People come to me for computer help. How much should I charge and/or how can I get out of it?
December 29, 2004 7:14 AM   Subscribe

I work partly as IT/network support for a company whose focus isn't specifically IT. As such, most of the employees are not very knowledgeable in this area and come to me for help on fixing issues on their home computers. I'm not really into this, but I'm not sure how best to decline to help. I don't mind advising people on things, but when they ask me to go their house to fix their home computers I balk. Today, someone asked how much I charged to "reformat" their hard drive, which I suppose is better than just asking if I can fix something, but what if I don't want to run a half-assed consultancy?

On the flipside -- if I did want to start charging, what do you think would be a normal rate for this kind of stuff? Should I bother setting up a business name? I had thought about such a business before I got this job, but now that I'm a full-timer, I'm not sure I have the interest in doing this as a sidejob.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Consider the risks, and act (and charge) accordingly.

What's your company's policy regarding sidejobs? If a customer is unhappy with the work you did, what happens if he complains to your boss?
posted by SPrintF at 7:28 AM on December 29, 2004

The easiest thing to do is just to refer them to an outfit like "GeekSquad" (which is actually part of BestBuy, from what I understand, but there have got to be other local options out there if there's not one around, or if you don't want to refer business to them).

As to what you could charge, I would also refer to your local "competition" as the market target--quoting a hypothetical rate that's close to theirs will make you a less attractive option for someone who's looking.

But overall, I think you totally want to avoid getting involved in any of this. If someone's not technical to start with, they're not necessarily going to understand how a problem that gets worse, after you're involved, isn't your fault. Last thing you want is to deal with a co-worker with a grudge, just because you couldn't politely say "No".
posted by LairBob at 7:30 AM on December 29, 2004

If you don't want to set up a side business doing home computer repair, then you have to say no to these people. Find a business that you trust to do a good job and send them referrals. Maybe they can hook you up with some goodies in return for the business. I'll bet most of your co-workers will be happy with a good reference. They just want someone they can trust to do a good job fixing their system.
posted by monkeyman at 7:43 AM on December 29, 2004

or alternatively, create terms which discourage them

$60 per hour, and reformatting is a 2 hour job, and you are currently scheduling work 2 to 3 weeks out

either they go away because that is too expensive or too far away, or you make $120 easy
posted by angry jonny at 7:47 AM on December 29, 2004

Just ask them to bring the computer to work with them.
posted by orange clock at 7:47 AM on December 29, 2004

My standard response in situations like this is to give them a quick answer to their question, usually with some pointers to further research, and then add, "I can help you more, if you want, for my usual $75 an hour consulting fee," in as joking a tone as possible.

Usually they'll either take it as the graceful hint it is, or accept it at face value, in which case I'm not averse to making an easy hundred or two.
posted by jammer at 8:11 AM on December 29, 2004

Don't joke about it. Don't do stuff for free.

Come Jan 1st, say that the extra tech stuff is taking too much of your personal time.

If they want you to look at their home machine, machines of their families, friends, etc (and they will if you're good), charge a minimum of $80/hour + 30/hour travel time.

One of two things will happen: They'll stop bugging you, or they'll bug you too much. If so, raise your rates.

Have them sign a release saying you're not responsible for any damage to their system, and that they acknowledge that since you're doing it outside of your hours, that your employer isn't liable. Say that your accountant suggested those last two clauses. Then have a lawyer (preferably someone you can trade this sort of service for) draw up a simple one page. Make it part of your initial signature sheet.

Lots of PITA stuff to CYA.

posted by filmgeek at 8:21 AM on December 29, 2004

I used to do this, several years ago. I set up a business name, got a business license, opened a business checking account, and took all the other proper accounting steps to be legitimate. But I didn't do nearly enough work to be worth all that effort. Like you I was never looking to do it as a real business, I just had lots of people asking for my help so I thought I may as well do it properly. After two years filing quarterly business tax forms for a few hundred dollars of income I came to my senses and just stopped pretending that my hobby was a business.

My advice is that unless you really are interested in starting your own business and actively working at making a go at it (which you are clearly not), don't bother pretending. Feel free to help someone if you want to but don't let yourself get roped into committing to more that you are willing to do. I've had that call from someone I built a computer for, who six months later had problems and (rightfully) expected additional tech support. You don't need that kind of headache. Take the advice given above, and find a good, reputable person/business to refer these people to.
posted by Lokheed at 8:23 AM on December 29, 2004

I would call up local computer shops, explain the situation and ask for a small referral fee, like 5 or 10 percent. If you don't want to do this then don't make up bad terms to discourage people from asking, just say "I don't do this, but go over to Joe's and tell them I sent you."
posted by revgeorge at 8:28 AM on December 29, 2004

I used to work with a guy who refused to take money for personal computer work; he would only trade time -- as in an equal amount of time doing yard work, painting, etc. at his house. Three hours working on your computer equals three hours of you out in his yard weeding, raking, etc. It tended to dissuade a lot of folks from seeking his help, understandably, and for those who did, taking money out of the equation helped keep things amiable. There was one guy who needed his services so often he'd go over and work in my friend's yard on nice weekends, just to put some time in the bank.

I myself almost always politely declined by telling folks I didn't have time to do any side work. I figured that once you go to someone's house, you're going to everybody's, and I certainly didn't want to be married to these people. And whatever you do, don't give them a home or personal cell number!
posted by Vercingetorix at 8:33 AM on December 29, 2004

What no one has mentioned yet is whether or not your employer knows about/approves of this activity. I think that many employers would actually discourage it, in order to avoid conflicts of interest. Since it sounds like you want a way out of doing the work, you should talk to your boss or HR and see if they can make a blanket statement that employees are not allowed to freelance for clients that they have acquired through their workplace contacts. Some companies would call that a "noncompete agreement", and while I have a lot of problems with NCAs in general, this sounds like one situation where it might actually be a force for good.

Of course, I'll admit that's kind of a passive-aggressive way of going about it, and may even be overkill. In that case, I would go with the politely telling them that you can't do any more side work, or that you are unable to do it for less than $75/hour (not jokingly, very seriously). I've used the $75 line myself, and it scares 95% of them off pretty fast.
posted by matildaben at 8:51 AM on December 29, 2004

The first rule of doing this: Once you touch it, you own it. Format their hard drive today and tomorrow they'll tell you their printer doesn't work but it was working before you got there.

I don't understand what it is about computers that people seem to think they can ask you for your time in exchange for nothing. I supose maybe long ago geeks loved showing off their geekness, and some still do. I know some landscapers but I would never think of asking them to come rake my leaves.
posted by bondcliff at 8:52 AM on December 29, 2004

I tell people that I use computers all day at work, I tend not to like to do my job during my at-home time. I have done this type of work temporarily in Seattle where I had some running contracts with law firms where I would come in every few weeks and do all the software installs, fix problems, even install printers and format new drives. It's not a bad deal as a main job because since you're saving them their $200/hour time, you can charge $50-100/hour easy and they don't bat an eye. That said, if you have and like your full-time job I'd only do it in extreme circumstances where you really like the person and want to do them a favor. If that's the case, charge nothing and have them make you dinner or something. Once people start paying you, then they assume you are their employee, and this is rough with things like computers where folks don't understand them in the first place and will therefore come to rely on you more than you feel comfortable.
posted by jessamyn at 9:30 AM on December 29, 2004

Don't do it at work; set up a tech bench at home. Keep work and non-work business very separate. I won't do home visits cause it's just a huge time-consuming pain, and some people are creepy. Charge more for the 1st hour, and never charge for less than 1 hour, i.e., 1st hour is $60, additional hours $45. Payment is on delivery. Be very explicit about what is warranteed work and what is not. Build overhead into the charges. It will seem that this is a no overhead business, but it won't work out that way.

I like Vercingetorix's approach. And Lokheed is right, you must treat it as a business, and keep records and be legit. Some guy I used to work with did a sideline with building and repairing pcs. Then when a hard drive died, and he couldn't find the receipt to enforce the warranty, it got ugly.

You will end up rebuilding the same pcs repeatedly because some users won't stop inviting spy-, scum- ad-ware onto their pcs. Those users are going to be pissy about the need to keep paying for the same work.

VNC is your friend; you can repair a lot from the comfort of home. Do Not do VNC visits for free.
posted by theora55 at 9:57 AM on December 29, 2004

I'm also the IT guy in a non-IT world.

I always price myself out of reach for the regular joe, just so that my coworkers leave me alone.

When they ask me how much I charge, I tell them "$120/hour, but the local computer shop charges $60, you should ask them."

The real problem occurs when coworkers bring their computers in from home and just plop them on mydesk. Or they stand around when I'm trying to get something done, describing their computer troubles at home.

They see me sitting around all day, so they figure I have nothing to do and wouldn't mind fixing their computers or giving people advice.

Any idea how to deal with that kind of thing?
posted by MiG at 11:34 AM on December 29, 2004

When I switched to a mac at work I could more easily claim PC illiteracy. That helped a lot.
posted by mecran01 at 1:04 PM on December 29, 2004

I give basic advice, because all us techie types do where I work. We also have an unofficial policy that we will download large updates and drivers, if they bring a CDRW to write it to, and we have time. If someone wants work done at home, I refer them to a friend whom I trust, and who is unemployed.

This has worked well, but I work at a library co-op, and folks are extremely reasonable and polite. I have a reputation as the person to go to when you need to find sales on things or basic tech advise, and my boss is ok with that. She sees it as being on the same level as a circ clerk or reference librarian recommending a good book to a patron.
posted by QIbHom at 10:50 PM on December 29, 2004

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