Entrepreneurship and Genealogy

Serial Entrepreneurship and Genealogy

by Dave Voelker on March 24, 2011 · 1 comment

in Genealogy Industry

Geneabloggers has an open thread on  Serial Entrepreneurship and the Genealogy Industry that looks at the rising number of genealogy related internet sites and software tools.  A few good questions are posed about whether this spike in attention is a good thing, does the incubator model prove helpful to the genealogy community, and also asks about the products being produced and the role of the community in developing these products.

By trade I have been leading enterprise software development for nearly 20 years and as such I likely have a bias towards new technology and see the importance of technological innovation.  The current wave of technological innovation has occurred in the development of social networking.  The nouveau riche of this era are the many startup software companies that have gone from 0 to astronomical valuations in record time.  Facebook is valued at about $50 billion (with a B) and Twitter is valued around $10B.  This kind of money will obviously attract a lot of prospectors seeking to provide value-added services of add-on capabilities.

The upside of this for the genealogy community is that we will see a lot of new tools coming out.  Genealogy is uniquely positioned to see an influx of tools and technologies for two primary reasons.  The first is that genealogy is fundamentally about the connections between people and this is also fundamentally what the social networking movement is about.  There are many niche and nuanced sites within the social networking space and genealogy is primed for an entrant in this space.  I expect Ancestry.com to bring out new capabilities that focus on it’s membership and their connections to each other.

The second fundamental reason why the genealogy community is primed for technological innovation is because at it’s core genealogy is about data and data is the currency of computing.  What made genealogy difficult for years was that the data we were mining for was often buried deep and it took long hard hours of physical effort to unearth that data.  You traditionally had to physically move to different geographic locations to locate and study books or microfilms of books.  The computerized indexing of this data has had a profound impact on how research is done, I would argue that nothing has done more to further our understanding of the collective history of humanity.

Rapid innovation leaves in it’s wake ideas that did not pass the test of time and one particular downside is that the community can get distracted and confused by the sudden well-spring of new capabilities.  How can we know which tools to use?  When is it safe to migrate to new platforms and try out new capabilities?

The genealogy community has always prided itself on quality research and there are many staunch defenders of the proper methods for research, citation and verification of data as facts.  The same technological advancements that make it easier to perform quality research make it easier to perform sloppy research as well.  Serious genealogical study used to be reserved for those willing to make a significant investment in time and effort, when all of the data was tucked away in dusty books in faraway places it took a serious commitment to bring it back to the light.  Today, serial entrepreneurs have given rise to the capabilities that make it remarkably easy for many people with a casual interest in genealogy to quickly assemble an accurate view of their family history.

Innovation has reduced the barrier of entry for many amateur genealogists which overall I view as a positive.  I welcome all that are interested into the community and I do not feel that everyone has to do work of the same level of sophistication.  I would like to see transparency into how well researched given “facts” are but I am willing to live with the rise of factually inaccurate noise in order to also raise up the level of factually accurate information.  As we bring more family experts into the picture the inaccurate noise becomes largely self-correcting.  Wikipedia, while not perfect, is a prime example of how this works.

The genealogy community has proven to be willing to invest in their passion.  We were long ago recognized for being willing to make journeys of thousands of miles, often at considerable cost, to further our data collection habit.  Today, the cost of an Ancestry.com World Deluxe Membership represents a significant investment as well.  As long as this community is willing to invest then the entrepreneurs will find out what they want and find new ways to deliver it; better, faster, cheaper.  In the end this is good for the community and good for the collective knowledge of human history.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 JJT April 7, 2011 at 11:43 am

I agree wholeheartedly that the serial entrepreneurship as of late is a very good thing for the genealogy community.

These entrepreneurs are almost by definition smaller, fast moving or working outside of “comfort zones” – while they may not be adding the great numbers of records the Big Gorillas do, these innovators are the ones that could most likely come up with most useful next generation tools that provide better ways to find and visualize connections.

The exceptional thing about the effectiveness of entrepreneurship in this realm is that genealogists are more than willing to use multiple resources, tools and methods to ferret out information. The result is that new sites can really get their tires kicked by a vocal and experienced community.

If the downside of entrepreneurship is genealogists having to deal with splintered resources, weighing the value of multiple subscription charges and, as you stated, the potential for sloppy research, the upside of the combination of the fast growing Big Gorilla datasets and innovative tools is almost certainly big fat plus for genealogists who are going to need all the help they can get as more data goes online.

Finally, as with any field, it is only a matter of time before the at least some of the chaos of entrepreneurship is incorporated into the Big Gorilla’s arsenal – either through assimilation or emulation.

It is a terrific time to research online!

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