Ask a consulting historian: Jennifer Stevens
21 March 2016 – editors
Jennifer Stevens, PhD, is principal, SHRA/Stevens Historical Research Associates. Jennifer attended University of California-Davis for graduate school and now resides in Boise, Idaho, with her husband and two children. She founded SHRA in 2004 and is a graduate affiliate faculty member in the History Department at Boise State University, where she periodically teaches courses in Environmental and Urban History.
How did you first get involved in consulting?
I knew in high school that history was what I wanted to do. I went to college at the University of California-Santa Barbara and then enrolled in the PhD program. After I finished my master’s, I decided not to pursue a PhD at that time. I got a job in an environmental non-profit and worked part-time as a consulting historian’s research assistant. I met him [the consulting historian] at the American Society for Environmental History conference, so it was definitely through academic networking that I got introduced to consulting.
It was through doing research for this consultant that I realized that this was totally what I wanted to do. I struck out on my own after a geographic move. I had my master’s degree, but I found out that for what I wanted to do, which was litigation work, I really needed to finish my PhD. I finished my PhD at the University of California-Davis. I wrote my dissertation while doing part-time consulting and having little children. Finishing the PhD definitely launched my business. Once I had the degree, lawyers were willing and wanted to hire me. I was working primarily by myself at first. It took a couple of years until I hired my first, full-time employee. There are now three of us working full-time.
Describe your typical projects.
We do a lot of environmental litigation, which is a very broad field. We do water rights, superfund site research, and road cases. Lately, we have been doing a lot of what I would call more typical public history. Idaho Power hired us a few years ago to take charge of their centennial anniversary celebration. That involved research, putting together a traveling museum exhibit, working on a documentary, developing social media, creating an online exhibit. We’re also writing a book about an area of Boise that one family was really engaged in developing and preserving over the last one hundred years. The family has hired us to go out and write a book about their family and the valley history. We’re definitely branching out to include more public history projects, rather than strictly litigation.
Describe an average week at work.
I spend a quarter to a third of my week doing business-related things, meaning human resources, marketing, accounting, and networking. I have a couple marketing related lunches a week. I spend another big part of my week on project work, researching, reading, and writing. Those things take up the majority of my time. I also spend a fair amount of time on client interaction, emails, and meetings.
How do you handle the financial aspects of your business?
Learning the accounting side, specifically estimated taxes, 1099s, and all those sorts of things, was definitely on-the-job training. I have been in business since about 2005, but it’s only been in the past couple of years that I really feel on top of all that stuff. As the business has grown, those burdens have become greater. I have a CPA who helps me with end-of-year taxes, but I do most other things myself. I have a philosophy that if you own a small business, you can delegate some stuff, but you can’t be totally hands off when it comes to money. You need to make sure the business is being run properly and that you have reserves for payroll, taxes, and rent. So while I’m a little reluctant to let some of that stuff go, the trade-off is that I have less time to do history.
How do you find new projects?
Most of my work comes from referrals. It is a matter of building a network, calling people, not just emailing them, but calling them, and taking them for coffee. Someone is going to give you a chance and once you have one good project under your belt and strong relationships, it can take off from there. Once you make a name for yourself, people realize the value of historical research and will continue to hire you or help you through referrals.
Are you active on social media?
Yes. One of my employees manages our Twitter (@PastForwardSHRA) and Facebook accounts–I don’t know that I get any business from that, but for me, it’s a matter of staying in touch with my colleagues and making sure they know we’re paying attention to what’s going on out in the history world. We update our website and blog regularly with things the typical public historian will find interesting. It gives my employees an opportunity to do something outside of billable work. They work here because they love history, and it’s an opportunity to do something fun, that’s interest-focused rather than project-focused.
Describe some of the major challenges of consulting work as well as the biggest rewards.
I think the biggest challenge is that I think about my business all the time. When you own your own business, the buck stops with you. Nobody else is going to take care of everything that needs to be taken care of: you are. It can be all consuming. If you don’t carve out personal time, it can take over your life.
There are two major rewards that come to mind. The first is, because I am a consultant, I’m not working for someone else, and, even though I just said it can take over my life, I can also decide when it’s not going to. I can decide that I’m going to go skiing one weekend and not do any work. As part of that, I don’t have someone telling me how much vacation I can or can’t take. If the work gets done, I can take however much vacation I want. The same is true with my flexibility as a parent. I know parents who are beholden to their corporations’ schedules, and I don’t have that–again, if the work is getting done, I can attend to my family’s needs. For me, it’s a no-brainer. The flexibility is a huge reward. I try very hard to make sure that my employees have flexibility, too.
The other thing is that by starting a firm, I’ve gone from a solo practitioner to a team. Even though I tend toward being an introvert, I really do like people. I miss grad school and sitting around in seminar talking about cool stuff. So that now I have employees who have history degrees and love the same stuff I love, I’m able to sit around and talk about our projects and brainstorm.
~ This post is part of our “Ask a Consulting Historian” series, brought to you by the NCPH Consultants Committee. Follow the Consultants Committee on Twitter at @NCPHconsultants. You can find more “Ask a Practitioner” posts here.