Posts Tagged ‘MidVentures25’

Genlighten ♥ The “Tip of the Iceberg” Illustration

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010


I came across this photo today as I was preparing this month’s issue of the Genlighten newsletter. In the picture, I’m giving my 3-minute pitch to the panel of judges at the midVentures25 competition held a few weeks back.

One of my slides included the now-famous “Tip of the Iceberg” illustration commissioned and owned by the California Genealogical Society. It communicates in an exceptionally clear way the fact that most genealogical records simply aren’t online. Since this remains a big component of Genlighten’s value proposition (“We help you find the offline records you need via a network of local researchers with access to remote repositories”) I wanted to make sure I drove this point home to the judges in a memorable way. From the questions and comments I got, I’m pretty sure it worked.

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.

Genlighten’s looking for a Front-end UI/UX Designer/ Ruby on Rails Developer

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

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 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
  • 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
  • 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 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!

Genlighten named one of five finalists at midVentures25

Friday, March 12th, 2010

midventures25_11Some highlights from our participation in midVentures25 tonight:

  • Several of the people I’ve met at local tech events like the Chicago Tech Meetup, the Lean Startup Circle Meetup, and the Hacker News Meetup stopped by our booth to say hi and wish us success with the judges.
  • A large assortment of hip-seeming 20-somethings asked us what our startup was about and seemed surprisingly interested in finding out more about their family history.
  • Several people said they’d seen or heard about either Faces of America or Who Do You Think You Are. Even more commented on the recent Oprah episode spotlighting WDYTYA.
  • A representative of a local church expressed interest in having their records digitized. My wife got their contact info so we could connect them with officials from FamilySearch.
  • The judges seemed to take us seriously and asked insightful questions that showed they “got” what Genlighten was about.
  • We were selected as one of the five finalists from the 25 exhibiting startups, and were asked to give a 3-minute pitch to the panel of judges, which included local VCs and entrepreneurs. Andrew Mason of Groupon and Chuck Templeton of OpenTable were among them.
  • Despite my nervousness, I managed to give our presentation without feeling hurried or stressed and I was able to answer the judges’ questions calmly and confidently.
  • We didn’t win, but we nonetheless came away feeling like we’d had a successful and rewarding evening.

Thanks to the organizers (Brian Mayer and Jonathan Pasky) for selecting us to participate and for putting on a great event.

Genlighten to participate in MidVentures25

Friday, March 5th, 2010

midventures25_1Like many cities that aren’t within an hour or so’s drive from Sand Hill Road, Chicago often finds its fledgling startup community compared unfavorably to Silicon Valley’s vaunted entrepreneurial ecosystem. One discouraged Chicago entrepreneur  lamented about six months back in a comment on a Hacker News article I’d posted:

I should have started my company in the Bay Area. It’s too late for me. Save yourself.

That Was Then…

Based on the startup events I’ve attended over the last few months in the Chicago area, and the smart founders I keep running across, we’re starting to make some solid progress in the Midwest. Here are a few anecdotal bullet points to support that assessment:

  • The Chicago Tech Meetup held back in January had 170 people attend. Jason Fried of local success story 37Signals was the keynote speaker.
  • Recently-launched Chicago startup Groupon is doing spectacularly enough to attract frivolous opportunistic lawsuits.
  • Scale Well, a modest source of $1k-sized seed grants to help startups gained traction, just made its first investment.
  • ExcelerateLabs, a Chicago-based startup accelerator program akin to TechStars, will have its first run this coming summer. We’re currently working on our application.
  • And now we even have our own version of the TechCrunch50: MidVentures25.

[For those who don't share my fascination with the tech startup scene, TechCrunch50 is a startup demo day event held every year in Silicon Valley. Online personal finance website launched there in 2007. Genealogy startup launched its "Pages" feature there in 2008.]

This is Now

And guess who will be participating in the inaugural version of MidVentures25? You guessed it, our modest little genealogy startup.

If you’re in the Chicago area, feel free to stop by our booth. The event will be held downtown at 200 S. Wacker Drive, 12th floor, on Thursday March 11th. Registration begins at 5 pm, and things wrap up around 10 pm, but you can show up pretty much anytime in between. The full schedule is here. We’d love to visit with you, answer any questions you might have, practice giving you our elevator pitch, and get your usability feedback and suggestions. Thanks!