Posts Tagged ‘Harper Reed’

Build Something For Yourself, Revisited

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

In a previous post, I mentioned meeting Harper Reed at the last Chicago Hacker News meetup. He asked if I could help him find out about the ancestor he had always heard he was named after: a distant uncle who had supposedly died in a car crash in Colorado.

The Search Begins

With no dates or specific localities to go on, I searched Ancestry for Harper Reeds who had died after the invention of the automobile. Hits in the 1920 and 1930 censuses looked promising, though they were for John Harper Reed (rather than just Harper Reed) and he lived in two different places with different wives in each census. A USGenWeb site listed a date of burial for a John Harper Reed in a Colorado Springs cemetery, matching the 1920 census residence info.

But nothing I found easily on Ancestry or elsewhere online could document the unique “death by car accident” connection that I was looking for. Finding an obituary seemed like the obvious next step. Too bad Genlighten didn’t yet have a Colorado provider that could help me. I advised Harper of my progress and decided to let the project drop for a while.

Finding a “Hidden” Provider

Then this last Friday, as I was going through all our registered users counting those who’d created profiles and offered lookups, I discovered a bunch of “hidden” lookup providers — people who had signed up for Genlighten, who listed their credentials in their profiles, but who didn’t yet offer specific lookups on the site. One of them was Linda Vixie, who goes by the username elfie. To my surprise and delight, I noticed that her research specialities included “Colorado, especially El Paso and Teller Counties.” Colorado Springs is in El Paso County. Hooray! Maybe we did have a provider who could get the obituary for me!


Asking the Provider a Question

ask_elfie_a_questionNow what I needed to know was, was Elfie willing to track down an obituary (or a cemetery photo) for me? And could she perhaps also visit Lincoln County, where John Harper Reed was enumerated in the 1930 Census? So I went to the “Ask the Provider a Question” box on Elfie’s profile, and submitted my question to her.

Later that same day, an email arrived in my inbox, automatically generated by Genlighten, indicating that Elfie had responded to my question. Her reply was concise, confident, and constrained. She could definitely tackle El Paso County, and the obituary was likely indexed. But Lincoln County was too long a drive.


In a few short sentences, Elfie had managed to convey credibility and demonstrate a willingness to help. I instantly knew I’d found a great lookup provider.

Submitting a Custom Lookup Request

Elfie didn’t yet offer an “off-the-shelf” obituary lookup for El Paso County, so I posted a custom lookup request. I gave Elfie all the info I’d discovered on Ancestry, plus the supposition that Harper Reed had died in a car crash, and my desire to confirm that possibility. I set my target price at $10 and set a deadline three weeks away.


Heck Yes, Accept!

I posted again to Elfie’s profile, indicating I’d posted a custom request. She promptly submitted a quote, and outlined in detail how she’d go about fulfilling my request. Her price was half what I was more than willing to pay! I quickly clicked the “Accept” button.


Wow… That Was Fast!

Two days before the date she had promised to look for the obituary, a notification message from Genlighten appeared in my inbox. “Provider elfie has completed your custom request… They were successful in retrieving the document(s) you requested.” Cool!


Happy Dance Time!j_harper_reed_obituary

I clicked on the link in the email and logged in so I could see the Manage Quotes Received results page. There was the scanned image of the obituary that Elfie had uploaded. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect headline: “J. Harper Reed Dies at Empire After Accident.”

I gave Elfie a five-star rating and started composing my email to Harper. My day had officially been made.

Surprised and Delighted

As a Genlighten customer, I’d been “surprised and delighted” by how quickly, conveniently and affordably I had gotten exactly the document I needed to move my Reed Family research forward. I’m fully aware that the process won’t always go anywhere near this smoothly. But it was gratifying… so gratifying… to see the vision we’ve had for Genlighten start to be realized. Dogfood never tasted so good.

Build Something For Yourself

Jason Fried had said at the Chicago Tech Meetup two weeks before, “Build Something For Yourself.” Of course, though that was part of our initial motivation, we also want to build something that can become hugely useful to the rest of the genealogy community. A new tool in the holster of genealogy researchers, both amateur and professional. It feels like we’re getting closer to that becoming reality.

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!