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Making a Living from Genealogy

Guidelines for Starting a Genealogy Business

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I often receive emails from genealogists who find that they love family history so much that they'd like to turn it into a career. But how? Can you really earn a living doing what you love?

The answer is, sure! If you have strong genealogical research and organizational skills and a keen sense for business, you can earn money working in the family history field. As with any business venture, however, you will need to prepare.

Do You Have What it Takes?

Perhaps you've researched your own family tree for a few years, taken a few classes, and maybe have even done some research for friends. But does this mean you're ready to earn money as a genealogist? That depends. The first step is to evaluate your qualifications and skills. How many years have you been seriously involved with genealogy research? How strong are your methodology skills? Are you familiar with properly citing sources, creating abstracts and extracts, and the genealogical proof standard? Do you belong to and participate in genealogical societies? Are you able to write a clear and concise research report? Evaluate your professional preparedness by taking stock of your strengths and weaknesses.

Bone Up On Your Skills

Follow up your evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses with education in the form of classes, conferences and professional reading to fill in any holes in your knowledge or experience. I'd suggest putting Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians (edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001) at the top of your reading list! I also recommend joining the Association of Professional Genealogists and/or other professional organizations so that you can benefit from the experience and wisdom of other genealogy professionals. They also offer a two-day Professional Management Conference (PMC) each year in conjunction with the Federation of Genealogical Societies conference which covers topics specifically geared to genealogists working in their profession.

Consider Your Goal

Making a living as a genealogist can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Besides the standard genealogical research conducted for individuals, you can also specialize in finding missing people for the military or other organizations, working as a probate or heir searcher, offering on-site photography, writing articles or books for the popular press, conducting family history interviews, designing and running Web sites for genealogical societies and organizations, or writing or assembling family histories. Use your experience and interests to help choose a niche for your genealogical business. You can choose more than one, but it is also good not to spread yourself too thin.

Create a Business Plan

Many genealogists consider their work a hobby and don't feel that it warrants anything as serious or formal as a business plan. Or that it is only important if you're applying for a grant or a loan. But if you're planning to make a living from your genealogy skills, you need to begin by taking them seriously. A good mission statement and business plan sums up the path we plan to follow, and helps us to succinctly explain our services to prospective clients. A good business plan includes the following:
  • an executive summary overviewing the business name and location, your name and experience, and the mission statement.

  • a list of products and services offered by your business

  • a description and analysis of the genealogy industry, including the local competition and its experience, services, pricing structure, and their length of time in business.

  • a marketing strategy including anything which makes our service unique (such as location near a valuable genealogical repository or any unusual experience) and a description of the pricing for our services.
More: Business Plan Basics

Set Realistic Fees

One of the most common questions asked by genealogists just starting out in business for themselves is how much to charge. As you might expect, there is no clear cut answer. Basically, your hourly rate should take into account your level of experience; the profit you hope to realize from your business as it relates to the amount of time you can devote to your business each week; the local market and competition; and the start-up and operating expenses you plan to incur. Don't sell yourself short by undercutting what your time and experience is worth, but also don't charge more than the market will bear.

Stock Up on Supplies

The nice thing about a genealogy-based business is you typically won't have a lot of overhead. You most likely already have many of the things you will need if you love genealogy enough to want to pursue it as a career. A computer and Internet access is helpful, along with subscriptions to major genealogy Web sites -- especially those that cover your primary areas of interest. A good car or other transportation to get you to the courthouse, FHC, library, and other repositories. A filing drawer or cabinet to house your client files. Office supplies for organization, correspondence, etc.

Market Your Business

I could write an entire book (or at least a chapter) on marketing your genealogy business. Instead, I'll just point you to the chapter on "Marketing Strategies" by Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, CG in Professional Genealogy. In it she covers all aspects of marketing, including researching the competition, creating business cards and flyers, putting up a Web site for your genealogy business, and other marketing strategies. I have two tips for you: 1) Check the membership roster of APG and local societies to find other genealogists who are working in your geographic location or area of expertise. 2) Contact libraries, archives and genealogical societies in your area and ask to be added to their list of genealogical researchers.

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