Freelance Computer Work -- Thoughts On Getting Started

I typed this up in response to a posting on the newsgroup. It isn't complete, but it does cover the key points and ideas that I believe have made my own computer service business successful.

Some folks might think this information would be akin to shooting yourself in the foot, but I feel differently given the current landscape of the computer service industry. Personally I do not believe there are a lot of truly competent folks out there in the computer service industry today.

...September 3rd, 2004...

It would seem that a lot of people have given you a very dark outlook on
computer careers. I'm going to offer my own personal viewpoint on it, which
is a bit different. I've been doing computer work as a "professional hobby"
(meaning that I've made a small business out of it) since 1995 or so. I,
too, have only a high school education and diploma. I've worked hard at
teaching myself and reading everything I could about working on PCs and
Macs, as well as some other gear. I've been very successful in my work,
oftentimes having a little more work than I could handle. Anyway, here's
what advice I can offer you off the top of my head. Forgive the random
nature of this post...but it's how my mind happens to work best...

1. Be competent.

Above all else, be competent at what you do. I can safely say that I'm quite
a bit more competent than a lot of people offering similar services in the
surrounding areas where I offer my services. I get a lot of calls that start
"Well, I took it and so...and it isn't fixed.". 90% of the time I've
managed to fix the machine or produce an answer as to why it couldn't be
fixed. I don't get stumped too often and eventually I will get the answer.

Competence takes time and work. Get your hands on computer equipment old and
new and study it. I've found it very helpful to have a wide set of
configurations here from 286 machines running DOS all the way up to modern
multiprocessor servers, with all kinds of different operating systems. It
will take time to amass a collection of hardware, but you can start small
and work your way up as things progress. This will also help you find out if
the work is really "for you" or not. Get your hands on books and take
classes if you think they would help.

Study and understand various bus architectures. You just never know when
you'll see something beyond the basic ISA or PCI bus. EISA, MCA, and VL-bus
systems were very popular with some folks and you will see one if you do
this kind of thing long enough.

To this day there remain things about computers that I still don't
understand or have never done. But I'm working toward developing an
understanding or learning how. I'm thinking of learning how to write device
drivers at present. That's something I'd really like to try.

2. Be honest.

Goes without saying. Be honest. Do not lie or steal from people, or take
them "for a ride". Lots of computer shops around here do, and it works for
only a while before they close their doors.

3. Work on it all.

No, you really can't work on everything out there. There's a lot to cover
and it would take too much time. However, you can make it known (for
example) that you work on older computers. You'd be very suprised where that
old 486 PC or 68K Mac is still working to this day. If you can fix those
kind of things, or help people migrate to a newer system, you've got
yourself lots of business that others may not be able to have. You've got to
know your roots, because you never know when you might have to fix some old

4. Work on various operating systems...

For better or worse, Microsoft's Windows family pretty much dominates the
operating system scene for PCs. However, if you work at this long enough,
you will find a Mac or a PC running something else. I've worked with all of
Linux, OS/2 (Warp), DOS, AIX (even for PS/2!) the Mac OS (Classic and OS
X)and other systems. I'm not really a true "expert" on most of these other
systems, but I can work on them. That's another distinction you can offer.

5. Tinker

Work on other parts of the machine. I have experience repairing monitors,
printers and other peripherals. I've learned most of what I know in that
regard from this group and my own personal experiences. It's yet another
thing that sets you apart. Sometimes people do really want something
repaired. Not often, but it happens.

There have been times when I have repaired things not even computer related.

6. Training

If you can teach a person how to use their computer or a particular software
package, that's just another way to set yourself apart from the crowd. I
don't enjoy this part much, but I do offer basic training.

7. Explain it to people.

You can't always do this as some folks just don't care to know. But if you
can demystify the internal workings of the machine and put it down in
layman's terms, it will help you out. Some people really like to have some
understanding of what's going on inside their computer.

Now that's pretty much everything I can think of. So how do you get started?
The very first thing I'd do is start working on computers that belong to
your family and friends. Encourage people to spread the word. (Remember
that...) Word of mouth works like no other form of advertising and it's
free. Newspaper and radio ads have done little for me. Word of mouth
advertising is what I owe nearly all of my business to. It started with a
friend of my father's and has worked up to the point where I cover a pretty
good portion of the state of Illinois. To this day I still get new
customers...about one or two per month.

Set your fees reasonably. (It helps to have a day job. I a systems
admin for a bank...) You may not always have a steady volume of work to
do...there are quiet times and times when you can't move 'em through fast
enough. I've asked $20 per hour since 1995, which is cheaper than any
competition I know of. I've never had a problem getting that and sometimes
more without even asking.

I don't know that working at Best Buy, Circuit City or a similar retailer
will help you that much. To be fair, I've never worked for any such company,
but I know that those places around do have something of a reputation for
charging a lot and not doing the job right or standing behind their work.

It will take time. A lot of people are very attached to their computer and
they won't trust just anybody to work on it. Get to know your customers and
be friendly to them. Don't hesitate to talk to them about things while you
work on the machine. And when you have to, "just fix it". If you do and
others couldn't, that only helps you out. Oh, and even when it hurts, the
customer is always right. (This is the one and ONLY place to perhaps "shim"
things a little bit...)

Don't betray your customer's confidentiality. I can say you will learn a lot
of interesting (or weird, or startling or whatever) things about people that
they'd never tell you...people's computers usually do hold a lot of their
deepest secrets, confidential information or stuff they'd rather the world
didn't know. (Take a look at your own computer--you may see that this is
very true. Now think about how you'd start out feeling about someone you may
not really know working on it...)

Stand behind your work. Do whatever you can to make it right.

Now that's not everything I know after all my years doing this, but I can
say that it is possible to be very successful at this sort of thing with a
little effort and some knowledge. If you truly know your stuff, you'll go

Good luck! Hope this helps you out a little bit!

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Copyright © 2004 by William R. Walsh. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce this article in its original form with all copyright notices intact. You may not charge a fee other than to cover duplication costs to distribute this article.