What is the process to becoming a computer handyman?
July 24, 2010 1:44 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to get/know/avoid/have to become a basic freelance computer repair guy?

I'm in college for a bachelor's in computer science. I have some money available, and it seems like a useful idea to pack a netbook with diagnostics, gather cable testers, IDE/SATA to USB connectors, and various other stuff in order to hang my shingle out so to speak. I have a few years experience doing this for a local school district, but a good deal of the work there was in managing standardized images.

A. What equipment/programs/things should I make sure I have?
B. What technical knowledge should I make sure I'm especially clear on?
C. What sort of business things do I need to know? (i.e. Is this something I can do as an individual thing, or do I need to get into insurance and tax law or the like?)
D. What sort of customer things should I make sure I'm set on? (At what point does cash and a handshake not work?)
E. What sort of other things should I avoid or know that I'm forgetting?

I think I have most of this down, but it seems prudent to rack the collective mind first while I'm looking at everything. I'm in Oregon, if it helps.
posted by CrystalDave to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You might find the site Technibble helpful.

In their words, it's "a resource for computer technicians who are looking to start their own computer business or improve their existing one."

They publish interesting articles regularly (covering both technical and business topics) and seem to have a fairly active forum.

Good luck!
posted by not.so.hip at 5:17 AM on July 24, 2010

You are essentially talking about opening a small business.

IAAL, and even though IANYL, I can say with confidence that this is a bigger deal than you--and most people--seem to think.

First step: Go talk to your local small business development office. Most communities of any decent size have one, on the county level if not the municipal one. They'll have a huge amount of awesome information about setting up and operating a small business. Before you hang out your shingle, you need a business plan, i.e. a description of what you want to do and what it's going to take to make that happen. If nothing else, you need to know how much you need to charge to cover your expenses and have something left over to pay rent, etc. This will also involve a certain amount of market research, but they'll be able to help you with that too. These sorts of places are full of people who really enjoy helping entrepreneurs start small businesses, so I can't emphasize enough just how valuable this is going to be for you.

Second step: Get an accountant. You're going to be expensing things which you wouldn't have been before, and the money side of business is way beyond most people's experience. Geeky-types can find this sort of stuff especially frustrating, as much of it seems arbitrary and pointless, but it can completely bite you in the ass if you aren't careful. As in "Unexpected five-figure tax bill in April" sort of bite you in the ass.

Third step: Talk to a lawyer. Cash and a handshake, as it turns out, never actually works over any reasonable length of time. Sure, it can seem to work for a while, but the first time it doesn't, it will cost you more than doing it right from the start. You won't need to have one on retainer, but you're going to want to get a couple of things in your pocket before you start. 1) Some kind of business entity (LLC, S-corp, something). Picking what type of entity you want and creating said entity is best done with the advice of counsel. Can you do this by yourself? Yeah, technically. But you can also screw it up pretty badly. 2) A standard service contract.

Fourth step: Talk to an insurance agent. You're going to want to get a Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy. This may seem like overkill for what you're going to want to do, but you may find that the people who are potentially your best, i.e. most lucrative, clients won't do business with you unless you've got it. Having insurance not only provides you with indemnification should you screw something up, but it also serves as sort of signal that you take your business seriously and aren't some fly-by-night huckster.

All of that may seem overwhelming, but honestly, this stuff is not as hard as it sounds. It takes work, and requires a fair amount of care and consideration, but the hardest part is really just doing it.

Another thing: opening a small business involves a certain amount of risk. If you don't bring in enough business to support yourself, well, you're basically screwed. One of the reason so few people do this, aside from lacking the requisite capital or skills, is the uncertainty of it all. You will not qualify for unemployment insurance unless you set things up with your business entity properly, i.e. just handing out a phone number and taking payments in cash may seem easier, but by cutting corners you actually diminish your security.

All of that said, go for it. Entrepreneurship can be--I'm told--incredibly rewarding. Certainly the people I know who are doing it say so, but they also said that trying to do things by the seat of your pants rather than planning out in advance is way more trouble than it's worth. If you're going to do this, do it right.
posted by valkyryn at 5:18 AM on July 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I've done this as a side business on and off for years. valkyryn has good advice on getting legally set up and I'd really suggest you do this legitimately. A few other business-like things.

- have a web site. do something nice there. people will wonder "why should I hire that guy instead of that other guy?" and having a personal looking site with some answers is a good idea.
- decide how you'll offer support: in-person (your house, their house?), phone support, email support, drop-off stuff, skype/logmein. I basically stopped going to people's houses because I felt that people had these computers with chronic problems and once I showed up they wanted all of them fixed and wanted to watch. I'd love to do more support via desktop sharing. I think it solves problems for people once they understand how it works.
- Platforms? Are you a PC/Mac/Linux guy or just a PC guy?
- That said the things that people here (I am in a rural area) needed was often simple. Email help, getting a profile on facebook, getting DSL set up, getting wireless installed. So think about simple packages that you can advertise "Wireless in your home, only $100!" or whatever.
- The main thing people need help with is viruses and other "something is wrong and I don't even know what it is" situations. So I'd stay current on virus and other malware issues enough so that you can explain to your customers more or less how to employ good computer hygeine to minimize these visits. It's also good to be cognizant of the failure modes of different paid software, esp virus programs that need to be renewed or whatever. People can get rattled by "your computer may be at risk!" messages.
- Advertising: two fo the ways people know who the computer people are here is by adult education classes [we all teach them, a few hours a week and your name gets out] and the newspaper - ads and/or writing a little tech help column. Think about doing that.
- Clients: ongoing clients like the public library or the local business or schools will be more useful and likely more rewarding [i.e. they expect to pay a professional for their services] than dealing with most individuals. Make sure people know you're around and think about entering into support relationships with them.

Thats' top of my head stuff, I'm sure other people will be around with good advice too. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 7:37 AM on July 24, 2010

D. What sort of customer things should I make sure I'm set on? (At what point does cash and a handshake not work?)
E. What sort of other things should I avoid or know that I'm forgetting?

From what I'm gathering, you're targeting home users. All I can say is good luck and choose your clients well. The thing to remember is that home users generally don't have enterprise IT equipment or practices backing them. Things you should be prepared for:

* Pirated copies of windows, or otherwise inexplicably missing Windows license keys.
* Viruses out the wazoo
* Complete absence of backups coupled with a complete unwillingness to reformat/reimage.
* Threats of lawsuit if their data is lost.
* Unpaid bills. Expect a few people to stiff you however you do billing. Bounced checks, CC chargebacks, failure to pay billed services, or perhaps even rare counterfeit money (seems every semester around here there's a student convicted of this).
* Being blamed when the computer is infected again, and called in to work for free.

As jessamyn mentions, small business and schools will usually be less stressful clients. Depending on the school, you might also cater to students, if you find they're more trainable than the average client. Maybe it's just a personal failing, but family relations have soured me on dealing with Windows malware cleanup, so I like Jessamyn's idea to advertise some of the services that aren't virus cleanup.
posted by pwnguin at 11:27 AM on July 24, 2010

Private users were hardest for me when they were scared, and sometimes they were just lonely and ended up calling me back for the littlest things. I reached a point where I wasn't sure what I was being paid for and managing their fear was just draining. Schools and businesses are much easier.
posted by Mertonian at 1:05 PM on July 24, 2010

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