Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business, coming to you now in front of a live audience at the MIT Enterprise Forum (applause). And I’m very pleased to have as my guest Bennett Greenspan, the Founder and CEO of Family Tree DNA; Bennett, welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show.
Bennett: Thank you, glad to be here.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Family Tree DNA.
Bennett: It was an outgrowth of interest in genealogy and boredom and maybe I should say even more specifically it was the, uh, it was the result of my wife saying get a job, um, learn how to play golf or go back to your genealogy but get out of my kitchen.
Russ: And get a job you did. Man, so there’s a lot of people probably in our audience that are watching right now too that think well, we’ve been testing DNA for a long time, but that’s not true right?
Bennett: Well the first DNA testing was done in the 1980s in England. Uh, they actually used it in a criminal setting; they were trying to find a rapist. But from a – from a direct-to-consumer popular hobby standpoint it’s been around only 15 years. I had this, uh, this eureka moment in the summer of 1999 all because I was trying to prove that I was related to a family in Argentina that I couldn’t find a piece of paper, something that we genealogists consider sacrosanct, that would act as my piece of evidence. And so I thought about my problem and realized I can use the Y chromosome to prove that my cousin in California is related to this fellow in Argentine if I can get them both to agree to test.
Russ: Okay, it sounds like you had a scientific background, is that – you have a degree?
Bennett: No, no, no I owned a photographic supply company so I dealt with lens and light and those sorts of things, but that was about as scientific as I got and, you know, they say that the fools rush in where wise men dare not tread? You know had I known the complexity of what I was getting into I don’t know that I would have gotten into it because it’s real hard science.
Russ: Okay. But it’s kind of interesting, you were a genealogist at almost a too young of an age, right?
Bennett: Well, I was annoying to the adults at a young age, yes sir.
Russ: And how did that happen?
Bennett: Well my grandmother dies when I was 12 and later that night when people came to the house to offer their condolences I was a little kid walking around with a piece of paper and a – and a pencil, uh, saying essentially tell me about, you know, where are you from and where were your parents from and what were your, you know, aunts and uncles names and do you know when they died and you wouldn’t know when they were born would you? And – and it created a lifelong interest in, you know, in history. It opened up my eyes to, uh, you know, to the world because the borders of countries in Europe have done nothing but change. And, you know, it allowed me – kind of it gave me a launching pad as I went to school and I became a Political Science major but I have a History in minor – or a minor in History – and this was something that, you know, that – that worked very well with my genealogical interest.
Russ: Okay but this – this kind of family thing that happened was when you were how old.
Bennett: I was 12.
Russ: Okay, so you were a genealogist at 12?
Bennett: I was a pretend genealogist at 12. I was interested, you know, I didn’t necessarily know what I was doing other than to ask relatives questions but at that time it was, you know, of course before, you know, the internet which became the great leveler in the world. I mean if you wanted to find out facts about relatives 30 years ago, you had to find those relatives. Or you had to travel a long distance. Or you had to go into a courthouse or go through, you know, musty, uh, cemetery records. You know, now it’s become much more accessible to everyone.
Russ: Okay. So – but I’m curious, at like 12, in middle school, did your friends know? Did they think it was a little odd that you were a genealogist?
Bennett: Well sure. It’s not a normal thing. I mean most of the kids were, you know, most of the kids were, you know, out playing sports and I was, you know, interested in tracking down family. But it’s always been something that, you know, I’ve always been interested in; in someone’s last name and where’s that name from and how did your ancestors get to this country? Because I had my own stories of how our ancestors had gotten to this country and I always wanted to compare, you know, why we came here and why your family came here – which is part of my interest in history – but when you can personalize that history and – and make it the history of you, everyone’s eyes seem to, you know, go wide and bright.
Russ: Okay, that’s cool. SO but back to DNA. You figured out that you had a person with the name of your mother’s mother’s father in Buenos Aires, right?
Bennett: That’s correct.
Russ: And there was another one in California?
Bennett: That’s correct. I wanted to know if they were related.
Bennett: I couldn’t do it with paper, so I decided if I could do it with molecular biology then that’s the way to. In fact, my results showed that my cousin in California – who initially did not want to do this DNA test by the way – was an exact match to the folks in Buenos Aires and those two guys didn’t match anyone else in my proof of concept, so I knew it was real. And, uh, when I saw the results I said everyone’s going to want this. This is something that’s going to be hot in a – in a very stayed, you know, little genealogical group.
Russ: Okay really cool. So it’s brought it to this. So how long has the company been in business today?
Bennett: We’ve been in business 15 years. We’ve tested – between ourselves and the National Geographic Society we’ve tested over 1.2 million people in the last 15 years. And we’re busier this year than we were last year and we were busier last year than we were the year before. And every time I get a new competitor it just gets better, okay? In other words, all they’re doing is – is validating that idea from 15 years ago.
Russ: Okay. It – but it’s a little bit controversial isn’t it? I mean some people don’t particularly care to know the answers to what you can give them.
Bennett: That – that’s correct. And for people who don’t want to know the answer, they shouldn’t test. If you have anything to, um, hide or if someone had something to hide or if you have something you think to lose you shouldn’t do a DNA test. If, you know, here’s the thing, my customers – most of them – are genealogists, which means that we’re looking for 3, 4, 5, 6 generations ago. If there was an out-of-wedlock event Russ 5 generations ago who cares, it doesn’t matter. It’s not your mom and your dad that we’re talking about; it’s much, much more sensitive when we’re dealing with, you know, with paternity testing. It can be devastating and, you know, I’ve had sometimes multiple brothers test who, you know, who are expected to match and don’t match, but when we start probing as to why they asked the question we find that typically they expected or they suspected something.
Russ: Okay but aren’t there some times people Bennett that want to know and because they’re – they’re not anticipating a problem and they’re surprised?
Bennett: Yes, it happens, uh, quite often. It makes for long conversations, sometimes I feel like I’m in the consoling business.
Russ: Wow, you personally sometimes have those conversations?
Bennett: Absolutely. We have a lot of people who tell us that the DNA lab must have made a mistake. No one’s perfect, generally the DNA lab seems to be more accurate than most of our customers. I would say – you know, we have – we have a program that we – that is someone doesn’t believe the results, for half the price we’ll retest them, um, and then we’ll – of course we say we’ll refund their money if – if we were wrong of course and wipe the egg off our face but I can’t remember doing that.
Russ: Okay. Well I – as you know I recently finally toured the lab and it is impressive. That’s a lot of equipment that costs a lot of money that’s running around the clock, right?
Bennett: Unfortunately yes, yes and no. It’s not running around the clock, I only wish it was running around the clock; um, we’re probably running 5 ½ days a week, sometimes 6. Sometimes we have equipment that runs over the weekend, um, but we’re busy. Um, one thing I like to tell, uh, our employees is that, uh – and you mentioned, we have a lot of equipment in there. There’s a lot of robots in there. The reason there’s a lot of robots in there is that that’s kind of the manufacturing production equalizer. So what I try to explain to our folks is that they’re not competing with a lab in the medical center, they’re not competing with the lab in Atlanta; they’re competing with offshore. Because if we lose in America our knowledge-based workers, the people who work with their hands and hold pipettes and who, you know, who have decent jobs. I mean who have good jobs and they’re making, you know, very reasonable money; if we lose that from our society I worry about America. And so the only way that – that, uh, we’ve determined that we can level that playing field is to have those people being ultra-productive; which means that anything that we can put on a robot, we’re going to put on a robot.
Russ: Well it is very automated and impressive. Before I let you go I’ve got to ask you this question, I haven’t asked you this one before, but it must feel like you’re in the sweet spot of life. I mean, your hobby has turned into just an incredible business where you’re answering extremely important questions to people’s lives.
Bennett: I’ve got a great job and, uh, you know, I’ve thought about the other things I’ve done in my life and I’ve always, you know found enjoyment and pleasure in what I’m doing but I’ve never had as much, uh, enjoyment or fun, uh, as I have in this business. And so it’s a great deal, I love it.
Russ: Bennett, thanks again for sharing your story with us.
Bennett: Thank you.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Bennett Greenspan, the Founder and CEO of Family Tree DNA. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.
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