A genealogy business is not for everyone, especially if you're hoping for a lucrative income stream. "Only a very tiny percentage of us actually support ourselves full time on genealogy," said Barbara J. Ball, CG (Certified Genealogist) of Copestone Resources LLC.
But it is a relatively simple business to start. You don't need official certification to call yourself a genealogist. It helps, though, if you already have some of the attributes needed to be successful in the field.
There is growing demand for these services, especially now as people have been forced to shelter at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other factors that are contributing to Americans' interest in genealogy are the availability of DNA test kits and websites where you can unlock all kinds of family history.
In an article for the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly titled "Transferable Skills: You're Quitting Your Job to Do What?!", author and professional genealogist Pam Anderson identified five skills as key attributes that successful genealogists and business owners have:
- Effective communicator
If this describes you, you're off to a good start.
Launching a genealogy business: first steps
Depending on your level of experience, you may want to gather additional expertise before you embark on a career as a genealogy. The National Genealogical Society offers American Genealogy Studies as an online course developed by certified genealogists. The course is self-paced.
Boston University offers a Professional Education Certificate in Genealogical Research online. These classes are only available at specific times.
Genealogists we spoke to also recommended the ProGen Study Program, which is based on the textbook Professional Genealogy. This program covers both the practice of genealogy and the practical aspects of running a genealogy business.
A good next step is defining your business.
Craft your mission statement
Define what you will do for people in a few interesting words. This can be the guiding star of your business. It will help you stay focused on the problem you want to solve without defining how you'll solve it.
Here are some examples to consider:
- I help people of Panamanian descent find out more about their ancestors.
- I rediscover the past for people who want to understand their history.
- I solve historical mysteries for people who hit genealogical dead ends.
Define your revenue model
How will you make money? There are many different ways to generate revenue. It can help focus your efforts if you decide on one model that makes the most sense for your genealogy business. Three models - fee for service, production, and subscription - are the most likely to position you for success for a genealogy business.
The fee-for-service model is the most common for people with specialized skills and the most common in the world of genealogy.
Think of doctors, lawyers, fitness trainers. You pay them all (typically on an hourly basis) to provide you with their unique skills. Why? Because you don't have these skills yourself.
Or maybe you do. Think of a house cleaner or a babysitter. You can clean your house or watch your kids, but sometimes you need the help of someone else.
Sometimes it's specialized equipment that requires a fee-for-service arrangement - think of a plumber or a photographer.
Genealogical research is another example of a unique talent. Most genealogists use the fee-for-service model.
Asking clients to pay by the hour is the most common method of billing. Being a genealogist is a little like being an auto mechanic in that you don't know for sure what the solution is until you "pop the hood." Genealogists never know for sure whether they will find what their client seeks.
Many genealogists start projects with an agreed-upon set of hours meant to address a particular question such as, "Where was my mother's father born?" If that research provides a tidy answer to the client's question, so be it.
But if more research is needed, the client can agree to pay for additional time. A client might agree to additional time to get records from an overseas archive, for example.
"I like to do it in small phases," said Pam Anderson, a genealogist in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. "I don't like to do more than 20 hours at a time so that we can see how we work together."
The production model is very simple. You make something, and someone pays you for it. Think of a car manufacturer, or a jewelry designer ... or a farmer.
Genealogical research itself is not a product, but you could turn it into one. You could set a standard price for a 20-page family history or for a family tree going back at least five generations.
Subscriptions are an increasingly popular model, thanks to the advent of automatic renewal billing. A fitness gym is a business that runs primarily via the subscription model. The basic idea is that you pay for access to a service, whether you use that service or not. The benefit to the consumer is convenience. It's there when they need it.
Ancestry.com has proven that the subscription model is appealing for folks interested in genealogy. But subscribing to Ancestry.com only gives customers access to their resources - the customer still has to do the research.
Perhaps potential customers would be willing to pay monthly for access to your expertise - if they have the curiosity but not the time.
What's the competition?
When people think of competition in business, they tend to think of two companies battling it out for supremacy, like Coke vs. Pepsi, but competition for most businesses isn't as simple as that.
Your competition isn't just other, similar services. Your customer can also be your competition, or your competition could come from completely different industries. Before you answer the question of who your competition is, you have to understand the customer's problem, your solution and how to make that solution unique.
What is the problem your customers have?
- They have no information about their family background and are concerned about medical issues.
- They are researching family members and hit a dead end.
- They lack fulfillment in their life and seek a deeper connection with their past.
A silly hypothetical: What if you discovered a forgotten daughter of Henry VIII who has thousands of descendants? These people have a problem they never knew about - how to prove they're royalty!
On a more serious note, as medical research continues to uncover the genetic causes of many serious diseases, reliable genealogical research could alert people to potentially serious health risks.
How is your service better?
Once you've identified your competition, next you need to identify how your service is a better solution for your customers than the solution offered by your competitor. Winning products and services are often:
- Higher quality
- More efficient
- Less expensive
- Some combination of the above
Which of the above benefits are you uniquely positioned to provide to potential customers?
If you have 30 years of experience in the genealogical research field and a Ph.D. in American History, you may be able to provide a better service than your competition. If you're a fast researcher and writer, you may provide research more quickly than your competition could, or you could charge less. If you have specialized knowledge about Portuguese immigration in the 1830s, you may fill a niche that no other genealogist is addressing.
Pam Anderson, the genealogist in Pennsylvania, lives in a rural part of the state. She's the only person in her area who offers genealogical services. When people from outside the state want to research an ancestor who lived in the area, Anderson is the best resource they have.
Why would someone choose you over the other options they have to solve the same problem? If you don't have a reason, you don't have a business.
Once you come up with a competitive advantage, you'll want to adjust your mission statement to align with your niche or advantage.
You've already thought deeply about the problem you want to solve for customers. Now, it's time to think about the customers themselves.
Creating a customer persona
Customer personas are a key tool that the most successful marketers share. A company like Nike creates detailed customer or buyer personas about the people most likely to buy athletic shoes and apparel. When Nike creates products, plans advertising campaigns, or writes social media posts, it does so with these personas in mind.
Creating personas for your business maximizes your marketing efforts. These 10 free customer persona templates can help you get started.
To complete them, you'll need to answer questions about your potential customers such as these:
- How old are they?
- What is their education level?
- What is their salary?
- What motivates them?
You'll probably find that you have more than one potential customer, but keep your number of total personas manageable. Three to five personas is a good starting point.
COVID-19's impact on the genealogy market
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people are spending more time in the confines of their houses and online. That has led to a boom in the genealogy market. It's also piquing the interest of consumers who may have been too busy in the past to trace their family history, but who now have the time to do just that.
The pandemic has created new opportunities to grow an existing genealogy business or start a new one. After all, a genealogy business is well-suited for an at-home environment. All you need is a computer, family tree software, and a video conferencing app to get up and running. For genealogy hobbyists, launching an at-home business during the pandemic is an attractive way to raise extra cash.
It's not just entrepreneurs who recognize that. In August 2020, investment management firm Blackstone acquired Ancestry.com for $4.7 billion. David Kestnbaum, senior managing director in the private equity group at Blackstone told Reuters that Blackstone believes there's further opportunity for growth at Ancestry as more people become interested in learning about their family histories.
If you have an existing genealogy business and are struggling during the pandemic, there is available financial help. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) offers forgivable loans via the Paycheck Protection Program and low-interest, long-term loans through its Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program. More aid was promised by President Joe Biden, although it's not clear if and when a new round of stimulus will pass.
Reaching potential customers
Now that you know who your customers are, it's time to find them.
Where does each segment of your genealogical research customer base hang out? Here are some possibilities:
- On social media sites
- In front of the television
- Listening to the radio or history podcasts
- At gathering places like churches, malls, parks
- At community events like festivals and parades
- At gatherings of groups dedicated to genealogy or history
And where do they go to get information to solve the problem you've identified? Here are some of the most likely options:
- Search engines
- Online genealogy forums
- Genealogy or history magazines
- Local historical societies and archives
Once you know where your customers are, you can go about delivering your message to them.
Advertising is the most direct method of sharing your service with customers. Most advertising is interruptive, so your message must be clear and direct.
On social media sites, you can target potential customers based on their demographics and their interests. For example, if one of your customer personas is women in their 40s who live within 10 miles of you, you can create an ad that's shown only to them. Or you could target anyone in your state with an interest in African history.
Facebook is the social media network that has the most extensive and effective targeting.
Television ads are expensive to produce and place. They usually only make sense for companies selling at a high volume (like fast-food restaurants) or companies selling an expensive product (like car dealerships). A genealogy business doesn't fit either of these criteria.
Radio ads are less expensive than television ads, but they also reach a broad audience. You'd likely reach people in your target audience, but you'd reach many more who aren't. Radio advertising is unlikely to be cost-effective for a genealogy business.
The podcast industry is flourishing. There are more than 550,000 podcasts, and most of them are targeted to niche groups.
History podcasts are among the most popular categories, and people who are interested in the past are likely interested in their own past as well. Podcast sponsorships are relatively inexpensive. The right podcast might help you reach your target audience.
The most popular search engine, Google, lets businesses display ads that appear when people search a certain term. To get the lay of the land, Google these key genealogical research terms and note which advertisers appear:
- Family tree
- Census records
- Find ancestors
We'll bet you saw some of the main players in the genealogy field. Common search terms can be the most expensive for advertising (try searching "buy a car" or "fly to Paris" if you want more evidence).
Alternatively, you can put your search engine ad on any term. Think about your customer segments. What specific genealogical search term (or phrase) might they put into Google? It might be something like "church records Sonoma County" or "ancestors Korea." These are called "long-tail" terms. You can target your advertising to these specific phrases to reach the customers most likely to need your service.
Direct advertising is the fastest way to generate customers, but it is also the costliest.
The most profitable customer is one you don't have to pay to acquire. If you can figure out how to attract customers for free, your business can be much more profitable.
Local genealogy spots
Pam Anderson, the genealogist in South Central Pennsylvania, got her start partly by accident. While volunteering for the local historical society, she answered queries for people researching their ancestors. Sometimes, those people needed a record that was only held at the courthouse. "I started feeling bad for these people because there was no one else who could do this for them," said Anderson.
She began offering these services herself, and direct referrals from the historical society are still the backbone of her business. She said that of a dozen new clients she added in 2018, six were referrals from the historical society.
If you join the Association of Professional Genealogists, you can be added to their directory. The directory is searchable by location and research specialty.
You don't have to advertise to be visible on social media and in search engine rankings. Content marketing is the practice of making your own website, blog posts, e-newsletter, graphics, videos and other assets gain exposure for your business.
With content marketing, your potential customers find you. For example, you could create a Guide to Finding Greek Ancestors on your website. Through the use of search engine optimization, you may be able to get this page to rank high in Google for "finding Greek ancestors" and related terms. In this way, people who cared about the topic would be introduced to your services.
Content marketing can be an effective way to reach customers, especially for knowledge-based businesses like a genealogy research service. However, it is a long-term investment, because most content marketing programs take at least 18 months to show results.
You've probably heard that word-of-mouth advertising is the best form of advertising. It is powerful when a trusted friend or associate recommends a product.
However, this is no way to start a business. You have to first get a customer before you can get a recommendation from one.
Word-of-mouth advertising helps grow your business. As you complete projects for customers, consider how they might help you meet your next one. Is there someone they could introduce? Don't wait for word of mouth to happen on its own. Be a catalyst.
Business expenses: location, equipment, resources
You need a place to work, and you need certain items and services to do your work successfully. It's wise to determine these needs initially so your first few months run smoothly.
First of all, where will you work?
The beauty of a home-based business is that you don't need to budget for office space. You'll have a quick commute too. There are drawbacks, however.
Working at home can be distracting, even overwhelming, depending on your home environment. You may want to meet in person with potential clients. Are you OK having them come to your home? You can always meet in a coffee shop, but does that send the right message about the stability of your business?
These are questions only you can answer. If you believe you can stay focused at home and don't feel you need an office to meet potential customers, you'll have lopped a big expense off your monthly startup costs.
Office or coworking space
An office is a dedicated space for you to get work done and conduct business, but that luxury comes with a cost. Besides your monthly rent, you have to supply things like phone service and internet access. You'll likely have to sign a lease as well.
A coworking space may no longer be an option once we emerge from the pandemic. In the past, it was a popular option for some startup businesses. Most offer basic business services like internet, as well as the opportunity to network with other business owners. Typically, you pay month to month rather than assuming the burden of a long-term lease.
Genealogy business equipment and expenses
You've decided where to work. Now you need to decide what you need to do your work. These are some potential items that might be on a genealogy researcher's must-have list:
- A laptop computer
- Internet access
- A printer and scanner
- Research notebooks
- Filing cabinets or drawers
- Subscriptions to the major genealogy research sites like Ancestry.com
- Transportation to local archives via private car or public transportation
- Marketing collateral: business cards, website, brochures and flyers
Taking the monthly expenses and your anticipated income into account, develop a basic budget for your business.
Writing a business plan
Now that you've identified what you'll sell, how you'll sell it, where you'll reach customers and how much running your business will cost, you've got just about everything you need to write a business plan.
The SBA hosts an excellent online business plan builder.
Why create a business plan? For one thing, it's a good exercise that helps you answer key questions about the foundations of your business and how it will grow. A business plan is also a requirement for getting funding from banks or other investors.
Funding your business
Every new business has upfront costs. In the case of a genealogy research business, your initial expenses are quite low. That list above may include things you've already purchased when genealogy was just a hobby.
Some potential funding options for a genealogy research business follow.
Bootstrapping means using your own money to start and grow your business. The benefit is that you don't need anyone's permission to start.
However, depending on how much you feel you need to spend on marketing, you may not have enough to keep going. That's fine if you want to start as a side business while you have income coming in from other sources, but you can run out of funds quickly if bootstrapping is your only funding source.
Bootstrapping is a good option for a genealogy research business because your startup costs are so low.
Businesses that require substantial initial investments in equipment or marketing may need additional capital to provide a runway for launching the business. Typically, personal loans have lower interest rates than credit cards, which makes them a better choice than maxing out your Visa.
For someone starting a genealogy research business, a personal loan could help cover expenses while you focus on building your reputation and customer base.
Loans guaranteed by the SBA can help get a business off the ground. The loans aren't offered directly by the SBA; instead, private institutions like banks, community development organizations and microlenders offer the loan. The SBA agrees to repay most of the loan – up to 85% – if you default on the loan. Use the SBA's online referral tool to connect with participating lenders.
An SBA-approved loan requires much more documentation than a personal loan, so it isn't the fastest way to get funding. For a business with startup costs as low as a genealogy research business, the time might be better spent focusing on marketing.
Venture capital firms invest in lots of different companies with high growth potential. They take part ownership in the company and then profit handsomely if the business hits it big. The SBA connects entrepreneurs with Small Business Investment Companies (SBIC), which offer loans or purchase equity in companies.
A venture capital firm isn't likely to be interested in a genealogy research company unless you have a plan for high growth (we're talking revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars range).
Business owners with a unique idea can often generate public support through crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe. These "investors" don't receive any equity in the companies they support, but they often receive rewards, like the company's first product.
If your genealogy research company targets a specific audience, or you plan to develop a written product, crowdfunding might be an option. Many authors have used crowdfunding to support them during the research and writing of books.
Many businesses can't function without the support of reliable vendors. Coffee shops need paper cups. Architects need drawings printed. Gardeners need potting soil and mulch.
Any product you'll need on a regular basis is key to the success of your business, so identify a reliable, trustworthy and cost-efficient vendor to get it to you. Vendors are experts at what they do, which saves you time and likely gets you the best possible product.
For instance, as a genealogical researcher, you may decide to deliver printed reports to your clients. Rather than taking time out of your day to produce these at the local copy shop, you might identify a good local printer who can do the work for you. They'll probably be able to suggest improvements to make your reports look even better.
Consider the vendors you might need and develop these relationships before you need them.
Naming your business
Your business will need a unique name for tax record purposes, but also to set it apart from your competitors.
Your business name must be available in your state, and your state business licensing office will give you a way to search online so you can see whether your preferred name is taken.
You may also want to choose a name for which a website domain name is available. Having your domain name match your business name makes it easier for people to find you online. This lightning-fast search is a good way to see available names.
Choose a compelling name
Your business name should be more than just a couple of words that no one else has put together. Ideally, it should emphasize something unique about your business that your customers will care about and want.
For example, Speedy Plumbing is a popular name for plumbing businesses. What do people care about when their toilet is overflowing? They want it stopped fast.
Think again about the unique facet of your business that makes it a better solution than your competition. Is it that your business is the only one in town? Maybe you want to call yourself [Name of Town] Genealogy Research.
Is it your own unique skills or personality that will make your business successful? Then a good name might be [Your Name] Genealogy Research.
Maybe you specialize in finding ancestors from a specific region. You might consider calling your business Irish-American Genealogy.
Do you believe you deliver results faster than your competitors? In that case, maybe you'd take a page from the plumbing playbook and call your business Speedy Genealogy.
Licensing requirements and business organization
All businesses require a license to operate. The licensing requirements are different depending on where you live. You will probably need a state business license, but you may also need a city or county one.
If you are registering as a sole proprietor – meaning that you assume all liability for the business operations, and you'll report all the income on your personal taxes – registration will be straightforward.
Other forms of organization
Most businesses start as sole proprietorships, but you may consider starting out by incorporating your business as an LLC or C corporation. There are benefits and drawbacks to incorporation you should consider.
The main advantage of incorporation is that it may protect your personal assets from liability if the business fails or if you are sued. The drawbacks include that it requires extra paperwork, such as filing articles of incorporation, it costs more, and you're required to have a board of directors and shareholders.
If you're dipping your toes into genealogical research as a side business, a sole proprietorship might be the best way to get started quickly. If you intend to make your genealogy business your main source of income, consider a more formal structure.
Also, check the sales tax requirements in your locality. You need to determine whether to charge sales tax (and how much to charge) based on the type of product you sell and where your customers live.
Typically for a professional service like genealogical research, sales tax isn't required, but if you provide a specific product, it could be. Consult the department of taxation in your state to make sure.
Training and special licenses
Some businesses, such as restaurants and day cares, require special license requirements. Certain jobs, like hair stylist or commercial truck driver, must pass certification requirements as well.
We are not aware of any special requirements for genealogical researchers. There is a certification offered by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, but you can still charge people to research their family history without it.
Registering with the IRS
Having an EIN (employer identification number) is required if you incorporate, if you plan to hire employees or if you plan to sell certain products. It's also a common expectation if you're applying for business loans or doing other advanced business paperwork. A sole proprietor may not need one (though they can still get one). Contact the IRS directly if you aren't sure.
You can apply for an EIN online.
Open a business bank account
A business bank account can help you keep track of costs and revenues associated with your business. This will be a big help at tax time. Most banks offer a business account and a business debit card for a reasonable fee.
Make a list of the basic marketing materials you need for your business and get started on creating them.
A logo is a unique visual representation of your name or brand that can add consistency and professionalism to your marketing materials.
The cost of a logo can vary. You can make your own logo online for free. Another option is to hire an online freelancer who can create one for you. Many print shops offer logo design services. A professional graphic designer costs more, but they can deliver a more polished, unique logo.
Speaking with a professional designer is always a good place to start. Ask around in your personal or professional network.
A few standard messages can help you spread the word in person and on social media networks. At the very least, have a 15-second elevator speech prepared for when people ask you what you do for a living. Your elevator speech should touch on what you do, how you do it, why you're unique and finish with an ask.
Use your mission statement as the starting point for these basic messages. For example, let's say your mission statement is "I help people of Panamanian descent find out more about their ancestors."
Your elevator speech might be something like, "I'm a professional genealogical researcher. I specialize in helping people of Panamanian descent identify the towns their ancestors emigrated from. I speak fluent Spanish, and have personal contacts at all the main museums and archives in Panama. Do you know anyone of Panamanian ancestry?"
A tagline is a sentence or less that encapsulates the purpose of your product, service or solution.
Example: "Helping Panamanians connect with their past."
You may also consider creating FAQs (frequently asked questions) specific to your new business. This could be a resource for you, or it could be a page on your website. The FAQs save you time by answering basic customer questions when a client would otherwise have to call or email you.
Some FAQs for a genealogical research business might be:
- How much does it cost?
- How long does the research usually take?
- How will I know what you found is accurate?
- Do you need my DNA?
Remember to update your FAQs when you get new or unique questions from customers.
If you have a website, customers can learn about your services whenever they want and, thanks to smartphones, wherever they are. Many services exist that make creating and launching a website a quick and relatively painless process.
As a genealogist, you're running a knowledge-based business. You may want to put your website on a platform that's optimized for creating content. WordPress, an open-source blogging platform, is the most popular of these. WordPress.com offers low-cost web hosting and creation tools to get you started.
Social media pages
Social networks are a popular place for people to gather and to connect one-on-one with each other and with businesses.
- Facebook has the widest audience. Most people will expect to find you on Facebook. You'll also need a Facebook page if you plan to run Facebook ads.
- Instagram is a photo-sharing-based social network that is best for businesses selling visually appealing products (clothes, artwork) or luxury experiences.
- Snapchat is a video-sharing-based social network popular with people in their teens and 20s.
- Twitter is a news- and opinion-sharing social network, ideal for spotlighting unique voices and personalities.
- LinkedIn is a professional development social network where the conversation is focused on business and careers.
For a genealogy business, Facebook is probably the most important social network to direct your focus. If you have a unique, funny, controversial voice, Twitter could be worth considering.
Business cards and other print collateral materials
A business card is the one critical piece of printed material you'll need. It should include the name of your business and logo, your name, your contact information, and your website address.
You may also want to design (or have designed) a basic invoice for billing your customers.
Some businesses need additional print materials to get started. A restaurant needs a menu, a contractor needs a quote sheet. Consider your requirements, because additional printed materials like brochures may not be necessary at launch.
For your new genealogy business, a business card and an invoice template are good places to start. If you plan to present your findings in the form of a report, consider hiring a designer to create an attractive layout template you can use.
Employees, contractors and timesaving services
Running a business means wearing many hats. Some people enjoy it when their day consists of being a salesperson, office manager, financial planner, bookkeeper, social media manager and administrative assistant. Others do better when they focus on what they do best, or when they can cherry-pick a few of the more interesting additional tasks.
Think about the tasks you'll have to perform and whether you'd rather have someone else do them, such as scheduling appointments, bookkeeping, and writing social media posts.
You have many options for delegating these common business owner tasks to employees you hire, contractors you pay or, increasingly, subscription software services.
As you launch your genealogy research business, you aren't likely to spend substantial time on administrative tasks. You may want to keep monthly expenses low by handling these things yourself and then outsource them as the business grows.
Tips for a successful genealogy business
If you're thinking of leaving your current career to transition into genealogical research, you aren't alone. Nearly everyone who becomes a genealogist started out doing something else.
Your business can be stronger if you find others like yourself who are starting in the genealogy world. "You work by yourself so much," said genealogist Pam Anderson, "it's important to develop a network."
Anderson stated she's met many valuable contacts at conferences and at research institutions. Such contacts can turn into resources if you get overwhelmed with requests, or if you need help with specific issues that arise. "It's good to have people to bounce ideas off," said Anderson.
Most importantly, be prepared to continue learning. Genealogy is a study of the past, but the tools that genealogists have are constantly growing. DNA research is relatively new, and yet some genealogists completely specialize in it. If you don't have your niche now, you may develop one over your career. At least you won't be bored.
Donna Fuscaldo contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.