Archive for October, 2009

What (Genealogy) Startups Are Really Like

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Paul Graham of Y Combinator posted an enthralling essay yesterday entitled What Startups Are Really Like. As I seem to do whenever I read his essays, I feel somehow cleansed, purified and energized as a result of walking under his waterfall of great ideas. (Yeah, it really was that good.)

Paul emailed the startup founders he’s helped mentor and asked them what had surprised them about their respective journeys. He listed 19 key things they’ve learned. Nearly all of them resonated with me, so I thought I’d respond to each in turn based on my experiences with Genlighten.

1. Be Careful with Co-founders

Here the takeaways were  “[running a startup is] like you’re married [to your co-founders]” and “don’t pick co-founders who will flake.” I feel quite fortunate in this regard:

  • I’m already married to one of my co-founders — Genlighten’s “Chief Lookup Officer” — and the site is largely designed around her specifications for making the lookup process as simple and convenient as possible. I would never have undertaken a project like Genlighten without her as a partner.
  • My second co-founder, Justin Ball, has devoted countless night and weekend hours over the last year-and-a-half to get Genlighten built while somehow balancing a family of six, a freelance consulting business, and a passion for cycling at the same time.  He’s kind of the ideal embodiment of not flaking. By the way, thanks to Renee Zamora for introducing me to Justin.

2. Startups Take Over Your Life

This has definitely happened to me. Though I (thankfully) still have my day job, I spend pretty much every waking minute away from that job thinking about Genlighten and what we need to do to make it successful. As an example of this, I looked back at the emails in my inbox over the past week and all but eleven out of 132 are Genlighten-related. When friends ask the seemingly innocent question “So how’s Genlighten going?” I find I have to consciously shut myself up after a few minutes or I’ll just go on and on.

3. It’s an Emotional Roller-coaster

When a new provider posts a lookup on the site, or Google Analytics shows a sharp increase in visitors, or one of our users mentions us on Facebook or on their blog, I  immediately feel a huge surge of elation and optimism. Conversely, when an email we send out doesn’t yield the response we’d hoped for, or a potential client offers well-reasoned negative feedback, or delayed baggage causes me to miss most of a genealogy conference I was scheduled to exhibit at, discouragement can be just as dramatic. Like with a roller coaster, it’s the wild oscillations, rather than the peaks or valleys themselves, that are sometimes tough to stomach.

4. It Can Be Fun

I took a day off from my day job Friday to focus on developing some new marketing strategies and on getting our newsletter out. The day flew by in no time. I never once found myself wishing I could be doing something else instead. As Paul Graham says, “the highs are … very high.” Don’t get me wrong, my day job’s pretty good too, but it’s just not fun the way Genlighten is. Freedom and accountability are probably the main reasons for that.

5. Persistence Is the Key

Occasionally the thought will come to me “This is hard work. You don’t need to do this. Think how much more relaxed you’d be if you just gave up on this. You’re not cut out to make this succeed.” When that happens, I’m reminded of similarly ambitious goals I’ve had in the past (the optics Ph.D., the research grants I fought for when I taught college, the part-time Kellogg MBA) that took a long time to realize, but ultimately yielded to simple persistence.

6. Think Long-Term

Paul doesn’t mince words: “… everything takes longer than you expect.” Those of you who have been following our progress for a while may remember the flyers I handed out at FGS in Fort Wayne in August 2007. Giving myself what I thought was plenty of time, I predicted that our public beta would launch in March of 2008. I’ve had to revise that date six or seven times since (the flyers are now on version 23) and we just barely launched our private beta a few weeks ago.

Why has it taken so long? Partly because our finances have dictated that Genlighten is a nights and weekends project. Partly because we’re not single twenty-somethings who can pull all-nighters for a few months and have a minimum viable product. But mostly because we were (check that — I was) tremendously naive. Now I’m beginning to understand what one of Y Combinator’s more successful founders discovered:

“For the vast majority of startups that become successful, it’s going to be a really long journey, at least 3 years and probably 5+.”

It’s looking like that will prove a pretty accurate description of our journey as well.

7. Lots of Little Things

Paul notes that startup success is rarely the result of “a single brilliant hack” — a killer feature, if you will. We’ve found this to be true so far. A large portion of our design/development time has been devoted to incremental improvements/fixes: the links within notification emails, payment processing glitches, page titles, the location and wording of buttons, etc.

8. Start with Something Minimal

Part of the reason I’ve held off so long launching our private beta has been fear of embarrassment, plain and simple. Paul observes:

“Why do people take too long on the first version? Pride, mostly. They hate to release something that could be better. They worry what people will say about them. But you have to overcome this… Don’t worry what people will say. If your first version is so impressive that trolls don’t make fun of it, you waited too long to launch.”

We probably did wait too long.  But there are plenty of features we wanted in our initial release that we ultimately decided weren’t worth any further delays:

  • A slideshow-like page to help you browse through the images providers have uploaded to your account
  • The ability to export genealogy document images to Flickr, Picasa, Geni, Footnote, or Facebook
  • The ability for providers to rate and give feedback to clients (instead of just the other way around)
  • The ability to print out a receipt when you order a lookup
  • The ability for providers to print out a list of pending lookups to take with them to the repository

These things will come eventually, but we plan to get early users’ help in prioritizing these features before devoting lots of time to them.

9. Engage Users

Here the key idea is “product development [should be] a conversation with the user.” We’ve already gotten some great suggestions from those who’ve registered for our private beta, and we hope to receive lots more. One of the YC founders told Paul that:

“When you let customers tell you what they’re after, they will often reveal amazing details about what they find valuable as well what they’re willing to pay for.”

That’s a process we’re very much looking forward to.

10. Change Your Idea

Here’s an area where I can’t comment as easily from experience. We’re still very much focused on the original ideas we had for Genlighten (i.e., the features and the business model) though we’re definitely open to “course corrections.” One thing that could potentially change is the kind of provider we aim to serve. So far, we’ve envisioned our sweet spot as fixed-fee, document-specific lookups priced at about $5-$25 with quick turnaround, offered largely by “serious amateur genealogists” rather than professionals. But we’re already noticing providers signing up who want to advertise open-ended hourly research instead. We still think that market is better served by our competitors, and not one we really want to be in. But that philosophy could change.

11. Don’t Worry about Competitors

This is easy to say and very hard to do. I’ve felt a huge pit in my stomach every time I’ve learned of a new potential competitor to Genlighten. I’ve even found it difficult to visit their sites for fear ours would suffer in comparison.

Paul suggests that for many YC startups:

“Companies that seemed like competitors and threats at first glance usually never were when you really looked at it. Even if they were operating in the same area, they had a different goal.”

I’ve found this to be partially true, but of precious little comfort. One of our competitors has a well-thought out offering that targets true professionals and large-scale hourly research projects rather than lookups. They definitely have a different goal than we do and I’m not worried about them. But the 800-pound gorilla in our space is impossible to ignore, despite the difference in our goals. On the positive side, as I keep repeating to myself, competition is a sign that smart people see ours as a worthwhile market to be in.

12. It’s Hard to Get Users

For us this is doubly true, since we need to attract both clients and providers to our lookup marketplace, and the chicken-and-egg problem is in full force (not enough lookup providers => hard to attract lookup clients; not enough lookup clients => hard to attract lookup providers. ) Fortunately, we seem to be making some headway in this regard, and several promising avenues for both client and provider acquisition have recently opened up.

13. Expect the Worst with Deals

I recognized pretty much from the start that fundraising and most business-development efforts would be a complete waste of time for us until we had customer traction, so I’m completely in agreement with this point. Once we get to product-market fit, however, I know we’ll need to undertake these efforts. When we do, I’m prepared for them to proceed at an agonizingly slow pace.

14. Investors Are Clueless

I’m our only investor, so this definitely holds for us!  More to the point, VCs and angels I’ve mentioned Genlighten to so far have said smart rather than dumb things, e.g., “That market’s too small for me to get a significant return.” They’re right! However, I watched the judges at TechCrunch 2008 struggle to “get” what Footnote’s Pages were all about. If we ever decide to approach angel investors in a serious way, I’m sure we’ll face significant difficulties, even with customer traction.

15. You May Have to Play Games

I’ll admit that I don’t really get this one yet. I can’t imagine how “feigning certitude” would help us at all. Even if investors would even listen long enough for me to feign some.

16. Luck Is a Big Factor

My favorite quote in this section from Paul:

“Founders who fail quickly tend to blame themselves. Founders who succeed quickly don’t usually realize how lucky they were. It’s the ones in the middle who see how important luck is.”

We’re definitely in the middle.

17. The Value of Community

We haven’t had the privilege of being part of the YC experience or the Silicon Valley atmosphere that YC startups benefit from. But both the startup and genealogy communities have been tremendously supportive of our efforts, and we greatly appreciate that.

18. You Get No Respect

I’m instinctively aware of the extent to which “I run a genealogy web startup” would be a complete conversation killer among casual acquaintances. As a result, I rarely mention my involvement in Genlighten to those who don’t already know about us. (Except at our exhibit booth, that is!) This is obviously a problem, since job one for me right now is sales and marketing! So as a result of reading Paul’s essay, I’m going to work on saying “I work at a small startup you’ve never heard of called Genlighten.com” to anybody who will listen.

19. Things Change as You Grow

I’ll get back to you on this one when we have employees and reach “cruising altitude.”

The Super-Pattern

Paul’s summary conclusion is that

“As you go down the list, almost all the surprises are surprising in how much a startup differs from a job.”

This is only now beginning to become clear to me. Nothing in my undergraduate or graduate educations (with the exception of Yael Hochberg’s class at Kellogg) prepared me for the aspects of startup life that Paul outlines so succinctly in his essay.