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Getting started as a freelance cartographer


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#1
Nick Springer

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Since there are very few large pure cartography firms in the world, many new cartographers, especially those more interested in designing and producing maps - rather than just GIS - often find they need to go it on their own.

My best advice is to start freelancing part-time until you have a client base. It will probably take some time to get a steady base of clients, and you will probably find it difficult to support yourself on the early trickle of projects. Of course you need to be careful because some employers don’t take kindly to side work, especially if it is in a similar industry. The other approach is to start a freelance business based on a large contract that can support you, but make sure you think about what happens when that job is finished.

Start with a professional looking website showing samples of your work. If you don't feel you are capable of doing a good job on your own, get a designer friend to help you out or even hire a struggling freelance web designer. Potential clients WILL make a snap judgment of your skills based on the look of your site, even though your web skills have nothing to do with your cartographic skills.

Promotion is the next step. A simple place to start is Google's AdWord program. For a set daily budget you can create simple ads that will be shown when people search for your selected keywords.

Make a list of companies that use the kinds of maps you want to make (print, web, artsy, etc.). Magazines, newspapers, book publishers, real-estate agencies, real-estate developers, and communication companies are just some of the kinds of companies that need maps.

Think about creating a printed promotional piece (the more professional looking the better) and send this brochure or sample sheet to the companies on your list. Try to address it to the Design Director or similar position. You can even call the companies and often find out their name.

If you are very new to cartography, a good way to start is to contact established cartographers and see if they need any freelance help. This is a great way to build a portfolio and make contacts.

One of the most difficult aspects is figuring out what to charge. You can go two ways with pricing: hourly or flat rate.

If you go with an hourly rate then you can better control getting paid for the actual work done. However clients can sometimes be resistant to open-ended hourly contracts. They will probably want an estimate and possibly a "not-to-exceed" price.

A flat rate appeals to clients because they know exactly what they will be paying. You have to be very careful to put the exact details of the project deliverables in writing before starting any work so both you and the client agree on what they are getting for the price. Flat rates can be tricky until you have some experience figuring out how long it will take to produce a specific map.

One way to approach flat rate pricing and base the price on how much a project is worth to you rather than based on estimated hours. For instance, look at the client’s project request and figure out at what price point it would not be worth the effort. Some small projects may not take a lot of production time, but the overhead of client management, research, and data acquisition make it not worth the effort except at a higher rate. You will have to set that price point for yourself.

Also, don’t sell yourself short by think that a client won’t pay enough. If your price is too high for the client, don’t just cut the rate. Come up with a different solution that is less costly. Don’t give them the same amount of work for less money. Remember too, your experience level definitely should be a factor. Gaining experience and building your portfolio when you are starting out is worth more than money sometimes.

No matter which method of pricing you choose, it absolutely necessary to put the project specs and costs in writing and get the clients signature that way there is much less room for disputes later on. Create a “Statement of Work” that outlines the form and size and number of maps, what data will be shown (and if there are any data licensing fees), the project schedule, how many iterations of the initial design, and the project costs and payment terms.

In the end you should enjoy what your are doing, and don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to get some momentum going.

Nick Springer

Director of Design and Web Applications: ALK Technologies Inc.
Owner: Springer Cartographics LLC


#2
Hans van der Maarel

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I would like to add some of my own comments. Not just cartography-related, but some general stuff as well. It's mostly based on my experience from the past 8 months. In random order...

1: You can cut cost by using open source software.
-OpenOffice is a great replacement for Microsoft Office, and can be downloaded for free from openoffice.org. It's almost 100% compatible to MS Office in terms of opening files. Version 2 (coming soon) even has a database component, which is the only thing v1 lacks.
- The Gimp is a good alternative for Photoshop. One minor gripe though: it won't handle GeoTiff's nicely. Its interface takes some getting used to, but there's an add-on available that can make it look like Photoshop. You can get The Gimp from
gimp.org
- Not open source, but very cheap, are Manifold and Globalmapper. Both are in the $200 area and can do pretty much the same as ArcGIS or MapInfo.

2: It pays to keep an eye on forums like Cartotalk. Not necessarily to score an assignment, but it's always good to get your name out there, get in touch with people, find out what they want and so on. It's also a good idea to subscribe to a few magazines, either print or online.

3: Be confident in yourself and the products you deliver. This will make your clients feel confident in you.

4: When answering a request for a price-quote, try to get as much style-related information as possible. The customer has a certain mental image of the map they want. The key here is to come up with something that's as close as possible to this image.

5: Check your legal requirements and do so before actually starting your business (and not, like me, after you've done so). Things to keep in mind are taxes (sales tax, income tax), insurance and so on. Some important insurances:
- damages (any damage that you might do to clients)
- legal support
- health!! (what happens if you get ill and are not able to work for a month?)

6: Prioritize. I've found that I've often had to seriously juggle time in order to please all my clients (and retain my sanity in the process). There will always be some insecurity though.

7: Debt collection... If you have only a small number of clients, and one of them doesn't pay on time, you've got a problem on your hands. On one hand you don't want risk losing that client, but on the other hand you need to pay your bills as well. It's a difficult decision to make, and I would recommend that you are very very careful with this.

8: Save money whenever you can. Just in case.

That's about all I can think of at the moment. Don't get me wrong, I love being self-employed, but it's stressful sometimes. Don't let this discourage anybody though.
Hans van der Maarel - Cartotalk Editor
Red Geographics
Email: hans@redgeographics.com / Twitter: @redgeographics

#3
Derek Tonn

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One other thought I have here too, on top of EXCELLENT comments from Nick and Hans, would be to select a very specific target market for your service...then spend 2-3+ years to try and develop yourself into an "expert" or "specialist" within that particular segment of the industry. So many small business owners fail because they try to be all things to all people....as the need for short-term cashflow during the start-up phase of their business "forces" them to take on any and every project that comes across their desk, whether that type of map design is one of their specialties or not. I think it is better to be able to say that "we are one of the best at _________" instead of trying to be all things at all people. If you're not the best at something, you'll probably be forced to compete on price. The more people have to compete on price, the lower the margins that everyone generates on their work, which hurts both yourself AND your competitors in the long-run.

Also, consider consolidation as opposed to making a go of it on your own. My firm operated "on an island" for the first 2-3 years of its existence...developing only vector-based work for our clients. Prospective clients either loved our style/look or didn't care for our style/look. Over the next few years, we decided that the best method for growing our business was to offer multiple looks/styles/solutions within the same core product offerings. We found other small, independent design shops who offered a nice, different look to our own to join our team...effectively serving as a sort of "artist's rep" for their services, with their designers joining our staff. The net result has been an explosion of new clients and business over the past two years, which makes me want to try and consolidate within the industry even more!

There is no "best" blueprint to go about carving out a living for oneself designing maps. Rather we each have to decide what we're really good at and what we enjoy doing, then work our tail's off to try and become one of the best in our particular niche of map design! Starting a small, independent shop was incredibly time-consuming and stressful for me. Had it not been for a few large, early clients taking a chance on a small firm with a "thin" portfolio, we never would have survived without merging with another larger firm! Still, I wouldn't go back and change a single thing, as we emerged after 3+ years of struggles as a company that should hopefully be around for the long-term. That's tremendous, as it means I get to keep making maps for a living....instead of only as a "moonlighting" gig.... ;)

Good luck, everybody!

Derek
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mapformation, LLC

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http://www.mapformation.com

#4
frax

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I am considering starting up on my own with a year. I have the possibility to scale down/phase out my current job and continue consulting (for them) while I chase other things. I also have an idea for a book thing that I would like to look into (which I don't have much clue how to do though...)

So the tips are very welcome! thanks.

/me hopes that my boss doesn't read this... :)
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#5
EcoGraphic

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If you are considering going freelance and will be launching your own website to try and attract work, you should check out this book:

SEO Book :: Search Engine Optimization by Aaron Wall

I do a fair amount of search engine optimization right now and this is the best source of info I have found so far on how the search engines are actually ranking sites.

Cheers,

Gillian
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#6
Matthew Hampton

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Wouldn't it be great if there was a website for freelance cartographers to find and bid on work?

I guess you can't just sit around and wait for something to fall into you lap.

I wonder how successful SEO really is for directing traffic and attracting work? My impression is that there is a derth of hungry freelance cartographers and not a lot of work to go around.

co-cartographic creator of boringmaps.com


#7
ELeFevre

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I wonder how successful SEO really is for directing traffic and attracting work?  My impression is that there is a derth of hungry freelance cartographers and not a lot of work to go around.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>



Here's a tool that can help you figure out what keywords are being used by people searching for cartographic work. I believe the results are based on Google, Yahoo, MSN, PPC advertising results.:Overture.com

Click on the "keyword selector" tool and enter a search term in the blank field. This will tell you how many times the phrase (and related phrases) were searched during the previous month or so...



#8
Mike H

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One of the approaches I used as a freelancer was to pay attention to local publications/organizations with bad maps. Since they allready have some kind of map in production, it was easy to show them ways to greatly improve it, and that opened the door for a longterm relationship. So many of those maps are not made by cartographers - they are from ad agencies/graphic designers, and often missed the mark in a few categories. Selling them on the idea of improving thier existing maps was a lot easier than convincing a client with no maps that they needed some.

The biggest surprise most freelancers face is the reality that you spend more time chasing down potential clients, and doing the whole backend paperwork thing, than actually making maps. It really makes a huge difference if you can get at least one 'bread and butter' client. Often that client is your existing employer.

m.
Michael Hermann
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www.purplelizard.com

#9
Derek Tonn

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Wouldn't it be great if there was a website for freelance cartographers to find and bid on work? 

I guess you can't just sit around and wait for something to fall into you lap.

I wonder how successful SEO really is for directing traffic and attracting work?  My impression is that there is a derth of hungry freelance cartographers and not a lot of work to go around.



Matthew,

Actually, if CartoTalk continues to build upon the momentum it has generating, there is NO reason why we couldn't also solicit RFPs and project leads for members to bid on in a type of "clearinghouse" of listings at cartotalk.com...... ;)

I've been working on/around this issue for 6+ years. Most of the mapping RFPs I come across are somewhat "closed" processes and are only shared via word-of-mouth referrals and/or very localized announcements (local newspapers, listservs, etc.) I do come across some RFPs in university system web sites, government sites and/or general sites that market the services of hundreds/thousands of freelance graphic designers and illustrators as well. 99% of the artists/illustrators do not list mapping as a service, however, so not many people tend to post RFPs in those types of online services.

The best thing I think we can do is try to "organize" somewhat as an industry....developing a strong rapport and relationships with one another in places such as CartoTalk, then be open/honest enough to clue one another in on potential job leads that happen to come up. I've been doing this in a "micro" sense....taking seven independent freelancers (myself included) and organizing us under one collective umbrella, soon to be known as "mapformation". The seven of us working together has been MUCH more strong/powerful then when we were marketing our services independently. I'm sure all of us have at least a touch of artist's/designer's "ego"....wanting things done our way, in our style, using our preferred software, with our rules. I know I was guilty of that as well :( , as I started my own firm back in 2000 after I got tired of working under what I considered to be an inferior business model. However, I got over that in 2002, and it's been "all system's go" for our business ever since.

Also, I think clearly defining each of our own niches and areas of expertise is critical to establishing a very healthy flow of leads and information as well. Some of us are going to be competing directly on certain types of projects. However, I think that many more of us will see how we compliment one another (rather than compete), and the more we talk and explore potential collaboration, the better we will all be in the end.

FWIW, I encourage many of our potential clients to visit: http://www.tonnhaus.com/designcart.htm as they are considering our firm for their projects. We might actually lose a job or two because of it, but I know that the friendly relationships we have established with many of the firms listed have resulted in at least that much work being referred back to us! B)

My $0.02. Hope that helps....
Derek Tonn
Founder and CEO
mapformation, LLC

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

#10
Polaris

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I wholeheartedly agree with Derek's sentiments on "organize"ing the carto industry - and I admire his accomplishments in this direction.

Since I started my business I have striven to build collaborative relationships with other related firms and have had many false starts and some small successes, but I still don't even have a really good referral list for when a client needs something that I can't provide - or that someone else could provide better or more cost effectively.

Lately, it has been on my list to put some more research into a referral list, but I'm afraid that I still haven't acted on it. I thought, for example, that cartotalk members might fill in a 'capabilities chart' or some such.

I often suggest that my client's contact a couple of folks on the NACIS list before hiring me - it helps to build trust and to educate my clients. Most of the time, I end up with the work because I have established that rapport with the client. Just yesterday, I suggested a potential client look at Cartotalk to see if he could find some other cartographers who might better serve him. What I would like to be able to do, however, is send a client to a specific firm because I know their capabilities and trust that they will do great work and be great to work with - this would ideally include, photographers/artists/illustrators/writers/graphic designers/printers... etc..

Eric

BTW, I wonder how one gets on Derek's list? - I for one, would like to be added - that is, of course, if Derek (and co.) feel that I belong there. I am putting it on my list to add a similar list to my web site.

#11
Martin Gamache

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Eric,

You may not have noticed that Nick recently added a Resources section on the site where you can put a link to your company and where other companies are listed.
http://www.cartotalk...s&CODE=02&cat=1

I think this is a good step in that direction and it may be a place where you can refer clients to.

#12
Derek Tonn

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Eric,

Ask and ye shall receive! :lol: I'll make sure to add a link to your site to our "industry" lists as soon as our new web site is launched in the coming weeks.

I also REALLY like to hear that you are referring people to potential competitors before making a final decision to hire you. I do the same thing....and find that practice usually helps to "close the deal" with prospective clients. They realize that if you are confident enough to share names and information of other firms they might hire, you MUST be both good and affordable enough to secure their contract. It is that type of counter-intuitive practice that I love to incorporate into our own marketing efforts.

I am also glad to hear that you work to help educate your prospective clients during the process of talking/working with you! Actually, one of the best parts of our new web site launch will be an educational component that we are dubbing "tonnhaus university". Basically, we will be creating a how-to guide for developing maps and then making the most of using them post-design. Some people have looked at me and thought that type of practice is financial suicide...giving away some of the "secrets" of our firm for the whole world to see! I, on the other hand, see it as a golden marketing opportunity to help cement ourselves as "experts" in the minds of prospective clients within our particular target markets.

Over the last 2+ years, our goal as a firm has honestly been to become "THE" firm in North America related to campus mapping...not simply one of a sea of alternatives out there for people to choose from. If I am on a listserv or a discussion board and someone asks "Does anyone out there know who I could contact to design a vector/raster/hand-rendered map of my campus?!", I consider it to be a failure on my part if we aren't one of the first 2-3 names mentioned by listserv members out there.

We are all (hopefully) stronger together than we are apart! It is a terrible analogy, but I always think of the movie "The Godfather" when it comes to this type of business strategy. We all could have our own small, independent outfits...all struggling to survive while driving each other's prices and margins down to nothing through a much greater quantity of repetitive competition! However, we could also consider working together, each defining our own "territory" (expertise) and working collaboratively as a larger unit to achieve efficiencies of scale....making our marketing dollars and various business expenditures stretch MUCH farther than they could on their own. That is what each of our seven designers on-staff has done over the past 3-4 years, and it has resulted in outstanding growth in our collective firm. I'm not talking about any form of "collusion" or anything shady. Rather, I'm talking about the power that comes with developing a "one stop shop" in the minds of prospective clients of our services.

A friend and former professor of mine was talking to me back when I was just getting started as an independent, and he basically told me "eat or be eaten." What he meant was that for me to remain as a one-person freelance cartography shop would always be a struggle and/or a very inefficient use of financial resources. He basically told me that in order to grow and thrive as a firm, I would either need to:

1. Position myself as a potential acquisition or takeover target for a larger firm, or

2. Find other designers to join me and grow our own company via merger/acquisition/partnership.

I chose the latter (though if somebody came up to me and made me an offer I couldn't refuse, I'd happily go back to being a designer on somebody else's team...IF I could bring my existing designers with me). However, either way, that was the best advice on being a small business owner that I've ever received.

If people are doing mapping/cartography as a "hobby job", it's not as big of a deal. If you're like me though, and this is the sole source of income for my family of four, I can't afford to be inefficient and/or have people undercut our work to the point of having no profit margins left to pay the bills.

Anyway, that's my $1.25! :P Sorry for the LONG post.

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

#13
Matthew Hampton

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I find it very refreshing to read about such transparent business models and to continually find good natured people in this field.

As a full time gov't cartographer/GIS Analyst and part time freelancer it gives me motivation to keep developing/evolving and perhaps one day stick out my own shingle.

co-cartographic creator of boringmaps.com


#14
DHissemGISCARTO

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Wouldn't it be great if there was a website for freelance cartographers to find and bid on work?

I guess you can't just sit around and wait for something to fall into you lap.

I wonder how successful SEO really is for directing traffic and attracting work? My impression is that there is a derth of hungry freelance cartographers and not a lot of work to go around.


There is a site for that specifically Matthew ... http://www.freelancer.com/ does have some cartography/maps contracts that you can search for and find the odd piece of work, but I need to digress to the more prominent members of CartoTalk when they say that getting the contracts is more a leg work and research matter then a specified site that you become dependent upon, but then again what do I know I am such a new member to the cartographic community and I am having a lot of the problems that a new developer has, like finding the contracts.
Darryl Hissem
"The virtue of maps, they show what can be done!"

#15
dvd mccutcheon

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Wouldn't it be great if there was a website for freelance cartographers to find and bid on work?

I guess you can't just sit around and wait for something to fall into you lap.

I wonder how successful SEO really is for directing traffic and attracting work? My impression is that there is a derth of hungry freelance cartographers and not a lot of work to go around.


There is a site for that specifically Matthew ... http://www.freelancer.com/


I have been on this site for 6 months now, and have only seen about 8-10 Cartography jobs. There was no Cartography/Maps category at all until I requested one. I've put bids in on a few jobs but have yet to earn a bean from it. You will find that you are competing globally, and there always seems to be someone willing to do the work for a goat, or a bag of rice.

Also the practicalities of using the site need to be considered. For example all payments go through www.freelancer.com, and it may take a while for them to release the funds to the supplier, after taking a 10% cut. All communications between supplier/employer should go through the site too - communicate directly and they get stroppy, as it cuts them out of the loop.

Worth a look, but read through all the terms and understand how it operates before registering.

David McCutcheon FBCart.S
dvdmaps.co.uk





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