If you’re handy with computers and wondering about starting an IT support business, this is the article you need to read. I’m going to tell you all about the good AND the bad.
There are plenty of good reasons to go for it with this kind of freelance business: It’s a potentially lucrative venture, and one you can easily get started on a work-from-home basis. Good computer support is also in constant demand.
I started an IT support business myself way back in 2004. It paid me a good living until I vastly trimmed down the company and moved onto other things six years later. As such, it’s a topic I feel confident in advising about. (I do still do some work in the world of IT, primarily in strategic consultancy, and I have also retained a select few IT support clients).
I’ve got lots of tips to share to help you get a computer support business off on the right foot. However, just to be different, I’m first going to start off by telling you all the reasons I don’t envy those starting an IT support business today!
The Horrible Parts of Running an IT Support Business
I certainly don’t regret starting an IT support business all those years ago; It was my first freelance venture and one that kept the “wolf from the door” for a number of years.
However, in many ways, I look back on the time I was doing it full time as being incredibly stressful! If I did it all again, I’d do many things differently from the start (and I discuss those things below).
Even if you were to follow every letter of my advice, there are some elements of running a computer support business that are unavoidably stressful. I’m starting with these to get them “out there,” with the full knowledge that they might even put some people off the whole idea!
1. Providing IT support can be a depressingly thankless task
I’ve rewritten this section about four times, and it keeps ending up long and ranty. So this time I’m going to try to keep it concise…
An awful lot of people expect computers to do exactly what they ask, despite being utterly unwilling to learn much about them. People don’t read instructions, close error messages without reading them, ignore security and privacy advice despite constant headlines about cybercrime, and stubbornly refuse to backup data regularly.
It’s equivalent to getting behind the wheel of a car without learning how to drive one, putting petrol and diesel in at random, ignoring the service intervals, and never filling the reservoirs for water, oil and coolant.
And then shouting at the mechanic because that car won’t work.
Obviously, this is a rather extreme illustration, but it’s an important point to make. When you provide computer support, you’re often dealing with a huge knowledge gap, and a lot of customers’ eyes just glaze over when you try to explain how things work. It’s part of the job, but over time it can really wear you down.
2. It’s hard to enjoy uninterrupted time off
When a client’s office network goes down (or even when a client’s daughter has forgotten where she saved her homework!), that client will want help instantly.
Of course, a huge part of this is about how you manage expectations and set boundaries – but the IT people who “nobody can ever get hold off” don’t tend to do that well.
This was a huge factor in my decision to wind down my IT consultancy business. I’d had years of interrupted holidays, weekends when I worked unexpectedly, and even a couple of occasions when I found myself crawling under desks on Christmas Eve when the family celebrations were just getting underway.
After a while, this begins to burn you out. For me, even though I was earning very well, it got to the point where I’d happily have handed over a day’s consultancy money just to know that nobody was going to disturb me. I didn’t have children then, and it was still a huge issue, so I can imagine it being considerably worse now!
I will touch on strategies around this below – but it remains a basic fact that if you get to the point where you’re earning good money from being an IT consultant, people are going to expect a prompt response when things go wrong.
3. Once you touch a computer it can become your problem
Some clients are wonderful. Others aren’t.
I’ve experienced situations where I’ve done a one-off job for a client, and had a call from them when something’s gone wrong with their computer literally years later!
Never mind the fact that they’ve done nothing to maintain that machine in the intervening time; Never mind the fact that they may have teenage sons with a penchant for illegal software and pornography. The accusatory tone remains!
Once again, it’s about boundaries and setting expectations. However, I feel it’s important to mention this: being a self-employed IT person can make you really dislike your fellow man from time to time.
Starting an IT Support Business and Getting it Right
You may perhaps feel that I’ve overstated the downsides above, but I think it’s my duty to be honest about them. I also don’t think I was sufficiently aware of them before I started. Knowing those factors wouldn’t have put me off, but it would have made me go about some things differently.
So, let’s look at ways you can make things work as smoothly as possible:
Ask yourself if you are properly qualified
When I started my IT support business I’d already completed plenty of training courses and worked in the industry for several years.
However, I encountered plenty of people running similar businesses for no other reason that they considered themselves “a bit of a computer whizz.” (Often these were people I was taking over from after things had gone horribly wrong).
A popular saying in the IT industry is “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Client’s computers and servers are not a training ground, nor a place to “try things out.” If you accidentally delete a company’s data (or even an individual’s precious family photos) you can quickly find yourself in “getting sued” territory.
As a professional IT consultant, you must conform to “best practice,” avoid unnecessary risks, and stick to tried and tested ways of doing things. The “enthusiast” part of your passion for technology must be strictly restricted to your own PCs and devices.
If you’ve not provided PC support before, think extremely carefully before assuming you’re capable of it. You can also find various training resources out there, including free material from Microsoft and Apple.
Decide if you’re providing home or business support – or both
There’s plenty of demand for IT support, both from businesses and from home users, especially now the typical household has multiple computers and all kinds of other devices.
Many new IT consultants happily take on any work that comes their way, but there are significant differences between home and business support, as well as individual pros and cons.
Home IT support is obviously more straightforward, and an easier route for consultants who are just starting out. However, don’t assume that that means the clients will be any less demanding! A $200 IT support bill is a much more significant expense for an individual than it is for a company, and expectations tend to reflect that.
Providing home IT support also means doing far more small, one-off jobs. A few hours spent sorting out a list of household IT problems may well mean that client doesn’t need to see you again for a year or more.
Business IT support is usually far more lucrative, but also requires way more expertise and – realistically – considerably more commitment from you.
Going back to what we were saying earlier about taking time off, you’ll probably be OK for that if you’re only supporting home clients with no real commitment. However, businesses will want to know what service levels they can expect from you; If you want a week off, you’ll need to arrange cover, or be prepared to drop whatever you’re doing if a server goes down or if a user simply forgets their password.
Obviously, you’ll need to weigh up all the pros and cons for yourself. One final thing I’ll mention is to be wary of providing home user support if winning contracts with businesses is what you’re really aiming for.
Once you get busy, getting “urgent” calls from domestic clients about one-hour jobs is the last thing you’ll need when trying to provide a professional service to businesses.
Decide HOW you’re going to provide support
Despite how easy it is to provide remote support using systems like GoToAssist, customers DO like site visits, especially in the early days – when you’re first gaining trust and forming a relationship.
As such, although starting an IT support business is something you can do from home, it’s realistic to expect to have to visit your clients’ homes and offices.
The important thing here is to price this in. This is especially relevant if you’re doing support for non-business customers.
When I first started out in 2004 I charged GB£65 (around US$90) per hour for onsite time. This may have seemed like a lot to some of my clients, but if I was only there for an hour and spent the same amount of time travelling each way, it wasn’t nearly as impressive! Add in the fact that the nature of the work dictates that you must allow for jobs overrunning, and you suddenly realise why plumbers and other tradespeople charge a hefty call-out charge!
A lot of novice IT consultants set out planning to do as much as possible remotely, and this is a sensible aim. However, don’t underestimate the value of “the personal touch.” Once you’ve done one or two jobs “in the flesh,” your customers will be far more amenable to remote computer support.
Realise that computer support is about FAR more than technical knowledge
A client once said to me that “the problem with people who fix computers is that most of them are useless.”
This doesn’t mean they don’t have the technical knowledge; It means that many IT consultants often lack other important attributes, such as communication skills and the ability to explain complex technical things to individuals who neither understand nor WISH to understand the intricacies.
However, people don’t really like not understanding things. For many, the instinctive reaction to a lack of understanding is anger or aggression. Put one of these people face to face with a computer consultant who speaks in acronyms and looks down on a lack of knowledge, and things don’t turn out well.
As such, the best IT consultants are those who combine empathy, customer service skills and plain English with their expert technical knowledge. These people get referred, recommended, and called back again and again.
So, it makes sense to ask yourself – honestly – if you have these other qualities or are capable of developing them.
Time after time, I’ve been told that “the last guy came in and it worked for a while, but I’ve no idea what he did.” These people don’t get the repeat business that’s so crucial to long-term success.
Tips for Starting an IT Support Business
I’m going to end with some quickfire tips for getting your IT support business off the ground. Hopefully, the advice above has helped you decide whether it’s something you’d like to proceed with.
1. Get insured
Do NOT go anywhere near a client’s computers (especially business computers) without some insurance in place. It’s easy to make mistakes, and a small IT support business is unlikely to survive a court battle.
The kind of insurance you need is called Professional Indemnity here in the UK, and I believe it’s called Errors and Omissions insurance in the US. DIfferent countries have different mandatory requirements for insurance, so be sure to check you have sufficient cover.
2. Keep up your training
The IT industry moves fast, so it’s worth constantly learning new things to keep up with it. Big-name accreditations also boost your credentials. Plenty of companies – even Apple – provide training that’s inexpensive or even free. There are some details in this article.
3. Think through your pricing
What you can charge for IT support will vary hugely depending on where you’re based and what kind of clients you’re working for. £75 ($100) per hour or £500 ($670) per day is pretty standard here, but I’m near London, one of the world’s biggest cities. When I lived in Portugal, rates would be closer to €10-20 per hour!
The best way to get a feel for what to charge is to research some companies nearby so that you can get an idea of an average. Keep in mind that it’s always easy to reduce your rates if need be, but much harder to increase them.
4. Be selective and don’t overstretch
There will always be software you’ve not seen before and systems you’re unfamiliar with. Honesty is the best policy, and customers will almost always understand if you’ve not seen absolutely everything on their systems.
However, it’s important to draw a line. If you’ve never used an Apple Mac in your life, for example, don’t try to “wing it” for the sake of the money. You could come horribly unstuck. Try, as far as possible, to stick to what you know.
5. Partner up
I’m not suggesting that you need a partner to “go in with you” on your computer support business, but it does make sense to form some healthy partnerships with other local people with similar businesses.
For example, it’s definitely worth linking up with someone in web design if you’re providing IT support. It’s inevitable that customers will sometimes ask their IT people for a web design recommendation, and vice versa. You can either do this on an informal basis or arrange some kind of commission or referral fee.
Another partnership well worth establishing is one with someone else running their own IT business. You can potentially act as cover for each other, giving you at least some hope of uninterrupted holidays.
Finally, on the subject of partnerships, everyone from big PC suppliers to antivirus vendors and web hosting companies will be keen to team up so that you can resell their products. Some of these arrangements can prove lucrative, but it’s always best to maintain a principle of recommending what’s best for your customers – not the products you’re going to earn most commission on.
6. Don’t get an office
As your business starts to build, you may feel tempted to get some office premises. I’m not saying you must dismiss the idea out of hand, but I suggest only doing this if you feel there’s a true benefit to it. Time travelling between your home and your office is time wasted.
I say this only because I spent several years paying for office premises that I barely spent any time in. If you finish mid-afternoon with a client it makes way more sense to go home anyway.
7. Don’t spread yourself too thinly
A lot of self-employed computer technicians spend their time rushing from place to place, hurriedly finishing jobs so they can get to the next one.
It’s best to aim to be doing work that’s 100% perfect, and doing it for the right clients. Running an IT support business isn’t about building a client list that’s as long as possible. You want clients who want things done properly and are willing to pay a fair rate for it.
It’s madness to rush away from one client, leaving “money on the table,” for no better reason than you have another one to get to. It does take time to identify the “good” clients, but being mindful of this general rule should set you on the right path.
So there we have it! This is a topic I could write an awful lot more about, and if the demand is there I will do so – just let me know in the comments 🙂
In the meantime, I hope this has demonstrated the likely highs and lows of starting an IT support business. It’s not easy, but if you’re the right person for the job, you should earn plenty of money and never find yourself short of work.
Recommended Further Reading: Are YOU cut out for freelancing?