Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Two Ancestry Presidents Contrasted

The two keynote speeches at this year's BYU Computerized Family History Conference gave attendees the unique opportunity of seeing two of Ancestry.com's CEOs side by side. Paul Allen was Ancestry's first CEO and Tim Sullivan is the current CEO of Ancestry's parent company, the Generations Network (TGN).

Paul Allen

Paul Allen began by pointing out the fallacy that genealogy is second only to pornography in Internet usage. "We’re lucky if genealogy is in the top 50," said Allen. "We haven’t even scratched the surface of getting more people involved."

Allen presented an interesting retrospective on his history, the establishment of Ancestry.com, and what he has done since, including current projects, WorldVitalRecords.com and FamilyLink.com. (For a similar recitation, watch Allen's Entrepreneur Lecture last fall at BYU.) Until just recently Ancestry and FamilySearch were the only organizations investing in this market. World Vital Records recently hit 1 billion names online and have another billion in the pipeline. "I'm happy to be back," said Allen.

"FamilySearch Indexing is the most positive disruption in the genealogy industry," said Allen. While he went on to explain that disruption was something that provided increased value at decreased cost, no doubt Allen is well versed in Harvard Business School's Clayton M. Christensen and his ideas around disruptive technologies.

Allen mentioned four problems that need to be addressed to allow genealogy to be more widely adopted. Genealogy is too expensive. It takes too much time to do. It needs to be easier. And it’s not fun enough for young people.

"Social networking is the biggest key to extending the reach of genealogy beyond those currently doing it," Allen said. "Let's share really cool stories and pictures." We can get millions more interested in family history.

Tim Sullivan

Ancestry's CEO, Tim SullivanVery few people attended Tim Sullivan's key note, but those that did were treated to an unprecedented look inside the Generations Network (TGN), according to session host, Kory Meyerink.

"How do commercial players advance genealogy?" asked Sullivan rhetorically. "Very simply; by spending lots of money." Sullivan said TGN invests over $100 million a year providing services and growing the number of people involved in genealogy.

Commercial players help get original records digitized and online according to Sullivan. At current rates, it will take over 2,000 years to digitize all of NARA's holdings. (The New York Times) Records throughout the world are perishing. In the past 10 years TGN has spent, not counting indirect costs, almost $70 million acquiring, imaging and indexing content and continues to spend over $10 million annually.

Sullivan said that TGN will spend over $40 million in 2008 around the world trying to get more people involved in genealogy. More people not only means more revenues for commercial companies, it means more collaboration, more user-uploaded content and more indexing volunteers.

Anticipating the question, Sullivan pledged to keep RootsWeb free despite inclusion of ancestry.com in RootsWeb's domain name.

Asked about full availability of Ancestry in Family History Centers (FHCs), Sullivan noted availability in the regional FHCs and acknowledged ongoing discussions. "I hope we can get it available again."

"We think what FamilySearch has done is fantastic," Sullivan said in response to a question about his company's recent volunteer indexing announcement. He didn't add any details beyond those in the short announcement.


  1. "acquiring, imaging and indexing content and continues to spend over $10 million annually"

    "Sullivan said that TGN will spend over $40 million in 2008 around the world trying to get more people involved in genealogy."


    So that basically means that Ancestry will spend more on marketing than acquiring new content and by a 4-1 margin. Therein lies the reason so many regular customers constantly bash the company in the message boards and blogs. Too little focus on what the customer wants, and the prime focus on what the marketing staff wants to sell them instead.

    I realize that is oversimplifying things, but it probably is not far off. Lopping off 1/3 of the marketing budget and applying that to correct the huge quality control problems of the past would go a long way to removing the source of a lot of complaints, along with a commitment to top notch quality control in the future.

    These are perhaps the things that Mr. Sullivan could think about.


  2. Mike,

    Thanks for your comment. I keep promising to post an article about Ancestry's alleged "huge quality control problems" but I never get around to it. What I've written in my head is really impressive. ;-)

    Seriously, not everything I want to say on the topic is complimentary of Ancestry.

    -- The A.I.

  3. I am stuck trying to find someone who is suppose to be cherokee.Her name is Matilda Gipson.Her marriage
    was listed in the mormon church.I am living in Florida and would really appreciate someone trying to help me!Need proof that she was 100% Cherokee. Thank You Jody

  4. Dear reiakai,

    Can you share your relationship to this person? Is Matilda still living? If she is deceased, what vital information have you already collected?

    Good luck,

    -- The Insider


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