Helen Cooper, owner, operator, and chief geospatial talent (in fact, the only talent) of Map It Out, a UK-based geospatial consultancy. She began her journey by obtaining her degree in Geography from Oxford University, back in the days of the ArcView 3.x suite.
Since then, in addition to being a wife and mother, she gained a Masters in GIS, and 10 years of experience supporting an environmental consultancy before going it alone.
When is GIS Consulting the Best Choice?
Ditching the predictability and security of full-time work is a truly intimidating step for professionals of any industry. A venture into the unknown. For some though, the risk is worth the independence and flexibility they come to enjoy in their work, and home lives. While the idea of not having a boss, or a set 9-5 schedule is appealing to nearly everyone, this does not mean that the remaining responsibilities of self-employment are for everyone.
You alone become responsible for your company’s, and client’s success. In a formal team structure, you have numerous people, who are (hopefully) good at what they do. Everyone contributes their individual skill sets for the mutual benefit of the company.
Experience is incredibly important to successful freelancing. Considering it is necessary to support numerous roles that you may be uncomfortable with (accounting, marketing, client management) it is essential to be comfortably competent in your main area of work so that you have the mental bandwidth to take on these other challenges. It is unrealistic to expect yourself to run a full marathon at sprinter’s speed.
How Can I Prepare to Succeed?
Success is not a product of random luck, but rather of planning, preparation, and determination. Before setting out alone, make sure you have the tools in your toolbox that you need, education, time, and a quality support network. Ideally, you will want to have some years of formal GIS training behind you. It is even better to already have had formal experience working in the GIS industry so that you have a handle on what the real-world expectations are for projects.
Running your own business is not a hobby, but rather a full-time endeavour. If you see self-sustained consulting in your future, make sure you have the time to accommodate it. If you are also juggling a smorgasbord of other commitments, you may find yourself as a jack of all trades, and master of none. You need to be able to commit time to finding clients and maintaining relationships with them, as well as doing their actual project work and auxiliary tasks that support all of this.
One of the most important elements of successful freelancing is a strong support network. This is crucial for a number of reasons. GIS is an industry that exists to support the work of other industries. Having the right people in your network can give you access to industry knowledge, as well as a chance to break into new niches.
Not everyone in your network necessarily needs to bring technical value to the table. Starting your own business is a personally challenging event, and having people that you can rely on for emotional support is invaluable.
How Do I Build a Client Base?
Great, you have decided to create your own consulting business, now you need clients. The first place you are going to want to go is to your network. The beauty of GIS is that it is highly flexible, and nearly everyone has a need for it, even if they are not yet aware of it. There is a good chance that someone in your network may have a project or task that could use a little geospatial boost. If you have been able to construct a reputation for quality work across your professional interactions, you are in a good place to sell yourself alone without the supporting infrastructure of whatever team you came from.
Word of mouth is one of the most effective marketing tools you have. Getting the word out that you are open for business may help generate those initial clients that you need to get your consultancy off the ground. This may take the form of discussion with former colleagues, or some well-constructed posts to your virtual network (LinkedIn was practically made for this). Some people also find great success with freelance job posting boards, such as Upwork, or Fiverr.
Regardless of the platform you choose to use to market yourself, the most important thing is that you approach this journey with the right attitude. Have the mindset of a winner, and be confident in your abilities. Infectious enthusiasm will spread to your clients, and enable a productive working relationship.
What Should I Charge?
Compensation is a difficult conversation for most of us. It can be hard to know what your services are worth without having previous industry experience. The Cartographic Freelancer Survey is a fantastic resource for learning more about how you stack up to others in the industry. It gives some breakdowns by gender, education, and years of experience. Another less formal resource for this is this Reddit thread which gives the results of the r/gis user survey.
Ultimately, your rates are going to be a byproduct of your education, location, and experience, so there is no one right answer for what to charge. It is, however, important to factor in some things unique to freelancing. You will do a certain amount of non billable work, this is unavoidable. You will need to maintain your website, seek and vet new clients, marketing, handle finances, etc.. Additionally, you need to factor in vacation and sick time. You also will have to fund your own benefits package, especially if your country does not provide free healthcare, this can be a big bite into your “salary”.
Take a look at these resources, and do some thinking about what is doable for you. You may find that it is better to enter the market at a somewhat lower rate in order to get things moving, then gradually scale up your rates as you build more experience.
These conversations with clients are notoriously difficult, but if you have a solid relationship and impressive track record with them, this should remove some pain points and allow you to navigate those conversations with more confidence. Ultimately, it is a good idea to circle back every so often and objectively consider if your work is worth what you are charging. Would you pay what you are asking for what you did?
Treat your work itself as your marketing budget. Going that extra mile to impress the client and demonstrate that you have their best interests at heart will help ensure that they come back to you for their next project.
Realistically, you only need 4-6 “core” recurring clients to keep yourself comfortably afloat. Investing in these clients’ success saves you time and effort seeking new ones, and further solidifies your place in the market.
Finally, demonstrating to the client that you value their success leaves them more likely to follow your recommendations, including what may be considered “upsells”. This, however, requires being honest with your client. If a snazzy solution they caught wind of is a poor fit for their end goals, help communicate this to them and offer an alternative that you know would be more suitable.
The Backend of your GIS freelancing Business
GIS consulting does not require as many resources to break into as say, opening your own restaurant, but there is a certain amount of overhead.
Advice – “Instead of trying to run tomorrow’s software on yesterday’s hardware, we should be running yesterday’s software on tomorrow’ hardware”. While investing in an ArcInfo license is far from sage advice, this concept rings true. Making a strong upfront investment in a quality machine is going to pay dividends later on when you can avoid incurring unnecessary costs to upgrade once you find yourself working on more demanding projects.
Hand in hand with investing in quality hardware, is investing in quality software. This may involve purchasing Esri licenses and extensions, but it is very possible to be a successful consultant working off open source software. If you choose open source, this investment will take the form of investing time in learning how to unlock its full capabilities.
Regardless of the software path you choose, invest time in sharpening your skills, and keeping current on the trends and changes in the industry. It is much easier to pursue continuing education rather than realize down the line that you need to play catch up.
A Blueprint for Successful GIS Self-Employment
- Identify your skill set/niche
- Communicate with your network and identify opportunities
- Accumulate quality tools of the trade
- Find confidence in your abilities & strength from your network
- Market yourself to clients
- Make each and every client feel valued
- Maintain and nurture relationships with you network and clients
- Nurture an attitude of competence, and confidence
- Invest in continued education and sharpen your skills