JEAN: Would you start by giving us a short overview of Genlighten for people who aren’t familiar with the website?
CYNDY: Sure! Genlighten.com is a marketplace for genealogy research services. In other words, people who are thinking about hiring a genealogist can go to Genlighten and search a network of providers to see who might be suited to the projects they have in mind.
JEAN: So, it’s a directory of genealogists for hire?
CYNDY: Yes, but it's more than that. We offer some features that make Genlighten unique.
JEAN: Such as ...
CYNDY: Well, for one thing, at the end of every project, we invite clients to leave feedback and rate providers on things like communication, professionalism, and value. So, in addition to the usual profile information--location, research specialties, and educational background, for example--potential clients can see what others have said about a provider’s services. When I read something like “Herculean effort to capture an image of a hardly legible slide” that makes me pretty confident that the provider will do a good job for me, too.
JEAN: But what about new providers who haven’t had a project on Genlighten yet?
CYNDY: We give providers a chance to post examples of their work. We also encourage them to let us contact a client and/or colleague to ask for a reference we can post. Both of those things can speak to a provider’s competence before they’ve had a chance to earn positive feedback on the site.
JEAN: How does one become a provider? What are the requirements and what does a provider do?
CYNDY: We reach out to genealogists at conferences but we also welcome professional researchers who find us on their own. We’re looking for people who are friendly and positive, who have good research and reporting skills, who are committed to responding promptly to messages, and who follow through on requests in a timely manner.
We don't have a formal vetting process but setting up a profile serves as an informal application to become part of our network. If it’s carefully worded and if the content suggests research skills that would be of value to potential clients, that’s a good sign. I send a welcome note to open up the lines of communication and if the person follows through on any suggestions I might make for finishing up the profile, then I make the account active.
The first project is the real test. If it goes smoothly, then we feel comfortable having the provider continue on the site. If it doesn’t, we help the client and provider bring the project to an agreeable close and proceed from there. Occasionally we find someone isn’t a good fit for the site, but that’s rare.
If a provider is willing to learn, we’re very happy to offer guidance. In fact, we see it as one of our missions to help transitional genealogists get started in offering client research. Sometimes, a glitch is simply an important learning experience. I’m thinking of a time when one of my clients was unhappy to learn that a marriage license I provided didn’t have parent names. I had made no promise the information would be there--I didn’t know why she wanted the license--so I wasn’t in the wrong, but the experience taught me how important it is to understand a client’s goals.
As for what providers do--they do whatever they would do taking clients off site. The only difference is every Genlighten project has a tracking page and we require all project-related proposals, quotes, messages, shared documents and images, reports, and payments to be posted to that one easy-to-find place. The page is private to the client and provider, but, as site administrators, Dean and I can also access it.
People are used to emailing back and forth so sometimes it takes a while for clients and providers to understand the value of using the tracking page--but once they do, it makes things efficient. For example, conversations thread so they’re easy to follow--no going back through archived email looking for who said what when. Payments are processed through the site so providers don’t have to worry about taking credit cards or depositing checks. And because reports and related document images are uploaded to the page, it serves as a backup in case local copies get misplaced or accidentally deleted from a computer.
JEAN: So, I know your provider network doesn’t cover every geographic location. Tell me some of your strongest regions and specialties.
CYNDY: Off the top of my head, we have experienced providers for research in Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Kentucky, California, Florida, Italy, Canada--I can’t name every place, but I’d like to! We also have experts in Jewish research and someone who does a great job retrieving pension files at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It only takes a minute to check to see if Genlighten has a provider for a specific locality, speciality, or repository, so it’s worth bookmarking the site as a starting point when looking to hire.
JEAN: Well, as we know, the Family History Library is no longer lending films. My guess is that you have a few folks who are providers in Salt Lake who can go check films for people? How about some tips for working with them?
CYNDY: Yes. We have a number of go-to people for research in Salt Lake City--both for document retrieval and for more extensive projects that use the resources found there. The easiest way to see who’s available is to type “family” into the search box and select “Family History Library” from the drop-down. It brings up a page that shows which of our providers do research at that repository. (The same strategy will work for other repositories such as the National Archives.)
As for tips, anything a client can do to make it easy for the research provider is great. For example, when I needed deeds from Ohio films, I created a spreadsheet with the names, page numbers, and film numbers needed to find the records and I uploaded a PDF for the provider. It saved him hassle and because he could work efficiently, it saved me money. For people who need more than one record scanned, hiring a researcher by the hour is likely the best way to go.
JEAN: So, last year about this time, you were launching a new version of Genlighten. How’s it going? Tell us a little bit about it.
CYNDY: That’s right! Dean spent a couple of years--nights, weekends, and holidays--building a new version of Genlighten from scratch and we’re really pleased with how it turned out. We like the way it looks--one of the favorite parts of my job is helping providers choose compelling banner photos--and we’re pretty happy with the functionality, although we always have a list of things we’d like to improve.
From the client perspective, the changes were small, mostly new features designed to make the site easier to use. For example, multiple images, say from a pension file, can now be batch download or exported to Dropbox, and single images can even be uploaded directly to FamilySearch.
From the provider side, the changes were pretty significant. We've set up the site to allow for monthly subscription plans so that we can offer extras services to providers who want to take advantage of them. For example, we now have the ability to create Google ad campaigns tied to landing pages for individual providers. This might be a good option for a professional who has a marketing budget but lacks the time or skill needed to handle an advertising campaign independently.
JEAN: What does it cost to use the site? What fees are involved?
CYNDY: There is no charge for a provider to set up a basic account and, in fact, I will go the extra mile to help someone do that for no charge. And there is no charge for clients to create an account or browse the provider lists.
We take a commission on projects that go through the site. For new providers on the basic plan, that fee is 20%. For legacy providers who were with us on the old version of the site, it’s 10%. And, various subscription plans--best suited to researchers who receive requests for high-value projects--let providers lower those percentages.
JEAN: And each provider sets his/her own rates? Do you give guidelines for that?
CYNDY: Yes, providers set the project fees but all payments are collected and distributed through the site. If someone asks for advice, I always suggest considering the expenses and setting a price that seems fair to both provider and client.
JEAN: When I went to the site, I noticed a little blue box popped up at the bottom inviting
questions. At the risk of giving you more work, I resisted the temptation to click and ask a question. But tell me, if I DID click and ask a question, is the response in a live a chat, an email, or a list of FAQs?
CYNDY: If I'm online, that blue box lets me chat with site users in real time. I really like that--being able to offer help immediately. If I’m offline, it makes it easy for people to send me a message which I respond to just as quickly as I can. We’re a small, family-run business, so we don’t keep regular office hours but that’s actually a good thing. If I’m in front of my computer, we’re “open” and I’ll often respond to site users late night or weekends. Sometimes website support involves me hollering upstairs to Dean to ask him to make a quick database check and as strange as that might seem, it’s very efficient!
JEAN: Does Genlighten have a Facebook page or a Twitter account?
CYNDY: We rarely tweet, but you can find us at https://www.facebook.com/genlighten/ There are times when the feed is quiet, but when we have something important to share, we post it there.
JEAN: You have also spearheaded the Chicago Genealogy Facebook page, right? Can you shed some light on what types of folks might be interested in joining it?
CYNDY: Sure. It’s https://www.facebook.com/chicagogenealogy/ and anyone who has a research question related to Chicago, or expertise to share, is welcome to join.
JEAN: So, to wrap things up, you and I have a mutual love of music – and mostly the stuff that’s been around awhile and was enjoyed by folks who played home-made style instruments or the ones that were available. Often you bring a banjo or fiddle to your booth at conferences . . . Do you find people gravitating towards your area as a result and, if so, what is their reaction?
CYNDY: So, yes. I often play the banjo or fiddle at the booth during down times and I’m not sure if that brings people to us or drives them away! I do see people smile as they walk by, though, which makes me think it breaks up their day in a happy sort of way and I like that.
My instruments have sparked some wonderful conversations. If I remember correctly, one woman told me about a family fiddle that was kept wrapped in wedding dress after the death of its owner. I love hearing stories of how music was a part of other people’s ancestors’ lives.