Posts Tagged ‘business model’

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

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

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

Selected Records Relating to Lighthouse Service Employees, 1801-1912

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

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

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

The Long Tail of Genealogy Records

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

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

Could Genlighten Help? Should It?

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

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

Why Our Business Model Matters

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

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

Was Your Ancestor a Lighthouse Keeper?

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

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!

Will new Pro Accounts help Geni become profitable?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Geni logo

It doesn’t appear to be mentioned on the Geni blog yet, but I received a Twitter update this morning from Geni announcing the introduction of “Geni Pro Accounts”.  For $4.95 per month, Geni Pro users can get a higher level of functionality and support options from the site than is available to non-paying users.  At their forum, you can read the following:

“Today we released the initial Geni Pro Account offering which includes these features:

  • Forest GEDCOM Exports – Export your family tree and all connected trees into a single GEDCOM file (up to 100,000 total individual and family records) with one click.
  • Priority Support – Geni Pro users receive faster response from a dedicated Priority Support queue.
  • Geni Pro Badge – Identify yourself as a Geni Pro to family members and genealogists.

You can sign up for a Pro Account for $4.95 a month. There are a number of features which we plan to add to Pro Accounts in the following months. As a subscriber, you will receive instant access to additional Pro Accounts features as soon as we add them.”

I’m excited about this for several reasons:

  • This move signals Geni’s transition to a “Freemium” business model, which may allow them to sustain their service for the long-term (if enough users sign up).  37Signals, a highly-respected software development firm, is perhaps the most frequently-cited successful practioner of this model.
  • To justify the “Pro” label, Geni is likely to roll out features such as support for source documentation, which would make the site much more attractive to me as “the place” for my genealogical data.
  • The Geni customers who sign up for Pro Accounts stand a good chance of being interested in obtaining genealogical source documents, which would make them potential Genlighten customers (yay!)

Of course the big questions here are:

  • What proportion of the users who’ve been attracted to Geni by its zero-cost offering will be willing to pay for the ‘Pro’ features?”
  • Will that fraction be large enough and loyal enough to help make Geni profitable over the long term?

I certainly hope that this new strategy proves successful for Geni.

What features would Geni need to add to get you to pay them $4.95/month?  Please let me know in the comments.  I’m currently preparing a presentation for the South Davis Family History Fair (to be held next March in Bountiful, Utah) in which I’ll compare the various web-based family tree sites like Geni, so your input would be greatly appreciated.

Five reasons not to “cut out the middle man”

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Phil Hatchard's The Middle Man from FlickrAt genealogy conferences and in some of the responses we’ve received to our recent e-mails to genealogical societies, potential providers have occasionally referred to Genlighten as a “middle man” in the lookup process. Though the connotations of this term can be somewhat negative, it’s a label we’re willing to live with. After all:

  1. We aim to make it easier for genealogical researchers to earn income by offering lookups.
  2. We plan to receive a commission on each lookup request we process.
  3. By creating an online lookup marketplace where genealogy researchers and lookup providers can find each other, we are indeed acting as a form of middle man (though we would probably prefer the term “third party intermediary”).

I’d like to use this post to clarify our intermediary role and explain the value we offer potential lookup providers.

Transaction Fees, but no Listing Fees or Subscriptions

We’ve decided to follow a “transaction fee” business model on our site, rather than a subscription model (such as Ancestry uses) or a listing fee model (which eBay uses). We chose that approach because it lowers the up-front risk to both providers and clients. A provider who offers lookups through us only pays to use our platform when a lookup transaction is successfully completed. If they don’t get any requests, they don’t pay us anything. Similarly, a potential customer pays us nothing unless they find a lookup offering they’re really interested in.

How It Works — A Numerical Example

Suppose the provider sets their price at $10 to retrieve a copy of a vital record from a local government archive. Our commission rate is 15% for independent providers (we discount it to 10% for societies). So when a customer orders a lookup and the provider successfully delivers the requested document, the provider would receive $8.50 and Genlighten would receive a $1.50 commission. [The customer would also pay a separate handling fee to cover the cost of payment processing.]

The Value Genlighten Offers

Why should providers pay us a commission, rather than keeping the entire $10 for themselves? Why shouldn’t they just “cut out the middle man”?

We think we offer a lot in return for the fees we receive. In particular, Genlighten aims to give our providers:

  • A simple tool for creating both lookup listings and customized data input forms, so the provider gets specific, well-defined requests and just the right info they need to fulfill those requests.
  • A secure online shopping cart that handles upfront payments via PayPal, credit cards and electronic checks.
  • A robust customer feedback and rating capability.
  • Targeted advertising on genealogy-relevant sites and searches so prospective clients can easily find providers’ lookup offerings.
  • Aggregated world-wide demand so providers will have enough requests to make the regular trip to the local archive profitable.

Are these benefits enough to justify our fees? We sure hope so. And we’d love to hear what you think, one way or the other.

['Middle Man' image from Phil Hatchard's photostream on www.Flickr.com.]