Category Archives: Building a Company

Our mission statement — “Simplify maritime history research”

The other day I was working in my office at the local Tim Horton’s, and a friend walked in. We often see each other there and take a few minutes to chat. He told me that he’s been working with colleagues on defining their company’s mission statement. I’ve done that work in the past, and I find it to be a project that can often be pretty challenging, but is still very much worth doing. Crafting a succinct but accurate mission statement can be tough work, especially if your organization does a lot of different things.

As we talked, I wondered about the mission statement for ShipIndex.org. I feel pretty good that it came to me fairly quickly. I believe that ShipIndex’s mission is to “simplify maritime history research.” That’s it, and I think it’s pretty accurate. My goal isn’t to ‘tell people which books, journals, websites, databases, etc., mention the ships they want to know more about,’ even if that’s what ShipIndex.org currently does. If I can summon the financial, managerial, and intestinal fortitude, my goal is to make maritime history more accessible, more visible, and better understood, through a whole bunch of different paths, tools, and solutions.

I feel strongly that maritime history is a critical aspect of personal, local, regional, national, and world history, and I want more people to recognize it as such. I hope that as people find more effective ways of doing maritime history research, they’ll incorporate it into more of the stories they tell, and society as a whole will provide more emphasis on how maritime history, shipping, and the marine environment in general, impact our lives.

So, that’s the mission statement – “simplify maritime history research”. I believe that ShipIndex.org’s current work does that, and additional ideas that I have will also do that, but there’s so much more that could be done. Thoughts? What other things do you think could be done to simplify maritime history research?

Holding on to the stuff that works

I’ve been dealing with a lot of challenges lately – mostly technology-related (which, alas, is certainly the most important aspect of the business), but also sales, marketing, desktop support (that is, my desktop), time management, QuickBooks, kid’s health, and more – but I was reminded yesterday about one thing that does work. I sometimes feel like I need to grab on to those things that work and pay attention to them, except that the fact that I don’t need to pay attention to them is what makes them so great, and makes them work.

Our graphic designer, Luara Moore, is a godsend. Seriously. I’m gonna put some ads in some maritime history magazines, and she created these ads so quickly that I really don’t know what to do. They’re not due for weeks, but I’ll be able to submit them today. Then, when I came up with a very last-minute (ie, yesterday) idea for a banner to create for the Public Library Association conference – which opens next Wednesday – she had a first draft for me in just a few hours. She took my thoughts on what it should look like, incorporated most and improved others, and had a result back to me right away. I replied last night, I’ll get a final result back today, I’ll put the order in today, and I’ll get the result by Tuesday. (In theory. But the printer I usually use, PSPrint, is really great, too, so I trust they’ll get it done and shipped on time.)

Lue created our original logo back in 2009, and I don’t ever want it to change. I love the theme and the structure she’s put into all of our collateral, from brochures to postcards to web design to banners and signage to bottle openers. If it’s graphic and ShipIndex, Lue did it.

So, while I work on trying to put my technology world back together, and then try to reclaim all the time that could have been spent on sales and marketing, I will cling to the logo and collateral I love, and thank Lue for creating at least one part of this business that works like a proper, effective, and efficient machine.

Report from Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE

A week ago, I traveled to London to attend the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE genealogy event, at Olympia National Hall, in London. It was a great event, and I hope to return in the future.

I have managed exhibiting at conferences for a long time, both for ShipIndex.org and for my previous company. And I have attended conferences at Olympia before, for the previous company – but I’d never managed putting on an exhibit overseas. There were a lot of challenges, from trying to find out how to get the appropriate unnecessary insurance before attending, to restructuring the website so people could pay in foreign currencies. I had to figure out a way to get internet access, when paying about £300 is absolutely out of the question. I had to figure out how many handouts to take with me, and ensure I kept them under the airline’s weight limit. (The limit is 50 lbs; my bag weighed in at 50.5. The overweight fee is $200! They let my bag through, though I was ready to take out a batch of postcards, if needed.) There are always a million little issues to deal with when preparing for a conference, and adding international travel to it certainly seems to double the number.

I left the US on Wednesday evening, via Newark. I arrived early Thursday morning, spent nearly an hour and a half waiting to go through UK Immigration (this was pretty appalling – at one point, when there were NO UK or EU citizens waiting to go through, five different booths were open, with UK Border Agency staff sitting there doing nothing, and they didn’t invite any of the non-EU or UK citizens who’d been in line for an hour to go through), and eventually got to the place where I was staying, in central London. I spent Thursday walking around London, past Buckingham Palace, through Trafalgar Square, around Covent Garden, and lots more, getting gifts for family and the cell-network dongle I was to use for internet access.

On Friday, I was ready to head to the show early – long before its opening at 1pm. I had an 11:30am appointment with a colleague, and figured all was set. When I did show up, with my very heavy suitcase, at about quarter to 10am, I started to get worried: the signs said the show opened at 10am, and when I got in, I discovered that it did, in fact, open at 10! I have no idea how I made the mistake, but I did. Anyway, it doesn’t take me too long to get set up, and I was up and operating by 10:15 at the latest.

Then, it was hard work, all day long. I talked with folks constantly, from 10:15 to about 5pm. Exhibits closed at 6:30 on Friday (which seemed to fit fairly well with a 1pm opening, on a Friday, I thought), and I was busy talking with folks all day long. I had grabbed a sandwich at Pret a Manger on my way in, and I took bites, when time allowed. Saturday and Sunday were similar: the show was just incredibly busy, and basically constant, until an hour or 90 minutes before it closed for the day. There was no lack of people in those last 60 to 90 minutes; it just wasn’t absolutely constant talking. My voice was pretty much gone at the end of Friday and Saturday, but had recovered on Saturday morning. Sunday morning, when it hadn’t recovered, I was worried what the day would be like, since I just didn’t know how long it would last!

One highlight of the show was how many people told me that my product was “brilliant”. My comments were “brilliant”. My assistance was “brilliant”. The cost of the database was “brilliant”. The fact that it existed was “brilliant”. The database in action was “brilliant”. My coming from America was “brilliant”. They even said “brilliant” as they left! I quickly realized that the exchange rate from British English to American English for “brilliant” is about 20:1, or maybe even more. But it was fun to hear so many people tell me ShipIndex.org is “brilliant!”, even if the word means different things to each of us.

 

One thing that often drives me crazy is when exhibitors start packing up early. There may be situations when that’s necessary – to catch a train or a plane, for instance – but most of the time, they’re just tired and want to get out of there. I think packing up early is almost rude, especially when it impacts other exhibitors.

It’s also kind of dumb. At a previous company, we quickly learned that the folks who show up in the last few minutes are the ones who are making a definite point of getting to your booth, and they care a lot about what you’re doing. There’s a very high likelihood that the folks who come up in the last few minutes really want to buy your product. So I always stick it out. This show, actually, wasn’t as bad as the library conferences I’ve attended, and I heard much less of the loud “brrr-aaapppp” of strapping tape being applied well before the show closes.

About ten or fifteen minutes before the show shut down at 5pm, a woman came up to the booth, said “Oh, I’m so glad you’re still here!” and gave me the best experience of the show.

She explained that her father had been in the Royal Navy, and her mother had been a WAVES officer in the US Navy. She had a number of images of ships that she wanted to learn more about, and told me about another image, which unfortunately she didn’t have with her. One image was of a minesweeper with the hull number “J463” on its side, but no vessel name visible. I knew that a number of entries in the ShipIndex.org database have hull numbers in it, so a quick search of “J463” returned HMS Ossory. She was quite impressed at my finding this so quickly, as was another woman who was watching nearby – I think the other woman almost thought it was a setup! This was almost certainly one of the ships her father had served on.

The photos she hadn’t brought were of her mother launching a ship in Mobile, Alabama, late in World War II. (Her parents had met in Mobile when her father had been sent there to oversee construction of several ships destined for the Royal Navy, via the Lend-Lease Program, she explained.) We talked a bit about them and I said I’d try to help her learn more about the ship in question after she sends me a copy of the image. I do hope she’ll do that; I know it will be a while before she does, but I hope I’m able to help her discover more about her family, and particularly something about this remarkable event, of her mother being sponsor of a warship!

We talked for quite a while, and I didn’t start breaking down my stuff until about 5:15, at which point of course many people were well on their way to being done, but it was very much worth the long conversation with her.

I had many other similar interactions. One time, a person explained she was looking for a ship called “Maid of Sussex”. We didn’t find any ship with that name in the database, so I did a search just for “Sussex”, and found a ship named Sussex Maid. We figured that was probably the ship, and then the website took us to this incredible image of the ship.

 

Another man had heard family stories about an ancestor who had been aboard a ship called “Madge Doubtfire”. Again, we didn’t find any ships by that name, but when I did a search just for “Madge”, we found Madge Wildfire, which was pretty clearly the actual ship he’d been looking for. Making connections like that for folks was truly fantastic for me.

While I was at the show I learned about another genealogy conference in Dublin, and I may consider going to that show. These shows are expensive, especially when one is coming from the US, but it was a great experience. I’d like to see if I can attend WDYTYA?Live in the future; sometimes just the experiences like those above make the travel worth the costs and challenges.

Some more challenging website problems

I discovered yesterday that some people are having problems creating accounts and then subscribing to the database. This appears to be a result of a restructuring of our backend, which was incredibly valuable, but had some unintended badness. Testing before release didn’t uncover these problems, and in fact they continue to be difficult to nail down – though there is no question at all that they are happening.

The technical team is working on it and I hope we’ll have a solution live as quickly as possible. If you have information to share about what didn’t work for you, that could help us troubleshoot the problem, and I’ll also be sure to let you know when everything is working again.

Having these problems right after returning from the genealogy show at Olympia, in London, is incredibly frustrating, but I suppose there’s never a good time for these problems to crop up. We’ll get them straightened out as soon as we can.

New subscription options; new backend; new currencies

Lots of big changes are now live at ShipIndex.org. The site has just been significantly upgraded, and has much more power than before. Most of this isn’t visible; it’s primarily back-end work, but it will make importing data much quicker, and will also allow for much more flexible access to the world. IfWhen we are mentioned on NPR or in the New York Times (God willing), we should be able to handle the rush.

There are some significant changes for users, though. We now offer fixed-length subscriptions: you can buy access for just two weeks, for three months, for six months, or for a year. You can still subscribe on a monthly basis, and that price has been slightly lowered.

Also, in a big development, you can now pay for access in multiple currencies! If you want to pay in Pounds Sterling, Euros, Australian Dollars, or Canadian Dollars, you can now do that. What this really means is that I absorb the cost of the foreign transaction fee rather than you, but it also means you can feel more comfortable about the cost of the database, particularly if you’re not too familiar with the value of the American dollar.

The new pricing is as follows:

Monthly recurring:     $8 per month

Time-limited subscriptions are as follows:
Two weeks:     $ 6
Three months:  $22
Six months:    $35
One year:      $65

At the moment, I know there are some bits of webcopy that need to be updated, particularly more information up front about the pricing changes. I’ll get to those as quickly as I can.

Please tell me what you think about these changes. What other changes do you think would be helpful?

Changing Conferences

In a previous post, I mentioned that ShipIndex is trying a bunch of new paths. One of those is to change the conferences I attend. Back at the old company I went to library conferences, library conferences, and library conferences. (And there are a lot of those…) In fact, ALA Midwinter is starting off today, and it’ll be the first ALA Annual or Midwinter show I haven’t attended in about 15 years. Now, though, I’ve added genealogy and maritime history conferences to the mix. I’ve attended two National Genealogical Society conferences, in Salt Lake City and in Charleston, SC, and I’ve attended a range of maritime history conferences and one or two maritime museum conferences. (Sometimes they’re combined.)

Of these, library conferences are far and away the most expensive. These are huge productions that cost a fortune for everything. (Internet access through the local providers at PLA, below, starts at a gut-reaming $885, for instance.) While I think that ShipIndex is an incredibly valuable tool for academic libraries (in supporting historians of all stripes) and for public libraries (in supporting genealogists), I apparently haven’t succeeded in getting my message across to librarians. In my career as a librarian and as a library vendor, I’ve attended every ALA Annual and Midwinter conference since about 1997, as well as every ACRL conference since then, plus a bunch of NASIG, UKSG, Charleston, and other conferences. The big ALA shows cost me the most, and I don’t have much to show for them, so this January will be a big change for me: I won’t be going to ALA Midwinter for the first time in a very long time.

There’s much more to the conferences than just meeting with librarians; meeting with other vendors is incredibly valuable, as is seeing what else is happening in the library world, and also just getting together with long-time friends. But the cost is too great, so I’m going to try a different path. I think that, from now on, I’ll focus on attending the ACRL and PLA conferences every other year (they alternate; last year was ACRL, this year is PLA), and attend more of the other conferences, as time allows.

I’m going to give a try at a big genealogy conference in London next month, to bring ShipIndex.org to Europe. Actually, I already have a lot of European (and ANZ) subscribers, which is one reason why I think this will be so good. I’m actively preparing for attending the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE 2012 conference, and it’s certainly adding a bunch of wrinkles.

At the moment, I’m trying to get personal liability insurance for my very modest booth at the show. This is a requirement for exhibiting at WDYTYALive, but I’ve never had to do that before for shows in the US. The trick is that UK insurance agents don’t want to offer coverage because I’m based in the US, and US agents don’t want to offer coverage for the event because it takes place outside the US. I honestly don’t know how this will get resolved, but I guess it’s just one of the challenges associated with going outside your comfort zone.

If you’re in the London area during WDYTYALive, please come visit the ShipIndex.org stand (311). And if you want a free pass to the conference, send me an email – I think I’ll have a few.

The next conference after WDYTYALive will be a library conference, though – the Public Library Association conference in Philadelphia, in March. Then, in May, I’ll attend the National Genealogical Society conference in Cincinnati. That should be appropriate; I have family in Cincinnati, as that’s where my dad grew up, and he has nephews and family there. If you’ll attend either of those shows, please let me know, and come by to say hello.

2012: A New Year for ShipIndex

2012 will be a new and different year for ShipIndex.org, on many levels. We (I; more on that in a bit) are/am changing the direction in a bunch of different ways. I intend to spend a number of blog posts spelling out what those changes look like, and how they’ll impact the site on its own.

As some background, the original ShipIndex.org started back in 1999, while I (Peter) worked as a reference librarian at the University of Washington. It was strictly a side project and wasn’t even at its own domain for quite a while. Eventually, I moved it to ShipIndex.org, and didn’t bother (alas) to purchase ShipIndex.com while I was at it. I scanned and OCR’d the indexes to several dozen important books in maritime history, and put them on the web. I kept working at it until I had about 100,000 citations online, which I thought was a pretty cool number of citations.

The site wasn’t used much, though I didn’t have a good way of tracking that, such as it was. It wasn’t very Google friendly, so it was hard for anyone to find. Then, more importantly, I started another company with my brothers and a high school friend. As that company took off, I had less and less time to devote to ShipIndex. Some time in 2008 or 2009, after lots of corporate and family changes, I decided I wanted to get back to ShipIndex. After all, the truth is (but don’t tell anyone) I care much more about maritime history than I do about e-journal management. Like I said, don’t tell anyone.

 

In 2009, when I left the other company, I wanted to make ShipIndex much bigger (in terms of its database, really) and turn it into a real company. So I got one brother to help me in creating a much more effective and Google-friendly database with a freemium model that (as of the end of 2011) has nearly 2.3 million citations in the complete database.

Frankly, I’m of two minds about the site right now: I am excited about being able to make maritime history easier to access online. I don’t have any problem charging for access to the premium database, as I believe that, for those who are seeking such information, the work I’ve done in creating this database is incredibly valuable: it saves enormous amounts of time when looking for information on specific ships, and also uncovers paths to previously unknown sources of information. I firmly believe that the small cost for the site uncovers incredible new sources of research, and is well worth it.

On the other hand, growth is slower than I’d like, and uptake among institutions, especially, has been disappointing. I’ve exhibited at many library conferences – an industry I know pretty well – and even at institutions that have maritime programs, and where they say they want to at least trial the product, once we all get home and I contact them, they’re no longer interested.

 

As I said, 2012 will be a new year in many ways. One way will be that I intend to share more information than I have in the past about how I’m trying to grow and improve the company, and the challenges I find I’m facing. This could be a mistake: perhaps some will feel that they don’t want to risk purchasing from a company when they discover that, at this point, there’s really only one person hiding behind the curtain. But perhaps more will recognize what I feel I’m trying to do here, in creating a company that provides a true value to genealogists and historians who want to fill the gaps in their research regarding specific ships.

I guess these entries, like many other things I’ve done so far with ShipIndex, will be an experiment. One great thing about ShipIndex.org so far is that it’s been quite an effective space for trying experiments – I can’t tell you how many different things I’ve tried so far. Some have worked; many others haven’t. I’m doing my best to keep trying different things, tossing out those that don’t work, and keeping (and expanding on) those that do.

I’ll keep you posted, and if you have thoughts or opinions on what’s working and what isn’t, I’d love to hear them, either in the comments below, or in an email to peter(at)shipindex(dot)org.