Finding Your Life’s Purpose in Storytelling
Helping others tell their stories has helped Jamie Yuenger create her own
In author Paulo Coelho’s bestselling book, The Alchemist, we’re told that “to realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation.” Coelho’s story of a young shepherd on a quest for treasure illuminates the human need to realize one’s own “Personal Legend.” What that shepherd ends up discovering on his journey is something he never expected, yet was exactly the thing he’d been looking for.
Jamie Yuenger planned to be a folklorist because she was drawn to the study of human behavior and what she refers to as the “art of living.” Today she is the founder and CEO of StoryKeep — a production company that creates stunning professional-quality books and Hollywood-level films for families looking to capture their history for future generations. In this Q&A, she shares the story of her own journey to fulfill her destiny — to share the stories of personal legends that might otherwise be forgotten.
Covey Club: What compelled you to start StoryKeep?
Jamie Yuenger: I started my career as a professional folklorist, which is a mix of anthropology and sociology. But I always felt that my work provided immense value to the audience of a file folder. At the recommendation of a co-worker, I went to school to study documentary radio and started working in the field. It was thrilling to finally [hear] my work broadcast, but I had a vision for myself that didn’t align with a corporate career in radio.
Around the time that I was deciding to leave the industry, a friend hired me to do audio recordings of her father-in-law’s life story. I did a number of interview sessions with him and at the third session I realized this was going to be my life’s work; it mattered and I was good at it.
CC: How did you turn this passion into a business?
JY: I thought if one person was willing to pay me, there would be others. I worked like a machine for four months doing freelance writing in order to save up enough money to live for a year while I tried to get the company off the ground. I’d wake up at 4 AM and work until 10 PM. I’d eat oatmeal for weeks.
I eventually brought on a business partner who was a filmmaker and we were able to secure a small business line of credit.
We were profitable but had not been taking a salary in those early years so that we could put the money back into the business. I continued to do part-time work on the side to make money. I was working about 65-70 hours a week. We did the nitty gritty of it all. After three-and-a-half years we realized we weren’t a match anymore, so I bought out her half of the company and that was the beginning of a monumental shift for me.
CC: What happened when it was just you?
JY: My role shifted tremendously — I went from being a producer to a boss, hiring others to do the projects. I had to figure out quickly who to hire and start managing a payroll. It was a balancing act. I grew so much… Fate is funny; I learned I’m much better at being the boss than the maker. It’s a better role for me. I’m much more of a visionary who sees the bigger picture than a sound mixer.
CC: How did you find your first clients?
JY: In the very beginning, I sent an email to 20 acquaintances explaining my services and offered a discount to the first five people who signed. About two to three people signed up and I just thought ‘oh my god, I’m doing this!’ Eventually it grew through word of mouth and PR efforts of friends who were able to get the company some media coverage.
CC: How did you determine what to charge without any competitive models?
JY: At first I charged by the hours involved in doing the projects. I understood in my heart that the work had value but I didn’t have the confidence in the marketplace yet. Once I started hiring team members and evolving the product to include more films and books, I realized I had to completely change my strategy.
CC: Did you meet any pushback?
JY: Oh yeah, tons, but I had to change my client base. It was scary, but it was clear to me that this was my life’s calling and if I wanted to keep doing it — and I needed to keep doing it — I was going to have to charge the price that would allow me to be sustainable. You do the math and realize that if everyone working on the project is to be paid a fair market rate, including yourself, this is how much it needs to cost. Plus, what we provide is so valuable and beautiful.
CC: Why do people come to StoryKeep?
JY: People tell me they have the idea of [creating their own family films or books] themselves but realize it’s a fantasy, or they try doing it on their own but fail miserably. They’re so time-strapped and yet they want [this kind of project] to be done very well. It’s the combination of ‘am I really going to go through all [my grandfather’s] letters and scan them and transcribe them? I don’t think so.’ And sometimes people are racing against time. They’re swamped with their kids and they can see their parents are getting older or having memory loss. When people learn about us they’re relieved. If they’re going to do the project to the level we take it to, they can’t devote the time to it. It’s also a beautiful way to spend time [together]: the whole process is reflective, therapeutic, and meaningful not just for the storyteller but for the whole family since we’re interviewing others to get context.
Trailer for “History of an American Family”
CC: What are the intangible benefits to clients who sign on for these projects?
JY: It’s a way to strengthen relationships; it’s a frequent result of the work. People share things with me in interview sessions that they’ve never shared with anyone or [they discuss] things they haven’t thought about for decades. The project [requires] time [be] set aside from normal life and because of that people are able to focus and crack open their heart and find release from things they’ve held in. Some people have said to me ‘this has been a really healing process.’
CC: How does StoryKeep work?
JY: We elevate family stories to an award-winning level. If a family has a stack of WWII letters, for example, we will digitize and transcribe them into a book you can read or a feature-length film. We don’t just do interviews, we spend time with people. We generally record over an entire day but in blocks of 60-120 minutes (all depending on a person’s energy). A minimum of two recording sessions are recommended: you want at least a day in between for reflection; we kind of open up the can and then there’s more one feels compelled to say.
CC: What are the costs?
JY: The pricing varies because everything is custom. The average range for books is $25,000-$50,000 and for films it’s $50,000-$75,000. There have been less expensive projects and more expensive projects; it all depends on what the client wants and the amount of work that’s involved. We do at least three rounds of feedback with a family before delivering a final product.
CC: What’s unique about your clientele?
JY: They are individuals who value the connections within their families and have the means to invest in and nurture them. They appreciate the many facets of legacy, wealth, and history. They also appreciate art and the storytelling mediums we use — their aesthetic standards are high.
CC: How do you choose your projects?
JY: Families come to us [because they believe they] have something that they feel is interesting; they don’t bring boring people. It may not be a blockbuster [to the public], but to the family the subject is important. We do about 10-15 projects a year: 70% are films and 30% are books. We’re also starting to do audio projects again.
CC: What are some of your most memorable projects?
JY: The most interesting project was one woman’s life story, which we shot in three different cities. She has developed relationships with fashion designers and artists for the last 30 to 40 years and wanted us to visit their studios to pay homage to them. Meanwhile, we were documenting her life and the collections she has created. It was fun to be with this exuberant older woman who I learned so much from on a personal level.
Trailer for “A Sun for the Flowers”
Another one I really love is a giant 12×12, 312-page coffee table-sized book we created for a family that had 40 scrapbooks to work with. The matriarch had kept a scrapbook for every year for 40 years and wanted to make a condensed version for her grandchildren. [One of the family members] had lived through the Holocaust so the book is incredible in many ways. The man passed away three to four months after the project. We went to sit shiva at their home and saw the family had the StoryKeep book on the table and everyone was looking through it. A bulb went off in my mind and I understood that this is what it is all about. I was surprised by what the depth of the work could mean.
CC: What’s your advice to someone who’s been toying with the idea of documenting their family history?
JY: I find it’s valuable to do it earlier rather than later because the person being documented gets to bask in the joy and appreciation while still being around. I’m always happy when we’re honoring a 60th birthday instead of a 90th. People invest in documenting the birth of a baby, but what about the family member who’s a bit older and has the memory of earlier generations? They carry the legacy of the family. People are now starting to invest the resources to honor the gravitas of a life well lived. Even though being older is not as sexy in our culture, we still seek wisdom from our elders; we want to hear from someone who’s lived a long life.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Thinking about ways to preserve your own family’s stories? Check out Jamie Yuenger’s top tips for preserving family memories on our blog.