How to Start a GIS Technology Firm

The GIS technology profession is unique for entrepreneurs. Because of the down economy, municipalities and companies frequently cannot afford to maintain a GIS staff. Instead of falling behind or losing spatial data, they are outsourcing much of their work to GIS consultants or small GIS technology firms.

GIS business owner Lee Mitchell

For the organizations hiring these firms, it’s the best of both worlds: They receive top-notch service, but do not have to pay for the individual’s health insurance, retirement package or payroll taxes. For the GIS firms, they are living the entrepreneurial dream.

If you are interested in pursuing your own GIS business, a good place to start is an online GIS degree from American Sentinel University and tuning into GIS business owner Lee Mitchell’s Webinar “Starting a Geospatial Business on Tues., Jan. 31 at 1 p.m. EST.”

Like many workers at big companies, Mitchell, owner of G.A.I.A Professionals, found herself at a crossroads when the company she worked for was purchased by a large conglomerate. Shortly after the merger, the layoffs began. Mitchell quit before she was laid off and decided to start her own business.

“It just seemed like a really good opportunity,” Mitchell says.

But, Mitchell says, she did not dream of becoming a small business owner. “It was just a logical next step. It wasn’t something I had always dreamed about, but it just seemed to fall in place,” Mitchell says.

To help others pursue their GIS business dreams and maybe avoid some of those nerve-racking moments, here are some tips to starting your own business.

1. Have clients signed up before you go out on your own. It behooves new business owners to have clients before they officially opens their doors. If you are already at a firm, take a look at your client list and tell people you trust that you’re about to go out on your own. Even if they cannot sign up to work with you, they might know somebody who’s looking for a sharp GIS technology firm.

2. Contact your local Small Business Administration office. That’s what Mitchell did when starting her firm. She used the SBA’s Small Business Development program. “There’s a lot of great documentation out there about what to do, how to start your business and a lot of towns have those resources available,” Mitchell says. If you are former military, the government also offers several benefits to help you start a business. Read “Ready to Take the Entrepreneurial Leap” in American Sentinel University’s Military Blog.

3. Don’t over-extend your company. Unless you’re starting with a large office and a lot of working capital, you’re better off sticking to smaller organizations. In other words, you may not want to compete for the U.S. Army’s bid request to create a billion-dollar geospatial program. Before competing for every job, ask yourself: Can my company actually deliver what the client is looking for? The worst thing you can do as a company is not delivering what your client wants.

4. Get your finances in order. Remember, as a small business owner, you don’t have a regular paycheck coming in. Before you start your business, it’s a good idea to have some savings to tap into in case clients do not pay bills on time or you hit a dry spell. From the accounting side, Mitchell says, she was coming from a larger company and did not really understand how business finances were handled. “I was going from a nice regular paycheck to wondering how to plan your finances,” she says. “Those sorts of things are really nerve racking.” Bankrate.com offers several good financial planning tips leading up to starting your business.

5. Network. Network. Network. For any new small business owner, networking is the most-valuable and cost-effective tool. Whether it is in a LinkedIn Group Discussion or at a local business organization meeting, find ways to mingle and talk to your potential clients. For a GIS professional, that means attending conferences and meeting with local ASPRS, GITA and URISA chapters. Mitchell says she’s not done any marketing. Her business has been built by “purely networking,” she says.

To learn more about how to start your own business, tune into Mitchell’s Webinar on January 31.

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