Offering computer support services to small businesses

Know Your Worth

Article from Issue 160/2014

maddog advises computer-savvy students to explore business opportunities as a way to earn money for education.

I have been coaching a small group of university students on how to start up a computer support business as a part-time job to help finance their education. These students are only in their first or second year of university, but they have been using computers most of their lives.

When I mentioned some pricing models, the students told me that the prices were too high and that they could never charge such rates for the type of work I suggested. Often, they did work for their family and friends, and they did not think they could ask the rates I was suggesting.

In such situations, you have to look at the value of your work to the customer and what they would have to pay if they took their business some other place. Where I live, just opening a desktop computer costs US$ 90, even if no actual repair work is done. However, that type of expense is not the value of the work, just the cost. The value would be if the customer had to buy an entire equivalent computer system and regenerate all of the data on the disks to get back to where they were when the system failed, compared with someone fixing the system and retaining their data.

Of course, that would be the extreme value, and before customers paid that amount of money to you, they might look for other solutions and other solution providers, as well as actually try to fix the problem themselves. This is where free market competition comes into action.

On the other end of the scale are people who bring their computer problems to you every time because you fix the problem "for free." In this case, the value of the solution is the same, but the cost to the "customer" is zero. They won't take their problems any other place or even try to understand what is going on, because you work for free.

I do not advocate trying to make a business from selling services to your friends and family. I advocate making a business from selling computer services to businesses – particularly small and medium-sized businesses – which in most countries of the world make up 80-90 percent of businesses. These people need to use computers, but they would much rather use them just as a tool and let other people manage and service the computers for them. This is one of the things that is driving the cloud business today.

Many college students do not value the knowledge that they already have. True, some students think they know much more than they really do, but a lot of computer science university students (and even high school students) can take apart a desktop system, replace a disk drive, transfer the data from a failing disk to a new one, and do most (if not all) of the work for setting up computers for a small business. There is value in such knowledge.

I have gone into many small businesses and seen the way they have set up their systems – with a rat's nest of unlabeled cables, no interruptible power supply or power surge protection, and other things that make me cringe.

So, to university students, I say: Do these small businesses a favor and sell them your time and assistance to help them run their computers more efficiently. Help them do backups so they don't lose all their data when a virus hits. Help them filter out spam, help them install new versions of the operating system, or even find new applications so they can do business more productively. Help them set up a secure and effective WiFi network.

When you charge too little for your time, you decrease the perceived value of the work, which relates to the value of your time. The more you charge per hour, the fewer hours you have to work to make the same amount of money. Those saved hours could be spent improving and adding to your skills.

People may find it odd that a Free Software person like me is advocating charging for services, but writing Free Software is different. Many people write Free Software because they are receiving compensation in ways other than just money, but typically when a business brings you a problem, the only compensation you get is money.

I always recommend pricing your services high. You can always discount rates, but it is very hard to raise them when the customer laughs and tells you how "cheap" you are. Carpe Diem!

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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