Can you afford the basement geek?

Wallet with spare changeNot long ago, I wrote about the problems with self-employed basement geeks. What I may not have made clear is how this hits you, the business owner, directly in the pocketbook. This is one of those situations where hourly rate comparisons can be misleading.

Here are some of the true stories we’ve seen and heard…

  • Overspent on equipment: we ran into a business owner who spent thousands more on a server than he needed. At first glance, our services appeared far more expensive than his current tech, but the money he wasted on that server could have paid for months of our services. At this point he’s gun-shy around techs and doesn’t trust anyone. Who can blame him?
  • Underspent on equipment, overspent on labor: even more often we find clients with a hodge-podge of old equipment that’s expensive to maintain, when a small investment in upgrades would cut labor costs dramatically. We run our business so that it’s in our best interest to tell our clients. Geeks that charge exclusively by the hour may not think this way.
  • Software licensing issues: basement geeks are notorious for installing illegal copies of software. Sometimes they charge clients for full copies, sometimes they simply “do a favor” for their client; either can cause expensive problems down the road when software needs to be reinstalled and can’t be found, or illegal copies are reported to regulatory agencies.
  • Excessive labor charges: we heard of a company recently who’s been waiting more than two weeks to have a Windows XP computer fixed, and “the guy” has already spent more than 40 hours working on it. That’s just not right, but the owner thinks this guy is brilliant and can do no wrong. Who knows what the final bill will be. All I know is that someone in that relationship is going to get burned, whether they know it or not.
  • Extended downtime: what if, due to lack of availability or lack of skill, your business computers are down for a day? What about a week? What’s the cost of all that wasted time? Compare that to the little you’re saving on that cheap basement tech.

You may do fine with the basement geek when you’re first getting started. He may work out well for months, maybe even years. But at some point you’ll almost certainly run into serious problems.

How can I be so sure? It’s not like I think these are bad guys with evil intentions. But time after time, we’ve done cleanup duty for businesses that have been burned. At this point, even the worst horror stories fail to shock us. Don’t let yours be the next one we hear.

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The geek in the basement

Basement geekWe recently took over tech support for a company who used to have “a guy.” We had to obtain some information from him, and he wasn’t very responsive. I guess after losing the client he wasn’t really inclined to be helpful, and I can’t entirely blame him.

We were a little surprised though – most of the time, when we called, we got his mom. Apparently he lives at her house, in the basement.

The thing is, this isn’t unusual. There are lots of guys in lots of basements handling tech support for small companies. They are often very smart and very cheap.

So why is this a problem?

For starters, they are usually self-taught and lack real-world experience. Given the large ego of your average tech, chances are they don’t know what they don’t know – nor are they willing to admit they might not yet know it all.

There can be a big knowledge gap: if you spend all your time in the basement, you never learn enterprise-class support procedures. This means your business technology is run using non-standard setup processes, instead picking whatever suggestion comes up first on Google. It’s hard to feel confident that you are getting the best solution when they are making things up as they go. Speaking for myself, I prefer established best practices over educated guesses any day.

Another issue: those basement geeks rarely get out. If they fall ill, or get busy, or take vacation, or take on a day job, they may not have a backup geek to handle your tech issues. Got a sudden emergency? Don’t count on getting it fixed right away if the timing’s not right.

And professionalism…well, these guys are geeks first and foremost. They happen to be self-employed, but it doesn’t mean they know how to run a business. We often find that they stay in the basement because they are more comfortable there than around people. So don’t count on high standards of professionalism, or clear communication, or an understanding of your business priorities.

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Who’s your techie?

Chuck, the computer geekNearly every business has at least a few computers, and anyone who has computers has computer problems from time to time. Computers love to break down, and Murphy’s Law dictates that those breakdowns will happen at the very worst possible time. When the time comes, who do you call?

Trunk-Slammers, Fast-Food Support, and Worse

Sometimes it seems that everyone’s a techie, from the teenager next door to the marketing consultant turned web guru. Computer stores have long been a source of low-cost tech support; now the big electronics stores have decided that installing a wireless network is just as easy—and profitable—as setting up your home theater. Even the office supply stores are jumping on the bandwagon with various offerings of onsite and phone support. If you like fast food-style support and a la carte pricing, these can be quick fix options at low to moderate prices. But just as fast food shouldn’t be your only source of nutrition, these consumer-oriented choices won’t give you a well-balanced technology diet.

Local tech companies range from solo independents to large scale operations. Solo folks can be a great value since they often charge lower prices, but if they get too busy or take vacation, you’ll have to wait. Larger companies may provide quicker response, but often at a higher price and without the personal service. A mid-size company can be a good compromise; many still offer the personal touch while providing a large enough staff to respond promptly to emergencies.

Online subscription support services can provide phone support along with remote login capabilities, where they take control of your computer to check settings while you watch and wait. Many times, these can be inexpensive options to handle routine questions, but they can’t handle everything—some issues still require a live human being onsite.

If you’re a tech-savvy do-it-yourselfer, Google can answer any question you care to ask—just use caution. Make sure the information is legit, that it’s truly a fix for your issue, and that you know exactly how to implement the suggested advice. Be careful and backup everything before attempting something risky. Registry edits, for example, can break your computer as easily as fix it. And if your hard drive is making strange clicks, whirrs or chirps, your computer is in its death throes—turn it off and take it to a professional right away, before your hard drive crashes for good.

As for the teenager next door, he may be great with computers, but he’s a geeky gamer, not a business exec. You wouldn’t let that same kid keep your books or execute a marketing strategy, except possibly in a well-supervised intern role. Technology is no different; what makes sense from a gamer perspective may be a poor fit for your business.

A little shameless self-promotion

If you’re in the St. Louis areas, feel free to give us a call. We try to balance the best of all worlds with a talented and friendly staff who possess a wide range of skills.

Should your tech be in-house or outsourced?

Computer help keyComputer technology may not be rocket science, but let’s face it—when computers start crashing, most business owners are in over their heads. Someone’s got to take care of your computers, email, and website, so the real question is this: should you hire an employee or outsource to a vendor?

The appeal of an employee is clear…he’ll be available when needed, and you’ll be his top priority. No worries about juggling appointments, no confusion about how your network is set up. And as an employee, there’s no reason for him to sell you new products and services you don’t really need. Sounds great, right?

Of course, that employee may not want to be on call all the time. Will he really be there when you need him? And what happens when several things hit at once—how do you get it all done quickly, without waiting for him to have some free time?

Even more important, will that employee really know everything you need? Just because someone is “good with computers” doesn’t mean they can do it all. A programmer, for example, can probably build a website, but not design it; maybe they can do tech support but servers might be a stretch. A network tech can handle your server just fine, but that doesn’t mean they know a thing about how to make your accounting system work. You get the idea. And don’t forget the hidden costs for training, special software tools, and support subscriptions.

Outsourcing certainly has its challenges; making sure your vendor understands and values your business are top of the list. But when you find the right match, for the same cost as that employee—or even less!—you’ll benefit from a variety of expert resources equipped with the right tools to meet all your business needs.