So You Want to Start Your Own Business?
The Rise and Fall of Computer Joey: Part One – The Origin
Have you ever said to yourself “I would love to work for myself”? I know I used to think that in high school and college, but the day I was offered the chance to actually do it, a little tiny voice in my head said “RUN!” I didn’t listen and the result is the story you are about to read. If you are someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, don’t take this as discouragement, take this as a “what not to do”.
This story begins with an ending. It was June of 2003 and I had just broken up with a long time girlfriend. The weeks after the breakup resulted in me moping around and hanging out at my cousin Anthony’s business (he was a headhunter). Anthony and his partner Matt had just purchased a large street front property in South Jersey and they were thinking about how to fill the available spaces. Anthony had the idea to partner up with friends and family so they won’t just have rent income, but backend on a few businesses.
For the sake of you readers at home that don’t know my cousin Anthony, he has always been like a protective older brother to me. He is 14 years older than me and gotten me out (and sometimes into) trouble many times. Anthony will save your life, but if the mood is right, he might shit on you a little while he is doing it (hey you got yourself into this mess and if he is going to bail you out, he is going to do it his way). He is like the very best kind of sweet and sour sauce.
Matt and Anthony asked me several times over the next month and each time I said no. I was 23 years old and my job had me supporting 35,000 email users in a large corporation, I was constantly getting called on problems and I was going a little nuts (85-100 hour weeks were the norm). I had just found the new religion of physical fitness and was in the gym 2 hours a day and didn’t really want anything cutting into the little “me time” I had. Anthony’s sales pitch was there was no real expense or risk to me since I wasn’t investing any real money (just for startup hardware) and it would only be costing me my time. This was like a punch in the stomach… I didn’t have enough time to begin with, how could I run a business?
Anthony had an answer for this as well: I was fixing 3-5 computers a week for free for friends and family (or friends of friends), and Anthony knew it was starting to get a little out of hand. His solution was “charge them for it!” His theory was that if you are wasting 15-20 hours a week doing that for people on your free time (I used to fix computers while I was on emergency all night conference calls for work), if you had a lab or could do multiple systems at once, you could make some side money. He had a good point and he started to win me over. The plan was for me to keep my job, but work 3 days a week at the store after I got done working at the corporate job. Matt and Anthony would deal with the customers during the day and take phone calls. The idea was that it would be a fun relaxing environment and we would make a few bucks… damn we were all in way over our heads.
By September I was on board. Anthony’s adorable son had come up with the name Computer Joey (there are like 50 Joeys in the family and this is the only was the poor kid could keep things straight) and there was no looking back. The boys had settled on the building and immediately started on updating it and getting a huge section that was one storefront split into two. As they rebuilt and repaired the building, Matt and Anthony also attempted to keep their headhunting business afloat, this of course added tension because there wasn’t as much money coming in as they would have liked. They turned to me: it was decided that I would start making house calls until the store was ready.
My first few house calls were comedic. Anthony and I really didn’t hammer out a pricing structure and I was terrified to give someone a bill. Anthony even came with me on my first house call because I felt so weird just going inside someone’s house. Let me tell you something… although it gets better, it never goes away; the next few years I walked into my fair share of creepy places.
This went on for a few months and the boys got the store presentable enough so we could accept walk-ins. This is around the time things started to change. I was going to the store every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday (and in the beginning on Sundays to, just to help out and get stuff together). Matt and Anthony grew increasingly frustrated with taking in calls and my method of dealing with things when I got into the store. To make it short: I didn’t like calling customers until I looked at the computers and knew what was wrong with them. Anthony thought it was best to call immediately upon entering the store to let the customer know they were in good hands. I tried it his way but I kept getting burned: customers would ask me how much it would cost to fix and I hadn’t even turned the damn thing on yet. Let me tell you, we had A LOT of fights over this. Matt was generally in the middle playing both sides to keep the peace (The other side of the building was a furniture consignment shop run by Matt’s mother; that was his little project to deal with).
I got more frustrated as the questionnaire for incoming computers that I wrote wasn’t being used, and I had no information besides a customer’s name and a phone number. Eventually Anthony got some tags and did write some more information down, and that kept up both happy as we got used to each other’s styles. We had a great deal of growing pains over invoicing and keeping track of customer information and billing. Eventually, Heather (Anthony’s wife) showed me how to use Quickbooks and I started putting everything in there and doing invoices. It saved a lot of time and trouble and I suggest you use it if you are running a small business.
Our business was starting to grow and get good word of mouth, I had customers who liked us and kept coming back. Anthony was making friends with the local business council and committees and things were looking good. We weren’t making any money, but it wasn’t expected yet (the important part was that we weren’t in any debt).
Anthony and Matt had finished the store remodel at the end of June and we decided we would have our official grand opening during the town’s Fourth of July parade. The day before grand opening was a long and rough one. I had gotten paged around 3 AM for an email issue and never went back to bed, the day was long and full of troubles and then I got out of work to go and prepare the store for the grand opening. My buddy Rob, who was getting married in a few weeks, invited me over his place for some reason and since I felt I hadn’t spent that much time with him (I was his best man) I went over there after I got finished up at the store. I spent about an hour at his house and left. I should also mention at around this time, I was dating 2 or 3 girls at any given point and they were a late night drain on me as well – so I was running on fumes to begin with. I was tired getting into my car and the main road by his house was very dark. As I ventured toward the main road over the 35 mph speed limit, but not excessively (I swear), I guess I blacked out because the next thing I knew I was flying over the median strip on Rt. 45 and going into the opposite lane of traffic. Long story short – I totaled my car and I busted myself up pretty good.
My physical concerns had to be pushed aside, I had a grand opening the next day and I needed a ride…
(To be continued...)
Click here for Part Two