How to Run A Business Providing Freelance Home Tech Support?
July 25, 2008 4:36 AM   Subscribe

How to Run A Business Providing Freelance Home Tech Support?

I am a freelance writer working from home (my schedule is my own) starting to get cabin fever. Having recently arrived in Melbourne, Australia, I mostly work for my old contacts in Spain. The downside to this is some social isolation and odd working hours.

So I am considering opening a sideline in home tech support that will give me an excuse to get out of the house and meet people professionally, as well as a way to diversify/increase my income and work during the daytime. And to do something that I enjoy.

Yes, I enjoy home tech support. True, so far I have only done it for friends and family members, but I have done everything and anything your home user and SOHO worker needs: data recovery, network installation, whitebox PC hardware troubleshooting, spyware delousing... I am a happy Debian/Ubuntu user, but I still remember enough of Windows (my last data recovery being only two months ago, and still using Windows for gaming), and I would not mind to have an excuse to buy at least a Mac Mini and learn about Mac OSX.

But... I don't know anything about doing Home/SOHO Tech Support as a business. I am guessing the tech side is like for family, only charging money. But how much, and what for, and to whom, and how to manage it?

Please add more questions you think I am missing if you have a good answer to them:
  • Rates: How much should I charge? Should I charge per incident? Per visit? A flat hourly rate? A retainer so I have a fixed income?
  • Services: Should I post a detailed list of services, or just say "I do tech"? Most importantly, how could I as a single guy working from home differentiate myself from the competition?
  • Customer acquisition: At first I would like to test the waters by doing word-of-mouth and posting bills at local shops and cafes. I don't own a car, so I would only work for clients within reach of cycle or public transportation, say, within 45 minutes of where I live (this is a wide swathe of my city, but it has a funny shape).
  • Business management: someone asked about this already (looking for freelance computer tech support software), but they used Windows and I am now a happy Linuxer. If you run a comparable business on Linux, how do you run your business?
posted by kandinski to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Most importantly, how could I as a single guy working from home differentiate myself from the competition?

By being much much cheaper and more honest. Here in the US we have a similar service called "The Geek Squad" that outrageously overcharges people and often scams them.

My fiance used to have his own business doing networking and tech support for small businesses. The lessons he learned: Always, always keep your personal and business finances separate. Incorporate so if you're sued, they can't take your personal assets. Prepare (legally, financially) for customers who won't pay.
posted by desjardins at 6:10 AM on July 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hey, Kandinski. What you want to do is exactly what I'm doing, and have been for several years. I'd be happy to discuss with you any specific details I miss while answering your general questions, below. Drop me a mefi-mail anytime and we can get into it.

Rates: I don't know what the home-IT services market is like in Australia, but here in the Midwest of the USA, my primary rival is Best Buy's Geek Squad. They and any big-corporate tech service provider come with lots of overhead, so you can easily afford to undercut their rates. I currently charge $50/hr (US), which most of my clients are happy to pay. I started at a much lower rate, but people kept looking up at me from their checkbooks and saying "Is that all?" so I increased rates until that stopped.

Services/advertising: You can post a detailed list of the sorts of things you can help your customers with. Think of common support problems: Spyware/viruses, broken emails, internet connectivity, data backup, slow PC performance: that sort of thing. Unless the consumer PC market Down Under is radically different from the US, nobody will give two craps about your Ubuntu or non-Windows expertise. I've gone over four years of about four client visits a week and have had about one Macintosh-related call a year. I'm happy to turn them down now because Windows work keeps me plenty busy.

Customer Aquisition: I distributed leaflets around targeted neighborhoods, which got me limited response. It takes time to build up a customer base, but keep at it and treat your customers right (and get the right customers) and they will spread the word about you.

I don't use any special support software for my business - there are those I know who have invested in remote-control packages and such to save themselves trips, but the only software I have used for my business (besides antispyware tools, etc) is an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of customer payments and expenses.

I wish you the greatest of success. You as a freelancer with another source of income have the great luxury of being able to do what it takes to make your clients happy. Take advantage of that and they will always come back to you.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 6:23 AM on July 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh, and get a good tax guy, and incorporate (the laws in Australia pertaining to this are probably different than in the US, but I expect the general principals are the same). If you're already freelancing you probably have the basic infrastructure of your business life already in place.
Whatever you do, remember you will now be going into strangers' homes. Do whatever local law allows to limit your liability in case anything unfortunate happens. It doesn't really matter if a given disaster was your fault, or whether you did anything wrong. You should have liability insurance because defending even a totally spurious claim against you can ruin you financially.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 6:30 AM on July 25, 2008

With this (and any freelancing really) getting networked with good customers is how you build business. Pricing shouldn't be too difficult and I say $50/hr sounds about right to put yourself cheaper than the competition and still do alright. Don't ever go on a per incident basis because you could end up spending all evening at someone's house and you don't want that to be on your dime. If there's a flat fee for a service people are more likely to keep asking you questions and have you do everything for them, if you charge by the hour they'll be more willing to have you walk them through the basics and then send you on their way.

As for software, you may not need anything fancy but for basic support of my parents computer I've used LogMeIn products and they have a wide range of products for remote helpdesk support. Their Rescue product even allows you to put an icon with your logo on the desktop and anytime they have trouble they can go to it to issue a call to you with detailed info. I imagine something like that could help generate return business but I have no experience with it.

I would advertise separate things based on who you're working with. If it's mainly home support you're looking to do it's gonna be E-mail, Internet, and OS, and Hardware problems (and you'll likely have more business but lower $ per incident). Business people will require Wireless infrastructure setup, networking, security, etc and there will be less calls but you can generate more $/incident since they usually require detailed setup. No reason why you can't do both but make sure the flyers/brochures/whatever you put out speak to the audience that will likely be reading them. And don't stretch yourself too thin.
posted by genial at 7:19 AM on July 25, 2008

This is the second time I have pimped this service on here - Crossloop - check it out as it might be useful in offering Tech Support remotely. There is a marketplace too for finding clients. I haven't investigated that as I just use Crossloop to manage my brother's computer.
posted by wannalol at 7:24 AM on July 25, 2008

Just a side note. As someone who does this but STRICTLY for Macs, please don't disrespect your potential clients, and the platform at large, by just grabbing a Mac mini and crash-coursing yourself, thinking this qualifies you to do Mac support. I've had to clean up the messes of people like this, and what grates on my nerves most is the massive lack of respect that is implied by a mainly-Windows tech just assuming he/she can do a Mac job here and there.

Geek Squad and that ilk are total crap, on any platform (but GOD, they're an extra special level of fail -- as if that were possible -- when it comes to Mac support). Their saving grace (well, for people like us, anyway) is that they're so incredibly incompetent and overpriced that their day of reckoning is probably not far off. Ten to fifteen years ago, saying Microsoft was on its way downhill and that it would become general knowledge that they basically suck would get you laughed at. Not so much now. Well, the same's going to happen to Geek Squad, though I'd imagine much faster.

Basically, good service and playing up the "I'm a small operation, and you'll always be dealing with me and me only" are good things to do. You can have a nice rapport with some clients, just about always be offered a drink or a snack (sometimes an entire meal), the odd piece of hardware (sometimes brand new) or old computer from a client with money to burn, etc. If you end up making it your full-time gig, you get to become the smug jackass your friends envy when they're waking up at some ungodly hour (i.e., before 10 am) to go to the same stupid job FIVE -- count 'em, FIVE! -- days a week.

Good luck. (Of course, if you were a Mac guy and in the Baltimore area, I wouldn't say that.) ;-)
posted by CommonSense at 7:45 AM on July 25, 2008

Wow, I'm WAAAAY underpriced.
posted by briank at 8:39 AM on July 25, 2008

Consider charging more for the 1st hour, because you always have transport time, cost of billing, etc., for each visit. 1st hour: 60, subsequent hours: 45, or something like that.
posted by theora55 at 9:04 AM on July 25, 2008

Networking is one of the best way to grow a new business, check to see if there is a BNI group in your area.

Make sure you get email addresses from your customers and send them a monthly newsletter with tips and virus warnings.

Testimonials from past clients can make your website look more trustworthy so make sure you ask for them.

Tell your new customers that you grow your business on word of mouth and you'll give them a free 1/2 hour for each referral who turns into a customer.
posted by Mick at 9:46 AM on July 25, 2008

Thanks a lot, to all of you, for your answers and encouragement.

Big Lanky Bastard, special thanks for your offer of private help. As your answers to generic questions can also help others, would you mind listing here your choice of best free or cheap programs that you install for your clients? In becoming a Linux user I may have fallen behind the curve in which is the best-of-breed program for each task. Here is my list, which may by now be two or three years too old:

- Antivirus: AVG (though for a long time it was Karspersky)
- Firewall: ZoneAlarm (though friends used the one from Kaspersky)
- Spyware Removal: Ad-Aware, Spybot Search and Destroy
- Automated backups: Unison
- Data recovery: always done it on FAT volumes, and using Linux. What good tools are there for NTFS/Whatever Vista has?
- Remote control: I have always used VNC and, later, a ssh server through a high port. However, part of the idea of this job is that I get to leave the house!
- In the past I always tried to get my (non/paying) supportees on Firefox and Thunderbird/Gmail. Now I plan to do the same thing, which will hopefully mean less calls but happier customers and more referrals.

And some more questions:

- When working for family, I almost always end up going shopping with them, or sending them to buy stuff for themselves. For clients, I assume it's better to always carry a couple of hard drives, enclosures, thumb drives etc with you. Do you sell them to your clients? At a markup, or at breakeven? How does that work, and how frequent is the need for new hardware?

- I am totally ignorant of Vista, having moved to Linux before it was even released. Of course, I now realise I will have to get a computer running it so I get used to how it works (or how it breaks when it doesn't!). How has Vista changed your work?

- How do you handle privacy issues? I mean, I know the ethical answer, but how do you communicate that to your clients? Do you have a charter that you give them? Do you ask them to sign a contract allowing you to peek into their data "just enough to ascertain whether you have been able to recover it"? How do you define the limits there?

- I also don't want to have anybody's passwords on me or in my head, which I didn't mind with friends and family. I know I will have to educate my clients, and I was thinking of something along the lines of having them write the router password in a card, put it in a closed envelope, tape it to the bottom of the router. What's your experience with clients?

Finally, some comments:

- The only linux business I expect to get is small unattended boxes for file serving/fax serving/routers in the bigger kind of small companies I would serve. I also know people providing these services for bigger companies, so I could also take a referral fee/work for people with more experience, knowledge and infrastructure in case any job escalates beyond what I can take on my own.

- The same goes for any kind of job, really: I am as confident in what I know as I am in saying "I don't know" when I don't. If a hard drive can be read, I can image it and try to recover the data from the image. If I can't, I also know the best data recovery people in town, and will be happy to make my client happy by recommending them.

- The same goes for Mac OSX! I understand CommonSense's reaction, but please understand that what I meant is "yay, excuse to buy a Mac to learn about it, and discount it as a business expense!". You also have to realise that, like everyone in this thread (I imagine), I am 100% self-taught, and the only thing I am better at than the people that will be my clients is finding out solutions and applying them. So if anybody calls me and says they don't know what's wrong with their Mac but "their Internets is broken", it's very likely I can help them at least diagnose what's wrong. If a design studio (the kind of people who have been using Macs for almost as long as Steve Jobs) call me and say "we fuxxored the resource fork but we hear it can be defuxxored with a 10.5.2 rescue disk and some special reality distortion kit", I know I better find a phone number I can give them.

Finally, I really appreciate business advice like theora55's about charging a different fee for the first hour than for the following ones, because it's the kind of thing that a freelance writer does not do (I mostly take the rates each client offers), and Mick's about the free half-hour with each referral. Great work, guys, and please keep it coming!
posted by kandinski at 10:01 AM on July 25, 2008

CommonSense, I have been thinking about what can be so easy to break in a Mac, and I can't think of anything. With the exception of system corruption from viruses and spyware (which is a Windows problem), the three most common calls for tech support I have got are the same for any type of computer:

- Machine is dead, we need to find out whether it's something user replaceable (hard disk, memory) or something that needs to be taken to the service.
- Data recovery (primarily from unvoluntary or careless deletion, less frequently from disk corruption).
- Installation of repeater wireless router/long cable/shared printer/whatever.

Could you please give me three examples of Mac-related support calls that are totally new and baffling to Windows users, or that have totally different approaches to a solution?
posted by kandinski at 10:20 AM on July 25, 2008

Oh, and another question: many of these services appear to give out their mobile numbers and advertise a 24/7 availability. It seems extreme to me, but would it damage my ability to attract clients if I had some reasonable business hours? How do you manage it?
posted by kandinski at 4:21 AM on July 26, 2008

That's a lot of questions, so I'll try my best to answer the ones I have answers to:

Your list of applications/programs seems fairly complete. Actual data recovery, as in low-level searches of damaged volumes or reconstructing deleted files, I have only had to do once in four years. The rest of the time "data recovery" simple means plugging the hard drive from a non-booting computer in via a USB-IDE or USB-SATA adaptor and copying the intact files off.

So far I have not found it necessary to get my clients to sign any kind of waiver or other document, though I've been considering it recently. Most clients, despite recent news stories about the Geek Squad and other services stealing client porn, are not explicitly concerned about privacy. I've only really had to discuss it with one client. She asked, "How do I know you're not snooping and copying personal data off my computer (this for a job that involved taking the machine back to my workshop)?" I basically told her she'd have to trust me, and assured her that my business model did not involve stealing from my clients or invading their privacy. This seemed to keep her happy.

As for email and other account passwords, typically I will ask them to sit down and enter it themselves whenever possible. For WLAN routers or other stuff I set up for them, I choose the passwords myself and record them on a page I print out and hand over to the client for safekeeping, instructing them to file it and not lose it.

When new hardware is necessary, I'll try to obtain it myself and sell to the client at cost, receipts and all, as part of the final bill for that job. As for stuff I carry to every job, I like to have a couple spare USB cables, a couple spare ethernet patch cables, a couple spare power cables, my USB-IDE and USB-SATA adaptors, a full set of screwdrivers, an external HDD containing install media for various spyware and other utility software (and for backing up client data), a CD carry-case full of bootable utility CDs (Windiag ram tester, GWScan hard drive testing tool, a WinXP install disk (for running CHKDSK), Darik's Boot and Nuke, Partition Magic, etc.

Vista has meant that I spend a little more time on jobs that involve setting up new PCs for a client in answering questions and familiarization. Get and read "Windows Vista - The Missing Manual" by David Pogue - it's exhaustive in documenting the OS.

I will only book one client per day (in the evening) and my fee structure includes a two-hour minimum, so I am more or less guaranteed a certain amount per evening. If I have to drive a long distance to get there, my clients have been happy to pay a surcharge on top of that minimum (usually a half-hour's worth) "due to the high cost of gas."

As for availability, I have never needed to tout or provide 24-7 to my clients to keep them calling. My mobile phone is my business phone, but nobody expects me to answer that constantly. Most are aware I have a full-time job and are happy to leave me messages which I return within 24 hours most days. Some are even apologetic for "bothering" me on the weekend. I almost never charge for short phone consultations, though some clients may insist on being billed.

Users can be funny about their e-mail application, and I've never tried to push them into a specific program if they like the one they have, unless they have real concerns or problems with the one they use. So many use webmail nowadays (G-mail, MSN, AOL, or as provided by their ISP) that having a local email client application may not be necessary in most cases.

I hope this all helps. Good luck!
posted by BigLankyBastard at 4:33 AM on July 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I have to echo genial's warning about pacing yourself. If you keep at it, and are any good, at some point client demand may outstrip your ability to meet it. When you start out, set a maximum number of appointments you will make in a given week, and keep to that limit. The demand for this kind of service (as provided by diligent, trustworthy and reasonably priced individuals) is BOTTOMLESS. Don't let your clients wheedle or badger you into keeping a schedule which exhausts you. If you find yourself booked an unreasonable time in advance, increase your rates and use that as a throttle on demand.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 4:38 AM on July 27, 2008

Big Lanky Bastard, you are a prince! I am glad I asked you these questions publically, I think your answers will be very useful to anyone considering the same job.

I will let you know how it goes (maybe posting my link to projects.m.c when I set up the webpage), but for now I already have good news. Someone I know through Dorkbot is setting up small businesses but at a higher difficulty/premium level, installing asterisk boxes and samba servers for domains for windows and stuff. He has already offered me work where I will learn new (and more bankable) skills and hone my client chops.

Thanks also for the advice re: pacing. Indeed I will have to be very careful. Another way I plan to control the manageability of this business is by marking clearly the zones of the city where I can get by bike and public transport in under 45 minutes (ideally in 30). The catchment area has a weird shape, but it's big enough. As I said in the original question, I already have some work I can do from home, so I hope to be able to balance my writing gigs with my tech gigs for maximum satisfaction.

Thanks again everyone!
posted by kandinski at 7:45 AM on July 27, 2008

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