Archive for March, 2009

Some Entrepreneurial Nostalgia

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

I’m once again staffing the Genlighten booth at a genealogy conference… this time the Conference on Computerized Family History and Genealogy.  It’s being held in the Harman Continuing Education Building on the campus of Brigham Young University.

I’ve been hit by frequent bouts of nostalgia this week.  Twenty-six years ago, I attended a predecessor to this conference in this same building when I was an undergraduate at BYU.

At the time, I was, believe it or not, working on my first entrepreneurial venture — a genealogy startup tentatively called Elysium Software. Personal Ancestral File had yet to be developed at that early date, but several other programs existed, and I imagined that I could write one of my own — N-Gen was the name I had in mind — and build a business around it.

At that point, my programming background consisted primarily of a fair amount of BASIC (I’d been writing increasingly complex programs since 8th grade), a smattering of assembly language, and a little Turbo Pascal. My wife and I had recently married, and I convinced her to let us spend way too much of our meager savings on a Franklin PC (an Apple IIe clone).  I began developing N-Gen during the summer of 1983 when I wasn’t in class or doing homework.

As I visited the conference, and looked over the vendors, it quickly became clear to me: this was way over my head. These people knew what they were doing… their programs had manuals! They had staff! What business did I have thinking I could compete with them?  I quietly shelved my ambitions, and never returned to the project.

Now I’m back in this building… at the same conference… and I’m now one of those vendors.  There are big, established, well-funded players here, some of whom are competitors to Genlighten. This time I’m not as intimidated. But it’s still a humbling experience.

Low-Cost, On-Demand Film Digitization and Online Delivery

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

I was excited to read the title for Matt Garners’s talk in the schedule for the BYU Family History Technology Workshop.  He’s from FindMyPast.com.  His presentation focused on an inexpensive automated scanning system that would allow an individual to sponsor the digitization of an entire role of microfilm that they wanted to be able to search online.  Here’s his abstract:

Hundreds of millions of pages of microfilmed historical documents are not being digitized at this time due to insufficient individual demand to garner appropriate commercial attention and investment. This paper demonstrates that the cost of digitisation and online delivery can be lowered dramatically using a novel application of recent technological advancements in imaging, data processing and storage.  A business model is presented such that an on-demand service can be provided whereby an individual end user can afford to personally sponsor the digitisation and online delivery of an entire reel of film.

Understandably, I perceived this idea through the lens of our own startup. In effect, what we do is allow individuals to obtain low-cost, on-demand digitization and online delivery of individual documents — even if those documents haven’t yet been microfilmed. I’m grateful to Matt for giving me a new perspective on Genlighten’s value proposition. And for his work to develop an extremely cool scanner… in his garage!

Genealogy: 20 Minutes per Week

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

I have a difficult time staying on track with my family history research.  I’ll spend a few hours at it one evening and make some real progress, but by the time I get back to it three weeks later I’ve forgotten where I left off.  As a result, I don’t move forward as efficiently as I could.

I started Genlighten as a partial solution to this challenge.  I hope to reduce the momentum-stealing wait for records held by remote repositories from about 4-6 weeks to more like 4-6 days.  The key to this is building out a network of local researchers with access to those repositories who can retrieve genealogical documents quickly (and affordably.)

Charles Knutson of BYU’s Computer Science Department is building a tool that offers a different solution to the problem of maintaining momentum in genealogy research. He gave a marvelous talk during lunch at the Family History Technology Workshop on Thursday entitled “What Was I Thinking About?  The Dilemma of the Part-Time Genealogist”.  The research paper he based his talk on begins with this abstract:

“What can you possibly do to be productive as a family history researcher in 20 minutes per week?  Our studies suggest that currently the answer is, “Nothing.” In 20 minutes a would-be researcher can’t even remember what happened last week, let alone what they were planning to do next.”

The software engineering class he teaches works each semester to develop “The 20-Minute Genealogist”, a software application that will act as a genealogist’s research companion. Log in and the program will remind you where you left off in your research last week.  It will also suggest promising directions you could pursue today, based on what you were working on before.

This impresses me as a truly innovative and exciting idea. It will be difficult to implement, but tremendously valuable. It sounds like they eventually plan to integrate it into NewFamilySearch several years from now.

In the meantime, I think this idea represents a marvelous business opportunity for a genealogy-savvy startup to tackle.  Prof. Knutson has a company associated with his class already, but I imagine he would welcome some competition.

His course page is available here.