I wonder how thrilled anyone at Ancestry.com really is that Geni.com has done a better job of making it easy to build a family tree and invite everyone to collaborate on it.

Back in 1999 we launched our OFT (online family tree) tool at Ancestry.com and MyFamily.com and started getting tons of usage. Billions of records were uploaded or added over the next few years. But when MyFamily.com bought the #1 genealogy software product, Family Tree Maker in 2003 (a year after I left the company), it stopped pushing its free download software, Ancestry Family Tree, and stopped promoting its free online family tree building tools as much as it had before. Because now, instead of cannabilizing its competitors software revenue, it was now cannabilizing its own revenue.

With Geni’s launch, and with several other online family tree tools/social networks available now or launching soon (such as SharedTree.com, Amiglia, Famster, FamilyTreeGuide.com, Cozi, FamilyLearn.com and OurStory.com) The Generations Network (parent of Ancestry.com and MyFamily.com) has a ton of new competitors. By not pushing its free online tree tools for the last 4 years, it has really created this vacuum and invited all this new competition.

If anyone is thrilled with what is going on in the family history world, I think it should be consumers, who are going to find that competition leads to better and more affordable tools.

And of course, I am thrilled to be involved with World Vital Records, one of the “spate of other online family history newcomers” that Ancestry.com is welcoming to “its world.”

We’re weeks away from launching our new flagship website and hopefully getting a specific mention by name in the next “Ancestry.com welcomes….” press release.

This is going to be a very fun year.

International search engines for genealogy

World Vital Records most popular international search page is our German Genealogy Search page. According to Overture, there were 1045 searches on the Yahoo Network last month for “german genealogy” and 292 for “germany genealogy.”

After Germany, our most popular international search engines are England, Ireland, Australia, Italy, France, Austria, Scotland, Wales, Hungary, Sweden, China, Slovakia and Brazil. Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed Slovakia has recently been one of the leading sources of international traffic to my personal blog site, paulallen.net.

As we begin to enable our site visitors to share content with each other and to connect with other researchers, the popularity of our international search engine pages will grow.

We also invite libaries, archives, publishers, website owners and authors worldwide to contact us if they would like us to index their content and make it available to our growing audience of worldwide genealogists. We pay higher-than-average royalties to our content partners, as well as to our online affiliates.

We are doing all we can to keep our overhead costs low so that more people can afford to access online family history resources than ever before. With Google Book Search scanning millions of public domain volumes and with FamilySearch‘s digitization of the famed Granite Mountain Vault in the next five years, so much family history content will be free. There will be valuable collections of exclusive, proprietary content that people will pay for, but many more will be able to enjoy the family history hobby with just an internet connection.

We are currently designing a second web site and a business model that is designed to prosper in a world where much (if not all) genealogy data is free. That is a daunting task for those of us who launched the first online genealogy subscription site (Ancestry.com in April 1997) and then watched as hundreds of millions of dollars of subscription revenue were generated over the next ten years.

Our World Vital Records site will be subscription based and our forthcoming site (soon to be publicly announced–the domain name starts with FAMILY) will be free and supported by advertising and other revenue streams.

We appreciate every new customer who purchases a subscription on World Vital Records — I wish I could call and thank every one of you — because it gives us the resources we need to continue to develop that site, with its international databases, and to launch this new site which we hope will provide a value service to millions of family historians.

Goal for 2007 — focus on one thing!

After some wonderful time off with my family, I regretfully went back to work yesterday with one of those feelings of being completely overwhelmed — there are so many hundreds of things on my to-do list and so many dozens of things to blog about. I know I’ll never catch up so I won’t even try.

One of my main New Year’s Resolutions is to not get behind on email. Last year I ended the year with about 1,700 "unread" messages in my inbox. The problem is that I had read many (maybe even most) of them on my Blackberry, but they didn’t show up in gmail as having been read.

It is frustrating to occasionally use my Desktop email only and to see so many unread messages that you know you can’t even make a dent in them. And trying to remember which ones you’ve already read is also frustrating.

So a couple weeks ago I downloaded a bunch of Google software onto my blackberry, so instead of using the Blackberry email interface (which is actually far better than gmail) I am now using the Gmail interface which gives me one huge advantage–all the messages I read on my blackberry show up as read in my inbox. Plus, I can easily archive any messages or star the ones that I need to do something about.

And I archived all of last year’s emails so I’m starting the year fresh. It feels good to be caught up!

Now, if I can just find a way to have fewer people emailing me ….

Does anyone have any ideas? How have you reduced the number of incoming emails and voice mail messages?

I know one CEO of a huge company that has an auto-responder that says, "due to the high volume of email that I receive, don’t expect a reply…" or something to that effect. Another CEO says he doesn’t even try to respond to all his messages.

I would welcome any suggestions.

Okay, so now for today’s topic: Goals for 2007.

Last year on January 3rd I blogged about my 2006 goals. At the time I thought I was being overly ambitious and I admitted that. It turns out that I had way too many goals and not enough bandwidth to achieve them all.

While last year I worked on the Book of Mormon in Russian, this year one of my spiritual goals is to study the Koran and to try to understand the beliefs of Islam, with an estimated 1.4 billion adherents. (See Wikipedia article on Islam.) I have great respect for the Muslims whom I have personally met and I believe that understanding the religious beliefs of others can lead to more respect and peaceful co-existence. In fact, I have been wishing that the leaders of our nation would use the "bully pulpit" to encourage all Americans to learn foreign languages (whether it be Arabic, Mandarin, or Spanish) and to study cultures and countries in a determined effort to gain more respect and admiration for other peoples. I think the "ugly American" image could be overturned if we made a concerted national effort to do so.

2007 will be a very different year for me. I’ve made the big decision to focus on a single company this year.

During 2006 I ran the Provo Labs incubator and seed fund. We invested in nearly a dozen startup companies. Some of the companies are doing well and will continue to prosper. They will only need occasional help from me. Some of the companies are borderline; perhaps a few will not survive at all. But in a portfolio theory, as I have been reassured by other experienced investors, all of this is okay. It really only takes 1 big hit to provide a positive return to our investors.

During the last few months one company has emerged from the pack as the one that I want to spend almost all of my time on during the coming year. It happens to be in a field that I love; we are creating a vision that is big and bold. We have a desire to have a positive impact on millions of people in the coming year.

The company I’m going to focus on this year is World Vital Records, our next generation family history company.

I have told people for years that I would have stayed with MyFamily.com for the rest of my life if that company had stayed true to the vision that we created for it in the early years.

But I left nearly five years ago because I felt the company had no room for my ideas and was no longer favorable towards innovation. It has been painful for me to watch as Web 2.0 has swept the world with its emphasis on user generated content and social networks, and to continually wonder what MyFamily.com could have been. In fact, I blogged in 2005 about what MyFamily.com might have been.

With a reported $150 million in revenue this year, the company formerly called MyFamily.com and now known as The Generations Network, is a formidable and very dominating company in the genealogy industry.

I am favorably impressed with what the company is doing in many respects, including customer service. I often get emails from people who think I’m still involved with the company. The number of complaints has dropped dramatically. I think the company’s policies are kinder and gentler than they used to be. I’m excited about all the data the company is putting online and it’s greater use of PR this past year. I’m looking forward to the upcoming "relaunch" of MyFamily.com. I know the company was advertising on HotJobs for Web 2.0 developers and savvy internet marketers up in Seattle where the MyFamily business unit is located. I can’t tell you how exciting this is for me, to see a new commitment to private web sites for families.

(Note: I am not involved in the company, except as a minor shareholder.)

But our new company, currently called World Vital Records, and soon to be renamed when we launch our flagship genealogy web site, definitely has a place in the world.

We will soon have 5,000 paying subscribers. (We launched our paid service in October.) Our traffic is growing, our Alexa ranking is increasing and our momentum is building. We exceeded our Q4 forecast by 33%.

We have subscribers from all 50 states and 8 countries, and we have already had visitors to our web site from 117 different countries. And this is just the beginning.

Our team is incredible. We have the original search engine developer at Ancestry.com, Richard Stauffer, and the lead data engineeer, John Ivie, who prepped the first 3 billion records that Ancestry.com put on its web site. Our President, David Lifferth, was also a data engineer at MyFamily.com, but he is learning web analytics, marketing, and is an excellent manager. He was part of the team that helped Infobases (my first company) launch its first genealogy CD ROM product back in 1995. So he has a lot of experience in this field. We also have Brad Pace, who was the lead developer of the MyFamily.com web site when it launched back in 1998. In fact, our team probably knows more about the early days of Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com than all the employees at The Generations Network combined, since almost none of the original folks are left there.

We also have a great content acquisition team and advisory board members are helping us license and create databases from all over the world. We’ll have some great announcements in the coming months.

We know we can build tools and provide content that will appeal to millions of people who are interested in their family history. And we can co-exist with The Generations Network and dozens of other companies with important family history web sites. In fact, we will send our members to all other web sites, including Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com, and Rootsweb.com, if that is where the answers exist that they are looking for. Our mission is to help our customers find the answers they are seeking.

This year, since I want to focus on one thing (and all my advisors and mentors have been telling me this for months!) I want to publicly blog about my 2007 goals for World Vital Records.

1. We want to end this year with at least 30,000 paying members.

2. We hope to have 3 million registered users on our soon-to-be-launched flagship web site. It will be much more mainstream than Worldvitalrecords.com.

3. We intend to have search engines built and data available in dozens of countries and several languages. We are working on our Poland genealogy search engine, for example.

It is exciting to focus again on an industry that I love. The people in the genealogy industry are among the best people I have ever met. They are so dedicated and passionate to finding and preserving family stories. They are smart and kind and willing to share.

I truly hope that our team can provide value for millions of family historians. As we talk with family historians every day and learn more about their unmet needs, you will see a continual stream of new content and features on our web sites.

We are small, but we have big dreams for this company.

I’ve been telling people that I’m going to focus on one thing this year, and people who know me are highly skeptical. I’ve been doing so many different things in the past 3 years they don’t think I really can focus.

And they are mostly right. I won’t give 100% to anything, because I am involved in many things. But I think I can give 80% of my time and effort to one thing.

I will continue to lecture weekly at the Provo Labs Academy and bring guests in regularly to provide excellent training to the entrepreneurs who are members there. I will continue to do this because it helps me stay sharp on what’s going on in internet marketing and it also gives me a great opportunity to bring employees from my portfolio companies together for training. I’ve been requiring their attendance at many events. And I love the energy and insights that all the PLA members bring to the meetings.

Yesterday Brock Blake from FundingUniverse.com gave a great lecture about what entrepreneurs need to know about angel investors.

Today I’m lecturing on Search Engine Optimization and the Google Algorithm. With many employees from my own companies attending, I can meet their training needs all at once. And when all our portfolio companies are generating a great deal of traffic from natural search engine traffic and are using web analytics, pay-per-click and email marketing effectively, then this ongoing commitment to internet marketing training will really pay off.

Our Provo Labs Academy members pay $200 to be able to attend up to 4 lectures and networking events per week and to get some access to our office space, library and conference rooms in Provo. Call Pat Sheranian at 801-373-6565 if you are interested in learning more.

I wish all of you a Happy New Year!

I hope that you don’t hold it against me if you are one of the hundreds of people whose emails and voice mails I didn’t return last year. I assure you, those messages are safely in my archive. :)

As you know, I plan to do better this year.