Archive for the ‘Genlighten Strategy’ Category

ExpertConnect’s going away. Can Genlighten take its place?

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

At Genlighten, we’ve tried to take the 37Signals approach towards our competitors:

People sometimes ask us how much we look at the competition. The answer: not much. We can’t control what they do. We can control what we do. So we focus on that.

Still, when I first heard about Ancestry’s plans to debut ExpertConnect just a few months before our beta launch in 2009, my stomach experienced one of those roller-coaster drops that tend to characterize startup life.

Now a year and a half later, ExpertConnect is shutting down. When I saw Ancestry’s e-mail in my inbox yesterday, I went through three reactions in rapid succession:

  • Cool, the 800-pound gorilla has left our market… we don’t have to compete with them anymore!
  • Uh-oh. If they can’t make this business work, how can we expect to?
  • Darn… I wish all our marvelous new features were ready to go right now!

Now that we’ve had a little time to process it, here’s our “official” response to Ancestry’s announcement:

To our current clients and providers:

  • Genlighten will continue to serve you in the months and years ahead. We’ve heard your feedback and we’re working hard to implement the improvements and new features you’ve asked for.
  • Our next release is currently targeted for the end of June. We’ll be inviting some of you to test the new version beginning in March or April. You’ll see an upgraded homepage, simplified navigation, a brand-new search capability, internal messaging, and an overall higher level of fit and finish.

To ExpertConnect users considering switching to Genlighten:

  • We’d love to tell you that we’re ready right now to step in and completely fill the void left by ExpertConnect’s departure. We’re not. But we expect to be there soon.
  • When we first launched, we focused Genlighten on offline record lookups rather than hourly research in order to differentiate ourselves somewhat from Ancestry. In response to client and provider requests, we are now revising our strategy. We plan to fully embrace high-end professional research offerings and online searches in addition to document retrieval and record lookups.
  • By joining us now, you’ll have the opportunity to exert a significant influence on the direction we take in response to ExpertConnect’s closure. We’d love to get your help in making Genlighten all you’d like it to be.

Our next release

When our new release is launched this summer, we plan to offer both new and existing users the baseline functionality ExpertConnect had, plus:

  • a flexible and customizable storefront interface optimized for client discovery and frictionless e-commerce.
  • no one-year “lock-in” of clients you acquire through Genlighten
  • active social media marketing of your profile and service listings
  • tools to let you promote your presence on Genlighten via your blog, Facebook, Twitter, Adwords and more
  • analytics to help you understand how to draw more traffic to your offerings.
  • search-optimized research tools for localities and repositories that will attract visitors to the site and spotlight our providers to prospective customers.

How we plan to succeed

Genlighten lacks Ancestry’s global reach, brand awareness, massive staff and financial backing. Still, size and strength apparently weren’t enough to make ExpertConnect “a winner“. [Note the first comment to that linked post on Dick Eastman's blog. It's a particular favorite of mine!]

We think there are some advantages to our small size that will keep us from getting “blown out of the water.” For one thing, we don’t need to make anywhere near as much money as Ancestry required to justify ExpertConnect’s existence. We’re completely bootstrapped, with no institutional investors, so we’re quite content to be a “lifestyle business.” At the same time, Genlighten is our core product, not an add-on to a much larger offering, so you can expect us to be focused on it for the long term. And there’s another upside to our small size: when you call us on the phone or e-mail us, you’re connecting directly with our founding team.


As you can imagine, this is an exciting time for our little startup. We hope you’ll share it with us! If this is your first time here, please explore the site and contact us with your questions and suggestions. If you’ve been with Genlighten for a while, please help us spread the word to your fellow genealogists. Either way, Thank you for your interest and support!

Genlighten ♥ The “Tip of the Iceberg” Illustration

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010


I came across this photo today as I was preparing this month’s issue of the Genlighten newsletter. In the picture, I’m giving my 3-minute pitch to the panel of judges at the midVentures25 competition held a few weeks back.

One of my slides included the now-famous “Tip of the Iceberg” illustration commissioned and owned by the California Genealogical Society. It communicates in an exceptionally clear way the fact that most genealogical records simply aren’t online. Since this remains a big component of Genlighten’s value proposition (“We help you find the offline records you need via a network of local researchers with access to remote repositories”) I wanted to make sure I drove this point home to the judges in a memorable way. From the questions and comments I got, I’m pretty sure it worked.

So… Who Are Your Customers?

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Our entire team (Cynthia, Justin and I) were interviewed tonight by the founder of one of the startup accelerator programs we’ve spent the last month applying to. The time leading up to the interview was of course quite nerve-wracking, but the conference call itself actually ended up being a rather pleasant experience.

From the questions he asked, it was obvious that the interviewer had taken the time to read our application thoroughly, explore the supplementary materials we linked to, and research our market in significant depth. He returned several times to one particularly important question (a clear indication that I didn’t do a very good job of answering it): “Who Are Your Customers?”

So… Who are They?

I gave several different muddled responses that were long and circular. Here’s what I probably should have said.

Basic Segmentation

Genlighten acts as a platform provider in a two-sided market with lookup clients on the one side and lookup providers on the other.

Our clients probably consist of three segments:

  1. beginning genealogists looking for help, information, and some basic records
  2. serious amateur genealogists searching for specific hard-to-find records, and
  3. professional genealogists seeking offline records as part of client research projects.

Similarly, our providers likely include:

  1. history buffs or others with archival research background but little personal genealogy experience
  2. serious amateur genealogists looking to transition into the professional realm (so-called “transitional” genealogists)
  3. professionals who view lookups as a way to source clients for larger-scale hourly research projects.

How Many of Each?

I’m going to go out on a limb and attach some percentages to these different segments.

On the client side, I would guess the numbers break down about so:

  • 10% beginners
  • 80% serious amateurs
  • 10% professionals

And on the provider side, I’m thinking:

  • 5% non-genealogists
  • 65% serious amateur and/or “transitional” genealogists
  • 30% professionals

The One-Sentence Answer

If I had to sum up our audience in a succinct soundbite, I’d go with the following:

“Our sweet spot is serious amateurs helping serious amateurs.”

OK, That’s Your Audience. But Who Are Your Customers?

So… are our customers our lookup clients, our lookup providers, or both? That’s actually a pretty tough question. The Harvard Business Review articles on two-sided markets talk about the need to subsidize one side in order to speed adoption and increase the potential market for the other (“money”) side. The discussions tend to get quite technical — I won’t claim to have figured out how two-sided market theory applies to genealogy lookups just yet. For now, I’m going to take the simple route and say that both clients and providers represent equally valuable Genlighten customers.

Why Should You Care?

Ultimately, the way we at Genlighten answer these questions will influence strategic decisions such as pricing (what should our client-side “handling charge” and our provider-side commission be set at?), advertising (should we spend more money to recruit providers or to attract customers?) and hiring (should we hire more customer service people, more engineers, or more sales representatives?) All these decisions will affect our ability to grow and the quality of the experience you have when you visit our site and use our service.

So I’m grateful that our interviewer forced us to focus on this key issue. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on how I should have answered him.

100% Digital Document Delivery — except where prohibited by law!

Monday, March 29th, 2010


Early in Genlighten’s development, we made a key decision about the way our providers would deliver the documents they retrieved to their clients. We would require that each provider have access to a digital scanner, so they could take the paper documents they found at the repository, scan them, and upload them to Genlighten in digital form. If the records they searched were on microfilm, a direct microfilm scan would work too. But no paper records were to be mailed to clients.

Rationale For Our All-Digital Strategy

We had five basic reasons for going with this approach:

  1. The client would effectively receive the record as soon as the provider uploaded it. No waiting for the record to arrive in the mail and no danger of the record getting damaged or lost in transit.
  2. The provider could add value to their lookup offering by enhancing the image contrast and otherwise improving the resulting document above and beyond the paper or microfilm record quality.
  3. The client would immediately be able to share the document with friends, archive it on their hard drive, and add it to their genealogy software or website.
  4. All three parties to the transaction would be able to clearly verify that the lookup had been completed successfully, since the client, the provider and Genlighten could each view the uploaded record.
  5. Since no snail-mail was involved, no physical addresses would need to be exchanged, enhancing privacy and security.

But What If…

When we decided to go the all-digital route, we knew that we’d eventually run into requests for exceptions, and we figured we’d deal with them as they arose. One obvious edge case: what to do about 50-page probate files? What if providers couldn’t easily get a hold of a scanner with a sheet feeder and they balked at having to scan 50 pages one-by-one? After much deliberation, we decided that in such situations providers could mail the paper copies to “Genlighten World Headquarters”, and we’d take care of the scanning and uploading ourselves on the provider’s behalf. If the volume got to be too much, we saw ourselves outsourcing the task to a service such as Officedrop and deducting the cost from the provider’s share of the lookup fee. So far, no one’s asked us to do that yet.

An Unexpected Legal Issue

But just recently, we had a new provider — Jade Schmitt — come to us with a unique problem. She wanted to offer lookups for pre-1907 birth, marriage and death records for Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS). Cool — that’s just the kind of thing we’re looking for. But there was a weird catch. Jade told us that it’s illegal to make digital copies of vital records at the WHS.

We checked it out with the State of Wisconsin, and the official we talked with confirmed: no digitizing the WHS records. There was, however, an intriguing potential loophole. It’s only illegal to scan those records within Wisconsin. So if Jade drove to the Wisconsin-Illinois state line and handed the paper copies to us, we could scan them on our side of the border. (Or she could simply mail them to us, but that’d be a lot less fun!)

1/4 Mile Ahead, Crazy Pete’s Genealogical Document Scanning

When I heard this, I immediately thought of those signs that always greet us on the other side of the Wisconsin border whenever we drive north on I-94: “Crazy Pete’s Fireworks Stand (and cheese!), 1/4 Mile Ahead.”  Now imagine Jade driving down from Wisconsin, crossing into Illinois, and seeing the sign “Next Exit, Crazy Pete’s Genealogical Document Scanning.” That’s what this law could apparently lead to!

A Temporary Exception

Until we can nail down this loophole a little more, and hopefully get some kind of formal legal document that ensures we’re always going to be on the right side of the law, we’ve decided to make an exception to our 100% digital document delivery policy for Jade. So she’ll be mailing out paper copies to fulfill the lookup requests she receives.

If you’ve got any suggestions to offer regarding Wisconsin public records law and digital scanning, we’d love to hear from you!

Follow Friday: Joe Beine’s Genealogy Roots Blog

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

fair_angelsRecently on Genlighten we’ve had an influx of new users registering for the site and posting lookup offerings. While most of them represent exactly what we have in mind — local researchers visiting nearby repositories to retrieve and digitize records that are only available offline — some have gone in a different direction than we’d like to see.

These “lookups from online sources” have offered to look up records for a fee that are already available on Footnote or the FamilySearch Record Pilot for free. We see nothing inherently wrong with this (presuming the client is made aware of the free alternative should they wish to search it themselves) but it doesn’t really fit the vision we have for Genlighten.

Genlighten is all about Offline genealogy records

Just as Footnote calls themselves “The place for original historical documents online” we’d like to be, in part at least, “the place to get help retrieving original offline historical documents”. That’s how we’d like to position/differentiate ourselves relative to our competitors. It’s become obvious that we need to spell that out more clearly on our site and in our promotional materials, and you’ll see us doing that in the weeks and months ahead.

In the meantime, one of the things we’re now doing is reviewing each new lookup offering we get before letting it go “live” and making sure that the records the provider offers to search aren’t already available online for free. A great place for us to go and check this out is Joe Beine‘s marvelous sites listing birth/marriage records and death records available online. [He has several other sites worth checking out for other record types as well.]

Joe’s performed a tremendous service for genealogy researchers everywhere. He’s constantly updating his sites; when he does, he lists those updates on his Genealogy Roots Blog. You won’t find a lot of posts here about Joe’s own research or on the usual geneablogging memes — just high-quality links and actionable advice on places you can find the records you want (usually for free!)

If you’re not already following Joe’s blog, I encourage you to do so… you’ll come back again and again and find stuff you never would have guessed was online.

Startup Customer Service — Some Lessons Learned

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Back in June of 2008, at the conclusion of my Entrepreneurship and New Venture Formation class at Kellogg, our class group pitched the concept of Genlighten to a panel of VC/Entrepreneur judges. Our presentation was a success, but one of the judges warned us that the older demographic we were serving would have more customer service needs than we had budgeted for in our financial plan.

Now fast-forward to March 2010. At this point, given our small userbase, my wife has been able to deal quite effectively with the daily emails and occasional phone calls we’ve received. But over the last few weeks as our traffic has begun to pick up, we’ve seen the volume of customer service inquiries increase right along with it. Several of our experiences with concerned customers have proven quite challenging to deal with, and I like to think we’ve grown as a result. I thought I’d share a few of  the lessons we’ve learned.

Episode #1: Panic Mode

I recently created a new PowerPoint presentation for prospective providers called “Genealogy Lookups 101“. I uploaded it to,  and posted a link to the slides on our Facebook Fan Page.  Later that night, my daughter sent me an agitated e-mail. Someone was posting on our Facebook wall that our site was a scam, that the records we offered weren’t free like we claimed they were, and that he’d learned that only after wasting $29.95. Since I knew these comments would potentially show up in all our fans’ newsfeeds, I went into panic mode. We don’t ever claim the lookups we offer are free, and we don’t charge subscription fees… nothing on our site is priced at $29.95. What was going on? Who had he mistaken us for?

Guilt By Association

bogus_genealogy_lookup_ad_v2I replied to the poster’s message, asking for details. After some research, it became clear what had happened. is a little like YouTube. They host the slideshows you upload for free, they ask you to tag your presentations with keywords, and they display Google AdWords ads next to your slides corresponding to the keywords you choose. One of the ads that was being displayed next to my “Genealogy Lookups 101″ slides was for a site that appeared to offer free lookups. As it turns out, our Facebook fan had visited this site several months back, signed up for a $29.95 subscription, and found nothing useful at all — certainly not free genealogy lookups.

So when he saw that ad next to our presentation on our page, he assumed that the ad was from us, and that we were the ones who’d previously disappointed him. It took some time, but I eventually convinced him that the ads he’d seen didn’t have anything to do with us. After a while, I quietly deleted our message thread from the Fan Page wall. But the damage had been done… a good number of our Fans unsubscribed from our page, presumably lost forever.

The lesson here was clear: wherever we put our content, we need to be conscious of the environment it’ll be placed in. People will associate Genlighten and our brand with the web company we keep. If we’d had a business account on Slideshare, for example, instead of an ad-supported free account, we might have avoided being associated with questionable ads.

Episode #2: Transaction Pending

As part of the checkout process on Genlighten, we reassure clients that their credit cards or PayPal accounts won’t be charged until their lookups are completed. Technically, the process includes these steps:

  • The customer clicks on the “Proceed to Checkout” and the “Complete Checkout” buttons
  • We submit an “authorization” to the customer’s credit-card issuer to verify that the card is valid and that the payment amount can be successfully charged. At this point the charge should show up on the customer’s credit card as “pending”
  • The lookup provider performs the lookup, completes it, and clicks on the “charge client” button
  • The earlier “authorization” on the customer’s card is “captured.” This is the moment at which the card is actually charged.

“It’s Deceitful”

Recently a client checked her bank balance and was told that a charge from Genlighten had come through on her debit card. She checked the site and noticed that the lookup was still in process. Perturbed because we had explicitly promised she would not be charged prior to lookup completion, the client called to complain. She liked the site, was pleased with the lookup provider’s efforts, but was NOT happy that we had “deceitful” language in our explanation of the charging process.

I listened, took responsibility for the “you won’t be charged until…” language (I had written it!) and explained that as I understood things, the charge should show as “pending” rather than “cleared.” I offered her a full refund if that wasn’t the case. She agreed to check again with her bank, and that’s how we left things as the call ended.

Welcome News

A few days later, the client e-mailed once more. She’d checked with her bank, and they had clarified what the automated teller had told her earlier: the Genlighten transaction was indeed “pending” rather than “cleared.” Her money was still in her account. She was relieved, and so we’re we. It felt like we’d regained her trust.

Two lessons this time. First: perception is reality. The client felt she’d been deceived, and only once she’d discovered the truth for herself was she convinced otherwise. By listening and offering to make her whole, I motivated her to check the situation out in more detail. If I’d come across defensive, I probably would have lost her for good.

Second: customers read the promises we make and will hold us to them with exactness. In this case, it probably wouldn’t hurt to add some language to the site that explains the possibility that their bank may show their transaction as “cleared” when it’s really still “pending.”

This is What We Signed Up For

When we chose to start a business, we simultaneously chose to face challenges like these. We knew we’d be small and face large well-established competitors. And we decided right from the start that we’d need to differentiate ourselves through our personalized customer service. We’re starting to understand just what we’ve signed up for in that regard.

We want to be like the Founder of Groupon, Andrew Mason. This is what he wrote in a recent blog post about his attitude towards customer service:

I don’t know if it’s some kind of weird complex, but the idea that there’s even one customer out there that is less than thrilled with Groupon horrifies me.

We know that feeling. When things don’t work the way we want on Genlighten and customers are unhappy, it’s hard for us not to take it very personally. Our customer service strategy is simple: keep listening to our customers and work to make Genlighten a little better every day.

Genealogy: A $1B Market? Maybe

Monday, March 1st, 2010

one_billion_dollarsI’ve spent a sizeable fraction of my evenings the past few weeks working on applications to summer startup accelerator programs. Genlighten’s to the point where we could really benefit from the mentoring, community, focused intensity, and access to seed-stage funding that these programs offer. The ones we’re particularly aiming at are:

The application questions reflect each program’s unique personality, but they also share some predictable common elements (What will your startup do? Who are your competitors? How do you plan to make money?) Though none of them specifically ask for revenue estimates (they’re smarter than that), they all imply that they’re looking for startups that are attacking large potential markets.

The Challenge of Sizing the Genealogy Market

That’s a problem for us. Just how big is the genealogy market? This question has been addressed in numerous forms over the years, usually phrased as “Just how popular is genealogy anyway?” Dick Eastman has taken a serious crack at answering this question in the past and arrived at the answer (paraphrasing slightly) “probably not as popular as we think.”

When I tell people I meet at startup-related events that I’m working on a genealogy website, they usually say something like “Oh… that sounds like a nice little niche.” Their body language sends the message that they don’t think I’m going to be getting rich anytime soon. I’m tempted to offer a response like “It’s actually a pretty big market,” but  I just don’t have the numbers to back that claim up.

My Estimate and How I Arrived At It

For the applications I’ve submitted so far, I’ve basically tossed out a made-up genealogy market size number: $1 billion in annual revenue. How did I come up with that number? Here’s my back-of-the-envelope calculation (all figures annual):

  • 2009 revenue: $225M
  • All other genealogy websites: $100M
  • All other genealogy software: $50M
  • Professional genealogy services: $100M
  • FHL microfilm orders: $10M
  • Government archive film/document orders (NARA, State, County): $100M
  • Vitalchek: $50M
  • Other genealogical record retrieval (libraries, historical societies): $25M
  • Genealogy societies (membership, conferences,  transcriptions): $15M
  • Other genealogy merchandise (books, accessories, etc.): $25M
  • Specifically genealogy-related travel: $300M

Feel free to check my math, but I get that to add up to $1B annually.

Probing My Assumptions

Of the figures I’ve listed, only the Ancestry revenue number is anything other than a wild guess. The travel number is particularly suspect. I’m thinking about “pilgrimages to ancestral homelands” like Ireland, Germany or Poland, so they’re probably pretty expensive, but how many people are actually making those kinds of trips in this economy? And what about professional genealogists? Are they really making $100m in annual revenue, or is the real number more like $50M?

I feel a little more confident about the web and software company revenue figures, though they’re also probably a bit generous. But very few genealogy-related firms are public, so it’s always going to be difficult to refine these numbers without direct input from the leadership of these firms.

Does It Matter?

To the majority of family history enthusiasts, the size of the genealogy market probably isn’t that important. But if we’re going to encourage entrepreneurs to build innovative genealogy-related companies, and if those companies are going to receive the funding they need to grow and succeed, someone’s going to have to come up with a better estimate than I have. Hopefully a much bigger one!

“Just in Time” Genealogy Document Digitization

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

In a fun blog post entitled “The Genealogy Instant Answer Line“, Arlene Eakle educates her impatient (and by implication, naive) clients on just how long it’s going to take to pole vault them over their brick walls:

Please do not expect to have your 20-year problem resolved, with documentation, with full analysis, with pertinent comments and follow-up in supporting sources, in 20 days.  Not happenin’–with your ancestry nor anybody else’s.  When you engage me to solve your hardest-to-find ancestor and link him to an unknown family unit, allow sufficient time for me to do it.

I love this kind of candor. Arlene’s obviously a truly professional genealogist who’s going to be completely straight with you. And she’s clearly right. You probably wouldn’t have come to her for help unless yours was the kind of problem that needed her unique divergent thinking skills and research expertise, applied over months, not days.

But what if the “Instant Answer” was available from a single offline document?

Would it be realistic to expect to have that document retrieved on the same day you decided you wanted it? What about if you wanted it in an hour? A few minutes?

“Just In Time” On-Demand Genealogy Document Digitization

Consider the following (admittedly contrived) scenario. You’re browsing the Family History Library catalog online  at about 9 pm Central time on a Thursday evening. You notice there’s an FHL film (say 1671673) that has a pretty good chance of holding the marriage record for your great-great-grandparents. It hasn’t yet been digitized and indexed on the FamilySearch Record Pilot, unfortunately. You could go to your local FHC tomorrow and order it for $5.50. It’d probably arrive in 2-3 weeks.

genealogy_pagerBut what if you wanted to know RIGHT NOW if film 1671673 contains that marriage record, or if you should try a different research avenue instead, all without interrupting your genealogy flow? What if you could log onto a website, enter that film number, and immediately see a list of people who were at the FHL right this minute and who could go pull the film for you? What if the researcher you selected could then browse through the film on a reader, locate the marriage record you’re after, scan it directly to a digital image, and upload that image to the website for you to view and download, all within about 15 minutes of receiving your request?

We have the technology…

As it turns out, this scenario is completely plausible. In fact, here at Genlighten we’ve already begun building the infrastructure to make it real. It will probably end up relying on web-enabled smartphones and make use of Twitter’s APIs. Clients who want this kind of near-real-time response will need to pay a premium for it. But the cost of this service will still be comparable to that of requesting the film.

So… are you interested?

Can you think of a situation where you might use this? How much would an “Instant Genealogy Answer” be worth to you?

Footnote, FamilySearch and the Power of APIs

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

fs_api_diagramI had the chance to visit with leaders of two of the most influential players in the online genealogy market today, and I was struck by the completely different attitudes they each take toward APIs. FamilySearch has at least four distinct APIs that I know about, including ones for:

  • Family tree data
  • “Authorities” (standardized dates, places, and names)
  • “Record Search” bibligraphic metadata
  • “Research Wiki” page content

Footnote, by comparison, doesn’t have any (that they’ve made public, at least.)

API => Startup; No API => Old-media dinosaur

At first glance, this seems backward and counter-intuitive. APIs tend to be the preferred mode of growth and communication used by successful startups like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. By granting access to their data in a format that can readily be consumed by other services, these companies create platforms on which others can build — entrepreneurial ecosystems that nourish other startups (think Facebook or Twitter application developers) — and generate income by applying ad-based monetization approaches or revenue-sharing arrangements.

So-called old-media “dinosaurs” like the New York Times and News Corporation, on the other hand, have tended to throw up paywalls and to resist calls to make their content available via APIs. For them, the mantra of the free content movement: “information wants to be free” has been an anathema to be fought with all the weapons at their disposal.

Before today, I would have tended to tag FamilySearch with the “old media dinosaur” label while filing Footnote under the “startups that get new media” category. So it should be Footnote touting its APIs to the developer community, while FamilySearch stays closed and protective of its data. But instead it’s the reverse. What’s going on here?

False Dichotomies and “New” Old Media

What’s going on here is that both print and online media are undergoing a period of radical disruption, in which old assumptions are overturned or abandoned and previously valid dichotomies are rendered false, or useless, or both.

Prime example: the New York Times has introduced its own set of APIs, while simultaneously rolling out a new consumption-limiting paywall.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that genealogy “content providers” are grappling with the same issues and evolving their business models in response.

Business Model Differences Shape Policies Towards Content

One obvious explanation for FamilySearch’s API-centric strategy lies in its non-profit status. As a Church-sponsored entity whose mission is to facilitate and accelerate genealogy (and temple) work throughout the world, it would be self-defeating if FamilySearch treated its content as scarce and proprietary. Footnote, on the other hand, relies on a subscription model that can only succeed if the majority of their most desirable content is kept behind a paywall. [As a small, nimble startup, Footnote is also constrained in how much development in can do with its scarce resources -- robust APIs are not easy or cheap to develop and maintain.]

Consider the Possibilities

But what if Footnote (or Ancestry for that matter) tried to become more of a research platform and less of a “walled garden” of content? In a prescient 2008 essay, VC Fred Wilson makes this prediction about the promise of “Content” APIs:

Content is data, but it’s a bit different. Content is unstructured data with the benefits of a lot of context, semantics, relationships. Once the vast databases of content that exist inside the big media companies start becoming available via APIs, we can start to do some amazing things.

What kind of “amazing things” could for-profit “big media” genealogy companies do if they opened the spigots on their content using APIs? And if they did so, could they still make enough money to continue to fund the record digitization efforts that have so greatly benefited genealogists? I believe they can.

A Modest Proposal

I haven’t fully baked this idea yet, but I’m going to toss it out there anyway. I propose that genealogy content providers develop a two-tier model. The first tier would include popular, entry-level content such as the crucial censuses, family tree data and “Google Books”-type content such as published family histories, county histories, and the like. This data would be offered for free, but with an “as is” consumer-beware caveat regarding the accuracy and reliability of the facts and details included.

The second tier would include vital records, church records, land records and other more “primary” source material, including (naturally, since this is the Genlighten blog) offline documents. These records would be accompanied by some sort of “provenance”, perhaps tied to the reputation of the researcher who had uncovered them or the repository that held them. That reputation would be dynamically determined by a combination of authoritative genealogy luminaries and the crowdsourced ratings of clients and users. Those interested in such records would be asked to pay for:

  • Indexed online access
  • Record provenance, detailed source citation information and a community-determined “reliability score”
  • On-demand retrieval, digitization, transcription and/or translation of records not yet available online, particularly “long tail” records
  • The help of skilled and experienced researchers in interpreting the records and acting on their implications

Both sets of records would be made available via APIs, but the second-tier data would have a monetization mechanism attached,  allowing content providers, researchers and digitizers to be compensated for the value they added.

A Starting Point

I hope to develop these ideas further, and I’d appreciate your help in doing so. I know there are plenty of smart people in the genealogy community who are already pondering these issues (Thomas MacEntee, for one) and I’d love to hear from as many of you as possible.

Thanks to Gordon Clarke and his FSDN team members, and to Justin Schroepfer at Footnote, for meeting with me today and stimulating my thought processes.

Was Your Ancestor a Lighthouse Keeper? A “Genealogy Long Tail” Example

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

lighthouse_keeperI visited the NARA Great Lakes Regional Archives this last week to fulfill a Naturalization Record lookup for a Genlighten client. As I was waiting for my researcher card paperwork to be processed, I looked through the finding aid brochures to see what other records this facility had. One caught my eye:

Selected Records Relating to Lighthouse Service Employees, 1801-1912

Cool! So if someone had an ancestor who they thought might have been a lighthouse keeper, I could look that person up and perhaps produce a document containing some basic info about them. For example, here’s what NARA says is contained in publication M1373:

Lighthouse Keepers and Assistant Keepers. NARA microfilm publication M1373, Registers of Lighthouse Keepers, 1845-1912 (6 rolls) includes lists of keepers and assistant keepers. The lists typically consist of the names, the district and the name of the light, the date of appointment, the date of resignation or discharge or death, and sometimes the annual salary. Most of the lists do not actually begin until 1849.

The NARA finding aid implies that these records would also include the birth place of the lighthouse keeper.

The Long Tail of Genealogy Records

So I immediately wondered: how many people would be interested in these records (and thus might request my lookup?) I managed to find a Rootsweb message board about lighthouse keepers. Between 2004-2010, there were — get this — 13 messages posted. I looked to see if either Ancestry or Footnote had digitized the NARA microfilm rolls. Nope.

These lighthouse-related collections seem to fit fairly well my definition of “Long Tail Genealogy Records“: to a small number of people they’d probably be quite interesting. But that number’s too small to make it worth Ancestry’s or Footnote’s or FamilySearch’s time and effort to scan them, index them, and make them available online.

Could Genlighten Help? Should It?

I suspect I’ll go ahead and offer a “Register of Lighthouse Keepers” Lookup, just for the heck of it. But if I decide to, I’ll need to ask myself a lot of practical questions first:

  • What happens if I actually get a request?
  • Will the price that the lighthouse keeper’s descendant is willing to pay be enough to make it worth my while to drive out of my way to the NARA facility just for that lookup?
  • Or should I offer a bunch of other lookups from NARA in hopes of aggregating enough requests to justify a weekly trip?
  • What should I call the lookup so it will Google well?
  • What search terms would someone use who was looking for such a record?
  • How should I define the locality for this lookup? By the state or state/county where the lighthouse was located?

Why Our Business Model Matters

A lot of these issues would go away if Genlighten’s business model involved simply quoting an hourly rate and than billing the client for my time. But because we’re all about fixed-fee lookups, it’s trickier. I have to carefully define the scope of the lookup I’ll perform for the fee I decide to charge. And with few requests likely to come in, it will be hard to iteratively adjust my pricing in response to client feedback.

Of course, I could define an “off-the-shelf” lookup for part of the research and then direct the client to use our custom request capability to pursue the remainder. That’s what we encourage our providers to do for probate records and other hard-to-know-the-scope-in-advance lookups. Hmm… lots of possibilities there.

Was Your Ancestor a Lighthouse Keeper?

If so, I’d love to hear from you. Likewise if you need naturalization records for states in the NARA Great Lakes Region, or any other lookup for a record held by NARA Great Lakes that isn’t available online.