Posts Tagged ‘Startup_Life’

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!

My Best Genealogy Moment of 2009

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010
The Harman Continuing Education Building on the BYU campus (photo by swilsonmc on Flickr)

The Harman Building (photo by swilsonmc on Flickr)

I’m a day late with my response to Randy Seaver’s weekly “Saturday Night Genealogy Fun” challenge. But when I saw that Thomas McEntee was too, I figured I’d go ahead and still be in good company.

My best genealogy moment of 2009 occurred as I sat at Genlighten’s exhibit booth at the BYU Conference on Computerized Family History and Genealogy back in March. It dawned on me suddenly that I had come full circle as a genealogy software vendor.

Twenty-six years before, I had attended one of the first versions of that same conference in the very same Caroline Hemenway Harman building on the BYU campus. Back then, as a newlywed sophomore majoring in Physics, I hoped to offer my first-generation Apple IIe-compatible Family Tree software (tentative title: “N-Gen”) for sale at the conference. But when I took one look at the competition, I knew I was completely out of my league. It was obvious to me that I didn’t know the first thing about marketing a useful product to the genealogy community. [Do I know any more now? I sure hope so!]

Now fast-forward to March of 2009: I’ve long since graduated from BYU, and I’m back at that same conference, once again surrounded by intimidating competitors, but this time as a reasonably legitimate vendor of a fledgling genealogy software product. Heady stuff. Scary, too. But I allowed myself to luxuriate in a rare moment of unabashed self-confidence. This time I would not go so quietly into the night of startup failure, I vowed softly.

The two times in my life I’ve launched entrepreneurial ventures, once as a twenty-something, and now again as a late forty-something, they’ve both had genealogy research at their core. It’s obviously got a powerful hold on me!

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.