Technical Self-Employment Is A Fat Paycheck Waiting to Be Pocketed

This is the first article concerning why and how technically oriented but unemployed individuals should consider offering freelance technical support. The second part is here. The third part is here.

This article by the New York Times suggests that people are becoming technically adept by necessity, and that, as happened with radios and automobiles, eventually all technology will take care of itself and be as mindless to operate as toasters are today.

I see that day as decades off. Computers are still complex to make, complex to learn, complex to integrate with other gadgets. More importantly, they still have more than one knob or lever. Until that day of machine self-reliance, I see a golden opportunity: an under-served market waiting for the ambitious to step in.

The following is a small excerpt of a manuscript, modified to suit this topic.

Technical Self-Employment Is A Fat Paycheck Waiting to Be Pocketed

Last year, at a Christmas party held by a client of mine at a very nice restaurant in Manhattan, I ran into a friend of a friend. I don’t know him well, but we’ve socialized once or twice, and have had solid geek conversations in the past. He does Active Directory management for big corporations.

I should say, he used to do that. He’s been unemployed now for more than a year.

After we shook hands I could see his face change from a friendly howdy-do. He dropped down into commiseration mode: the corners of his mouth drooped, his head ducked, he took a Hapsburg stance–his feet angled, his left foot perpendicular to his right, heel against arch, his torso yawed a few degrees off center, his hands lightly on his hips–and waited expectantly.

I knew what he wanted. I make my living with private computer consulting: client-site tech support, mostly, but pretty much any of the little computer-related tasks small businesses have. I knew he wanted to talk about the tech business. And he wanted me to start, so I complied. “How’s business?” I asked.

He jumped in according to the script. “Oh, it’s not been going well at all. Awful. I’ve been out of work. I can’t find anything. How’re you doing?” He anticipated a long bitch session of headhunter mistreatment, interview mishaps, finicky clients, resume failure. He relished the chance.

“It’s great,” I said. “I’ve got more business than I can handle. I’m giving it away. I’ve probably handed off or turned down enough business in the last six months to employ another person full-time. In fact, I’ve just turned over a second $30,000-a-year piece of business to another tech so I could concentrate on other clients.”

He looked at me in amazement. His eyes bugged out. I saw doubt, then self-doubt, there, and eventually he just walked away.

My theory: If you are reasonably adept at using or setting up a computer, there’s no good reason to be unemployed.

Forget the boom-time Nineties. They’re gone. I’m sorry. I really am. It was a fun ride, but the roller coaster is closed and the “you must be this tall” sign has been replaced with Tornado fencing topped with razor wire.

This is a hard lesson to learn, even this far into the recession and this long past the bubble. In posts on Slashdot, in discussions on Usenet, in many conversations with professional peers, particularly those in New York, London and San Francisco, I find again and again that the main barrier to re-entry in the work force for many people–not just technically-oriented folks–is a reluctance to admit that things will never be quite what they were. It’s pride, mostly: they have difficulty reducing their expectations.

— Boom-time paychecks are no longer. They were gold-rush prices in a seller’s market and bear no relationship to the current reality. If you want to work for a large corporation, you will have to take a sizable pay cut. You are not being cheated: the prices go according to the market, and the market is awash with qualified candidates.

— When working full-time for companies, you can no longer expect to learn part of your job after being hired. You need to know it before. Technical skills acquisition is now more something you do on your own rather than learn as part of your job.

— Job hop-scotching should be scotched, not the least for your own protection. Expect to keep your job for two or more years, rather than the six to 18 months that were more common for technical professionals in the Nineties.

Each of these points is moot, however, if you go into business for yourself doing freelance computer technical support.

But I Don’t Do That

Another barrier to re-entry in the market is a misunderstanding of what kind of talent tech support work requires.

From talking to other techs I know my experience of entering the tech support world from a non-tech field is not unusual. Most of the good techs around me entered into it from a non-technical arena: they have literature or philosophy degrees, have worked as elementary teachers or restaurant managers, and each of them, every one, has a lot of outside interests that have somehow brought them into regular contact with computers. Incidentally, that other side of them, the non-technical side, has given their work a personal flavor that makes them likable to their clients. Not chops grilled on a heatsink, but I think you see my point.

Perhaps you’ve been struggling for years to make your family understand that when you work with computers, you don’t exactly going around installing printers or troubleshooting DSL connections. I’m a programmer, you said, or, I build web sites, or, I’m an information architect, or I’m a graphic designer who uses a computer. I’m white collar, you explained. I don’t ever get down on the floor under the desk and mess with the fiddly bits.

But now that you’re out of work, perhaps you should be installing printers and DSL connections. That’s what I’m proposing: that if you need a paycheck, that you get into freelance tech support. Become the tech support person for your friends and family. They’ve been asking for your help. Make it a business. Charge what the market will bear. It can become the core of your new client base, and the core of your new income.

Qualifications

Are you qualified to do freelance technical support? If you’re a programmer or web site developer or project manager, perhaps not immediately. But unlike the jobs available through corporations, this is the kind of work you can learn as you go along. As a person with some sort of technical aptitude you are, even if you were a programmer or engineer or a technical writer, already substantially more qualified than the average computer user. You already have an understanding of the underlying technology. You can learn more. You should learn more. It is work which you can do.

Myself, I do not have a single bit of certification. Everything I know I learned on the job, from books and the Internet, from other techs, and from making a lot of mistakes.

Forget the certifications for now. Forget classes. You don’t need them to get started. They are ghost barriers.

The key is to know more than the users. We have got to accept that we will not soon reach a point where computer literacy, even mere functional computer literacy, is high enough to make common technical support unnecessary. There will be for many, many years someone asking how to set margins in Word, burn a music CD, email photographs to the grandkids, hook up a printer, etc.

It’s Not For Me. Sniff

I know I’m basically a computer plumber: the same repetitive tasks over and over. It’s blue collar work. It doesn’t sound nearly as fancy as “information architect.”

But I’m not too good for it. You’re not too good for it. Suck it up. You are not above it. It’s honest. It’s widely available. It pays well. When I hang out with my friends, I look around the table and I see people who are unemployed, underemployed, moving back in with their parents, flat broke, even bankrupt. I have none of these problems. I have a job. I can pay my rent and my student loans and see a movie in the theatre when I want.

It’s Not Really What I Want To Be Doing With My Life

I never really believed in the dream job. Po Bronson’s book What Should I Do With My Life? addresses a question which may not need answering. I am of the school which believes a non-fantasy job which pays well and doesn’t require I work weekends is a great tool for subsidizing everything else I like to do: restaurants, movies, trips overseas, dating, books, writing, writing, writing. Inversely, a fantasy job which pays poorly can compensate by being intellectually rewarding, or life-affirming, or adrenaline-pumping, etc.

Anyway, who says freelance technical support isn’t a fantasy job? It pays well. I work when I want: I make my own schedule, leaving room for emergencies or last-minute client requests. I sometimes leave a couple hours free in the afternoon to sit in the park and read. I can choose my clients; at this point it’s become cherry-picking, where I can retain the most desirable clients and pass the others along to friends, or even just refuse the business outright. Naturally, I pick personable, funny, creative clients who like me.

What I’m telling you is that there is a need for freelance tech support folks across the United States. Those requests you’ve been getting for help from family and friends all these years are the evidence of a latent, largely untapped market–actually two: home users and small businesses. You might be saying right now, I don’t do that. Technical support is not for me. Well, do you need a job? Money? Well, then maybe technical support is for you.

A good deal of the whining I read concerning disappearing tech jobs claims they are headed for China and India. Sure they are: the numbers are irrefutable. But only certain kinds of jobs, and they’re almost all jobs at large corporations. But left behind are still hundreds of thousands of computers requiring technical support. The computers in homes are staying put. The main corporation office based in Atlanta, no matter how much of its business it has moved to Bangalore, will be staffed by people who use computers at work and use computers at home. The small print shop down the street, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker, none of them are leaving. Those are the people who will pay you to help them with their computers.

The market for tech support is basically a pyramid. At the pinnacle are the very large companies with many employees who are willing to pay the most for support. This is not your market. That belongs to EDS. Below them are the second-tier companies with fewer employees and smaller budgets, but still not your market. Your market is composed of the next two tiers down, two very broad tiers: small businesses and home users. Which is suitable for you depends upon where you live, what you know, and your temperament.

Home Users

For someone who has no real experience with technical support, but who does have an underlying skill which comes from other technically oriented jobs, working with home users is basically a cinch. Their needs are simple. Odds are there are fewer deadlines, so you can take your time in solving their problems, and same-day visits are less likely to be required. If you charge a flat fee for a service call, you can take as long as you want and perhaps learn on the job.

For home users, you will be doing the same tasks over and over. A downside is that this is boring. An upside is that after you’ve done it enough times, you become so good at it you look like a hero. I’m not saying that any home-bound housewives or househusbands are daydreaming about a fling with computer geek like they might with the washer repair-person, but looks of gratitude are a good start, and you’d be surprised how many people tip.

But if your business progresses, you may find it to your advantage to leave behind those home users. There are several reasons why home users are just a starting point.

First, they offer little repeat business. Home users are generally one-offs. They tend to have just one or two computers, and need you rarely, and for short periods. The time spent simply getting and managing the business of home users is high. Repeat business is more efficient.

Second, they tend to be very annoying. If you bill by the hour, home users watch the clock like it’s a television. They’ll hover over you as you work. And they’ll decline to have you do very important things, such as update three-year-old virus definitions, because they don’t want to pay for your time. (And that’s why I recommend a flat fee for home visits).

Third, while home users have a tendency to pay on the spot, they also have a tendency to dicker. This, combined with the one-off nature of home users, makes it difficult to moderate your income so that you can count on some sort of weekly average income.

Finally, home users are generally the least technically adept users found anywhere on the planet. I read that computer illiterate children in rural India were able to figure out the basics of using a computer within a few hours. I don’t doubt those children are more adept than your average American home user. You will no doubt encounter those legendary users who think they have a touch-screen computer, just like an ATM, or who search for “hotmail” on Yahoo every time they want to find the link to check their mail. If that last sentence seemed reasonable to you, I would encourage you to consider selling Grit subscriptions instead of finishing reading this document.

Small Businesses

After finding your sea legs with the home users, small businesses–by my definition, companies which have from five to 25 employees–are those which you should be targeting. The money is better. There’s more work. The clients aren’t quite so money-conscious. And they’re more likely to be technically adept.

The only downside to small businesses is that they sometimes conveniently forget that you aren’t on staff. They make unreasonable demands upon your time, and that can make it very difficult to adjust your scheduling.

The small business market is very, very large however. The number of small businesses in the United States in 2000 was more than four million. That’s firms, not individuals. That’s your target. Each one of these companies, unless it is a tech-oriented company, may not have the resources or the interest in having a full-time person on staff. They need someone part-time.

The Competition

You’re not going to get every client you try for. Some of them you’ll lose to fellow techs. That’s fine. But you’ll also be competing with third-party support companies–companies with staffs, offices, secretaries and incorporation papers–who are reaching outside of their market, that second tier described above, and down into the third and fourth tiers.

I don’t really consider these companies competition for what I do, even though they try to be. One sign they are reaching below their true market is that they tell you that the market is saturated. It is, for their niche. Here’s why:

Many of these companies started out as I am, a single individual trading upon his skills and reputation to acquire a list of clients, something akin to a doctor developing a practice. At some point, as I have found myself, it becomes evident to each solo tech support person that there’s more business out there than they can handle. They begin to envision in their minds a larger operation, in which they hire staff to do the work, paying the staff perhaps half of what they’re charging the clients, and thus being able to take on the additional clients they might otherwise have to pass on. Of course, they hope to make a killing in the process.

For me, the evidence that this is a bad move is clear. In order to take on that additional staff, and pay for incorporating, lawyers, accountants, office space, and other administrative costs, such a company would have to raise its rates. It’s a fact: most of these large companies charge double or triple what I charge my clients, for the same work. So basically, when rates are raised like that, they price themselves out of the very market which made them successful. But still they try to reach down into that market.

It’s a very delicate financial balance. If a tech support firm charges its clients too little, then it cannot afford to hire sufficiently qualified technical staff. Business suffers from poor service. If such firms charge too much, then they lock themselves out of a large part of the underlying market segment which, while it has real technical needs, simply will not or cannot pay for expensive support.

My basis for this conclusion is the amount of business I take from such third-party companies. The client complaints are almost always the same: “I just couldn’t see what I was paying for when most of the work involved installing software and moving computers. I can’t justify paying $220 an hour for that.” It’s only the larger companies, where the invoices which result from doing such work rarely cross the desk of the person in charge of getting it done, or where there’s a “it’s not my money” attitude, which can and will usually pay such high rates.

The way I perceive it, a chart of clients’ willingness to pay would match the market pyramid described above. A thick base of cheap bastards which nobody wants as a client on the bottom, and money-is-no-object Richie Riches at the pinnacle. Our target as individuals offering freelance technical support is somewhere just above the cheap bastards up to about the lower end of the middle one-third of the pyramid. The larger tech support companies are only capable of acquiring clients in the middle one-third up to the pinnacle with very little overlap of our strata of the pyramid.

What we’re doing, then, is taking advantage of the higher volume of lower-paying clients. We can do that. As individuals with little overhead, we can support ourselves with clients who are willing to pay $50 to $100 an hour, while a larger company simply cannot survive on that.

Do the math for a minute: Let’s say you work 20 hours a week and charge $50 an hour. That’s a $1000 a week. That’s $52,000 a year. Now, you’ll pay taxes out of that, perhaps up to 40% depending upon where you live, and your own insurance, and other costs, but it’s still a respectable income. If you itemize your deductions and hire a sharp tax advisor, you can avoid an unnecessary tax burden. Even in New York City, one of the most expensive towns on the planet, you can live decently on that money.

And the truth is, you’ll probably charge more than that and work more than that. But don’t get greedy. Don’t burn out.

Another reason why we as freelance technical support consultants are distinguishable from the third-party companies is that we are more capable of developing a personal relationship with the client. Our clients get the same tech person every time. There are no layers of bureaucracy for a support request to go through: when they call, they get us, not a receptionist or a first-level help desk staffer.

A Tangent

A couple summers ago, during a break from university, I took a job with a third-party firm. They were a Windows-oriented company with four million dollars in venture capital, looking to tap into the Macintosh technical support market. The pay was dismally low, but since it was a summer job, and a new company, I figured it might be the perfect three-month opportunity.

It was a disaster. The company was run by two MBA types. They spewed jargon. They sounded like Dilbert: The Reality Show. They lied about many things, such as about how many current and prospective clients they had. That was fine. They were transparent liars, anyway, so it was the same as if they hadn’t lied, since I knew the truth.

Our business relationship didn’t last long. The three of us went to a small design shop in an outer neighborhood. It was run out of a beautiful old house on a wealthy street. There were seven employees, all using Macs, with a Canon Fiery system and a small server setup on an iMac. They had a nice client list of some high-profile clothing brands.

My two MBA geniuses went full-frontal Wall Street. “You don’t have a firewall! Viruses! Hackers! Bubonic plague! You don’t check your logs! Errors! Crashes! Updates! What! Ten base tee? No! Switches! RAID! Tee one! Fiber!” It was an ugly chorus of fear, uncertainty, doubt and money.

While they were supposedly getting to know the boss and to make a pitch for general services, my job was to assess the current technology in preparation for writing a detailed proposal.

It looked like a pretty standard artist’s shop. Nice people, in that arty way, using Macs with all the standard design packages. While my two bosses and the owner of the art shop talked, the creative director and I chatted and wandered into another room where he showed me some font problems he was having. I recognized the problem, we cleaned it up, downloaded a free patch, and he was pleased to have everything working as it should. We also discussed a good way of indexing the contents of his compact disc data archive.

We went back in the other room. Death and Destruction were finishing their prophecy of doom by promising to return with a proposal for new equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars, which would put in place a firewall, a level-five RAID file-sharing system on a four-thousand-dollar server, and new network switches. It would also allow us to remotely check the logs, alone for which they were going to charge hundreds of dollars a month.

Hey, the creative director told his boss, we just solved that font problem! It works great. Plus, I think we have a good plan to find old files on the compact discs.

I got weird looks from the MBA geeks.

We shook hands all around and the Gecko Brothers and I went out to the car.

“What’re you giving away work for?” one of them said.

You’ve got to be kidding me, I said. They weren’t.

Look. Let me be frank. You don’t know what they hell you’re doing. That’s not how you treat these kinds of people. They have seven employees! Seven! How in God’s name do you think you’ll ever get them to agree to thousands of dollars of new equipment? New equipment they don’t need. It’s a bigger burden than a small company like this would ever want to bear for the thin reasons you gave. Not to mention hundreds of dollars a month in vague services. Log-checking for them? Please.

“We know what we’re doing. We didn’t get the VC money for nothing.”

No, sorry. I elaborated.

They were targeting the wrong businesses. Creative businesses like that don’t respond to those tactics. They just don’t. I did more good with the art director than they did with their threatening and bluffing with the office manager over a conference table. She wasn’t even the true decision-maker; the creative director was. And how could they propose all this new equipment when they hadn’t even read my report yet?

They were ganging up on me, trying to interrupt, turning red and nearly shouting. “Report, then! What do they need?”

I said, Nothing. Nothing but hand-holding. There’s nothing wrong with their current setup. I might spec a higher-end file server, but there are no immediate needs. You’ll land this client because they trust you, not because you make them afraid. You’ll make money because they trust you over years, not because you gouge them on the first visit.

Close Tangent

That’s still how I perceive most third-party technical support firms: they target companies below their viable target market and try to coerce technically deficient decision-makers into expensive and unnecessary solutions, because the tech support firm has to support its unnecessarily high overhead. It’s no coincidence that a lot of these third-party companies also are hardware dealers. They spec completely inappropriate equipment, convince the client they need it when they don’t, and they tack a premium onto the equipment, a premium forced by unnecessarily high overhead. I have a thousand such stories I could tell. Here’s one:

I got a call from a small clothing store, a referral from a mutual friend. They have three computers and a little wireless network hooked up to a DSL network. Very simple.

“I called you because I just wanted to get a second opinion. Our current company is recommending we replace this computer because it’s about to die. But it’s a lot of money so I thought we should get a second opinion.”

It was a lot of money: the replacement setup was top-of-the-line, more than seven thousand dollars, including more than 200 GB of hard drive space and large LCD screen.

“What did they say was the problem?” I asked.

“He said there were inches of dust on the motherboard and that it could go at any moment.”

I silently opened the case and looked in. Nothing scary. Okay, there was a light dusting in all the expected places, but not inches of dust. Certainly not enough to be a problem. And there was no indication it had ever been cleaned: if it had been, it would have been within the last week, and in that instance it should have been pristine inside. But it looked like just the amount of dust which would have normally accumulated over the life of the machine.

So she was lied to. I let her draw the conclusion for herself. I showed her the inside of the case. It took her a second to comprehend. “So it’s not going to die,” she stated flatly.

I shook my head.

“Then why would they tell me that?”

“Well,” I said, “I couldn’t say for sure, but who were you going to buy the new equipment from?”

“They also sell computers, they said…” She trailed off. The clothing store has been a client ever since, and years later, that “about to die” computer is still chugging merrily along.

Posted August 4, 2003

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