Detailing My Computer Consulting Business From A To Z: Getting Started, Advertising, Networking, And So On

A water-logged laptopA small cavalcade of readers wanted to know more about my side computer consulting business, including how I got started, how I advertised for and promoted it, and how I built up the business from scratch. While I don’t advocate this as a recipe for how to build up your own local computer consulting side business, it is fairly illustrative of the methods that you might want to use to get a small side business started.

It All Starts With A Plan
The entire idea of having a side business started with a recognition that (a) I needed to start bringing in a little extra income, and (b) I had some free time each day to devote to building it up. To me, these are two of the key ingredients for success with any side business: time and desire.

I started off by deciding what exactly I wanted this business to be and the time I could devote to it, and then writing it all down word for word so that I could see it for myself. In essence, I wrote an informal business plan, which discussed the exact nature of the things I planned to work on, the costs (space, equipment, knowledge, and time) I expected to put in, and what I hoped to get out of these investments.

The biggest key at this stage is realism. I knew that I had some strikes against me right off the bat: I wasn’t doing this as a full time endeavor, I didn’t have a network of connections built up, and my target area for the consulting business was relatively small. I knew that the pace of the business wouldn’t be rapid – and I didn’t want it to be. The key is to know your market; I knew that the needs for computer consultation in a small town were relatively narrow and thus I knew that this wouldn’t quickly blossom into a large business.

Getting Started
Given that I was working in a small area, I started the business by putting up flyers in all of the regular community places: the town grocery, the post office, city hall, the fire station, and so forth. This flyer very clearly labeled the types of things I could offer: recommending systems for people, small-scale repair work, and web site development, mostly. These were the types of things that individuals and other small businesses in the area might have a need for. I also clearly identified my price points – I set them quite low to begin with, so that I could start drumming up some word-of-mouth business.

Other than the flyers, there were few initial capital investments. I bought a quality electronics toolkit and that was about it.

Then I sat. And waited. And I began to realize that it wasn’t working.

Spreading The Word
After a month with zero calls, I realized that I would have to rethink my approach. Since I was already involved with some civic activities, I decided to print up a large quantity of business cards which identified myself on the front and the services available on the back. Instead of actually detailing the prices, I said “Call for pricing,” which would enable me to adjust prices if the business took off and so on.

I started distributing these cards at every opportunity in the community: community festivals, benefit dinners, community breakfasts, city council meetings, high school basketball games, and so on. I would meet people, shake their hand, and introduce myself. If they asked what I did, I would mention the business and give them my card.

After a while, I eventually became a “familiar face” in the community, at which point the phone slowly began to start ringing and business slowly began to start trickling in. The combination of the business cards I handed out, plus the flyers that were still hanging (and occasionally refreshed) in the community centers got people on board and got them to call me up.

Accounting And Taxes
Every single dollar that I collected from the business was split in half. Half of it went to a savings account, out of which I paid the appropriate income and other taxes at the end of the year, while the remainder was spent on whatever seemed appropriate (mostly debt repayment).

Where I’m At
Right now, I spend approximately six hours a week doing computer consulting related tasks. I was doing more in the past, but blogging has turned into a more successful and somewhat more demanding hobby / side business than consultation was. It provides a steady stream of income, and most of the work is very simple: suggesting systems for people to buy, setting up simple home wireless networks, and things like that. I keep my fees very low, which ensures a steady customer base and also keeps me around as a desirable alternative to the chain stores, and I’m very happy with how it’s all turned out.

If you have any more specific questions, please ask them in the comments – I’ll try to answer them.

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22 thoughts on “Detailing My Computer Consulting Business From A To Z: Getting Started, Advertising, Networking, And So On

  1. DonoInBolivia says:

    Hey, how about that! I was planning on shooting you an email asking for more details!

    As far as system consulting and advice on what computer someone should buy…how do you go about that? Do you go with them to Best Buy to make their purchase? How would you recieve payment for a service like this one?

    Also, what sort of permits, if any, did you need in order to get started?

  2. Jeff says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Trent.

    I’ve considered doing this myself a few times, at somewhere around the time commitment you’ve got into it. What I’m wondering is, with the relatively low income that would produce, and the relatively high taxes on that income, is it worth it?

    Say you get $25/hr (I have no idea what the market is now). For 6 hours of work that’s $150/week. Minus 50% for taxes is $75/week, which is $300/month. For working what amounts to almost an extra day per week…. I guess I’m still on the fence.

    Maybe a good question to ask is, how do you figure out the right price point?

  3. Tyler says:

    I have a friend who does house calls for computer repair. I think he charges about $30-$40/hr. This is the middle of Kansas, and there isn’t much competition. I’m sure there are quite a few variables that will change the rate.

  4. Rosemary says:

    How do you make money blogging?
    I’m looking for a way to supliment my income from my computer and whould like to know more.
    Rosemary

  5. miguel says:

    I do this stuff on the side. I’ve been doing it for around 7 years. I actually started kind of by chance. I setup a DSL line in someones office, and then they started calling me for help on other stuff. I’ve never let it grow very big, but I work around 20 hours a month on average.

    By the way, I only do small companies, and stay away from homes, and individuals.

  6. Vincent says:

    Thanks for the details! This is very interesting.

    One thing that I have trouble with is confidence in the social arena. How do you gain the social skills necessary to become a familiar face to your community?

    People seem to like me–I’m not socially awkward or anything, I look people in the eye, dress well, and am a great conversationalist. But I’m a skinny white guy with a neutral accent and glasses living in the land of good ol’ boys and construction businesses (AKA suburban northwest GA), and often, when I meet local businesspeople, I don’t feel as though I’m being taken seriously at all.

    It’s probably just me–again, people like me, and they usually say so–but how do you overcome feelings of inadequacy when you’re out of your element, and become socially adept enough to be a “familiar face”?

  7. Michael says:

    Trent, I am so glad that you wrote this post. I feel like it was written for me. Back in December, I tried to start my own computer repair business. I wanted to start really small, since I work full time already. Basically my plan was to advertise in the local papers, and hope for 1 or 2 clients that were enough to pay for the advertising, so I could break even. I advertised for four weeks in the local paper, and did not receive one call. I got discouraged and quit the advertising, and didn’t even consider another method of getting the word out like you did. I will remember what worked for you, and maybe try again one day in the future. I have a question: Did you build a business website to go along with the business? I had built one offline, and was ready to go online once I got a few clients. Maybe I should have been online in the first place?

  8. eR0CK says:

    @Dono

    “As far as system consulting and advice on what computer someone should buy…how do you go about that? Do you go with them to Best Buy to make their purchase? How would you recieve payment for a service like this one?”

    I do similar work on the side, just like Trent. When I got contacted about this, I don’t charge at all. I share with them the specs they should look for and contact me if they need help setting up their computer, printer, wifi, etc.

    @Jeff

    “Maybe a good question to ask is, how do you figure out the right price point?”

    I can’t speak for Trent, but what I’ve done is contacted my competition and got their hourly prices. I simply subtract $10-$20 (depending on your market) in order to compete. Advertising that you’re “The cheapest place in town” is a great advantage.

    @Tyler

    “I have a friend who does house calls for computer repair. I think he charges about $30-$40/hr. This is the middle of Kansas, and there isn’t much competition. I’m sure there are quite a few variables that will change the rate.”

    We charge $80 an hour, but we’re in the Philadelphia area and our competition charges $100+.

    @Miguel

    “By the way, I only do small companies, and stay away from homes, and individuals.”

    Where I work, we do both. It’s worked really well. Quite ironically, working in homes and with individuals is much more rewarding. It really depends on your personality and interests, however.

    @Vincent

    “One thing that I have trouble with is confidence in the social arena. How do you gain the social skills necessary to become a familiar face to your community?”

    Practice makes perfect. Everyone has points where they feel uncomfortable or out of their element, but the more you force yourself into those situations, they better you get. I worked customer service for three years and I still haven’t seen it all.

    Try looking into your local Rotary organization, maybe a local business organization (BNI comes to mind), even sit in at community events or local politics.

    ***

    Sorry to steal your thunder, Trent, but just giving my $.02.

    One thing you haven’t mentioned is insurance. What’s protecting you from being sued? Are you a registered Sole Proprietorship, an LLC, what are you doing to protect yourself? This was a HUGE hurdle for me because of the time, money, and paperwork involved in protecting myself. I decided to work for someone rather then start my own business because I didn’t want to be sued and not have protection.

    So my question is, what are you doing to protect yourself from a lawsuit? If you fixed someone’s computer and their system board shorted-out and their home caught on fire, are you protected?

    -Erich

  9. Eric says:

    Man…I’d like to see an answer on that last question. I’ve been thinking about starting my own computer business, but that last comment scared me a little.

  10. Tom says:

    I’ve operated a moonlighting computer consulting operation on and off for 20 years in concert with demanding full time jobs so found this post really interesting. The comment on protecting yourself from liability is spot on, and while I have never incorporated I have always gravitated toward software development jobs rather than system work as the potential to damage capital is far less; you are still exposed regardless and should consider an LLC if you are going to do this ‘right’. Be prepared to constantly be on the hunt for business that fits your special circumstances in terms of time, etc. Craigslist is a good source of leads in your respective area. The main limitations I’ve found in pursuing this line of income is 1) the ability to find work that minimizes face time with clients so that you can maximize productivity and not impact your day job, and 2) the ability to service your business consistently in terms of billing for services on time, responding to customer emergencies, etc. which all may require attention at times that are in conflict with the ebb and flow of your day job and may cause you to put that day job in jeopardy. I’ve largely gotten off this treadmill and have focused solely on 1 client for the past 5 years who uses all of my billable time doing web development remotely at $50+/hr, but it took a looong time to find such a situation and even with one client the conflicts with the day job are significant. Any free entrepreneurial time I have now is spent focused on building my own online e-commerce business rather than on additional consulting…in the end, hourly wage-oriented jobs can fill income gaps but are inherently limited in scaling toward large wealth as there are only 24 hrs in a day and you can’t work all of them…you need a business that can scale without your direct involvement every minute.

  11. Trent says:

    I have people sign a waiver right off the bat before I even go near their computer.

  12. Ginny Lanw says:

    This has been a great resource for me…I recently created a computer consulting business and this will help me enhance the business. Ive recently been approached to be put on retainer for contract services with a seniors community center. I’m looking for appropriate suggestions for fees.

    Thanks.

    Ginny Lane

  13. Brad says:

    This is a great post. I’m looking into doing this since I recently took a 1099 job so I have to file self-employment anyways and I have the time. Did you form a sole propreitership?

  14. Jeff says:

    “I was doing more in the past, but blogging has turned into a more successful and somewhat more demanding hobby / side business than consultation was. It provides a steady stream of income, and most of the work is very simple”

    Which provides a steady stream of income, consulting or blogging? This paragraph is confusing.

  15. anonymouse says:

    If you’re concerned about legal liability, you should speak with a lawyer. Merely forming an LLC or a Corporation (as suggested above) will NOT protect you from any harm you personally cause. Limited liability is mostly a misnomer w/r/t small businesses.

  16. Scott says:

    Just curious Trent, what have you put on the waiver you have your computer customers sign?

  17. Keith R says:

    Thanks for the post and comments. I too am doing something similar. My standard rate is 75/hour. I charge friends and people close anywhere from 25-50/hour depending on how close they are I suppose. Sadly, I don’t have anyone that I charge 75 to! (not very standard eh?)

    I formed an LLC back in October but got a new job in January and haven’t put much focus on the LLC. With the way things are going I’m looking to start this up as kind of a backup plan.

    In the past month I’ve probably picked up a decent amount of hours (5-10/week) but these are close friends and I earn very little. I am solving wireless network problems (out of range, bad drivers) when I work daily with SCCM and other deployment tools. That’s okay, I love the work and like helping people but I know I am really underselling myself. I work just outside Manhattan in Jersey.

    I have tried leaving business cards that just list services at liquor stores, convenient stores, on the bus to NYC, etc but I never get calls. I am thinking of advertising in some legal publications in New Jersey since I have a lot of law firm experience.

    Trent, I am also interested in what you have customers sign. I too am worried about liability. Anything can happen.

  18. Charles says:

    When I did computer consulting over 10 years ago I charged new clients $50/hr with a minimum of 1 hour (easily justifiable by billing travel time/costs alone). I only worked with small to medium-sized businesses because I found that individuals, even presidents of large companies were less willing to pay $50/hr for home consulting (no problem with their business though – tax benefits).

    In three years I only ever ran into 2 issues. One was with a carpet company where I recommended they buy hardware instead of my services. In that case I couldn’t help them without billing them for at least 5 hours and it would have been cheaper for the company just to buy a new hard drive (instead of having me back up to 5 1/4 inch disks – going back pretty far). The second issue was with a very large automobile company who failed to pay for 1 hour of work. In that case it was easier for me just to drop the client (it cost me 45 minutes each way, plus the hour I spent with the client) than to hound him and the company to pay up.

    It helps to know an accountant. Most of my clients were gained through word of mouth or advertising left with my accountant (I did work for the accountant).

    Be open to clients, but also know when to say no (e.g. home clients, jobs that will take too much of your time and produce too little revenue). I had clients in the travel industry, accounting, construction, carpeting, insurance, retail, automotive, and a few I can no longer remember.

    Friends often don’t make great customers (unreasonable expectations), but they can get you work with people you don’t know. Try not to get into low balling yourself, especially if you know you have a lot of skill. Clients will come. Overnight success is really hard to come by in any business.

  19. Greg says:

    Congratulations. It seems like things just took off with your hard work.

  20. sarahsmith says:

    Thanks for the post and comments.Advertising in local magazines or the local newspaper can be cost effective when addressing certain demographics. Purchasing a short prime time spot on the radio is another method, but costs several orders of magnitude more than print to get across its message. When done properly, radio can be an awesome advertising vehicle.The key is to know your market; I knew that the needs for computer consultation in a small town were relatively narrow and thus I knew that this wouldn’t quickly blossom into a large business.
    ———————————————
    Business Writing

  21. Suyati says:

    Informative post! Thanks for sharing the resource with us. The post covers complete package of techniques to start up a computer consulting business. Indeed one should have the desire to run his/her own business fast to start up a business. I liked most your Spreading The Word technique because people should what your upto.

  22. Suyati says:

    Informative post! Thanks for sharing the resource with us. The post covers complete package of techniques to start up a computer consulting business. Indeed one should have the desire to run his/her own business fast to start up a business. I liked most your Spreading The Word technique because people should what your up to.

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