By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
Jennifer Campbell isn’t a doctor, nurse, firefighter or an EMT. She isn’t a lifeguard, either. But there’s no doubt that she’s a lifesaver. Her story gives the term an entirely new meaning.
Campbell, 58, is a personal historian and the founder of Heritage Memoirs based in Uxbridge, Ontario (about 40 minutes from Toronto). Using recorded interviews, she produces personal memoirs and family histories. Often, the final product is a bound book, providing an heirloom for Campbell’s clients to pass on to family members and others close to them.
As Heritage Memoirs prepares to celebrate its fourth anniversary in February, Campbell has many reasons to be proud. In October 2011, she received an award for outstanding achievement from the Association of Personal Historians (APH). She also has a book, “Start & Run a Personal History Business,” published in February 2011.
Ups and Downs
While she won’t disclose revenue figures, Campbell says her current compensation far exceeds what she made before she became a business owner. More importantly, she loves what she’s doing – and no longer has to endure a daily round trip commute that, on some days, could take hours.
Still, Campbell’s life has had its share of ups and downs. In February 2008, she was laid off from her public television job of seven years. “Funding had been cut and I could see the writing on the wall,” says Campbell, “but still, it was a shock when I was let go.”
On the same day as the layoff, she attended the funeral of a friend killed by a drunk driver. After the one-two punch, she knew she didn’t want to spend the rest of her professional life toiling in a little, gray cubicle.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bent but the time wasn’t right earlier,” she says. “I was raising two boys who were going into university. Security was important to me and I wasn’t ready to give that up.”
Turning a Hobby into a Business
A few years earlier, Campbell had begun compiling personal histories for people after realizing she knew little about her own father, a Scottish immigrant and one-time soldier, when he died at age 80. Not wanting to lose both of her parents’ histories, Campbell managed to get a few life stories from her mother, an accomplished artist, before she developed dementia and passed away.
At age 54, Campbell turned her hobby into a business, launching Heritage Memoirs with little more than a beat-up tape recorder and a “really cheap” website. “I wasn’t thinking about making a lot of money,” she says. “All I wanted was something that was important work.”
Recognizing she needed help with her startup, Campbell bartered her editing skills for consulting services from a marketing coach she found through APH. She also prepared a written business plan, something she recommends for aspiring business owners. Her husband, an accountant, was “very supportive” and helped set up her bookkeeping systems.
“There were really lean times at the beginning,” she says. “When you’re in it for the long haul, you understand peaks and valleys.”
Campbell points to strong market demand as a top reason for her success. “It’s a timely and timeless service,” she says. “There’s an immense amount of interest in the field of memoirs, but most people simply don’t have the time or skills to do it themselves.” The majority of her clients are “baby boomers who are used to paying for specialized services.”
Going the Extra Mile
Then there’s Campbell herself, whose underlying principle is “to provide the best work I possibly can and go the extra mile.” She sees her age as a plus, as it gives her empathy and an understanding that success doesn’t happen overnight.
“If I had started the business when I was 30, I might have given up after a year,” she says.
“You learn so much in life, including what’s great customer service,” adds Campbell. “The people I work with are used to respect. They like to be addressed formally until they invite you to use their first name. They like to receive business correspondence in proper format.”
Among her clients are well-known leaders in the advertising, modeling, healthcare and transportation industries. Many have rags-to-riches stories but “once you get to know them, they’re just people like you and me,” she says.
So what does this entrepreneur, who devotes so much time to reliving the past, have in mind for the future?
In addition to growing her client base, Campbell would like to increase public awareness about her industry and support its international growth. She’s also thinking about developing a seminar on “how to start a personal historian business.”
Like her clients, she wants to leave a legacy for the next generation. Her two sons, both in their 20s, have other jobs for now, but she would love to see them take over Heritage Memoirs one day.
“I feel very proud,” says Campbell, “that I’ve shown them you can build your own business.”