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.)

Family History Library Catalog 2.0

This morning at a very small press conference in Kansas City at the National Genealogical Society annual conference we made a very large announcement.

In fact, we announced something that I have personally hoped for and dreamed of for more than a decade.

Today we announced a partnership between FamilySearch and FamilyLink.com to publish the Family History Library Catalog — the largest single database of genealogy sources in the world — in Web 2.0 fashion.

This means that individual genealogists, librarians, archivists, and others from around the world will be able, when the Catalog 2.0 comes online in the coming months, to enhance and extend the value of the catalog. Users will be able to add new sources that are currently in the library catalog, and thus extend its scope of coverage. They will be able to improve the source descriptions, and even rate and review sources as to their usefulness.

Whenever a source listed in the catalog has been digitized, and exists somewhere online, there will be links created to the digital version by users or through automation technology that FamilyLink.com will utilize.

The catalog lists millions of sources from more than a hundred countries, including more than 2 million rolls of microfilm. About.com genealogy guide Kimberly Powell calls it the "gem of the Family History Library," and "the best resource on the FamilySearch web site."

The Genealogical Society of Utah has been microfilming valuable records from all over the world since 1939. The catalog lists all of these films, and organizes them by locality and record type. Some of the records that have been filmed have since been destroyed by war or accident, and so the films become the only surviving copy of the valuable records. And the films themselves are preserved in the famous Granite Mountain Vault.

The catalog also lists books, periodicals, maps, and all kinds of other holdings in the world’s largest family history library (in Salt Lake City) that would otherwise be unknown and unused.

As I said earlier, I have wanted to work with the catalog for more than a decade. I think it is one of the most valuable tools in the world for family history, and I think it can become more accessible and more useful to millions of people worldwide, who don’t yet know that it exists or how to best use it.

When we founded Ancestry.com in 1996-97, our vision was to digitize the genealogical records in all nations and make them available online. We saw the catalog playing a key role in that vision.

I had started a Masters Degree program at BYU in Library Science back in 1990 (although I had to drop out early to focus on my electronic pubishing business.) I have a great respect for libraries and library science. After all, the accessibility to most of the world’s information, prior to the internet, came because of the organizational skills and care of libraries and archives around the world.

I had also watched as the founders of Yahoo began to turn an online classification system for web sites into a multi-billion dollar company. Until Google came along, Yahoo was the most valuable of all web sites. Why? Because it catalogued all the rest. It could be the starting point for all queries, even before search had been perfected, when browsing was one of the dominant activities on the web.

We made several attempts over the years to see if we might be able to license and publish the catalog. But the timing must not have been right. Until Web 2.0 and social networking came on the scene, I’m not sure what value we would have been able to add to it, so our attempts were not successful.

But today, I’m overjoyed that my new company, FamilyLink.com, will have the privilege of working with this precious asset in partnership with FamilySearch, to develop the next generation version of the catalog, that will become more comprehensive, more open, more accurate, and provide more intelligent, algorithmic guidance to sources for family historians worldwide.

Since only a tiny fraction of the known genealogical content in the world is in digital format today, the catalog serves an incredibly valuable purpose, directing researchers to offline sources including microfims that contain the answers they are looking for. (And those microfilms can be accessed from over 4,500 family history centers around the world, for a very small fee.)

As more and more sources become transcribed or digitized, the catalog will directly link to the online version, whether they exist on Ancestry.com, WorldVitalRecords.com, FamilySearch.org, Footnote.com, NEHGS.org, or on Google Books, Microsoft Live Books, USGenWeb, WorldGenWeb, or other web sites, saving researchers countless time.

The new catalog, which will be available via both FamilyLink.com and FamilySearch.org in the future, may become the single best starting point for family history searches, the way Yahoo used to be the best place to find any web site, and may help any researcher quickly see which sources will help the most, and which other researchers have used those sources previously.

This project will bring the "wisdom of the crowds" to genealogy in a way that has never been possible before, showing which of the sources for any locality in the world ought to be consulted, and in what order.

I want to thank everyone who made this announcement possible, including those who have worked on the catalog for many years to make it the wonderful resource that it already is, and those who have been designing the next version of it, as well as the decision makers at FamilySearch who believe with us in what is possible for this catalog.

In addition to what has been described above, how would you like to see the catalog enhanced? What would make it most useful to you personally, or to your institution?

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Official Press Release

Becoming a Top 1,000 Web Property

Yesterday we set two traffic records. WorldVitalRecords.com had more than 36,000 unique visitors–6,000 higher than our two previous best days, earlier in April. And We’re Related on Facebook had more than 105,000 daily active users.

One of the best parts about being an internet entrepreneur is how immediately your actions translate into measureable results. Our team members are working hard on search engine optimization, pay-per-click advertising, email marketing campaigns, and improving our affiliate marketing program. As each channel improves, the overall cumulative results are exciting.

When you have team members that have experienced the thrill of extreme growth in the past from how a web site was built or marketed and when they are hungry to experience it again, and know how to do it, then you have a great success formula. When you don’t have a team that has done it before, you have to inspire them by getting them to listen to or read about people who have done it before.

My personal observation is that the vast majority of people that work in most companies have never experienced anything like the rapid real-time success of a massive internet marketing campaign that they personally helped launch, or a melt-down of servers caused by publicity or viral marketing from something they personally helped build. I remember watching a few product and marketing managers in the early days of MyFamily.com go through a personal transformation when they personally designed or launched a feature, or a marketing campaign, that brought in huge numbers. They were never the same again. From that point on, they wanted to do it again and again, and avoid as many meetings and as much bureaucracy and red tape as possible. They wanted to be on a small dedicate team focused on rapid development. They wanted to experience that thrill again.

Most people I have worked with over the years are willing to spend a lot of time in meetings, or in planning, or in writing 20-page MRDs (marketing requirements documents), rather than spending most of their time building a site or actually launching a marketing program. We have a high concentration of experienced and hungry team members at FamilyLink.com, so we are optimistic about the future.

A good description about the difference between a traditional business with its long-term planning cycles and a fast-paced internet company comes from Meg Whitman, who joined eBay after a successful career with Hasbro, Disney and Proctor & Gamble. In the book Net Entrepreneurs Only, on page 179, she describes the radical difference. I blogged about this in 2004

Everyday we use Omniture Site Catalyst to run our online marketing programs. But we are also looking at our public Quantcast numbers every day. Recently we were able to figure out how to place a Quantcast pixel on our Facebook application so that we can get credit publicly for the Facebook users that are using our We’re Related application every day.

Our Quantcast chart for the FamilyLink.com network of sites now looks like we must be on the verge of a server "melt-down" — and we’ve had people ask us about this. But in fact, we’ve had a ton of Facebook traffic for months now, and it is only just now showing up on our public chart. And the good news is that thanks to Amazon EC2, we are scalable as far as the eye can see.

After another two weeks of Quantcast tracking our actual usage across all of our properties, it appears that our network will break into the ranks of the top 1,000 web properties in the U.S.

It takes about 2.1 million unique visitors per month to be a top 1,000 web site or property. We’ll soon be in the company of prweb.com, looksmart.com, and stanford.edu in terms of unique monthly visitors. To break into the top 500 web properties, we’ll have to reach 3.3 million monthly uniques.

I remember going to Fall Internet World in New York City back in 1998 and first running into Media Metrix. At their booth they had a list of the top 500 web sites at that time, and I was thrilled to see Ancestry.com on that list. I remember later, after the successful launch of MyFamily.com with its meteoric viral growth, and after our acquisition of Rootsweb.com, that our network of properties broke into the top 50 in reach, and our reported monthly page views put as at #19 for all US internet properties. Imagine that–a top 20 internet company based on page views!

It is clear from those early days that genealogy sites and tools for connecting families have huge potential. With the right business model, partners, and the right team, a company in this space has tremendous potential. It’s no wonder, to me, that Geni.com reportedly got a $100 million valuation on their Series A round last year. They are still, of course, trying to grow into that valuation, but they are showing steady growth. The family tree and family social networking space is hot. It has huge potential. The big question now is which of the many various companies in this space will execute well enough to survive and to attract enough customers to become viable. Our team is quite confident that we can make it. We have a number of team members who have experienced the thrill of victory before and are hungry to experience it again.

As I said in my previous post, We’re Hiring. If you have been a part of a fast-growing internet company in the past and are interested in joining with us, please contact me and send me your resume. It’s going to be a really fun ride.

“World Collection” from WorldVitalRecords.com

The worldwide reach of the internet never ceases to amaze me. Earlier this week, after the announcement of our World Collection, containing genealogical data from more than 30 countries, I received an internal company email that said:

We now have subscribers from 48 countries. We increased our country count by 5 in January.
The bolded countries are new in January.

Afghanistan, Algeria, American Samoa, Angola, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bermuda, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Cayman Islands, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, East Timor, Fiji, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States, Wallis and Futuna Islands

World Vital Records record visitors and page views

World Vital Records President David Lifferth keeps the company well informed about our key metrics. I got this information from him yesterday in an email:

“Yesterday, Jan 8th, we set an important traffic record on WVR. For the first time ever, we surpassed 300,000 page views in a single day. We had 336,665, which was a big jump over our previous best of 294,000. The last record was set in Nov 27th, 2007. We had come within a few thousand page views of that record for every day so far this month. I knew we were going to break that old record any day. The newsletter and the chatter about our 2 million We’re Related users was enough to push us into record traffic territory. We also set a new unique visitor record at 22,272. The day before on the 7th, we had came in 2nd to beating the previous record of 20,630 with 20,174. This new traffic has Omniture projecting an 8.2 million page view month. December was our previous best with 6.3 million.”

Our Worldvitalrecords.com Quantcast chart should look really good when the Jan. 9th numbers come out. We should pass 400,000 monthly unique visitors for the first time.

A year ago, we averaged 50,000 unique visitors in January and February, so our overall traffic has grown eight-fold in the past year. Perhaps we will be able to double or triple again this year, and reach more than a million visitors per month by the end of the year.

Also, our FamilyLink.com site traffic (a social network for genealogists) has nearly doubled this year, and our new development team in India is close to rolling some significant improvements to the site.

Finally, our whole company is working hard to get ready to launch an important collection of international databases. You’ll hear more about that later this month, but I think a lot of genealogists will be really happy with our new collection.

I never get over the magic of the internet and the power of internet marketing that allows a small startup company to launch a web site and build something valuable for consumers, and then to watch the traffic pour in.

At CES eBay ads said nearly a quarter of a billion people buy things on eBay and Yahoo talked about 500,000,000 users worldwide. I can’t imagine being a part of a company that size; but I’m still thrilled by small numbers like “millions.”

20,000th subscriber today!

November has been a great month for World Vital Records. Today we reached a significant milestone by adding our 20,000th paying customer. We’ll highlight her in an upcoming newsletter. She is a genealogist from Delta, Colorado.

In August we issued a press release when we reached our 10,000 subscriber milestone, and here we are just three months later at the 20,000 subscriber mark.

Our entire company appreciates each customer who signs up for our premium databases and also those who try our free services such as FamilyLink.com. We also appreciate our wonderful content partners who have helped us grow our collection of genealogical information. We’re approaching 1 billion names in our databases. And we appreciate our affiliates and business partners for helping us share our services with their customers.

The 20,000 mark is also significant because that’s how many paying subscribers Ancestry.com got in its first year, from April 1997 to April 1998.

Of course Ancestry.com is the pace-setter in the genealogical industry and one of the greatest successes in the world of online subscription content. To be where they were after their first year is a great accomplishment. We look forward to many years of serving families around the world. And we appreciate everyone who is making it possible for us to grow and prosper: investors, partners, customers, affiliates.

Thanks to all!

AlwaysOn Venture Summit West, Dec. 6-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!)

What our genealogy customers want

We use Qualtrics survey software (which we really like) and have a panel of customers who have agreed to answer survey questions every month. We appreciate the customers who are willing to take time to give us their opinions. We pay a great deal of attention to the feedback. We adjust our work and investment priorities based on what our customers tell us.

Our last survey had 15 questions. We received answers from 1,041 customers. Here are some interesting facts:

  • Half of our customers like to our full newsletter articles in the emails we send out; but half would prefer to see only a portion and then click through to the web site to see the rest if they are interested. (It’s not easy to decide what to do when our customers are split 50/50!)
  • Half of our customers would like a daily email about our new databases. (We offer databases that are free for 10 days.) Years ago, when I was at Ancestry.com, we had the same response: half of our customers wanted a daily email, and half wanted a weekly.
  • The top six states where our customers want more databases are New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Illinois and Massachussetts. These were followed by Missouri, Kentucky, and Indiana. The top three Canadian provinces are Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia.
  • 84% of our customers feel that genealogical and historical societies are important or very important to their family history research!
  • 64% of our customers already belong to at least one genealogical society. 11% belong to “five or more” societies!
  • 70% of those who do not currently belong to a genealogy society would like to join one.
  • Only 5% of our customers are dissatisfied with our browsable census images collection, even though we don’t have full text searching. (It appears that our customers are satisfied with our ongoing efforts to put more data online, even when it is not exactly what they eventually hope we will provide.)
  • We received hundreds of customer testimonials, with many specific examples of how people have found ancestors in our pedigree collections, newspapers, and other databases.
  • Based on these survey results, our management team met and decided the following:

    1. We want to find and hire a genealogist in each of these states and provinces who are willing to help us to find more local databases for our web site. (If you live in our of our top states or provinces and are interested in earning some part-time income helping us find new databases for your state/region, please call World Vital Records at 888-377-0588 and ask for Amy Rhoads, or send me an email using the “Contact Me” link on my blog.

    2. We would like to help our 325,000 monthly visitors and our 10,000+ new daily users of our Facebook apps to find and join a genealogy society. Societies play a very important role in organizing local information and spreading knowledge about how to properly research genealogical sources. I have been to many society meetings and conferences over the years and I am always impressed by the depth of knowledge that society leaders have. There have been concerns for many years about societies slowly losing membership and trying to find sources of revenue and leadership to keep them around.

    Dave Rencher, from the LDS Church Family History Department, spoke at the 2007 FGS conference about how societies could become more virtual and attract members and leaders from outside their own geographic region. I found a powerpoint Dave used in 2005 to share a similar message.

    At World Vital Records, we would like to help societies by encouraging our customers and site visitors to join and support and get involved with societies.

    We are creating a program that can help societies attract more members by providing them with free traffic and leads (from our social networking sites) and benefits/incentives for their members, such as discounts on genealogy subscriptions and software. We have a separate opportunity to help societies generate revenue from some of the indexes, databases, and publications that they may have created in the past.

    For membership help, please contact Carin Green.
    For content partnerships (a source of revenue), please contact Yvette Arts.

    Both can be reached at our main toll-free number: 888-377-0588
    For societies outside of the U.S., please call 1-801-377-0588

    Soon we will be creating new Customer Panels for our We’re Related App on Facebook (it lets you connect with relatives, build a family tree, and share family photos and news) and also for our FamilyLink.com social network for genealogists.

    If you are a genealogist, please feel free to comment on this blog post and provide whatever feedback you think will help us provide better products and services to you. Please help us design the future of family history research!

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.