MyHeritage Buys Germany's OSN, Now 540 Million Profiles Strong

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Israeli genealogy site MyHeritage has completed its third acquisition,  buying Germany’s OSN. OSN operates seven genealogy sites including Verwandt.de in Germany, Moikrewni.pl in Poland and Dynastree.com in the US. It was launched in 2007 just after LA-based Geni and, at first, it was just your typical German clone. But it added features and grew fast in older European markets like Germany and Poland, and even emerging markets like Brazil. In a clone-rarity, OSN grew twice as fast as Geni in the early days according to TechCrunch.

The merger gives MyHeritage a lot of new features and a whopping combined 540 million profiles, 47 million active users and 13 million family trees. The companies have been quietly merging the sites together for the last few weeks, and all of OSN’s information, profiles, family trees and pictures should be all live on MyHeritage, as of about thirty minutes ago.

This was a big job because each profile has a lot of bits and pieces attached to it and there was only a 5% overlap in accounts. That may be a sign that MyHeritage wasn’t doing so hot in Europe, proving this was a smart deal.

MyHeritage has an algorithm that helps find family tree connections for users, so it should be interesting to see how this influx of European users expands existing users’ family trees in the coming weeks. “A huge amount of people in North America are going to discover unknown roots,” MyHeritage founder Gilad Japhet says.

I visited Japhet the last time I was in Israel  and we chatted about the merger over the weekend. He wouldn’t disclose whether the deal was stock or cash or how much he paid, but it was clear that he was eying OSN for some time. “It was founded by two very talented individuals, and I knew from their track record they were serial entrepreneurs,” he says. “I thought from the start they wouldn’t have the patience to run this for ten years, maybe they’d be willing to merge their vision with ours. Eventually that theory proved correct.”

Japhet is not playing around. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone whose spent time in Israel if I tell you he’s intense, competitive, and relentlessly determined. Post-deal, MyHeritage is far beyond most genealogy competitors with the exception of Ancestry.com, which started in 1983, has spent some $80 million acquiring census information and went public last year.

But there’s a key difference: MyHeritage is more about living family members, and Ancestry.com is more focused on, well, ancestors. So in practice the companies are far different. There’s more interaction, communication, and photo and video sharing on MyHeritage because—bluntly put—more of the profile-owners are alive. Last Saturday when Japhet and I talked, 1 million photos had already been uploaded to the site that day. “There is a clear need for families to have a secure and private place online to share memories, stay in touch and preserve their history,” says Saul Klein, partner at Index Ventures and a MyHeritage board member. “I think the further Facebook opens up to the real-time web and defaults to public, the greater this need will become.”

Indeed privacy is a big issue to Japhet, even if it means slower growth. Unlike competing sites, if you chose to be public on MyHeritage, only your information goes public, not the details of your siblings, nieces, nephews and other members of your family tree.

This is less about beating other genealogy sites now and more about MyHeritage making up the third leg of the social networking stool, which is still largely up for grabs. Facebook has won on friends, LinkedIn has won on professional and MyHeritage is seeking to win on family. It took LinkedIn far longer to get to critical mass because professional relationships were less viral and sexy, and my guess is family relationships may take even longer. Indeed, MyHeritage started six years ago and is still largely unknown in the high-brow Valley circles.

But eventually it’s a huge opportunity, and Japhet is patient. His site has those same endorphin-rush elements of discovery and connection that Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have. But here’s kicker—it has to be international to work because the US, Israel, and much of the world are essentially young nations with huge immigrant melting pots communities. You can’t trace distant cousins too far back, if you’re only going to focus on the US. And you only get those moments of true “holy-shit!” joy when other trees start connecting to yours and you discover whole new branches. If you’re just entering your known-relatives, it’s not too exciting.

Don’t expect this to be MyHeritage’s last acquisition. Japhet borderline stalks competitors. He can rattle off any stat from Ancestry.com’s public filings and viewed Geni’s 2007 launch as a huge wake up call for better UI and features. Japhet knew a lot about genealogy, but MyHeritage was a wonky, tech-heavy download before Geni’s beautifully simple site launched—and got a whopping $100 million valuation. Later, when Japhet saw OSN’s faster growth in Europe, he knew he had to have them.

Japhet says OSN didn’t have a deep understanding of genealogy, but they killed it on features, many of which MyHeritage will be keeping. Among other things OSN had an iPhone app, operated in 14 different languages, and offered poster printing of family trees in any size. “There’s nothing like German engineering,” Japhet says. [Update: Originally I wrote "40 languages" which is what I heard via our Skype connection.]

Japhet’s favorite feature is the coat of arms. If you don’t have one, you can create your own, and it appears on all your pages—you can even order merchandise bearing your new coat of arms. The site will soon allow you to register it with the coat of arms authorities– a big hit with its European audience.  When designing his own coat of arms, Japhet was a bit put off by the dragons and swords and instead asked an engineer to design some chess pieces. Yep, tech geeks are the same in every country.

Is all of this making MyHeritage a target for someone like Ancestry.com? “I’d like to say we’re too expensive for them,” Japhet said. MyHeritage has raised $24 million to date and started to focus on revenues last year. It’s profitable now, making money through ecommerce transactions and premium services. MyHeritage has been funded by some of the strongest investors in Europe including Index and Accel.

That’s ultimately the thing I find most exciting about Japhet and MyHeritage—he wants to build a billion dollar business, and he’s not put off by how long that will take or by the rap that Israelis are great at enterprise, but bad at the consumer Internet. Japhet himself wasn’t naturally great at it, but he’s benefited mightily from his competitors who were and moved quickly to compensate—whether it’s learning from them or buying them.

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