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Russell Wilding. CEO.


How did Footnote.com get started?

We were digitizing documents as a service for libraries and other organizations and it was a huge endeavor, a full-scale “project.” It seemed like there was a tremendous market for original source documents, but we were doing the work for free. My desire was to create a database to which we could sell subscriptions and allow people to access it.

Give me some time frames. I think it started out as iArchives and then it became Footnote.com?

I joined iArchives in 1998 and they were digitizing trucker logs and health care forms. They had just raised three million dollars, and had some tremendous people on board—Harvard guys, MIT guys—and I had hoped it would help me create the perfect network. But it was a disaster. I looked at it and thought, “What in the world have I done?” In the end I fired all the employees, sold all the assets, and started over.

Wow! So you came on as CEO, or the President?

I was COO; CEO was part time. I could see where I could move up within two months. Everyone was going to me and then to the investor. We had the technology so we just started developing that. We began with digitizing microfilm. We went to Deseret News, got hold of some microfilm and started testing that. Really it was the University of Utah that was our first client. We did some Pennsylvania Archives, digitized them and they paid us. We digitized the records and gave it back to them. We didn’t keep any of the content or have any rights to anything.

What other reasons led you to completely revamp your company right from the beginning?

It was presented to me as this great company that had this optical character recognition technology that was better than anything else in the world. So, I immediately took the technology and went down to BYU to their Computer Science Department and asked them to do an independent review. They did that and said, “You’re okay, but nothing great. We can help you.” It became apparent that there were companies that had teams of people focused on OCR technology. So we used our technology, but really tried to find an application for the technology that nobody else was focused on—digitizing microfilm. We were looking at newspapers first. I went online, found the top 100 Newspapers in the United States, and started calling every one of them until I found one of them that was interested in us digitizing their content—the Dallas Morning News. They actually invested in us.

Let’s talk about your transition from iArchives to Footnote. When did this happen?

So, iArchives was established in 2000 when we acquired the technology, but it was in 2002 when we could actually start building a client base. We built the company through 2005 when it became profitable, but it was obvious that there just wasn’t enough money out there for companies to pay to have their content digitized. The return on investment was tough. We had been to all the top newspaper companies in the country because our investor could make a phone call and get us an appointment with the CEO. The same question always came up: “How do I make money on this?” All I did was digitize it. They needed distribution. How do we monetize it? We needed to distribute. So that’s when the idea came: “I need to build a repository and be able to sell that content.” Once that was done, I could cover the process from end to end: go in and digitize, distribute, and monetize it, both to the consumer and to the institutions, which are Public and Academic Libraries.

So your background is in Tax Accounting and you worked for Ernst and Young for eleven years. Did you always plan on running a business?

When I worked in Silicon Valley on the tax side, I was able to work with some Venture Capitalists. My favorite time of the year was when one client would come in—Irwin Federman, the President and CEO of MMI, which was acquired by AMD. He was an accountant by trade, but after that merger he became a VC. He would bring us all of his tax work to prepare. I enjoyed it because he always took the time to chat, sharing with us not only the local economy news but also his views on the international economy, his opinions on business, and what the opportunities were. It was an hour of the year that I cherished and I said to myself, “I want to be like that guy!” So, I started working with small businesses, privately held businesses, entrepreneurial businesses, and that’s where it really became exciting. I also did the tax work for one of the top executives of Apple Computers. As I met with these men I realized that they had achieved their level of success simply by choosing the right path, and that I could just as easily make that choice. So when I transferred to the Salt Lake City office of Ernst & Young I started the Entrepreneur of the Year Program in Utah. While interviewing the top entrepreneurs in Utah for two and one half years I realized that I wanted to be involved in all aspects of a business. That sounded exciting and fun to me.

So, why did you choose Family History instead of Accounting, or Finance?

The technology really lent itself to digitizing and no one else was doing it. We started with digitizing newspapers, and anything on microfilm that we could convert and generate a service fee from. Then it became a repository and once we had a repository, then people would pay a fee to access it. So, with the interest I have in History, Family History—it just came about. This was an opportunity to be involved in a technology company and I couldn’t see that anyone else was doing it.

80 million Baby Boomers will begin to retire in 2010. What challenges do you foresee over the next few years?

The challenge is that people can’t get access to the content. I went out to Washington DC, sat down with the Deputy Director of the National Archives and said, “Here’s the deal. I can digitize this archive for you, ten billion records, or let’s partner and I’ll do it for free.” So during 2006 we started a relationship with the National Archives. They gave us 5 million images to start with. They had never done anything like this—no one had approached them to digitize or partner with them. They’re our archives. They are really a graveyard—all these paper documents are degrading and they are running out of space. For them to start digitizing this was just unimaginable; it was a totally new concept.

Are you the only company that is digitizing the National Archives?

Ancestry had already gone there and gotten microfilms (like the Census), but we were the first ones who said, “We want to partner with you. Not to buy the content, which is Public Domain, but to partner with you and to digitize it.” We were the very first to sign a partnership. Finally 18 months later, Ancestry signed a similar deal.

Is Ancestry.com your biggest competitor in your space?

We don’t view them as a competitor because we are focusing on different content. There is so much content out there that our two companies are able to complement one another. We look at what they’ve done, and if they have this on their site, then we’re not going to do it. We’re going to do other things.

On your website, your vision statement reads: “To be the world leader in transforming microfilm and other print content into searchable, digitized, online databases.” Ancestry.com is doing a similar thing; the LDS Church is doing Family Search Indexing. These programs have almost the exact same vision. Is it just different content?

Yes.

Do you perceive the Church as a threat, or do you try and cooperate with them?

We have a fantastic partnership with them. For example, we licensed our Internet Indexing technology to them in 2004. Right now, we have two tremendous collections and we have ten missionaries scanning papers for us. They scan it, give those images to us; we put it through our indexing, and then we deliver those Indexes back to the Church. They point people to us if they want to see the images. It’s a fantastic partnership and we’re looking to expand it.

There are a lot of tools out there, so what’s different about your technology?

One thing is the efficient system we’ve created on the digitization side. We can track every second of every image we make with our work-flow system. Our vendors use our tools so we can track what they are doing. I don’t think anybody else has that. But our greatest asset is the presentation on the website. When we launched Footnote.com in 2006, I hired three of the top guys from the industry. Roger Bell, who was over all the products at Ancestry, came over and joined us and he has been so instrumental in the projects we’ve created. For example, all indexes we create are for free. We have original source documents for everything we do so we can make the indexes free because people want the images. Because of this, we can SEO the indexes. Ancestry can’t, because their images sit behind a paywall. So Roger Bell’s design, his architecture, is going to be a significant differentiators for us from anyone else doing this stuff. That’s why we can work with the Church because they provide indexes, and our indexes are free anyways. So why not give them to everybody and then drive them to us to see the Images? (But just so you know, we give members of the Church access to the images for free if they log in through the Church’s system.) For example, PAF Insight used to be that way, but now it’s not anymore. It is really an authentication problem for the Church, but we’re okay with it. It’s in the contract; we’ve agreed to it; and they’ve just got to figure that out.

So, your services include: (1) scanned projects for institutions, schools, newspapers, the National Archives et cetera, and (2) an on-line record repository. How do your affiliates fit into your business model?

We have a repository of content, so who is going to convert it into subscriptions? That’s where the affiliates come in. For example, one might have their sights on Native American records. We have some great Native American records. An affiliate will send us a lead and when their lead buys, we give them a commission. So, affiliates are a big piece of what we do. Partners, like the Church, drive traffic to us as well. Natural search is great too. Those are the main things—SEO and affiliates. We love people driving traffic to our site. We have an arrangement with them and we share back with them.

Are affiliates doing well based upon this model?

Yes, but it’s a challenge. We’re small; we’re growing; we’re still indexing records. Ancestry has all kinds of records, lots more than we have, so they get more business. But, their price is twice what ours is. So, for an affiliate, if Ancestry has what they want, they’ll drive business to them because their commission will be a lot more than ours.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve experienced during your last nine years of growth?

It’s always been about capital. Footnote.com is a fairly expensive business because you have to digitize all the content. Besides capital, there’s market recognition. Getting your name out so people recognize you and come to you—recognize you as having all these records—is difficult. It’s the capital to grow the company and then name recognition and marketing.

So, let’s talk about those two items: what do you do to raise capital and what are doing for marketing?

We’ve been fortunate. We have two major investors and they have provided the funding. So we have tried to be creative at other times too, like licensing technology to the Church. We sold some of our databases last year to a group that distributes them in the library market. We’ve tried to look at our assets and say, “What ways we can monetize our assets without hurting our core business?”

Anything different as far as promotion goes?

We really think word of mouth is very important. I have an article here* that says 80 percent of all marketing is off line. And how you do this? Trade shows. It’s so important to go to trade shows and to speak to really knowledgeable industry people. Anything you can do to get your name out there and get to where the people are in mass.
(*Word of Mouth Marketing by Andy Sernovitz)

Anything else you would like to share about Footnote.com?

I think we have been fortunate in hiring fantastic people and not losing them. When we first started doing iArchives we got Robert Wille, who is a brilliant guy. He basically wrote the Internet Indexing System for the Church. We brought on Scott Christenson, who runs Operations, and is fantastic. When I started the website for Footnote, I got Roger Bell. All these guys are products of local companies. Chris Willis is a top designer and he came and joined. These guys were entrepreneurs who were stuck in a company and were not able to do what they wanted to do. They are living their dream now. We’re very thin. We’re not two deep anywhere. So they are able to create a culture and an opportunity here that they would not get in a big company. It’s having the right people with a consistent mind set of where we are going and how we are going to get there. Everyone doesn’t always agree, but everybody’s living their dream.

So, what do you do to attract the best?

You have to sell them the vision. Today, it became very clear to me what CEO stands for: it means, “Clear Every Obstacle” and then you sit back and cheer everybody on. That is really what it is—you clear every obstacle for these brilliant people, you provide the direction and the vision and then you sit back and cheer them on.

What is the most exciting thing you see going on currently in our Family History community?

I think that people have the misunderstanding that Family History is for members of the Church. I would say 90 – 95 percent of our clients are not members of the Church. I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “There is no history—only biography.” It’s all individual stories. When we digitized the Vietnam Wall, it’s all individual stories. That is what makes up history. It’s your life, your parent’s lives, your grandparent’s lives. What was going on? What impact did they have on society? That’s what we’re trying to help tell—their stories. Not just an index. “There is no history—only biographies.” That’s what we are about. That is what is different about our company. That’s why we go after historical content, not just birth, death, and marriage records. We’re after pension files, newspapers, and all kinds of military records.

What do you see for the future of the Family History Entrepreneurial Community?

I think that people have the misunderstanding that Family History is for members of the Church. I would say 90 – 95 percent of our clients are not members of the Church. I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “There is no history—only biography.” It’s all individual stories. When we digitized the Vietnam Wall, it’s all individual stories. That is what makes up history. It’s your life, your parent’s lives, your grandparent’s lives. What was going on? What impact did they have on society? That’s what we’re trying to help tell—their stories. Not just an index. “There is no history—only biographies.” That’s what we are about. That is what is different about our company. That’s why we go after historical content, not just birth, death, and marriage records. We’re after pension files, newspapers, and all kinds of military records.

What do you see for the future of the Family History Entrepreneurial Community?

I wish I could tell. I think the industry is just in its infancy because the records haven’t been available. Now the records are becoming more available. People have been doing valuable research and there has been no way to share it. So, there may be someone in Oregon who has done years of work that another person in Florida, New York, or Texas would love to have. How do you create that opportunity? That is where your social networking is going to help. We want to be a part of that. The other thing we want to become is the world’s shoebox. We want all this content that we have digitized to be a magnet for drawing in people. We want to allow people to upload their stories, photos, and information to be shared with others as well.

You say 90 percent of your clients are members of other faiths, which is exactly the same approximation as Generation Maps. What needs to change to flip that statistic?

Our goal is not to try and motivate those people because it’s such a tiny market. We love these people and we love having them come to our site, but I think you have to lower their barrier to entry. I’ve watched my wife become a partner in this over the last year and it’s pretty overwhelming to get started. Who can focus on that beginner and stimulate them and keep them entertained and involved? Once somebody gets involved, it’s intoxicating. So it is really attracting someone to it. The challenge is people don’t have enough time in their life to do it. If you have a young mother whose raising kids, or involved in a career or something, it’s a challenge to get that person intoxicated.

Aren’t members of other faiths similar to us? It’s got to be something different.

Well the audience we have is typically forty five or older. They’re involved in family history because the noise starts leaving their life at about that time. Now on the other hand, the young group, the young crowd, has a lot of time to spend on Facebook. Think about it—all that stuff on Facebook is only going to benefit people in the future. It’s going to be a lot easier to track. So, all of this is historical stuff that eventually people are going to run in to. Parents, grandparents, they’re pretty easy to get down, but you still have to dig to get into the earlier stuff. That’s why we like to make it more of a biography and we don’t like to say “genealogy.” We like to make people think they are digging into history to help people tell their stories.

Are there any books or people who have had a significant influence in your life?

I think one of the best books I’ve ever read is Good to Great. It’s just unbelievable; it talks about your management style. To me, it is very consistent with my personal beliefs and core values. Like the things it talks about in being a good leader: not being the high profile celebrity but somebody who has values and who is disciplined. I love reading history. I love reading about George Washington and about the founding of this country. It makes you realize that America is the chosen land. It was more than just these individuals founding this country—God was involved.

Any other advice you would like to give to the aspiring entrepreneurs in our community?

It’s three things really: find something you have a passion in, and that you can make money at, and that you can be the best in the world at. We believe those things here with all of our hearts. We have passion here for what we are doing. We think we can be the best in the world, and we think we are. There is a lot of money to be made, plus there is a lot of good that can come from it.

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