What MyFamily.com Might Have Been

From its conception till now I have firmly believed that the MyFamily.com opportunity is 10 times bigger than the Ancestry.com opportunity.

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’.”

8 Comments

  1. You’re right, Paul. The thoughts regarding MyFamily.com have struck a chord directly at the core of a situation. MyFamily.com, bluntly put, now deals with the deceased. What about the living? The dilemma is not easily answered, no matter how slick the brochure or marketing plan or public presentation. Fundamental, hard-to-provide, hard-to-scale situations stimulated the services created for the customers of Acentra. Why ignore the living? We operate in a spectrum where one pole rests squarely at expending all of our energy on that of the dead (ancestry) while the other pole rests at our family, friends, self, and community–those still among the living. The pursuit of ancestors and genealogy is a sobering, overwhelming stewardship of ours, and although this is noble and needed, compared to our obligations to the living ‘…let the dead bury the dead…’

    It is my humble opinion that we have a stronger call of stewardship to those with whom we have ongoing, living, laughing, loving relationships. Acentra has been created to focus on this area. I hope Acentra can fulfill the needs of family members with this same level of tangibility.

  2. Andres Narvaez

    I think if you add the linkage and creation of family member profiles and blog/posting boards, and integrate thefacebook.com’s daily birthday reminder tool…you could have one heck of a comeback service!

  3. Interesting post. I’ve often wondered why there haven’t been more new offerings from myfamily.com. The two sites I use (one for my wife’s family and one for mine) generate $60/yr in revenue, and I’ve often thought that it wouldn’t take much in terms of innovative features to capture twice that amount. Heck, I’d pay an extra $10/yr just for them to add an RSS feed. I’d also be willing to pay for some kind of snapshot/archive functionality so that I could keep a record of the site (I’m not holding my breath for that one, since it makes the storage upgrade a harder sell). And I LOVE the “pitch-in purchasing.” I’m glad to hear that some of those things might actually happen.

  4. Paul,

    We saw the same opportunity and tried to launch a free family website with enriched community tools, such as photo sharing, integrated calendering, blogging, etc. Unfortunately, we got squashed in the crash as well. I still think there is a place in the market for these offerings.

  5. Richard Johnson

    Paul – I discovered your BLOG today. Happy New Year. Thought I’d come to see this and it is sad but true. It’s unfortunate the original vision was lost. This seems to be the case for many small business. I still say to this day that someone should have done a leveraged buy out and turned MyFamily.com back on it’s feet. The possibilities were endless and now we see what communities online are doing – they are changing the way we all interact and how we consumer media. MyFamily was a pioneer and possibly before its time.

    All my best to you in your new venture. Possibly soon you will her about something new from me 🙂

    Best,
    Rich Johnson

  6. Dustin Robertson

    What about targeting a market you can own the first position? While the genealogy market is much small than family networking there was no clear leader in the online genealogy field so maybe ancestry?s strategy is not so bad. Social networking is very susceptible to technological change which can be hard to manage against but genealogy will always require a huge database of knowledge. If ancestry changes their focus to social networking I would bet their leader position in genealogy will slowly erode.

  7. I have a MyFamily.com site that I have been paying $29/yr for from when I started it. There lots of family pictures and information on the site, but no one else goes there anymore because notifications stopped going out. I talked to help people there who say they are working on it, but it is still broken. The tell me about a new version of MyFamily.com that works better, but have no way of moving my data to it other than maybe one item at a time. I would like to continue with MyFamily.com if there is some way it would again send notifications.

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