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Being self employed in the earth observation sector

Alastair Graham, Ph.D., is an independent consultant specializing in Earth Observation, open data, and using open systems. He’s the current Chair of the Committee for the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies, and he previously sat on the OSGeo:UK Committee.

When he’s not doing all that, he co-hosts “The Scene from Above” podcast.

DOES HAVING A PH.D. MATTER IN THE GEOSPATIAL WORLD?

My Ph.D. was from University College London, where I was based in the Geography Department. The Ph.D. itself looked at synthetic aperture radar and how the radar waves interact with moisture, both in the canopy and the soil around a potato crop. The idea was to investigate if you can improve irrigation monitoring.

HOW HAS HAVING A PH.D. INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO BECOME SELF-EMPLOYED?

It gave me confidence. It taught me different ways of thinking about or approaching a problem.

If you’re going freelance or self-employed, as I have done, then you need to have confidence in yourself and your ability to deal with the things that might get thrown at you.

HAS YOUR PH.D. GIVEN YOU AN EDGE OVER HAVING A MASTER’S?

For me, it’s a piece of paper. I don’t use it to promote myself.

The difference between having a master’s and a Ph.D. is the ability to think about things slightly differently. It does come with additional technical skills, and you’ll have a piece of paper that some people might think more highly of.

Now that I’ve had 15 years plus experience post Ph.D. I wouldn’t say that any of my work is awarded to me based on it. I would say it’s based on my experience and how I can communicate what I will do for any client. It’s useful, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

With so much of Earth Observation being influenced by the tech sector these days, it’s swings and roundabouts whether it’s going to be a benefit to you when you go freelance or work as an independent.

 

SO GETTING WORK IS POSSIBLE WITH JUST A MASTER’S DEGREE?

It’s definitely possible.

I set up Geoger seven years ago, in 2013. With a master’s today, I’d have skills that are different compared to the skills that were around in 2013.

Having a Ph.D. from some time ago doesn’t change whether someone is more or less suitable for setting up on their own today. Doing a Ph.D. and all those years of academic study will furnish you with a different experience and ways of thinking about things. You’ll also have additional technical skills.

If you’ve come out from a university with a master’s, or you’ve done a couple of years working for a larger company post master’s, the skills you have will be enough to get you started freelancing.

Once you get started, it’s the experience that you’ll gather.

Freelancers meet and talk to each other. Most people will be happy to help someone else with a piece of work or problem they need guidance on. One person might have a master’s and another person a Ph.D. If they’ve got a skill that they think would benefit someone else, even if it’s in the same commercial domain, they’ll take time to help others by guiding them to think about the problem this way or that way.

Having a Ph.D. versus having a master’s really comes down to personal preference.

How do you want your academic studies to go?

When I did my Ph.D., I thought I would be an academic for the rest of my life. By the time I’d finished that, and a couple of postdocs, I was ready for the commercial world.

The Ph.D. or the master’s isn’t the thing that defines you. It’s the way you approach problems, your positivity, and your self-belief that do.

Those are the things that are going to be most important in making a successful stab at going independent or freelance.

WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE THAT BEING A SELF-EMPLOYED EARTH OBSERVATION CONSULTANT WAS RIGHT FOR YOU?

Several things happened in 2013 that made me go independent.

I wanted to work for myself for ages, like running a sandwich shop and other crazy things. I liked the autonomy. I like to control when I work, how I work, what I’m working on, and who I’m working for.

That was a massive driver ever since doing my Ph.D. I had total autonomy over everything then. None of my jobs were giving me that.

Family issues came up in 2013, which meant that it was time for a switch of jobs, anyway. I needed an income. Going independent was one way of doing it.

Third, there was a massive shift that was happening in Earth Observation around 2010-2015. It’s still going on now, but it’s slightly changing focus. All the Copernicus data was coming online. There were vast amounts of funding going into things like The Satellite Applications Catapult in the UK ̶ to support the Earth Observation and other satellite-based industries.

That project was 15 miles down the road from me. There was an upsurge in the scientific and engineering funding and opportunities around Oxford, where I’m based.

It seemed like the right time to plunge into it, both personally and in terms of the Earth Observation sector. It also answered that nagging voice to work for myself. That’s how Geoger came about.

DID YOU SET UP A WEBSITE AND THE JOBS ROLLED IN?

That might work for some. I, however, like to plan everything. Maybe too much so.

Having resigned from my previous job, I spent a couple of months getting my head together to set up a successful business. I got books from the library, and I started going on various “How to start your own business” websites. Business Link (*a government funded business advice service in the UK) gave handy information to people starting on their own. These weren’t resources specific to Earth Observation. They were about setting up a small business and working for yourself.

As I look back in my notebook from 2013, four or five lines down on the first page, in capital letters is this:

Who will be my first customer?

You can go through all the cool things like naming your business, designing a logo, choosing your software, but…

Where are you going to get your first paycheck from?

That’s the one thing you need to focus on, laser-sharp, from the beginning. In fact, even before you start.

WHO WAS YOUR FIRST CUSTOMER? HOW DID YOU FIND THEM?

My first customer was a small environmental consultancy on the Isle of Wight, an island off the south coast of the UK.

They were looking for advice on how they could drive around the island and collect information on the quality of the roadside verges. It was about mobile GIS and whether there could be any link between mobile GIS and Earth Observation data. It was a small piece of work, five days at the most. I got it through a personal connection from an organization I’d previously worked for.

It was nerve-wracking, just being me. Doing work for somebody without the backing of a whole organization and without other directors who can deal with issues. Trying to work out whether I would get paid and making sure I did a good job and met all the requirements for that work.

The day I got my payment for that invoice was terrific. This was within two months of setting up the company. It was a good start, and I got some money in to play with ̶ I wasn’t going to be making a loss at the end of my first-year account.

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST LEARNING OUT OF THAT FIRST JOB?

Communication.

It’s still the one thing I work on for every single job that I have because everybody communicates in different ways.

If someone tells you to monitor the roadside verges, it’s easy to assume that it needs to be monitored in one way, using one type of technology, or recording a specific type of information from that verge.

That way might not be the thing the client wants or has in their head, but they’ve not specified what they want. Communication is critical when you’re working for yourself. Talk to your clients.

Once you think you’ve got an idea of what you want to do, talk to them again and clarify that what you think is what they think. If there’s even a tiny bit that is outstanding or different between the two of you, don’t make the assumption they’ll be okay with it. Keep talking.

There are loads of ways of communicating. Fire up examples of data, methods, or whatever, and send a short video or an animated screenshot over to them. You can pick up the phone and talk to them. You can write detailed bullet-pointed emails to ensure that your client and you understand precisely what needs to be done, what the scope is, and what the consequences might be if anything of that scope changes further down the line.

Independents and freelancers far too often have a wooly scope. Then someone legitimately comes along and asks them to look at something quickly that wasn’t in the original scope. They then need to change their costing based on that change. Because the original scope wasn’t tightly defined, they’re not able to do that. That puts pressure on them to deliver something with no additional payment for it.

ANY TIPS ON DEFINING THE SCOPE OF WORK?

Years ago, when I was doing my Ph.D., one of my professors, Clive Agnew, told us, “If you were doing a presentation, say what you’re going to say, then say it, and then say what you’ve just said.” This way, you reinforce the message.

This comes in handy with scope. You talk to a company that you’re going to do work for. Listen to what they say the scope is, then say the scope back to them. Then have a conversation about the scope that you’ve just both spoken about. Do this every time to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.

It’s challenging the first time you do it, particularly if you’re new as a freelancer or in the sector. You haven’t got tons of contacts, so the people you’re working for might be unknown to you, and you might be unknown to them. Before you leave a meeting where you’re deciding what’s going in the contract or you’re signing the contract, you need to a) define the scope, b) state what the scope said, and c)  redefine the scope. Make sure everyone’s happy with it.

It’s a learning process. I’ve been doing it for seven years, and every time I do it, I still learn and improve more, which is critical when you’re working for yourself.

If you’re working as part of a nebulous organization with 150 people behind you, and you bid for a piece of work at £1000 a day, and the scope changes, you can easily give that work to another person who’s only going to be charged at £250 a day, to make a profit. You just provide them with a bit of advice about what to do.

As an individual, any change of scope is a reduction in your fees coming in. Any reduction in the amount of money coming in on a particular job makes a massive difference in the amount of money you generate over a year. You want to be ultra-efficient for the jobs you’re doing. Minimize additional loss through things that can be efficiently dealt with, like communication.

HOW DID YOU PRICE YOUR SERVICES AT THE BEGINNING?

The first time I did it, it was a finger in the air. I didn’t know otherwise.

I knew roughly how much the two organizations I’d worked for previously charged for my services. I had a stab at it. Then I signed up for free business clinic-type events in Oxford, and I got a solid piece of advice from a guy who spent 30 years in the IT business.

Turned out,

–        you need to work out all the days you will not be working. Such as trying to sell into a new job, market your business, or you’re on holiday.

–        Have a rough idea of the number of days per year you’re going to be working.

–        Look at all your costs.

–        Set the target amount of money that you want for your total income over the year.

Once you’ve fixed all of those parameters, you’re able to work out your day rate, you must charge to meet those parameters.

For people on a monthly salary, it’s hard to see what’s happening to independents and freelancers who get paid on a per contract, per invoice basis. Their day rate looks high, sure. But that rate isn’t coming in every single day, for every single month in the same way that someone would get a salary.

Occasionally, people, upon discovering how much a particular work will cost, find it high and ask for a reduction, sometimes up to 20%.

Your rate should have, at this point, been costed up properly. It is a fair reflection of what you’re worth and what you need to keep your life going in the way you want it to.

I take issue with people that try to do this. I understand where they’re coming from, particularly if they’ve got budgets they need to manage.

You can’t go into a supermarket and ask for a 20% discount on the pasta or the rice because you really need them. Why should we justify our day rate? If you’re good at what you do, your day rate should be an accurate reflection of that value and the amount required to meet your lifestyle.

WITH EXPERIENCE, YOU CAN ADJUST YOUR PRICING

As you talk to others in the business, you’ll be able to get everybody on a rough parity.

Everyone will have slightly different day rates, of course. But if five independents are going for a piece of work and four of them are coming in at £500 a day, and then the fifth one comes in at £100 a day, it’s easy to make the awarding panel think that’s some value for money there. That really doesn’t help the other four. If everybody were in a rough zone, somewhere around £400 to £600, that would help make that message clear that the people working in this sector are worth a certain amount and are providing a certain amount of value for that.

DO YOU HAVE A PREFERENCE ON THE TYPES OF JOBS YOU TAKE ON?

I’ve decided, based on my environmental background, that I will not take on work in the defense or the oil and gas sectors. It may be where the money is now, and I’m putting myself at a disadvantage, but it’s my choice.

If someone approached me from those sectors for advice, I’d be happy to make a referral within my network. As independents, we don’t have the luxury of being selfish. We should be sharing out if there are people who want to work in those sectors. There’re plenty of people who will, and I am happy to pass that on.

I’m also always willing to have conversations with anyone interested in taking up the services I do offer.

I came across a startup about five years ago. They were brilliant. They were new on the scene, and so was I. They didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. There was a piece of work that would have been worth a few thousand. It wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t to be sniffed at.

They suggested we do a small project that will be £500-£600 to see how we work together. It was an excellent exercise for both parties, building up a level of trust between two different organizations for how we might do business in the future. From that, other contracts came.

I’ve applied that model to a couple of other new clients that I’ve had since. It works well. You have a small piece of work that’s relatively low risk to the independent or the freelancer and a relatively small budget to the client, and you work together to see how it might go in the future. From there, you can build up to larger and larger contracts.

DO YOU UPSELL TO EXISTING CLIENTS?

Getting rework from an existing client is big, certainly in this sector.  If you can help an individual project or problem that a client has, when similar issues arise, you’ll be able to help again.

It comes back to building relationships with clients and having good communication.

HOW DO YOU GET NEW CLIENTS DURING LOCKDOWN?

Previously, I’d be meeting new clients after attending in-person events or giving a presentation about something. Then, I’d follow up with them individually about their questions. That could be an interesting conversation, and it would lead to an opportunity.

Right now, you can’t even grab a cup of coffee and chat with someone who has asked about something.

We can’t really use email marketing for what we do, so for the next 12 months strengthening existing client relationships is the way forward. You just need to make sure that the work you do for them is always outstanding.

ARE YOU USING SOCIAL MEDIA FOR LEAD GENERATION?

I have an online presence with a reasonable amount of interaction through different channels. I use them to raise my profile as to who I am, what I do, and the opinions I have on various things around the Earth Observation sector.

I’ve not actively tried to translate any of that into work coming in. I don’t believe that I’ve had any new clients coming directly through those channels.  I might be mistaken in how useful those different channels are.

WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE?

I’m a big proponent of open source and open data; I am on the OSGeo:UK Committee. I made the decision at the beginning that Geoger was going to be an open source led business. I’ve used Ubuntu Linux on all of my work machines for the entire seven years. I use things like QGIS and SAGA GIS. For my processing, I use the GDAL command line. For documentation, not quite open source but easy to use, a Google business account.

Depending on the project, I may use Orfeo ToolBox.

DO YOU MISS ANY NON-OPEN SOURCE TOOLS?

I don’t know if Erdas Imagine runs on Linux or not. But I wouldn’t be able to afford the license, anyway. I do miss it, as I used it a lot in previous work. It was easy to use, powerful, and extensible.

The other thing that may stop me from getting work is when a project requirement is to use ArcMap or ArcGIS, which I don’t use. I haven’t used it for over a decade. I’m reasonably sure it doesn’t run on Linux, and it’s not a piece of software that I would necessarily want to offer. ArcGIS is the de facto GIS software and not using it does stop me from getting some work.

YOU CAN SUCCEED AS AN INDEPENDENT WITHOUT THE DE FACTO TOOLS

The open source tools and the community are as good as some proprietary ones. A lot of those tools use the open source in the background, anyway.

There’s no reason you can’t use open source to run a business. Lots of people do it, and it’s perfectly fine.

I don’t have any Windows machines, and I haven’t used Windows for at least 10 years. Now and again, people ask me technical questions, and I have to say I have no idea because I don’t know what Windows 10 looks like, let alone what it does. Small things like this may come up every day.

You can create a successful business using whatever software you want to ̶ as long as it interacts with the data.

ANY ADVICE TO THOSE INTERESTED IN BEING SELF-EMPLOYED IN THE EARTH OBSERVATION SPACE?

Do it. But…

Think about it beforehand. Don’t get excited and offer your services, hoping to make loads of money every year. The reality is that you’re going to spend most of your time being a salesperson convincing people to give you their money.

The barrier to entry into Earth Observation is the lowest it’s been since I entered the sector. Make sure that your software and everything else is well planned out. If you know how to use some of the open source tools and the proprietary tools, you can code in Python or R, and you know how to get access to the open data, you have an excellent platform to start from.

The rest is going to be about building your network.

The main thing is building up contacts, making sure those contacts are happy with the work you do, or at least they know you exist and can point you at other potential clients.

If you’re confident, you’ll find many opportunities in Observation at the moment.

———————————————————————————————————-

My key take-aways from Alastair’s insights on running a successful freelance business in the Earth Observation field?

 

  1. Build a business first.  Who is going to be your first client?

 

  1. Define your communication strategy early on to maintain those client relationships. It’s what your business is based on and what’ll generate revenue for the coming years.

 

  1. It is possible to build a business on open source tools–choose them wisely. Yes, you may have to say no to some projects because you’re not working with certain tools, but that’ll be your choice. Don’t let that hold you back.