Spotlight on entrepreneurs: The Life Writer

Couple aims to grow sales of an online, memoir-writing program
Apr. 02, 2013 @ 11:19 AM

The idea for Marc and Teri DeVincent’s online memoir-writing program started in 2006 when the two sat down to write Teri’s father’s life story as a gift for his 90th birthday. It took six or seven months, Marc said, and they produced about a dozen books to give to family members.

They then started a custom business on the side, charging at least $2,500 to sit down with clients to gather information and write out a story. The work involved interviews, transcribing responses, scanning photographs and having the books printed. Marc said they wanted an easier way.

“This is such a valuable thing, (there’s) got to be a way, by using technology, to make this easy, affordable, to everybody,” said Marc, 54, explaining the idea behind the start of their company, The Life Writer.

They contracted a company to develop software based on their idea, he said. At the end of 2011, they started selling the online program that the company had developed for them. They had a few glitches, and Marc said the product wasn’t where it should have been until 2012.

The cost is $99 for access to the program, which guides clients through the process of writing by asking a series of questions. The book is formed from the clients’ own responses to those questions, which are asked in chronological order. Clients can go back and edit their own responses.

The program creates an electronic file of the book that a customer can have printed separately. They direct clients to have their books printed or converted into an electronic book format through the Raleigh-based self-publishing company Lulu. He said the publishing price varies on the type of book, and based on other factors.

“The way it works is, these questions come organized by subject or chapter,” DeVincent said. “So the first subject would probably be your family history, the second, your early childhood. When the questions come, each question comes by itself with an example paragraph, too. These questions are ones that we’ve developed from talking to customers.”

DeVincent said the company they contracted to build their online program originally asked about $15,000 for the job. They expected the work to take about three months. It ultimately took more than 18 months, and cost more than $100,000.

“That’s something that really hurt us, that’s a huge amount of money,” Marc said. “It hurt, but we decided to remain committed.”

DeVincent said they used money that he received from a buyout from Honda, and for the rest, dipped into their 401(k). His wife works as a full-time nurse, he said.

Marc said he was an engineer at Honda for about 15 years, and worked at the company’s Marysville Auto Plant in Ohio as a quality control engineer. The company offered benefits and some cash payment in a voluntary retirement program.

“We put it into the business and went from there, really,” he said.

Previously living in Columbus, Ohio, for 23 years, they moved to Durham about two months ago. Marc said they are recent empty nesters who were looking for a location where they felt they would have a good quality of life, and where they believed they could also grow their business.

He said that so far, customers have been “trickling in,” but the business is “nowhere near” its potential. He said they have sold to 40 or 45 customers. They hope to grow the sales of the project.

“I’ll say these last three years have been crazy, amazing, wonderful, and it’s been a labor of love,” he said. “It’s been hard, and it’s been a struggle, and we’ve had to overcome dozens of problems, but we love what we’re doing.”

Alan Fenwick, a volunteer business mentor with the Chapel Hill chapter of the business consulting nonprofit SCORE, said in an email that he and another mentor believe the two will be successful in marketing the business to people wanting to prepare a legacy for children and parents.

“Their approach is extremely flexible and allows them to build different packages, ranging from full-blown, high-end journals, to low-cost e-books,” said Fenwick, who has mentored the founders, and also teaches a class for entrepreneurs at Durham Technical Community College in which the two are enrolled.

Marc said Teri’s father, George T. Papp, died last year. He said they were glad to have recorded his life story before he died. Teri’s mother, Julia Papp, died years earlier, and they did not write her life story. He said they know little about her early history.

“There’s three benefits that come from life story writing,” he said. “Those three things are why we do this: To connect the generations, to strengthen the family ties, and share life’s wisdom – that’s what we really do,” he added.