Welcome to the Genlighten Blog

Thanks for stopping by! We hope you'll visit often for the latest from the Genlighten team, including site updates and features under development. We'll also offer our take on news from the genealogy community and share personal experiences with "genealogy documented". Your comments are always welcome.


So… Who Are Your Customers?

Posted On: April 2nd, 2010 | Posted by: Dean

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

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

So… Who are They?

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

Basic Segmentation

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

Our clients probably consist of three segments:

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

Similarly, our providers likely include:

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

How Many of Each?

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

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

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

And on the provider side, I’m thinking:

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

The One-Sentence Answer

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

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

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

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

Why Should You Care?

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

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


Wordless Wednesday: Sarah Trafford Matthews

Posted On: March 31st, 2010 | Posted by: Dean

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Based on the handwritten caption on the back of this photo, I believe this to be Sarah Caroline Trafford Matthews, born 21 Apr 1868 in Manhattan, New York; married Thomas Taylor Matthews on 23 Jan 1896; and died 27 Mar 1933 in Springfield, Hampden County, Massachusetts. She was my great-grandmother.


Tombstone Tuesday: Emily Lucretia Todd Fisk

Posted On: March 30th, 2010 | Posted by: Dean

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Emily Lucretia Todd Fisk was born 08 May 1783 and died 26 Mar 1815. She’s buried in the Gate Cemetery, Chesterfield, Hampshire County, Massachusetts. She and her husband Moses Fisk were parents of Moses Fisk, Jr., my third-great-grandfather.

The inscription reads:

Memory of
Mrs. Lucretia
Wife of
Mr. Moses Fisk died
March 26th 1815
in the 32nd year of her

This image was found on Find A Grave where it’s memorial # 44140944. It was uploaded by P.K. MacGruder on 09 Nov 2009.



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

Rationale For Our All-Digital Strategy

We had five basic reasons for going with this approach:

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

But What If…

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

An Unexpected Legal Issue

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

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

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

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

A Temporary Exception

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

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


“FamilySearch Certified” Done Right: Family Photoloom

Posted On: March 28th, 2010 | Posted by: Dean

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Here at Genlighten, we’re eager to get on the “FamilySearch Certified” bandwagon. It just seems like a natural fit for us. Here’s what the ad copy might look like when we become certified:

Want to make sure your genealogy data on New FamilySearch (NFS) is accurate and well-documented? Come to Genlighten and get help finding the offline documents you need, delivered to you in digital form. Then attach those documents to your ancestors’ NFS entries as sources with just a few clicks. It’s easy and affordable!

OK, so that’s just a draft.

Problem is, it’s not at all obvious how to do this yet. FamilySearch has an API that let’s us “pull” NFS data to our site if we want, but they (understandably) don’t let us “push” document images to the NFS tree. So our basic option would be to reproduce a user’s tree on our site and “decorate it” with the documents that user gets through us. We’re considering that, but not yet actively pursuing it.

Family Photoloom’s Take on “Decorated Trees”

In the meantime, though, I’m super-impressed with what the people at Family Photoloom are doing. First off, their site just looks good. Clean, spare, simple — not too many bells and whistles. And their copywriting is marvelous — it says just what they need it to, and no more.

But here’s where it gets really cool. They let you pull in close family connections from NFS, then associate photos you upload to Family Photoloom with your NFS data. From the demo video they show, it looks straightforward and intuitive. You haven’t modified anything on NFS itself from what I can tell, but the name-photo associations are maintained in your Family Photoloom account. So basically, they’ve got the “decorate your tree” thing down perfectly. And in the process, they’ve become a “FamilySearch Certified” affiliate. To me, they’re a great example of what the FamilySearch affiliate program is intended to accomplish.

I’ve met Family Photoloom’s co-founders — Scott and Renee Huskey — at numerous genealogy conferences, and I’ve listened to them pitch their product. They’re just great people. They love what they’re doing, and their product arose as a solution to a problem they had themselves — how to organize photos around family history data.

I plan on checking their product out in more detail so I can write a full review, and I’d encourage you to do the same.


Surname Saturday: Gilbert

Posted On: March 27th, 2010 | Posted by: Dean

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Here’s what I know (or am willing to accept for the time being from undocumented sources) about my direct GILBERT ancestors:

1. Dean Richardson

2. Roberta Knapp

3. Kenneth Guilford Knapp, born 07 Jan 1906 in Worcester, Worcester County, MA; died 08 Sep 1974 in Bradenton, Manatee County, FL

4. Walter Ferdinand Knapp, born 16 Oct 1872 in Easton, Aroostook County, ME; died 04 Dec 1906 in Worcester, Worcester County, MA

5. Mary E. Gilbert, born about 1837/38 or 1840 in Maine; died 1910

6. Calvin P. Gilbert, born 06 Feb 1810 in Maine

7. Nathaniel Gilbert, Jr., born 08 Jan 1781 in Kingston, Plymouth County, MA; died 06 Aug 1872 in Kingfield, Franklin County, ME

8. Nathaniel Gilbert, born 13 Aug 1749 in Pembroke, Plymouth County, MA; died 1834

The details on Calvin and Nathaniel Gilbert Jr. are taken from “A History of Lewiston, Maine, With A Genealogical Register of Early Families” by Janus G. Elder, p. 169. I originally found this information via Google Books. Now when I go revisit the same book online I find I can no longer view p. 169. Guess that’s Google’s way of saying it’s time I sprung $40 for a used version on Amazon.

Several different Member Trees on Ancestry and my main tree on New FamilySearch extend the Gilbert and related lines back to mid-1600′s England. I haven’t done the necessary research to feel confident in pulling that info into my files yet.

As always, I’d be grateful to connect with any Gilbert relatives who are researching these same lines.



I tend to use three primary criteria in picking genealogy blogs to add to my Google Reader subscription list:

  1. Are they fun to read? [Like most of us, I like to be entertained!]
  2. Do they teach me new skills and resources that can assist me with my own research? [I'm acutely aware of how much I have to learn to become a more serious amateur genealogist.]
  3. Do they lead me to crucial local repositories and researchers that I think Genlighten users should get to know? [Forgive me for thinking strategically from time to time!]

Both of Mavis Jones’ blogs, “Georgia Black Crackers” and “Conversations With My Ancestors” meet all three:

  • Her posts are well-thought out and organized, divided up into bite-size chunks, yet still flowing comfortably from one idea to the next. Even when she’s covering fairly technical topics, her writing remains warm, personal, and engaging.
  • I’ve learned a lot from her about Ancestral DNA and about Slave Schedules. Hers are the first posts on genetic genealogy that I’ve actually been motivated to read all the way through. Perhaps that’s because they’re written from the perspective of someone new to the field, as I am. Also, it was her recent posts mentioning Slave Schedules that got me to look to see if my Merryman ancestors from Baltimore owned slaves. Though it was highly unpleasant to discover that they did (more on that in another post) it was information I needed to learn eventually, and it was Mavis that motivated me to do so.
  • Mavis is from North Carolina, and she keeps separate blogs about her paternal (North Carolina) and her maternal (mostly Georgia) ancestors. Both of them feature attractive designs, lots of photos, and in-depth step-by-step discussions of her research processes. Her posts show a great deal of care and attention to detail. She highlights key resources (both online and offline) and even mentions knocking on doors in communities where her ancestors lived in order to get to know them better.

Already in the few months I’ve been reading her blogs, Mavis has taught me a great deal. I suspect she’ll do the same for you, and I heartily recommend you explore both of them and add them to your feed reader.


Do You Have Lookup Providers for… Yemen?

Posted On: March 25th, 2010 | Posted by: Dean

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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.


Genlighten is hiring! Here’s my draft of the position announcement for employee #1:

Frontend UI/UX Designer/ Ruby on Rails Developer for Our Bootstrapped Genealogy Startup

Genlighten.com is about to make the leap. We’re preparing to turn our online genealogy document marketplace from a side project to a full-on startup – and we need your help to make it happen!

We’re looking for someone who:

  • Has built simple, functional web applications that are fun to use and generate revenue
  • Can create “design that’s friendly, warm, and inviting, yet elegant, modern, and fresh… design that feels good” – i.e., design that’s a cross between the UI of 37Signals and the UX of Etsy.com
  • Takes delight in implementing polished interfaces using CSS/XHTML, Javascript and Ruby on Rails
  • Is eager to ride the startup roller coaster, with all the intensity and exhilaration that involves
  • Shares our passion for family history – and is excited to help our users find historical documents that will connect them with their ancestors.

If you recognize yourself in that list, we’re serious about getting to know you and your capabilities.

Here are some fast facts about Genlighten:

  • Right now we’re a team of three: Cynthia’s the genealogy research expert; Dean’s the “product guy” and CEO; Justin handles frontend integration & backend development in Ruby on Rails and MySQL. To this point we’ve relied on a high-quality design firm for our look and feel. You’ll complete our team by bringing that capability fully in-house.
  • We’ve been in public beta for about 3 months. We’ve learned a lot from our customers during that time, and their feedback will help guide a significant redesign of the site over the summer. You’ll spearhead that redesign and help implement some exciting new features under development.
  • So far we’ve signed up about 900 research clients and 100 “lookup providers” (genealogy document retrieval and digitization specialists) across the US, Canada and Europe. There are sellers selling and buyers buying in our two-sided genealogy marketplace.
  • For a quick intro to our site, check out our presentations at www.slideshare.net/genlighten
  • We were recently named one of the five finalists at midVentures25 here in Chicago.

About the position:

Bringing a first employee/quasi-co-founder on board is a big deal, so we’ll take it in stages. We’ll start by offering you a small contract project to tackle. If it’s obvious that we’re a good match for each other, we’ll ask you to work for us on a full-time basis for the summer. Come fall, if customers (and investors) show us they like what you’ve done, we’ll invite you to join our team long-term, which will include a non-trivial grant of founders’ equity.

Interested? We’d love to hear from you!

Please e-mail us at designer@genlighten.com. No need for a resume… just send us a link to your portfolio, your blog, your Flickr stream, your LinkedIn profile… whatever will get us excited about working with you. We’d also encourage you to explore our site and tell us how you’d improve it. Thanks!


Tombstone Tuesday: More Traffords

Posted On: March 23rd, 2010 | Posted by: Dean

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Last week I posted photos of Abraham Trafford’s and Basilea Harmer’s tombstones from the Old Rumson Burying Ground in Monmouth County, New Jersey. As it turns out, five of their children are buried in the same cemetery. I found photos of the tombstones for four of them on the USGenWeb site for Monmouth County.


Sarah Catherine, daughter of Abraham and Basilea Trafford born September 17, 1837 died May 27, 1859


My Husband Mason N. Trafford Died April 26, 1865 Aged 22 Years 6 months

Samuel Trafford

Samuel son of Abraham and Basilea Trafford Born August 16, 1848 Died August 26, 1860

Dr. Alfred F. Trafford Jan 17, 1852 Jul 31, 1895

Dr. Alfred F. Trafford Jan 17, 1852 July 31, 1895

Abraham and Basilea evidently also had an infant daughter, Basilea, who died July 1st, 1853 at age 4 months and 7 days.