Knowing Your Business: New service safeguards heirlooms’ lore

Antoinette Rahn

How many times have you heard someone say, “If these walls could talk…” or “Man, does that so-and-so have a story to tell?” We all have heard it, including brothers Dan and Mike Hiestand of Ferndale, Wash.; which is why these self-proclaimed, former military brats are dedicated to helping people preserve the treasured stories of home and heirloom.

Brothers Mike (left) and Dan Hiestand are the founders of Houstory Publishing and the minds behind The Heirloom Register. (Photo courtesy Houstory Publishing)

The Hiestand brothers founded Houstory Publishingin 2007 with the goal of providing a means for recording, protecting and sharing the stories of treasured belongings, whatever they may be. First came the Home History Book – a top-quality journal to record the “life” of a home, including photographs, history of repairs/renovations and visitors. The journal stays with the house, handed over from one owner to the next, to truly record and preserve the history of the home.

In June 2012, the duo launched The Heirloom Registry, an idea inspired by memories of their grandparents’ stunning 19th-century grandfather clock, complete with their grandfather’s handwritten record of the clock’s history, which was affixed to the back of the clock.

Recently, Antique Trader caught up with the Hiestand brothers to discuss their current inspirations and lessons in business.

Antique Trader: In reading through your blog, we really enjoyed the post where you defined “home,” and provided your insight on the topic. Given that you were a military family and moved frequently while growing up, to what level and in what way did that inspire you to create Houstory and The Heirloom Registry?

Houstory Publishing: Man, that is a question I (Mike) have asked myself often. The answer I’ve come to is that being a so-called “military brat” — where the idea of “home” was so fluid, and something that never came naturally — made me value it even more strongly once I knew I’d truly experienced it.

Closing the sale on my first home was — surprisingly — a very emotional thing for me. There I was sitting in a very unemotional, fluorescent-lit conference room in Northern Virginia signing page after page of the sales documents — and I suddenly felt myself getting a bit teary. Having lived in the Washington, D.C., area for more than a decade — which was much longer than I had ever lived anywhere — I think, it felt like the first “home” I had ever genuinely experienced. Both our daughters were born there, and we’d purchased our first home there — a “cozy” (i.e., small), wonderful, townhouse that had been lovingly cared for by its previous owners, who we were lucky to actually get to know and meet. It was in that house where so much had happened and where so many awesome moments had occurred with our two young daughters. Where the magic of being a dad had happened for me — and I have to say, for me, the experience truly was magic. It was the best thing I had ever done in my life and, as we turned the keys of our house over to someone else, it felt like part of our life was kind of going “poof.”

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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As is usually the case these days, my wife and I never really met the buyers of our house or had a chance to talk; and that just felt weird and wrong. This house was such a special place for my family, but I didn’t have the opportunity to tell them anything about it. For example, I would have loved to show them photos of what the kitchen looked like before it was remodeled (and I know they would have loved to see them). It would have been nice to pass on the names of some of the plants my wife and I had so carefully picked out for our small backyard so that they could research how to care for them. It would have been great to share with them some of the stories about what we had done and what had taken place in the home and neighborhood while we lived there. Simple stuff, but it just felt like the new homeowners, the home — and my family’s part in it — was being gypped by not knowing.

While the concrete idea for the Home History Book didn’t actually hit me until three years later (when it hit me like a bolt from the sky), I do think that, after bouncing around for all of my life, that modest little townhouse and that experience in the realtor’s office had something to do with wanting to do a better job preserving and sharing home history.

Instead of just giving the new owners a bunch of signed, legal documents and a set of keys — which are obviously important, it would have been nice to also share something that helped them have a better feel for the wonderful, awesome little town home whose story they were about to be a part of. Something pretty much exactly like a Home History Book.

AT: What goals did you have in mind when you started Houstory?

HP: Our first goal, very simply, was to help families save and honor their stories. The Home History Book helps them save the stories centered on life in their home, and the Heirloom Registry helps them save and share the stories of things — often the things in their home — that have become important to their families.

A new house is just a building and a new table or chair is just furniture. It is their stories, built by their relationship to people over time, that transform both into something unique. We felt called to help preserve and share those stories.

A second goal, which really comes through with the Heirloom Registry, is to help change the relationship we all have to the things in our life. We sincerely believe that the more we know and care about our stuff the more likely we are to take care of it and keep it out of the landfill.

AT: Please explain the unique features of the Home History Book and the Heirloom Registry.

Heirloom Registry Standard Sticker

HP: Think of the Heirloom Registry like you would your car and the DMV. You effectively affix a “license plate” to your heirloom (which can be an expensive “Cadillac” heirloom or a beaten up, but much-loved jalopy full of stories that took you everywhere). The license plate can be simple, like our standard sticker, or something fancier, like a handsome brass plate. Functionally, it makes no difference as long as the tag includes a unique registration number and the registry’s website.

The online registry, somewhat like the DMV, is a permanent, easily accessible place where anyone who has the license plate number can go and get more information about the item at any time. The nice thing is, I’ve found registering something (which includes uploading photos of the item) truly takes only about 10-15 minutes and once you’re at your computer, it’s actually fun to reminisce. When you’re done, it feels very good knowing the information you’ve shared won’t be lost and will always be a part of the item’s story; easily and freely available whenever somebody who sees its registry number wants to look it up.

The Home History Book is sort of like a baby book for a home where owners can collect and share information both about the home’s past — but just as importantly — about the stories taking place today that eventually becomes part of the home’s history. Unlike a baby book or photo album that a family would take with them when they move, however, a Home History Book is meant to stay with the home and be passed down from one home owner to the next.

Heirloom Registry Aluminum Plate
with Brass Finish

AT: Can you give us a couple examples of how Heirloom Registry helps your clients?

HP: Story is what it’s all about for us. Things without stories are often just more things. I think that’s what attracts many to antiques (or older homes). I know I’m not alone, for example, in saying I feel the difference between sitting in an old, nicely worn wooden chair and sitting in a new chair, just out of the box. The feeling remains even if the new chair has been purposely distressed at the factory so that its nicks and cuts and rubs perfectly mirror the old one. It’s more than just a physical difference. There is an even bigger difference for me if I know the story of the old chair (where it came from, how it was used, etc.) and particularly if I know something about who sat in the chair and where it’s been. For me — and I think for most people — there is a difference. The story is key.

A colleague of mine was going to use the Heirloom Registry stickers to go through her house to both provide information about her stuff, but also to tag what item she wanted to go to each of her kids and other family members. Other very common items include photos, family bibles and quilts.

The great majority of antique dealers we’ve connected with thus far have said verifying the provenance behind specific pieces can prove to be both interesting and potentially lucrative. While they may not have background on every item in their possession, most dealers or collectors have a few pieces they know and love — with verified provenances. These are the pieces we believe our product can help with.

AT: What type of people has your service attracted?

HP: We’ve really focused our efforts on consumers in the genealogy and family history community this past year, and gained some good footholds there.

One pleasant surprise for us was the interest of the custom home construction industry in our Home History Book as a housewarming gift. Additionally, we are just starting to see some interest from independent antique dealers and — interestingly — insurance companies, who have stated curiosity in utilizing our product line for home inventory purposes.

Large companies have actually been tracking their inventory and assets, such as computers and conference tables, for years with asset ID tags and tracking systems.

It’s just weird that, until now, no one had created a similar system to help record the stories of the more private things in our life that have deep, personal meaning and value, both for us and our descendants.

Things to Know

  • Website:
  • Phone: 877-962-6500
  • Cost: Prices range from $1.99 for a single Heirloom Registry tag up to $89.99 for a 10-pack. A deluxe version of the Home History Book is $300 or $1,500 for the premier version.
  • Time you should expect to invest in this: As much or as little as you want. However, on average, registering an item online for the registry takes only 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Number of Heirloom Registry clients: More than 2,000 since the site launched in June 2012.
  • Houstory Goals for 2013: Share more family heirloom and house stories from clients via a new podcast, “Houstories,” coming soon; planning to pitch a television series about Houstory and Heirloom Registry experience.

AT: Is there criteria about the type of items someone can register?

HP: None — and that’s intentional. An “heirloom,” we believe, is just a fancy word for anything that has meaning or value to you. Sometimes the value is reflected in an item’s monetary worth, but often it’s something more personal. Anything whose value would be diminished if its story were lost is a good fit for the registry. I think everyone, if they quickly looked around, probably has at least a dozen items in their home or antique shop that fit into that category.

AT: What safeguards are in place to keep a client’s information private and protected within the Heirloom Registry?

HP:An item’s online record cannot be viewed without knowing its unique 18-character, alphanumeric identification number. Our registry database intentionally does not include a public search engine. So unless someone has an item’s registration number in front of him or her, the record is effectively inaccessible. Additionally, each entry includes an optional, time-locked “Private Registry,” if someone wants to tell an item’s story but isn’t comfortable sharing that story (or certain parts of the story) now. The Private Registry section of each entry allow a user to provide more personal information — such as a

Home History Book

Shouldn’t the story of your home receive the same careful attention and elegant preservation as the rest of the family heirlooms you cherish? The Home History Book helps you make sure it does.

family’s name or address — that won’t be revealed until a later date (anywhere between five and 99 years later), which they select. It’s pretty cool — almost like a programmable time capsule to reveal “new” or otherwise private information about an item at a point in the future where such information would be less sensitive.

Second, users can download an attractive Heirloom Registry PDF certificate to their hard drive. From there, they can either store it digitally, or print out a hard copy for storage with the item and/or safekeeping with other important documents. In other words, you’ll always have access to that information.

AT: How can the Home History Book and Heirloom Registry be used in tandem, and what benefits would that provide?

HP: The concepts are closely related and it made perfect sense that the idea of the Heirloom Registry would follow the Home History Book. They do the same thing, just on different scales.

A Home History Book preserves the story of a home. An entry on the Heirloom Registry preserves the story of something, such a piece of furniture or a family portrait, that would be in that home. So they really perform the same service, but just store and present the information differently.

AT: What are some of the more unique items people have registered?

HP: One gentleman told my brother that he was going to register an American Civil War gun passed down to him, and another fellow showed him a medallion off of a B-17 Bomber steering yolk that his dad had flown during WWII. Dan also spoke with a woman who had a framed picture of JFK with a verified signature of the former president and a personal message from him.

Another woman at a trade show we attended said she was going to give her husband a sticker to put in the glove compartment of an old car he was restoring (which, according to the wife, had been “taking up space in our garage for the last 10 years!”).

My brother actually registered a cookbook that was one of my grandma’s favorites, and provided some memories of her and some meals she’d made — which I thought was very cool.

Houstory’s Three Keys to Good Business

      1. Take time to research and find the industry influences who share your passions and world view, and align tightly with them. Rinse and repeat.
      2. Listen to what your customers are saying, and don’t just hear what you want to hear.
      3. Don’t buy an 800-number two years before you launch your business. Sadly, a true story.

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