SALT LAKE CITY — Jessica Taylor doesn’t raise any eyebrows around Salt Lake City when she tells people she runs a genealogy company.
In a place crawling with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — an institution that is one of the world’s leading proponents of genealogical research, with the largest family history library in existence to prove it — being in the look-up-your-ancestors business isn’t much of a revelation.
Here’s what gets people’s attention: Only about 1 percent of Jessica’s customers are LDS, and less than that are from Utah.
The vast majority of her clients, about 99 percent, are found anywhere and everywhere around the world: Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, all over North and South America, you name it.
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It didn’t start out like this. In 2004, when Jessica Dalley was freshly graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in family history and genealogy, she designed a website, named it legacy-tree.com (she’s since dropped the hyphen), and began helping people referred to her by friends at the LDS Family History Library.
The internet runs its own course and, once her online marketing plan — buying ads from Google at 5 cents a click — kicked in, the business evolved into a world wide web of diversity. Digging into the past, it turns out, isn’t exclusive to any group, race or country, and it knows no borders.
If anything, being LDS was an obstacle to business because of what Jessica calls “the guilt factor.”
“I wish people wouldn’t feel guilty about needing help, or even just wanting help,” she says, an oblique reference to Mormon people who think they have to do it all themselves, and certainly shouldn’t pay to have it done. “The truth is, once you get to the mid-1800s, it’s usually not easy. It’s hard work. It takes time.”
Legacy Tree, the business Jessica started out of thin air, offers a range of services, from helping adopted people find their birth parents, to telling people what their DNA test means, to verifying whether great-great-great-grandpa really did fight for the Confederates in the Civil War.
Some clients, about to travel to the country of their origin, want to know what specific villages they should visit to walk in the steps of their forebears — and if they still might have some long lost cousins they could hit up for lunch.
During the first 10 years of its existence, the company stayed small, for three good reasons: namely, Jozie, Haven Emily and Claire Natalia, the little girls that came along after Jessica married Chad Taylor in 2004, not long after launching her website (and yes, the girls are all named after ancestors).
By 2013, though, the girls were all out of diapers, allowing Jessica to start spending more time in the past.
She added researchers and more project managers and came up with a new marketing plan for Legacy Tree — and discovered the demand for its services was virtually limitless.
In 2014, the company did $400,000 in revenue, its best year at the time. In 2015, it doubled that. In 2016, the projection is for $1.3 million. Jessica’s little independent company now has 16 full-time employees, with three to come, plus contracted researchers and helpers around the world. (Go to the map at legacytree.com to see all the places on Earth where onsite researchers are stationed). At any given time, they’re working on 100 projects.
“In my lifetime, I think genealogy has always been a popular thing for LDS people,” Jessica says. “But, for the world in general, it’s changed significantly during just the past few years because of the internet.”
Being able to sit in front of a laptop in your kitchen in Salt Lake City, or wherever you are, and conduct business on a virtual level with just about anyone just about anywhere, mixed with the cascade of information available online, has virtually shrunk the world.
“What we could do with 20 hours in 2004, compared to now, it’s night and day,” gushes Jessica, who recalls she studied family history and genealogy at BYU because of her passion for what she calls, “history with mystery.”
“The major doesn’t exist anywhere else,” she marvels. “Who knows what I’d be doing now?”
As it is, family history is her history – with no end in sight.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.