Geni aims to build family tree for whole world

Geni, a new start-up in Los Angeles, wants to do for families what LinkedIn does for business contacts: Create one giant tree that shows you who is connected to who.

The world may be getting smaller; Geni, if successful, will make it tinier still.

Geni has just launched, and we found it easy to use. The company is led by co-founder David Sacks, a former chief operating officer at PayPal, who more recently started Room 9 Entertainment, a production company that financed the movie Thank You For Smoking. Geni has raised a first round of capital of “more than $1 million” from the Founders Fund, which is led by Peter Thiel, former chief executive of PayPal.

Geni has been in private testing for several weeks.

Geni is focused more on networking of living family members, giving them a friendly user interface they can play with, letting you drag the family tree around on your screen, like you can with a Google Map. Once you make an entry for a relative (see screen shots below), Geni lets you email the relative to prompt them to join, so they can make entries. Thus, it is viral.

For now, Geni lets users see only the trees they build for themsleves, or those to which they’ve been invited. This is for privacy reasons, Sacks said. However, Geni will eventually allow users to merge their trees, creating larger numbers of people in a network, and where the nature of privacy changes. Geni wants to build additional features as these trees grows, and is contemplating creating an overall global tree that has some locked features, and edited only with users with certain permission.

Geni is the latest in a long list of genealogy sites. One of the biggest is The Generations Network, which last week changed its name from MyFamily.com. That company owns Rootsweb.com and Ancestry.com. There are also TribalPages.com, OneGreatFamily.com, Genealogy.com and Allfamilytree.com. Some of these, like Ancestry.com, have built impressive record databases. If you type in an ancestor, they’ll search census, birth, death and immigration records.

Sacks said he was driven to build the site because his parents were immigrants from South Africa, and wanted to track family origins in Lithuania and elsewhere — he’s used Geni to connect with relatives from Canada, Australia, France and Israel. Humans have a fundamental need to know where they come from, and who they’re related to, he said.

He plans to make money from advertising. Geni may know more about its users than any other site, and should be able to target advertising better than most, Sacks said: “We’re going to know how old they are, whether they are male or female, where they live, family structure, whether they are single or recently married, whether they have kids, newborn or in college, whether they are divorced…” He may also charge for premium services, even if the basic site remains free. He says the model has worked at LinkedIn.

Sacks wants to make it a family social network, just as MySpace is a network for friends, and LinkedIn is a network for business contacts. People want a different network for each aspect of their lives, he says.

The company was formed last year. Co-founder Alan Braverman most recently co-founded Xoom.

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