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John Vilburn. Founder & CEO.


Ohana Software started in 2003. Please share how it began.

I was called as a Family History Consultant, started teaching a class in our ward and found that PAF’s match/merge was difficult to use. I thought there had to be a better way. So I started writing a replacement tool or an add-on that would do an easier and better job of merging. Eventually that turned into PAF Insight. Once I had the technology in place to merge people within a file, it was a natural extension to merge other files into your file. Then my wife suggested, “Hmm, wouldn’t it be nice if you could search the online IGI and bring that data in a more automated fashion.” I considered that and said, “Gee, yeah, I think we can do that.” That’s really how PAF Insight was born.

How did Ohana Software come about?

I was working on PAF Insight in the evenings while I still had my day job at ADIC in Colorado. It was taking longer to complete the project than I liked. I was working 4-6 hours each evening, and I began to feel I needed to devote more time to it. At the same time, coincidentally, they had a reorganization at ADIC. I really didn’t like where things were going, and I finally took a look at a combination of that company and how much work was still needed for PAF Insight and finally decided to quit my day job and go full-time to Ohana Software. From that point until we released the product was about six months. We had about six months of no income and then when the product was released it did not have the IGI Search feature, which is what really made it popular. So there was another six months where the product didn’t sell very well. In fact, a good month during that period was $400 of income. We lived through a year and a half there and we didn’t even need funding. We just did this all on our own, living off of savings and food storage and scrimping, not knowing whether this was going to be a success or not. But when we released the IGI Search functionality, things just took off and it has been great ever since.

Looking back over this process that you just described for both PAF Insight and Ohana, is there anything you would have done differently?

There really isn’t. I felt very lucky to have PAF Insight be as successful as it was. In fact, when I started writing the IGI Search functionality, I visited Salt Lake and talked to some of the team there at FamilySearch™ and was told confidentially, “Yes we think you’ve got a really good idea. We want to encourage you to go ahead and do it. However, within nine months we’re coming out with a new product that is going to obsolete what you’re doing.” They were talking about the new FamilySearch™. Knowing programmers as I do, I realized that when they say ‘nine months,’ the reality is going to be longer than that. I didn’t realize just how much longer it was going to be. It’s taken quite a bit longer because the task of writing new FamilySearch™ was monumental. I think the team at Church Head Quarters didn’t understand how monumental it was. So PAF Insight had the opportunity to fill in that gap while they developed the new FamilySearch™. But, anything I would have changed? No, I can’t think of anything.

Let’s talk about the PAF Insight of today, Family Insight. Please share about your relationship with the LDS Church (and its new FamilySearch™) and give us a preview of the new PAF Insight.

The relationship with the LDS Church has been interesting. In the early days when PAF Insight was released, it hit their servers rather hard. In fact, when I went to talk to them originally it was because I was concerned about how hard it was going to be hitting their servers. In the early days there were people who were supportive, but I know that the administrator who had to reboot their server at night was not a friend of mine. There was even talk inside of FamilySearch™ that, “Well, maybe we should block this product.” But they never did, and eventually, my relationship with them evolved when they had a bit of reorganization at FamilySearch™ for the new FamilySearch™ team. When they did, Gordon Clarke was brought in to handle third-parties and he has been very supportive; there is a very different culture at FamilySearch™. In the day when PAF Insight was first becoming popular, the culture at FamilySearch™ did not include acknowledging or working with third-parties. And today, it’s an openly encouraged and “bend-over backwards” help for third parties to work with them.

As a preview of the new PAF Insight, Family Insight is the new PAF Insight. And actually it isn’t a preview because it’s been released for a few months. It was first able to synchronize with the new FamilySearch™ almost a year ago and it does essentially what the old IGI Search did, except with new FamilySearch™. Of course it does things much better. It has automatic place correction where it gives you suggestions. You just click and it will correct all instances of that place for you, based on the suggestion from FamilySearch™.

Then what do you perceive is the core competency of Family Insight?

It is an extension of the core competency of PAF Insight, which is searching and matching. That is what PAF Insight did. It started out as match/merge, and then matching and merging multiple files and then matching and merging against the IGI. Family Insight it includes all of that, and it includes matching and combining the information from new FamilySearch™. Although with new FamilySearch™ we have the opportunity to go both ways with the information. So the information in your database can get put into new FamilySearch™ – it’s not just a one-way path anymore. That’s the core competency. It’s the searching and the matching of the data.

Is there a particular new product or company besides your own that you are particularly excited about?

Actually there’s no particular company. The thing that I find exciting is when I look at the affiliates for new FamilySearch™. I see them constantly expanding and so I think that the Church’s changing stance to working with and encouraging third-parties is really broadening the genealogy marketplace. And I think that is going to expand the market for everyone.

Do you feel that there are any services or products that are not being met by third parties currently in this relationship with the new FamilySearch™?

Yeah, there are. I’ve seen some companies that have started to address that portion of the market where you are not just finding out who your ancestors are, but really learning about their lives. That includes journals, histories, photos, and knowing about the way things were at the time your ancestors lived. The stories of their lives, I’ve seen some companies start to address that. I have not seen that really take off yet, but I expect that that will. For example, we had some relative who had in their possession just a little notebook, a little daily workbook, of one of our ancestors who was in the landscape business. And this was his notebook that he used and he would just have notes in there saying things like “I have this client and they wanted this type of tree installed and I’m going to do this on this date.” Having that glimpse into the life of this person really brought him to life. And it was just fascinating to see that and to read that. I don’t think that he could’ve dreamed that it would’ve been of any value to anyone once he was done dealing with his clients. It’s a great tie to this ancestor to learn about the little details of his life that I’m sure he didn’t find significant at all. I think as people and businesses start to help people gather and correlate that kind of information, we’re going to see the market expand and make family history a much richer experience.

Statistics show that only 1-3 percent of LDS members do family history work. In your opinion, what do you think needs to happen to change and flip this statistic?

I think that the new Family History coursework that the Church has come out with is going to help with that. In our stake, our stake president has asked each Bishop to please make that an ongoing class during Sunday School and we even have some wards who are starting at the top, which I think is wonderful. So they are starting with their Bishopric, Relief Society Presidency, and High Priests Group Leadership, asking them to attend the class. I think as you get the leadership more involved and more excited about this, then the rest of the membership will follow. Family history is just a difficult thing to do, and it’s got to become easier. As I mentioned when talking about all of the new affiliates, with the expansion of new products and companies that are working with new FamilySearch™, we’re going to see family history work become easier and that will help. The biggest hurdle has been that family history, for those who aren’t familiar with it, seems like this serious, difficult thing and it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be serious and it shouldn’t be difficult. I think the combination of really good training should be made available and strongly encouraged. I think that’s going to help. I don’t think we’re going to see any kind of drastic change in that. It’s going to be a thing that happens over time. We may see that statistic rise over the next few years to maybe 4 or 5 percent. But I don’t think we’re going to see anything too drastic in the future.

Do you think that what the Church is doing is appropriate for bringing the ultimate goal of redeeming the dead? Or are we just helping members of other faiths do their work?

Well, you know the interesting thing is I do think it is appropriate, and at the same time yes we are helping members of other faiths do their genealogy, which helps us of course. I know that the new FamilySearch™ is going to be made available to the general public at some point. And when that happens, that is going to be a wonderful thing. It’s entirely appropriate to help the members directly but also to help others, because that just adds to our pool of information. And that results in temple ordinances happening for more people than otherwise.

In D&C it talks about the book being prepared to be presented to the Lord in saying that the work, or the family history work, is being done for the people of planet Earth, if you will. How do you feel that we’re doing in this effort?

I think that we have a long way to go. We are getting a lot of the ordinance work done, more than at any other time in history. But the records are still incomplete and there is still too much incorrect data in them. In the end of course, incorrect data doesn’t really matter as long as the ordinances get done, but the place where incorrect data hurts us is that it makes it more difficult to find those connections, to discover missing children that we didn’t see originally. It causes us to spend time going down the wrong path. I think that we still have a lot of work to do in getting the data cleaned up and getting rid of the duplicates, which new FamilySearch™ was designed to help with, but also getting rid of all of the data that was incorrect and then propagated over the Internet and through records. Getting that corrected so that we can say, “Yes, that part’s done, I’m going to move on and work on new research -the stuff that hasn’t been found yet.”

You moved to Hawaii during your transition from employment to entrepreneurship. Besides the obvious—nice weather, beautiful beaches, etc.,—why did you move to Hawaii?

I’ve been asked that question many times and my answer has always been “Hawaii.” We vacationed here on and off for ten years and when our youngest daughter finally graduated from high school there was nothing tying us to any particular place and I decided, “You know, why not?” Now the interesting thing about it was it wasn’t an easy transition because I had to find a job and at the time I was working at a variety of companies, but there was a moment in my life that was a “take stock of your life, decide where you’re going” kind of moment. I was working at a company in Colorado where I would frequently fly to Seattle to work with a team there, and on one of those airplane trips I bought a book at the airport bookstore. As I was reading on the airplane it said, “Take stock of your life. What are your values? What is it you really want to do?” And it said “Now before you turn the page, write that down.” So I sat there in the seat and thought for a minute about what my values were and what I really wanted to be doing. And what I wrote down was, “I want to be working at a job where I really make a difference and I want to be living in a place of my choice, not dictated by the job.” Well, that got me thinking much more seriously about Hawaii and so I started looking for jobs in Hawaii, in the high-tech industry especially. On Oahu there are some, but on the Big Island there are really none. And so after a fruitless search I decided, “Okay, the only way I’m going to be able to do this is to have my own company.” That was really the turning point where I decided to give it a shot, to try to come out with something that would at least get us by, and that’s where I started with Family Insight or PAF Insight.

At what point in your company’s growth did you determine that the transition would be viable?

Our company’s a small company. It’s really a mom and pop kind of shop. So it was when the sales got to the point where I was making a reasonable salary off of the company. I wasn’t looking to get rich, just to pay the bills. When it finally got to the point where it paid the bills, that’s when I decided to move. It was very early in the company’s history. And I know the statistics on new companies—most new companies will fail in the first two years. So I was prepared for that. We came to Hawaii with the expectation that “We hope this business will continue to grow or at least continue to give us a reasonable income, but if not, there are no high-tech jobs there on the island. I was fine with the expectation that if the company didn’t do well enough and the business failed, I would get a job at Home Depot or whatever and adjust things to fit whatever the circumstance was. I knew it was just my wife and I and we could get by in some fashion. So that was fine.

Did you move directly to Waikaloa?

Yes, yes. And that was an interesting experience because at the time the housing market here in Hawaii was just crazy. It was a sellers’ market—the ultimate sellers’ market. When we made the offer on our house, we offered over the asking price. The house had fallen through and had just come back on the market. We offered over the asking price and on the same day we offered, there were three other offers and we got the home simply because we went over the asking price. That’s how crazy the market was here at the time.

Do you at all regret taking the step forward starting Ohana, moving to Hawaii, and becoming an entrepreneur?

Absolutely not. The weather’s beautiful. Sun is shining. Birds are singing here. And I’ve been able to work out of my home and everybody that works for the company works from their home. We’ve never had a commercial office. We’ve just been a ‘work-from-home’ kind of company. Our support people work from home. We found some services that allow us to do that nicely. It’s been wonderful. I’m very glad that we did that. Don’t regret it at all.

Is there any advice that you would like to give to the aspiring entrepreneurs in our community throughout the world?

The advice I would give is that if you are considering starting a business, it should be something that you really care about. That if you didn’t have to worry about money, it should be something that you would want to do anyway.

I started my company using my own funds. We’ve never borrowed a cent. That has worked for me, and I know it has worked for some other companies. On the other hand, the much more common case is to get financing to form a company and that is also very successful route for many people. But I don’t have experience in that, so I can’t give any advice on that. I know that a lot of the more successful entrepreneurs use financing to start their ventures. Ohana Software has always just been a little family-run business, and we’re comfortable with that. I kind of wanted to get out of the rat race, so that’s why we are where we are. That’s not true for everyone. Some people really like the fast paced business world and if that’s where you find yourself drawn, then go there. We made the choice to be small.

There is one piece of advice I have and that is to keep it customer-focused. We built our company based on how we would like to be treated as the customer. That’s what we strove to do with all of our customers. You’ve heard the old adage, “the customer is always right.” We haven’t really adopted that adage; we’ve taken a different approach – how would we like to be treated? We do little things, like have a published refund policy, but if a customer’s unhappy and it’s been longer than that time, we don’t hesitate to refund money. In fact I think we’ve done a pretty good job at customer service. There’ve been times where our customer support people have a customer who’s unhappy with us and we can’t seem to make them happy. I will call the customer myself and do whatever it takes to make that customer a friend. Some customers I’ve called and talked to, and we’ve managed to keep them as a customer. Others we haven’t kept as a customer, but they have left as friends. That’s our policy, to treat the customers the way we would like to be treated.

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