Lauren Befus of Memory Lane Jane: “Stay in your lane and stick to doing what you love”

My advice — stay in your lane and stick to doing what you love, what you started your business to do! Unless you find something you enjoy more along the way, then do that!I love interviewing people, networking, and writing, but running a business requires so much more of me than that. There’s the accounting, website updates, […]

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My advice — stay in your lane and stick to doing what you love, what you started your business to do! Unless you find something you enjoy more along the way, then do that!I love interviewing people, networking, and writing, but running a business requires so much more of me than that. There’s the accounting, website updates, project management, email correspondence, photo scanning, social media, blah, blah, blah. All of that sucks the life right out of me.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Befus.

Lauren is the founder and chief historian of Memory Lane Jane, a national life story writing company that partners with individuals and families to preserve their loved ones’ life stories and legacies in custom heirloom books. Lauren’s company is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she lives with her husband and four kids, but she travels around the country interviewing and working with life story clients. You can find out more about Lauren’s work at

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I am an only child with no cousins. My entire extended family could fit around my dining room table. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to know my grandparents; they all passed away when I was quite young. My grandmother was from Australia and got married to my grandfather when he was on R&R in Melbourne during WWII. My maternal grandmother, Betty Jane, who my company is named after, was super feisty and once shot at my grandfather while he was sitting in his bed. The bullet hole is still in the headboard. I would give anything to ask her about that!

I grew up all over the United States. At my wedding, my dad said we had lived in 21 houses in 20 years. No, my dad wasn’t in the Army and we weren’t part of the witness protection program. My dad just liked to move, and my mom — a nurse anesthetist — could get a job anywhere.

I became accustomed at a very young age to meeting new people, making new friends, and navigating new cities. I’m guessing this is where my love of people and life stories began. To make new friends fast, you have to be good at asking questions, listening, and genuinely caring about what others are sharing. I had the chance to meet so many interesting people and live in some really cool cities.

I’ve always loved writing and became the editor of my high school yearbook. Our school had 2,700 students, so it was no small feat. I loved interviewing my classmates and organizing all the pictures. I graduated from high school in 1999 and then went on to Calvin College, a small, liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I graduated with a degree in communications and started working as a reporter for a small-town newspaper.

Since then, I’ve worked in journalism, marketing, the funeral industry, and I’ve also been a stay-at-home mom.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I’ll never forget the moment my husband’s grandfather handed out the 40 individually-wrapped boxes to everyone in the family and told them to “open up.” As they eagerly ripped open their present, a hush fell over the room. Then came the quiet sniffles, some giggles, and shocked exclamations.

“How did you do this?” “I can’t believe it.” “When did you do this?” “This is incredible.”

No one in the family knew that Grandpa and I — the journalist of the family — had spent the last two years working on a book about his life. I had spent hundreds of hours interviewing him, sorting through boxes of his pictures and mementos, and researching in our local library. We hired a transcriptionist, a book designer, and a printer. We had no idea what we were doing. But in the end, we created the most beautiful, full-color, hardcover 135-page book — Born to Build — I had ever seen. After two years of hard work, we were finally able to give this treasured heirloom its glorious debut.

And it was right then that I knew I would — I must — do this for other families. This was the gift of a lifetime.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

When I decided to start Memory Lane Jane, even before I had a name picked out, I started taking everyone I knew who was successful in their field — manufacturing, tech, sales, marketing, it didn’t matter what industry — out to coffee. “I have an idea for a business I’d like to start and you are so good and have been so successful at what you do. Would you be willing to meet with me for coffee to talk about my idea? My treat!” I sent dozens of texts and emails with this message.

I got a lot of great feedback and pushback. Meeting with all of these people helped me get really clear on what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. During that same time, I also scoured the websites of every personal historian/life storyteller I could find and started taking notes. How did other people do this? What did I like about what they did? What didn’t I like? I scheduled meetings with them. I scheduled meetings with short-run printers, with transcriptionists, and with graphic designers. I wanted to know everything.

Then I just had to take the leap. I built my website, which helped me get even clearer on my mission, my products, and my business plan. I started social media accounts. I talked with my friends. I finally introduced Memory Lane Jane to the world via Facebook, and within a few hours, I booked my first client. I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that what I was offering to the world was important and meaningful, and it was an invaluable service that was worth paying for. I’d figure the rest out along the way.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

Just do it!! I am living my dream every day! I never, ever thought I could get paid (a lot of money!!) to do what I love. But you can. I think it’s because I’m so passionate about what I do — because I love it so much — that my business has grown so fast. People immediately know how much I care because I genuinely do, and that goes a long way.

Before taking the leap to turning your hobby into a career, I would also suggest:

  • Talk, talk, talk to people who are doing what you dream of doing. And if the field doesn’t exist yet, well, talk to people doing something similar. People love being the “expert” and sharing their story. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the higher-ups and even those who haven’t been successful (What went wrong? What would they do over?). Find out how they got started, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, what would they do differently.
  • Do your research. Research websites, news articles, social media accounts. Is there a market for your idea?
  • Test the waters. Throw your idea out on social media or run it by friends, and see how they respond. There’s nothing wrong with starting a small side hustle to see if it takes off. Memory Lane Jane has taken off and grown so much on its own that there’s no way it could be a side hustle any more. It’s forced me into making the leap to full-time.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

Someone recently asked me, “What would your dream day at work be five years from now?” I knew the answer right away. I’d spend it interviewing people, networking, and writing — that’s it! I’m still a ways off from a day doing only my favorite things, but I’ve taken a lot of steps in that direction.

My advice — stay in your lane and stick to doing what you love, what you started your business to do! Unless you find something you enjoy more along the way, then do that!I love interviewing people, networking, and writing, but running a business requires so much more of me than that. There’s the accounting, website updates, project management, email correspondence, photo scanning, social media, blah, blah, blah. All of that sucks the life right out of me.

I choose to make a little less money so I don’t have to do as much of that work. I hire it out (and my husband is a tech and business genius, so he helps a lot!). I started sub-contracting writers and designers much earlier than I anticipated because I didn’t want to do that work. I’m in the process of hiring an assistant to help with my administrative work. I may be making a little less, but I am so much happier. And my team is incredible! We celebrate together, laugh together, complain together! Having other people on this journey with me makes it so much more fun!

I am part of a large Facebook group of personal historians around the world. If I’m frustrated or have questions, they are incredibly helpful. I also have regular meetings with other life storytellers around the country. We share stories and laugh (sometimes cry!) together.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

What I find to be most enjoyable and what I find to be the biggest downside about running Memory Lane Jane is the same — FREEDOM! I have the freedom and flexibility to make my own schedule, to set up my days and weeks exactly how I want. We’re able to pack up our kids last minute and travel for a long weekend. I get to be the boss, to make all the decisions, to do what I want to do. I wasn’t feeling well this morning, so I slept in because I had no meetings scheduled. And therein lies the the downside to freedom.

I have no structure, discipline, or routine unless I impose it. To be honest, I have spent more than a few days in bed binging on Netflix just because I could. I’m terrible at keeping on task, and I have no one asking me to account for my time or watching me from across the office.

Thankfully, I have a few friends in my life who are incredibly organized and have a supernatural amount of self-discipline. I’ve started meeting one of them early in the morning to walk, but mostly to get me out of bed and started with my day. I’ve also set some big financial goals with my husband, and I now have to (get to!) update him on my progress. I’ve realized that at this point in my life, I don’t have the discipline to wake up early, to stick to a routine, or to meet goals on my own. I think one day I’ll get there. We can’t be good at everything, right? For now, I call on my community to help me and it’s working. I’m good at asking for help.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I didn’t think Memory Lane Jane would be as successful as it is. I know you’re supposed to dream big and create a colorful vision board, but I couldn’t see it. I was hoping to meet some new people in my community, hear their life stories, and then preserve those stories in beautiful books for the families. I thought I’d make some extra money and that it would be pretty low-key. I’m laughing as I write this.

Memory Lane Jane is a full-time, work-all-day-and-sometimes-all-night job. It’s hard to keep up with all of the work there is to do. I often feel like I’m one step behind and never quite caught up. This is no longer Lauren’s side hustle. Memory Lane Jane is a growing, thriving business. I have clients all around the country. I never envisioned someone would fly me out to interview their loved ones, but it’s happening.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?

Ummm…a few times a week!! My go-to “real job” is a pharmaceutical rep. I’ve never done anything like that before, it just sounds so stable and professional. Then I have to remind myself why I started Memory Lane Jane and of the incredible impact it’s had on so many families. I keep thank-you notes very visible in my office along with all of the books I’ve completed.

If I’m having a hard day, I’ll watch my promo videos or scroll through my social media accounts. I need to remember that time one of my books was on the front table at my client’s funeral right next to the urn containing her ashes — that’s how much the book meant to the family. I need to remember those times when my client’s families have called me crying because they can “hear our mom telling this story.” It’s easy to forget these things in the middle of a stressful meeting with my business manager or when I’m reconciling a bank statement. I do everything in my power to make sure I don’t.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

My life story clients. I’ve had the privilege of preserving the life stories and legacies of dozens of people over the last three years. I’m constantly in awe of people’s stories of perseverance. Many of my clients came from incredibly difficult circumstances — abusive homes, orphanages, refugee camps, poverty — and never let their hardships stand in the way of their dreams. In fact, for most of them, their hardships were the fuel that kept them working so hard to be successful. When I’m having a rough day, I draw on the strength of my clients’ stories and remind myself to never give up.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My work of preserving life stories is making the world a better place. Every time someone’s story — the good, the bad, the ugly — is shared with loved ones, with friends, with the broader public, it’s a gift. We have no idea the impact that even one of the lessons we’ve learned could have on another individual.

Through my work at Memory Lane Jane, I’ve also had the opportunity to teach others how to write their own story in local retirement homes where I’ve taught classes and workshops for residents. I’ve read stories from my books to residents in memory care units. Hearing stories from other people in their generation triggers their own memories.

Last year on Veteran’s Day, I invited people to nominate a veteran to have their military story preserved as a free gift to their family. I received dozens of nominations and I had the privilege of interviewing a Vietnam veteran who was injured during his tour of duty and as a result, lost his sight. His daughter wrote me, “Oh my goodness. We will treasure this always.”

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I always ask my clients this question about their lives and it’s a hard one. Some things you only learn through experiencing them yourself. You could have told me all of these things before I started Memory Lane Jane (and many people did!) and I, likely, would have nodded my head and agreed with you. But hearing them and knowing them in my head are much different than experiencing them, than failing myself and getting back up to try it again differently. I’ve had to walk this road myself to learn these lessons. Nevertheless, a little more encouragement in the following areas would have likely proven helpful.

  1. It’s normal to feel like an impostor. When I first started Memory Lane Jane (and even still today), I was plagued with doubts, insecurities and fear: Who am I to start a business? I’m not that great of a writer. How could I charge money for my work? Who do I think I am? Breaking news: Imposter Syndrome is normal, and it’s actually a very good sign. Feeling like a fraud usually means you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, which is the only way to accomplish the things that matter to you. If I’m not feeling like an impostor, I’m not pushing hard enough. I heard this in a course I took with author Mel Robbins and now when I start to hear those thoughts, I think, “Go girl! You are doing hard work!”
  2. Not everyone is going to be your client! I’ll never forget when I did my first interview on a local TV news morning show. My email and phone blew up with people interested in preserving their loved ones’ life stories. I had more than 600 visits to my website in just a few hours — more than I’d had in a whole year. I thought I had really hit the big time! But once I started sharing my pricing and packages with people, I started getting messages back saying, “Whoa! That’s a whole lot of money!” And, “Geez! Do you only work for millionaires?” I didn’t book one client from that interview. I was so upset. Then I realized that not everyone is meant to be my client and that is ok. There are people — thousands of people — who see the incredible value in and have the resources to commission Memory Lane Jane to create a custom-designed, heirloom book for their family. There are other people who are satisfied with a Shutterfly book. That is OK! I want everyone to want what I am offering and that’s not realistic or fair to myself or to them. Thank God for Memory Lane Jane and thank God for Shutterfly!
  3. Charge what your product is worth. I love what I do so much that I would do it for free. In the beginning, I practically did. I didn’t do enough research to fully appreciate and validate my pricing. I started off with my prices too low to try to get new business. I lost money on some jobs because I was afraid to ask my clients for money. I personally couldn’t afford my products and I assumed that most other people couldn’t either. Not true! There are a lot of people out there with a lot of money who are willing to pay a premium price for a premium product. Don’t be afraid to ask for what your product and YOU are worth! (See #2!)
  4. Growth is exciting AND a lot of work. My business has doubled every year since I started in 2017. It’s so exciting to be telling more and more stories every year. But there is a downside to that. I spend so much more time now on the business side of Memory Lane Jane than I do interviewing, writing, and spending time with my clients. Marketing, insurance, taxes, promotions, accounting, website management, SEO, and on and on and on, consume my time and thoughts. I wasn’t anticipating that.
  5. Working from home has a lot of benefits, but… I misinterpreted the value of having a home office. I underestimated the impact my kids, my husband, my dog, my cats, and my laundry would have on my work output. I’ve had kids run in the room yelling when I’m doing an interview. I find candy wrappers and chip bags scattered around my desk, and sticky messes on my papers that aren’t mine. The dog barks. My cats walk across my computer keyboard. I have a hard time working upstairs if the kitchen is a mess or the laundry needs to be changed. In general, I have a horrible time concentrating at home. I moved into a new office in December that’s walkable from my home and it’s the best business decision I could have made!

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Everyone must have the opportunity to tell their story. I believe that everyone’s life story is worth knowing and worth preserving. Our world is so polarized and we rarely sit down with the “other side” to hear their story. We don’t take the time to find out about their childhood, their background, how it is they came to believe what they believe. Hearing someone’s story — especially face-to-face — changes everything.

My dream is that everyone has the opportunity to preserve their story in some capacity — in a book, newspaper, or magazine, or in an audio or video format. I’m so grateful for groups like StoryCorps, Humans of New York, and NPR who understand the significance of telling stories and have inspired me so much on my life storytelling journey.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt

Starting your own business is risky, vulnerable, terrifying, exhilarating, fun, fulfilling…to name a few! Every day I have the great privilege of stepping into my office and thinking, “I built this. I created this.” I am striving valiantly and spending all of myself to make my dreams a reality. I am daring greatly. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Storytelling rockstars and my personal heroes:Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York; Ira Glass, NPR “This American Life”; Guy Raz, NPR “How I Built This.”

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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