On June 20, 2012 the Northwest History Network, a non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon, hosted a professional development program entitled A Future in Historical Consulting: Is It for You? Four consulting historians sat on a panel and answered a series of questions. The participants included Richard Engeman, Principal, Oregon Rediviva, LLC; Donna Sinclair, Independent Historian; William Willingham, Consulting Historian; and Morgen Young, Consulting Historian, Alder, LLC. The panelists related how they first entered the field, shared professional advice, and participated in a frank discussion regarding fees, positives and negatives of such a career path, and other lessons learned. The following is an excerpt from the program. Click here to listen to an entire podcast of the program.
Question: What practical business advice can you offer to those new to the field?
Morgen Young: I think one of the first things you need to decide is a name. For me, and for Richard, I didn’t want to be known by just my name. I wanted to have a general name and didn’t want the word ‘history’ in it, so I would have the capacity to take on any kind of paid project. I wanted to have a limited liability corporation, to protect my personal assets. I chose Alder for many reasons, but, in part, because it started with an ‘A.’ My last name starts with a ‘Y,’ so I’m always at the end of lists. But now, in business resources, my company is always listed first.
Richard Engeman: I’ll say it helps to do the formalities. It improves the professional image that you need to have out there and it reinforces your own self of purpose. That was something that was really important to me. So, an assumed business name, cards, they’re really useful. They can be useful in other ways that you might not think about. I found out that my business was useful in covering some unfunded medial insurance. It had some tax advantages. I also think it’s important to do volunteer work. It keeps you in front of people who might see that your talents are worthwhile. I do a lot of work for free, a lot of volunteering. I am on the board of the Oregon Century Farm & Ranch Program and the Oregon Travel Experience Historical Marker program. They’ve also both hired me to do work, so those have both been important things for me. Personal connections are very valuable. Professional groups have been valuable to me, too. Because too many things interest me, I belong to a lot of organizations. Things like the local chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, the Clatsop County Historical Society, the Oregon Museums Association, all of those connections have been useful to me.
Bill Willingham: I think some of the first things you need to deal with are the practicalities of setting up a business operation. Doing that, I think it’s best to keep it simple and to be flexible because you want to keep your overhead costs as low as possible so that when you bid on contracts, you can come in with an effective bid. It’s really important not to overextend yourself and to try to slowly ramp up as you need to acquire more physical things to do. Probably the most cost-effective way is to work out of your home. But you need to have an arrangement where you can meet with clients away from there. Generally speaking, you should be meeting with clients at their office. The overall goal is to keep yourself simple, flexible, and economic in order to deal with the practical side of the operation.
Donna Sinclair: What I’ve done most of the time is to have a foundational job. Sometimes that means teaching a class, sometimes it means working for an organization. I’ve tried to view these part-time positions that are available in the historical field as an opportunity rather than a downfall of the field. Having that foundational job is really a nice thing and has allowed me network in a lot of ways. The work that I did with the Oregon Historical Society put me in contact with a lot of people and helped me to build my reputation in the field. From a practical standpoint, you have to decide how much money do you have to make, what kind of benefits do you absolutely have to have, how can you obtain them. Do you really have to have the kind of job that allows for retirement and health insurance or can you actually be a little bit more flexible? Above all, flexibility. I agree with the volunteer recommendations. I’ve seen it work. You go out and do a lot and you do a good job, people eventually want to pay you.
Bill Willingham: There’s kind of a decision one has to make, too, when you’re offering your services to do historical books or research reports that entails a good bit of research. Depending on the size of the project, it could involve up to a couple of years worth of work. If you’re doing that kind of effort and if you operate on a larger geographic scale, it becomes very difficult to do what Donna has done, because you have to devote your full time to that research and writing. If you’re trying to teach, it’s very difficult to find yourself tied down because you have to be in a specific place. Those are the kinds of things you have to juggle and decide which way you want to go. They’re both viable. Just sometimes they’re mutually exclusive in the way in which you have to do your work.
For information related to registering a business in Oregon and other resources for consulting historians, visit the Northwest History Network’s website.