Does anyone even buy desktops?
May 18, 2013 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Is there a market for custom built computers sold through an independent person, versus Dell or HP?

I have some slight skills with computers and software, and I need all the extra money I can get. I recently started thinking about building cheap desktops (of good quality of course) and selling them online, through ebay or craigslist. My thought was that if it's not loaded up with crap software/bloatware, maybe it'd be cheaper than one bought through a big name company. Gaming computers I know have a market, but I don't have the capital for that.

If this is not feasible, which I fear it's not, is there any other way to leverage these skills to make a bit of side money?
posted by trogdole to Technology (31 answers total)
There may be a market for people building small silent home theatre PCs.

I'd assume the market was more for high end rather than low end though. People who have the money to pay someone to do this for them will have the money to buy higher quality and expertise in order to have the best experience and save time.
posted by srboisvert at 1:56 PM on May 18, 2013

Consider making Linux boxes. No one seems to be meeting this need.
posted by megatherium at 1:58 PM on May 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's definitely an older demographic that still prefers desktop computing, and in my experience the way into the money there is through computer tutoring. Check with your public library to see if they need/want computer tutor volunteers. You do the first few lessons free, helping them to get accounts set up and comfortable using the Internet, then you open up the possibility of in-home for-pay continued lessons for your patrons. From there, you can advise them on new computer purchases, or offer additional maintenance services. It takes a lot of work and trust-building, but can be very rewarding.

As for building custom desktop rigs and selling them, there's really not much of a market for that at all. Again, you're looking at older people who don't want to drive all the way to the big box store; they'd rather go down the street to the mom'n'pop and have them put something together (and maintain it) for them there.
posted by carsonb at 1:58 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

On the low to mid-price end of things, no I don't think so. Commodity PCs are cheap enough now, and good enough, that I don't think you could get a toe-hold in there. In the late 1990s, by contrast, all the cheap PCs were *terrible*, they'd have some combination of non-standard parts in a non-standard case with ridiculous drivers, no extension slots, etc. These days... they're all pretty OK.

On the high end, sure. But that's pretty much gaming and server hardware. Gaming is already pretty well served and you need a good name to justify big prices. Server stuff... I think the answer there is "maybe"

I don't need someone to sell me a single good computer, but I can imagine that a high school or small college or something like that might need someone to come in, assess their needs, and procure 30 computers, some servers, and random hardware required. A turnkey solution, essentially. I have done that kind of thing from time to time in the past. It's more like selling a service than selling a product.
posted by RustyBrooks at 1:59 PM on May 18, 2013

There was a niche for high powered video editing systems, (videoguys?) when getting compatible memory and video cards was a black art, I expect it's a smaller market if it exists.
posted by sammyo at 2:05 PM on May 18, 2013

Response by poster: Would laptops be any better?
posted by trogdole at 2:14 PM on May 18, 2013

No I don't think there is much of a market. I reckon the desk top market is almost dead.

I do think there is a laptop opportunity though. I have observed that older XP n vista laptops are being upgradedto 7 or 8 and when this proves futile are being dumped second hand cheap. I think they can be bought in, memory upgraded and set up with linux or back to XP. You then have a perfect cheap family machine you can sell at a profit.
posted by BenPens at 2:17 PM on May 18, 2013

I guess I'm an outlier here, but I've always had my desktop computers built by someone like you. I run my own business and feel out of my league shopping for a computer. I would rather work with someone who either knows my needs or takes the time to learn about how my business (and me as an individual) uses a computer. Then my expert figures out how much memory I need, what type of graphics card I need, the software I need, and so on.

Once my computer is built, he (I call him my computer guru) moves everything I need over to the new box and makes sure everything works correctly. When he's done, I have a shiny new computer that works just like my old one only better and faster. I never have to worry about it being inadequate for my needs, regret buying it in the first place, or have to explain my system (as if I could) to the same guy if I need him to make some changes or fix something. I know I pay a premium for the customization and the personalized service, and I'm happy to do so. I consider myself to be pretty computer savvy, at least from the user's perspective. I just know nothing about hardware and operating systems and whatnot, and don't care to learn.
posted by DrGail at 2:29 PM on May 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

How about hardened desktops? Lots of people are worried about their privacy and security online and might pay you good cash if you sell them a nicely packaged product built and tweaked for security. You don't really need much in terms of hardware, instead make sure that ubuntu is properly installed, firefox is hardened, tor just works, etc, etc. Could probably make some nice cash on the support too.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:33 PM on May 18, 2013

I think the market DrGall and RustyBrooks describe is a good one to look into— I know of people at (eg) small law firms or similar orgs who hire people to do what DrGall describes. You would find the customer first; they'd describe their needs to you; you'd spec out a good way to provide those needs with currently available hardware, source the parts, assemble, test, install the software they use, and probably physically set it up and plug everything in. Maybe even take the old systems away and dispose of them properly (or resell the parts, when possible). My city has a number of small 2-10 person companies that provide this kind of service, but I think they mostly lean towards the physical installation end of the job. If your location already has companies doing this, you might still be able to carve out a small niche for yourself doing the requirements/specification/sourcing part.
posted by hattifattener at 2:44 PM on May 18, 2013

In general, the market is dead. 20 years ago it was really ramping up. A decade ago, it was viable. These days, if that's a market you want to get into, you need to find a niche that needs a custom build. The home theater suggestion above immediately comes to mind, especially if you're also handy with software and audio/video gear.

It's amazing how quickly things shifted from PCs to laptops to tablets. Ten years ago, it seemed like everybody had a big clunky PC set up somewhere at home. Five years ago, everybody had a laptop which was also often big and clunky. Now, tablets are everywhere. The transition was so fast.
posted by 2oh1 at 2:45 PM on May 18, 2013

Look at the segment of the market that System76 has cornered-- inexpensive Linux boxes. There's a huge advantage that you don't have to buy an OEM closed-source OS. If you can beat them in some way, like service, customizability, or price, I think there may be a market, but it's a small one.

I think laptops would be exponentially harder, considering the many hardware constraints like power, size, and temperature. I used a System76 laptop for a bit and was never happier that I was primarily a Mac user. The S76 desktops gave no such immediate impression.
posted by supercres at 3:14 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

What might be of interest is a service where you use cloning software to copy and resize an existing OS installation to a much, much faster SSD disk, perhaps coupled with a RAM upgrade at the same time. The customer would be left with a much faster computer which looks and feels exactly the same as the old one, which is something people really like.

Replacing a slow mechanical disk with an SSD also adds years to the expected life of a computer, not to forget the savings in time to backup, install and configure everything on a new computer. (As a bonus the customer can keep the old drive as an extra backup)

(I use gparted on linux to do the copying and resizing, but you might also have to do a "fix" from a Windows boot CD you don't preserve the same partition layout.)
posted by Baron Humbert von Gikkingen at 3:16 PM on May 18, 2013

Your best market is going to be local, because most people would never buy a computer at a premium from someone they don't know online, who has no reputation and may or may not be around next year or the following in case they need help. You may be able to sell a few boxes, but what people really need is support for their computer problems - this pays and is regular work if you're competent, but it's a high burnout business. The goal for most IT services businesses should be to establish business support contracts, which is pretty decent money on a regular basis and a lot less hassle than home users. Selling computers and parts to people is not that easy unless you have a built in market, that is unless you're already providing computer support to them, in which case they are more likely to trust you. But selling computers and parts is going to be mostly small markups on price (compared to a lot of retail that's 1:3), because you don't have access to wholesale distributors, and unless you're doing lots of volume there's not much money to be made in sales alone.

If your markup is high and nobody knows who you are, nobody is likely to want to buy a computer from you. If you sink money into these boxes without knowing you have customers to buy them, you could be stuck with them if they don't sell. I did IT support for years and sold parts and the occasional computer, but I never kept stock around and never, ever bought any computers for customers unless they explicitly asked me to help them buy it. I can't be stuck with parts and boxes I can't sell, which quickly lose value. When I did sell actual boxes, I typically charged for my consultation instead of marking up, although I kept a supply of parts in my truck that did get marked up, but only the few parts that were needed regularly and would usually get sold quickly. I can't imagine trying to sell computers without already being in support, however, because you're probably not going to be able to sell your time and expertise for what it's worth, and that's what you're really selling.
posted by krinklyfig at 4:05 PM on May 18, 2013

Probably very small as the people who know what they want can typically built it themselves.

There may be a niche in high end workstations for GIS /CAD businesses whose IT person doesn't have the time to built 10 seperate quad Xeon / Quatro boxes and would rather just buy it from another company.
posted by wcfields at 4:24 PM on May 18, 2013

I think you'd have more luck marketing yourself to non-tech savvy people over the age of 60 who don't know how to use a computer, much less set one up with a printer, email, Internet, etc. Would you have the patience to do that?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:35 PM on May 18, 2013

I am a middle aged person who has used computers forever and have mad software skillz but am as ignorant as my own Nana wrt hardware and maintenance/backups etc. I've always had IT guys for that and do there's a weird kind of digital divide that I think is not unique to me. Ive thoight more than once that it would be nice to hire a consultant who isn't required to move product to help me set up a better computing/media/music arrangement in my house. Again I doubt I'm the only person who's capable of but doesn't want to invest hours of online research to fully know all the pros and cons of every discrete purchase and subscription and app, so id pay for that. Not interested in a custom indie desktop though.
posted by headnsouth at 4:38 PM on May 18, 2013

I know people who build computers for friends. I think on eBay and craigslists you'll find people building cheap desktops and selling them. I can build computers, but mostly I get people annoyingly asking me dumb questions about the computers they already have. There are a lot of people my mom's age who struggle with setting up printers, using Facebook and organizing bookmarks and stuff that seems self-explanatory to use young folk. I do it for my mom's friends for free because I love my mom, but I am sure there is a market for that.

I think desktops are superior to laptops in most ways and a lot better bang for buck, but it does seem like a lot of people use laptops these days.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:06 PM on May 18, 2013

Stop thinking of selling a general purpose computer and think of how you can fill a weird little niche. Since the internet gives you a nationwide platform, a niche may be viable.
Eldercare is one huge area that is badly served. Think pill compliance, video chat and monitoring, simplified email, etc.
posted by Sophont at 5:38 PM on May 18, 2013

I have a sense that there are Mac people who are interested in Hackintoshes but don't have the time, interest, or wherewithal to keep up with the messageboards or assemble the hardware.

I'm not necessarily suggesting you build these machines and install the Mac OS, because that way lies all sorts of legal tomfoolery. But if you could work out a process for installing and updating the OS with the assistance of your clients, you could probably also eke out some extra money supporting these systems through various OS updates.
posted by subgenius at 7:25 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

For a lot of mature technologies, there is often a good business to be done in selling and servicing used equipment. I'd argue that, at this point, desktops fit into that category.

Most of the performance improvements over the past 5+ years have been in 3D graphics and multi-core performance, but common uses, like web browsing, email, editing a document, even watching a video don't really use more that a couple of cores. Similarly, disks hold more than people need (unless they have a large stash of video).

I'm just guessing here, but it wouldn't surprise me if you could make $50 putting together a new desktop for someone that they pay $400 for, or $100 putting together a used computer that you sell for $200, you might even be able to charge another $50 or $100 if you set it up for them.

To start, scrounge used parts for a system that you think would be good enough for web browsing, email, youtube. Put it together, install the software, and then see how much you can get for it. Then do it again, adjusting prices and performance levels to see where the sweetspot is.

The one thing that might prove challenging is the OS Licence. I think some people will be quite content with Ubuntu, but there are plenty of others who won't. That could prove challenging. Microsoft has a program for system refurbishers. I don't know how difficult it is to be approved, and I don't know what their pricing is like, but I imagine it could end up being a significant portion of your costs.
posted by Good Brain at 9:37 PM on May 18, 2013

FWIW, my husband and I (mid-forties) both use desktops, and get them built and serviced by a local independent business, which seems to be doing well (they keep moving to better digs); however, they do service laptops as well as PCs.
posted by Koko at 10:18 PM on May 18, 2013

How about instead of going cheap (which always means demanding customers and thin profits) go high performance. Build machines to order for video editing, audio production, etc. You can charge a much higher premium, and generally get a much better class of customer. In addition these are about the only people left who buy desktops any more.

Sell local if you can. eBay is overflowing with cheap computers, it would be very hard to compete.
posted by Ookseer at 10:49 PM on May 18, 2013

Laptops have been outselling PCs for a few quarters now. I'd focus on the premium market because for example, you just can't really put 32 GB RAM in a laptop these days without spending like ten grand. Who specifically needs these things?
posted by oceanjesse at 1:14 AM on May 19, 2013

Why don't you just fix the computers that people already own?
posted by oceanjesse at 1:22 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pc repair is what you do with those skills, not building them.
posted by empath at 1:37 AM on May 19, 2013

I think this may be geography dependent. People in my neck of the woods (rural New England) absolutely buy these computers and there is a small build-it/repair-it shop that does a decent business. I think the big deal, if this is possible for you, is not just making/selling machines but offering some sort of value-add service that is either subscription based (some sort of logmein virus scan every month) or somehow recurring ("Buy this computer for $x and get a low cost $y virus scan and checkup every three months...") so that each item you sell has a small revenue stream associated with it. Maybe low-cost classes for people who purchase your machines. I'm sure there are other models that might work, but that seems to keep the local place in busienss here, it's all face to face, however, and not on ebay/CL.
posted by jessamyn at 7:40 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I knew people who were doing this, around 2000. Basically, they got squeezed out, along with most of the beige box PC manufacturers, and were unable to continue to beat the pricing of mass-produced PCs. The only other thing they were really selling was custom service and support, which is a market that still exists, I suppose.
posted by thelonius at 11:04 AM on May 19, 2013

I still use a desktop. Trying to do all that I do for work (publishing) on a tiny fucking laptop would be ridiculous. I really hope that they don't stop making desktops!

Ranting aside, I think this is a local-only thing. Like, if you were in Philadelphia and not a crazy person, I would have you build a machine for me because I'd rather have a PERSON do that than dell or whatever. But I wouldn't do the same thing from some possibly crazy dude online.

I also agree that PC repair is a good idea--especially if you can get a couple references for it (friends or family that you've helped out?) and then build your business with "real" references after that.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 5:53 PM on May 19, 2013

In my experience, this is a skill that I can't give away. As in, I have had friends who expressed an interest in purchasing a new desktop, and I offered to spec it out and help build it, but the difference in warranty from a home-built machine vs. an off-the-shelf Dell is significant enough that it's easy to justify the small difference in price. You and I know, of course, that the difference is actually in the higher quality components we're using (and the horrible experience of trying to use a Dell warranty when you're not on a business contract), but that kind of distinction only really matters to people who care about their hardware, and people who care about their hardware either build their own machines or buy $3500 Alienware boxes with someone else's money. QED.

This was similarly frustrating to me a decade ago when I thought about going the same route you are going now.
posted by Mayor West at 4:50 AM on May 20, 2013

This was a big thing in the 90's but is gone basically because it's hard to compete with the likes of Dell.
posted by Dansaman at 1:28 PM on May 20, 2013

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