A Tale of a Small Tech Business

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Calling tech support. We’ve all been there:
Long hold times with bad music, automated
phone trees that go nowhere or are unclear,
support staff that are required to follow a
script and have a hard time deviating to
accommodate different situations, and eventually,
a fix that may or may not work, but
will probably cost a lot of money. Two years
ago, as a young professional hoping to launch
a small business in computer services, I didn’t
have a clear idea of what I wanted it to be,
but I knew what I wanted to avoid: being that
number you dread calling, being that person
you get agitated talking to, being everything
that is frustrating about consumer technology
support systems.
As I considered what I wanted to do with
the skills and knowledge I had in computer
technology, my personal vision of ‘how to be’
in society directed me toward community
and non-profit efforts. I decided I would offer
individualized lessons and completely transparent
advice and help, and I would help
people find the perfect computer for their
needs and budget. Of course, not everyone
can afford a personal computer, and not
everyone can afford to pay someone to teach
them how to use it or fix it when it breaks. I
would address that by instituting a donation
and refurbishing program and by offering a
set number of pro bono lessons every month.
I imagined that as time went on, I’d begin to
collaborate with other non-profits in town to
meet their computing needs. I’d offer classes
and get a community computer recycling
program up and running…
And then the economy tanked. My husband
finished grad school with no job awaiting
him (and no job forthcoming for over a
year), so I wasn’t able to leave my steady paycheck
behind to pursue a large, risky venture.
As it happened, having to wait was probably
the best thing for me. The information available
regarding starting a new business is
extensive and intimidating, and the process
itself is full of pitfalls. Having to first launch
as a side business, more of a hobby than a
career, gave me the opportunity to acclimate
slowly, to tweak my business model and to
network. It meant putting off the non-profit
side for another year or two so I could build a
solid foundation for my work. It also gave me
a very, very clear idea of just how much personalized
services are needed.
Just before formally launching, I gave an
interview to the News-Gazette’s Debra
Pressey for the column, “It’s Your Business.”I
had only just nailed down the basics of what
I wanted to offer (and charge), and my availability
was severely limited due to job and
family obligations; however, I wasn’t about to
turn down the publicity that
can be so essential for a new
business! The day the article
hit, I received phone calls
from dawn until dusk; dozens
of people called about their
computer issues, they’d tried
everything, and they couldn’t
afford the bigger chains, and
could I help? Some called to
offer their old computers as
donations, and a few called to
arrange lessons. It was overwhelming, a family
emergency combined with the immense
volume and desperation of potential clients
hit me like a tsunami. Had I been completely
up and running by the time the article came
out, I probably would have been able to
weather it with more grace, but life doesn’t
always work that way. I managed to stay flexible,
initially making myself turn away a few
potential clients or schedule them for a couple
weeks down the line. This tumultuous
beginning wound up being a positive start. It
bolstered my confidence; perhaps one could
make a living doing this, after all.
Six months later, I still drew customers
from that article, but more than anything else,
word-of-mouth was my best advertiser. It
kept my client circle small enough for me to
handle, but included a personal aspect in a
way that print advertising can never duplicate.
People coming to me had an idea of
what to expect, and we had a
contact in common, which
often made the experience less
formal and friendlier. In my
work with clients, there is an
unavoidable power differential
(information being power);
having a sense of shared experience
and community helps
level the playing field, and I
strive for that. They can see
that I’m not some corporate
robot out for the bottom line. I went to school
with their kids and have opinions about the
university’s budget crisis, too. My entire goal
is to give clients the tools to navigate technology,
and the biggest obstacle to that is apprehension
or the attitude that they just can’t
learn anything. The more at ease people are
with you, the more open they are to learning.
If the predominant business model is
“information is power; don’t let the customer
have too much,” my model is, “information
is power; no one should be powerless.”I
could probably convince my clients that they
need me at every stage—they’re often in that
headspace already—but my focus is longerterm
than that. I want to help people grasp
their own power to take control of the technology
pervading their lives. After all, it’s not
going away any time soon.

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