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Freelance Genealogists Dig Up Gigs

For freelance developers, writers and designers there’s both plenty of work available and plenty of places to find that work. Coders can browse the postings on Project4Hire, VWorker, and Plasis, a development project aggregator. Designers can bid on DesignCrowd, GraphicDesignFreelanceJobs and Krop, among others. And almost anyone can plough through the massive listings on Elance, Guru and Odesk in a search for their next project and next biggest client. But what if you’re not served by any of those sites? What if your freelance specialty still requires you to advertise for business, rely on word of mouth and network to bring in jobs? And what if you’re in the kind of industry which requires having multiple commissions at the same time in order to make the expenses involved in completing even one of them worthwhile?

That was the challenge faced by a group of genealogy specialists in 2008. The freelancers, specialists in Eastern European family research, knew that if they had to make a trip to a distant records depository to search for information, they wanted to research more than one case when they got there.

“It makes the trip cost-effective and more interesting,” explains Elaine Bostwick, a spokesperson for the site.

In 2007, they began creating an online jobs service specifically for freelance genealogists. They began recruiting abroad first, spending a year building up a base of freelancers who would be available for projects, before advertising for US-based genealogists shortly before launch. The site, GenealogyFreelancers.com, opened in 2008. It now has 1,138 freelance specialists available for work in 65 countries and across the United States. On average, it receives between 35 and 50 projects a month.

Sharing the Workload

That’s not a particularly great ratio. Elance has just over 545,000 registered experts and receives about 53,000 jobs a month. GenealogyFreelancers would need to more than double its top rate of job offers to give genealogists the same chance of landing work that developers, designers, writers and others can bank on at the giant job site. But GenealogyFreelancers also provides a “private project corner” that allows genealogists to share jobs, lightening the load for overcommitted freelancers and offering specialties and a geographic reach that they can’t supply themselves. With typical fees ranging from under $100 for a document translation, through $275 for a records search for a single surname, and reaching more than $3,500 for a custom research project, there’s also plenty of income — both large and small — to go around.

Even without an enviable ten-to-one freelancer-to-project ratio though, GenealogyFreelancers works in a very similar way to Elance: clients post projects, specialists bid on the work, and the fee is held in escrow until the project is complete. Specialists are required to indicate the level of their expertise (novice, intermediate, advanced or professional) and any claimed professional accreditations are checked, verified and indicated with icons. A ratings system, too, provides a form of internal referencing and feedback.

Fees for using the site vary and come from the freelancer. Free membership is available but takes a 6 percent commission from earnings; silver membership charges $8 per month but cuts the commission to 3 percent; while gold membership charges $15 per month but waives all commission charges.

The similarities with sites like Elance and Guru aren’t accidental. They derive from the experience of the site’s founders with other freelance services.

“We had all used some type of an auction like site for other services in the past and wondered if we could incorporate the basic premise, yet design it so that it was a service that understood the wants of both the seeker and specialist in genealogy specifically,” said Elaine Bostock. “To be able to choose the project that interests you is an appealing premise for a freelancer, and choosing a specialist who is well versed and geographically appropriate for your family project is appealing to the client.”

No Cut-and-Paste Bids

With fewer projects listed, freelancers on GenealogyFreelancers have to be particularly careful in their bidding. The kind of numbers game seen on Elance that allows some freelance companies to enter cut-and-paste bids on every appropriate project in the hope of winning one in ten won’t work on the genealogy site. Bidders, says Ms Bostock, have to go beyond listing their terms and conditions alongside a quote if they want to win a job. They need to ask questions and reveal specific details of how they plan to manage the task. They need to make clear that they’re both interested in and understand the project’s demands.

Clients, too, need to check the profile of the bidder to make sure that they’re in the right location, and they have to review their experience to see whether they really can provide the answers they’re looking for.

“Genealogy is typically a labor of love for those seeking to build a family tree and the genealogist or researcher that they choose to help with that journey needs to be a comfortable fit,” says Elaine Bostock. “They need to understand the personal feelings that go along with the project.”

Genealogy then is a special kind of freelancing. While designers and developers can happily work from their homes, researching family history has a host of specializations, often demands language skills and requires professionals to take long, expensive trips.

It also often begins with an interest rather than a career plan. Genealogists tend to start by researching their own family backgrounds, realize that they enjoy the work and wonder if others will pay them to do the same thing. They can then go through the process of acquiring broader skills and the kind of professional accreditation that turns a passion into professional work.

And yet the problem of finding work for freelance genealogists has been at least partially solved by a model used to help freelancers in general. The bidding, pitching and ratings that occur online have made it possible for just about any freelancer offering any service to aggregate jobs and win work. You don’t have to be a coder, a designer or a writer to win those jobs — you just have to be a freelancer.

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