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How Fiona Winter turned a love of family history into a gap-filling ancestry service.

When Fiona Winter founded Fill Your Roots there wasn't one lightbulb moment. A series of lights kept persistently coming on to tell her she could monetise her passion for family history. Fiona looked at her skills and historical interests and saw the gap for a service to help people trace their ancestry when they get stuck or don't have time. So, examine your history blog niche. Is there a gap you can fill with a service or product to make your reader's lives easier?

Q1: Can you pinpoint where your love of history came from and is it just family history?

A: I always loved History and Ancient History studies at school. I was fortunate enough to go on school trips to Italy and Greece during my GCSE and A-Level studies.

We saw all the big sites, the Acropolis, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the ruins at Delphi and we even climbed Mount Vesuvius before visiting the ruins at Pompeii.

After school, I naively thought that if I went to University to study Ancient History, I would have to become an Archeologist or an ancient history teacher which wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time (however I would jump at the chance to go on a dig now!) so I left school and studied a totally different subject which never amounted to anything. Note to self; Do what is right for you, not everyone else!

As for the genealogy side of things, I remember my step father received this very bizarre call one day in the mid 1990’s from a lady who claimed to be his half sister?! “What on earth was this all about?” I thought, but I was a teenager and more concerned about how I was going to marry a member of N-Sync than my Dad’s random relatives calling from the past!

As it turned out, my step-father didn’t have the straight forward upbringing I had always assumed, he actually had a very painful childhood, which, looking back now, I am not surprised at all that he never spoke of it.

It was when I started a family of my own, that something inside said, “you really need to fill in the gaps” and be able to tell your own daughter, who and where she comes from. I started the journey and instantly became obsessed with the research and training it takes to understand how to build a solid family tree.

Q2: When did you first realise you could turn your love of ancestry into a business? Was there a lightbulb moment?

A: I think I realised I could make my passion for genealogy into a business when I saw my husband do something very similar with starting a small business 2 years ago.

I had just had my daughter when the business started so I juggled being a new Mum and helping support him as a one man band. By watching him go through the learning curve of starting a small business, I kept seeing a correlation between what he was doing and what I could do with genealogy, what services I would offer, what would make me different and who my target audience would be.

There wasn’t so much as one lightbulb moment for me, more that a series of lights kept coming on! I would suggest concepts to friends and family* about what I wanted to do and asked them if they would like it, what they thought of the price range, how they wanted it presenting to them etc. The results were always very positive and I gained the confidence to get going!

*If you do this my suggestion is to pick the ones you know always love to shoot down an idea – they can give you the hardest time but it’s better than someone fluffing your ego!

Q3: Can you tell us how your business model works and has evolved?

A: I offer an affordable service that condenses masses of information that I have learned into a bitesize coaching session where the client can ask any questions, focused around building their family tree, breaking down problem areas or alternatively building the tree for a client.

This tutorial style session with the client saves them the agony of learning how the platforms work, what record sets are available, which are missing, why they aren’t there, who holds them, how to get to them and how to search outside of platforms such as Find My Past, Ancestry etc.

By conducting a free 30 minute consultation, the client can tell me everything they already know (from nothing at all, to years of documenting) so that we can discuss and agree exactly what they need help with. This model saves the client huge amounts of time and money that the bigger more well known platforms can charge.

The biggest single change to my business model is demographics. I want to encourage the younger generations as much as possible, it is so important to learn everything you can now from your living family members before they are gone.

It is not just a huge regret of my own but a very common trait amongst those who are already building their family tree’s that they a) didn’t start sooner and b) didn’t talk to their grandparents when they had the chance.

Q4: As you don’t know what you’ll find, is your work a bit of an emotional rollercoaster?

A: Yes! It can be very challenging especially when you are dealing with very sensitive subjects such as adoption cases or the deaths of young children, some of whom were never known by the rest of the family.

You have to have a very open mind and when I discuss the work in the free consultation with a client, I explain to them that sometimes there maybe some quite disturbing developments in their past. This could be in the form of very graphic newspaper articles or photos, or it could be that your ancestors were slave traders or maybe murderers – You just don’t know what is coming!

Everyone has a different story to learn, no two clients are the same, so with the excitement of pinning down 4, 5 , 6 or even 7 generations to fill a clients family tree, it’s the fleshing out of the story of who those people were that brings the highs and lows.

Q5: How do you juggle everything – any tips or tools you’d like to share with busy history bloggers?

A: I have to write everything down! Whether that is a new tip, hint or idea, it goes in my planner diary or if I can’t get to it, straight into the notes on my phone.

I would definitely tell any budding bloggers who want to make the leap into making their blog a business to invest in a decent planner diary. Mine is from “My Pro Planner” in the UK, I couldn’t be without it now. It has been built with everything you need to monitor your business, whether that is stats on your engagement online, goals tracking, financial tracking, monthly reviews to ask yourself what has worked well this month, what hasn’t etc. If you don’t have a finger on the pulse of your blog and what is attracting your audience, then you will not build a solid business.

I also have to juggle being a full time mum to my daughter and 4 step children which adds to the time vacuum but I use a platform called “Planoly” to ensure that my audience don’t suffer by missing a post or update by having all my content for the month built and scheduled to leave everyday. That way, if life gets in the way, which of course it does ALL the time, I can trouble shoot around without disrupting my business.

Q6: Where would you like Fill Your Roots to be in a year’s time?

A:  RootsTech!  I really wanted to go this year but sadly with the global Coronavirus pandemic that was not possible.  I would love to launch the events side of the business too but that is very much pipeline right now and may be pushed back because of Coronavirus but we shall see…
I would love to employ a small team to assist with the research and administration.  I would like to focus on employing Military spouses as a former Royal Navy rating myself, I know how the constant movement every few years can have a detrimental effect on the partners, they struggle to find work that fits flexibly around their children and moving around so much.  The work I can give them does not require specific hours all they really need is an internet connection!  I am a great believer in giving back so this would be a step in the right direction.

Q7: If someone wants help with their family tree where can they find you?

Everywhere!  I am on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the website
If people want to see more of what I do then I would suggest Instagram as I upload to the Stories tab daily so you can see what I am working on at the time and also some of who I am and what I am doing.

Fiona Winter

Coach, blogger and more from Cardiff, Wales. She turned her helping hand for those seeking help, or advice with building their family trees into Fill Your Roots. It's mission is to give others a taste of what goes on when you start digging up the stories of your past.

Elizabeth Hill-Scott

Elizabeth Hill-Scott teaches entrepreneurs and bloggers who want to start, grow and monetise a successful niche blog in the fascinating field of history. She is also a post-graduate and communications expert who spent over 15 years advising senior UK politicians and public figures.