How I Built My Computer Hobby into a Business
Back on the home page of this site, I mentioned that many I.T. professionals got their start by building their own computers. I was one of them. Here's how it happened.
I was always kind of a geeky kid. For as far back as I can remember, I've been taking things apart and putting them back together. When I was still a little kid, I built my first crystal radio set. That was a common project for young people back in the 1960's, and it became the start of a life-long love affair with electronics.
Fast-forward to the 1990's. Personal computers were becoming commonplace, but they were still very expensive, and they became obsolete very quickly. I never felt I was getting my money's worth from store-bought computers, so I decided to build my own. I researched all the components and designed a computer that was state-of-the-art at the time.
Now you have to understand that back then, very few people built their own computers. When I showed off my fast, powerful computer to my friends, they thought I was some sort of genius. (I'm far from one, by the way.) Before long they started calling me to fix their computers. And then they started telling their friends, and their friends started telling their friends: and before I knew it, I had a part-time computer repair business.
Promoting My New Business
Once I realized that I had a business, there were certain things I had to do to make it a full-time job.
Other than the legal stuff (licenses and so forth), the most important step was getting the word out that I was in business. Marketing and promotion are the most important parts of getting any new business off the ground. No matter how good you are, if no one knows about you, you're not going to get any work. Here are the advertising and marketing methods that experience proved to have the best return on investment.
Imprinted Advertising Items
I have to tell you, I wish I'd known about QLP back then. QLP stands for "Quality Logo Products." They make all sorts of advertising doodads like imprinted pens, coffee mugs, mouse pads, flash drives, and so forth. They even make embroidered uniform shirts. If there's something you want your business name, logo, and phone number printed on, they'll make it.
The reason I wish I'd known about QLP back then is because it cost me several years and thousands of dollars wasted on more-expensive, less-effective advertising before I realized that a custom-imprinted pen, calendar, or coffee mug had a far better return on investment than an expensive yellow pages or newspaper ad.
You have to remember: I was in the computer repair business. When a potential customer's computer went down, I wanted my contact information to be within arm's reach. A pen, coffee cup, calendar, or some other inexpensive doodad on their desk made that happen. So don't underestimate the value of those imprinted advertising items. They literally put your contact information right in your customers' hands.
The second most cost-effective advertising I did was to distribute printed brochures. Before I had my own laser printer, I had a local print shop print them up for me. Then I hired a neighbor kid to come with me to the areas I wanted to target when I had computer repairs to do in those neighborhoods. He'd ride around on his skateboard distributing the brochures to other homes and businesses in the neighborhood, while I did the computer repair job. Sometimes I'd get calls from the brochures he left before I'd even finished the job that I was doing!
The nice thing about brochures for someone who was in the computer repair business was that when people's computers went down, they couldn't get on the Internet to search for someone to fix them. Back then, computers were still expensive, so most people didn't have "extra" computers; and smart phones hadn't been invented. The BlackBerry wasn't invented until several years after I started my business. The paper brochures gave people a way to contact me when they couldn't get online.
The downside to brochures was that most people threw them out. Enough people kept them to make them worthwhile, but in the end, the imprinted pens, coffee cups, and so forth were much better advertising because people kept them around.
Word-of-mouth is still the best advertising. People trust their friends and business colleagues more than they trust any advertisement. Referral fees are a great way to encourage your happy clients to recommend you to others.
The really great thing about referral fees is that they don't have to cost you anything up-front. You can structure them as discounts against future work. For example, you can give an existing client a $10.00 or $25.00 discount on their next service if they refer another client to you. But even if you choose to pay your referral fees in cash, you're still making money on the client they referred to you -- usually for years to come if you keep the client happy.
Let me be honest: I wasn't the world's greatest computer tech when I started out. I was reasonably bright and had a hobbyist's enthusiasm for the work, but I had little formal training in computers. I had training in electronics in general -- I'd been trained in Avionics back in the 1970's -- but nothing computer-specific except for what I'd taught myself. I had no certifications to point to when I started out (although I earned them later on), nor did I have a degree in I.T. or C.S.
What I did have was availability. Before I was able to hire a receptionist (and later on, additional techs), my whole staff was myself and the kid on the skateboard. My business number forwarded to my cell number, and I always answered it. It didn't matter where I was, what I was doing, or what time it was. When the phone rang, I answered it. If the person needed my services and was willing to pay my fees, I got in my car and did the job. It didn't matter if it was 3:00 a.m. during a blizzard. If they needed me, I showed up.
What you have to understand is this: From a customer's perspective, it doesn't matter if a tech is the best "computer guy" (or "gal") in the world if they can't get in touch with him or her when they need help. The tech can have a wall full of degrees, certifications, and awards. They don't mean a blessed thing if they don't answer the phone when the customer calls.
What I lacked in knowledge, I made up for in availability.
Honesty and Ethics
I've saved this one for last, but it's really the most important thing you need to succeed in a new business. No matter how much advertising you do, how many pens and coffee mugs you give out, or how many brochures you distribute, people won't call you a second time or refer you to their friends if you're a crook.
One of the things that happened a lot when I was in the computer repair business was that people would call with simple problems that could be fixed over the phone in a minute or two. For example, if they couldn't access secure Web sites, nine out of ten times the clocks on their computers were wrong. You know, those sort of simple things.
When people called me with those sorts of problems, do you know what I did? I helped them. I told them what to do, waited for them to reboot if necessary; and if the problem was solved, I wished them a good day. When they asked how much they owed me, I told them it was on the house. Almost invariably, the next time those people had problems, I'd be the one they called first.
Now, I could have scheduled and charged those customers for on-site appointments, spent three minutes on the job, and collected my fee. And you know what? Most of them would have paid it. But they never would have called me again. People don't like being ripped off.
A lot of years have passed since then, and my priorities in life have changed. At some point I got tired of living in the city and running around all over six counties fighting traffic. When the time seemed right, I sold the business I'd built, moved to the country, and semi-retired. Now I just do some Web design and the occasional local computer repair job.
All in all, I'm glad I made the change. Life is much more relaxing in the boonies.
But you know, there are times when I miss my business. It was like a child to me. I created it from nothing and invested my time, money, and talents into building it; and as it matured, the day eventually came when it supported me in return. I don't miss things like fighting traffic or getting called in the middle of the night for emergencies, but I miss the sense of pride I had in my business, the reputation it established, and the degree to which it thrived.
One thing it taught me, though, is that you don't have to be a genius to achieve your dreams. I'm far from a genius, and I did it. What you need is competency, honesty, ethics, availability, and proper marketing. All those, and a lot of hard work.
If you're interested in building your hobby into a business, I hope this article inspired you, and I wish you the very best of success.