Archive for the ‘Startup Lessons Learned’ Category

Do You Have Lookup Providers for… Yemen?

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

yemenAt genealogy conferences, when I explain to people how our site works and how our lookup providers can help them find source documents , I often get questions like “Do you have anyone in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania?” or “Do you have anyone for Poland?”

I love it when I can respond “We sure do… and they’re great!” By contrast, it’s always disappointing to have to say “Nope, not yet… but if you can tell me what you need there I’ll try to track someone down for you.” Tonight I had both kinds of experiences.

Ahh… Networking. Gotta love it.

I attended a “shindig” put on by the ExcelerateLabs startup accelerator program that will be taking place here in Chicago this summer. We’ll be submitting our application shortly, and I thought it made sense to go and do the networking thing — i.e., meet a bunch of the other applicants and introduce myself to the people running the program. I’m basically useless at this kind of thing, which is why I keep making myself do it.

Thanks to an introduction from Geoff Domoracki of midVentures, I got the chance to talk to Nick Rosa, one of the co-founders of Sandbox Industries. (Sandbox is a key investor in ExcelerateLabs.)

One Out of Two — Not Bad

Nick quickly grasped what Genlighten’s about, and he asked if we had providers in a) Sicily and b) Minsk, Belarus. I had to answer “no” for Sicily (darn, still no providers for Italy!) But I knew we had at least one provider — RusGenProject — who could do lookups for Minsk. So I was batting .500 there. Elsewhere at the same event, though, I had a similar conversation with a much different ending.

“So, What’s Your Startup About?”

At an event like this, the default opening to a conversation with a stranger is basically “So, what’s your startup about?” I met a young Chicago Booth MBA student who answered “We’re going to create a new hot drink category — something in between coffee and tea.” I was impressed… her idea sounded promising.

Then it was her turn to ask the same of me. When I gave some variation of my usual reply (“We help you find genealogy documents that connect you with your ancestors”), she responded “That’s not going to work for me.” I figured she was probably from the Mideast somewhere, and that turned out to be true: Yemen. “You’re right,” I replied, “I don’t have any lookup providers there yet.” I’m pretty sure I emphasized the yet.

“We Don’t Have Records”

“Uh, no, you don’t get it,” she continued pleasantly, “In Yemen, we don’t have records. My parents don’t even know when they were born.” I probed further: what happens at birth? Or when someone needs a passport? She explained that most births in Yemen take place at home, not in hospitals. And when someone needs a document for an official purpose, they basically have to bribe a government official to create a fictitious record. I was floored. My mind reeled at the prospect of trying to perform genealogy research in a place for which few if any records exist.

Looking on FamilySearch, I see that the FHL Catalog lists a few books related to Yemen research, but not many. I’ve obviously got lots to learn before I’m going to be able carry through on our brand promise “genealogy documented” for a lot of the world’s non-Western populations.

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.

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 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:


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 if this sounds like your idea of fun!

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!

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” 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.

Genealogical Typosquatting — Two Annoying Examples

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

One of the things our recent AdWords experiment has helped us understand is that in trying to advertise a genealogy website, good keywords are hard to find. Or rather, search terms that are both popular and relevant for a website like Genlighten tend to be few and far between.

I’ve also been amused to discover how the curious phenomenon of typosquatting plays out in the online genealogy marketplace. Let me focus on two familiar examples: and

New FamilySearch

Genealogy enthusiasts attempting to visit the LDS Church’s eventual replacement for might be excused for mistakenly typing the URL into their browser as But this turns out to point to a site that has nothing whatsoever to do with New FamilySearch:

Typosquatting example: fake NFS page

Instead, the site is a bland collection of generic stock images and carefully-chosen keyword links, each of which points to a page filled with Google Adsense Ads. If the unwitting genealogist looking for NewFamilySearch clicks on the link “LDS Genealogy Search”, for example, they’ll see this page:

Adsense click harvest page

which is populated prominently with various paid ads from genealogy websites: some highly reputable and others less so. If the confused visitor clicks on one of these ads, the owner of the typosquatting site immediately earns a few pennies (or perhaps more) from Google.

You might say to yourself “This can’t possibly work — no one would ever fall for this. There’s no FamilySearch logo, no nothing.” And you’d be right. Yet sites like this make money precisely because otherwise intelligent people fall for this scheme hundreds of times per day.

In fact,in a March 14th article about New FamilySearch in the Deseret News, the author originally posted a link to this typosquatting site and included an image similar to the one above with the smiling co-ed. This in a newspaper owned by the LDS Church, the developer of New FamilySearch! Shortly after I pointed this out in an email to the paper, the mistake was corrected and the correct link and screenshot substituted for that of the typosquatter. But that’s how well the typosquatting strategy apparently works.

Here’s a second example. Suppose you’d heard of from their ads and wanted to find their site but weren’t sure how to spell “Ancestry”. If you added a single extra “e” in the last syllable and typed  “” into your browser, this is what would come up:

Here at least the owners of the site went to the effort to use some halfway-relevant graphics. But good luck finding the 1930 census here! Once again, the site is simply a list of links reflecting the most popular Google search terms relating to genealogy. Clicking on any of them leads to a page full of Adsense ads. If you happened to find an ad from there, and clicked on that, you’d finally be brought to the real Ancestry site. But only after Google and the site owner made about $0.50-$1.00 from The Generations Network, owner of

So How Does This Impact Me?

Well of course, you and I would never make these errors, right? Well… maybe you wouldn’t, but here’s the thing. Sites like Ancestry and Footnote have to assume that many of their potential customers will make these kinds of mistakes. That increases the amount of money they have to spend bidding on keywords, paying for ad placements, acquiring mis-spelled domain names, etc.. Ultimately, that increases the price we end up paying for our Ancestry and Footnote subscriptions!

What about the impact on Genlighten? Though we’re still analyzing the result of our AdWords tests, it looks as if typosquatting sites make life more difficult for us in at least two ways:

  1. They compete in the bidding process for popular keywords that might be relevant for those searching for the offline genealogical documents Genlighten’s providers offer.
  2. Because they essentially hijack their visitors’ search queries while delivering little or no value to genealogy enthusiasts, these sites may end up reducing the “quality score” Google associates with genealogy-related search terms. This in turn can potentially diminish the perceived utility of those searches, making it tougher for sites like Genlighten to be found on the web by potential new users.

But all is not lost… it just means we’ll need to be a little more creative and work a little harder to get our message out. That’s a challenge we’re eager to take on.

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

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

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

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

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

Footnote’s Presentation at TechCrunch50

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

OK, my quick reactions to Footnote’s pitch to the TechCrunch50 event today:

  • Starting off with a personal vignette about attending a funeral… a good idea?  Worked for Arcade Fire, I guess.
  • Note to self… make sure that personal experiences I relate about deceased friends or relatives help my audience associate warm, positive feelings with our website.
  • Yikes… do VCs/serial entrepreneurs get the  genealogy space?  Another reason not to go looking for VC funding, perhaps.
  • Loic Le Meur’s concerns are likely shared by quite a few… among his points:
  • “Honestly, I find it disturbing.. i wouldn’t like to have my family exposed, can I opt out for my family?”
  • “I would hate to see a blank profile with my father’s name when he (and I) can’t control it.”
  • “Monetizing my family… I have a problem with that.”
  • Give the Footnote team credit for rolling with the punches.  They seemed confident, at ease, not defensive.  If I were them, I would have found the “you’re just like Ancestry” comment annoying… I thought they turned that one around well.

A few important updates to

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

I’m here at the FGS Conference in Philadelphia looking out from our booth on the exhibit hall, which is buzzing with conference-goers.  We’d originally hoped to announce our beta release at this event, but as with many software projects, our milestone estimates turned out to be optimistic, and we’ve had to move our anticipated launch date back by several months.  We now anticipate the public beta being ready by early 2009, with access to the private beta available towards the end of this year.

What’s Taking Us So Long?

For the most part, the delay is a natural consequence of our business strategy, which can be summed up as “Don’t quit your day job!”  Genlighten continues to be primarily a “nights and weekends” project for Justin and me and it will likely stay that way until revenue justifies otherwise.

Of course, we could put a lot of effort into getting angel investors to fund our early-stage development, allowing us to work full-time on Genlighten and hopefully get it launched and producing revenue a lot faster.  That’s a strategy we’re considering, but our team is well aware of the immense challenges and pitfalls involved, so for the time being we’re not ready to head down that road.

In the meantime, just in time for FGS, we do have a few updates to the Alpha site to announce.

Updated Flyers, Document Delivery Strategy, and Provider Criteria

First, the PDF flyers available on the site have been revised to reflect our new anticipated private and public beta availability dates.  The new flyers also reflect our intention to deliver most (if not all) documents as digital images via download from the site itself, rather than having our providers mail paper copies.  Accordingly, we’re looking for potential providers who have ready access to a digital scanner and are confident creating good-quality images from scanned documents.  These adjustments to our strategy reflect input we’ve received from several generous advisers in the genealogy research community.  Look for more details on this approach in a future blog post.

New Mailing Address

Second, we’ve changed our mailing address.  The new one is:

P.O. Box 893
Wilmette, Illinois  60091

This move doesn’t reflect anything particularly strategic.  Our previous commercial mailbox provider just happened to go out of business (about a month after we had business cards printed, unfortunately.)

Privacy and Security Policy

One of the main unfinished tasks from the initial alpha version of the site was developing a privacy and security policy.  I’ve noticed from our traffic logs that many people visit the blank placeholder page we’ve had up to this point.  I’m happy to be able to say that we now have posted our Privacy and Security Policy here.  Please take a look and let us know what you think.

Thanks for your patience…

I’m keenly aware that some of you have been following our progress for the better part of a year now.  I just want to let you know that we appreciate your patience and we’re working hard week-by-week to deliver what we’ve promised you.  Thanks for your ongoing encouragement and support — it means a great deal to our entire team.