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Tech-Support Company

Turn people's baffling computer mishaps into a money-making opportunity.
April 1, 2001
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/39084

My computer growls at me. Grrrr. Sometimes, I imagine a little elf inside grumbling at me for waking him up to run the hard drive. I wait for the elf to calm down, or I hit the tower, rattling the little guy enough to shut him up. When nothing appeases him, I'll finally call one of our computer techs to permanently solve the problem. That makes me one of the lucky ones.

Average consumers or business owners generally don't have a convenient techie to aid them in times of need. That's where a growing number of help-desk companies hope to capture a chunk of the tech-support market. While there were nearly 72 million PCs installed in American homes and $150 million generated by support portals in 1999, IDC predicts those numbers will grow to more than 128 million PCs and over $4 billion in 2004.

With about half of all American households owning a PC, The Yankee Group associate analyst Gerard O'Shea says people's frustrations with computers, and thus their need for technical assistance, will likely increase. "As consumers grow more savvy with their experiences with the Internet, the applications are becoming even more complex at a faster rate than we're becoming savvy," O'Shea says.

Today's Web support options include subscription-based services like PCsupport.com, which charges $149.99 per year for 24-hour access to technicians and remote repairs over the Internet, as well as per-use services like ePeople, where businesses select from tens of thousands of service providers.

For as little as $79 a year, customers of San Ramon, California-based Ask Dr. Tech have 24-hour access (via telephone or the Internet) to 700 tech-support agents in a Utah call center. With a two- to three-minute wait time for premier members and a six-minute hold time for standard members, the service is simple and accessible, says president and CEO William Lam. "There are some companies out there focused on providing online help," says Lam, 22. "But what if somebody couldn't get online or their modem wouldn't work or their PC wouldn't boot up? How do they get help then?"

We're On.and Off

Indeed, Dr. Raffi Amit, professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Wharton eBusiness Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that hybrid companies providing both online and offline assistance have the best chance of survival. "I think the companies that will win here are the ones that are able to properly integrate [an] online and offline help desk," Amit predicts.

Even companies that provide online help have expanded their businesses beyond the support market. Andreas von Blottnitz, president and CEO of Expertcity Inc., says his Santa Barbara, California, company focuses on its screen-sharing technology, which allows users to view each other's screens over the Internet. Blottnitz, 35, says it's not much different from what other companies do on a regular basis. "You're a company [like] Goodyear," he says. "Goodyear not only focuses on cars, [but] also make tires for airplanes and bicycles. They focus on tires, but they are in different industries. The same is true for us."

O'Shea concurs that tech support must be just one part of your business if you want to make a profit. "I wouldn't want to say that tech support in and of itself is not worth going into," he says. "It's a good way to make your name [and] a way to brand yourself, but it's not necessarily what you want to be completely dependent on for your income."

With major players like TechKnow-How.com, SafeHarbor Technology Corp. and Attenza already vying for the help-desk market, newcomers need to either develop the right partnerships or create a compelling technology. Contends O'Shea, "If there were some type of technology out there that was really advanced where they could solve some of the more advanced problems, that would surely get a little bit of press, not to mention [that] it would attract the more novice users and [the] more savvy user."

So before your face turns red from swearing at your ailing PC, relax. Breathe deeply. Think of all the people out there facing similar problems. Then think of all the money you could make by helping them. Smile. And buy yourself a Macintosh.