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Computers: Most people either love 'em or hate 'em. But whichever side of the technological fence you happen to log in on, the fact remains that computers have become a vital tool in the day-to-day operations of modern business life. And like other tools, the computer provides those who are skilled in its operation the opportunity to turn those resources into thriving incomes.
This month, we've explored four fields in the computer industry where computer-friendly entrepreneurs continue to boot up new business. So read up, plug in and start transforming those megabytes into megabucks.
By Haidee Jezek
Ask anyone in the desktop publishing world, and they will tell
you that one of the constants in their business is keeping up with
deadlines. "Crazy deadlines," says Sherill Sutton,
president of Sassy Graphics Inc., a graphic design studio based in
Buffalo, New York. "It seems like every job has a tight
deadline. Someone might be starting a business and come to me for a
logo, corporate identification and brochure, and expect it to be
done in one month, when it's really a two- to three-month
process," explains Sutton.
Despite the lack of hours in the day, Sutton credits her motivation to variety. "I don't specialize. I do brochures, corporate identifications and logos. I get just as excited about doing a job for steel technology as for a winery. It's still designing and creating," says Sutton.
Doing work for a roster of regular clients keeps Sutton busy with assignments. Although she receives referrals for new business from these clients, Sutton limits her direct advertising efforts to "the phone book, and that's all. Many people who call say the name in the phone book caught their eye," she says.
Sutton received her bachelor's degree in graphic design with a focus on textiles from State University of New York College at Buffalo in 1976. She started Sassy Graphics out of a 900 square-foot office in 1979, using $1,200 in savings and a $12,000 bank loan for equipment, office space rental and sparse furnishings. Since then, she's moved into a 2,000 square-foot office, gained four employees and a bevy of new equipment. The designing entrepreneur's computer hardware includes a Power Macintosh 7100 and two Quadra 650s; for software, she uses QuarkXPress, Aldus FreeHand and Adobe Photoshop. Training in graphic design, she says, is also a plus.
To begin a desktop publishing business with all this equipment, Sutton explains, can be expensive. The essentials, she notes, include a Power Mac with page layout and word processing programs, as well as a selection of classic font types-letters in different sizes and styles, used to create specific looks in print. A flat-bed scanner with Photoshop, for working with photos and logos, also tops her list of equipment must-haves.
One way to decrease start-up costs for a desktop publishing business is to lease equipment,
which provides the opportunity to use the latest equipment without tying up a lot of capital. Furthermore, after a leasing contract is finished, the leased equipment can usually be purchased.
The National Association of Desktop Publishing (NADTP) provides over 6,000 members with access to a software and hardware helpline, software discounts through their catalog and a monthly journal. Membership varies in price, ranging from a six-month individual trial membership for $49, to corporate memberships (for companies with up to six employees) for $295 annually. For further information, write to NADTP at 2121 Precinct Line Rd., #215, Hurst, TX 76054, or call (800) 492-1014.
The majority of people are computerphobic, says William Metcalf,
a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based personal computer trainer who conducts
business under the alias "Computer Tutor."
"Computers are not yet user friendly and, quite frankly, most people out there are lost and in need of a lot of help," says Metcalf. But if you're in the minority-comfortably self-assured with computers, with a knack for instructing others-you could be in business.
Providing on-site service to homes and small businesses in Santa Fe and its surrounding communities, Metcalf helps his clients, mostly computer novices, gain familiarity with the use of their operating systems and software. He also assists with hardware, setting up printers, modems and scanners for those still unfamiliar with their new computers' peripheral equipment.
Metcalf, who holds a degree in secondary education and has more than a decade of self-taught personal computer experience, started his tutorial operation from his home in September 1995. "The response has been great," he says. "I've tutored pupils of all ages, including families with young children and small-business owners. One of my clients is 77 years old and just bought his first computer!" At $35 an hour, Metcalf's average visits last two hours, and clients sometimes hire the Computer Tutor for at least one return visit.
"Advertising is absolutely necessary in this field," says Metcalf, who maintains a regular presence in his community by advertising his services in local newspapers, magazines and computer trade show publications. "Although it's my greatest expense, the fact that I continually advertise has helped to distinguish me from my competitors, who really don't advertise."
In between tutoring sessions, Metcalf develops marketing and instructional literature from his home office. "There's a lot to do when I'm not teaching. I've come up with some printed instructional materials to use in demonstration that I sometimes leave with my clients," he says.
Metcalf's background in teaching, however, didn't necessarily make for a seamless career transition. "My original plan was to develop a system to teach people step-by-step," he explains, "but I've found that clients usually want to learn specific things. My job is to teach them what they want to know, rather than what I think they should know."
Staying informed about current technological developments is another important tutorial necessity. Sometimes, Metcalf admits, problems arise that the Computer Tutor is unable to fix on _site. When the problems are technically oriented, he usually refers clients to a hardware technician; When they're not, he researches the answers himself. "I just turned 50 years old and I feel like I've gone _back to college," exclaims Metcalf, who spends hours studying lengthy software manuals each week. "But I like taking the mystery out of computing for my clients. So even though I'm studying these terrible 1,200 page manuals nobody wants to read, it's a satisfying feeling to leave a family whose once-alien machine has now become a usable and fun device."
The Association of Computer Professionals (ACP), a computer industry association created in 1983, promotes technological awareness and provides information about computer industry activities. ACP is currently converting its operations to an exclusively online format. For more information, to join the association or for the upcoming Web site address, write to ACP at 9 Forest Dr., Plainview, NY 11803, or call (516) 938-8223.
Internet Marketing Consulting
According to the Internet Society, an association devoted to
Internet use and development, there are now more than 50,000
computer networks, interconnected by the global Internet, in 90
countries. As of the end of 1994, five million computers were
indicated as actually reachable on the Internet-with an estimated
20 to 40 million users. But the development of the now ubiquitous
Internet has not only created a new frontier for the distribution
of information, it's also providing a thriving business venue
for entrepreneurs who can skillfully navigate its courses.
Marguerite Ellen is just such an entrepreneur. After 20 years of experience as a software engineer, Ellen started her own Internet consulting business, Information Exchange, from her Satellite Beach, Florida, home office in July 1995.
"Many people want to establish an online presence to market their products and services," explains Ellen, whose business has now created more than 40 customized World Wide Web sites for consultants, regional artists, software developers, service businesses and specialist researchers. These Web sites, which display text, graphic images and sound to supply information about a company or association, have become a popular method of advertising on the Internet.
While the industry terminology and hypertext markup language (HTML) used to encode Web sites may sound convoluted to the unfamiliar ear (you'll be using "autoresponders," "links," "embedded graphics," etc.), Internet marketing allows for unique and varied assignments. "We can make Web sites as complicated or as intuitive as the client wants," explains Ellen, who charges a flat annual fee of $350 for the simpler sites to around $2,000 for the more elaborate ones. "Many clients market to different groups of customers, so we can customize their interface to the segment of the market they want to attract."
Despite the fact that she's had years of computer experience, Ellen insists that the job's not necessarily as hard as it looks: "Learning how to create Web sites can really be quite easy," she admits, "but in this business, a good head for marketing is the most important thing."
For those unskilled in the ways of the Web, Ellen recommends attending industry seminars, including those organized by Digital Consultants Inc. in Andover, Massachusetts (508-470-3870) and Global Entrepreneurs Network in Tampa, Florida (813-225-3005). She also suggests reading the Online Marketing Handbook, by Daniel S. Janal (Van Nostrand Reinhold, $24.95, 800-842-3636), and contacting the Internet Entrepreneur Support Service (see Info Source box, below), for more information.
"You need, at the least, the eagerness to learn," says Ellen. "It's a challenging learning curve, and you have to keep ahead of new developments. It's easy to create an online presence, but to make it effective you have to know what will work for each business."
For more information about starting an online marketing consulting business, write to Marguerite Ellen at P.O. Box 373229, Satellite Beach, FL 32937, or call (407) 779-9161. Internet Entrepreneur Support Service (IESS) helps entrepreneurs learn about and conduct business on the Internet, Write to IESS at 4040 Towhee Dr., Calabasas, CA 91302, call (818) 591-1170, or browse their Website at http://www.entrepreneurs.net/iess/iess.html.
It's one of those inescapable facts of life: Mechanical
things-cars, watches, VCRs-sometimes break down and need repair.
The same goes for computers; although they can expedite our
workloads and keep our files organized, they, too, need attention
when they're out of commission.
"We've seen it all," says 29-year-old Iris Glaser, who, with her husband, Greg, 36, operates Mobile Computer Repair in Lincoln, Nebraska. "We've had crackers in CD-ROM drives, frozen systems and broken monitors. One man called after his 3 year-old stuffed pens and toys into his floppy disk drive."
With more than 200 established repair accounts, the Glasers make between 10 and 15 service calls a day, charging $45 per hour for the visits. "The fact that we go on site for repairs gets us a lot of clients," says Iris. "If people have to take their computer out to get it fixed, there's always a chance they'll drop it. Most people will wait for repair service-even two days, if necessary-if it means they don't have to take their computer apart, load it in the car and bring it to the shop."
If you're interested in starting a computer repair business, the Glasers suggest taking courses in electronics and computer repair, offered at most community colleges. "The inside of a computer is just a nightmare of wires that cost literally hundreds of dollars," says Iris. "You really want to know what you're doing before you start tinkering."
"We've got a bookshelf that's filled with computer manuals and texts," says Iris Glaser, who maintains a business membership to the Newbridge Book Club for PC Users (800-257-8345). "They send us their catalog and list every month, full of titles about programming, software and hardware." Other reference materials include Fix Your Own PC, by Corey Sandler (MIS Press, $29.95, 800-488-5233) and Start Your Own Computer Repair Business, by Linda Rohrbough and Michael F. Hordeski (McGraw Hill, $32.95, 800-338-3987).