Managing Technology

Beverly Samaniego was in a stone-cold panic. "I couldn't sleep. I was sick to my stomach," says Samaniego, who runs a nurse-education consulting company out of her home in Elk Grove, Calif.

The cause of her distress? Losing all the data on her brand-new handheld. One day this past April, Samaniego had spent five hours loading customer information into the database on her handheld with the help of the software vendor's support person, who was located 3,000 miles away. Then the system crashed -- leaving a string of indecipherable error messages in its wake. It was almost more than Samaniego could bear.

Computer problems are no fun for anyone anytime. But when they strike a sole proprietor or a two- or three-person operation, PC woes can threaten the very existence of the business. Most soloists assume that they are too small to get the attention of a "real" com- puter consultant -- and most don't have the budget for in-house tech support. Soloists have traditionally relied on phone support provided by their vendors -- which can be spotty at best -- and on friends and family. Once the warranty runs out, vendors charge hefty fees for support, even if in the end they aren't able to solve the problem. Long waits on hold can dissolve into finger-pointing. But take heart: there are better ways for soloists and small companies to get the support they need.

Systems integrators and other computer consulting companies have long done their work at the office buildings of their Fortune 500 clients. But independent contractors have usually had to schlepp broken machines to computer-repair shops; house calls were unheard of. Until recently, that is. The boom in home-based work has resulted in a new crop of consulting businesses that provide IT support -- including house calls -- to independent contractors and other small companies. The businesses provide a range of on-site services, from repairing broken machines to providing software fixes, networking advice, and even application training. The hourly rates for such services range from about $70 to $130. Some companies, such as Virtex Networks of Atlanta, provide subscription IT services that can run upwards of $100 per person per month.

Cyber hand-holding
During the past few years, Anita Bailey, principal at Bailey Marketing Communications, in Nashville, has noticed a huge jump in the number of companies that offer on-site computer services. "The landscape for computer resources in my city has changed simply because there are more independent business owners that need support these days," she says.

Many of the new companies, such as PC on Call and SOHO Computer Pros, are more focused on the needs of small-business owners than their larger counterparts have ever been. Case in point: My Home Tech of Rancho Cordova, Calif. According to founder and co-owner Darren Hans Bobella, the eight-person start-up handles any type of computer hardware or software problem at any location (at the client's home or office or at My Home Tech's facilities). Bobella maintains that although large IT-services companies are reluctant to visit home offices, his company isn't. "Your typical small-business owner is working like a dog. It's a 24-hour job for them. They have IT needs just like a big company," he says. My Home Tech offers its services seven days a week, until 8 p.m. most nights. The company hands out its emergency phone number to repeat customers and offers them round-the-clock service. And it provides something many soloists need but never get: one-on-one instruction.

In essence, companies like Bobella's are designed to hold the hands of small-business owners who typically don't know where to turn for affordable technology assistance. For fees ranging from $40 for one-shot deals, like installing a hard drive, to $70 an hour for diagnoses and advice, My Home Tech professionals accompany owners on computer shopping trips, act as consumer advocates when equipment fails, and sketch out technology road maps.

In her desperation last April, Beverly Samaniego contacted My Home Tech, which had recently been profiled in the business section of the Sacramento Bee. She reached Bobella, who pledged to come to her house early the next morning to straighten out the problems. Samaniego was thrilled. Previously, when she had experienced a problem with her Mac or her PC, she had had to unplug the offending component and take it into a local computer-repair shop. The idea of having someone come to her was a "total joy," she says.

The next day Bobella determined that Samaniego needed to install a single computer platform and blend her three customer databases into one. "He told me I was working harder than I needed to because my equipment wasn't networked," she says. Together, Bobella and Samaniego worked out an integration path aimed at helping to improve her operations. Besides moving some applications from the Mac to the PC, which is now her sole platform, Bobella advised her on exactly what else she needed to buy and even went with her to the store. Says Samaniego, "I need advice. My business works, but I'm not a techie. I run on instinct."

Digital intervention
Computer support arrived with almost transcendental timing for Carrie Reber, who is the sole proprietor of a marketing-communications business in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. One night, during a thunderstorm, Reber heard a loud noise -- "like a crack of thunder" -- come from her office. "I ran in there and found that my modem didn't work anymore," she says. (She had a surge protector for her computer but not for her modem.)

The next morning, Reber was leaving the house when she noticed a van driving by with the words "PC on Call" painted on the side. It seemed like a message from above. "They came out and replaced the modem with one that was faster and better the next day," she says. She paid "a couple hundred" dollars for the timely service.

Reber had chanced upon a new type of regional company designed from the ground up to serve the home-based and small-business market. In 1997, in response to the growing need for on-site service, Steve Pollak had started Cincinnati-based PC on Call and outfitted its technicians with mobile "computer labs" -- retrofitted vans in which, the company claims, workers can build up to three new computers from scratch. Pollak had been helping his friends with their home computers, says marketing director Kevin Boothe, and "it got to the point where he had to keep parts in his car to keep up with the demand." PC on Call now operates in seven cities and plans to expand in the near future.

The service was well worth the money, says Reber, especially since the technician discovered a completely empty disk drive on her computer. "I thought I was running out of disk space and would have to get a new computer. He informed me it was just sitting there, waiting to be used," she says.

Support for penny-pinchers
If you need computer support but must do it truly on the cheap, take a page out of Shel Horowitz's book. Horowitz, the author of four books on the topic of frugality, is a master of free computer support. An early adopter of the Macintosh, Horowitz relies on a Macintosh-related Internet newsgroup. The list's participants take care of most of his support needs, gratis.

"Just the other day, I asked how I could change the default E-mail client on Internet Explorer [from Outlook Express] to Eudora. I got a quick, good answer from the people on the list in under 24 hours," says Horowitz, who lives in Hadley, Mass. The king of cost-effectiveness, Horowitz also recommends buying computer equipment from stores or mail-order houses that offer free support (if only for a limited time).

Beverly Samaniego is not worried about the warranty on her new handheld running out. These days she sleeps well at night, secure in the knowledge that if her computer breaks down, Darren Hans Bobella will come to her rescue and fix it. Says Samaniego, "I totally love this man."

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer based in Waban, Mass.

Good Questions

Before you hire the company you hope will be your on-site savior, ask these questions:

  • Do you make house calls? Do you guarantee that you'll arrive within a certain window of time?
  • If I have to bring my machine to you, will you repair it yourself or send it elsewhere? How long will it take? Do you guarantee a rapid return?
  • Are you available during emergencies, in person or by phone?
  • How do you charge? By subscription or flat rate (per problem, or what the company may call an "incident") or with a mix of flat-rate fees and per-hour charges for diagnoses and advice?
  • If you don't solve my problem, will you still charge me for the visit? (Some small companies don't charge you unless they heal your ailing system; others charge a fee to arrive at your doorstep.)
  • Are your staffers certified? If they are, which software programs are they trained to use?
  • Do you offer one-on-one training? If you do, in which applications?

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