Who fixes your computer when it breaks? If you answered, “I do,” you may have what it takes to launch your own independent tech support business. I’m not talking about consulting here. I’m talking about what many former corporate tech support professionals and businesspeople who like computers have done: gone into the business of providing on-call, break-fix, to-your-door service.

This week, I’d like to introduce you to a couple of entrepreneurs, Jim Carter and Andrew Goldberg, who share some of the lessons they’ve learned in finding new tech support customers and earning their repeat business.

Business comes first
If you don’t understand how businesses work, don’t quit your day job too soon. Goldberg got interested in computers while studying C programming at his New York high school. He went to college and worked for other people for 10 years before he launched his on-site computer repair service, Intelligent PC, in 2001.

“I had been working for a gift shop for three years,” Goldberg says, “and I decided I wanted to go into business for myself, doing something I like.”

Computers and electronics were Goldberg’s hobbies, and he decided he would be happiest helping people fix their computers. First, though, he went back to school and took business classes. “There’s a lot to learn about running a business yourself,” Goldberg said, “and not everybody can pull it off.”

I asked Goldberg what advice he would give someone who was considering starting a new business. He offered two rules:

  • Don’t give up.
  • Do it legally.

“First, you’ve got to understand that growing a business takes time, so don’t give up. And you’ve got to get a business license, get a sales tax [identification number]. You have to file your taxes on time.…”

“And don’t pirate software, right?” I asked.

“Never pirate software for your clients,” Goldberg said. “It will only come back around to hurt you.…”

Decision-making and customer-service skills
Carter’s Computer Solutions has been in the business of “100 percent, on-site service” since 1999. For many years before, he worked for a large corporation, providing hardware and software support.

“When did you decide to start a business of your own?” I asked.

“When what I was expected to do became more along the lines of what management should have been doing,” Carter said. “I decided I should use my skills solely for my benefit.”

“What does it take to run a tech support business?” I queried.

“It requires good decision-making skills,” Carter says. “And customer service skills. They’re just as important as your technical skills.”

What are you selling?
In addition to hardware and software troubleshooting services—with on-site service, pickup, and delivery—both Carter and Goldberg custom-build and sell computers. However, each uses a different approach to selling “other” hardware.

Carter’s leave-at-home brochures boast that he sells “everything related to computers.” If you need help choosing, ordering, and using it, Carter will help. Goldberg prefers to bill strictly for labor and says, “I don’t buy online. I buy locally through a retailer who gives me a reseller price. I’m not interested in the retail end of selling goods.”

Who are your customers?
Here’s the question that perplexes many who ponder going independent: Will I have enough customers to meet my expenses? Goldberg figures he makes 90 percent of his income in billable hours for tech support and 10 percent for the computers he builds. Carter, on the other hand, estimates that his business is “50 percent hardware sales and 50 percent support.”

Both men believe there’s plenty of work in the area of on-site service. Carter’s favorite clients are people who run their own home-based businesses. “A lot of your bigger service companies won’t come out to an address that’s in an area classified as ‘residential.’ They’ll only go into business areas.

“That hurts the people who run small businesses out of their homes. Those people are usually wearing all the hats. They answer the phone, they make the product, and they fill the orders. And if their PC is down, they can’t do anything. And if they have to take the PC to the mall to be fixed because no one will pick it up, then they can’t do any of the other things.”

Apparently, Carter is on to something, because his small business is growing: He has two full-time technicians on staff.

Goldberg believes there are enough at-home computer users to keep him busy too. “I get a lot of referrals,” Goldberg says. “Everybody who has a computer wants it to be faster, and when I leave it, their computer is running better than it was before. And all of my customers know other people who have computers that are running too slow.…”

Two ways to find customers
Goldberg says he is “putting every penny I earn into advertising the business.” Why? He is having incredible success with a display ad he has placed in a weekly (local) entertainment newspaper. “I get five or six calls every time the ad appears,” Goldberg said, “and at least one of those turns into a paying customer.”

“So your cost-per-customer is pretty low,” I said. “Do you have an ad in the yellow pages of the phone book?”

“Oh, absolutely,” he said, “and one of the ‘locally published business directories.'”

For the record, Goldberg’s 1-by-1.5-inch newspaper ad boasts “Free USB powered speakers with first service,” which is bound to generate a few calls out of curiosity. “Speed issues” is one of the bullet points in Goldberg’s ad, under “upgrades, custom built, and troubleshooting.”

Get out and about
Carter takes a different view of advertising. “Word of mouth is the best advertising,” Carter says. Other than the obligatory ad in the business section of the phone book, Carter says, “Join the chamber of commerce and go to the meetings.

“I get all the business I need by attending chamber meetings for the various counties I serve. I meet people; I hand out cards. And you must attend on a regular basis. People get used to seeing you; they know you’re going to be around. When you work for one of the members and you do a good job, the word gets around.”

What problems will you solve?
Goldberg says, “The number-one reason people call me is because their computers are running too slow. Sometimes it’s happened gradually over time, and sometimes, it happens all of a sudden. Sometimes they’ve loaded up their startup routines with a lot of junk they don’t need.

“Just this week I upgraded a guy’s operating system and modem, and I noticed that whoever built his computer didn’t put in a cooling fan for the CPU!” Goldberg said he happened to have a couple of fans in his car, and he installed them on the spot.

“User errors.” That’s what Carter says is the number-one reason people call him. “The majority of problems are caused by user error or user intervention where they don’t belong.”

“I also see a lot of machines infected with viruses and spyware. I always recommend that my customers install antivirus software, if they don’t already have it. And I make sure they know how to use it, by leaving it running and that they know the proper procedure for updating it.”

Making a living the high-tech way

If you make a full- or part-time living providing on-call tech support, we’d like to hear from you. To share your experience and advice, post a comment or write to Jeff.