Ten Things You Need to Know About Starting a GIS Consulting Business

May 31, 2012

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After working for three different GIS consulting companies for exponentially-shortening periods of time, I decided that I could (and I should) do it better on my own. Six and one-half years later I am still doing it, and I share this list of what I’ve learned.

1. Knowing your target market is crucial.

My market was, and still is, local (municipal and county) government in New Jersey. With 21 counties, 566 municipalities, and home rule, it looked like there was plenty of opportunity for a new municipal GIS provider in New Jersey. I was right, and continue to be, as witnessed by (among other things) the influx of out-of-state GIS consultants into the NJ municipal market.

2. Marketplace inertia is a formidable force.

Being good at what you do is not enough to displace a current provider. You must be nothing short of outstanding. And, of course, cheaper. A high standard, for sure, and not worth the cost for many. Which is why a lot of mediocre providers continue to exist and thrive.

3. You can never stop selling.

Getting the project done is secondary to getting the project in the first place. You must learn about marketing, advertising, social media and selling, and you must like it. If you don’t like selling, don’t start a business.

4. How you present yourself is important – focus on what you are, not on what you are not.

After witnessing how engineers implement GIS (not too well, with a few exceptions), I thought I had a clear path to marketing success – “not an engineer” looked like a surefire way to the hearts and wallets of my clients. Not so. Do not go negative – nobody likes a negative campaign.

5. Working with family is rewarding, but can be challenging.

Problems and confrontation in the workplace are inescapable. Working with family makes it hard to leave the work problems in the office and not bring them home (where different problems and confrontations often await). Unless you (and your family) are good at compartmentalizing, think twice before you decide to work together.

6. Focus on your core strengths, but have a backup plan.

When the economy went down the drain around 2008, GIS funds dried up. GIS became a luxury for many of my clients. Having a Web design and development division to fall back on was the difference between staying afloat and going under.

7. Never assume that someone is good for their money until their check clears.

You will get stiffed. Plan for that. You must collect, or else you are not running a business but a charity. ABC – Always Be Collecting.

8. If you are really excited about what you sell, you tend to give it away.

Being excited about GIS is great. But you must contain this excitement when selling your services. While it is tempting to go above and beyond the scope of the contract to show how much more the technology can do, avoid doing so.

9. Idealism is noble, pragmatism is crucial.

To this day I have internal struggles about the right balance between communal efforts and business interests. I haven’t found it. I suspect that running a business would be much easier for someone who has strong leanings in either direction. For me, it’s a daily agony.

10. Don’t use “geo” in the name, or the globe in the logo.

This is something I knew going in. There were tremendous pressures from friends, colleagues and advisors to do either, or both. I am very happy that I held my ground and used neither.

Postscript: I wanted this list to be more about GIS. Instead, it turned out to be more about business. Another thing learned.


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