Both ideas are very important to me, for many reasons. They both fit into our company mission of Connecting and Strengthening Families–MyFamily.com connected living people to their loved ones using the internet free of charge, and Ancestry.com made it easier than ever before to locate your ancestors with a powerful search engine and billions of online genealogy records. It was easier than ever before to construct (Ancestry.com) and then share on MyFamily.com your family tree.
But after the bubble burst, and as the company sought to discard all the ballast it could to survive and get profitable there was a violent reaction against the free private family web sites at nearly all levels of the company–from the investors and board of directors to the senior management and many company managers.
Several of us fought to keep the MyFamily.com service alive, and we barely averted actually getting the plug pulled on all the existing family web sites, but we did have to switch from a free model to a paid model–$29 per year for a family to have 100 MB of storage space for photos, family trees, etc.
Alas, since 2001, the MyFamily.com service has been online but from a resources standpoint it has been entirely neglected. No one has been developing new features or improving the existing ones for several years. The business unit was folded into the genealogy business. There were no dedicated developers. I left the company in February 2002 in large part because all the company’s resources were going into genealogy content, a business that I love, but also a business with limited potential. While 7% of adult Americans are “highly involved” in genealogy, 95% feel it is “very important” or “important” to keep in touch with living family members. There were so many innovative things that we could have done with the MyFamily.com service, but we had literally zero support from anyone.
Five months after our Series E round we turned cash flow positive, but there was still no support for investing in this amazingly viral and powerful concept of providing a free web site to every family and extended family in the world.
Now, after years of neglect, I hear there is some renewed interest in growing MyFamily.com. But during the heads down years, look what has happened in areas where MyFamily.com could have played a role:
- Voice. Skype has emerged in the last year with 39 million users. (MyFamily partnered with Lipstream in November 1999 to offer free voice chat services to families.)
- Photos. Snapfish is registering 500,000 users per month, for a total of 13 million users of its online photo printing services. Flickr had 3.5 million photos by February 2005, with 82% of them being public. (By February 2001 MyFamily.com hosted more than 10 million photos, but only those submitted to our “online photo contests” were public–but those were attracting hundreds of thousands of “votes” from adoring fans.)
- Gift Giving. Online retail sales hit $23 billion last year, with annual growth of 25-30%. (MyFamily had a excellent gift-recommendation engine designed but never built. We applied for a patent many years ago on “pitch-in purchasing” which would allow family members to use the Web to pitch in on a gift for a family member.)
- Social Networking. Social networking sites continue to draw in millions of users, because they enable people to connect with others. They also continue to attract venture capital. Accel invested $13 million today in thefacebook.com, a one year old social networking site for college students. (MyFamily.com could easily have facilitated networking through families, which are the most permanent of all social networks.)
I am not saying that we could have been leaders in any of the areas I have listed or in any of the other areas we seriously explored, such as family reunion travel planning, family health tracking services, or genealogy genomics (a la De Code genetics), but I am saying that the company opted not to even consider playing in these other spaces.
And to me, that is the saddest part of the otherwise very happy MyFamily.com story.
As Whittier said, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.”
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