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Computer Support Business?

By EMJ ·
As I have had a lot of time to think recently (since being laid off for the past 4 months now), I was considering posting an ad in the local newspaper and various bulletin boards for the support of home users. I figure there are people out there who would love someone to come into their home to help with the everything computer-related, from purchase to installation, and beyond (especially home-based business owners).

I recently assisted my mother-in-law with a Windows XP upgrade of her 5 year old computer (including downloading of various updates, software and memory purchases and installation) and found it very enjoyable (and very doable). I have seen a couple of ads in our local newspaper already (all posted by men) and the difference is that I'm a woman, and I think some people may feel more comfortable speaking with me (especially other women), and I have 10+ years of technical experience backing me up.

In order to cover myself, and to assess the situation, I would give everyone an initial consultation (for free), and then determine whether or not I could do the job (and refer them elsewhere if I could not). Other ads are charging $60 p/h, I figure I would charge $50 p/h. Does anyone know anything about starting up such a business, and what tools I would need to be fully prepared? As I'm just in the thinking stage, I would like to get as many opinions/suggestions as possible. Thank you.

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Legal and utilities

by TheChas In reply to Computer Support Business ...

Hi EMJ,

Going into peoples homes is a LOT different than starting a store-front or home based business.

If you are in the US, start by contacting a lawyer and / or your insurance agent.

The lawyer is to help you with the legal wording on your business agreements and invoices.

Your insurance agent can help you determine liability insurance and if you need to become bonded.

Next, check with the city, county and state to both license your business and verify any sales tax issues that you need to keep track of.

Depending on where you are, you might want to consider making some neighborhoods off limits without personal references for the individual.

As far as tools, you want to have a large inventory of device drivers and updates on CD.

On your list of drivers, include the setup disks from the major hard drive manufactures.

You can use the Windows Update Catalog page to download all available updates for the "supported" versions of Windows.

http://v4.windowsupdate.microsoft.com/catalog/en/default.asp

Remove any spaces from the pasted link.

Before adding any free-ware utilities to your arsenal, make sure to read the EULA to keep yourself and your clients out of trouble.

Knowledge:
Make sure that you are well versed in:
Networking
TCP/IP
Modems
RAM issues
Drive overlay software
Registry
Legacy system files

Parts:
You want to have ready access to the following parts:
CPU fans,
Power supplies
Modems (I recommend external)
Cables
Mouse
Keyboard
Floppy and CD drives.

Personally, I don't think that you need or want to go on site to estimate most repairs.
You might want to discuss the issue over the phone. Then gather up the expected supplies so you can make your estimate and complete the repairs on a single visit.

Setting up a network or installing a broadband connection would require a visit and estimate before-hand.

Chas

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Thank you!

by EMJ In reply to Legal and utilities

Hi, TheChas, thank you for taking the time to list the important factors that will go into this business should I choose to pursue it. I will certainly do my research as far as the liability and tax issues I may encounter with this type of business.

I agree that a phone consultation might be the way to go initially, so that I can be prepared for when I encounter the person and their computer issue personally. And I was planning on limiting myself to my town and the surrounding towns of which I am well acquainted. With regard to having hardware on-hand, my thought was to assist the computer owner in the purchasing of hardware, but would make them soley responsible. I wish to only charge for my time and labor.

As far as setting up networking, I would probably only go so far as to set up a single computer with DSL or cable, but the person would need to contact the company directly and purchase any additional hardware they may need.

I may even contact those who are in the business already, and get some of their input (if they will even speak to someone who may potentially become their competition). Basically, I would start this company as an aside to getting a full-time position with an established company sometime in the future. I think what I would need to find out, if at all possible, is how lucrative this could potentially be. How does one go about doing a survey on new businesses? Additionally, I will need to get information about setting up a business plan. Looks like I have a lot of work ahead of me if this is what I want to do. This is something I've been thinking about for a while, and something for which I have a great deal of enthusiasm. Thanks again for your excellent suggestions and comments, TheChas!

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EMJ you have the right idea

by HAL 9000 Moderator In reply to Thank you!

As the money is in the service side rather than sales although I do think that it would be to your advantage to be able to supply some of the more common parts like CD ROM drives as these quite often fail and quite often with a little help from the owner who uses them for other things like holding cups. Also if you recomend the better parts and can supply them as well you make a profit on these and also know thta you will not be called back there tomorrow because something has gone wrong. This type of thing is both frustrating for yourself and the owner as they think it is your fault and not the hardware in question. There are just some M'Boards that you really want nothing at all to do with and these are the "All in One" M'Boards that have everything on them as they are just slow and leave a lot to be desired from a performance point of view.

About the only thing that I can add to Chas's comments is that you need to look into the Taxation Laws as well as even at $50.00 per hour and not taking into account traveling time that can add up to quite a tidy sum at the end of a busy week. This is something that you'll have to look into as well to make sure that you do not end up with a horrendious Tax Bill at the end of the year or however often it is collected where you are.

I would serriously consider doing home small office networking as this is something that seems like a "Black Art" to many people and is very profitable when you do it properly. It is also easy to do in a peer to peer enviroment and as that is all you would be looking at it will be no problems either.

I would also have a look around for a reputiable supplier at wholesale for parts as you will get far more work if you can supply the required parts than just tell the customer to buy this or that and you'll come back and fit it properly.

What you have to remember is that you are offering a "Service" and that service requires you to offer parts when required as I recently had a client send me a server to have 2 SCSI HDD's replaced and they very kindly sent me 2 146 GIG SCSI HDD's but unfortantly they where the Hot Swapable Ultra Wide 80 pin type instead of just being the Ultra Wide SCSI 2 drives that where needed. Unless you want this to happen to you you'll have to be able to supply the correct parts instead of expecting the owner to buy what they think is right. Also on many occasions the owner buys what has the best reviews but it just doesn't work with existing hardware and these are things that you'll have to know as well.

I can not stress this enough you'll have to have a reqally good insurance cover as Chas has already said because you are going out to peoples homes some have the tendency to move things back to where they want them while you are working and you may be responsible for any damage that results. I once draged a fax machine off a desk when the phone lead caught on my wallet but only after the person had moved the unit back to where they wanted it while I was behind the desk and couldn't get out again.

Col

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Taxes

by TheChas In reply to EMJ you have the right id ...

Colin,

Thanks for picking up on my omission.

In the US, all businesses need to file quarterly tax statements.
Small businesses will need to make quarterly payments for Federal, State, and perhaps city taxes.

Then there is the self employment tax. I don't recall the specifics, but this tax is related to our social security tax, and only applies to those individuals that are self employed.

If memory serves me well, in order to take advantage of business deductions, a small business needs to show a profit by the 3rd year of operation. It may even be as strict as 3 out of every 5 years.
If a business continually shows an operating loss, their prior year business deductions may be voided.

This situation is most often enforced for "hobby" businesses where the business provides a secondary income. The IRS want's to make sure that people are not "padding" their business costs just to avoid paying taxes on the business income.

Chas

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reply

by unhappyuser In reply to Taxes

It's 5 years. Set it up as an LLC.

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Think out of the box

by smsrilanka In reply to EMJ you have the right id ...

I feel your differentiator is not strong enough. Entering the market at a lower amount is also not advisable you might end up in a price war.
With 10 years of IT experiance think of the bigger picture and try to wonder into IT consulting. I am doing this in my company and is proving successful. Also look for companies who want service agents in your region.
I am looking for agents in the US to promote my company's web solutions and will be interested in looking at possibilities in this region too.

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Taxes and Other Stuff

by CreativeOne In reply to EMJ you have the right id ...

Well - as far as the tax stuff - just go to an accountant
before you setup your business. There are ways to
setup your business to avoid the coporate taxes, and
enjoy the legal business deductions. One of the
number one ways to kill yourself is to setup the
business wrong.

I decided to target the easy network setup's for a while.
It can be very good money if you keep the people
relatively close to you. I have friends that work at a
couple of the chain stores that pass me business for
people who need a little more hand holding. So
training can pay you back as well. I have had a bad
experience with the networking end of things though. I
setup a wireless network in a home during the Comcast
@Home fiasco a little over a year ago. @Home went
out of business leaving Comcast customers changing
their settings every week or less, and without any notice
to the customer. So my customer was calling me
whenever he felt like it every few days because the
"Network was down". I explained to them each time it
was the service provider and tried to set their
expectations right, but they still persisted in calling me.
The biggest problem at the time was that Comcast did
not want customers to buy routers because they were
selling additional IP addresses. So when the customer
called in to get the new settings, they would not help
the customer and did not want to talkl to me because I
was not the customer. I later did a restore for the
customer on an older machine and setup all of their
software again so that the system worked properly. At
the end of the day, they did not want to pay me for my
time because of all of the problems with the "network".
So in the end, they gave me an upgrade copy of XP
and ME, a hub, and a check for one hour. I took it just
to get something for my time, and just terminated the
relationship. It would have cost more to get the money
out of them. Fortunately in the mean time Comcast has
made it so you just need to take the router out of the
box and plug it in to start working, and they also just tell
customers to get a router. (Makes more work for me ;-))
But expect some hits like this along the way. I usually
make part of the appointment and time with the
customer the shopping trip over to store X for the
equipment needed. This way they get the right stuff,
they pay for it up front, and you also make sure your
inside friends get credit for the sales. (Makes for a nice
neat little loop and keeps more business coming back
to you)

It also can not hurt to be familiar with the major cable
and DSL provider setup since most people will only be
on those two services. There may be exceptions, but
then make sure the customer understands this is a
"special setup". As far as software training, most
people will stick to the Word, Excel, Powerpoint,
software that came with their computer, Quicken, etc.
Be careful not to get into other software unless you
have a copy because the customer will sometimes call
back with a question, and you will want to have it on
your computer so you can refer to it. You may want to
come up with pre-set training sessions and materials
(like the big chains) to streamline the training, and also
keep you on a set path. They can pay you for other
specialized services like making templates - etc. Don't
give too much away though, and don't be afraid to get
the info and tell them you will come back with a solution
and tell them you will show them how to do it when you
are done. You will look stupid if you just try to fumble
through it on the spot, and they will feel less value for
your service - therefore less likely to recomend you to a
friend.

Pick a couple of hardware recomend choices and stick
to them so that you become stronger with a product
category. Use vendors that have reps in your region
that you can talk to. For example, I stick with Linksys for
the routers, NIC cards, and wireless cards. Their
support is pretty good (you will occasionally get a script
reader), and they usually have all of the ISP setup info
you will need on hand. So if the user has a service I do
not know, I will call the support line ahead of time and
ask them if there is anything special that I need to know
for that service. They usually seem relieved that they
have someone installing the stuff for the end user. I am
still trying to get a direct dial for someone there. I have
also found many new customers returning the D-Link
product because they have outsourced their support to
India. I ran into one guy that was so mad that he
wanted to smash the wireless router right on the floor at
the Best Buy I happened to be in. Needless to say, he
was more than happy to enlist my services, and I
recomended he buy a different product.

I also recomend Creative Labs for things like the
WebCams, Modems, Sound Cards, and MP3 playback.
I have not had any trouble with the installations, and the
software provides a good value. They have also
expanded their selections to laptops now which gives
me even more options now. I have a lot of customers
that know nothing about MP3 or audio recording, and
with about an hour of fiddling, I put together a really
nice training routine. I also connected up with my local
Creative rep, and they got me an express tech support
number to call in I have problems. (The rep also hooks
me up with free stuff and gives me one on one training
with their equipment now) The best part is you can find
the rep on their web site, so you always know where
they are going to be. The best part is they work right for
the company so they are factory trained, and my rep will
call product managers or the lead tech support people
directly for me if I find an issue. I am working
relationships out like this on printers and other
hardware too. It's like having extra staff working for me,
and ... they also send me business because I am
selling their products. It works out to be a good
relationship. (SO SEEK OUT YOUR REP's)

Also, don't be afraid to take their computer if it is down
to diagnose it. I find if I diagnose it, then they have to
think about weather they want to fix it or buy a new one,
you lose the business. Either they do it themselves, or
get a new computer. Upgrade it for them. Include the
cleaning and tunignn of the system. If you have their
system at your house, they are more like to just say ok
fix it. You then go shopping with them, and install it
where you can control the environment.

The software was a big point too. Most people do not
have their disks or do the backup. Some systems have
a restore on them with different restore results. For
example, some will just repair the Windows back to
how it shipped without touching their data. A lot of
times this will also cause any 3rd party stuff they added
after the fact to need their drivers repaired. In some
cases, the restore just wipes the hard drive clean and
you lose everything on the drive. Make sure you set
their expectations right. Do not just install a new copy
of windows on the system either. You can protect
yourself by telling the customer they need to purchase
new CD's from the manufacturer or buy a new copy of
Windows. This is not your fault. I guarantee that their
manual on page on says create a backup. Don't open
yourself up to legal problems.

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Instead of providing hardware...

by Malach In reply to EMJ you have the right id ...

You might like to consider "purchase assistance" as one of the focal points of your service.

The benefit of this is that you can't be accused of ripping your clients off on hardware price ("I can get this $5.99 cheaper than you charged me for it!") because you just help them place the order, and they still get the benefit of your experience. Of course, you bill by the hour to provide this assistance, but if you're as good as you seem to be, that should still be a net saving for the client.

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Do what YOU do well

by ranwilli In reply to EMJ you have the right id ...

I am a software guy. Like all of us, I have to know somethig about hardware as well, but not enough to be anything but DANGEROUS. I like the suggestion from an earlier poster that you stick with externals wherever possible.
Even though I am very cautious about taking grounding precautions, etc., I had a customer's PC expire while I had my hands in it.
I do not know why this occurred, and fortunately for me, the owner had purchased an "extended warranty" from his retailer which replaced his entire PC with a better one. I mention this only because your friends and neighbors look at you as a "computer" person. They do not know what your limitations are. YOU must know what they are, to avoid embarrassment, and unexpected expenses.
Best of luck to you, and pay no attention to what "others" charge, because it just doesn't have anything to do with you, and what it is you're going to do.

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Also think of safety too..

by TomSal In reply to Thank you!

Everyone is hitting on legal, financial, technical issues with this and that obviously makes sense as we are professionals in the industry. However, don't forget the issues of safety in this kind of work (which is going to people's homes), more so because you are female. And before I get reemed by you or anyone else, no I'm not saying females are weaker or blah blah all that silly sexist stuff...I'm a REALIST, and reality and history have both proven that women are far more likely to be taken advantage of by men , than vice versa.

I'm also into self-defense, when I'm not in "nerd mode" (LOL), and I've seen some sick stuff in my short time on this earth to force me to believe EVERY woman shold know how to protect theirself and be aware.

Here's tips, most, if not all is common sense stuff but humor me and read it anyway:

1) Avoid bad neighborhoods (Over here we have a neighborhood that held the record for most murders in a US city in a single year, that's what we call "a bad neighborhood")

2) Do not let your guard down, always be aware of your surroundings. When going somewhere new, make note of the area and know how you got there and how you can exit. Sounds weird but as GI Joe says "Knowing is half the battle".

3) Bring a cell phone, always bring a cell phone and have EMS, Police, and someone you trust (like your spouse or BF) programmed into it for quick access.

4) Use your god-given intelligence and senses, even if the place seems ok, if you don't FEEL right -- BAIL.

All these things can be done in matter that doesn't make you look paranoid or whatever you want to label it...I do all this stuff myself, but there are some really crappy neighborhoods here too and even though I carry a weapon (only sometimes) and have years of training behind me...no one can tell me its stupid to leave an area you don't feel right or safe about. As far as folks who joke about how tough they are or being scared...let me tell you they are all talking out their arse...until someone experiences things or witnesses certain things, everyone is a tough guy.

Be safe.

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