7 Tips for Success as a GIS Consultant

This post is an anniversary special. It has officially been one year since I launched my company, Geographic Design. In hindsight, perhaps launching a consulting business straight out of school with no professional network, no real-world industry experience, and no experience whatsoever with the nuts-and-bolts of running a business wasn’t exactly the foolproof endeavor I marketed in my business plan. Fortunately, at the time I had no idea how many things I didn’t know. The learning curve has been steep and it’s been a roller coaster year. Here are some of the things I figured out along the way.

 

1. The product a GIS consultant sells is not GIS.

The product you are selling is you – your brain, because it is uniquely capable of figuring out the best tools and processes to solve a set of problems, your communication skills to liaise with different departments, and your reputation as an expert in the field. As easy as it is to pitch the capabilities and utility of GIS, that’s not your job, it’s Esri’s. Your job is to sell yourself as a one-of-a-kind opportunity for potential clients. Talk all you like about the wonderful things the technology can do, but make sure what you’re really stressing are the ways that you will contribute to the team and help make the project successful.

 

2. Forget about knowing “enough” about GIS before you launch your business.

Because you never will. Think of consulting as an ongoing training opportunity. Not only will the technology change, your clients’ demands will evolve to keep up with the digital world, and each project will have unique requirements. You will be paid to do things you’ve never done before, and that’s amazing. Terrifying, but amazing. The mark of a real expert is not that they’ve memorized the manual, but that they are able to figure out anything that comes along without losing their cool. Or at least, that’s my own working definition.

 

3. If you’re still in school, think carefully before blowing off social events with your peers or irritating your teachers.

Post-secondary is basically a pressure cooker for building close relationships with people who can help you in the business world. Top grades are great ego-boosters, but grades have only ever been a means to an end (such as a scholarship, an internship, an achievement award, admittance to another degree program, etc). Leaving school with a solid network and friendly relationships with successful (and soon-to-be successful) people will last way longer than anyone will remember your GPA.

 

4. Prepare your introduction.

It’s really off-putting to potential clients/investors/network connections if you can’t articulate clearly what you’re doing and why it matters. When you’re meeting someone new, it doesn’t matter if you have years of experience, boatloads of expertise, or award-winning web mapping skills. It matters that you sound like you have all that and more before you’re finished shaking their hand. You need to be able to deliver an “off-the-cuff” statement describing your business in one or two sentences. Mine is, “I run a small Toronto-based geospatial consultancy. I work with urban designers and planners and support their work with GIS and remote sensing technology.” This is also the beginning of my elevator pitch, which has about another five sentences.

There are no big words that make people’s eyes glaze over. No awkward pauses. No time for their attention to wander or to catch someone else’s eye across the room. I have literally said the exact same thing to probably a hundred people in the past couple of months. Nine times out of ten it leads to my new contact asking for more specific information that, had I offered if immediately, they would never have remembered the next day. I’m not saying it’s perfect – so if you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments.

This doesn’t come naturally to anybody (or at least not to me or anyone I know). No one can take the big picture vision of where they are in their career, where they want to be, and how they plan to get there and distill it into two sentences on the spot. Write it all down. Refine it. Test it out. Refine it again. Memorize it before the next big event/GoGeomatics Meet-up.

 

5. Be honest.

Part of being a consultant means taking control of the situation. This can be intimidating. I’m often in meetings with brusque senior partners, and sometimes all I want to do is smile and nod at whatever they say. But being candid builds trust, and people want to work with people they trust. As it turns out, partners are people too.

Here are some true things I’ve told clients:

- “I’ve never done this before, but I understand what you’re going for, and I’m sure I can work it out. It might take a little extra time but I’ll work with you closely on this so that next time it comes up, we’ll have the workflow down.”

- “Your GIS data folder is pretty disorganized. Can you budget some time for me up front to get this sorted out properly? It will really help things run smoothly as the project moves forward.” (see here for more on this.)

- “I don’t completely understand what you’re asking for. Could you sketch it for me?”

- I’ve also cut off phone conversations to do a bit of background research. I think it’s reasonable to want to execute a quick web search before answering questions about, for example, what data sets are available for a project in Abu Dhabi.

 

6. Define your goals. Find time to work on pro bono projects that will get you closer to achieving them.

There are a lot of interesting opportunities out there for someone starting a new venture. Unfortunately, you can justify almost any waste of time as “networking,” “profile building,” or “personal development.” Don’t get me wrong; those are all worthwhile things. And sometimes, by volunteering or working for less than the going rate, you will get back way more than you put in – a new connection, a new client, or a different sort of opportunity. But in the early stages of your business everything you do has to be done with purpose, or for profit, or (ideally) both. It’s not selfish, it’s strategic.

Make sure you’re setting clear goals, and not just financial ones. What kind of work do you want to be doing, and how will each “opportunity” you’re propositioned with move you closer to that? There are, and always will be, lots of chances to volunteer somewhere or team up with someone building the next “sure thing” web trend. Stay on task and don’t get sucked in. My strategy for this is outlined in this flow chart.

Flowchart 7 Tips for Success as a GIS Consultant

 

7. Pay attention to the metrics of success.

As well as defining clear goals, you need to define success. Success is not a trophy, and it doesn’t get presented to you when you’ve made a certain number of maps or hit the top of the Google search results. Success is incremental and quantifiable. Measure it out in the number of repeat clients, the decrease in the ratio of presentations given to contracts awarded, increases in web traffic, and of course, dollars earned. Sometimes success lies in reaching a personal milestone – these successes are extra special and deserve to be celebrated with champagne. Because the point of measuring success (and this is the important part) is celebrating it! Self-employed life is unpredictable, and when you’re working by yourself and for yourself, you could go the rest of your life without ever feeling like you’ve been awarded that trophy. The key is taking the time to throw yourself a party, or dishing out advice on the internet – whatever it takes to mark the occasion.

 

Happy 1st Birthday, Geographic Design!

 

 7 Tips for Success as a GIS Consultant

About our Author: Caitlin

Caitlin is the founder and director of Geographic Design, a Toronto-based remote sensing and GIS consultancy. She works primarily with urban designers and landscape architects, helping them integrate the latest geospatial technology into their projects. She has a BA (Hons) in Environment and Resource Studies and International Development from Trent University and a MA in Geography from the University of Toronto, where she also studied landscape architecture. For fun she plays ultimate frisbee and goes on kayak adventures, and she is thrilled to have this opportunity to write about her working life.

27 comments on “7 Tips for Success as a GIS Consultant

  1. Darren Platakis on said:

    Great article!! Anyone can relate whether in school or out in the world. And I LOVE the flow chart. Just might have to print that and frame it!

    Cheers,

  2. Joshua Koudys on said:

    I thinks that #2 is a really important one. It’s too common to see smart people not want to risk starting their own venture because they feel like there’s something they don’t have and need before they can.
    Worst part is that skilled people often keep themselves from taking risks + innovating, while those who are so unskilled that they think themselves brilliant will go out there and try.

  3. Jason Wu on said:

    Nice writing and summary. Looking forward to seeing more from you. Happy One Year Anniversary!

  4. Another great article from Caitlin at Geographic Design. One thing I would like to add is the nature of early GIS consulting businesses. At the start your so hungry for work you take just about anything to keep the lights on. Whatever the clients wants. As you get more established you will find yourself narrowing your focus. Specializing in certain areas. This is a good thing. You become the go to consultant in an area. It can be very stressful trying to be all things to all GIS contracts. The more you can template a lot of what you do the more revenue you can bring in as you increase productivity and add value.

  5. Izhar Ahmad on said:

    Hi Caitlin,
    Congrats on first birthday — wish many more are ahead !
    Great tips indeed to share. Need your permission to publish these in my magazine too, it is SPATIAL SAVVY.

    Izhar

  6. krishan sharma on said:

    Quite helpfull. I am helping retired and aspiring new entreprenurs to enter into GIS business, prparing fro the tender bids doc. helpng the to execute orders. enjoying this philontrhic

  7. Sean Cavanaugh on said:

    Caitlin,

    Great article! Congratulations on your first year running your own Consulting firm. These are some great tips for down the road as I look to the future to perhaps build my own GIS business down the road.

  8. Abdul Mannan on said:

    Hi Caitlin,

    I liked your approach and the way you organized the information, this explains your strengths at presentation and sales activities. I believe starting a consultancy profession cannot be one man show as it should be a blend of sales + tech Skills (I like your second point but also there should be a baseline coz you cant just refer to google for every point before the client). I wonder, does your article refer to one person or a team? I think for GIS consultancy would be more successful to start with Two or more different skilled people? I am just hypothesizing, would love to know your point of view.
    btw, Thank you so much sharing brilliant ideas and secrets!

    • Caitlin on said:

      Thanks for the feedback Abdul. I agree that it would be ideal to have a couple of people involved in a startup with a mix of skills and expertise in all areas. However, finding the right people to work with isn’t easy, and there’s something to be said for having total control of the strategic decision making. I do have an informal “Board of Advisors” made up of friends in different professions – marketing, accounting, urban planning, etc – and I definitely rely on their advice and guidance.

  9. kakaliprasad on said:

    great article. i am sure with all my experience this article will add dimension to my approach

  10. Jeremy Murfitt on said:

    Caitlin

    Great article and all so true. I went on my own about three years ago. I am a chartered surveyor (real estate) so much on my time is on property related work. However I have always had a strong interest in GIS and now use it extensively in real estate management. The combination of the skill sets work well and for me I can demonstrate to the client how I can add value to their business.

    Jeremy

  11. Darko Petrovic on said:

    Hi. I am currently working as the Geospatial Analyst for a Ministry in New Zealand, and this article definitely gives me some insight into exanding my future geospatial career beyong my current work. Thanks for the wonderful advice, it really is great to read! And all the best with your business!

    Darko

  12. srikanth on said:

    Hi Caitlin
    very informative article and well elaborated, can you list some projects of an urban planner which you have done, the work flow and layers used. Are you into full automation of the analysis part.

  13. Happy (belated) birthday Caitlin,

    Loved your article, especially the first two 2 points.
    I am an IT Consultant struggling to get work in a flooded market and am studying GIS with a plan to ultimately doing the same as yourself.
    The self-employed scenario is familiar and preferable to me. The self-marketing not so much.
    Like Darren I would like to print your flowchart. It makes so much sense.

    All the best for the next ?? years and I look forward to more similar articles. (now following you).

    Dave (Australia)

  14. Catherine Burton on said:

    Hi Caitlin,

    Wonderful article. I too run a GIS/RS services business in San Francisco. I’ve been at it for seven years. It’s been quite the ride. I’d love to touch base further if you have some interest.

    Thanks,
    Catherine

  15. Thanks for a great article Caitlin! Trying to “sell” GIS internally to an engineering firm, and many of the points you make will apply in some fashion.

  16. Slim Gharbi on said:

    Great Article !!! It is possible to share it in my blog ?
    Thank you !
    Slim

  17. Caitlin on said:

    Hi Slim,
    By all means please share the link on your blog. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
    Caitlin

  18. Ive often thought about taking the plunge into spatial consultancy work so read your article with interest. Thanks for sharing

  19. Nazarul-Islam on said:

    Dear Caitlin
    A wonderful article with amazing tips, tied up with success story. Cheers and best wishes from Pakistan

  20. Neil on said:

    Spot on tips! Love the flow chart, useful but refreshingly honest too!

    One thing missing however is how to get in front of folk to give the pitch in the first place? At least in Sweden and the UK Private business often seem to prefer a big company as a (supposedly) safe bet, while public and academic clients often assume (wrongly) that it would be too expensive to hire a consultant. So its not just about technical competence, there is allot more networking to be done than I had anticipated. Maybe we just don’t have enough elevators..

    Neil
    (AnserGIS.com)

  21. deloitte on said:

    im an undergrad student doing GIS and earth observation at the university of Zimbabwe and i want to start my own consultancy firm,this artilce gave me great insight *ngiyabonga!*

  22. David Dubauskas on said:

    Well done!

  23. alvaroggallardo on said:

    Great Post. I liked the graphic to choose a GIS project, very funny and usable.

  24. jaya on said:

    Hello Mam,
    I am an research scholar from India, I would like to start up an Geoinformatic based consultancy but I dont know how to start it? I am having good knowledge in RS and GIS.

    How I should initiate the work? any suggestion will be more help full.

    Thank you

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