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Self-employment in the GIS Geospatial industry

September 09, 2020 12 min read

Self-employment in the GIS Geospatial industry

 

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    Kurt Menke is the founder of Birds Eye View GIS, a full-service GIS shop. He's a returning MapScaping Podcast guest and the last time I caught up with him we chatted about the QGIS ecosystem. Like most self-employed people, he wears a lot of hats to manage his business. When he’s not doing that he's also an author and a teacher. 

     

    Based in Albuquerque, NM, he shares with us how he's survived the last two decades doing what he loves and how aspiring GIS consultants can do the same.

     

    WHAT MADE YOU BECOME A SELF-EMPLOYED GIS CONSULTANT?

     

    I wanted to be more independent and have more control over what I worked on.

     

    My first job where I cut my teeth in GIS was working for a consultancy running out of the University of New Mexico. They did federal and state contracts. I was exposed to open source solutions early on, and I'd been there for about 10 years when I felt comfortable doing the work and ready for a change. I wanted independence and work for who I wanted to work for and on topics interesting to me.

     

    My slogan's always been "Mapping Solutions for a Healthy Planet." I wanted to apply geospatial tools to make the planet a better place, in environmental conservation and public health. Mining and development were not my thing. I set up my own business to choose clients and topics I wanted to spend my days working on.

     

    TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FIRST INDEPENDENT GIS PROJECTS

     

    My passion is conservation. I was an archaeologist for eight years before I got into my second career, GIS. I would be out on sites surveying for archeology and come across mass developments where they'd bulldoze everything in the way of a pipeline. It was crushing me.

     

    I got involved with local nonprofits working on wildlife and wilderness conservation and soon realized no one was making maps or doing spatial analysis for them. So I did a few years of moonlighting at the weekends because I wanted to. I did all kinds of jobs for these groups, and it evolved into a side business while I was at the university. When I eventually headed out on my own, I already built relationships with clients I worked with. I had a niche, and I was ready to find more work and make it into a full time business.

     

    IS MAPPING STILL A THING? CAN YOU STILL DO JUST THAT?

     

    Back in the early days, most people were GIS specialists. Today people use GIS as part of their jobs. There's still plenty of mapping to do in the world. I see no shortage of work from my perspective. Tools change, the data changes, and more capabilities open up ̶ the work still needs to be done.

     

    HOW DO YOU MARKET YOUR GIS SKILLS? 

    Almost all of my work has come from word of mouth recommendations. I've never done direct marketing.

     

    I've written several books in the last five years that have given me national and international exposure. It's led to opportunities in education and training, too. When you publish a book, people get to be familiar with your name.

     

    I'm also spending time on Twitter and LinkedIn, but work rarely comes from these platforms.

     

    My main focus is on open-source tools, and I'm one of the few US consultants listed as a QGIS support company in the US on the QGIS website. Prospects find me on the website, and cold email me with project details and to see my availability.

     

    I've always relied on networking, forming relationships, and doing good work. As long as I'm doing outstanding work and have a good reputation, people will recommend me and hire me even when they move on and join new organizations.

     

    CAN ANYONE MAKE IT AS A GEOSPATIAL CONSULTANT?

     

    I get this question a lot.

     

    What's my strategy? Do I blog? What about social media and online presence? Do I attend conferences?

     

    I don't have a formula, I really don't. What I tell everyone is that geospatial tools are just that. Tools. People apply them to some industry or arena.

     

    Having a niche is crucial.

     

    If you're going to work with geospatial tools, you'll need to know a thing or two about the industry you're applying them to. If you have a thing for forestry, you can do contracting with that industry because you're active or semi-expert in that as well as geospatial tools.

     

    I also tell everyone that you'll need to be a multi-tasker like you've never imagined before. Non-billable hours for the self-employed are a profit killer. You need to become proficient at client communication, invoices, proposals, estimates, social media, maintaining your website, fixing your printer, office admin, and the list goes on. You're not just sitting there doing GIS all day. You must do all the chores plus your GIS.

     

    You'll have different hats on during the day, like your spatial analyst, or trainer, or your author hat. Sometimes you're a blogger or an accountant. Other times you're the business manager. You manage budgets and data, too.

     

    HOW DO YOU DO ALL THE WORK AROUND YOUR THE ACTUAL GIS PROJECTS?

     

    Theming days. Mondays are now my communication days, where I spend the entire day doing just that. Communicate. Emails, proposals, and estimates.

     

    Talking about estimates. That's another skill everyone needs to become proficient at, early on. Experience will help, obviously, but it's a constant effort.

     

    Sometimes my clients are in an industry that I'm not entirely familiar with. I need to simultaneously learn about their industry and project. I need to be able to ask them questions in ways they take for granted because it's their specialty. But to ask those questions, I need to learn about the subject and what I'm getting into. How do I translate what they're talking about into geospatial tasks?

     

    And how do you put an estimate on this?

     

    I might do calculus in my head, then turn to my spreadsheet and see how many hours I think this will take. Calendar time also matters. You really don't want to sign a contract vastly underestimating the amount of work you'd be doing or promise something before you can get it done.

     

    Now, when someone calls me up for asimple map, I'll present them with a discovery round of questions such as what size? How's it going to be used? On a website? Printed? Who'll be reading it? What about the wording? Does it need to be mindful of that industry? Anything to be avoided?

     

    And what about the data?

     

    You can see how a request for asimple map still needs to be vetted before you can commit to taking the task on or not.

     

    THE NUMBER ONE GIS SKILL IS STILL COMMUNICATION

     

    I've figured out that things have changed with the advent of the digital world. Everyone has a preference on how they want to communicate. WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, email, Twitter… I've become available on all channels because my audience needs me to.

     

    Communication skills also come in handy when you need to do iterations on the simple map, or you’ve reached the scope of the project, and you need to extend the contract. You'll always need to be thinking ahead of time if you want to avoid getting into uncomfortable situations later on.

     

    WHAT'S YOUR TIME WORTH? HOW DO YOU PRICE GEOSPATIAL WORK?

     

    Consultants need to charge higher rates. They simply can't get 40 billable hours a week. On average, I'll probably bill 20-25 hours. You need to cover your operating expenses and time related to business development. Even simple tasks as a discovery call or time to put your proposal together should be factored into your estimate.

     

    When trying to set your rates, you have options. By all means, check out what others are charging on Reddit or GIS StackExchange. Consider offering different rates for different clients. I have a nonprofit rate and a commercial rate. I use my commercial rate to subsidize the work I do for nonprofits. That's the only way I can cut the rate for someone and give them a break.

     

    What exactly are you going to do for the client? Will you be onsite or working remotely? Will you manage their data?

     

    If you'd love to work with the client, but they find your rates too high, think about cutting the rate. It's your call.

     

    I think it's universal that as people start off, they charge lower than what they should. Just gain some experience and confidence and realize you'll be able to raise your rates as time goes by.

     

    WHAT PROJECTS OR CLIENTS DO YOU AVOID?

     

    Since we all know in geospatial that it all comes down to data, I'll make that my main criteria when selecting a new client or project.

     

    Some people or organizations are just bad at managing data. They'd call a PDF with coordinates a data set. It can be, but it just adds to the level of effort. Can you really afford to get into that? I'm always careful to find out about what people have for data so that I know where they're coming from. If I see any red flags about technical capability or the shape of the data, I might make a recommendation that they find someone else to work with.

     

    Do they need an Esri solution? I'm an open-source person, so I probably decline.  Maintaining the Esri license requires extra resources for a small business. It can be difficult to manage.

     

    I tend to go for projects that are aligned with my interests and not just my skills. Admittedly, it's a luxury you'll have when you have a steady flow of work for several years. 

     

    Is the topic interesting? Do I have a good rapport with the client? Can I be their guiding post? Do I know enough about the subject to be their guiding post?

     

    CAN YOU JUST SAY YES TO ANYTHING TO GET STARTED?

     

    It could work. But I would say you'll probably find it overwhelming. You want to be in a position where you'll deliver the deliverable on time and a quality everyone's happy with, and it's going to work. So yes, say yes to things as long as you can handle it.  If it's unmanageable, your work and the client relationship will suffer. It's not worth it.

     

    WOULD YOU TAKE ON ANY PROJECT THAT'S OPEN SOURCE? OR IS THERE STILL A LACK OF TOOLS IN THAT AREA?

     

    There are open source solutions for everything now—web, analysis, cartography, data collection, or database. You've got tools.

     

    CAN YOU DO EVERYTHING REMOTELY THESE DAYS?

     

    Absolutely. I haven't visited a client's office for many years. These days, it's remote work only. All my work is out of state and international. If you enjoy visiting businesses and online support is your niche, go for it. I've done it in the past.

     

    ANY DOWNSIDES TO BEING A CONSULTANT?

     

    When you work by yourself from home or you rent an office, you'll be on your own most of the day. Are you comfortable with that? Some people need to be surrounded by co-workers and a dynamic environment. I have some contracts where I have a team of people collaborating remotely together, and it's not as lonely as it sounds. You can talk to your peers regularly, run ideas by them, even if it's just on Twitter. You'll never be short on feedback or collaboration.

     

    Are you a self-motivated individual? No one's going to be cracking the whip in the morning for you to get to work. You'll have to do that on your own.  But then maybe paying your mortgage on time every month is a motivator. I know it was for me.

     

    WHERE DO GIS COMMUNITIES HANG OUT?

     

    Slack. There's a vibrant geospatial community there, always willing to help.

     

    GIS StackExchange for defining solutions to things.

     

    Twitter andReddit. Depending on what you know and where in the geospatial realm you are, you'll always find people to talk to and get ideas from.

     

    ANYTHING YOU'D DO DIFFERENTLY IF YOU HAD TO START OVER AGAIN?

     

    I should have started with open software much earlier and let go of my Esri license sooner.

     

    Other than that, it's been a privilege and a fun journey. It's turned out better than I ever imagined. Thanks for the concerns of the good GIS folk at those conferences, asking me how I was doing. Their concern for my well-being always surprised me. My consultancy business was never a precarious self-employed situation.

     

    Indeed, today I don't know what I'm going to be doing in six months, but then back in February this year, I didn't know what I was going to be doing right now. I have a dozen active clients I'm working with this month, and they'd all have to fire me simultaneously to end up in a shaky situation. That's unlikely to happen.

     

    If you do good work, people will hire you. If you're easy to work with and turn around a project quickly, they'll hire you even if they have an inhouse shop. It's an excellent place to be if you enjoy geospatial work.

     

    I'd still do it even if I was wealthy. I just love the tools and what I can do with them.

     

    Be an excellent service provider. Don't hustle for money, and it will be a pleasant place to be. It's always satisfying to see a project through from the beginning stages of the first contact to developing a proposal to delivering the project on time. Submit that invoice at the end to a happy client.

     

    --------------------

     

    Kurt started with a 10-year advantage over many of us. When you have that kind of experience under your belt, you'll likely have an extensive network and understanding of what it's like to work on a GIS project. You'll need all that to wrap up an estimate.

     

    You'll need familiarity with the start to finish idea, identifying the target and the measurable results and how to manage elements of the project. Everyone wants to know how much it's going to cost. How long is it going to take? What's involved?

     

    This all assumes you have tons of experience. But what if you don't?

     

    As Kurt found, volunteering is a way many get started. Undoubtedly, being able to volunteer your time is a privileged situation. But just think about the experience you can leverage later on with some carefully planned volunteering. Build up connections you leverage later on to help you where you want to go.

     

    In my case, it all started with volunteering at Uni as a lab tutor. Armed with my experience as an outdoor guide and my motto of "You don't know anything until you have to teach it to someone else," I got a lot out of that time of being a lab tutor.

     

    I asked my professors if they needed help. They always did, and I ended up with interesting projects. Once I finished those, my network and my leverage options increased each time.

     

    Can you support a local sports team or scouting group? What can you do to help them?

     

    Have you ever come across any companies that have geospatially enabled data but clueless what to do with it? Can you use it and apply some visualization magic to it? Solve some of their problems?

     

    Project by project, you'll build your profile and credibility. You'll soon have XY company and the results to show for during your elevator pitch when you go to your next opportunity.

     

    Do you dread cold pitching and actively looking for the next opportunity? See if you can make a go at it on Upwork. What problems are people having? How can you solve them? What skills are they looking for? What are others doing to solve them?

     

    Have a look and see what other profiles look like, how do they pitch, what do they charge? You'll see some trends. Can you find your niche? You'll need one when you put yourself out there and establish yourself as a service provider. Don't let algorithms impede your success. Don't rely on platforms ̶  be your own platform.

     

    Don't try to solve everyone's GIS problem. Be specific. Find something that interests you. What organizations, groups of individuals may need your help? Find them and tell them what they're not doing yet or how they're doing it wrong and how, with your help, they could do better.

     

    Need a portfolio? Craig Taylor, one of my guests on the show, had a brilliant approach. He learned, experimented, and worked in public. He put his experimentations on Twitter and Reddit for all to comment and see. He gathered feedback. Reddit can be brutal. That didn't deter him. He just continued and asked questions about why people didn't like it and how he could make his visualizations even better?

     

    Contribute to a community and learn with everyone. Build up your profile and a following. You'll have a body of work you can point to when you're applying for opportunities.

     

    I use this podcast as my public learning strategy. I research guests and industries and ask questions that the geospatial community, my niche, wants to know about.

     

    Pick your audience, identify their problems, and you'll be providing them value. There're a ton of opportunities out there. The long tail of geospatial is incredible.

     

    If you think I can help, let me know. I can't help everyone, but maybe I can help you

     

    Be sure to subscribe to our podcast for weekly episodes that connect the geospatial community. 

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