Family history is a lucrative business. The main reason is people are passionate about it and it is very meaningful in their life. … Anything that people are passionate about, which involves a lot of word of mouth, has to be good business. —Gilad Japhet
Gilad Japhet launched MyHeritage.com out of his garage in 2005. He mortgaged his home, poured all his money into the business, and was not afraid to take a few risks.
Almost a decade later, the startup MyHeritage has revenues in the tens of millions of dollars, continues to see significant growth and has more than 160 employees. Its 75 million users have built 1.5 billion profiles and millions of family trees in 40 different languages.
So, yes, business has been good, Japhet, MyHeritge’s CEO, said in an interview with the Deseret News at RootsTech in February.
“Family history is a lucrative business,” Japhet said. “The main reason is people are passionate about it and it is very meaningful in their life. Anything that people are passionate about, which involves a lot of word of mouth, has to be good business.”
Japhet’s story illustrates how many family history/genealogy businesses are thriving today.
Tim Sullivan, CEO of Ancestry.com, and Annelies van den Belt, CEO of FindMyPast.com shared business reports similar to Japhet's as they discussed factors of success, challenges and new advancements in genealogy technology. Smaller family history businesses have also found sustainable models in preserving individual life stories and experiences.
There is also tremendous room for growth, Japhet said.
“Family history is an activity you can do for life,” Japhet said. “Once you have a customer, and you are giving that customer a great service, they become a customer for life.”
Factors of success
Founded in 1983, Ancestry.com has grown into the largest genealogy company in the world. According to its website, the company has 1,400 employees worldwide, including 1,000 in Utah. Revenues have increased from $166 million (2007) to $586 million (2013). Ancestry has also benefitted from its sponsorship of the family history reality show “Who Do You Think You Are?”
The company estimates that 83 million people in the United States are interested in using an online family history service, Sullivan said, and as a result, Ancestry has aggressively invested in digitizing new content.
“There is a universal interest in who we are and where we come from,” said Sullivan, who was also interviewed by the Deseret News at RootsTech.
Investing in digitized content and creating a positive user experience are two factors that have contributed to Ancestry’s success, Sullivan said.
A third way is creating technology that helps users find and share content with their family members.
“The size and scale of our community — 2.7 million subscribers, 10 million people visiting the site at any given month — is a tremendous opportunity for collaboration with distant cousins,” Sullivan said. “It really comes down to always providing our subscribers with new discoveries. If we can continue to add content improve our technology and tools to help people find that discovery we can keep our subscribers engaged on the site for many years.”
Similar strategies have been beneficial for the United Kingdom-based FindMyPast.com, van den Belt said.
“Technology helps us to be connected,” she said. “This is about opportunities. The industry has seen significant growth in the last couple of years because digital tools have made it easier for people to find records.”
Catering to 40 languages, developing family tree matching technology and giving free access to one subscriber’s entire family have been major parts of MyHeritage.com’s business plan, Japhet said.
“You cannot address genealogy well by catering to one market, and even if you cater to the important U.S. market, people in America arrived here from somewhere. They have relatives in other nations,” Japhet said. “You need to support users from other nations. That has allowed us to become the leader in many markets worldwide.”
The matching-record technology was designed to save time for researchers and carries a 97 percent accuracy rate, even with different name spellings and languages, Japhet said.
When a person subscribes to MyHeritage, that person's family is granted free access to the website and its resources.
“We are about socializing, sharing and collaborating. It spreads the word and they infect, in a good way, their family members,” Japhet said. “They get hooked on genealogy.”
Like any industry, there are a number of ongoing challenges in the family history business. There will always be a need for more records. There is a need to develop new technology. Perhaps the two biggest challenges, the CEOs agree, is continuing to fine-tune the user experience and appeal to a younger generation.
Ancestry is always looking for talented technology engineers with innovative ideas, Sullivan said.
“Without question, the single biggest challenge is creating a user experience that is easy and intuitive,” Sullivan said.
FindMyPast and MyHeritage both want to bring family history to the masses. For now, that means appealing to a younger generation of users with mobile devices.
“You see too many people with gray or no hair. How do we get younger generations hooked and engaged?” Japhet said. “We have to do it with excellent mobile applications. We need to compete for their short attention span.”
Dennis Brimhall, the CEO for FamilySearch.org, a nonprofit family history organization owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and based in Salt Lake City, expressed concern about another challenge. Some members of the LDS Church around the world don't have access to a computer or the Internet. For these people, FamilySearch has created a booklet called "My Family: Stories That Bring Us Together," in which they can record family information by hand.
Each company mentioned continues to devote a significant amount of its resources to technology development.
Ancestry has been in the DNA business for more than a year and in that time has created a database of more than 300,000 people. Many subscribers have already used this new technology to unlock family mysteries and make new family connections.
“Traditionally, Ancestry has been about our ancestors. DNA is now bringing that experience of connecting with living people,” Sullivan said. “That’s a powerful new way people are going to be able to explore their family history. We think DNA will be an incredibly great way for people to get started in family history.”
Brimhall said FamilySearch is interested in creating a texting app that will enable users, primarily teenagers, to build their family trees.
StoryWorth.com is a family history business that was recently featured in the New York Times. According to StoryWorth, a user selects a list of questions. Each day one of the questions is emailed to loved ones who in turn reply with a story or experience. The stories are then collected, preserved and shared with family members.
It's an easy way to write a little bit each day, StoryWorth founder Nick Baum said in the article.
According to the article, 31-year-old Baum founded StoryWorth in 2012. Since then, subscribers have generated more than 10,000 stories while paying an annual fee of $49, which covers a family of up to six members and provides an unlimited amount of data storage. Baum didn't tell the New York Times about his company's revenues, but he did say it was profitable.
In the first 25 years of his business career, Tom Taylor said he interviewed hundreds of people to analyze information and write about their business strategies. At one point, Taylor realized he was more interested in the people and their individual lives.
So Taylor started a business called Pictures and Stories, which helps clients preserve their life stories and experiences in custom books and videos. It didn’t hurt that his wife and business partner, Alison, had a background in photography, art and graphic design. Pictures and Stories, a full-time business for the Taylors, has been going strong for about a decade now.
“We’re not getting rich, but we make a respectable living,” Tom Taylor said of the Salt Lake City-based business. “We love our work. It’s a fascinating and wonderful experience. We become close to our clients and they feel like family.”Comment on this story
The Taylors estimate they have completed hundreds of projects over the years. They are busiest in the months leading up to Christmas. They work closely with each customer to make sure the project is progressing correctly, and they say they have never had a dissatisfied client.
“We know we’ve done a good job when we show a client the final product and they cry,” Alison Taylor said. “We want to give them something that will last.”
What do family history's smaller businesses, such as Pictures and Stories, have in common with the global genealogy websites? Everyone has a family heritage and a story to tell.
“You might think your life is not that interesting, but everyone has an interesting story,” Tom Taylor said. “It’s always an adventure.”
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