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Small Business | LEARNING CURVE: LIVING LEGACIES

Modern Scribe : Oral Historian Records Family Stories

May 21, 1996

Ellie Kahn hit upon a way to turn a personal interest, talking with older people, into a business recording oral histories of families. She used her professional experience to lend credibility to her new venture, Living Legacies, and learned how to put a price on it. Kahn was interviewed by Karen Kaplan.

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I was a therapist for 11 years, and during that time I discovered that I really like working with older people. If I go to a friend's birthday party and her grandparents are there, that's who I always spend my time with. Later on, that interest in talking to older people led me into a career as a freelance journalist.

Then I heard about a field called oral history, which involves talking to people about their lives. Most of the people in the field were connected to universities or private institutions doing projects on, say, Richard Nixon or on Holocaust survivors.

I wanted to do oral history for individual families, not just for famous people. I thought families could really benefit from having a way to preserve their parents' stories. So I started Living Legacies. I do interviews and turn them into tapes, books or videos that are all about a family's history.

I started with my own family. I did a book on my parents with family photos, and I did a video of my husband's grandmother. Once I was armed with these samples, I was on my way. I've mostly gotten customers through word of mouth.

I was charging way too little when I started out, but I had no idea what to charge. I just looked at the input costs--like tape recorders and cassettes--and estimated how much time would be involved. But it turned out to be much more labor-intensive than I thought. Now I charge more for my time. Whenever someone says they are shocked by how low my prices are, I consider raising my prices. Now I charge about $2,200 for the books, but it varies. An audio tape is about $400 and a video documentary can go up to $4,300.

I have some mentors who are oral historians who didn't really train me but who gave me a lot of wonderful advice and encouraged me to pursue this business. I picked their brains, and the more I learned about it the more it became clear to me that this was going to be the perfect career for me. I wasn't sure if I would make any money at it, but I was sure I would love it.

It was a big risk. I kept up my freelance writing for the first six to 10 months and my husband had a good job at the time, so those were my backups.

I really wanted to carry on what I loved about being a therapist and being a journalist, and I found a field that I thought might be marketable. When I talked with my mentors, they were supportive and encouraging. I don't remember anyone saying, "This will definitely make you money." But if anyone had said to me, "You're nuts, this will never work" and I felt they had some credibility, I might have listened to them.

This was not only a new business for me, it was a new kind of business. I've done some education in the marketplace to explain what I do and that it is a priceless thing to have your family's memories and stories preserved. So far I've interviewed more than 100 people. The business is growing and I'm growing right along with it.

On how she created a professional image for her business . . .

"I did a book on my parents with family photos, and I did a video of my husband's grandmother. Once I was armed with these samples, I was on my way."

On putting a price on something that's fun . . .

"I was charging way too little when I started out, but I had no idea what to charge. . . . Whenever someone says they are shocked by how low my prices are, I consider raising my prices."

On why she was willing to risk a lower income . . .

"The more I learned about it, the more it became clear to me that this was going to be the perfect career for me."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

AT A GLANCE:

Company: Living Legacies

Owner: Ellie Kahn

Nature of business: Oral historian for families

Location: West Los Angeles

Year founded: 1988

Annual sales: $30,000 to $40,000

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