How I Started My Own Family Film Business

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I was trained in radio production at a small, well-respected institute in Maine. Nearing the end of my studies, I submitted what I thought was an excellent application for an internship at “This American Life.” I was quickly denied, but landed a position at New York City’s NPR affiliate. I lived in Brooklyn prior to radio school, so I moved back to a familiar neighborhood and took up with old friends. After a few weeks at the station, I could tell it wasn’t a good fit. A deep sense of disappointment settled in. I remember one particular morning, a little monster crept into my chest, sat down, and asked me point-blank: Why did you waste all that time and money?

I left the station and started working for a documentary filmmaker. During that time, my friend Nicole asked if she could hire me to record her father-in-law’s life story. She wanted her kids to know who their grandfather was, what made him tick. The possibility of extra cash enticed me, but sort of like a whisper, came a singular thought: These stories will become heirlooms.

I recorded 10 sessions with Lou. Each time, I noticed something. I was interested in the work and felt that it mattered. I was skilled at drawing out a person’s life stories. And then, either because I’m an Aries or an ENFP or just plain crazy, I started a business of recording family stories entirely based on that one experience—$250 and Lou Zandoli.

I founded StoryKeep in January of 2011. After two months and two real clients, a co-worker at my documentary film job joined me in the venture. She filmed, I interviewed. We became a two-woman shop. Together, side by side, we made every film, every book. We were entirely different in temperament, but after three years, we became inseparable. And not only from each other, but from the definition of the company. StoryKeep was us. We were StoryKeep.

Until, one day, we weren’t.

After months of us hashing out deep differences of opinion about how the company might grow, I did something singular. I weighed our friendship against my own life’s calling, a balance that was heart-wrenching to judge, and told my friend that I didn’t want to do business with her anymore. I knew it was the right thing for me. I also knew it could mean we might never speak again.

I was scared shitless, but I was certain I could do it. I could reimagine the company. I could reimagine my capabilities. To start, I bought out my partner’s half of the company. Slowly, I built a team of nine project-based freelancers. I shifted StoryKeep’s focus to large-scale family film projects. Within two years, I had doubled the company’s revenue. And I noticed something. The more immersed I became in the actual work, the more others believed in it and hired me. I could make something spectacular from one woman’s life story: my own.

Photo by Tory Williams

This article originally appeared in the Wild issue. For more inspiring stories about women, check out What I Learned as a Woman Traveling Alone and The Journey of a Female Sommelier: From Paris to New York.

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