A look at the first 10 years of my cartography business

I’m finally able to say my business is where I want it to be. It took a long time to get here, but it’s thriving and I get to work with so many interesting people on a wide variety of projects. It’s just the career I envisioned when I went back to school to learn cartographic design, after being laid off from a tech company 12 years ago.

It was a shock to be laid off, but I wasn’t disappointed because it wasn’t a satisfying career. I like creating things, being able to show something at the end of a day’s work, and I couldn’t do that in my job in a cubicle farm.

I love print maps. Whether as decoration, or to help you find your way when travelling and exploring, I think they are invaluable.

So being laid off set me on a path that gave me the life and career I wanted.

Becoming a cartographer

After graduating from Fleming College’s GIS Cartographic Specialist program, I worked for a time at an archaeology company, creating dozens of maps every day. I loved making those maps, but it was stressful. When I left there, I continued working for them for a few months as a freelancer to finish up a longer-term project. That’s when I realized I could start my own business and find my own clients.

Becoming a freelancer

I celebrated April 8 as my 10th anniversary, because that’s when I registered my business as Jewel CartoGrafx.

It was a very tough go at the start. I signed up for multiple online freelancing sites and it took almost a year to get a contract. It was quite demoralizing, with many clients wanting the lowest bid. I took some very low-paying contracts just to get experience and reviews on those platforms.

I kept plugging away at it, getting more and more contracts on those freelancing sites. In-between client projects, I designed my website and learned about marketing and sales.

Finding other cartographers

I’ve worked from my home office since starting my business. I wanted to meet other map-makers, and the next NACIS (North American Cartographic Information Society) conference was driving distance away, in Pittsburgh. So I joined and attended, and fell in love with it. I look forward to the NACIS conference every year – it’s so energizing and at that point in my business, when I was really struggling and not sure if I could continue, attending the conference reminded me why I do what I do.

Redefining my business

By 2016 I hit a plateau – I was working on a lot of projects and tons of hours, but not making a decent living yet.

So I searched for training in business development. I found a 3-month course, offered online to a small group of women, and learned a LOT about marketing and finding my ideal clients. It was enough to help me set a focus for my business. I rebranded my business as Julie Witmer Custom Map Design and relaunched my website.

Finding support

One of the things I learned from the business development course was the importance of networking. I was not comfortable with that, but forced myself to attend a few graphic design networking events locally.

I also joined the Greater Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, specifically for their peer support groups that address marketing and business development topics. I look forward to those every month and we all support each other. Even now, years later, I still find value in those open discussions about our difficulties and successes.

Growing my business

By 2019 I was attending multiple networking events every month and meeting a lot of new people. My business is global, not local, so I wasn’t attending to find clients, but rather to get out and talk to people in person. Remember, I’d been working from my home office for 6 years by that point.

One of my favourite networking events was hosted by the Freedom Cafe in Kitchener (now called Office On-Demand – and whose address I use on my website as my virtual office). Through them I met some fantastic people who provided wonderful support, for marketing, ads, email outreach, and more. I entered and won a competition called Build Your Own Business, and had weekly coaching sessions that were immensely helpful.

Expanding my business

By 2020, my business was heading in the right direction. The foundation was solid and I had started running Google Search Ads (Freedom Cafe and Digital Main Street helped with that) and launched quarterly newsletters for people who signed up on my website.

Then everything stopped due to the pandemic. Existing projects were put on hold, and no one was starting new projects for several months. So I did what I always do – refocused my efforts on my business. I started an online shop with simple print-on-demand maps, so I spent a lot of time designing those. And of course still wrote blogs and newsletters to keep in touch.

I had also been active on social media, and worked with Tim Campbell-Smith, a local social media strategist, to help me figure that out.

Defining success

The downturn did not last long, and whether as a result of my Google Ads, my focus on getting client reviews for my Google Business profile, or my efforts on social media, business picked up, and fast!

Since the summer of 2021 I have been busy constantly, with anywhere from 5-10 (sometimes up to 12) projects at once! 

But the nice thing about working for myself is that I can schedule my own time while meeting client deadlines. So if it’s going to be a beautiful day and I want to go for a walk, meet someone for coffee, or go kayaking, I do. I just make sure to get my work done first, even if I have to work into the evening the day before.

I no longer work on weekends – I stopped that a while ago – to make sure I keep some time for myself and my family and friends.

Sharing knowledge

I am now able to provide support for other small business owners in the Chamber peer groups, talking about what worked or didn’t work for me. And, as when I was starting out, you take all these pieces of information you get from everyone and find out what will work for you. 

And if I’m fully-booked or if there is someone who is more experienced in specific techniques or mapping technologies, I am in a place that I can pass work or refer prospective clients on to other cartographers.

Recently I’ve done presentations about my business and maps: for a Fleming College class, for the Canadian Cartographic Association AGM, for the Avenza User Conference. This summer I’ll be part of a panel at the CCA conference, on the practice of independent cartography in Canada.

So I am happy and satisfied in the knowledge that I built this business from scratch, with a lot of hard work and a lot of support. Cartography may be a niche business, but there is definitely a demand for custom maps. My clients find me and I love making maps that show what’s important to them!

Read more…

Blog posts

Please follow me on LinkedInInstagram, or Facebook