Opening a PC Repair shop?
April 5, 2007 1:13 PM   Subscribe

Considering opening a computer repair store. Input desperately needed.

A small section of a building (owned by a company my father is VP of) is going to be available for rent soon. I'm thinking of renting it as I live less than 100 feet away in an apartment (also owned by said company) and can't find a computer repair position in the area. I believe the building costs ~$700 monthly, and it's in a decent location near lots of neighborhoods. I don't have professional experience but have built several PCs from scratch and informally supported PCs back at high school as well as lots of relatives, and recently bought/read/understood Scott Mueller's "Upgrading and Repairing PCs."

I need lots of advice. How much money can a small computer repair shop expect to take in? Is going as an entrepreneur advisable for someone finishing up college? Anyone have any experience running a small computer shop? What should pricing be? What can I do as a sideline to keep income steady? Is the market oversaturated? What supplies do I need? Feel free to pour your hearts out over this one.

If anyone has any input on this I'd be welcome to hear it. Suggestions, ideas, anecdotes, whatever. The shop would be in West Columbia, SC if that's relevant to anyone.
posted by Phyltre to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Write yourself a business plan. Put in it policies like when you fix something and it breaks again immediately, do you fix it again for free? Who's going to do your bookkeeping?Are you going to sell parts? No? Is the customer going to supply replacement parts? What if the part is wrong?

Try to imagine every stupidity ever. You won't come close to what will happen.

Giving someone a quote on an installation job? Think about how long you think it will take, and then multiply by three. Really. Because things always go wrong.

Back to the business plan - you need $700 per month + $x for your wage. Divide that by 28 or 30 or so to get your minimum daily earnings. And we haven't included utilities there, yet.

How are you going to get clients? Advertising, word or mouth? They will come in a lot slower than you expect, unless of course, everything goes haywire and you get many more than you expect and you have to spend all your time talking to clients and taking in jobs, when you really need to be working on those jobs.

Do a business plan. The library has books on it. The internet has pages on it. Government small business departments (here at least) have advice on it.

/partnered husband and two friends in computer repair business for a couple years in the 90s. Glad to be out of it.
posted by b33j at 1:45 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

It is not a business I would recommend do to manufacturer warranties being so ubiquitous and replacement costs for whole machines being so low. All repair places I have seen have been retail shops that carry items CompUSA/Microcenter do not find the demand to carry. And keep in mind that those who would fit into the category of going to you for repair work are probably going to be somewhat unpleasant to deal with (in talking to an owner of such an establishment, he usually gets in 8 year old machines running Windows 98 and the owners not wanting to spend more than $100).

If you're dedicated you probably can build up quite a base, especially if you go on site and fix networking problems. Think GeekSquad. You also have the $700/mo + inventory costs of keeping supplies on hand + traveling costs + overhead. It'd be hard work, the pay will be little but at least you'd be your own boss.

I would recommend working for a repair place first before you decide to go out on your own. You do not seem to have much experience, not just with computers but in the customer relations field.
posted by geoff. at 1:50 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

There are tons tons tons of government resources available to start or grow small businesses. ESPECIALLY in places like South Carolina where new businesses and new jobs are desperately needed. Here's one place I'd start looking for in-person and on-line help targeted towards your market. You will be amazed at how much is available to you.

That said, some business thoughts specifically on your business idea:
  • build up references even before you get the store open
  • professionalize! do some business cards, etc., so you can make long-term connections and get in touch with local businesses, particularly small ones who can't afford full-time IT
  • do you think there is a market for classes of any sort? learning to build computers, or general maintenance work?
  • talk to people (in other markets, who you aren't competing with) to find out what their experiences have been: lessons learned, things they missed, etc.

    Being out of school is a nice time to be an entrepreneur: you're used to living low budget, can deal with the demanding, odd, and irregular hours, and have less at risk overall. Whether the business makes it or not, it's a thrill and education which will serve you well no matter what happens afterwards.

  • posted by whatzit at 2:01 PM on April 5, 2007

    My wife's parents, in their 60s, recently upgraded their circa 1995 Packard Bell to a computer they had custom-built by a local shop. In the weeks since then, I've been privy to an ongoing e-mail exchange between my M-I-L and the techs at this shop regarding all sorts of problems, most of which are exacerbated by the generational differences in computer understanding.

    For instance, when the computer takes too long to turn on, she e-mails them to report the various disparities in time from the last time she fired it up. Or when she forgot her e-mail password, she got very frustrated with the technician who tried to explain to her that her e-mails were "not actually physically in the computer somewhere."

    Her side of the story is that she believes this shop to be totally incompetent. I know this is not true, but I just smile and nod. I like my in-laws very much, but I would never, ever want to be on the other end of any of these conversations. Would you?
    posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:06 PM on April 5, 2007

    $700 a month on a storefront is $700 you have to sell before you make a penny. Consider carefully if you really need that space.

    The computer help business isn't as sparse as it used to be and as Geoff mentions you're competing with places that are more the immediate thought for people who are having a problem. The best service in the world can't be successful if people don't know it exists, so you'll have to spend a notable amount of time building up presence and reputation. Also troubling for this kind of thing, there's only so much repeat business you can expect - the second time I had to call you for a $200 service I would probably be calling Dell instead for a new $600 computer.

    There's a national franchise called Geeks on Call that may or may not have penetrated into your area. Like all franchises it's got the problem of a big up-front fee (and the fact that the only people who always make money in franchising are the franchise sellers) but it does have name recognition and a dispatching system, it would seem. Here's a newspaper article about them that seems to give you an idea of the fees they command.

    I think you'd have better luck doing onsite work and forgoing the shop, presuming you have SOME space at home to work in. You may not have the issue but a large percentage of the desktop using population have a lot of anxiety about simply disconnecting the power, mouse, monitor, and keyboard cables. Home visits are comforting to them.

    Again, the biggest worry you are going to have is identifying your potential customers - you can't advertise on craigslist and expect to hit your target market.
    posted by phearlez at 2:16 PM on April 5, 2007

    Post fliers offering to help people with their computers in their homes for some hourly rate. If you post them in the right neighborhood, you could do very well.

    Re: the shop. Do market research if possible (basic market research: ask around to see if people would come to the shop & how much they'd pay for the service you offer). Figure out how long it would take you to do $X worth of work.

    But I'd bet that house calls would be great for you.
    posted by amtho at 2:22 PM on April 5, 2007

    Do you have enough capital to pay the rent and support yourself for a year? Most business fails due to lack of capital. It will take a while before you start making money. It's much easier to start an PC repair business where you go to the customer and fix the system and then later maybe open a shop.
    Most people don't upgrade their system unless they come to you for another problem so not much money to be made there. Selling wireless routers? Most big stores offer $20 rebate on linksys routers so not much money there either.
    posted by Ferrari328 at 2:25 PM on April 5, 2007

    Amtho has a good point. Why do you need a shop? If there's one of you, and you're going on site anyway, the shop will be unattended (bad for business) or you'll have to pay someone to watch it (you can't afford that). Can you start your business working from home?
    posted by b33j at 2:46 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Beware the BSA. From what I have heard, they lurk about the fringes of computer repair shops, looking to sue into oblivion the first person who might have installed a copy of Win95 and not charged for it.

    Never be afraid to collect someone's old junk, clean it, and refurbish it into a discount computer.

    Most people just want faster, and that means less processes, more RAM, and a defragged drive. I've seen people put perfectly good computers out on the curb; after picking them up, I discovered that they had never done any kind of disk repair and had entirely too little RAM for the OS they were running.

    Archive people's hard drives just in case things go horribly awry. Don't snoop.

    Gather a cluster of freeware tools to remove spyware, viruses, rootkits, etc., and learn how to make them run automatically, overnight, and then defrag the frickkin' hard drive. Freeware is your friend.

    You can never have enough screws and little red rubber rings.

    Get one of those big cannisters that can be pumped up with air. It's cheaper than those cans, by a long shot.

    Build a diagnostic suite. Run those memory tests overnight, while the computer is nice and hot; sometimes RAM doesn't flake out until the system is toasty.

    Be prepared to deal with the occasional 486.

    Drawers, labelled according to what's in them, are a great idea, especially for those strange nights when you need some hideous piece of hardware to deal with a rare SCSI issue.

    Keep a zillion kinds of clearly-marked bootdisks handy. An 80mb hard drive with DOS 6.22 on it can still be handy if you load it up with little utilities.
    posted by adipocere at 3:47 PM on April 5, 2007

    Personally, I would research what kind of business is currently hot for that kind of retail space. I'd research franchises, read magazines, and ask around. There's no reason it has to be a computer repair shop. At the end of the day its just money and work. A Jamba juice may thrive where a computer store may fail miserably. You might like the structure of a franchise (or whatever) and might qualify for some goverment assisted loans.
    posted by damn dirty ape at 4:05 PM on April 5, 2007

    A guy down the road from me runs a computer-repair business out of the back of a big, ugly Pontiac Aztec with signage shrink-wrapped onto it. As nearly as I can tell, his place of "business" is a cell-phone and that advertising on his vehicle.

    If you mainly want to do repair work, you don't need the overhead of a store front. Skip the storefront and invest in a business cellphone and advertising. There's more demand these days for on-site troubleshooter than "bring your PC in" service, anyway.

    That said, I've worked in IT support in the public sector, and it was a bear of a job some days -- and that was working with people clueful enough to have a portion of the sector that they ought to have been relatively saavy. They generally weren't, and they were generally fairly insistant that it was my fault. Moral of story? IT work is thankless, and how you deal with the customer is probably worth much more than how you solve the problem, so long as the problem gets solved. If you're not ready to grovel before customers you'd really in your heart of hearts like to throttle, IT isn't for you. ;)
    posted by Alterscape at 4:10 PM on April 5, 2007

    You don't want to get into supporting home machines. A much better place to look for business is..well..small business. They tend to have the budget to fix their problems properly, rather than expecting you to hold things together with bailing wire for five cents an hour and then cursing your name when it's not perfect.

    That said, if you do want to get into the business, you don't need retail space, but it is immensely helpful to have a few hundred square feet to store the various crap you'll accumulate, a workbench, and such things.

    Around here, that can be had for $200-$250 a month.

    Word of mouth will be your good friend. There are so few competent IT consultants, computer repair people, etc., that if you make a few customers happy, they'll tell their associates, and in no time you'll have more business than you can shake a stick at, unless perhaps you're in the bay area, in which case, not so much, but in the rest of the country, good help is nearly impossible to find, but mediocre help comes knocking at your door and is on every street corner.
    posted by wierdo at 5:09 PM on April 5, 2007

    As I have been in this business for 10+ years, let me give some of my thoughts.
    Forget about inventory except the very basic, power supplies, fans, keyboards mice. The rest of the stuff is too volitile unless you are a BIG store. (want to buy some 586 CPU's and motherboards?)
    Computer customers run the entire spectrum, plus. Learn when turn away a customer when they want the impossible. (Vista on older harware as an example.)
    The general order of problems are loose cables or connections, power supply, mainboard, drives, and memory.
    Networking is vital now with high speed connections prevelant. Set up your own network and learn. My first network was Win95 and Win 3.11.
    Tools are important, software wise. Hard tools include a screw driver, power supply tester and that about covers it. The best way to diagnose bad is to have good to check it against.
    posted by raildr at 5:15 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

    I really, really recommend you do two things. First, get the book "Start Your Own Computer Business" by Morris Rosenthal.

    Second, check out the Computer Business Group. It's "A peer support group for people planning to start or currently running a small computer business." It's an excellent group, where people who are already running their own computer repair businesses will happy to share their experiences and offer you some advice.

    I've considered starting a computer repair business for years and have learned that it's tough to make a living at it nowadays, especially if you're paying for a store front. Computers are throw-away devices now; and you're going to be competing with a gadzillion teenagers and an army of laid-off IT techs.

    I think you're going to find it's doable if you're really persistent and hardworking and knowledgeable AND you DON'T have rent to pay, especially when you're starting out.
    posted by 14580 at 6:56 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Alot of good advice in this thread.

    I've been doing IT work for 10+ years and just 6 months ago struck out on my own doing freelance consulting.

    Its ALOT harder than I expected. I've got a huge skillset, the technical side of it is no problem at all. But the business side of it is alot of work.

    Trying to find ways to market and find new customers, take care of existing customers, tracking all finances and mileage,etc. Paperwork.. how I completely and totally HATE paperwork...

    I'd agree with most others here.. if you can avoid opening a brick and mortar.. and just work out of your apartment,.. I find that much more workable.
    posted by jmnugent at 8:08 PM on April 5, 2007

    Nthing "you don't need a storefront". At most, a room with a decent workbench and a bit of shelving.

    Go for it.
    posted by flabdablet at 6:50 AM on April 6, 2007

    You're going to see a whole lot of older, confused customers. I work in an office full of 60 somethings and am de facto tech support. They'll repeatedly download viruses, trojans, and spyware. And do it again the minute you fix it for the 20th time. (But at least you'll get paid)

    As stated above, most of the user's own problems will be your fault, so have a thick skin.

    I manage because these older folks are a great asset in my line of emploment, and they give back much. Not sure if it would be worth the $80 or so you could charge.

    That all said I think there is a pretty good market out there with Geek Squad currently being run into the ground by Best Buy. Your startup costs will be low, if nothing else, this will be a great learning experience. Good luck!
    posted by vaportrail at 3:09 PM on April 7, 2007

    I'm also going to go against the grain here--Go with a storefront. I dont want to drop off a computer at someone's house. It's more professional and I would think you could charge more since you're not an amateur.
    posted by vaportrail at 3:13 PM on April 7, 2007

    Just to be clear: when I suggested no shopfront, I'm also suggesting that you visit the customer rather than having them come to you. If you need to take a machine home, you can do that; but most of what you'll be fixing will be software issues of one kind or another, and that's most easily done with the machine in its normal environment.
    posted by flabdablet at 9:57 PM on April 7, 2007

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