One woman has used her business accumen to help people become stars of their own legacy, says Steve Bailey
Don’t tell me you missed his school play because of an important business meeting. Or that you were still on the easyJet from Glasgow as the family sat down to Friday night supper last week. Oh, and spare me the hand-wringing speech about the problems of achieving a healthy work-life balance. Just get it sorted – like Sharon Laifer.
Sharon had a successful career as a producer with Reuters Business, making films about the corporate world. She had all the fringe benefits, including pension plan, paid holidays and job security. She also had three young children and a growing sense of anxiety. “Office life just wasn’t working for me any more,” said Sharon. “There were too many afternoons off for school events, too much pressure from all the different demands of my life. I knew things had to change, but I was afraid of stepping away from the security blanket of a regular job.” But a year ago, she did just that – with great results. Sharon now runs a successful business from home and gets to collect the children from school every day without having to explain herself. “And it was actually much easier than I imagined it would be,” she added. “It was the right decision.”
My Story is the business she founded. It’s based on a wonderful but simple idea. The company produces bespoke films that celebrate the lives of individual family members recounting their personal histories – the funny, tragic, poignant or memorable moments which have made their lives fascinating and unforgettable. “Obviously, many of the people are older – maybe grandparents and suchlike,” said Sharon, 38. “This is a way of capturing and preserving those stories for ever, told by the individuals themselves. “It is,” she said, “your story in your words.”
Sharon was inspired partly by work she did 20 years ago for the Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles and later in London, researching and collecting Holocaust testimony. “As you listened,” said Sharon, “you had a real sense of the extraordinariness of people’s lives – especially Jewish people. “But in everyday life, we’re not always good at volunteering our personal history – British people, especially. How often do you go to the funeral of someone you know reasonably well, hear the eulogy and think: ‘I had no idea your life had been like that’…? But it’s already too late. I wanted to do something that addressed this problem.”
The success of recent television series, such as Who Do You Think You Are? and our growing fascination with genealogy convinced Sharon the time was right to launch the company. In 2014, she teamed up with freelance documentary-maker Alisa Heimann – and they were in business. Would-be subjects receive a lengthy research visit from one of the My Story team to establish the scope of the narrative involved – and historical events that form the background. This is followed by a day spent filming at the individual’s home and scanning in selected photographs from their personal albums. “We never remove the original photographs from their house – it would be unthinkable if anything went missing,” explained Sharon.
The breadth of people’s experiences is amazing – everything from hard times in the old Jewish East End to a world of wealth and privilege among Hampstead intellectuals. The Blitz, Communist agitators, struggling classical musicians, haberdashers sweat shops… it’s all there. The shot material from is then assembled into a film that can last more than two hours. “You need to strike a balance,” said Sharon, who is from Edgware.
“Obviously we want the films to be watchable, so we try to keep things moving to sustain interest, but we aim not to cut people short. This is, after all, their film.” Start-up costs were surprisingly small. There are now so many high quality ‘point and shoot’ cameras on the market that you don’t need professional equipment to achieve good results. And it’s the same with sound recording.
Even the company’s website (www.mystoryuk.com) was a DIY effort. “I’m no expert – so no one was more surprised than me,” she said, laughing. “I approached a friend who’s a web designer and asked if she would built a site for me, but she suggested I do it myself from one of the many online packages available. “So I did, It is actually much easier than you think.”
The web is vital for the business because each movie is stored online – and password protected. This means family or friends around the world can be sent the password, enabling them to view the film from their own homes, without the fuss of mailing a DVD copy. “It’s the safest, simplest way for people to decide who gets to watch it,” Sharon explained. Her company offers a variety of film deals at prices starting around £895 for a basic package, up to £1,500 for an ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ affair, including a beautifully produced one-off hardback book of the person’s life – with an unlimited photographic archive. Remember the famous saying – ‘In the movie of your life, there’s only one star. You’? Sharon is, at last, making it come true.