Tech & Work

Meet the Geek Squad

Hard drive crash in the middle of the night? Network acting up? TCP/IP giving you fits? Call the Geek Squad. Bob Weinstein explores the success of the Minneapolis-based company and the man behind it.

You wouldn’t offend Robert Stephens if you called him a geek.

While Bill Gates embodied the “geek” style, Stephens, 30, elevated it to “cool,” especially when you consider that the term helped make him a millionaire.

Stephens heads the thriving Minneapolis-based Geek Squad, a computer problem-solving company that already has created its own brand identity.

Far more than your stereotypical geek obsessed with computers to the exclusion of everything else, he bills himself as "chief inspector" of his 24-hour quick response team that promises to fix any computer problem.

The 35 techs who work for him are called "Special Agents" and tool around Minneapolis in black-and-white VW Geekmobiles, with "Geek Squad" emblazoned on the cars' sides. Each agent proudly dons the signature Geek Squad uniform of starched white shirt, clip-on black tie, black pants, and matching black jacket.

Gimmicky? You bet.

But, behind the eye-catching uniforms and sporty cars is a thriving business. A techie blessed with unusual entrepreneurial instincts, Stephens has created a unique business that has captured national headlines. He’s even written a book, the recently released The Geek Squad Guide to Solving Any Computer Glitch.

His business is an inspiration to aggressive techies with fantasies of capitalizing on the mounting demand for computer support technicians. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, ranks such jobs as one of the five fastest-growing occupations (the other four hot jobs are computer engineers, systems analysts, database administrators, and desktop publishing specialists).

From pittance to profits
The concept for Stephens’ company struck him in 1994 when running a small consulting business while studying for a computer science degree at the University of Minnesota. Launched that same year, The Geek Squad enjoyed immediate success.

From a measly $40,000 the first year, Stephens expects revenues of $3 million this year. That's a pittance, however, to what he could be earning if he gave into greed and opened divisions (Stephens would probably call them "bureaus") or franchises in other cities. He boasts that he gets at least a few buyout, merger, or franchise offers every month.

But, Stephens is not about to give up intimate control over the business he meticulously planned down to the tiniest details. The name Geek Squad? "It has a sense of urgency." The uniforms? "They're a powerful marketing tool," Stephens said. “It improves our image, but it’s also a great recruiting tool.”

Aside from the name and the uniforms, Stephens is running a well-managed business where his most saleable asset is not a cool image but impeccable work. He says “most people want an opportunity to do great work.” Stephens gives it to them by giving them a platform to be heroes to local businesses whose technology has failed them.

"The techs are not really geeks, just cool people who love computers,” says Stephens. “You have to like and trust these guys because they really love what they do."

Stephens says he once thought money was the number one motivator, but it's actually the self-esteem that comes from being passionate about what you do. His secret to running a business? “Give people the opportunity to do a great job, and then pay them well for their efforts.”

Stephens wouldn’t go into detail, but he says there is no ceiling on what his techs can earn. Beyond a base salary, they can also earn hefty commissions.

Recruiting the best
Stephens doesn’t have to search for talented workers. In the tech community, he’s somewhat of a legend and gets about 500 resumes every week from techs all over the country anxious to relocate to Minneapolis. However, only a few meet his high standards.

The job description for special agent on his Web site reads, “Impeccable verbal communication skills a must. General familiarity with PC systems, software and hardware necessary. Help desk experience is a plus but not required. Organizational skills should be at anal-retentive levels or higher. Must look good in a clip-on tie.”

Stephens doesn’t care where potential employees got their experience. “Some agents have taken some college courses, most haven’t,” he said. “Many worked at stores like Kinko’s; most are self-taught. Practically none are certified.”

There is no shortage of techs running thriving little businesses across the country. Like Stephens' Geek Squad, many are 7-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day operations. The difference is that Stephens has capitalized on the demand to the point where he’s practically created a brand identity for his company. Who’s to say you couldn’t do the same thing? To learn more about the Geek Squad, visit their Web site.
Have you turned the demand for skilled high-tech workers into a business? What are you offering to recruit the best workers? Let us know. Send us an e-mail or post a comment below.

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