If history bores you to tears and you find yourself agreeing with auto mogul Henry Ford, who famously said, “History is more or less bunk,” you may want to take another look. History isn’t bunk — it’s a lucrative business when it’s being written by a savvy entrepreneur.
Bruce Weindruch made history pay when he dusted off his training as an academic and turned the past into a profit-making enterprise in 1979 by founding The History Factory. His company specializes in creating corporate histories and archives for the likes of Boeing, Brooks Brothers, McCormick Spices and the Sara Lee Corp. If Ford were alive today, he might well be one of Weindruch’s customers.
The History Factory pioneered the application of established historical and archival principles to help businesses chronicle their origins and tell their stories for a wide variety of internal and external audiences. Weindruch called this new discipline “heritage management.”
The History Factory works on a large canvas that encompasses corporate anniversaries and events, exhibition and installations, websites, books, oral histories and presentation and corporate documentaries and videos. The goal is to leverage the collective memory of organizations—the stories told, the words used, and their commonly understood meanings—to help companies honor their heritage and help shape their future.
The teams the company assembles to craft these projects includes business people, communicators, archivists, historians, curators, editors, filmmakers and designers.
Today the Chantilly, Va.-based enterprise has a staff of more than 30 and annual revenues north of $10 million. History has made Weindruch a wealthy man. In the process, the History Factory has morphed from being one man’s entrepreneurial dream to becoming a heritage management institution with infrastructure, processes and marquee names for clients.
Like a lot of companies, the History Factory started with an idea.
“It’s been a never-ending journey of taking it from being a great idea to being a great business,” Weindruch told BusinessNewsDaily. “In spite of all the bonehead moves we made, we couldn’t kill it.”
Expanding on the past
Unlike a lot of companies that launch based on a single idea, the History Factory figured out how to execute its original idea and scale it as the company grew. The company had good teachers — its own clients.
“My insights are derived from a lot of other companies,” he said. “I’ve looked at thousands of years of case studies. I’m not doing autopsies; I’m working with healthy clients.”
It’s paid off in the way the History Factory has grown. Scaling a business from being an extension of one man’s dream into being a going concern that can function independent of its founder is a tricky business. Many small businesses have faltered when they’ve attempted to make that leap.
The company has learned from its business challenges and failures , Weindruch said, and has always been open to exploring new ideas. And there have been hiccups along the way.
But Weindruch has been able to steer his company away from the shoals that have shipwrecked other entrepreneurs when they overreached their capabilities or their resources.
“Don’t ever take on risks that are outsize for the company,” Weindruch cautioned. “The hiccups were always proportional to the size of the organization and its ability to survive them.”
Investing in the future
The company has made the investments in tools and processes to transfer its institutional knowledge to new people as it has grown.
“You have to build an infrastructure to bring on new talent,” said Jason Dressel, the company’s head of business development.
The question now, Dressel said, is how to take so many ideas and focus on the ones that are profitable. Last year was a challenge for the History Factory, he said, as it was for many companies.
“We couldn’t stop peddling in a down time,” Dressel said. “We analyzed which investments were going to keep us peddling forward. We had to make choices about how to invest in things that were critical to our future. We didn’t just go into a shell and try to save every penny.“
The solution was to take steps that would not only help the company get through the economic slump but also have some long-term value.
One of those steps was the creation of the company’s own think tank, The Idea Engine. The cornerstone of this “skunk works” is the belief that classic storytelling formulas and touching hearts and minds apply to organizational narratives as well as Hollywood blockbusters.
“People respond to storytelling, to authenticity, to the kind of things we’ve been doing for 30 years,” Dressel said. “But we needed different kinds of vehicles. What we did in that skunk works is now our backbone. It provided a new point of view on creative strategy. We haven’t hitched ourselves to one product offering.”
The History Factory’s growth has also benefitted from increased awareness by businesses of the strategic value of communications and how a company’s heritage can pay great dividends in terms of external relations, employee indoctrination and motivation, and harvesting the rich soil of institutional memory.
“Communications now has a full seat at the table,” Weindruch said. “The whole communications function is being elevated in the C Suite.”
“We see a very long and healthy future,” Weindruch said. “We’re going to stay true to our core. We’re the oldest new idea out there. Our company feels more like a startup than it did 10 years ago. The story is getting easier to tell because we understand it so much better.”
- In Business, Something Borrowed May be Something Blue
- How the Term âHipsterâ Lost Its Swing
- Becoming a Website Designer: Find a Niche, Watch the Overhead