Five Lessons From a Transitional Genealogist

Originally posted on 27 March 2012.

It’s been a little over a year since I launched my business and what an interesting road it has been. In the past year I’ve had to figure out not only all the business side of Cedar Tree Genealogy but also how to balance it with my home life (which includes caring for my 18 month old son and 6 year old daughter) and schoolwork. So far I have had a total of 4 “clients”. I call everyone I do work for a client whether it be a pro bono project, a project stemming from a donation to a local charity auction, or someone who is actually paying me.  Here’s a bit of what I have learned about the differences between being a hobbyist and professional:

1-      When I first started my business I had in mind certain ways that I would and would not conduct my business, ideals if you will. One of the hardest lessons to accept is that the way you think things will be and the way they actually are, is not the same. Now, I don’t mean to sound pessimistic or for that to be a blanket statement by any means. This has proven to be true for me especially when it comes to determining how much I should charge. I’ve blogged about this before and to clarify just because you may charge over a certain amount does not mean you are greedy just like just because you charge under a certain amount does not mean that you are unskilled. Unfortunately, the perception that unless you charge over $25 or even $40 that you are unskilled is a very real one. As much I want to change perceptions and be one of what must be many others leading the charge against it, I still need clients and cannot expect long held perceptions to change overnight if at all. If a client is assessing my worth based off of what I charge, then I will likely have to raise my rates.

2-      Marketing a genealogy business is extremely difficult. When I started out a year ago I did not have a lot of funds for advertising and I still do not. There are an increasing number of ways to get the word out free of charge, such as Twitter or Facebook, and I have been fortunate to come across some more savy ways to market. For example, I frequently receive positive comments about the appearance of my website. It looks great but I paid less than $100 for it last year during a special put on by Apart of that fee included a  flash template, my own domain name and advertisement credits for Facebook and Google.  My business cards are from that also frequently runs specials. I give business cards to everyone and anyone. Unfortunately, I have heard “I’d love to hire you to look into my family tree but I can’t afford it” a lot over the past year. I am not sure if people are just being polite about not wanting to hire me, if they check out my competition and go with them, if it’s the area I am in, or the economy still- that’s the next marketing puzzle for me to figure out. Getting people’s attention is only half of the marketing puzzle, once I have their attention I have to keep it long enough to convince them that I am capable and qualified. I do not think it would be going out on a limb to say that second part is something a lot of transitional genealogists struggle with. It’s the old conundrum, need professional experience, but, how do you get that without someone giving you a chance to prove yourself? So far, word of mouth has been my best marketing tool. I have a client lined up as a result.

3-      Transitioning from a hobbyist to a professional is a lot like preparing for litigation. You may have done a massive amount of research- from statutes to case law and maybe even borrowing from nearby states or districts (depending on if its civil or federal) if there is no legal precedent, but if you show up to the courthouse without knowing what paperwork needs to be filed, or with incorrect citations, and do not use the proper font, font size, margins and paper weight (yes there are some courts who do specify that)… well the phrase “Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200” comes to mind.

4-      I currently have on my website that I treat every family tree as though it was my own. I may have to refine that statement.  I have been surprised at how emotionally invested I become in my client’s research. For example, the Yeager family tree that my last blog was about. My worst fear is having to tell my client bad news. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the business I am in and is something I know I will always struggle with. I know how to reign in my emotions and remain calm when delivering bad news- as a Quality Coordinator at an insurance company I frequently had to do so- but you can bet I will have ice cream waiting in the freezer for me at home.

5-      I am not alone. Hallelujah for that. There are people out there who are quick to dismiss “newbies” or anyone without a degree/certificate but there are just as many people who are helpful. Simply knowing that I am not the only one who feels the way I do has been a great relief. I feel as though a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. It also has me thinking. I am not taking summer courses for my Masters this summer. I am going to be pursuing education in terms of genealogy- from attending workshops starting in April to something as simple as watching videos on I am also considering joining a ProGen study group. I think more of my blogs may focus on these educational pursuits and the overall challenges that I face as a transitional genealogist. I would love to become more active in supporting others in indirect ways (such as my blog) and direct ways through more involvement in the genealogy community.


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