GENEALOGISTS call it an "aha" moment: You unearth a meaningful family detail — your great-grandma taught kindergarten and raised beagles or your great-great-great-grandpappy was the youngest of 12 brothers and sisters — and you're hooked. "When you're looking at a signature on an immigration card, or a World War II record, and you want to find one more record, it's a powerful thing," says Josh Hanna, EVP of Ancestry.com.
Indeed, it's powerful enough to inspire 1.4 million paid subscribers to sift through the site's mammoth online database, boosting revenue to $300 million, up 50% from five years ago and 34% last year. Since 2004, Ancestry.com has expanded to England, Wales, Canada, France, and Sweden. It now has more than 6 billion records available online, and consumer discoveries beget more discoveries. "There's a cycle of more and more people discovering each other," Hanna says, and getting one another hooked on plumbing ye olde family tree.
For now, die-hards may have to unplug to finish: Only 15% of records are available online, according to Janet Alpert, chair of the National Genealogical Society's annual conference, happening in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 11th. "It may be 10 years before most microfilm records are digitized," she says. But the pace of digitizing records — and the expansion of the online genealogy industry — has been exponential. Watch out, great-great-grammy: We're coming for you.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.