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MAPPS Small Business: Growing Through Adversity

August 31, 2011
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As I sat down to write this article, I received word that a project had been delayed (yet again), another one had been pulled because of contractual issues, and an employee was requesting extended time off--all before 8:45 a.m. As frustrating as that might sound, it wasn’t unusual for our small mapping services firm. In the Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech, there’s a particularly memorable line that states, “…it’s how you deal with adversity which determines how well you will succeed.” This quote sums up my philosophy on running a business.

I purchased an existing mapping firm in 2003, and we were poised (in my opinion) to take off in the late 2007 timeframe. The economic downturn changed everything. We’ve had to react quickly and aggressively to ensure the long-term viability of our firm. Here are some strategies I’ve learned along the way that can help you make the most of your resources in any economy.

1. Educate and cross-train your employees. During the peak of the recession, we reduced hours and salary but maintained everyone’s benefits. This meant that each employee had to develop new skills in working with different software (perhaps a stereo-compiler learned the orthophoto production process), writing proposals, or other areas.

This turned out to be an excellent strategy. Employees had to embrace new skills (and didn’t have time to challenge the process since they were just happy to keep their job), my immediate costs were contained, I was able to continue to keep the business open, and I had the loyalty of my employees when they returned full-time in the spring.

2. Upgrade your hardware. I invested in LiDAR software and training in 2010, so I haven’t had the funds to upgrade my softcopy photogrammetric hardware and software this year. However, in anticipation of that softcopy purchase sometime in the future, I have purchased a new graphics card with significant memory (there are excellent deals out there), which allows for faster viewing and roaming in stereo, especially when working with large color images. This is a relatively inexpensive investment that yields faster throughput and makes me wonder why I did not do it sooner.

3. Utilize your networking opportunities. Professional associations are an excellent way to forge new business relationships and explore new markets. Although the membership fees can seem steep for small firms, the value of participating in a strong organization that works with and for your business is immeasurable. In the five years that I have been a member of MAPPS, I’ve seen an increase in our revenue, an improvement in our clientele, and an enhanced understanding of our role within the greater geospatial framework.

As you evaluate networking opportunities, be careful not to dismiss broader meetings and conferences as irrelevant to your business. For example, MAPPS offers four conferences per year, and one of these is the MAPPS Federal Programs Conference, which is usually held mid-March in the Washington, D.C. area. At first, I didn’t understand how this event applied to our firm since we rarely provide direct services to federal agencies. I usually focused on opportunities in my geographic region in the northeast and did not ponder how our firm is part of the national economy. However, I now have a different perspective. For example, if the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is requiring classified services, there might be overflow work for our firm in the commercial arena since the large mapping firms may not be able to accommodate both the classified and commercial sectors at the same time. Participating in the broad range of MAPPS events has helped me identify new opportunities for our firm.

4. Participate in your educational organizations. Having access to mentors, skilled technicians, expert analysts, scientists and researchers, and other problem-solvers can be invaluable for a small firm. For our firm, participating in the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) has been a huge benefit. Attending ASPRS conferences gives me a chance to reconnect with old contacts and meet new people, learn about new software and hardware, and stay abreast of the latest technologies.

5. Maximize your marketing opportunities. A side benefit to participating in professional associations and societies is that many of them offer marketing opportunities that can be of tremendous value to any size firm. For example, sustaining members of MAPPS have the opportunity for their firm’s logo to be prominently displayed on every PowerPoint presentation at every conference.

The MAPPS Geospatial Excellence Awards competition is another good marketing opportunity. Entering the poster competition allows us to showcase our best quality work, tell a compelling story, and demonstrate how our firm is actively involved in solving problems. Our clients also get a boost when we enter the competition using their projects. Additionally, the award program gives us a chance to recognize our employees for their work. It’s not often that key technical staff sees the end product; this competition provides them with the big-picture overview of how their work impacts the economy. Entries are on display during the Excellence Awards program and are viewed by a number of our peers and colleagues, and the winning projects are highlighted in POB. It is an opportunity to celebrate our success!

To maximize the effort that I have put into the poster and accompanying write-up, I have our marketing firm also develop a one-page sell sheet of the project using our own logo and layout and modifying the text. This layout also goes onto our website for even more marketing exposure.

6. Use your business development corporations and PTACs. When I first took over the business, I found myself frustrated with what the development corporations and professional technical assistance centers (PTACs) were able to offer in terms of help: QuickBooks training, obtaining funding, etc. None of these offerings were very helpful to me in terms of making payroll and managing cash flow. Their business counselors seemed to offer platitudes, and I viewed them as the “social workers” of the small business world.

Fast forward a few years. Our business has matured, and I’m now able to utilize their services for the maximum benefit of our firm. For example, PTAC frequently arranges a town-hall meeting with our senators and representatives. Attendees are by invitation only, and topics usually focus on the small business. Participating in these events is the state-based liaison for federal agencies such as the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and Small Business Association (SBA). I try to attend (or have someone from our company attend) many of these events, which are usually free or have a nominal fee associated with them. I also introduce myself to the panel so that when I do need these agencies’ services, they will have an idea of who I am, what our company does, and how they can best assist us. For example, we have been exploring the idea of a GSA Schedule Contract; due to our frequent participation in these meetings, I am on a first-name basis with the individual who would be able to help us understand the requirements.

Our connections through these organizations have also led to a recent television appearance (an excellent marketing opportunity!) and access to a skilled professional who is helping us understand how to best position our firm in the social media realm. Our participation with these organizations has had a long lead-in time, but I am always looking to the future, and now these relationships are paying off.

None of us wants to face adversity. We all yearn to operate in easy markets with broad margins. But like it or not, adversity defines our character and our business. My outlook is that every setback is just temporary. By using each challenge to help us shape our business goals, we can achieve even greater success in the future.

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