Talking about this little side business I’ve been running for a while now.
I vaguely hinted back in November 2015 that I would be talking about the future of TLW Tech on this blog in the next big end-of-the-year update post. I had intended to do just that until I got halfway through writing the update post. At that point, I decided that the discussion about TLW Tech would happen at a later time. So, here we are now. This is a reflection on the past couple of years running TLW Tech. Why I started the business, where I went right or wrong and what I’ve learned from the experience. I’m doing this for myself and not for sympathy points. I knew that I was getting into a rough market when I started TLW and also knew that I was in over my head. To be honest, I’m kind of surprised I managed as well as I had. But, I’ll get to that later. For now, let’s talk about the history up till now.
History & Beginnings
I started TLW Tech Services in September 2013 as a follow up to Adaptive Light Technologies which had run for a couple of years before TLW Tech. ALT had been shut down so I could focus on my college education instead. After college, well, I decided to reboot ALT into something else that would be more professional while learning from past mistakes. I started the new business as Tim’s Computer Services but quickly changed the name to TLW Tech Services to have that professional edge. It’s a debatable decision to name it that but honestly, I think it’s just fine. So, why did I start it?
Well, because I knew there was a desire to have a technology service that worked for the people of the Oregon coast. What few remained mostly work for businesses or within Tillamook’s city boundaries. The technology situation on the coast is pretty poor compared to the rest of the United States. And having lived in the area for over 20 years and heard the numerous complaints about lacking professional home visiting services, I figured that I had a market of people interested. After all, having someone personally meet you and be able to look over your technology situation seems like a worthwhile service, doesn’t it?
The Business Model
So, I started with a home visiting service that (eventually) costs $55 for the first hour and $35 per additional hour. The $20 up front is to cover for gas and other miscellaneous costs. I decided to not go with a static cost per machine because there was no way to know for certain the situation I’d be running into and charging people say $150 simply to fix a minor bug in Chrome seemed ridiculous. (I’ve had a few jobs like that). Generally antivirus visits costed around $125 which I considered a fair price. I did have quite a few jobs that only cost $55. So, as far as I was concerned, the system worked out really well for both parties involved. This was also one of the cheapest services on the Oregon coast, especially when you factor in that the user didn’t have to tear down their equipment and transport it elsewhere. I did run specials of dusting and cleaning computers as well as assisting people with upgrading to Windows 10 at a cheap & set rate of $69 per machine. Which the Win10 deal worked out pretty well for a couple of weeks. But it quickly dropped off and has seen little interest since. All in all, considering what I’ve had to work with I think the business model worked out rather well. It was flexible but respected both mine and the client’s time.
The Fatal Flaw of Small Startup Tech Support
I got a call last week to someone one of their laptop screen replaced. My advice to them was to take it back to the original manufacturer and have them replace it. Because if I work on it, it will cost them way more money and take longer than someone like Dell/Samsung/Lenovo. It’s the same problem when people ask me about repairing screens on smartphones or tablets. I simply can’t compete with those companies as I have to:
- Find and order the correct screen and/or parts required. I can’t buy every single screen out there nor store them personally.
- Spend at least three hours, if not more, doing the actual job. Which involves a lot of removing screws, parts and research for each individual machine.
- Wait weeks, if not a month, for the screen to show up.
- Hope I don’t screw up any part of the process or break the screen. A very legitimate concern regardless of how experienced you are.
In many cases, that’s at least a $200-300 job accounting for my time and the cost of the screen. They aren’t cheap. You’re far better off having the original manufacturer do it because at least they can give you a guarantee for their work. I can’t. When I went over that call about the laptop screen in my mind, I realized the fatal flaw of my business. That expanding my services was a very tall and dangerous cliff that I’m not sure I can overcome or if it’s even worth it. I can do hard drive replacements, I can change out CPUs and more but doing the work that people want like screen replacements simply wasn’t doable without a lot of expense. Arguably, it can be done cheaper and better by the manufacturers themselves. It’s worse when it comes to repairing devices like regular printers, mice, webcams or similar. There’s pretty much no reason to hire me when you can go to WalMart and pick up a new printer for $50 and not deal with the hassle of a tech trying to repair it. What can you do against that sort of market force? Nothing.
I’ve obviously asked for advice, asked for opinions on what I should do with TLW over the years. One particular piece of advice that I got repeatedly was to know who your demographic is. Well, TLW’s demographic is people above 60 that don’t know as much about computers but have enough money and are willing to pay for local services. Those who still read newspapers and magazine advertisers. That’s a small and shrinking niche. A niche that will not be willing to pay much for computer services outside of removing malware infections. I’ve had very few return clients. I’ve had numerous calls where the client gets sticker shock when I give them an estimate and these are the people I’m supposed to be helping! I don’t blame them for not having the money but at the same time, I can’t grow my market outside of them. Those with more flexible incomes seem pretty uninterested in dealing with local services like mine. As such, depending on the 60+ demographic for a business plan isn’t reliable or sustainable.
This doesn’t even get into the major issues like marketing. Marketing for this demographic is getting more and more difficult. The big push to online advertising isn’t going to work for a demographic that doesn’t use Facebook or really use Google. Not that a lot of people use Google anyway but that’s a different discussion for a different time. I’ve certainly had some luck and ideas pushed my way but the success rates haven’t been good.
It doesn’t help that more and more companies are implementing more personal tech support services. Notably, Amazon’s Fire tablets have a one-touch button where you can directly talk with one of their agents on the screen to get personalized assistance. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple or Microsoft adopt something similar in the near future.
To say nothing of the numerous tech support businesses that have come and gone on the West Coast of Oregon in the past five years. I don’t think it’s a fluke, I think the market simply can’t sustain them regardless of what they do.
Examining What I Did Right And Wrong
In 2014, I did a pretty big project with one of the local churches in Tillamook. The general idea was to have a computer class with members of the church in order to assist them with their Tech problems. The idea being that we could get everyone to bring their computers and have a discussion about how to use them better. It had a pretty decent turn out too. Unfortunately, I consider the project a personal failure. Mostly because I think both I and the people attending weren’t on the same wavelength of what it was going to be about. I thought it was going to be more like a class while those attending thought it would be far more hands-on computer repair. It didn’t help that several of them had problems that needed to be fixed (malware, crashing, etc). I don’t think there was hard feelings and I think I mostly salvaged it but we haven’t had a class since that one. Obviously I should have made sure the computers were in working order before trying to teach people about them but it had honestly never come up. My side hope was that people would sign up for appointments with me after the class, but no one did. That was the main reason I decided to put the whole idea on the back burner. I never approached other churches or organizations with the idea until I could come up with a better idea. Which the only ones I’ve come up with are classes where I work in small groups to fix and discuss computers. But even that idea has flaws. The other reason I scrapped is that I’m not living in Tillamook and setting these classes up is more difficult in that case.
Obviously the industry’s problems aren’t the only reasons the business has been rocky. I’ve had my own collection of screw ups when it comes to TLW Tech. I’ve had some failures in marketing and not having a permanent location for people to see may not have helped things. And admittedly I wasn’t keeping in touch with previous clients via a newsletter or some sort of correspondence on a regular basis. Even when I did follow up with them later on, they showed little interest in my services. But still, I did try and I did have some success. But not nearly enough to keep a business going.
I’ve thought about creating additional services like email, VOIP and other cloud based services. But I run into the same problem that free with ads trumps pay-for models. And I’m not really willing to invest in the infrastructure only to have a few clients every now and then. I know some do it but I’m not convinced they make much money for it. Though I guess I can’t say for certain, can I? What about selling computer hardware? Well, the general conclusion on that is that the margins are so thin on computer hardware it isn’t worth it anymore. That’s certainly been my experience when trying to sell hardware.
How Things Have Been Going Lately
So I’ve been running the business for 2+ years now. I’ve had years of both profit and loss, 2014 was perhaps my best year. 2015 was mostly a year of experimentation but I was constrained with less time and less available resources. Still, I had a pretty decent year but the fact of the matter is that I’ve not had a new client in six months. A few returning ones here and there but not enough to live off of. It’s forced me to make some conclusions and admit that things need to change.
And to be frank, people don’t depend on this or other services like I had come to hope for. Maybe that’s incredibly egotistical to say but am I wrong? We rely on decent mechanics, doctors, farmers and entertainers to do their job for our needs. We don’t, however, rely on tech supports to do their job. And I don’t see a future where that’s going to get any better as previously talked about above.
I’m not exactly sure at this point. I’m not going to close down the business but I am going to completely remove all advertising for the foreseeable future and see what I can do to retool this business into something more. Whatever that ends up being. I’ll keep offering the home support service for now but much more low key than before. Maybe I can come up with something more creative than what’s being done right now. But just so we’re clear, I have no regrets trying to make TLW Tech work over other ideas. I think I would have had way more had I not tried.
I’m glad that I could help out those that I did. And I’m thankful to all of those who used my services.
Anyway that’s my thoughts and sort of history of TLW Tech Services. It’s been a crazy ride and while things are changing, I’m going to keep trying different things and keep pushing forward. Maybe that future is A Paladin Without A Crusade or something else entirely. But now, I’m willing to let it go and try something else which I haven’t been able to do up to this point. Which is why I created this post in the first place. To tell myself that it’s ok that TLW may ultimately fail.
Thanks for reading, it’s always appreciated.