Genealogy – For Fun or Profit?

genealogy entrepreneur

[Editor’s Note: this is the first in a series of posts at Hack Genealogy entitled Genea-Opportunities 2013]

I caught the genealogy bug in two stages in my life: when I was but 14 years old and watched the television miniseries Roots in 1977; and in 1993 once I discovered a printed version of my family’s genealogy produced in 1916.

But it wasn’t until 2008 when I was laid off from my job at a major international law firm did I even consider pursuing a career in the genealogy field. For a good overview of how I transitioned from technology project manager to owning a genealogy-related business, see the article Career Shift: Turn Your Hobby Into a New Job at Forbes.com.

How and Why I Started My Genealogy Business

Many people come up to me at genealogy and family history events and want to know “how I did it,” meaning, how did I create a successful business in the genealogy field.

I didn’t always feel I was successful, at least from my own perspective considering the amount of 401k and retirement funds I tapped into to get started and the mere pittance my business earned initially. In addition, my business is constantly evolving and it still has its peaks and valleys which I constantly try to even out.

The main reason why I started by own genealogy business: necessity. Being laid off during The Great Recession of 2008 was the kick in the seat that I needed. I tried going back to work in the legal field for a short period and the experience was a nightmare. I hated working with the people in the field, the atmosphere and I was easily able to see through the nonsense.

I needed to bring in income and had to tap into a skill set which I had only seen as a hobby, as a pastime. I could have done more tech work, on a temp basis even, but it was more than just money for me at that point. It was life/work balance and satisfaction.

Also, as I hit my late forties, I wanted to live what I call a “life less bullsh*t.” Meaning that I wasn’t willing to tolerate some of the jabs and punches I endured in the corporate world. Maybe it was my age, maybe it was the pain of being laid off and having the rug pulled out from under me. But once I sat down and made a list of what I was no longer willing to tolerate, everything pointed towards starting my own business. I just needed to figure out what type of business.

Some Tips for Genealogy Entrepreneurs Big and Small

I now realize that even committing to such a business and sharing my ideas with others has made me a success in the eyes of many. So you want to know the how and why? Here are some facts and thoughts gathered from my journey over the past five years:

  • Plan, plan and plan. And make no small plans. Did you ancestors make big or small plans? I’ve said this before in many genealogy talks: my ancestors knew it was a big undertaking to come to this country and such plans would change their lives and the lives of generations to come. Take the same approach and spend time each day planning your business including what you want and what you don’t want. Be honest. Note your fears as well as your hopes.
  • Keep a journal. I have a spreadsheet that I call my Idea Parking Lot and throughout the day I enter information. Each Friday I take an hour of “professional development time” and I review what I’ve found. I make notes as to whether the idea is feasible or if it will even work for my business.
  • Be fearless. This can be difficult for many of us since we all have self-doubts. Even me . . . I’m just careful about showing them publicly. In my journal and in my own thoughts, I am fearless and I dream big. Some might say “self-delusional,” but read on and you’ll see how I deal with that!
  • Seek a mentor. Take note of those who you see as successful and approach them with questions. Many will be flattered and take time out to share their secrets to success. Also, if you require a large block of their time, offer compensation such as contracting for a few hours at their consulting rate, a gift card or even come up with a barter arrangement.
  • Do your research. This shouldn’t be difficult for a genealogist, right? Understand the genealogy market: set up consumer profiles, understand your target sub-market, also realize the market in your geographical location.
  • Set goals and be willing to adjust them. My goals are quarterly and they are not all based on revenue; I also need to have a sense of accomplishment. I review my goals and adjust them frequently.
  • Ignore the Blue Meanies. Yes Virginia there are some very nasty people in the genealogy field. Perhaps because many of us start out pursuing this as a hobby we are then shocked to see the ugly side of people when it comes to the business side of genealogy. It doesn’t have to be this way and I avoid specific businesses and business owners because of the way they in which conduct their business or how they interact with others. As you become successful you will be the recipient of some very direct nastiness as well as direct and indirect insults, some even to your face. Let them roll off your back and know that success is the best revenge.

Prepare For Business Serendipity

Has my journey of genealogy entrepreneurship been easy? Of course not. I haven’t seen “overnight” success or “explosive growth” although some might beg to differ. For me it has been five years of long hours and “stick-to-it” attitude.

What do I like best about having my own business in the genealogy and family history field? First, the sense of ownership, the sense of having a creation and being able to guide it to success or to failure. Second, the sense of responsibility and knowing that I am the one responsible for success or for failure. And finally . . . knowing that I am not only living life on my own terms, but also working and earning an income on my own terms.

There is something special about being your own boss. About setting your own hours, your own terms for how you work and with whom you are willing to work (or not work). Generating new ideas and deciding how to turn them into success. Taking risks and learning lessons from failure.

My only regret? That I didn’t pursue this concept years earlier. But then I also need to recognize the concept of “entrepreneur serendipity” much like we see in genealogy when the timing is right to find our ancestors. In starting your own business there is much to be said about timing, about being in the right mental space, the proper physical space and the exact emotional space needed for success. And let’s not forget the right financial space!

It isn’t easy to recognize that timing, that moment of serendipity. But just like a hunch, or like ancestors whispering over your shoulder, you’ll know when it happens. For those of you that want your own genealogy business, I hope you’ll be blessed with such moments and that you’ll be prepared to listen.

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Disclosure statement: I have material connections with various genealogy vendors and organizations. To review the material connections I have in the genealogy industry, please see Disclosure Statements.

©2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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