Paul Allen. Founder & CEO.
- Date of Incorporation: January 2006
- Location: Provo, Utah
- Industry (Yahoo Finance): Internet Software & Services
- Employees: 50
- Website: www.familylink.com
How did you begin as an entrepreneur?
I grew up in Orem. My dad was a BYU professor, my mom stayed at home. I went to BYU and studied Political Science, then majored in International Relations. Then I switched to Russian, and later worked on a master’s degree in Library Science. I had varied interests, but business was the last thing on my mind. I thought corporations were greedy and had no interest in anything related to business. I wanted to be a professor. Then I heard a talk by President Holland in 1988 that changed my life. It was titled “Toward a School in Zion” and he talked about how Brigham Young had said that all knowledge belonged to the Saints and that the intelligence and truth that the Lord had revealed at different times and places all belonged to the Latter-day Saints and that there was a purpose for gathering it up. Brigham Young said people should get copies of all the best books, and treatises, and maps, and that they should avail their children of the best educational opportunities. Then he talked about the purpose of education and the purpose of the Gospel going throughout the world. I was sitting there in the audience and I had just taken my first job outside of school, working at a search engine company called Folio. My brother had started it in the mid 80’s, and my job was related to my Library science interest – scanning books. The goal was to put all the knowledge in the world, make it searchable and available on CD-ROM. When President Holland gave this talk, my day job was running a scanner. I was thinking, “Well, all the best books Brigham Young talked about, all the knowledge and truth that’s been given to mankind could easily be put on some CD-ROMs and made available freely or cheaply to every Latter-day Saint home.” So my dad and I talked about it. We started a little non-profit to try to digitize religious content and make it available. It didn’t go anywhere for two years. But then my best friend and I decided to start Infobases in 1990. Our mission was to identify the best books in every field of human knowledge and make them available on CD-ROM. We started with religion, with Bookcraft, Deseret Book, and a lot of public domain gospel books. Then we did history; in ‘95, we did a genealogy CD with thousands of photos and tens of thousands of biographies of Utah pioneers. We combined it with geographical data, the history of different places, and put it out on a CD-ROM product. It was one of our best-selling products ever. That’s how I got into family history—publishing family history content on CD-ROM.
And your switch to entrepreneurship?
Sure. I didn’t consider Infobases as a business or entrepreneurship opportunity. I didn’t like business; I didn’t think of myself as being in business and had this anti-commercial, anti-corporate mentality growing up. I don’t know exactly why. We got on the Inc. 500 list. I think we were ranked 454 of the fastest growing privately held companies in the US. I went to Philadelphia in May of ‘96 to an Inc. 500 conference. It was incredible! I was there with hundreds of the entrepreneurs that had been creating jobs—some of them for five years, some of them for ten years—thousands of jobs. They were all doing meaningful things. They all loved their businesses. They were passionate about what they were doing, and I came in really not feeling like an entrepreneur, not feeling like I was in business. I was almost embarrassed to be in business ‘cause I always wanted to be at the university. I always thought research and knowledge and publishing and being an author were the things I aspired to. Making money or being in business and hiring people was never something I aspired to, but I came away completely changed; I loved business. I loved being an entrepreneur, and I was proud of being an entrepreneur because the people I met made me think, “These are solid, contributing people. They care about their employees. They care about their businesses. They care about their customers. They are doing great things.” It actually changed my life and I viewed myself from that point on as an entrepreneur. Then I started making up for all the things I didn’t know. I hadn’t had business school, hadn’t had business classes. I started reading books, started going to conferences, started trying to become a self-taught entrepreneur or at least kind of get my business degree on the job by reading and learning from real business experts. That all happened in ‘96-‘97 and it was really in ‘97 that we started Ancestry.com. So at that point I realized, “Hey, maybe I should try to learn all the true principles to start and grow a business and how to market correctly. If you learn truth in the field of business and apply the lessons learned, it could be successful. Maybe we could build a big company and do great things.” So I really tried to learn those true principles from all the sources that I could and then apply them. Of course that coincided with the Internet bubble and there were lots of interesting things going on where you could learn from the experiences of others on the Internet very quickly. You could learn what Amazon was doing to grow its audience and you could adopt the same marketing strategies that it was using—we did at Ancestry. Every time we learned about somebody’s new marketing strategy online, we would immediately go test it and ask, “Will that work in genealogy?” It was all about seeing what works elsewhere and then applying it in our own company.
You talked about going to Philadelphia. That was a changing point in your life to become an entrepreneur. What was it about those people and that experience that made you take the plunge so quickly?
I remember sitting at a table with people that were doing businesses that I found quite boring. Yet they were so passionate about it and they talked about how they had grown it. How they had survived hard times, how they had overcome the odds. They were proud of how many people they hired and how they didn’t have to let them go. They were proud of the loyalty. I started thinking about the economics of the world. All the small business are the ones creating the jobs, products and services that improve the world in a lot of ways. The most important thing happened at the Philadelphia conference: I listened to some expert speakers, but one in particular on branding. His topic was, “How do you build a brand that becomes known throughout the world? How do you build a world-class brand that everybody hears about?” Kleenex or Xerox or whatever. I had never even thought about branding. I had never considered that whole topic. I had been in religious studies and academics and Russian literature and political science. I hadn’t really started reading books or studying the field of business. Here was this expert talking about branding and at the same time Infobases had purchased Ancestry.com. We bought another company, Utah Business Magazine. We were rolling all these media properties into a company and were going to change the name of Infobases into Western Standard Publishing Company. Here we were with Ancestry as a cool brand and Infobases as a very well-known brand in the LDS circles and we were going to change it all into a company called Western Standard Publishing Company? I realized “We’re doing everything wrong.” I started realizing that there are people in business that know how to do everything based on experience, based on testing. If I’m ever going to do anything in business, I actually need to know what these people know. And it can’t just be me and a couple friends that have never studied business, have never learned from the experts, don’t know the truths behind business principles, and are just trying to make stuff up. I think this was an epiphany for me because at Infobases we had an annual layoff for six years. We would hire ten people ‘cause we launched a new product and sales were really high. Then the lifecycle of the product slowed down and we had to layoff our friends, our family. I think the epiphany was, “Hey Paul, wake up! There are ways to do this that actually work and if you apply true principles in business, you can be successful. If you just try to figure it out on your own you’re going to have an annual layoff for the rest of your life.” I hate layoffs, it’s the worse experience of my business career. People haven’t done anything wrong, but the company isn’t succeeding. That’s the CEO’s fault. I think it shook me up and made me excited all at the same time.
When you went into the conference, how well had Infobases done?
We had been around for five years and we had grown to almost $4 million in annual sales. We weren’t profitable and we had these annual cycles. We’d come out with an upgrade of a product and tens of thousands of people would buy the upgrade. We’d have lots of money and hire lots of people. The upgrade revenue would stop coming in and so we’d have our annual layoff.
And all of this was before you had studied things like branding and so forth?
Well, yes. I had a business partner that was an amazing salesman. I was the product guy, actually building the products by hand, putting the scriptures and other things together in these Infobases, using the Folio technology. If we hadn’t had great technology, which we licensed, we wouldn’t have succeeded. We just chose the right technology. My partner was a phenomenal salesman. The first 17 bookstores and computer stores he went to to carry our product took it. We got distribution. Then we hired in-house salespeople and they were having a hard time selling upgrades. He got on the phone and I actually think the number was 17 again. He did 17 successful upgrade sales in a row ‘cause he did assumptive closes. He knew the product was great, so when he would have a conversation with someone, he would say “what’s your credit card number?” He had sales training, so he knew all the different approaches to sales. Without him we wouldn’t have succeeded. I was more of the product guy; I think I did a good job there. Neither of us really understood business at the time.
Who was your partner?
Dan Taggart. We co-founded Infobases together and then we co-founded Ancestry together.
What other key factors helped you get to your success?
That was pretty much it. We built the product because we wanted the product. If the product was great for us, it was also great for lots of other people. I know a lot of industries you can’t really do that in; if you’re designing a dump truck, you probably do a better job doing it if you drive a dump truck. But how many engineers in a back office using CAD Cam or whatever are dump truck drivers? For us, I think the reason we succeeded is that we were building a product that we really wanted to have, and we used it everyday. We made it better and better because we knew what it needed. We were the first customer. We often said to ourselves, “Hey if this product doesn’t succeed, at least we have this infobase for the rest of our lives so we can study the Gospel, and study the scriptures as much as we want.”
At what point in your career did you discover your Internet marketing genius?
Dan and I had a little bit of experience with direct marketing. He wrote the copy, and I watched how the phones would light up. That was a good experience in the early to mid 90’s. But the key was ‘97-‘98, Ancestry.com was off the ground. We launched MyFamily.com in December of 1998 and it became the fastest growing community site ever reaching a million users in 140 days. No other site had grown that fast. So between ‘98 and ‘99 I stepped down as the CEO of Ancestry. We hired my brother Kurt to be the CEO. He had started Folio, so he was into search and was an experienced manager and visionary, really good at creating a vision for a company, and I became the VP of Marketing. That’s where I would stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, every night, to see how all these Internet companies grow so fast. How are all these companies going from getting millions of users and repeat visitors? I started diagnosing and dissecting their web pages and learning about their marketing strategies. Then I created this matrix of all the channels that could bring customers to Ancestry.com. That included email, our house list, partner lists, paper click, link exchanges, and affiliate marketing. Amazon kind of partnered the ‘associate marketing’, what they called it. Then I learned about SEO. I don’t think I mastered SEO until 2000 or 2001. I read the whitepaper by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” which they published at Stanford.edu. They wrote it before they created Google. They had a 20-page document explaining the Google algorithm and why Google would be a better search engine than any of the other commodity search engines, and they were right. Their innovation is worth $200 billion now. Every time I learned about any Internet marketing tactic or channel that anybody was trying and had succeeded with, I would ask, “How does this apply to Ancestry and MyFamily?” My team would experiment with it, we would test it and try it out and then we would add the results to our channel matrix so we would answer the question, “how many new users came in a day by PR, gorilla PR? Doing press releases on free websites and getting links to our website, how many visitors can we get? What if we get a partner to do an email exchange?” We did a cross-promotion with iVillage. We were promoting iVillage to our email list, they were promoting MyFamily.com to theirs; and it didn’t cost us anything, but we both benefited from it. It was just constant trial and error. I think I’m a pretty analytical, pretty logical person. I built a system that worked really well for us.
You talked about a channel matrix you created and used at Ancestry.com. What are some of the top five channels you use today and what are some of the best principles you’ve learned about doing good Internet Marketing?
At Ancestry the top channel was our affiliate marketing channel. When I left Ancestry, it was generating about 1/3 of our new subscribers and it was our lowest cost channel for customer acquisition. We would pay out maybe a $16 commission for each sale and we would make $60-$80 per sale. The search engine pay-per-click is definitely a top 5 channel. The best channel of all is the viral channel, where it’s just word-of-mouth: new users invite new users who invite new users. That’s how FamilyLink has grown to 60 million users on Facebook. That’s how PayPal, eBay, Twitter, and Facebook have grown. When you can create a product that’s really good it’s inherently viral: a new user is likely to invite multiple new users to come and join and they in turn invite others. If you can be viral, then you can end up with an enormous audience and have no marketing budget. At Ancestry.com, we had a huge marketing budget and we were effective at using it in multiple channels to generate revenue. At FamilyLink, we have relied exclusively on viral marketing. I don’t have a channel matrix at FamilyLink because it is 100% viral. In the future we will do the channel matrix, PR, cross-promotions, emails, biz dev deals, affiliate, and SEO. But in the last three years, we’ve gotten to 60 million users and that was all viral growth.
So, what are the key components of a viral product?
Twitter and Facebook are good examples of a good viral product. Just because someone did it once, doesn’t mean you can go copy them. If everyone’s adopting that, their viral growth is so huge that if you even did the exact same thing under a different brand it may not actually get the same viral growth because most people are already joined to that. So if it’s the spreading of the product, you may not catch up. If you take a look at either one of those—Twitter was incredibly easy to sign up for and start following anybody. As soon as you followed somebody, they would get notified that you’re following them and they could follow you back. Twitter was very viral, but also they were a media darling last year where the mainstream media was talking about Twitter all the time. So everybody was hearing about Twitter and had to go try it out. Facebook is a much better example of an inherently viral product because it started at Harvard in 2004 and it was just for Harvard students only. It spread virally within a couple of weeks, so pretty much everybody on Harvard campus was using “The Facebook”, thefacebook.com. Then they spread it to a few other Ivy League schools. It was rapidly viral; it would spread through each student body very quickly. You would sign up, you would find your friends on it, you would invite your friends ‘cause it was a social network. You couldn’t get any benefit from it if your friends weren’t using it. I think Facebook is a really great example of a viral product.
You’re best known for your success with Ancestry.com,; however, you have done other entrepreneurial pursuits—Provo Labs, Infobase Media Corp (LDSAudio.com), etc. Yet even today you still choose family history-related projects. Why family history?
Ancestry and MyFamily were the most satisfying things I had done in my life so far—business-wise. It’s such meaningful work. It was fun to have a fast-growing company that was profitable but was helping millions of people figure out who they were related to, how they fit into the world, and who their ancestors were. After I left Ancestry in 2002 I did a few things. But I needed a business that served a higher purpose or had an overriding social value that could motivate me. I remember in ‘99 I almost couldn’t sleep at night. I would go to bed at 2 or 3, and wake up at 7 or 8. I almost didn’t need sleep because I was so excited about MyFamily.com. I don’t know where that energy came from. I had a few other co-workers that had the same bug. It was so energizing, living in the bubble, moving to California, interacting with all these venture-backed startups, and living with all these people that wanted to change the world and make their mark on the Internet. So after leaving Ancestry, I did some fun things. I liked incubating new ideas at Provo Labs. I think the draw to family history was very powerful; I remember one of our engineers at MyFamily. We created a group of our most active users and they worshipped this engineer because whenever they had a feature request or a bug or whatever, they would chat with him directly and he would fix it. There was no product management; it was just hundreds of people with all their families and they needed help. James Ivie would step in and solve their problems. They adored him, they loved him, they thanked him. Families were grateful for what we were doing for them at both MyFamily and Ancestry. I really missed that. I teamed up with a few of the original people at Ancestry and we started this business three years ago. And now we have this gigantic audience of people all over the world. We have millions of users in the UK, Canada, and Australia. We have a huge audience in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Norway, New Zealand, and Ireland. It’s like “Now what can we do for the families of Ireland? What’s the culture of New Zealand around families?” The exciting thing for us now is family history and connecting people to their living relatives. It’s very fulfilling and it’s very stimulating to learn about different cultures and different traditions and that our Web experience needs to be customized for every local audience. I can’t think of a more challenging and stimulating project than to try to understand cultures and traditions and build products and services that meet the needs of families worldwide.
Your most recent family history project is FamilyLink.com. What is your business model behind that, and how does FamilyLink relate to your other projects like WorldVitalRecords.com?
Everything is being folded into FamilyLink.com and our Facebook app, if you are actually one of the nearly 60 million people that use our Facebook app. If you click through to use our app, you actually go to FamilyLink.com now. The Facebook app was a transitional phase. The good news is that Facebook has taken their platform and created this thing called Facebook Connect which allows all of us who have built apps and have provided apps to their users to create our own website experience which can be much broader and much deeper and take all of our users and have them come to our destination site. Facebook’s making some changes this coming year that will make it so that apps no longer feel like they’re exactly part of the Facebook experience. They’re separate; there will be a black bar across the screen across the top for every app and a “Return to Facebook” button. Facebook is making it so all of the apps appear to be non-Facebook apps. We just pre-empted that, said we’ll put everything on FamilyLink.com, and we did that in October. We completed the transition on December 15th. The app phase was a transitional phase for us. Everything we do will be on FamilyLink.com including genealogy searches, all the databases that we’ve accumulated over the last 3 years, the 1.2 billion records, and all the family trees that are being built.
That’s from WorldVitalRecords? So that data will be on there?
Everything will go to one brand, FamilyLink.com, which I think is the perfect fusion of Ancestry.com and MyFamily.com, into one free experience.
Is it going to be a free experience? Will it be an entirely advertisement-based model?
The majority of what we do is free. All the basic social functionality is free. There will be premium content and there will be subscription content as well. But the majority will be free and all of the social features are free.
The Church has been spending a lot of time with their new FamilySearch™. What is your opinion of the Church’s new FamilySearch™ and do you intend to work with them with FamilyLink?
I love what they’re doing. I’m impressed. I worked for the Family History Department about six years ago. At the time I didn’t quite understand where they were headed and they weren’t really tuned to the real-time Internet, where everyday you fix something on your website and you see what happens the next day. I was a little frustrated working there because it wasn’t real-time, it wasn’t iterative. Now that I see what they’ve been working on the last few years, I am absolutely impressed. I am so thrilled that the Church is making all of these resources available. And yes, we definitely are partners and plan to deepen our partnership with the Church through their various APIs, as well as some other projects we are working with them on.
Statistics show that only 1-3 percent of LDS members do family history work. What needs to happen to change this?
I think FamilyLink.com is the first mass-market project that actually will get almost every user to build a family tree for free. It is a fun, Flash-based tree. We have 120,000 trees per day being created by our users. It’s fun to see who you are related to. That’s not hardcore genealogy, but it’s a nice start to have this free tool that anybody can use. We hope to partner with FamilySearch™ API so that you can authenticate through FamilyLink and see all of your ancestors there. There are online approaches where you tap in, connect to other people’s trees and instantly, quickly, magically build a tree with thousands of names in it. There is a lot of bad tree data out there; it’s easy to proliferate millions of trees that aren’t very accurate. It’s too instantaneous; it doesn’t give the user any personal satisfaction for having figured out who their family is and kind of built their family tree. We’ve decided not to make our trees social and collaborative in that sense. We actually want every one of our users to start building their tree on their own. We’ll show them a list of all their living relatives. They can also type in names of relatives that aren’t in our system and then view trees that their relatives have created. They can adopt branches but they have to drag and drop those relatives into their tree. We want every one of our users to get a really good feel for who their living relatives are, as well as who their ancestors are. I don’t think that answers your question about how do you get everybody doing family history, but I think it is a good start to give people a fun, positive and easy experience that actually brings some personal satisfaction. Then you can lead them with artificial intelligence or suggestion engines or recommendation engines and say, “Oh you’ve just typed in the name of your great grandfather. We have some data. Click here and view that data.” To get more than 1-3 percent doing this, that data needs to be free.
How do you do analytics on the back end of this, knowing what the success rate of our Mormon-based community?
On FamilyLink we do have a survey tool. We run about 20-30 surveys a day, and we get about 120,000 answers to any question that we ask. We have asked people for their religious affiliation. We know about 2-3% of our users are LDS and we can ask a follow-up question to those who have self-identified as LDS or Jewish or Muslim or Catholic or any religious background. I could take any questions about activity rates in family history or online missionary work and run those surveys just to our LDS audience to find out attitudes, aptitudes, interest levels, experience levels in whatever category you want. It’s free market research. If we were to go buy that market research, we would be spending tens of thousands of dollars a day to get the kind of market research we can get for free with our tool.
What is your end goal with FamilyLink? If you were to describe it in one sentence or two, what is the future of your project?
Ten years ago our mantra was “connect and strengthen families.” Today technology has enabled families to stay connected and grow closer together even though industrialization has tended to geographically separate families. We have busy lifestyles so how much family time do we really have? I don’t think this substitutes for personal time or face time, but I’d like our website and our mobile solutions to help literally hundreds of millions of people worldwide to stay closer to their relatives. I was inspired years ago when I found this David O. McKay quote from the Improvement Era in 1935. He talked about the architects of Zion and what they needed to create. He said, “We’re all familiar with the spiritual Zion, where we’re of one heart and one mind, and there’s no poor among us. What about the physical Zion? What will physical Zion look like when we build it?” He talked about fertile lands, agriculture, he talked about highways, he talked about banks to preserve our wealth, industry and things like that. He was looking forward to the physical Zion with luxuries and conveniences of modern life. Then he said this, and this was just 15 years after the radio was invented, and only 6-7 years after broadcast radio even started: “We should improve the means of communication until with radio in our pockets we may communicate with friends and loved ones from any point at any given moment.” The cell phone was invented in 1973 by a Motorola engineer and David O. McKay’s comment was made 38 years before the invention of the cell phone, but he said that the physical Zion would include pocket-to-pocket radio communications where you could be close to your friends and loved ones. I would like to see the day where every person in the world who has a cell phone and nearly 4 billion have one. One of the primary uses of that cell phone is to communicate with loved ones, to stay close to loved ones, to preserve family history, and to just share life together in more meaningful ways than was possible when you were separated geographically and had no way to communicate in real-time. For my own kids, I’ve asked them to text me once a week that they love me. That’s the tax I charge them to get the cell phone plan that I’ve given them. It’s really satisfying to feel close to my kids and my wife through mobile and web communications.
I understand that you’re a bishop. You’re also a father, husband, and board member of FundingUniverse.com. You’re the CEO of FamilyLink.com. How do you maintain balance?
I told all my investors two or three years ago that I would focus on one thing, so I got off of lots of boards. I was on several advisory boards and I basically realized that, especially with the Church calling and my family commitments, I couldn’t really do more than one thing in business at a time. I used to fancy myself a parallel entrepreneur. I think there are very few people that are capable of being a parallel entrepreneur. I tried it for a while, but I think being a serial entrepreneur or maybe a monogamous entrepreneur is better. Do one thing, do it for a long period of time. Most of the companies that turned into billion dollar companies took 7-12 years to reach a billion dollar valuation or a billion dollars in sales. So choose something and focus on it and actually stick with it for a long time; just build and learn. The other thing is that there are people out there that know all the answers to every problem you’re going to have and most of the answers are either in books or lectures. I think that’s where entrepreneurs are often the weakest; they think they can kind of have a pioneer spirit and go figure it out on their own. Somehow carve out a lot of your time to be devoted to reading biographies; read case studies, listen to interviews and learn about all the people in the past that encountered problems and figured out ways around it. I don’t know very many entrepreneurs that really do that. They’re kind of heads-down and focused. They don’t surround themselves with mentors or an advisory board, and they don’t go to seminars and conferences. It’s hard to do both, run a business and learn rapidly at the same time.
I’ll give you one example. I watched “The Apprentice” one year and was kind of interested in it. The two teams were challenged with selling a number of wedding dresses in New York City. They had to find a place, get the inventory, and then go out and invite people. How do you get 100 people to come in and look at and maybe even buy a wedding dress? One of the teams knew that TheKnot.com was the #1 marriage registry site on the Net and had an email database of every would-be bride or engaged couple. They had some 20,000 potential brides in New York City alone. One guy said, “Let’s do an email campaign using TheKnot.com’s database. We’ll tell them about the special, the location, etc.” The team that didn’t know about TheKnot.com worked their tail off and floundered—only a few people showed up. The team that knew about TheKnot.com, the ability to email them and make them an offer to them, had about 100 people waiting in line when their store opened and were 50-100 times more successful than the other team. One data point was all that was needed. You have to become familiar with the successful entrepreneurs of the past, read or re-read the books, sleep on it, and then come up with an approach that will work for you.
There are entrepreneurs and then there are great entrepreneurs. What is the difference between the two?
There are insanely successful people that do it for self aggrandizement or for lining their pockets or whatever. I don’t know many of those. I think most entrepreneurs that have had success are very generous with their time, with their advice, with their money. They choose a philanthropy they want to back. I think that the only difference is, you can know how to make things work but what’s the point of it all? Is it for your own comfort and convenience and grandeur of your lifestyle, or is it for the greater good? I’d say that’s the difference to me between a successful entrepreneur and a great entrepreneur.
As an aspiring Mormon Entrepreneur, what advice do I need to know to become a great entrepreneur?
Become acquainted with entrepreneurs in all different fields that have become successful. Try to understand the key motivations and tactics. Probably the only thing between you and success as an entrepreneur is a business model idea, combined with networking and learning. A good idea at the right time can turn into a viable business that can generate revenue and employ people and build a lasting brand. There are tons of well-meaning people in the Church that want to do good things. I just networked with 50 non-profit executives up in Salt Lake last month. I was inspired by them and many of them are very successful in their non-profit fields. But for every successful non-profit entrepreneur there are a 100 wannabes who, if they had money, would go do something good in the world. I think it goes back to my first five years in business where I was stumbling every year, and we had layoffs every year. We hadn’t taken the time to study the principles of business that led to business success. We actually had a good idea that was good enough on its own that, despite our failings, turned into an Inc. 500 company. I think that you have to be business-savvy. Warren Buffet, who is the greatest investor of all time, says that if you are an investor in businesses, it will make you a better business manager. If you are a good business manager, it will make you a better investor. Warren Buffet actually started running businesses and then became an investor; he knows both sides of that. As an entrepreneur, sometimes you are 100% investor, you are the only investor in your company, or you’re the earliest investor in your company and you have to understand P&Ls, balance sheets, cash flow forecasts, return on investment, return on equity. You have to understand the financial business principles that turn an idea into a growth company. I never did that homework my first five or six years. I paid for it and so did my employees. I don’t have an MBA, never got one. I had to make up for it through the school of hard knocks.
What are the favorite books or individuals that have been influential to your success to this point?
I couldn’t list them all. There’re probably 50 or so that were life changers. This last summer I read a book called Once you’re lucky, twice your good by Sarah Lacey. It was about the dot-com bubble, about entrepreneurs that had raised a lot of venture capital in the late 90’s and then ended up losing control of their companies. So in 2003 to 2005 they all started companies without venture funding. That motivated me to see if we could run FamilyLink.com without venture capital, without raising a venture round. We’ve got some good angel investors. Back in ‘97 I had a book called Gorilla Marketing Online, that gave 100 low-cost tactics for internet marketing success. We didn’t have a big budget early on, so we would try those 100 tactics, very simple ideas that didn’t cost any money; they just took time and effort to implement and many of them worked very well. Then I read a book called Net Gain by a Harvard Business School professor that completely changed my world view about websites and how they should be built by the community, with user-generated content; give the consumers power to interact with each other, to interact with your company. It’s not all about broadcasting what you want to tell people; it’s about enabling community. I think that helped lead to the FamilyLink.com concept, so that book was pivotal for me. There’re so many biographies that are worth reading. Love is the Killer App (2003) changed my opinion about business and how business can be combined with love and good relationships with people—employees, partners, customers. Love should actually pervade the workplace, to demonstrate your humanity and your ‘caringness’ to people you work with. I’m still working on doing that, but it’s a phenomenal book.
Any last advice that you would like to give to the aspiring entrepreneurs of our community?
Go for it! Make the leap of faith. If you have family support, go for it. Don’t risk family relationships over your passion, but if you’ve got family support and you’ve got an idea, make it happen.
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