Small office info-tech comes by car
By David Walker (Google profile)
Occasionally, when I'm reconfiguring some piece of my family's home network or my friends' computer systems, I wonder to myself: how do small businesses do it? When an organisation with a dozen computers and no money for a full-time administrator, how does it keep its PCs working together?
The answer, it turns out, is a largely invisible army of IT support staff, most of them unpaid.
Back in the 1990s many people - me included - assumed that by 2004 most computer system maintenance issues would be shrinking, even within small organisations who lacked their own IT staff. Either computers would become dead-simple to set up and run, or all their problems would be fixed over the Internet.
But the strange truth is that many of the world's PC-enabled small organisations still run because of the work of outsiders sitting down in front of the machine and reading error messages on the boot screen, installing programs and peripherals, defragmenting hard disks, purging trojans and setting up firewalls.
Many members of this IT support army volunteered for the job, like me, to help friends and neighbours. Many thousands more are professionals, hardened veterans who actually get paid to fix people's PCs - mostly in one-person firms.
Take 59-year-old Lynn Pollock, veteran of a dozen years in the computer business. He started by teaching classes in basic PC skills, then began charging a fee to fix what people broke.
"People treat me like the RACV," says Pollock. "They tinker. They get someone to help ... Many times they fix the problem, but sometimes they get it wrong. Then they ring me."
Pollock deals with businesses with up to 10 computers, but spends most of his time with home users, often people running businesses from a couple of rooms of their house. He talks with them on the phone to establish their problem is worth his time, then drives out, fixes the problem, cleans up their PC and frequently tries to educate them on how to keep their systems in good shape.
Pollock knows lots of blokes like himself, he says, running their own one-man shows, making a nice income in the high five digits.
And that raises the question: will IT support stay a cottage industry, or can it be "industrialised": can someone become the EDS of small business IT?
Paul Adler and Brad Bond think so. This pair of twenty-somethings brought their two one-man IT support businesses together back in 1996. They've since built a 65-person business impressive enough to entice Telstra to buy a controlling stake. Invizage's more than 7000?? customers range from individuals to firms with more than 300 people, making them one of the largest firms of their type in the country. Invizage makes most of its money from organisations with between five and 25 computers - "big enough to have problems but not big enough to have an IT manager", as Paul Adler puts it.
Adler and Bond aim to build a systematic, reliable business you can trust your computers to.
So why isn't Invizage even bigger, given the potential market - Australia's one million small businesses?
In part, because good IT support relies on good people. Lynn Pollock has stayed a one-man show because he's a perfectionist who prefers to know exactly what's happening to his clients. Invizage is trying to hire a company full of Lynn Pollocks, with high-cost IT skills and a smooth sales manner as well.
Invizage, like Lynn Pollock and everyone else in the industry, also faces the brutal challenge of extracting money from small business, the part of the business world with a reputation for not wanting to pay for anything.
It's a hard sell: apart from anything else, Invizage is competing with all the tinkerers inside those businesses who finds computers interesting. Lynn Pollock has given up on this segment, regretting that even small businesses who will pay in an emergency won't enter into a long-term, professional relationship. Invizage emphasises preventative maintenance work, and that now provides the bulk of its revenue.
The expensive Invizage staff also spend a lot of time in cars: 80 per cent of Invizage work happens at the client's site. Their clients prefer that to getting instructions down the phone from a help desk - "like having a plumber talk you through how to unblock your toilet", says Brad Bond. And surprisingly few problems can be reliably fixed by manipulating someone else's computer remotely, over the Internet. Just six or seven people handle all of Invizage's remote support. Bond reckons remote support will catch only 90 per cent of the issues, missing enough to leave clients with unsolved problems.
Whether Invizage and its competitors use cars or remote administration, their growth seems assured. Says Lynn Pollock: "I don't really want to tell people how much of a boom it is."