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Bennett Greenspan of FamilyTreeDNA.com

Who is in your family tree? Bennett can help with DNA Testing made easy.

Bennett Greenspan

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Entrepreneur and genealogy buff Bennett Greenspan has turned a hobby into a career. In years past, genealogists were grave stompers, searching for ancestral information on tombstones and in cemetery histories. DNA technology has changed all that. Greenspan founded his company in April of 2000 and, today, has an incredible 220,000 DNA records in its database

Full Interview text

Russ: This is the BusinessMakers Show heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com. It's featured guest time on our show this morning, and as I mentioned in today's lineup, this is one that I think that everyone ought to be interested in for sure because my guest is Mr. Bennett Greenspan, the founder and CEO of FamilyTreeDNA.com. Bennett, welcome to the BusinessMakers Show.

Bennett: Well, thank you very much, Russ, for having me on and good morning.

Russ: Good morning. Let's start by you telling our audience what is FamilyTreeDNA.com?

Bennett: Well, Family Tree DNA is a DNA testing service that specializes in using DNA to test one's genome to look at their genealogy or your personal anthropology. In the past, if a genealogist wanted to confirm that he was related to someone, he had to go the conventional route: go to cemeteries, church records, census records. But a lot of times the paper trail doesn't exist, Russ. Fires, floods, or people who are trying to hide their tracks make it difficult for those of us who are genealogists today to track down our long lost relatives. So I got the idea several years ago that if I was able to take the male inherited Y chromosome, which every man passes on to his sons, and I could test 2 men with the same last name, if they had the same Y chromosome, it meant they were related whether they knew it or not.

Russ: Okay, now from what I understand from my homework, you were kind of into this world of genealogy all along. Is that accurate?

Bennett: Russ, I've been a genealogist since I was a boy. When I was 12 years old, I went to the cemetery when my grandmother passed away, and after, at the cemetery, my dad went in one direction with my brother, my mother and I went in another direction, and we were visiting tombstones. I really didn't understand it very well at the time, but I realized that day that I had ancestors buried in that cemetery who were born in the 1820s and they all lived in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. And so at that day I became a 12-year-old genealogist and from that point on, I picked up and put down my genealogy many times over the next decade. The problem was I always ran into a brick wall. I always ended up not being able to get to the end of the road because the paper trail did not exist.

Russ: So now does this mean even as a young boy or as a teenager you were designing and drawing family trees and filling in all the names and dates and so forth?

Bennett: That's exactly what it means, and if I would have found the bumper sticker for the car that I had when I was 17 years old that says, "I brake for cemeteries," I would have put it on the back of my car.

Russ: That's so cool. Well, what's sort of interesting about you is that you seem to really have that passion, but you also seem to have that entrepreneur passion in you, too, right?

Bennett: Well, I started a company in Houston, Texas, in 1980 and had it for 15 years and ultimately decided to sell the company. And I'm just going to tell you the story. It's kind of cute. After I had sold my company in 1995, I worked for the company for a year and a half, and that was a very, very long year and a half. Eventually, I decided that I needed to leave. I did and I really didn't have very much to do at that point, so one day I found my wife had just come home from the grocery store, and as the good, dutiful husband that I like to think that I am, I was helping her put the groceries away, and I started asking her, "Honey, why don't you have the tomato sauce with the tomato paste with the whole peeled tomatoes?" and she looked at me and she said, "You know, you need to pick up golf or you need to go back and pick up your genealogy, but you need to get out of my kitchen." And so I went and picked up the genealogy of my family that I had picked up and put down, and I picked up a fresh line that I had never worked on before, and it took me about 2 months. And I contacted every single person in the United States that was related to me on that particular line and then I entered the name in a database, and I found someone with the same last name living in Argentina. And so I figured these people must be related to me. They claim to come from the same village and the same area that my ancestors came from, but he didn't have that piece of paper, that sacrosanct piece of paper, what we genealogists consider to be the most important document and so I was frustrated. I had run into another brick wall.

Russ: Okay. As the story goes, you eventually sort of figured out how to break down that brick wall, right?

Bennett: Well, on a Saturday night in August of 1999, about midnight, I took the dog for a walk. If you're good to your animal, you wouldn't take the dog for a walk early in the day in August in Houston. And so I was walking and I was kind of down in my beer. I was thinking about the problem. How do I prove that my cousins in California are related to these folks in Argentina? And I remembered that there had been a study done about a year and a half earlier that used the Y chromosome that showed that Thomas Jefferson or the Jefferson family was, in fact, related to someone who was, in theory, the illegitimate male descendant of a Jefferson.

Russ: That's right.

Bennett: I said, "If it's good enough for them and if it worked for them, it should work for me." And so I went home that night. I got home about 1:15 in the morning.

Russ: And that was all related to DNA testing, right?

Bennett: That's right because they used the Y chromosome, and I said, "If they used the Y chromosome and they were trying to trace the male line and all I'm trying to do is trace the male line, I'll get my cousin to test in California, I'll get these people in Argentina to test," and I went home at about 1:15, 1:30.

Russ: So this walk took a good while, eh?

Bennett: The walks always took a good while because it was my time to decompress and to think, and I just happened to come up with that "eureka" idea and then I started investigating everything I could on the Web about DNA testing. I was really looking for a company.

Russ: Okay. Boy, you've carried us to the edge of the cliff here and so after this we're going to come back and we're going to continue on with Bennett Greenspan, the founder of FamilyTreeDNA.com. You're listening to the BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com.

[Commercial for Aflac]

Russ: This is the BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com, and we're continuing on with Bennett Greenspan, the founder and CEO of FamilyTreeDNA.com. Bennett, you had us there right at the "eureka" moment. You had figured out how you were going to confirm that these 2 people were, in fact, related and related to you, correct?

Bennett: That's correct, but what I needed to do is I needed to learn about DNA testing just to confirm that what I thought was correct was correct and then I needed to find a company that could actually do the testing. I couldn't find a company that was doing the testing. I searched and I searched and I searched and so eventually, I decided to look at the scientific studies and find an author or a co-author of one of those scientific studies and call him up and ask him where I could go because all I wanted to do was write a check. I wanted to know where I could send a check and how I could obtain the DNA samples from my cousin in California and from the potential cousin in Argentina. That's all I wanted to do.

Russ: And you were going to pay for it all.

Bennett: I was going to pay for both of them, just to answer the question.

Russ: Okay, cool.

Bennett: Unfortunately, I couldn't find anyone who was offering this service, so I called this fellow up at the University of Arizona who had been a co-author on one of these studies, and I asked him if he would do the DNA tests for my cousin and the fellow in Argentina, and I expected him to say no and he told me no. And I said, "That's fine. Just tell me where I can go to buy a DNA test because that's all I want to do." And he said, "I don't know of anybody that's offering this kind of DNA test anywhere in the world." I had expected the first rejection, but I didn't expect him to tell me that there was no one who was offering the service. And so I had choreographed my call to him like any good salesman would do and I had expected to get an initial rejection, but then he makes what I refer to as his fatal mistake. He said to me, "Bennett, you know, somebody should start a company like this because I get phone calls from crazy genealogists like you all the time." At that point, I couldn't get that man off the phone quick enough. I put down the phone, I went out of the room, I found my wife, and I said, "Honey, I'm going back into business. I'm going into the DNA testing business." And she looked at me as if maybe I should be stacking tomatoes together with tomato paste.

Russ: That is so cool. And as I understand the story, does that man actually works with you today?

Bennett: Dr. Hammer does work with me today. He's one of our chief scientific advisors. We've worked together for the last 8 years, and that's been very, very fruitful for him and for myself and for the general public because we had the opportunity, we had the privilege, to start an industry and to introduce a concept to the old fuddy-duddies who did genealogy, and what we say is that DNA testing is just one more tool in the tool kit of the prepared genealogist. But you should have seen the looks on the faces of those genealogists when I went to my first trade show in the summer of 2000 and tried to explain to them why this was great and why they were going to love it, and they looked at me and just kept walking, and they had the look on the face like, ‘The guy in that booth down there must be half crazy.'

Russ: Where was that show?

Bennett: That show was in California.

Russ: Okay, but you actually were the first commercial application of this technology, correct?

Bennett: Yes, we were the first company to offer the Y chromosome testing in late May of 2000 because what I did is I did a proof of concept. I wanted the University Arizona, who was doing our work at that time, to be able to prove to me that this really worked.

Russ: Right.

Bennett: And so we tested 24 men. We wanted to see if the people who thought they were related were related, the people who had the same last name, were they related? We wanted to see if people matched each other who shouldn't have been related but did so randomly. In other words, we wanted to make sure we had a real solid science business on our hands. And so it took a few months for the University of Arizona to get those tests done. The results came back, and when I saw the results, Russ, I knew that eventually, every genealogist in the world was going to want this product.

Russ: And that is pretty true today, isn't it?

Bennett: That is pretty true today. We have tested over 400,000 people since the year 2000. One of our largest customer is National Geographic magazine, which has a project called the Genographic project, which actually maps human migration patterns across the world. We've done DNA testing for the television show, the special Oprah's Roots and for African-American Lives with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. We've tested governors and senators and congressmen who are also genealogists.

Russ: Right. This is so cool. We're speaking with Bennett Greenspan, founder and CEO of FamilyTreeDNA.com, and we'll be back with more with Bennett after this. You're listening to the BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com.

[Commercial for Aflac]

Russ: This is the BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com, and continuing on with Bennett Greenspan, founder and CEO of FamilyTreeDNA.com. I've got to tell you, Bennett, you sound a little bit passionate about this. It's kind of like you probably have a real viable business and you're just doing what you love to do. Would that be accurate?

Bennett: That would absolutely be accurate. It's like that person who said that if you find something that you love to do, you'll never work again, and I very much feel that way. I'm very fortunate, Russ.

Russ: Okay. You really are, and I've got to tell you, though, it is so enthusiastic what it does to everybody else that it becomes essentially a client or customer company. Now you kept talking about the Y chromosome path. Now, as I understand it, that's what connects son to father to father to father to father in the whole male side. Do I have that right?

Bennett: That's correct.

Russ: Okay. And there's also one that does the same thing daughter to mother to mother to mother, right?

Bennett: Actually, everyone has what's called mitochondria, so you received your mitochondria from your mother. Your sister received the exact same mitochondria from your mother. So men and women have mitochondria, and we can test your mitochondria. We also can test a man's Y chromosome, which is passed down from father to son to grandson to great-grandson so, in effect, we're an equal opportunity testing company. We can get more data from a man because a man just happens to have mitochondria and a Y chromosome. That Y chromosome is what makes men, men, for better or worse.

Russ: Okay, cool. So how do people become your customer?

Bennett: Well, most people hear about us on radio or television or in articles, and they go to our Website and they order a DNA test. DNA tests sell for $150 to $300, something in that price range, so they're reasonably affordable, certainly affordable for anyone who is a genealogist and who has traveled from Nebraska to Texas and has paid for the gas and spent time in hotel rooms, trying to look for records to prove that he's related to someone when he could just get himself and another man to test and then in 4 or 5 weeks they could confirm whether they were related or not.

Russ: And the test is pretty simple.

Bennett: What we use is what's called a buckle scrape. That's a fancy word for a cheek scraper, so you take, in effect, a Q-tip swab, you scrape on the inside of your mouth, you send the swab back to us, and then 4 or 5 weeks later we send you an email showing you all the people that you match—their names and their email addresses—so you can just click on the website and you can just contact them, and a lot of people start out their emails, "Dear cousin that I never knew I had."

Russ: Okay. Now how do you have all the people in your database that match?

Bennett: We didn't when we started out. This is a work in progress. At this point, we have about 220,000 records on file, and it just gets better and better and better. Now with certain populations we've reached critical mass and other populations we haven't seen a whole lot, but if you're Western European, especially if you're English or Irish or especially if you're Scottish, we probably have the surnames and the DNA signature of practically every family in those countries, at least one person. We have a dozen, maybe approaching a dozen and a half DNA signatures of American presidents because their cousins or their direct descendants have tested with us. What's important to remember with the Y chromosome is that you, your dad, your brother, your son, your brother's sons, all of you have the same Y chromosome, so if I get one of you it's like having all of you.

Russ: Okay. When you say you have 220,000, does that mean you've had 220,000 customers?

Bennett: Actually, our company has had about 400,000 customers. About a third of those we've tested ourselves and about two-thirds of those have tested with National Geographic magazine. Now, National Geographic magazine's testing program is anonymous. What they're doing is they're showing migration patterns as mankind has migrated out of Africa 50,000 or 60,000 years ago. But if a National Geographic customer wants to use his information genealogically, he can push his results into the FamilyTreeDNA database, so we've tested a little over 400,000 people and we've got about 220,000 records in our database, and most people from Western Europe, when they test, most of them have matches in our database already.

Russ: This is so cool. We are out of radio broadcast time, but I want to continue on with you. Do you have some more time?

Bennett: For you, I certainly do.

Russ: Great.

Bennett: And for your listeners, absolutely I have more time.

Russ: That is cool. We're speaking with Bennett Greenspan, founder and CEO of FamilyTreeDNA.com, and we're going to continue this discussion as a BusinessMakers WebXtra, so most of you probably know the formula. Just go to thebusinessmakers.com and look for the Bennett Greenspan WebXtra. You've been listening to The BusinessMakers Show, heard here and online at thebusinessmakers.com.

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