Archive for the ‘Startup Lessons Learned’ Category

Reaching out to genealogical & historical societies — early results

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

It’s been a heads-down week here at, with pretty much every spare moment devoted to trying to recruit more genealogy researchers to our lookup provider network. Beginning last Saturday night, we began composing and sending out individual e-mails to around 760 genealogical societies in the US and Canada. Our basic pitch was simple. It boiled down to:

“We’re building an e-commerce platform dedicated to making it simple to offer fee-based genealogy lookups. If your volunteers sign up to provide lookups through our site on behalf of your society, we’ll return 90% of the fees they earn to you. In return for our 10% commission, we’ll handle payment processing, tracking of incoming lookups, communication between client and provider, etc..”

The last of the e-mails went out last night. Here are some stats we’ve gathered thus far:

  • Number of messages sent out: 759
  • E-mail addresses that bounced: 68
  • Societies that weren’t interested: 5
  • Societies considering our site: 15

Those numbers definitely tell a story, though I’m not sure yet exactly what it is. Here are some preliminary reactions:

  • The bounced addresses all came from sites that I’ve visited within the last several months. Admittedly, some said they hadn’t been updated since 2001(!) so I anticipated plenty of undelivered messages. But it’s still kind of jarring to think that almost 10% of county genealogical sites that currently exist aren’t being actively maintained.
  • Several of the societies that wrote back to say they weren’t interested explained, in polite terms, that they were philosophically opposed to charging for lookups as a source of revenue. That’s a sentiment I both understand and respect. Only one message thus far had any hint of “we’re morally above any such thing.”
  • Many of the interested respondents indicated that they’d need to consult their society’s board of directors before proceeding. That certainly makes sense. But it hadn’t dawned on me that it might be a while before they would next meet. So perhaps some of those “no response” societies will meet and get back to me over the next month or so.

All in all, I’m cautiously optimistic about these results.  Now that we’ve made an initial effort to inform genealogical societies about our online lookup marketplace, we plan to expand our recruiting efforts to encompass an even broader potential audience.  This coming week, we’ll be reaching out to APG members and other fee-based genealogy researchers who we’ve learned about through exhaustive web searches.  Wish us luck!

Why do we pursue genealogy and what do we like about it?

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Three days without a post — bad sign from a novice blogger. One of the things that impressed me about the participants in the recent Genealogy Blogger Summit was the consistency and frequency with which they post. I’m determined to follow their example, but I also want to get at least five hours of sleep! Sleep has won out the past few days. But enough blogging about blogging.

Revisiting our Customer Surveys

I thought it might be interesting to try to mine more insights from the surveys we administered to customers (and a few potential Genlighten users) earlier this year. To summarize the basic parameters: we surveyed 469 genealogy enthusiasts who had either ordered a document lookup from or met me at a genealogy conference during the last half of 2007 and early 2008. Roughly 230 completed the survey. 70% of them were female; 70% were also 50 years old or more.

One of the things surveys like this are supposed to do is help marketers define “personas” that reflect their customers’ preferences and behaviors, in hopes that the personas serve as a kind of shorthand for “who are our customers and what to they want?”. In theory, a good persona helps answer questions like “how many cupholders should we put in this minivan?” or perhaps more relevant to us at Genlighten, “what kind of navigation elements should our homepage have?”

We asked several questions in our survey that were aimed at developing personas from our potential customer base. The first asked basically “Why do you pursue genealogy research?” We offered six possible answers; respondents could also write in their own “other” response. The results are shown below:

survey question about primary motivations

“To feel a sense of connection with my deceased ancestors” was the number one choice, followed closely by “it’s a genuinely fun use of my time and skills”. No big surprises there for most of us, I suspect — those would probably have been my main choices too. Richer insights emerged in the “Other” responses, however. Two respondents thought genealogy helped them “to get a better sense of ‘who I am’”. And several others hoped their research would “leave a family legacy”.

Our next question tried to determine which components of the family history process respondents enjoyed most. It was basically a four-way tie among “pushing back further generations”, “finding source documents”, “sharing them with others”, and the narrow favorite “solving genealogical puzzles”. The average level of enjoyment for these activities fell between “Greatly Enjoy” and “Tremendously Enjoy”.

level of enjoyment survey responses

Given that we’re building a website that helps researchers get documents from distant archives without the need to travel there themselves, it was of course gratifying that survey respondents found traveling long distances the least enjoyable of the activities we listed. Whew!

Lessons Learned

Since the questions we asked (and the possible responses we offered) strongly reflected our own personal biases, the survey results didn’t yield as many startling new insights as we might have hoped. More open-ended short-essay-type questions might have corrected that, but the response rates to those kinds of questions would probably have been much lower.

The beginnings of some useful persona definitions did emerge. I’ll postpone a detailed description of them for a later post, but here are some key points we took away about Genlighten’s likely target audience:

  • They want genealogy to be a fun experience that builds lasting bridges to their ancestors
  • They see genealogical documents as key pieces of the puzzles they need to solve if they are to successfully reach back additional generations in their family history
  • Once they’ve found those documents and solved those puzzles, they’re eager to share what they find with others

These ideas are constantly in our minds here at Genlighten, and we’re determined to let them shape and refine the user experience we’re working hard to create.

The False Gods We Worship

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

This post from the folks at 37Signals is the most powerful and positive piece of startup advice I’ve seen in the year I’ve been working on Genlighten.  I read it in breathless disbelief.  Disbelief that David could so clearly grasp both the quiet counsel that got me started on this path and the loud fantasy that often tries to drown out that counsel.

“The classic argument for enduring 80 to 100 hour work weeks for years on end — sacrificing relationships, hobbies, and anything else that doesn’t progress the mission — is that at the end of the rainbow lies early retirement. The reward for risking it all on a crazy startup idea. This wonderful place is filled with anything you want it to be. Never a dull moment again, all the flexibility and freedom in the world.

Why does the idea of work have to be so bad that you want to sacrifice year’s worth of prime living to get away from it forever? The answer is that it doesn’t. Finding something you to love to work on seems to be a much more fruitful pursuit than trying to get away from the notion of work altogether.

It’s much easier too! The likelihood that you’ll strike gold after year’s of death-march living is still pretty low. The chance of finding something you love doing? So much more achievable. Millions of dollars not required.

If you come to the realization that work in itself isn’t evil, you can stop living your life as a waterfall-planned software project too. No need to divide your timeline on earth into the false dichotomies of Sucky Work Era and Blissful Retirement Era. Instead, you can just fill your life with a balanced mix of activities that you can sustain for decades.”

Thanks David.  I needed that.