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The "Business of Mapping": Outsourcing


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#1
Derek Tonn

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Hello everyone!

Say, I thought this might be a topic that would generate some excellent dialogue on the CartoTalk site, with all of the great talent AND the international presence on these boards. Without further ado, here it goes....

My firm (www.mapformation.com) receives 1-2 emails or phone calls per month from various organizations in India. The organizations are generally very diverse in their make-up, but their sales-pitch is always the same: "Hire our designers to design maps at a tiny fraction of the costs of your current American workforce...and we'll start you out with a free job or two to show you the quality of our work."

My reaction to these emails?

1. A bit insulted for the nine designers on our team....as many of us have spent 15+ years making maps professionally and are a very "tight" and friendly/loyal group, and do what we do to not only pay the bills, but to try and make a positive dent in our world and in the lives of our clients and the individuals who ultimately use our imagery. It's not about "maximizing profits", as much as it is giving our designers (myself included) the chance to at least eek out a decent living while trying to deliver the best work that we possibly can.

2. Ask to see pre-existing samples of the work of the firms who are approaching us. Many times when those companies hear that it is not just "about the money" with us, I never hear from them again, and they never bother to share samples of their designs. The ones that DO share samples of their designs for our review look as though they are producing the types of imagery that our firm is being hired to replace (because a client is not satisfied with the look or accuracy of the work). Our business name is our reputation, and 1-2 years of wider profit margins does NOT equal 15-20 years of lost sales as the result of our "name" being tarnished in the marketplace.

3. Asking for an equal give and take. I get right to the point with a lot of companies, telling them that I don't want cheap labor, I want a PARTNER who can help our firm increase sales revenue in India, China, Japan, etc. In 3+ years of receiving solicitations from India and Southeast Asia, only ONE firm has sounded interested in that type of relationship. Rather than moving design work outside of the United States for a quick buck, I am aggressively looking to IMPORT projects from overseas into (on to) the desks and drafting tables of our existing design staff. After all, the reason organizations are hiring us is the quality of our portfolio....and the quality of our portfolio is the direct result of our existing design team, NOT a cheap outsource partner. ;)

4. Pointing firms (particularly in India) to the absolutely TERRIBLE quality of mapping resources that are provided by the governments and institutions within Southeast Asia. I don't want to outsource work to those regions.....I want to get IN there, get my hands dirty and raise the quality of the maps being provided by these organizations and agencies by about 5-6 levels! There is a GREAT need for quality maps to be developed in these regions, yet the focus is primarily importing US Dollars at all costs. I tell everyone who calls/emails me "get me into India and let us work to dramatically improve the quality of maps available to the general public, and then we'll talk." Again, only one interested party out of 25-30 that have approached me over the past 2-3 years. I find that to be a bit telling and sad, but it is what it is.


Are others in this group regularly being approached by firms asking you to outsource map design work to India and other regions "on the cheap"?! If so, what has your reaction been? I am not at ALL opposed to working with a partner in India or any other region of the globe. However, I don't want to work with companies whose only motivation is "importing US dollars" (and indirectly putting American designers out of work). I want $1 in work from outside the United States coming into our existing design team for every $1 that I am paying any designer(s) overseas to complete projects for our firm. Is that too "centrist"?! Unreasonable? Or right on the money?

I'm curious to see how other people feel related to this topic. Thanks in advance for your feedback!

Derek
Derek Tonn
Founder and CEO
mapformation, LLC

datonn@mapformation.com
http://www.mapformation.com

#2
Hans van der Maarel

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Good points there, Derek. I too get calls like this every now and then, usually aimed towards GIS projects. I just tell them I'm not interested. There comes a point where I have to start outsourcing (pretty close to that at the moment actually), but since the quality of my work is my most important advertisement, I'd rather outsource it to a partner that I know can do a good job.

Even if I do outsource, it'd only be the tedious work, never any design...
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#3
MapMedia

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Its a business model that has worked in India so far, as I am sure you have read about in the financial news. India's young generation is talented and thriving, but India itself is still struggling economically, so chasing after foreign markets is lucrative and will continue to be so.

I would stay far away from such solicitations, but Derek's proposition is innovative and makes me ask: so where are the talented cartographers/designers in India? Are they greatly under-employed and what on-line forums can they be found on? Maybe starting a dialogue along this line will put you in touch with the right people.

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#5
Martin Gamache

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I have and will continue to out-source GIS work to India and wherever it is cheap to do so. There is nothing sacred or worth preserving about repetitive, boring tasks like digitizing and attributing spatial data and I have no qualms finding providers in India to do this. My experience is that it allows me to pass on the savings to clients and has allowed for projects to go forward that would not have otherwise. The quality of the work is variable but all the people I have worked with have been willing to make corrections and fix the work until I was happy with it.


Communications costs have been same as working with people in the US...and realistically in the US how many of us 1 person shops work with sensitive data....I certainly don't so that is not an issue. I don't have security clearance so.... There are a number of reputable Indian shops, most of them are not cold calling us however. You have to seek them out and most have a stateside office to ensure payments go through legitimate places and deal with reputable banks.


Work that I do like quality cartography I will not outsource to anyone who can't meet the same standards, but if I do find the same quality what is the problem with contracting with someone no matter where they are located. Once you figure out the mechanics it is quite easy.

Derek, you have no problem working with contractors located in other parts of the country, would you hesitate to work with a talented artist in Canada or Europe? Even if they could't open the doors to that countries' lucrative site plan market...I think not.


Quality and cost dictate who I work with. If I could find a way to get contour maps digitized cheap in the US...chances it would be done by prisoners or the providers are themselves outsourcing offshore. Cut out the middlemen in that case and cultivate some quality relationships with trustworthy partners.

As an immigrant to this country I feel no loyalty about keeping jobs here or anywhere for that matter. I feel all work should be paid for fairly wherever it is done. being an American or a Canadian or an Indian does not a birthright to do design and cartography work give.

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#7
Derek Tonn

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Derek, you have no problem working with contractors located in other parts of the country, would you hesitate to work with a talented artist in Canada or Europe? Even if they couldn't open the doors to that countries' lucrative site plan market...I think not.


Martin,

Good question. I do not hesitate to work with a talented artist regardless of locale, be it in the United States, Canada, Europe, India or anywhere else. What I do staunchly insist upon, however, is that the flow of money INTO the United States is equivalent to the flow of money OUT OF the United States if I am going to pursue business relationships "overseas", a TRUE "international partnership". I'm not saying that I cannot/will not outsource work to other countries at all. Rather, I want any international partnerships to also help open doors for us in those same regions...not having it only be a one-way flow of $$$.

Our firm actually just added a designer in London to our team on October 1. He will be helping to handle vector work for us, meaning that several thousand dollars a year will be moving directly from the U.S. to the U.K. as a result. HOWEVER, what he is ALSO doing for us is promoting our map design services within the EU....serving as a local/regional "rep" who can be our eyes and ears on the ground and serve as a friendly face and project manager on the continent. For every $1 in design revenue flowing away from the U.S., our existing American design team will be "importing" at least $1 of new projects from Europe into the U.S. and (locally) the states of Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, California and New York (where our designers are located). Our firm also has partners in Tel Aviv, Israel and British Columbia (Canada), and we're also talking to firms in India and Japan at the moment as well. We are NOT reluctant to pursue international partnerships. To the contrary, in fact.

We had been quietly promoting our campus map design services in Europe for the past 2-3 years, and most institutions would tell us the same thing: "We love your work, but we don't want to outsource to an American company." We're going to try it again with a "local" rep/PM and see if we can fare any better, but one thing that has always bothered me related to global macro-economics is this:

When individuals or institutions from countries outside the United States are not wanting to buy from American firms, they are "preserving and building their local economies". When American individuals and firms are not wanting to buy from firms outside the U.S., they are being "ethnocentric" or "protectionist". :huh: If someone could explain to me that double-standard, I would greatly appreciate it.

I WANT a global marketplace and a global competitive environment, a la "may the best firms win!", as that will ultimately breed a high level of competition and quality. However, I also do not want to be shut-out of other regions of the world simply because I work with an American company....just as other companies from Europe, Africa, Asia, etc. would not want to be shut-out because they do not. I've priced our services against other firms in Europe, Japan, Australia, and other areas. We are competitive if not 20-30% CHEAPER than many "local" providers....with a very competitive portfolio. It's amazing what you can do with a RURAL employee base that works from home instead of having to lease office space in one of the 50-100 largest American MSAs. :P Yet we have frequently been met with "thanks but no thanks" responses in these other regions....precisely because we are an American company. That bothers me....and makes me want to do my tiny, TINY part to try and level the playing field just a bit.

It is an important issue....for all of us! AND (selfishly) an incredibly fun and interesting discussion.

Derek
Derek Tonn
Founder and CEO
mapformation, LLC

datonn@mapformation.com
http://www.mapformation.com

#8
Derek Tonn

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I would stay far away from such solicitations, but Derek's proposition is innovative and makes me ask: so where are the talented cartographers/designers in India? Are they greatly under-employed and what on-line forums can they be found on? Maybe starting a dialogue along this line will put you in touch with the right people.


Thanks Chris. I think I have literally visited every college and university web site in India that exists over the past year or two.....doing screen captures or downloading .pdfs of the mapping resources they make available to their constituents, and most of those images are awful.....TERRIBLE. Very poor craftsmanship in their quality and attention to detail. For the 20+ Indian companies who have approached me during the past few years, my proposition back to them has been this: Give me a team of 2-3 designers locally, and let me work with you/them to develop new and improved mapping resources for your LOCAL/regional educational institutions (not just farming out American projects to them), with those 2-3 designers keeping 80-90% of all gross project revenues (me keeping 10-20% for my time and effort), whether or not institutions are paying the equivalent of $5/hr or $50/hr for the work. An almost "sweetheart deal", right? Wrong, apparently. Every single company I talked to in India, save one, never even responded to my email back to them.

It's honestly not about the money for me. My wife and I knew we would never (and never intended to) "get rich" getting into map design as a career. Rather, my only goal with our business is steady, interesting work for our designers and myself, and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for my family of four. That, and having the freedom to try and pursue another passion of mine: developing improved mapping resources for the visually impaired.

I do not want to train eventual competitors, of course! However, as long as the quality of our work is high and our prices are fair, it will be tough to threaten our business/model over the long term. That, and if we can establish a presence in many other countries/regions in the world, we should have a LOT of "staying power" going forward....helping to weather the next "9/11", recession or war that comes our way. That would be my hope/goal, anyway.

Derek
Derek Tonn
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mapformation, LLC

datonn@mapformation.com
http://www.mapformation.com

#9
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#10
Derek Tonn

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In such a situation all can you do is either cut your prices, or become a mapping broker and lay off your staff.


Jacques,

I honestly think that a lot of the problem is that the greater mapping community is filled with lots of "independent island kingdoms" rather than larger, consolidated organizations. We all like to do things OUR way, using OUR tools, and don't want anyone (other than our clients, and only then when they are nice about it) telling us what to do or how to do it. Hundreds.....THOUSANDS of tiny, 1-2 person firms, all trying to go it alone. Lots of "plankton" floating around at sea....just PRAYING a few whales from other parts of the ocean don't come over to feed.

I think the answer to that problem is consolidation and forming lots of new and innovative collaborative ventures that can bring our NA or EU services overseas.....rather than all of us trying to do it on our own. The best decision I ever made for our business was to swallow my own ego/pride and bring in other people as/more talented than I am on the map design front......offering a diversity of design styles using tools that I personally would not have had the first clue how to work with (nor the inclination to do so, since I had been making maps the same way using the same tools since essentially 1993-1994).

Being in business is like being a shark: the moment you stop swimming, you die, and immediately become food for the remaining entities around you. With that in mind, you are always on either "offense" or "defense", 24/7/365. Personally, I like to have to play "defense" as little as is absolutely possible....as I would much rather bring the fight for clients and $$$ to our competitor's backyards, rather than the other way around. You just have to make sure you don't get greedy and over-extend yourself....only to face what Napoleon's army did in Russia so many years ago...... ;)

I personally believe that the best defense is a good offense when it comes to sales and marketing. Worried about losing contracts in India? Why not open up a small shop in India, hire local designers and bring 10....20.....50 percent of the proceeds from that venture back to Canada or ??? Many of the "Maps 'R Us" types of outfits who will do anything to get you to hire them and deliver sub-par work have left their back-doors WIDE OPEN to firms delivering a higher quality product. The only thing that stops many of the good, high-quality firms represented at NACIS/CartoTalk from taking advantage of this fact? They're too small or unmotivated to play some serious offense in other regions. They have the one key thing they need to compete in other countries (quality of product/portfolio), but just need a little motivation and/or collaboration to get things done.

Most of us didn't get into mapping to do marketing or sales though....I understand that. All I am saying is that a little effort and creative collaboration along those lines would give us ALL a lot more clout and presence in the industry.

Can you tell I think a LOT about this particular issue? Sorry for the "sermonette", everybody. :)

Derek
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#11
MapMedia

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That's a solid argument, Derek. And Martin's preference is also sound.

As cartographers/consultants/small business owners, we are already overworked with projects and business related to-dos, so if I had a business plan that included 'grow!' and could hire someone to propell us that way, I would hope he/she would take Derek's position about 'good defense in good offense' and establish connections around the world. I think any MBA would think you are crazy if you did not.

But, hey, as a small business owner, growth is not one of my top-tier goals, solely because I do not have the time to do so - and if I did, well then, I would be doing less of what I love doing (creating maps!) - counter intuitive.

So, what about threats from countries where cartographers can charge a fraction of what you do (assuming for the same caliber work)? What stops them, also assuming there is an <insert nationality here> cartographer as talented and as ambitious as you, from going after your future clients/projects?

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#13
Derek Tonn

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So, what about threats from countries where cartographers can charge a fraction of what you do (assuming for the same caliber work)? What stops them, also assuming there is an <insert nationality here> cartographer as talented and as ambitious as you, from going after your future clients/projects?


Chris,

Well in our particular case, I think the keys are:

1. Specialization.
2. Honesty and a lack of greed when it comes to profit margins.
3. "Image".

1. Specialization. Many firms make the mistake of trying to be all things to all people, but that creates a lot of confusion related to one's overall marketing message! We decided 4-5 years ago that we were going to try and excel at (and become known for) one primary type of map design: collegiate campus maps. We do get a lot of other projects that are not related to higher education, of course. However, most of our marketing materials (and we HOPE what is conveyed in strong fashion on our web site) mention that we design CAMPUS maps....and if someone is looking to have a map of a collegiate or corporate campus, we want to be in that first 2-3 names mentioned when it comes to firms who specialize in that type of thing. That specialization gives us expertise...both actual and "perceived", and expertise gives us a leg-up in a competitive marketplace.

2. Our firm typically charges less (a LOT less) than many ad agencies, architects, signage companies and other design firms for the type of work that we do, at least in "developed" countries. Are we more expensive than a "Maps 'R Us" firm out of India? Absolutely. However, our "defense" with that is #1 (above). They key to pricing ourselves affordably is to keep our overhead low (home-based offices, using the web as our primary driver for marketing, etc.). We have found that many potential competitors of ours end up becoming CLIENTS...as they realize that they can hire us at our typical rates, then still make a mark-up on top of our prices to their clients. We could just charge what the competition is charging and make FAT margins......but we would have missed out on a LOT of design work over the past several years had we been doing that.

3. Image. We try and look like an 800-pound gorilla in the way that we market ourselves. However, we are just a collection of nine designers, all working from home, who decided that strength in numbers and collaboration is more productive than trying to compete against one another all the time as "independents". We have offices in five US states and in London. Sounds impressive, right? Well, we've got nine HOME-BASED offices in those locations. :) We've got roughly 250-275 clients at our firm. Impressive! Well.....divide 275 across nine designers (an average of roughly 30 apiece), and all of the sudden that sounds pretty, well, ordinary. We never, EVER misrepresent ourselves when promoting our services to prospective clients! However, we have learned that if you THINK and ACT like you are one of the industry leaders at ___________, delivering a caliber of work on the back-end to support those assertions, a lot of the rest becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

I do sometimes worry about other firms trying to come in and target our particular markets. However, for the lion's share of firms out there, if they get 2-3 jobs out from under our noses using predatory pricing or ???, we will take notice....and make a "special effort" to make sure that doesn't happen again. Most folks want nothing to do with the higher education market, however, as it involves LONG approval/funding processes, committees for approving design work (instead of one decision-maker) and low margins. Many firms sitting in an urban or suburban area, not working from home, couldn't afford to enter that type of environment.....but it suits our designers just fine.

One other thought, related to "why doesn't a designer from _________ (another country) come after us?" Folks from outside the U.S. face the same thing we do in trying to go "overseas": "Tie" always, ALWAYS goes to the "local", regional or national provider. You even have instances where institutions do not want to hire a firm simply because they are not from "The South" or "Texas" or ________. It took us YEARS to get past some of those barriers to entry, even within the United States! I can only imagine that a firm from another country would find it 2-3 times MORE difficult.....unless they have a superior product to offer and/or are more affordable on their prices. That's why we've been focusing on LOW overhead and quality of design as we prepare to head into Europe and (hopefully) SE Asia. "Tie" will ALWAYS go to the local provider....so we have to be better, cheaper or both. ;)
Derek Tonn
Founder and CEO
mapformation, LLC

datonn@mapformation.com
http://www.mapformation.com

#14
natcase

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Lots of food for thought. We're looking very seriously at offshore options here; we had a very positive experience on a recent project offshoring via Eastview, and are trying to figure out where we go from here.

One point about Derek's trying to sell to foreign map businesses, and how bad a lot of foreign mapping looks: I think a lot of what we see as garish or just plain ugly in overseas cartography is really a cultural graphic difference. Look at advertising/promotional styles in India or Japan (don't know other ad stylings at all so I can't comment). Each in their own way just looks weird if you're accustomed to European or American stylings... not just a little weird the way American and German ads look next to each other, but off in some fundamental way. But they are what sell there.

I think there's a good reason Western commercial cartography has not penetrated very far outside of European-based graphic cultures: our fundamental graphic values, the ones we hold as bedrock and inform all we do, the Tufte-isms and Imhof-isms, might be useful and informative elsewhere, but they are not the himanity-wide bedrock we take them for. If one really wants to penetrate any foreign market (and that includes markets within the western carto-community), one needs to go in asking what they need (and it may not be the graphic expertise that our eye tells us is lacking), learning deeply about not just map traditions but more broadly about pictorial traditions and geographic traditions. Sense of place and space and so on. To the extent that we want to sell tools, we need to be sure our tools run on local current and fit local metrics.

Nat Case
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#15
MapMedia

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Fair point. In other words, you would study the market and do some R&D in order to determine how best to serve it. You may find out that 'garish' maps are in demand and this might be a target market.

Personally, and I may be arrogant or just stubborn, I would be obliged to offer a better map product (compare their maps aside mine) and let them decide which level of cartography they want in their publications, etc. Even do a focus group - which might be all you need to get in the door.




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