Archive for the ‘Genlighten Strategy’ Category

Follow Friday: Lessons From My Ancestors — Sara Beth Davis

Friday, February 5th, 2010

When my wife and I were first thinking about creating Genlighten, we tried to imagine who should make up our initial target audience. We actually found it easier to decide who it wouldn’t be:

  • Complete beginners, we thought, would be too focused on tapping all the online resources, both free and fee-based. They wouldn’t be ready to look for offline records and thus wouldn’t have a need for Genlighten yet.
  • Certified professional genealogists might eventually make use of us once we’d earned a solid positive reputation, but we didn’t expect many of them to be among Genlighten’s “early adopters.”

We finally settled on two categories of genealogy enthusiasts who we hoped would become, respectively, Genlighten’s first buyers and sellers:

  • Advanced beginner/intermediate genealogists — those just starting to explore offline records by visiting archives or ordering records from remote repositories — would be our initial clients
  • Transitional” genealogists — those contemplating the leap into the ranks of professional genealogy but not quite there yet — would be our initial providers.

It hasn’t worked out as we expected (almost nothing about this adventure has!) but I can still say that it really warms my heart when I meet someone on Twitter or at a genealogy conference who I find fits one of those two profiles.

Which brings me (finally!) to my Follow Friday recommendation for this week: Sarah Beth Davis, author of the Lessons From My Ancestors blog.

lessons_from_my_ancestors_blog

In the “About Me” section of her blog, Sara says:

I never really explored anything other than what my family had already and what I could find free online.  For the past two years I have been becoming what I like to call a “recreational genealogist”.  I research when I have time (usually a few hours every weekend) and am using online resources that are available.  In the future I would like to take my research offline by ordering vital records certificates and visiting archives.

That’s exactly what we’re hoping to help all sorts of people do: begin to document their genealogy research using offline records.

Sara writes in a warm and open personal style, mostly about her key surnames, brickwall people, and research discoveries. She’s also a strong presence among the genealogy community on Twitter (one of the most prolific among those I follow) and I love her Twitter “handle”: @InnerCompass.

She’s had some marvelous experiences discovering the diary of her ancestor Sylvia Lewis. It’s her “Sylvia’s Diary” posts that first caught my attention on Twitter. Sara says:

Sylvia is my maternal 5th great-grandmother and her diaries have opened by eyes to a world of struggles, migration, and joy.

The title of her blog says it well: “Lessons From My Ancestors”. I encourage you to subscribe to Sara’s blog… and learn those lessons right along with her.

52 Weeks to Better Genealogy Challenge #5: Trying Out Worldcat.org

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

logo_wcmasthead_enThis week Amy Coffin‘s 52WtBG challenge directed us to explore the online library catalog aggregator Worldcat.org. Here’s how Worldcat defines itself:

WorldCat.org lets you search the collections of libraries in your community and thousands more around the world. WorldCat grows every day thanks to the efforts of librarians and other information professionals.

I wasn’t sure what to expect here… would I find lots of historical records about my distant ancestors, or would most of the results returned in searches be modern ones?

Initial Success

After creating an account and a profile (you don’t need to but I was interested in the social features a personal account offered) I started out by typing ancestors’ names into the search box. My first try was Benjamin Trafford, my great-great grandfather who eventually rose to the rank of Colonel in the Civil War. I had heard he’d authored a book on military tactics, but no luck there. Instead, the following entry was second in the results list:

worldcat_benjamin_trafford_results1

It’s hard to read at this resolution, but the catalog entry was quite a find: military orders issued by Benjamin Trafford to the 71st Regiment, N.G.S.N.Y., New York, February 6th 1865.

Can I View It Online?

Naturally I was hoping Worldcat actually had digitized the “book” so I could view it and download it. But alas, no. Instead, I was shown a list of repositories from which I could theoretically inter-library loan the record (or retrieve it in person if I lived near any of them.) Turns out the New York Historical Society has it.

Sounds Like a Job for Genlighten

Since Genlighten has several lookup providers who live in the New York City area, I could go create a custom lookup request and ask for a provider to retrieve this document, scan it and upload the resulting image to my account. Or, since our daughter works reasonably close to the New York Historical Society, I could ask her to make the trip. Either way, it sounds like it’d be worth it. I would have had no idea this record existed if WorldCat hadn’t found it for me.

What Else Can I Do on WorldCat?

The site offers all the Web 2.0 features you’d want in a modern online catalog. Using nearby links, I can:

  • Add the record to a list of my favorite finds (I can even customize different lists with different titles)
  • Tag the entry to help future searchers
  • Write a review or rate the document from zero to five stars
  • Share a link to the entry via email, on the usual social networks like Facebook or Twitter, or via social bookmarking sites like Digg or Delicious
  • Find similar items in the WorldCat catalog (in this case, a great collection of books about the 71st Regiment, NY State National Guard.)

I promptly created a personal User List (one of the benefits of actually registering and creating an account) and added the Benjamin Trafford entry to it.

Wouldn’t it be Cool…

As I tried each of these social features out, I couldn’t help but wish that WorldCat had the Family History Library Catalog entries available with all of this functionality. But of course, that’s where Genseek is supposed to come in, right?

“Click Here to Order Digital Images of this Item”

Missing of course, was the feature we at Genlighten are particularly eager to see: the “Click Here to Order Digital Images of this Item from Genlighten.com” button. Not to worry, we’re working on that.

Amazon for Lookups vs. Yellow Pages for Researchers

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

As my wife and I use Genlighten day by day, we notice things it does well and things it’s not so good at yet.

On the Plus Side

One of the things Genlighten does well is handle the iterative back-and-forth communications between client and provider that lead to a successful lookup result. Short notes from each party to the research transaction are displayed together in chronological order on a summary tracking page for each lookup request, along with the documents and report that are eventually produced.

lookup_notes_back_and_forthDiscovering Providers, on the Other Hand…

But when we go looking for a specific lookup provider (say, one that specializes in Jewish research or one who can access a certain repository in California) Genlighten doesn’t have a well-designed way to do that yet.

There’s a reason we didn’t build that feature in initially. We view ourselves as an e-commerce site (like Amazon.com) for genealogy lookups — NOT a Yellow Pages-like directory of genealogy researchers-for-hire. The distinction is an important one, and it arises out of our focus on fixed-fee lookups rather than on open-ended hourly research.

Buying a Camera vs. Hiring a Photographer

I’m not sure about you, but when I go to buy a digital camera, I focus on the product first — the features, price point and customer ratings — and pay attention to the brand second. On the other hand, if I wanted to hire a photographer, I’d focus on referrals from friends, professional credentials, portfolio… and only then would I look at specific packages the photographer might offer.

The initial design of Genlighten has a distinctly product-oriented e-commerce mindset, where the “products” are lookups. If our products appeal to you, you can then check out the profile of the providers who offer them, and evaluate their background, experience, and customer ratings before deciding to submit a lookup request. We made the assumption that most potential clients would approach the site in that order, and our information architecture reflects that.

product-oriented-lookup-searchThe Problem with Assumptions…

Four months in, it’s becoming apparent that some of our site visitors don’t use Genlighten like we thought they would. One piece of evidence showed up recently in our Google Analytics logs:

google_site_search_for_ca2

Notice the Google site search for the keyword “California”. It’s hard to tell exactly what the site visitor had in mind, but my guess is they wanted to see if we had any providers that could do lookups either in California (i.e., at California repositories) or for California records. Or they might have read Randy Seaver’s blog post about Genlighten the week before and tried to find out if we’d added any California providers. Either way, they didn’t find our UI sufficiently intuitive and decided to take a shortcut.

“Hidden” Lookup Providers

A second indication that users aren’t behaving as we expected showed up when I went to do a census of every registered user so I could count the number that were offering lookups. To my surprise (and dismay!) I discovered sixty-some users who had filled out a provider-oriented profile (listing their qualifications, repositories they could access, etc.) but who weren’t yet offering any lookups. Because of the design assumptions I mentioned above, these providers are effectively hidden from our users. They won’t show up in any lookup search results, and we don’t yet offer a purely provider-oriented search capability. That’s starting to look like a problem.

Now perhaps the hidden providers don’t want to bother with basic lookups, but instead are just interested in quoting on custom requests that clients post. We do offer that capability in addition to off-the-shelf lookups, and it’s seen a fair amount of use.

But our thinking on custom requests was that providers would first establish a reputation for reliable, high-quality service with their off-the-shelf lookup offerings, and then be more likely to have their custom lookup quotes accepted based on high ratings they’d received. I still think this is a sound approach, but it’s become clear that we’ve done a poor job of communicating the idea.

Unfortunately, I suspect that some of these hidden providers don’t know they’re hidden. They assumed we’d make it easy for users to find them, like the yellow pages does, even if they didn’t offer any products in our online marketplace. And we haven’t.

So What to Do?

As a result of the thought process I’ve described, we now plan to:

  • Reach out to our hidden providers and explain the advantages of offering off-the-shelf lookups so they can gain credibility and exposure to potential clients
  • Invite our users to participate in usability testing so we can get feedback on typical flows through the site
  • Develop search tools that let users discover providers based on the contents of their profiles, not just on the lookups they offer.

Glass Half Full

I’ve decided to take a positive view of these discoveries about our users. If I’d followed Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany when we were first building Genlighten, I might have uncovered these design issues during the Customer Development process. But now that I’m belatedly trying to adhere to Lean Startup principles, customer-centric iteration is a sign that we’re heading in the right direction. Now if we can just work on making those iterations “ferocious” and “rapid”!

Want to Help?

Are you interested in helping us make Genlighten easier to use? We’d love to have some 15-20 minute chats with clients and providers willing to talk with us over the phone while navigating the site and pursuing basic tasks. E-mail us at support@genlighten.com if this sounds like your idea of fun!

How long before “It’s not all online” isn’t true anymore?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010
cgs_iceberg1

Courtesy California Genealogical Society and Library

David Rencher, FamilySearch’s “Chief Genealogical Officer” stopped by the Genlighten booth at NGS in North Carolina last year and we had a pleasant chat together. He asked a question that I’ve thought about often but never come up with a perfect answer to:

How will Genlighten’s business model stay viable over the long term as more and more records become available online?

As you already know if you’ve been reading this blog for long or if you’re one of our users, Genlighten’s unique selling proposition is that we help you find offline genealogy records — the ones that are only accessible in libraries, archives, courthouses, historical societies, etc.. In fact, when a provider signs up and offers to do lookups solely using their Ancestry or Footnote subscriptions, we ask them to modify those offerings to utilize an offline source instead.

Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg

Our unspoken assumption here is that many more records are available offline than online. Or as the marvelous image shown here depicts it, the biggest part of the iceberg is below the surface. I stand confidently behind that assumption, despite the fact that I can’t back it up with any meaningful data or statistics.

David’s question implied that he foresees a time when the statement “Most genealogy records aren’t online” won’t hold true anymore. And in fact, he’s in charge of an organization — FamilySearch — that is working hard to digitize and index every single reel in its vast collection of microfilmed records. Whether it takes five years or ten, they will eventually achieve their goal. Whither offline genealogy research (and our business model) then?

The Power of Family Search Indexing

This point hit home particularly hard for me this last December. I visited the Massachusetts State Archives just outside of Boston, mostly to see what kinds of records Genlighten providers could retrieve there, but also to do some of my own research. I was excited to see how many records were available on microfilm and could be scanned at low cost. Within minutes, I easily found the marriage certificate for my Walter Ferdinand Knapp and Rosamond Guilford.

A local Boston provider, I reasoned, (or one with access to the corresponding FHL film) could just as easily provide Massachusetts marriage record lookups for a reasonable fee and still be well-compensated for their forty-minute trip on the Red Line. Cool! Now I just needed to recruit the right providers and help them take advantage of the opportunities available.

Just as I was about to tweet or blog about this discovery, though, what should appear in my Twitterstream but a link to a post about Massachusetts marriage records becoming available on the FamilySearch Record Search Pilot. I tried the site out, and lo and behold, in seconds I had the image of the very same marriage record I had just finished printing out. Thanks to FamilySearch indexing, that was one lookup opportunity that no longer seemed as attractive. Massachusetts Births and Death records still weren’t available online, but for how long?

A Prediction

longtail2I don’t know how FamilySearch decides which records to digitize and index next, but I can guess. They must know which FHL film sets are ordered most, and I suspect those ones get bumped up in priority. So in the short term, we should expect that films of records towards the left end of the long tail will become available online. FamilySearch and other organizations will gradually work their way down the long tail, digitizing and indexing as they go. Over time, more and more long tail records will become available at low or no cost online, just as obscure bands’ music can now be found on iTunes and films that only a few thousand people even know about are now available on Netflix.

Another Prediction

So Genlighten has four, maybe five years before its business model begins to evaporate? I can’t be sure, but I suspect not. At least, not due to a lack of offline records. I will go out on a limb and predict that for many years to come, as fast as old records are brought online, “new” old records will be discovered. In other words, the entire curve will rise.

Where will these new records come from? Diaries, generic government agency paperwork, medical records (despite HIPAA regulations), legal proceedings, SEC filings… I bet you can think of many more. The types of offline records that Genlighten providers will be asked to look up will change, but there will still be plenty of them to perform lookups for.

Of course in five to ten years paper, microfilm, and even electronic data storage as we know it may have been completely superseded by some grand and glorious new medium. Or Google may simply have achieved by then their goal to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In which case, they’ll hopefully have already acquired us!

Build Something For Yourself

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

I’m not a natural at networking. In fact, I find it pretty painful. But I know I need to do it, so I do. And sometimes it pays off.

Genlighten and “Getting Real”

jason_friedLast night I attended the Chicago Tech Meetup at OfficePort in Chicago. Jason Fried (of 37Signals fame) was the keynote speaker. Jason had plenty of cool stuff to say to the crowd of startup entrepreneurs, both the real ones (like Andrew Mason, founder of Groupon) and the simply aspirational (like me). Most of Jason’s advice was familiar to those in attendance who’d already read Getting Real, 37Signals’ manifesto on building a successful web application, or who follow Signal vs. Noise, their exemplary blog.

As Jason rattled off his key doctrines, I mentally checked off which of them Genlighten was adhering to:

  • Bootstrap… start building your product on the side while keeping your day job (check)
  • Charge for your product right away (check)
  • Don’t be afraid to hire non-local people and let them work remotely (check)
  • Don’t take VC money too early (check… though to be honest, we’ve never been offered any)

And then, in answer to an audience question, he said something like this:

Build something you would use yourself, whether or not anyone else ever does.

That one made me pause and ponder for a while. Does Genlighten fit that criterion? Jason was of course referring to Basecamp, the simple yet powerful project-management application that 37Signals built for itself before eventually selling it to others. But Genlighten isn’t like Basecamp.

The Chicken-Egg Problem

Here’s why. Basecamp was tremendously useful from day one. But Genlighten doesn’t start to be that useful until a certain amount of lookup providers sign up and offer their services. And to attract providers, we need clients, who in turn our unlikely to use the site if they don’t see lots of providers. That’s the Chicken-Egg problem. Or, putting a more optimistic spin on things, Genlighten gets better each time a new provider posts a new lookup offering. That’s an example of a Network Effect. Many startups have to climb this hill before they can really take off (think Facebook or Twitter) and we’re no exception.

Eating Our Own Dogfood

On the other hand, we do meet Jason’s criterion: Genlighten has already made my wife’s lookup business easier to manage, and we’ve both used Genlighten to further our own research. For example, we’ve ordered German translations from one of our providers, and Massachusetts death records from another. And with recently-joined providers now offering Maine and New York City lookups, we’ll be submitting more requests in the near future.

But sometimes, I find myself wishing I could just wave a magic wand and suddenly have providers for every county and country.

An Obituary for John Harper Reed

This brings me to this evening’s experience. I attended yet another startup-oriented meetup tonight, this one a casual get-together of Hacker News fans. As I made my way towards the long table set up for us in the back room at the Hop Haus in Chicago, I immediately recognized Harper Reed, the iconic former CTO of local startup success story Threadless. Harper is that rare web celebrity that lives up to his advance billing. I gratefully took a seat across the table from him.

We’ve talked briefly about Genlighten before, but this time Harper volunteered a query. Growing up, his parents had mentioned that he’d been named after an “uncle” from Colorado who had (so the story went) died in a car crash. Could Genlighten help him find out whether the story was true and how the two were really related?

As soon as I got home from the meetup, my wife and I went to work. A simple Ancestry search returned two Harper Reeds who died in Colorado. A USGenWeb site listed a John Harper Reed buried in an Evergreen cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado. To produce a quick happy dance, we’d need an obituary mentioning a car crash. The obvious sources did not immediately produce one online.

Could Genlighten help? Tonight, unfortunately, no. We don’t yet have any providers for Colorado. They’re out there, I’m sure, but we haven’t successfully recruited them yet.

You Can Help Us Leave Our “Chicken-and-Egg Problem” Behind

To fulfill Jason Fried’s mandate more completely, we’re going to have to work long and hard to build out our provider base. We’re trying to do that every single day. And we’d appreciate your help.

Please take a look at the states where we still have yet to recruit at least one provider. If you know someone in one of those states who knows their local records well, has the time and inclination to retrieve them, and is interested in getting paid to do so, please put them in contact with us. Especially if they can retrieve El Paso County Colorado obituaries. Thanks!

Exploring The “Long Tail” of Genealogical Records

Monday, January 18th, 2010

I’ve been working on Genlighten’s TechStars application this weekend. I’m enough of a realist to recognize that our chances of getting accepted are slim, but I’m also enough of an optimist to forge ahead anyway. Here’s one of the key questions on the application and part of my draft answer thus far:

What’s new, interesting, or different about what your company will do?

Most genealogy websites offer popular document collections like the 1930 US Census – the “hits” of the online genealogy market. But the majority of records genealogy enthusiasts need aren’t online at all… they constitute the “long tail” of genealogy sources. Genlighten makes those records accessible. Our site enlists local researchers in communities across the US, Canada and Europe to perform on-demand retrieval and digitization of these obscure but crucial “offline” genealogy documents.

I’m not super pleased with this yet (too wordy, as my early drafts always are) but I think I’m on the right track. I see our ability to bring offline genealogy documents online as one of our key points of difference. And I think the concept of The Long Tail does an excellent job of explaining the significance of this difference to the genealogy market.

What is “The Long Tail”?

longtail1

The Long Tail (Image taken from Andrew Hargadon's blog.)

Chris Anderson, the Chief Editor of Wired Magazine, popularized the term in an October 2004 essay. The primary examples he used to illustrate it were retail ones: Amazon and Netflix.

Booksellers have historically focused on delivering bestsellers to their customers. Movie theatres — no surprise — are desperate to book the blockbuster hits that will sell millions of movie tickets. But online retailers like Amazon and Netflix have changed the game. Sure, they still make tons of money off of bestsellers and hit movie rentals. But they also have made it possible for the average customer to discover obscure books and movies that they otherwise would never have encountered.

These titles — appealing as they do to only a tiny market niche — don’t seem like they’d even be worth having in inventory. Yet there’s so many of them, that even if each one sells or rents to very few people, Amazon and Netflix can still make money from them.

What’s this Got to Do with Genealogy?

That’s what I was just about to explain. I want you to try to think about genealogy documents for a moment as media products, like CDs, books or DVDs. What would you say are the “Billboard Top 10″ of genealogy records?

For my part, I’d go with the various collections of US Census Records: 1930, 1900, 1880, etc. If you’re from England maybe it’s the 1911 Census. These have an incredibly broad appeal to all types of genealogists. So maybe the 1900 Census is sort of like Elvis, while the 1911 Census is more like the Beatles. Or Coldplay. Whatever. These represent the “head” of the genealogy marketplace in the diagram above. So it’s no coincidence that Ancestry and Footnote feature these records prominently on their respective sites: they basically justify the price of a subscription.

What’s in the Genealogical Long Tail?

I’d argue that there’s a huge number of historical document collections that appeal strongly to a very small niche of genealogical consumers. Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • A transcription of the parish register from a German church in Redwood, Jefferson County, New York
  • A compilation of headstone inscriptions from a cemetery in Franklin County, Maine
  • Otoe County Nebraska obituaries from the Morton-James Public Library in Nebraska City

I’m sure you can think of your own examples. In fact, I’m betting that a few of your major brickwall breakthroughs came when you managed to come across exactly this type of obscure, long tail record.

These records might not make economic sense for the major for-profit websites to digitize anytime soon. They might not make it to the top of FamilySearch’s Record Pilot priority list for a while either.

So How Can I Find “Long Tail” Records?

At Genlighten, we think the answer lies in building a network of local researchers in towns large and small across the world, who have access to obscure records of genealogical importance and can digitize them on demand. There won’t always be professional genealogists in every tiny community, so we feel we need to recruit providers who don’t yet have a CG or an AG after their name, too. It hasn’t proven easy thus far, but we’re determined to make it happen.

We Could Use Your Help

First, I’d appreciate any critiques to my Techstars application answer. But more importantly, if you’d like to help make “long tail” offline genealogy records available online, we’d love to have you as one of our lookup providers. You can start by clicking that “Register Now” link on the upper right of this page. Thanks!

Adding Phone Support to Your Genealogy Website

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

Phone Support Operator

A recent post on Hacker News asked “How have you guys gone about setting up a support line for your startups?” This is an issue we grappled with early on at Genlighten: Should we offer phone support, and if so, how?

How the Big Dogs Do It

A quick glance at Ancestry, Footnote and World Vital Records shows that they all offer a toll-free phone support hotline, available during standard business hours Monday-Friday. Ancestry displays their 800-number prominently in the footer of their homepage. Footnote and WVR place theirs one level deeper on their “Contact Us”  or “Customer Service” pages.

Startup Realities Dictate Support Strategies

So for established, well-funded genealogy sites, phone support is clearly a given. But what about for smaller startups? Is it necessary or even practical for them to offer phone support, even when they’re only seeing a few thousand visitors per month? I took a look at three that I’ve encountered in the exhibit halls at various genealogy conferences: Ohana Software, Photoloom, and Arcalife. All are run by cool people who I’ve met personally and whose business judgment I respect.

Of the three, only Ohana offers a phone support line. It’s toll free, and staffed Monday-Friday 10-4 pm. Both Photoloom and Arcalife offer email support but do not display a phone support number. This makes sense if we consider their respective business models. Ohana sells desktop software that the user downloads and installs (and eventually needs to upgrade.) This process can prove challenging for its customers, so phone support is pretty crucial. Photoloom and Arcalife, on the other hand, offer cloud-based subscription services which function totally within a web browser and do not require installation. So phone support isn’t as important for them or their customers.

Genlighten’s Approach

We’ve actually offered a toll-free phone contact option using Onebox since May of 2008, even though our private beta only launched in October of last year. At the time, I felt that visitors to our placeholder website or people who picked up flyers at our exhibit booth needed a toll-free phone number to call with a serious-sounding PBX-like voice greeting. It just seemed like the professional thing to do. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I like Onebox, but at $49.95/month, we should have just gone with my cellphone number until we were actually taking paying customers.

Now that we’re up and running, it makes a bit more sense. Since we’re an online genealogy lookup marketplace, customers are likely to have payment-processing and lookup delivery questions more frequently than they would if we simply offered a subscription service. But we still don’t receive enough support calls yet to justify the cost. The $49.95/month gets us a professionally-recorded voice greeting, up to four extensions, 2,000 minutes of calls, and numerous other cool features. [For example, it forwards support calls to our cell phones when we're out.] But we’ve only gotten about 20 calls in the three months since the private beta began, so that’s about $7.50 each. Overkill, obviously, particularly for a bootstrapped startup.

Other Options

One alternative would be to go with Grasshopper. They offer a similar service to Onebox, but their lowest-cost plan offers 100 minutes per month for just $9.95 [a one-time $25 set-up fee is extra.] That sounds like it’d be a better fit. As our customer base (and the volume of support calls) grows, we could then upgrade to Grasshopper’s 2,000 minutes/month plan, which is priced the same as Onebox’s.

Or we could just try Google Voice. It does pretty much everything we really need at this point [including call forwarding] and it’s free. I suspect for most small startups, this is the way to go until they need to scale to something more enterprise-oriented. I haven’t dug deep into Google Voice since my invitation arrived, but I plan to shortly.

What About You?

Are you interested in adding phone support to your genealogy blog, society page, or e-commerce site? Do any of the options I’ve discussed appeal to you? Have you had any amusing or noteworthy experiences with genealogy website phone support? Please let us know in the comments.

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.

A Temporary Spike

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

I’ve signed up for Google to email me an alert when Genlighten appears in Google results on the web. I received an alert just now pointing to Quantcast results for Genlighten in May. Here’s the graph that appears:

quantcast_genlighten_spike

A few thoughts sparked by this graph:

  • The results here would be more encouraging if they weren’t obviously the result of our Google AdWords experiment in May, combined with our mention in Family Tree Magazine’s blog during that same time frame.
  • We’ve already passed the peak of this spike.
  • I wonder who typed Genlighten into Quantcast to generate the Google alert? Who besides me is interested in our traffic stats? Hmmm.

Social Media Outposts — Personal vs. Corporate

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

As we get closer to letting a few potential early adopters preview Genlighten in private beta form, we’re taking a few tentative steps towards establishing some new social media outposts on the web in addition to this blog.

Up until now, I’ve shifted back and forth here between sharing personal anecdotes and talking about Genlighten milestones and strategy. I’ve done the same with my Twitter account, casually mixing the personal with the corporate. As we start to approach the point where Genlighten becomes an authentic business rather than merely an extremely expensive side-project, it feels like it’s time to give the corporate entity and the CEO their own respective social media channels.

Genlighten — the Corporate Web Presence

What’s that mean going forward? For one thing, Genlighten now has its own Twitter account: @genlighten. There aren’t many updates there yet, but eventually that’ll be the account for our users to follow if they want updates on new features, scheduled maintenance, unscheduled downtime, special events, etc..

The Genlighten blog will remain our formal corporate communication channel — the place to hear what we’re up to, how we view the genealogy marketplace, and what we think we can offer that’s unique. But in keeping with the typical guidelines for a corporate site, I’ll probably inject my personal life here a bit less than I’ve done in the past.

We also now have a Genlighten fan page on Facebook: try this link, or just type “genlighten.com” into Facebook’s search box.

A YouTube channel (for Genlighten how-to and help videos) and a Slideshare.net account (for presentations) are still in the planning phases.

Me as CEO and Co-Founder

Because I want to continue to communicate in an informal way with the Genlighten community as well as with friends, family and colleagues, I’m now maintaining a personal blog at nicelittleniche.com. Since Genlighten, family history research, and the entrepreneurial worldview are such a huge part of my life at the moment, you can expect my nicelittleniche posts to focus on those three areas. But you’ll also get the occasional update on my family or the fun things we have going on when we’re not Genlightening.

In case you’re wondering, the title for the personal blog was inspired by a visitor to our booth at a Genealogy Conference last year, who, when she heard what we were up to, said without the slightest hint of condescension: “Oh… that’s a nice little niche.” [grin]

I’ll continue to share 140-characters-or-less views of my day-to-day experiences via my personal Twitter account, @hikari17.

And if you just can’t get enough of us…

…You can also follow my account on FriendFeed here. That way you’ll get both the personal and the corporate perspective in one place.

Thanks!