Archive for August, 2008

Getting Ready for FGS

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

Once again it’s time to get ready to head out to a major genealogy event so we can get to know more potential lookup providers and clients.  Genlighten will be attending the FGS Annual Conference in Philadelphia September 3-6.  If you’re planning on being there too, we’d love to have you stop by and say hi (or even grab a chocolate or two.)  We’ll be in booth #316.

Genlighten: we’re kinda like “x” for “y”

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

I love it when someone at a genealogy conference stops by our exhibit booth and says “So, what exactly is Genlighten?” (usually while unwrapping a chocolate from our candy bowl). As you can imagine, I’ve given lots of different answers to that question over the past year.

How I answer the question “What does your site do?”

An example: I often tell a story about wanting to get an obituary for one of my ancestors from Jefferson County, New York and how nice it would be to find a local researcher in Theresa or Watertown who could track it down for me. “Genlighten helps you do that,” I say.

But most of the time I try to get out a simple, succinct “elevator pitch” — something like:

“We’re an Internet-enabled, human-powered search and retrieval network for genealogical documents;” or

“We connect you with local researchers who can help you find the genealogical records you’re looking for.”

Sometimes people get the concept right off, but often they don’t. They seem to need something to mentally compare us to… an existing business concept that they already grasp.

A “high concept” startup

Over time, I’ve tried to improve on our elevator pitches and craft a phrase positioning Genlighten as what Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners calls a “high concept startup“. That’s where you describe your business model using an analogy to an existing business that people already know well. The best I’ve come up with in this vein is probably:

“We’re kinda like eBay for genealogy document retrieval services.”

But there are several problems with that one. First, not everyone likes eBay, particularly lately. Also, Genlighten isn’t focused on bidding or auctions of genealogical services, so the analogy doesn’t really hold that well. Plus, at least one other genealogy-oriented startup is now using the eBay analogy — and it fits them better.

When I learned about Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade-crafts, I tried saying “We’re kinda like Etsy for genealogy lookups”, but few inside the genealogy community seemed to get the reference.

Tapping the wisdom of our exhibit booth visitors

On more than one occasion, visitors to the booth have come up with their own high-concept pitch for us. I heard it again a few nights ago at the IAJGS Conference here in Chicago:

“So, you’re kinda like Random Acts, only you’re not free.”

This one made me cringe the first time I heard it, at the FGS meeting in Ft. Wayne, Indiana over a year ago. It still does a little, though it’s actually starting to grow on me with time. It’s true, we are a little like Random Acts — we help you find people who can find genealogical records — and it’s also true that we’re not free. But we differ from Random Acts in several highly important ways, and those differences are part of why we feel justified charging for our services.

How is Genlighten different from Random Acts?

If you’re not already familiar with it, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) is a marvelous website that lists volunteers willing to perform genealogical lookups for free (or for just the cost of copies or gas). It embodies the spirit of volunteerism that powers much of the genealogical community: researchers help other researchers without expecting to be paid for their time.

I’m always honored to be compared to RAOGK, but of course our business model is significantly different than theirs! We want to help lookup providers get paid for their time and expertise (not just their expenses) in retrieving genealogy documents. And we aim to make money ourselves in return for the service our site provides. I discussed our “value proposition” in an earlier post. Here are some specific ways I think Genlighten will be different from RAOGK — different, that is, in a good way:

  • We’ll provide a simple way to enable messaging back and forth between lookup clients and providers without the need to exchange e-mail or regular mail addresses. This should enhance privacy and security and help minimize spam.
  • Each of our providers will have the chance to create a profile describing their genealogy background and experience so clients can make an informed choice when competing providers are available in a given area.
  • When providers are out of town or on vacation, they’ll be able to temporarily put their lookup offerings on hold. That way, clients won’t have to wait for weeks wondering why they haven’t gotten a response to their lookup requests.
  • The site will provide an online payment interface with state-of-the-art security, allowing clients to order lookups conveniently using credit cards or electronic checks.
  • Providers will deliver the documents they find by uploading scanned digital images to our site. Clients can then download the the documents they ordered immediately without having to wait for them to come in the mail.
  • Clients will be able to rate and review each of our providers based on their reliability, responsiveness, and customer service.
  • The combination of client ratings, researcher profiles, and fees set by the providers will create a strong sense of accountability that will allow our users to order lookups from our providers with confidence.

Still in search of the right analogy

So we’re not really like eBay, and we differ in important ways from RAOGK, and we’re a little like Etsy but that probably doesn’t mean much to you. What then is our ideal high-concept elevator pitch? As you probably guessed right from the start of this post, I’m still working on it. And I’d welcome any suggestions that readers of this blog might have.

Imaginative Rumor — LDS Church to buy Facebook?

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Update:  the Industry Standard has an even more credible take on this one.

Well, we’ve all heard that social networking is the “next big thing” in genealogical research. But is the LDS Church really planning a hostile takeover of Facebook to “help monetize its genealogy business”? I’m going to go out on a limb and say…. no, not a chance. Here’s the story, according to respected private equity website

“Here’s one you don’t hear every day: The Mormon church is reportedly making a hostile bid for Facebook Inc. Brooklyn blogger Zach Klein says an “employee close to the deal” told him the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints wants the social network to help sanctify, meaning monetize, its large genealogy business.

Idle chatter, hipster hucksterism, blasphemy punishable by an eternity of hell-fire? Who knows (and quite possibly all of the above)? The LDS Church does have money to burn. And Facebook prophet Mark Zuckerberg, with his choir boy demeanor, might make a nice addition to those Tabernacle singers.”

Originating as this rumor does from “Brooklyn blogger Zach Klein”, this one sounds pretty easy to dismiss. Only one problem — updates its article on the topic with a comment from Lyman Kirkland, ostensibly from LDS Church Public Affairs, denying the rumor. So far so good… but Kirkland’s comment spells the name of the Church incorrectly!

OK, so there’s still no way this is gonna happen. But what if it did? How exactly would owning Facebook help the LDS Church monetize its vast genealogy resources? How would that help further the Church’s overall objectives? And if Facebook is really worth some $15B, how is the Church going to afford the purchase? That’s a lot of tithing!

A tale of two logos

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

I was as intrigued as anyone when I read on Dick Eastman’s blog and others earlier this month about Ancestry’s new Chinese-language site, In my casual familiarity with Chinese culture I’ve noticed a strong dedication to maintaining and respecting family lineage, so bringing sophisticated online genealogy research tools to China seems like a great move on Ancestry’s part to me.

But it got even more interesting when I actually visited the site. I was greeted by an attractive-looking tree logo (brown tree trunk with red leaves) with accompanying red type that looked faintly familiar — not from Ancestry’s existing sites — but from ours! Take a look and see what you think.

Jiapu Logo

Our logo

OK, so there are plenty of differences:

  • Jiapu’s leaves are two different colors and a slightly different shape than ours.
  • Our tree has a kind of sunburst in the background illuminating it, but Jiapu’s doesn’t.
  • Jiapu’s logo is animated with ‘windblown’ leaves that move off to the right when you mouse over it; ours isn’t animated at all.

But there are also several glaring similarities:

  • The jiapu tree trunk is a nearly identical shade of brown as ours; it also is angled up and to the right as ours is
  • One of jiapu’s two leaf colors looks the same as ours
  • Their name is red with a black tagline; so is ours

So how did this similarity come about? My guess is that it’s random coincidence — yet another example of two sets of talented people working completely independently and coming up with something similar without the benefit of any knowledge of the other’s work. Happens all the time.

I talked in an earlier post about the genesis of our logo. We filed for trademark protection on it in June of this year. I have no idea when and for what countries Ancestry’s logo was trademarked (though I’m definitely curious).

I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to blog about this issue at all if it weren’t for a certain recent lawsuit filed by Ancestry against Millenia and BTH2. The topic of the lawsuit? Similarities in the color, shape, and wording of two different genealogy companies’ tree logos (among other branding-related elements). Hmm…

What might have been

Monday, August 4th, 2008

As I flew out to Utah and drove back to Chicago this week, I found myself revisiting an anecdote from a book I’d read in junior high called Ball Four — a tell-all book about professional baseball written by one-time Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton. I don’t recommend the book to my readers (I’ve pretty much filed my reading of it under the heading “misspent youth”) but at least one insightful concept from it remains with me: the idea of “games almost tied”.

During the 1969 baseball season chronicled in the book, Bouton was a relief pitcher for the Seattle Pilots. As he watched his team frequently struggle to come from behind in later innings, almost tie the game, but ultimately fall short, he observed that no baseball statistic existed to track the number of such valiant but unsuccessful comeback efforts. To meet this need, he coined the term “games almost tied”, which if adopted, would presumably go next to the win and loss columns in baseball standings. The poignancy of his idea struck me powerfully at the time and still does. What has this got to do with genealogy and family history, you ask? I’ll try to explain.

When we look at pedigree charts or family group sheets, marriage licenses or death certificates, what we’re seeing is basically “history as written by the winners” (to paraphrase Alex Haley, among others). These outlines of our ancestors’ lives of necessity omit mention of the relationships that were almost formalized, but not quite — of the families and children that might have been. Just as baseball standings would be enriched by considering the number of “games almost tied”, so (I’m tempted to conclude) family history research might take on an additional poignancy and relevance were we to occasionally throw light on some of the “almosts” that our ancestors navigated through.

Of course, there are good reasons that we tend to be hesitant to discuss old boyfriends/girlfriends, broken-off relationships and the like — and instead leave them to become inspiration for countless country music ballads and folk tunes. But even though they don’t fit in established slots on genealogical forms, I for one would be grateful if I had some insights into my ancestors’ near misses, whether in relationships, careers, geographic location, etc.. What about you?

On the road again…

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

After a month with almost no genealogy-related travel, the Genlighten outreach team (my wife and me) will be manning our exhibit booth at several genealogical conferences in August:

Midwestern Roots, August 15-16

This conference is sponsored by the Indiana Historical Society and will be held in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Speakers will include Dick Eastman, Susan Kaufman, David Lifferth, Stephen Morse, Beau Sharbrough, and Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, among others.  Several local archives and repositories, including The Indiana State Archives, the Indiana State Library Genealogy Division and the Indiana Historical Society’s William Henry Smith Memorial Library will extend their hours and offer special workshops before and during the conference.

International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, August 17-22

We couldn’t miss this one, seeing as it’s being held right in downtown Chicago (almost in our backyard, if you don’t count the drive down the Edens or on the Outer Drive.)  From reading the program, JewishGen 2008 appears to offer an unusually wide variety of presentations (including an extensive film festival!) and a strong emphasis on learning to use local resources.  In particular, a large number of cemetery visits and excursions to local libraries and museums in the Chicagoland area are planned.  Sources and techniques specific to Jewish genealogical research are of course given extensive coverage (with a significant emphasis on Eastern European resources).  Advance registration is still available.

Stop by and see us!

I’d like to extend a special invitation to readers of this blog to stop by our exhibit booth at either of these two conferences coming up in August.  Feel free to grab a chocolate or two from our bowl and say hi.  We’d love to meet you!