Long gone are the days when viruses only affected humans, and the words spyware and spam were not a part of our everyday vocabulary. A 2004 survey conducted by America Online and the National Cyber Security Alliance, a public-private partnership focused on promoting cyber security and safe behavior online, revealed that 80 percent of the users surveyed had spyware or adware programs on their computers. And this estimate is conservative-some surveys report numbers as high as 90 percent. These elements have forced computer users to face the sobering fact that, while computers can be helpful, they come with their fair share of problems-which often require professional assistance. Says Hamilton, "Technology is becoming something the brother-in-law can't come in and fix on the weekends."
Naturally, the misfortune of some has become the fortune of others; and largely due to the onslaught of such problems, technology consulting franchises grew by nearly 50 percent in 2004. Franchises like CM IT Solutions, Computer Troubleshooters USA and Expetec Corp. are eager to come to the aid of frustrated computer users. "It's not getting easier for people to dig these worms out," says Lonnie Helgerson, 42, co-founder of Expetec in Aberdeen, South Dakota. "As we compete on what you'd call an electronic scale with the internet, that's going to become a cost of business."
As a result, businesses are increasingly turning to tech-oriented companies for solutions to their computer needs. Helgerson notes that the biggest growth in clients in 2004 came from small and midsize businesses, as businesses realized it's cheaper to contract with a tech company than hire a full-time computer technician.
Meanwhile, Reaves of Computer Troubleshooters USA believes that customers tend to have more confidence in calling a franchise for assistance than an independent consultant. Says Reaves, "Working through a franchise structure, the customer gets a lot of peace of mind that [he or she is] dealing with a credible organization, not just a fly-by-night operation."
Bridging the Divide
One of the main factors spurring growth in certain tech-related franchises is the threat of an ever-widening digital divide between the computer literate and illiterate. With the threat of this growing gap, the spotlight is being directed toward educating youth, thereby bringing together two rapidly growing forces: technology and children. And as the forces meet, opportunities abound for franchises like Computertots/Computer Explorers, which specializes in offering technology education for schools, kids and adults. "There have always been four core subjects in education: social studies, science, math and language arts," says Art Coley, CEO of Cypress, Texas-based CTCE. "Now there's a fifth subject-and that's technology. Technology touches our lives every day."
For the past 20 years, CTCE has largely focused on serving children ages 3 to 12 in the private sector, including independently owned and chain preschools, child-care centers and private schools. Now, says Coley, the doors to the public school system are opening thanks to two factors: the No Child Left Behind Act, which prioritizes both technological fluency and use of technology to facilitate learning in the elementary school classroom, and the fact that computer skills are quickly becoming a requirement in today's job market. "When we look ahead 20 to 50 years, the difference between people around the world and in our country won't have anything to do with their age, sex, color, religion or gender," says Coley. "It's going to have everything to do with technology-how we understand it and use it."
Technological fluency has become crucial for living in today's society, and it will only continue to grow more prominent. CTCE is pairing up with KinderCare, a leading provider of child care and education, to become the technology provider at the more than 1,200 KinderCare centers across the country. To accommodate the demand coming from all sides, CTCE plans to add a minimum of 50 to 100 franchises annually. Currently at about 100 franchises, Coley says the company doesn't plan to stop expanding until it reaches 500. "There are four-and-a-half million preschoolers and 50 million children in [kindergarten through eighth grade] across the country," says Coley. "Considering [that] today we serve about 30,000 children, there's plenty of room for growth."