Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Economy is No Excuse!

Officially we're 12 months into this recession, and let me tell you there's one thing I'm already very tired of - people using the economy as an excuse! Yes, times are bad. Yes, credit markets are tight, financing is more difficult. Yes, more people are unemployed, and exponentially more people are anxious about the future. Some industries are struggling, particularly some real estate, automotive, and tourism-related areas. Some geographies are struggling, particularly parts of Florida, California, Michigan, Ohio, and some pockets around New York City and Washington DC. If your business is heavily dependent on these factors, then you are being impacted by the bad economy, and there are few if any businesses entirely unaffected right now. And there is certainly no doubt that businesses and individuals are hurting right now, and I'm not meaning to minimize that pain.

But I've been in this industry for three recessions now (four if you count the post-9/11 downturn), and even though this situation is unique among all of them, one thing is still the same - people like to blame things on the economy. Having a bad sales month? It's not your lack of marketing or a bad sales staff - it's the economy! Need to let an unproductive employee go? It's not you making a management decision - it's the economy! Going out of business? It's not poor management, it's the economy!

It came to me this morning when someone sent me a news item about one of our competitors, who is reporting their 7th straight annual loss (this one nearly $5 million), is being sued by 10 of their franchisees, and had to report that their auditors expect them to run out of cash and potentially shut down operations within 6 months. In their regulatory filing do they accept responsibility for the problems? Of course not - it's the economy! They mention the "current financial turmoil" in the banking industry, and blame the lack of franchise sales on the inability of candidates to get financing. If they do go under, as appears likely, will they apologize to the orphaned franchisees for not running a healthy organization? I don't think so - the economy is too easy a scapegoat for that.

The thing is, anyone who scratches beneath the surface can see another picture. They haven't ever had a profit - ever, not since they started in 2001. Their fiscal 2008 operating expenses were $5 million more than their revenues, and their revenues were $2 million less than the previous year. (Just for comparison's sake Computer Troubleshooter's franchise network is double theirs, and our total franchisor operating budget is a comparatively miniscule $600k/year - apparently we're the "lean & mean" franchising system here!). What exactly in today's economy caused them to lose money in 2001, 2002, 2003, etc? And how exactly, if we were not in a recession today, would spending $5 million more than you bring in look like a smart move?

No, the economy gets the blame but the economy is just the magnifying glass today, showing all the faults in the systems people previously claimed were healthier than perhaps they really were. Today's recession gives management teams carte blanche to escape any personal responsibility in the failings of their businesses, and that's doubly-unfortunate since its' that same lack of responsibility on a larger scale that seems to have gotten us into this mess!

Now I'm not intending this diatribe to make it sound like I'm the perfect manager. Lord knows I'm not! In fact we just got the new Entrepreneur magazine with the Franchise 500 rankings for 2009, and for the first time since 2001 Computer Troubleshooters is not ranked. At all. Even though we're by far the largest in our industry, even though we grew by 5% last year, we got no ranking at all. Why? Entrepreneur doesn't disclose their formula for rankings, but I'm sure it's based on our financials, and because the rankings are done in July they use the financials from our last full year, which for us was fiscal 2007. And in fiscal 2007 we posted a substantial financial loss - well, substantial for us anyway, since we lost $111k that year. (By comparison our parent company, MerryMeeting, posted a nearly $4 million profit, so we're definitely the small fry in the family as far as financials go). Still, a loss is a loss, and our $111k loss was due entirely to a write off of $198k in bad debt - old receivables that we never cleaned up or monies that we didn't do a good job of collecting. As the CEO for Computer Troubleshooters that loss is entirely my fault, and thus our lack of Entrepreneur ranking for 2009 is entirely my fault as well. (But our 2008 financials are strong, and we're seeing a TON of new folks opening new CT franchises, so watch us bounce back strong in next year's ranking!)

My point though is that business is business and management is management, and if you want to run a business you have to be prepared to manage it during economic booms and economic busts. The world has not stopped turning just because unemployment has hit 7%. The economy has changed, in some ways temporarily and in some ways perhaps permenently, but there is still an economy, and that means people are buying and selling goods and services right now. Some of the buying patterns have changed, and a good manager needs to adjust for that.

For example what we're seeing with Computer Troubleshooters is that nervous business owners are less likely to buy our "all you can eat" BEST plan (managed services), which is normally our best seller. But we offer 4 plans, and we're finding that there's good demand for our next plan down the ladder, so we're adjusting our monthly marketing upates to focus more on those. We're also seeing that as people cut back on discretionary spending on things like vacations and eating out, they're exhibiting traditional "nesting" patterns by spending more on things they can enjoy at home - so we've ramped up our focus on our residential managed service plans and home entertainment offerings. I can't give away all our secrets of course, but things like flexibility, customer choice, and clear productivity enhancement are the buzzwords that are driving a lot of our marketing development for the first half of 2009.

Today's economy is an opportunity. It's an opportunity for stronger, healthier companies to distinguish themselves and grow, sometimes by acquiring other less healthy companies (and yes, CT may do some of that as well). It's also an opportunity to make excuses for poor performance, but don't fall into that trap. Use this opportunity to start or grow your own business - there are customers out there right now who need you. And the economy needs you too.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Choosing your Managed Services platform, part 1



Lately it seems the whole managed services industry has been turned upside down. Major vendors have suddenly changed how they operate - not so much changing prices as much as adding, changing, or outright removing key features. Frankly it's caused more than a little frustration for those of us who depend on those platforms for our managed services offerings. Computer Troubleshooters is in the midst of reviewing all our managed services partners, so I thought it would be helpful to share what we're looking for.

First, let me clarify and expound on one of my great pet peeves. "Managed Services" doesn't mean anything. Or, rather, it means so many different things to different people that the term is meaningless. It's like saying "IT industry", as if software developers and hardware manufacturers and network consultants were somehow a homogenous group. (I know, I know, most non-IT folks think they are, leading to the popularity of things like this.) Those of you who have been through CT's training on our managed services program (B.E.S.T.) have heard me talk about watching the video discussion among three people identified as the industry's top managed services gurus, and how midway through the discussion they began arguing about things like whether or not managed services as a concept even applies to desktops and notebooks.

For Computer Troubleshooters, our target clients are small businesses (another vague term which I'll probably expound on in another posting later), specifically those in the 5-25 seat area. That's not to say that we don't service smaller clients with 1-5 computers, because we do, and some CT's have been known to service networks of 100 or more. But as an organization we've always targeted the 5-25 seat business, because as a market those small businesses (which are most small businesses) have a high demand for outside IT support from people who understand their needs. So when we talk about "managed services" for this market, we're talking in general about a program that does 4 things:
  1. Provides a baseline for "best practices", showing our clients how their systems compare to our combined wisdom on how computers and networks should be configured for maximum productivity and minimum downtime.
  2. Provides proactive support via 24/7 monitoring, alerting, and management tools.
  3. Redefines the traditional financial relationship, where the service provider was only paid when their client has problems, to one where the service provider is paid to prevent problems from happening, and where the client's budget (and service provider's income) is more stable.
  4. Once the client's technology infrastructure is stabilized with parts 1-3, look for new technologies which can enhance the client's business. This means going beyond the basic recommendations like which anti-virus or backup solution to use, into more complex but more beneficial technologies like search engine marketing, IP Telephony, electronic document management, or hosted CRM solutions.
Now if you are targeting different sized clients, like mid-sized businesses or enterprise businesses, your definition of "managed services" will be radically different. And even among those targeting similarly sized businesses you may not agree with all four of our points. But this is the strategy Computer Troubleshooters adopted for our BEST program, and it's worked very well for us and for our clients.

But in order to make this work, we need vendor partners who can supply critical parts of the managed services strategy. In this post I want to look a the basic pieces of a managed services platform today, and in my next post we'll look at what new pieces might be added in the near future. At the moment, these are the pieces of our managed services platform which we look for from our vendor partners (including internal CT vendors/departments as well):

  1. Remote Monitoring & Management tool (RMM): This is the most fundamental piece of any managed services strategy. In theory you could sell managed services without RMM, but it would be like selling a car with no wheels - it sort of missses the whole point. A good RMM tool should be easily installable at a client site, and provide a good range of monitoring and alerts for all desktops and servers on the network, including mobile machines (laptops, and optionally smartphones as well). It should be easy for the technician to use, provide reasonable diagnostic & remote support abilities to allow the tech to quickly respond to any alerts produced, and it should generate easy to read executive reports for our clients.
    The RMM tool market is the most associated with managed services, and includes vendors like Hyblue, Bird Dog, Zenith Infotech, Level Platforms, N-Able, Kaseya, IT Control Suite, LogMeIn IT Reach, Paragent, and MSP Center Plus. (As well as others I'm sure I've forgotten to mention).

  2. A NOC (Network Operations Center) partner. As managed services has evolved, so has the dependence on a NOC for maximum support. Using a high-quality 24/7 NOC partner allows local service providers to guarantee high levels of service to their clients, without the high expense of hiring excessive technical staff themselves. Some NOC partners work specifically with one RMM tool, others may support a variety. Ideally you want a NOC partner who will not only help you manage the alerts which come in, but who can also accept work on-demand, particularly for work which is best done after normal business hours. NOC examples include Zenith, Seismic, MSPSN, NetEnrich, ITVista, and others.

  3. Integrated Anti-Malware. This was not originally part of the managed services model, but Zenith started it and it worked extremely well in our models (unfortunately Zenith no longer supports this in the small business market). And when CT started offering residential managed service plans, integrated anti-malware became essential. Including anti-malware (anti-virus & anti-spyware) with managed services is a great bundle for any clients, and can be done a la carte using hosted McAfee options, licensing Trend Micro on a monthly basis, or via vendors who integrate the protection directly into their RMM products (Kaseya, Hyblue, or Zenith for larger businesses).

  4. Integration with industry-leading PSA (Professional Services Automation) software, including Autotask or CT's own TOPS program. Having one ticket system which interfaces with the RMM system and the NOC is a great time saver and productivity enhancer.

  5. Helpdesk. Most MSP's include unlimited telephone support in one or more of their service plan offerings. In our case it's included with BEST Proactive and BEST Trouble-free. For smaller service providers it can be money well spent to hire an outside helpdesk to handle those incoming calls for you, thus providing your clients with faster access to qualified telephone support. Helpdesk vendors include Dove Helpdesk (my personal favorite), MSPSN, Zenith, PC Helps, and more.

  6. Advanced Management Tools. In this category I would include things like software deployment, employee activity tracking, internet traffic control, and desktop imaging. In the small business world these are nice to have, but not essential.

Those six make up the bulk of almost any managed services platform today. Individual service providers can "roll their own" solution by combining any of these, but in a franchise like Computer Troubleshooters we're able to do some screening and negotiating internally to make sure we're picking the best partners for our market, and to negotiate group volume discounts as well.

What's missing in this list? I haven't talked much about backup solutions, including NAS options or online backup. I haven't talked about virtualized environments or hosted (i.e. "cloud computing") solutions. There are also anti-spam options to be discussed, and even more advanced management tools. These aren't technically part of "managed services" today (although they're often added to or included with BEST plans), but they may play a larger role in the next generation of managed services. I'll talk about that more in my next post.

Agree or disagree with me? I'd love to hear your ideas on managed services, and how your implementation fits with (or doesn't fit with) the structure I've outlined here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Mac Guy on the Road


My "MBP" on the job in a Hong Kong hotel today

So it's been three months since I purchased my Macbook Pro (used, on Ebay, because I'm cheap). Many of my PC friends were wary of my early enthusiasm, and several said "Yeah, well, it's a new toy right now, but talk to me in two months." Three months later I'm still a Mac guy, so I wanted to share some updates on my Apple experience thus far.

First, the things I don't like - and it's a short list. I traveled to the UK earlier this month, and realized before boarding my flight at ATL that I'd forgotten to bring my power adapter. No worries I thought, I'll just pick one up somewhere. Several electronics stores in Hartsfield sold "universal" notebook power supplies - but none worked with any Apple notebook. No worries, my hotel in Liverpool had three large electronics stores within walking distance - but none of them had Mac power adapters either, even though at least one sold Mac notebooks! I was very fortunate that Liverpool has an Apple store, so I spent half my first day figuring out how to get there so I could get my replacement power cord. (the local Computer Troubleshooter in Liverpool graciously offered to bring me one, but searching for an Apple store seemed as good a way as any to explore the city so I decided to go on my own). Similarly becuase the Macbook uses the DVI port instead of VGA, I have to bring two adapters with me if I expect to plus into a projector somewhere. (Two because I have a history of losing one and need a backup just in case).

Other things that I don't like: no SD card slot (but I have a USB/SD card reader that I can bring with me). Battery life is only about 2 hours per battery for me, and you can't hot-swap the batteries on an airplane (I carry 3 batteries with me for long trips, but I have to Sleep the notebook before swapping). And occasionally my Windows environment (I run Windows on the Mac simultaneously with the Mac OS using VMWare Fusion, mostly so I can use Outlook) loses sound for some reason.

So that's the bad list - but there's a much, much longer list of things that I love. I haven't had a crash or lock-up except once, whereas my old PC notebook used to hang at least 2 or 3 times a week (in fairness to the PC, I tend to run a LOT of unusual applications, so having occasional crashes doesn't surprise me). Most operations are faster than they were on my PC, even though this is a 2.16GHz Core2 Duo and my PC was a 2.2GHz machine. The wireless network connects faster, which doesn't sound like much but if you're trying to download your emails during a 10 minute airport layover, that's helpful. The backlit keyboard is surprisingly useful in dark hotel rooms (like as I'm typing this right now).

The two things I like the most right now are VMWare Fusion, and Front Row. VMWare Fusion lets me run my Windows environment inside my Mac environment, which is necessary for me since many applications I use (including Microsoft Outlook) only work in a Windows environment. VMWare Fusion gives me that ability, and more than that it allows for near-seamless file sharing between the Mac and PC sides of the system (whereas in the old days you used to require a translation program of some kind to let one OS see files on the other). So I have one "Desktop" and one "Documents" folder, and both OS'es see them the same. Cut & Paste also works between the OSes, which is amazing and helpful.

Front Row is the newest thing I've started using. It's integrated with iTunes, so that any music or video you have purchased or ripped into your iTunes library is available in Front Row. By using the Mac Remote Control (a tiny little thing) I can choose to listen to specific music or watch specific TV shows or movies - which is really handy. For example when I was in the UK I missed the season premiere of "The Office" back home, so I was able to download it on iTunes and watch it from my hotel bed using the Mac Remote. I've also used it to watch movies during long flights, or to listen to music while getting dressed in the morning. Sure, there are similar programs in the PC world, but this one is built into the Mac OS and the Mac hardware, and it just works.

So, so far my "Mac enthusiasm" shows no signs of abating. More and more we see our small business clients migrating to the Mac environment, and now that I've "drunk the koolaid" I can see why. For businesses where most of their work is web-based, or based on Microsoft Office, you can likely accomplish 99% of your work in the Mac, making it a valid option for businesspeople today. And for those who still need Windows apps, programs like VMWare Fusion make that an easy option too.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Why Everyone Should Buy a Ford Flex

In my post yesterday I talked about how the current economic situation is affecting Computer Troubleshooters in general - today I want to talk about one way I've used the current downturn to my advantage, by posting a review of my new Ford Flex.

To provide some background - I was not looking for a new car. My CT-wrapped Subaru Baja had served me well and was paid off. It was also one of the best cars I've ever owned. BUT, in just the month of September my Baja was stolen, recovered, wrecked (while parked), and then erroneously impounded by the Dekalb County police who apparently forgot to note in their database that it was no longer stolen. When it was taken the first time I started looking around to see what I might want to replace it with, and came across the Ford Flex. After the wreck and the impounding I started to think that maybe someone was trying to tell me it's time for a new car after all.

Then I read stories about how automakers have been hard hit by the recent economic conditions. Dozens of dealerships around Atlanta have closed, including the Subaru dealership near me. To try and stimulate sales many manufacturers are offering some pretty strong incentives to potential buyers, especially those with good credit. I got an email from a local Ford dealer offering me $4000 under dealer invoice on a new Ford Flex, plus they gave me full trade-in value for my Subaru even though it was wrapped and wrecked, plus they gave me some service incentives as well to help a friend whose having some car troubles. All in all it was a deal I couldn't pass up. If you're in the market for a car, now is a REALLY good time to go shopping because there are some great deals to be had.

So now I'm the proud owner of a Ford Flex, and honestly it's the best car I've ever owned. It's incredibly comfortable - the giant leather seats have all kinds of adjustments and even seat warmers (not really needed here in Georgia but still nice). The headrests could use more adjustment options, and as other reviews have pointed out it would be nice if the steering wheel telescoped, but having adjustable pedals helps. My Flex also has "egress assist", which means when I pull the key out the driver's seat slides back automatically to make it easier to get out, and when I put the key in the seat moves forward back to it's memorized position. This is slightly disturbing since for a brief second I always imagine myself in the trash compactor scene in Star Wars as the seat pushes me towards the steering wheel, but overall it's a nice feature.

For a gadget lover the Flex has everything you could ever want. Seperate climate controls for the driver, passenger, and rear seats. Lots of power ports everywhere you can think of, plus an AC outlet built into the center console. There's even a USB port inside the center console which can charge a USB device as well as connecting any MP3 player into the sound system. And speaking of the sound system - I got the 10-speaker Sony-built system with Microsoft Sync technology, and it's really amazing. I wasn't sure what to expect of Sync, but the voice recognition is remarkably accurate even when I ask it to call friends with hard-to-spell names (it connects to my cell phone whenever its' within Bluetooth range), and the sound quality is fantastic. There are almost too many options in the sound system (I don't know how I'm going to find time to fill all 30 presets for the AM/FM radio, or the other 30 presets for the Sirius satellite radio). And the onboard computer lets me keep track of things like my average miles per gallon (which is only around 18 for me so far, but I only drive about 10 miles a day and through a lot of stops, so I expect it will get closer to the advertised 24mpg when I'm taking longer road trips). It's the most fuel-efficient vehicle of it's size, but you'd never know it by how powerful and responsive the engine feels.

Gadgets are great, but the Flex really shines in style and functionality. I've had the car for 10 days and already several people have stopped me at traffic lights or parking lots to ask me about it. I also got a chance to test the cargo-friendly fold-flat seats when I took some tables to a festival this past weekend, but I'm really looking forward to utilizing all 7 seats the next time I drive for a youth event at church.

So if you're in the market for a cool, functional vehicle that can carry a large family or a lot of customer computers, take a look at the Ford Flex. Besides getting a great car at a great price, you'll also be helping your local car dealers stay in business during these challenging times, which is good for your local community and your local economy too.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

CT and the Economic Crisis

A popular question I get these days is "So how is the economic crisis affecting Computer Troubleshooters?". Interestingly I get this question mostly from strangers - someone in the elevator who sees the logo on my shirt, for example.

First of all let me share this site from Money Magazine which I think does the best job of summing up how the current financial situation is affecting most Americans. The truth is that despite the gloom and doom in the headlines every day, most Americans are not directly affected by the financial meltdown. True, many retirement funds (including my parent's) have been diminished, and some people are seeing a direct impact on their personal finances: I heard this week from a college-age friend who was laid off from his restaurant job, and from another friend who owns a handyman business and who told me he's seeing less work right now. But most of us are OK.

Like every business I suppose CT is affected by the economic crisis, but not always in the ways you would expect. We've seen isolated incidents of collections problems, mainly with small business clients in the home building or auto sales industries. At least three CT's have had to close because the owner was affected by some poor decisions in the real estate market (these were mostly in southern California and Arizona). But other than that, business appears to be booming for many of us.

Take our small business clients. Even though most small businesses aren't directly affected by the economic situation, there is some anxiety in the marketplace. This may manifest itself in a reluctance to increase expenses, either for large-ticket purchases or for hiring new staff. But for us, as the "IT Department for Small Business" [tm] this just means that those same businesses are more likely to incur higher maintenance costs as they keep older servers & workstations in service longer, and it means they're more interested in looking at ways to work more efficiently with a smaller staff (which is right up our technological alley, so to speak). With all the uncertainty in the market small businesses are also more eager to look for ways to reduce and stabilize their IT budget, which is exactly what our B.E.S.T. managed services program is designed to do. And we've done well in ramping up services this year that small business clients find most helpful during recessionary times - services to help them improve their productivity and their profits through better use of technology such as our new VoIP and Search Engine Marketing services.

We're even taking that one step furthur by expanding our HaaS (Hardware-as-a-Service) offerings this fall. HaaS allows a small business to get the latest & greatest hardware & software, plus a complete Proactive service plan, for one low monthly fee. A typical example would be a small business who gets a a new Dell Small Business Server, four new state-of-the-art workstations, all fully loaded with the latest Microsoft Office, plus our premium data backup package. If purchased up front that could approach $10,000, plus $520/month for our total service package. For a small business worried about conserving capital, that's a lot of money. But in a HaaS offering we could do the whole thing for no money up front and around $800/month. Considering that this includes everything they'll ever spend to cover any normal IT problem (i.e. no surprise bills in the future), that's a bargain -and so far it's proving to be very popular with our small business clients.

As an interesting side note I was talking with one of our funding partners for the HaaS program last week I asked him the same question everyone asks me - "How's the economic situation affecting YOUR business?". Thinking that if it affected anyone I knew, surely it would be affecting a financial guy. But he said it really wasn't - he said that 80% of his funding sources were completely unaffected by the larger financial meltdown, and even for the ones who were it was only a minor blip. Approval rates and interest rates are comparable to what they were a year ago. I guess that's the nice part about working in the world of small business - we're a lot more stable than some other businesses.

There are two other areas besides our core small business clients where CT could be affected: our residential business, and franchise expansion. What we're seeing, both internally and from external news reports, is a "nesting" pattern among our residential customers. This means they're pulling back from external expenses, like expensive vacations or new car purchases or even going to the movies, but they're investing in their home entertainment experiences. And for most residential customers, "home entertainment" is becoming more PC-oriented. In my own living room I've got a PC connected to my HDTV so I can watch shows from hulu.com, and apparently I'm not the only one. Residential customers are spending more on their home technology, and that's good for us in general but especially good for our H.O.S.T. managed services plans - the industry's only managed service plans for home technology.

And franchise recruiting is going well - we've added 5 new US locations in the last 8 weeks, plus locations in Australia, Canada, the UK, and South Africa. During times like these more people feel uncomfortable in the corporate world and look to "take control of their own destiny" through self-employment, so CT benefits from that as well. True some have more trouble getting financing, and those looking to use our 401k conversion program may be less likely to tap into their retirement funds if the funds are 22% lower than they were last month thanks to the stock market pull-back. But we're expanding our internal financing options to compensate, and I expect our growth will continue to improve.

So as strange as it sounds, the economic crisis has been pretty good for Computer Troubleshooters so far. Granted there are always exceptions and not everyone is doing as well as we'd like them to, but overall things are good and improving. This looks like it will be my third recession as a small technology business owner, and so I can tell you from my past experience that there are good things that come from a recession. As a business owner you may find that things like office space and some services are cheaper because of the reduced demand. Gas prices are coming down, which for a business that does a lot of our work at the customer's location is important. And finding good employees, particularly right now if you're looking for salespeople, general administrative help, or level 1 technicians, can be easier and less expensive than it would have been two years ago. It's also a time when some of our weaker competitors (usually the poor-quality, low-price ones) will close down, leaving more potential clients for us.

It's not all doom and gloom, no matter what the headlines say. I know there are people affected by the economy today, including friends of mine. But I believe very strongly that as business owners we have a responsibility to be successful and profitable, so that we can add value to our employees, our clients, and our communities. And everything I see tells me that Computer Troubleshooters is doing very well, and will continue to be successful for the forseeable future.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Innovation

(Our 2008 Solutions Catalog with all our client programs -
ask your local CT for a copy!)

Last year when we started our partnership with Merry Meeting, it gave me a chance to formalize our business plans for the first time really since we got started back in 1999. I copied some of the format of Merry Meeting's business plan and added some touches of our own. The business plan gives us clear strategic objectives, tactical plans, and highlights our Mission and our Values.

When it comes to our Core Values, many are the same as any company should have: start with Integrity & the Golden Rule, build with clear Objectives, commit to Excellence, and earn a Profit. We added two that I feel are critical to this particular business: Innovation, and Balance. Balance is a topic unto itself, but the demand in this business is so strong it's easy to get overworked so it's something to keep front and center in all that we do. Innovation though is what I want to talk about today.

I'm very proud of the Innovation we've done at Computer Troubleshooters over the years. We've been at the cutting edge of our industry in literally hundreds of areas, being the first or one of the first computer service franchises to:
  • expand overseas

  • build a franchisee intranet

  • offer employee hiring & management assistance

  • offer a web design & hosting service and content-managed franchisee websites

  • offer an optional CT call center service

  • create a robust managed services program

  • create a National Account program (and more recently a National Client program) to drive more work to our franchisees

  • create a content-based marketing system with automated marketing portals

This year we've gone even furthur. We start with the premise that our job is to help our small business clients be successful. A big part of that is making sure their computers & technology are running smoothly and are as trouble-free as possible. Beyond that though there are many ways we can help small businesses be more successful through technology, so this year we've added:

  • The ReImage tool. While it doesn't work in every situation, when it works it's a HUGE timesaver for us and for our clients.

  • Search Engine Marketing and Optimization services, in conjunction with ReachLocal and others. Over the last three years we've seen a marked decrease in the effectiveness of traditional advertising (notably Yellow Pages and Newspaper) and a similar increase in the effectiveness of online advertising, particularly with search engines. Our new program not only ensures that our franchisees get the most bang for their online advertising buck, it lets us offer those expert services to our small business clients as well.

  • An Electronic Document Management program. Of all the programs we've rolled out in 2008 this one is probably the most boring, and the most useful. Every business has at least one file cabinet (if not a dozen or more), and many even wind up renting storage space to hold old files for retention purposes. Now we can offer inexpensive systems that let them store all their paper files on one computer database, and access them from any PC on the network (with proper authorization, of course). Saves time, saves money, and just makes good sense for small businesses everywhere.
  • Our IP Telephony program. The telephone world is rapidly shifting from the proprietary PBX systems of the past to the new, feature-rich & low cost VoIP-based systems of the future. We're making sure that Computer Troubleshooters everywhere are in the best position to help our small business clients migrate to the new systems by aligning with the best partners and creating internal support & training options for CT's and their technicians. CTUSA has been running on a Fonality IP-PBX system for years so I can speak from experience - once you get a VoIP system it's hard to imagine going back.

  • "Cloud Computing": The big buzzword this year seems to be "cloud computing" - it's almost (but not quite) what "managed services" was last year. The idea is that some applications are better when run from the web instead of from a local server - and this is more often true with small businesses than it is with larger ones, becuase it's a better value for a small business to pay for a hosted application instead of hiring staff or paying us to support a local server. Hosted Exchange is a great example: an 8-person law firm might want the benefits of Microsoft Exchange, but setting up and supporting an internal Exchange server could be cost prohibitive. Hosted Exchange gives you all the same benefits, but someone else handles all the server management responsibities. The challenge of course is partnering with the right providers, so CT has been busy lining up the best hosted services for our small business clients. So far we've got Hosted Exchange, Sharepoint, email, office, database, CRM, online meeting, and collaboration tool applications, and we're reviewing more. While it's not right for everyone, we're making sure CT's can help their small business clients choose the solution that's right for them.

There are dangers in innovating though. You have to start from a strong foundation, because it's easy to get distracted by the promises of "something new". So taking care of a client's basic hardware, software, networking and services needs has to be the core of what we do, THEN we can look at new options to enhance their business. And not every innovation works out - for example a few years ago I was approached by a company who was going to put an end to spam by making people pay to send legitimate emails. Needless to say that idea never went anywhere, but some other ideas like our CT Software Development service are good solutions but for relatively rare situations (we still operate the CT-SD and they do great work, but most small businesses don't need much custom-written software).

I often tell people that the best part about Computer Troubleshooters is that we have the best R&D department in the world: 500 franchise locations all over the world, all looking for and trying out new solutions every day. The best ones rise to the top and make it into our Solutions Catalog. The rest tend to be discussed and dropped fairly quickly. But by constantly finding new solutions, new vendor partners, and new technologies we're sure that CT will always stay out in front when it comes to effective innovation.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Thank You!

Photo from the IP Telephony Workshop

I'm home - and after 6 days in Cleveland, it's good to sleep in my own bed again. CT Conferences always wear me out - there's so many little things that pop up during the event that need to be handled, and so many people to talk to and workshops to listen to that I feel like I'm running a marathon 24/7 until the end. So today is my traditional post-conference recuperation day.

I do want to thank a LOT of people who worked hard to make this year's conference so successful:

  • To Kroll OnTrack, NTR Global, and all 40 of our other sponsors - THANKS for making our event as special as it was. Your participation and special CT offerings were a huge part of the conference this year, and we all appreciate our partnerships with you.

  • To Jim Greenfield (CT-Manhattan), Alan from Adtran, Mike from Fonality and Mike from CommPartners - THANKS for making our "IP Telephony 101" workshop such a smashing success.

  • To Randy from Cabinet NG - I think we're all going to be looking at electronic document management options for our clients now thanks to your workshop - thank you for being part of our event.

  • To Crystal & Stuart from ReachLocal and Nipa from Jenesys Group - I think your presentations will have the most tangible benefit to our small business clients and to our own websites, and we're looking forward to our national deals with both of you - THANKS.

  • To Marsha from EMSI - your PR 101 workshop was the "crossover" hit of the conference, attracting franchisees from all our sister-brands as well. And your performance during the "CT Idol" event was spot-on perfect, and a great highlight for day 2 of the event - thank you.

  • To Matt Makowicz from Ambition Mission - thanks for not one but TWO workshops on Selling Managed Services, and for the bootcamp & book deals. Several CT's told me your workshops were their favorite session of the conference, and I heard the bootcamp 'prize' definitely made Friday night's poker game more interesting - thank you.

  • To the eight CT's (Bill, Brian, Jim, Roy, Rob, Jay, Marcus, & Chris) who were brave enough to talk about their business strategies, successes, and challenges during the BEST roundtable and the Successful CT roundtable - THANKS. Many people - including me - always find these sessions to be the most valuable because it's "real" experience, not just theory. Thank You.

  • To the six CT's (Mary Ellen, Charles, John, David, Marcus, & Raine) who bravely entertained and educated us all during the "CT Idol" competition - thank you. Congratulations to Charles for winning the event, and special thanks to John for teaching us all that bribery doesn't pay. :)

  • To Ramsey from MSP On Demand, John from 19Marketplace, Crystal from ReachLocal, Jamie from MSPSN, Rob from Microsoft, Mike from Zenith, and especially to Brian for filling in for SecureMyCompany - THANKS for making our Recurring Revenue workshop a smashing success.

  • To Mort from Meraki and the guys from DattoBackup - I think you're tied for the most innovative new products we saw this year. And to Patrick from DRG and Mitch from DrBackup - I think you're tied for most reliable conference sponsors. We appreciate you all being part of our event - thank you.
Thanks also to my staff, Fayola, Chris, Audrey & Glenn, for excellent work this weekend, and thanks to all our partners at MerryMeeting for organizing a great event. And thanks to Corey from CT-Independence for getting our own routers setup so we didn't have to pay the crazy hotel internet rates!

And special thanks has to go to Allyn Davies, who worked tirelessly to organize everything. Putting together a normal CT conference is never easy, but I can't imagine putting together combined conferences for five different MerryMeeting brands - I think at one point we were using 10 different meeting rooms simultaneously, with multiple lunches & breaks & speakers & social events & the walk for charity.... I can't imagine putting all that together, but it all worked out really well. THANK YOU.

Next year we're just starting to make plans but we're looking at a late April / early May date - mark your calendars! If you're a CT or a CT vendor, look out for some surveys coming out soon to solicit your input on content & formats for next year's event.

Thanks,
Chip

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Cleveland Rocks!


We're about halfway through the main part of the Computer Troubleshooters North American conference here in Cleveland tonight, and so far it's been an excellent event. This is the first time we've combined conferences with the other MerryMeeting brands, and even though we don't see them much (all but one of our sessions is CT-specific) it's made for a much larger, more energetic event than we've had in a while.

I think though that there's something else different about this conference. Mark Mitchell, owner of Computer Troubleshooters Lansing, said something yesterday that really seemed to sum it up - he said "Two years ago everyone would have been discussing the best way to defrag a customer's hard drive during a tune-up. Today everyone's talking about the right technology solutions for their small busines customers." And it's true - almost everything this week has been about finding the right technology to help our small business customers improve their organizations through technology. Whether it's finding new ways to customize our BEST (managed services) programs to meet a customer's needs, or whether it's exploring new opportunities in backup, IP Telephony (VoIP), or Search Engine Marketing, everyone this year is enthusiastically taking on the role of IT consultant rather than computer fix-it guy, and that's a good thing.

Technically the conference is going into it's fifth day tomorrow, but the first two days were just training three new franchisees (San Diego, Phoenix, Colorado Springs) so that's not technically part of the conference proper. The real conference began on Thursday with our Regional Directors day, where we analyzed data from successful and less successful franchisees around the system to come up with better ways to coach and support them. My favorite from this day is that our RD's are going to restructure one of their monthly training sessions so that they're functional instead of geographic - this means that every CT in the US & Canada will have TEN different training courses they can take every month (and that get recorded to store in our archives), and three coaching & support calls.

Today was the first day of the main conference, and we wound up with about 90 attendees from CT plus 250 from the other brands. We also had an awesome vendor turnout with over 20 great vendor partners here to update us on (or introduce us to) their products and any CT special deals they have with us. We started the day with a keynote from Sam Tyler, a PBS documentary filmmaker who has interviewed business motivation legends like Tom Peters, Stephen Covey, Jim Collins, and most recently worked on a film about Lance Armstrong. He shared his analysis of what we can learn from each of them, along with some very motivational video clips.

Then we got into our CT sessions with an opening presentation followed by our (extended) BEST roundtable. Four Computer Troubleshooters who are among our top managed services oriented locations talked about their businesses and offered advice and insight to the rest of us in a 90 minute Q&A session. (Big thank-you to Brian, Bill, Roy, & Jim for teaching us!)

Following a lunch break we watched Sam Tyler's video on Lance Armstrong (excellent), then the CT's chose one of two tracks: either a Selling Managed Services workshop with Matt Makowicz (author of books on Selling and Marketing managed services and a fantastic sales traininer), OR an IP Telephony workshop featuring gurus from CommPartners, Fonality, and Adtran, and lead by our own VoIP guru Jim Greenfield (Computer Troubleshooters NY Metro). I got to sit in on both sessions - both were amazing. (We also had a "Women in Business" session midway through the afternoon - I did not sit in on that one, for obvious reasons).

The day ended with a combination local beer tasting & vendor expo, which for any conference planners out there I have to say this is something everyone should do because it gives the attendees a reason to spend a lot of time talking with the vendors in a very comfortable atmosphere. We followed that up with our CT awards dinner, which went well even though we had some technical glitches with the awards themselves and some were missing! We'll fix that. It was impressive as always to hand out the 5-year award pins to the CT's who've been growing their businesses since 2003 (or longer if they didn't pick up their pins at last year's conference). Next month will be even more interesting as I hand out our first-ever TEN year award pins at the Australian conference - it's amazing to think that four of us will have been in business for a decade now!

(And I won't mention the after-hours poker game that I'm completely unaware of, but congratulations Tomás for winning the Matt Makowicz managed services boot camp prize!)

I'm really pumped up about the new energy in our group this weekend. It's easy to see why we're the world's best computer service / technology solutions franchise!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Almost a Mac Guy

It's been two weeks now so I guess it's official - I'm now a regular Mac user. I realize that by announcing this I'm risking all my true techie credibility, but I'm convinced it was the right choice.

A few months ago I knew I'd be trading in my trusty Compaq for something faster & cleaner, so I started reviewing the options available. I'm a very picky computer user, and I have very specific needs:
  • I keep archives of all my past emails (you'd be surprised how often this is helpful), which means over 20GB of Outlook PST files. Besides needing a ton of storage space, speed & memory is a handy thing (even though I don't have all these files open at once), and naturally I need Microsoft Outlook.
  • I also like to keep a local copy of our FTP server, so I can grab any past marketing document when someone asks for it, so that's another 40GB of space needed.
  • I travel alot, so lightweight is helpful, but strength is good too - I don't need something that's going to break down on me when I'm halfway around the world on a 3-week Computer Troubleshooters road trip.
  • Battery life and easy access to spare batteries and power cables is also a must-have when I'm on the road.
Besides those I need the usual features: multi-core, 802.11g, bluetooth, lots of USB & Firewire ports, an SD slot, good screen, etc. So I started looking a newer Compaq's, Dells, Lenovos, Sonys, and Toshibas - the usual suspects.

I became
intrigued with Macs though for three reasons. First, I read this article from PCWorld magazine last October which showed that the fastest Windows notebook they tested was - a Mac! A Macbook Pro to be specific. Since the introduction of Apple's OSX and Bootcamp it's become easy for anyone to run Windows on a Macintosh, and the advantage of Mac's "closed design" is that the hardware tends to work much better together typical Windows-based PC's. The combination means that a modern Mac can do a really good job of being a Windows machine now.

Second, when I was up in NY earlier this year visiting my friend Jeff Leventhal (founder of OnForce.com), I noticed that he was using a Macbook Pro for his primary computer too. If Jeff, who is one of the smartest people I know and very much a "techie" can use a Mac, I started to think that maybe it's OK for the rest of us.

But the final push for Mac came when I started working on the CT operating plans for 2009 and beyond. Three trends are factoring heavily into our projections for business in the future: "Cloud Computing" / Web 2.0, Virtualization, and the resurgence of the Mac. As we move more towards a "cloud computing" environment where applications are mostly or entirely web-based (i.e. Google Apps, Salesforce.com, etc) the local Operating System becomes less and less important. Virtualization is revolutionizing the server side of our business but desktop virtualization programs like Parallels and VMWare Fusion let Macintosh computers run Windows (or Linux) side-by-side with the Mac OS. And with Macs becoming more popular (more and more CT locations are starting to service Apples) I just wanted to see what all the fuss is about.

So I took the plunge last month - I bought a slightly used Macbook Pro on Ebay (I didn't want to spend too much on it since I wasn't sure if it would work for me or not), added memory and a larger hard drive (the latter being much more difficult than on a PC), and added VMWare Fusion. What I've found is that my Windows apps work just as well (actually better) than they did on my older Compaq, but the little things that Mac does so well are making things much more efficient and pleasant for me. For example, when I go to the office the first thing I do is plug in my 2nd monitor. On my old PC this would involve taking a minute or two to go into the Windows display settings and setup the resolutions for both screens, and before leaving I'd have to make sure I didn't have any apps open on the 2nd monitor before I hibernated the PC or else they could be tricky to find again when the PC woke up in single-screen mode. With the Mac, I just plug in the screen, and the system automatically activates the screen at an appropriate resolution. If I unplug it any windows that were open on the 2nd screen automatically move to the first screen - with no work on my part. It all takes just seconds, and works so well it's amazing I put up with doing things the old way for so long.

Other little things that I really like: the magnetic power cord is really amazing. It saves me probably 4 or 5 seconds every time I plug in, which doesn't sound like alot but it adds up. I like the fact that the Mac knows if I have external speakers plugged in or not, so it remembers what volume I left it on for the speakers versus using the internal ones. The double-finger scroll is amazingly useful too. And the overall interface - including the Dock and Expose', are much easier and faster than the Windows OS.

And although it's not strictly a Mac thing, there are some amazing features in VMWare Fusion's new beta. For example, when I'm in Windows and access the "My Documents" folder, it's really accessing the "Documents" folder on the Mac partition. This is amazingly helpful since the two OS'es don't easily see each others' files, and it does the same thing for the Desktop. It also manages sharing drives, DVD's, USB ports, and bluetooth connections for both operating systems.

However there are some things that Windows does better. I still haven't figured out how to do the equivalent of ctrl-selecting multiple files in the Mac Finder, for example. And I like Napster's music library interface better than iTunes. Also it's much easier to fix things in Windows, or to use utilities like FTP on the Windows side of things. And since Microsoft discontinued the Mac version of Outlook a few
years back I'm forced to keep using my Windows version of the app to keep up with all my files. The MacbookPro keyboard is also not as easy to type on as my previous Compaqs and Dells.

Still overall I like the Mac better, and I can see myself migrating more and more to a Mac-only environment in the future. However, as Doug Smith (CT - Newton County, GA) keeps pointing out, the 'newness' hasn't worn off yet so maybe I'll feel differently in a few weeks.


So what about you - is there a Mac in your future?
Screenshots: (top) my Mac desktop including Outlook running in a VMWare Fusion virtual environment.
(bottom) the same desktop "exploded" by clicking on Expose' to show all windows.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Remote Tech Support

CT is featured in this article about Remote Tech Support services from Processor.com.

Reimagining Computer Repair

Computer Troubleshooters has always been on the cutting edge of new improvements in our industry, and one recent example is our early support for a new tool called Reimage. When we first got introduced to the Reimage team back in early 2007 I thought they had a GREAT idea for a tool that could revolutionize the computer repair industry. I also thought they'd never be able to built it into an actual product.

But, lo and behold they did, and Reimage became an official part of our Preferred Vendor program this summer. A recent article in an Israeli newspaper highlights the benefits Reimage brings to Computer Troubleshooters and especially to our clients, by reducing repair times considerably in some common situations that used to be very difficult and time-consuming.

You can find the article here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Life after Managed Services

Many Computer Troubleshooters have heard me tell the story about how, when I first got into this business almost 20 years ago, everyone used to think my business was destined to be a huge success. And I would disagree, becuase (as I often told them) most of my work was in helping small businesses install and troubleshoot hardware and software, and since hardware and software were getting easier to install and more reliable I probably wouldn't have a business for long. I usually predicted 5 years, which since I got started in 1989 probably means I would have closed somewhere around 1994.

Fortunately, everyone else was right and I was wrong. What I didn't realize then was that no matter how much technology changes, businesses still need someone to be their liaison to the world of IT. Originally it was installing and troubleshooting, later it was networking, then setting up internet & email & websites, then defending from spam & spyware & viruses. Today the popular trend is so-called "managed services", which is sill the hottest buzzword in the IT press. Managed services is so hot that an entire industry has sprung up around it: companies like
Mobilize SMB and MSPU help independent companies learn how to structure managed services plans, Robin Robins will help you market them, Matt Makowicz will help you sell them, Ingram Micro will help you with the software. And when Dell got involved by buying Silverback last year, the industry got a little nervous wondering if big companies might start to push us little guys out of business. In fact there's so much news on managed services that I've set www.mspmentor.net as my home page just to keep up with it all!

So the biggest managed services news lately has been the prediction by Akash Saraf, the CEO of Zenith Infotech (one of the largest providers of managed services tools & infrastructure and a very popular vendor partner of Computer Troubleshooters) that managed services has a limited lifespan. Akash is considered extremely prescient in the IT community, and has made some truly brilliant moves in the way he's developed Zenith's product offerings and especially it's revolutionary BDR device (which btw is EXTREMELY popular with CT's small business clients). So when so much of the SMB IT industry considers "managed services" as the way of the future, it's remarkable when someone of Akash's stature reminds us of the truest maxim in all of IT: things change.

It shouldn't be a surprise really. Looking back on our business it seems that if you pick any 5-year period our business in the 5th year is very different than our business in the 1st year. And things that are bleeding-edge today will be tomorrow's bread & butter. We've been hearing about cloud computing and virtual environments for years now, and we're finally at the stage where some companies like ExternalIT are offering legitimate hosted desktop/server environments using traditional Microsoft Windows & Office environments. We're also seeing some organizations, especially in the developing world, choose to build their entire IT infrastructures around hosted environments like Google Apps or SugarCRM.

If the whole premise of "managed services" is to help clients better manage their IT infrastructure, how does that happen when there isn't a local IT infrastructure anymore? That's the point that Akash and others are raising.

Not to worry. When CT launched our BEST program back in 2006 (our flavor of "managed services"), we future-proofed it by incorporating a concept we call "enhanced vendors". These are technologies that can help our small business clients take their businesses to the next level, and this year we've really been ramping up our training for those technologies. IP Telephony, Document Management, CRM solutions, and Search Engine Marketing are just some examples of the "enhanced vendor" programs we've been developing.

But I'm also reminded of the Gartner study in late 2005 which warned that service providers who didn't adopt a managed services model by 2007 would be out of business. Much of our industry is still using the older break/fix model but is still in business, although there are certainly many indications (inside and outside of CT) that those who are focusing on managed services are seeing higher revenues and lower workloads).

IT will always change - that's inevitable. But as long as small businesses depend on technology, Computer Troubleshooter's role is to be the ones helping our clients make the most effective and efficient use of their technology. Or as one CT put it this week, "to be the glue between the service and the serviced". For the next few years that means saving our clients money & frustration through managed services. After that it'll be supporting hosted environments and coordinating enhanced vendors. And after that? We'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chip on Dr Pat

Recently I was interviewed on the "Dr Pat" radio show, here's an MP3 version of the show (click on the picture):

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Small Business Advocate

This week I was honored to be a guest on Jim Blasingame's Small Business Advocate radio program (See http://www.jbsba.com/ for more info about Jim, and some good links to small business resources).

Here's a link to the recording itself:

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Dates to Remember

If you're considering joining the world's best computer franchise, now is a GREAT time to do it, and we've got three events for potential CT's where we'll explain why:
  • Prospect Webinar, July 10, 7pm eastern
  • Prospect Webinar (draft), July 3, 5pm eastern*
  • Discovery Day, Atlanta Offices, August 2nd, 9am

We're especially interested in recruiting people with existing IT businesses, with strong technical skills, and/or with a sales background (with or without IT skills), so if any of these describe you, please do contact Chip (chip@comptroub.com) or Glenn (gcox@comptroub.com) for information about current incentives and how to participate in these upcoming events.

My Vacation Pictures (St Louis 2008)

I don't often (or ever) share my vacation photos in public, but I did want to share these becuase while I was away last week I had the unusual opportunity to include another CT in my vacation.

Every year since 2001 I've chaperoned a group of youth from my church on their annual mission trip. This year we went to St Louis, Missouri and the work we were doing was helping an organization called Metro Homeless Center which provides an emergency shelter, transitional housing, and some limited social services and food supplies to homeless women in the St Louis area. The first day we worked on cleaning up a basement and organizing supplies, painting walls, and clearing out store rooms. But I heard one of the shelter staff say something about "the computers" so I told her I was a computer tech if they needed help with any of that.

It turns out they had been trying to build a tech center to teach computer skills to their clients and to give them better resources to use to look for work, apartments, etc. They had acquired some donated PCs but they were being stored at a staff person's home because the room they wanted to use was full of junk and they had no funds to wire the room or setup the computers. They showed me the room, and I told them we could make it work. But being without things like cable testers & crimpers and all the usual comforts of my home work bench, I was a little stuck. So I called the nearest CT, Rick Cohen (Computer Troubleshooters of Clayton, just a few miles away).

Not only did Rick agree to let me borrow his tools, he let me borrow himself as he donated a full day's work to help us get the center setup. Besides being just a generally great thing to do for the community, we're hoping that the shelter will become a regular customer for Rick as well, since a very similar shelter here close to me has been a customer of mine for years. And I found out that one of our youth (we had 15 kids with us from ages 12 to 18) told her mom that her favorite part of the mission trip was when Rick taught her how to crimp RJ45 connectors. (seriously)

It was a great week for me, and made all the more so by being able to share it with another CT. Thanks Rick!

-Chip


P.S. one of the pics is Rick with some of the youth while the room was still a work in progress, the other is Rick's photo when he came back and finished the room. Note that I could only get 7 of 12 computers working, which is why I'm not a tech anymore.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

CT in CostCo Almanac!


For those of you with CostCo's near you, pick up a copy of the 2008 Costco Almanac at your local store and check out the computer tips from CT on page 30.

For those of you without a nearby Costco, or who are too cheap to buy your own copy, check it out online here: http://www.costcoconnection.com/connection/2008almanac/

Monday, May 5, 2008

More CT on TV

CT has been featured on several more TV segments recently, including Fox morning news shows in Philly and Detroit (Detroit's video is here: http://www.myfoxdetroit.com/myfox/MyFox/pages/sidebar_video.jsp?contentId=6463026&version=1&locale=EN-US).



This was a fun segment to shoot - Jill Bennett and BusinessWeek wanted to do the shoot at a customer's location but in Manhattan near their studios. Fortunately Jim Greenfield in our NYC offices suggested his customer Steve Carroll, and their 5th avenue apartment was a perfect location. Steve was also very generous and agreed to be on camera too, which worked well.

We also owe a special "Thank You" to our partners at ReImage who gave us the "dirty" PC we used in the segment. Reimage has developed a tool which lets us restore a damaged or infected Windows XP system to a clean, useable state in just a few minutes, and so they've built up a "library" of bad system images which came in handy. Otherwise I wasn't sure what to do when the producers asked us if we could "show a computer virus" on camera!

Chip

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Profits in Kuwait

Our partners Gulf Franchising Corporation posted a profit for Q1, thanks in part to improvements in their Computer Troubleshooters operations in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Dubai.
http://www.arabtimesonline.com/kuwaitnews/pagesdetails.asp?nid=15907&ccid=12

Friday, April 18, 2008

My first TV

This week was interesting for me as I did my first three TV interviews, all in Cleveland. Our National Marketing Council (an elected group of CT franchisees) did a good job hiring a PR company this year, and so after several weeks of print & radio promotion we're now moving into the TV phase of the campaign, and I think it's off to a good start.

First up I did the "That's Life" show with Robin Swoboda on WJW (Fox, channel 8). What a fun way to get started! Robin and her crew are a real hoot, and their idea to smash a computer with a baseball bat, plus the great on-screen graphics, really made it a fun segment to do. You can see it by clicking the "Video" link on this page.

Next up I was welcomed on News Channel 5 at Noon on WEWS (ABC). Paul Kiska interviewed me, and the whole staff was extremely friendly and very well organized. I don't have a video link for this one yet, but I'll add it when I do.

Finally I ended my Cleveland trip with the team at "Good Company" on WKYC (NBC), where I had the honor of being interviewed by Cleveland TV legend Fred Griffith. (See the video here.). Interestingly Fred and I had a chance to chat a bit before the segment, and he'd just recently had spyware problems on his own computers (which he and his wife use to write their popular cookbooks).

Speaking of media legends I should also mention that I was interviewed on The Wills & Snyder Morning Show on WTAM radio (AM 1100) by Bill Wills. I'll post an MP3 of that interview soon too.

All in all I really enjoyed my time in Cleveland this week, and I'd like to especially thank the media folks who made the trip so easy for me. Hopefully we were able to share some information and have a little fun too. But the important part (for me anyway) is that our CT locations in northeast Ohio got some extra exposure and quite a few phone calls from new clients too. Next week: New York!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The next 30 days

The next 30 days are set to be really busy and really exciting for Computer Troubleshooters, as you can probably tell from this email I just sent around the USA group:

Hi folks,

The next 30 days should be pretty exciting for CT. Between now and the middle of May, we will:

1) Be featured on BusinessWeek TV! (tentative April 26 or 27, check your local listings or their website for your local air time). This is pretty good national TV exposure for us.
2) Be featured on local TV news shows in Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Austin
3) Be featured on the national radio program "This Week in America with Ric Bratton" (http://www.talkzone.com/show.asp?sid=528#MoreDetailedDescription)
4) Be interviewed locally on radio stations in Cleveland (WTAM), New Jersey (WNJC), Florida (WWBA), Pennsylvania (WXTU & WOGL), Texas (KLGO), and more.
5) Be in CostCo's customer magazine (in May, we think)
6) Be in Home Business Owners magazine (also in May we think)
7) Be ranked in Entrepreneur's Top Home-Based Franchises issue (and later on in their Top Low Cost Franchises issue)
8) Begin our 2nd print publicity campaign (working on topics now)
9) Enjoy an excellent CT mini-conference at the Philly-based Mid-Atlantic Conference (the only CT conference by franchisees for franchisees)
10) Finish collecting your annual reports (thanks to everyone who's submitted thus far) and begin releasing the results.
11) Supposedly launch a new direct mail portal site (there is some question about this now because of possible vendor issues)
12) Release a newly updated ENGAGE marketing manual
13) Release the first draft of the new RD manual (to RD's)
14) Launch the revised version of BEST Basic, and the first official version of HOST
15) Announce more sponsors and topics for the big conference in Cleveland, Sept 4-6 (already announced: Dell is a Gold sponsor, and Matt Makowicz is doing a 3-hour managed services sales workshop)

The publicity push detailed above is thanks to your elected National Marketing Council - they did a great job in reviewing and choosing a good PR company for us to work with. The next step for the NAF is reviewing and choosing the SEO company who will overhaul our national and local website templates -this has been slightly delayed because we have a possible partnership with a major national SEO franchise in the works which, if successful, will not only help us improve our websites but also give us an international network of extra salespeople promoting our services. Watch for announcements about that in hopefully the near future.

If you live in any of the cities where our radio interviews are taking place, and are able to record them, please send me a copy. Likewise with the TV interviews - these should be saved for future promotional use if we can get decent copies.

Next week I hope to see a lot of you in Philly at the mid-Atlantic conference!
As always, Fayola, Chris, myself, Audrey, and Glenn are always here to assist you if needed.

Regards,
Chip

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Our TechRepublican CT

Erik Eckel, owner of CT-Louisville in Kentucky and occasional correspondent for TechRepublic.com, recently released an online TechRepublic Photo Gallery on "How To Setup Your Own Mobile Office". It's some great info on how Erik has setup his mobile office in his Computer Troubleshooters vehicle.

SMBNation

I really enjoyed this past weekend's SMBNation East conference (see www.smbnation.com). Harry Brelsford always creates an enjoyable and productive event, and each one is unique. This year the agenda was skewed towards longer, more detailed presentations ("deep dives"), which is a popular request we hear too so I expect our annual conference in September will be similar.

From a Computer Troubleshooters perspective it was productive both because we met a lot of independent SMB IT business owners who we think would make excellent additions to the CT family, and also becuase we built relationships with a good number of high quality vendors who were in attendance. Some are already in our Preferred Vendor program, like Autotask, AVG, Acronis, etc, and some are going through the review process now (Google, HP, Kaseya). We also met some brand new potential partners, including Matt Makowicz who authored the new book "A Guide to Selling Managed Services".

I also had the opportunity to meet and "talk shop" with the CEO of CMIT, and two franchisees from Expetec (both are "friendly competitors" to CT). All very nice guys, and (unlike a few bad apples in our industry) all seem to be committed to taking care of the customer while building a successful business for themselves along the way.

Thanks to Chris Radak (CTUSA) and Randy Crainin (CT-Freehold) for helping me out at the show, and a very special THANKS to Harry Brelsford for inviting us to a wonderful event.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Australian Financial Review

As I'm heading out the door for this weekend's SMBNation event in New Jersey, I heard about an article in the Australian Financial Review which mentioned CT. Here's a link:
http://www.afr.com/home/viewer.aspx?EDP://20080325000020460578&magsection=weekly-enterprise&title=Professional+geeks%2c+sensibly+priced&source=/_xmlfeeds/enterprise/feed.xml

Also I noticed our Aussie cousins are doing a better job keeping their website updated than we are - you can check it out at http://www.comptroub.com.au/html/home.

-Chip

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Upcoming Opportunities to Learn about CT

Our excellent publicity team keeps on rolling - here are some upcoming opportunities to hear more about what Computer Troubleshooters can do for you:

Radio interviews:
WBT-AM 1110, Charlotte, NC, 3/23/2008 at 7:50am
WWBA-AM 1040, Tampa, FL, 4/26/08 (airs during the following week)
"This Week in America" (syndicated to 100 stations), 4/12 to 4/20

TV interviews:
WJW (Fox), Cleveland : April 16 during "That's Life"
WKYC (NBC), Cleveland: April 17 during "Good Company"
WJBK (Fox), Detroit: May 5 during "Fox 2 News Morning"

Online:
TFM blog: http://todaysfacilitymanager.com/facilityblog/2008/03/seven-steps-to-healthy-computer.html
Florida Weekly: http://www.floridaweekly.com/news/2008/0221/Top_News/010.html

In Person:
SMB Nation East conference: www.smbnation.com (March 29 & 30)

Monday, March 17, 2008

New Zealand

New Zealand was the second country Computer Troubleshooters ever operated in (beating the USA by a couple of months), and as such the CT-NZ team has always been very proud of their place in the CT family, and rightfully so. This was my first time ever attending a CT-NZ Conference, so I was looking forward to it.

The conference this year was in Christchurch, a nice, friendly city on the south island of New Zealand. I loved the downtown area - very walkable, lots of shops and restaurants and gathering areas, and very scenic too. Lots of local ads offer all sorts of day trips outside the city, whether you're looking for wine tasting or hiking or skiiing - there's plenty of opportunities. Tourism is obviously a huge industry here, and I can see why - it's a great place for a vacation.

And a great place for a conference. About 30 people attended the CT conference, hosted by our NZ National Director Dave Mudford:

(Here Dave explains his theories on time travel)

Like the conference that started my trip in South Africa, much of the focus here was on ways to work smarter and provide better support for our clients - namely through B.E.S.T., which came up in several sessions. We also had some great vendors participating in the event, including our global partners AVG, OnTrack, and Microsoft.


One of the more interesting parts of the conference was a new competition between Australia and New Zealand, christened the Trans-Tasman Cup. The competition this year was the best 10-minute sales pitch for BEST, and featured two very tough competitors. Representing the "home team" was Dennis Jones (CT-Hamilton North), who did a presentation based on the cost savings a typical small business customer would see by implementing a BEST plan. It was very compelling! But representing the "visitors" was Sonia Cuff, who was one of six Aussies to attend the conference. Sonia used a unique and creative detective story, "on the prowl to find the culprit robbing small business owners of their time and productivity". Very brilliant, very creative presentation, so you'll notice Sonia's husband Tony holding the Trans-Tasman Cup in the group photo below:

All in all I had a great time in Christchurch, and it was a great way to wrap up my 3-week round the world CT tour. I've had a great time and met some great people, but now it's time to start the 22-hour trip home to my own bed, my own shower, and a fresh change of clothes!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Meanwhile, Back at Home

It's an odd feeling to be thousands of miles from home and hear about serious problems in your city on the news. Atlanta has had some very unusual tornados and storms over the last 24 hours, which has caused extensive damage in the downtown area. Hotels, office buildings, and two stadiums (stadia?) are apparently in pretty bad shape, at least one smaller building has collapsed, and a state of emergency has been declared for the downtown and Cabbagetown areas. A small number of people are dead but thankfully the injuries overall are small considering the damage involved.

I called my brother to make sure they're all OK, and apart from spending some time in their basement as the tornadoes come through they're all fine. The weather report right now looks like the worst is over, which is good news for me since I hope to be landing at the Atlanta airport in about 48 hours.

For more storm news and photos see www.ajc.com.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Australia

Well, after visiting one of the newest CT countries (Malaysia), I traveled to the ancestral home of Computer Troubleshooters - Australia. My plans (which went awry) was to have an 8-hour stopover in Sydney to have lunch with my original business partners and dear friends, Wilson & Suzanne McOrist. Wilson & Suzanne are the founders of CT, and up until a few weeks ago they ran the global company while I handled operational support, program development, and the USA operations. At the end of January, after a lot of planning, Wilson & Suzanne decided the time was right to step down so we arranged a transaction where they essentially sold their shares to MerryMeeting (our partners here in the US) and my job changed to "Global CEO".

So I was looking forward to catching up with my friends and finding out how their "retirement" is going. Unfortunately I was so focused on the meeting that I neglected some important things - like verifying where my luggage was going, or confirming my next flight. This would cause problems later on!

But I arrived at Sydney's international terminal, took the bus to the domestic terminal, and found the McOrist's sitting an airport cafe'. We took a taxi to Coogi Beach and enjoyed a nice chat in the sun followed by lunch at a beach cafe. All very nice. Later we took another taxi to visit Steve Paino, the Regional Director for New South Wales and the oldest CT in Australia. Here's a photo of the five of us (including Steve's wife Lorraine) in Steve's retail shop:

Steve has a nice, highly visible shop for handling computer service requests in Botany (his territory). Its' on the corner of two main streets, and the green & orange CT logo stands out well.

Afterwards I spent some time with Wilson & Suzanne at the airport before they left on a 3:30 flight back home (they live in Coffs Harbour, a vacation spot in between Sydney and Brisbane). I sat around waiting on what I thought was a 10pm flight to Christchurch, New Zealand. However, long story short, it turns out my flight ARRIVED in Christchurch at 10pm, it actually DEPARTED Sydney at 5pm, which is about an hour before I actually bothered to check on the flight. So I realized I'd be spending an unexpected night in Australia!


The problem with unexpected overnight stays is finding accomodation. And it doesn't help that I'm a pretty cheap guy - until this cropped up I was proud of the fact that my 21-day, 7-country trip was going to cost less than $7000 total (mostly for the airfare). So after some internet research (because the airport hotels were more than I wanted to pay, or were full) I found a lovely run-down motel in Blakehurst for only $80/night. Plus $25 for the taxi ride out there. Plus whatever medications I'll need later on for whatever diseases I'm sure I caught from the lovely lopsided motel bed. Seriously, this place was bad - the TV got 7 channels of static, several light fixtures were missing, and there were many mysterious stains around the room in all sorts of intriguing colors and shapes. I didn't sleep well. BUT I've been in worse places, and I did meet some interesting people. One gentleman who was checking in behind me offered to give me a ride to the airport the next morning, which I accepted. Turns out he was driving a 23-seat bus, so there was no shortage of space. He and his wife do tours for visiting university students in Australia and New Zealand, and he'd just dropped off a group (along with his wife) that day so they could travel on to NZ. Very nice guy - we had a nice chat on the way to the airport at 6am, and it saved me $25 in taxi fare!

(my motel room was equipped with state-of-the-art 1974 technology,
including this handy bank of switches next to the bed, for switching on and off
some of the working lights, the TV with no reception, or the leaky air conditioner).

The benefit to my overnight detour is that I wound up on the same flight as Australia's CT Director, Nick Roche. Nick's a great guy, and so we were able to talk some business on the flight and share a taxi once we arrived in Christchurch.


The exciting thing for me though is that Christchurch is my last stop before I head home. Three weeks on the road is starting to wear on me a bit, and I admit I'm looking forward more and more to my own bed and a better selection of clothes!

Next Stop: Christchurch!

InsiderPages

John Goodman, our CT in Princeton, NJ recently received a great review on Insider Pages:
http://www.insiderpages.com/b/15240155154?notification=1

Great job John!

Chip

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Malaysia!

(That's Yio on my right, Gerald on my left, and a very jetlagged me in the orange shirt)
Country number 5 on my trip is also one of Computer Troubleshooter's newest. Yio Lim Han and Gerald Oo converted their existing IT services business less than six months ago when they took over as our Master Franchise for Malaysia (operating in Kuala Lumpur), and they've recently been joined by Patrick Chan & Anthony Lim (operating in Petaling Jaya). Already the Malaysia CT team is making great progress, especially with B.E.S.T. (our managed services program).

BEST has been a common theme in my travels. South Africa is just launching their managed services initiative, building their BEST program along with a local remote monitoring company. Egypt is still mostly selling non-managed service plans (our CAP and VIP plans), but is looking at applying some BEST principles (mostly just remote monitoring and support) to improve profits and service. India is looking at combining BEST managed services with IT staffing to create a new managed staffing business model. But here in Malaysia, CT is finding that the BEST works just as designed.

Like Egypt & India though Malaysia has to work around some economic challenges. Because the typical income in Malaysia is lower than in the US, some things like hardware & software are proportionately more expensive than they are elsewhere. To help their customers CT-Malaysia implements a lot of thin-client solutions, where multiple users share the use of one PC. This reduces hardware expenditures and some software costs, although some software manufacturers require multiple licenses in thin-client situations so the savings is not always huge.

I had less than two days in Malaysia, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I arrived at 7am on Monday, where Yio & Gerald were kind enough to pick me up (KL's airport is over an hour outside the city itself). We had a quick breakfast then went straight to their offices to meet their staff and discuss plans. CT-Malaysia has been the first to adapt a new business plan format we introduced recently for local use, so we spent some time discussing that. Later Patrick Chan arrived and we went out to a local restaurant for lunch ("enjoying" a thick Malaysian rainshower along the way).

After lunch they dropped me at my hotel: The Prince Hotel & Residences. Best hotel I've stayed in on this trip, thanks in part to the very low cost of living in Malaysia. It's a 4-star hotel but was still one of the least expensive on my trip (I paid around $120 for my one night there). You just can't beat this view:

That's of course the famous Petronas twin towers in the center. The tower to the right is the Maxxis (local cell phone company) tower, which was helpful since it has a giant digital clock at the top. At night it was very easy for me to tell the time just by glancing out the window!
Monday night Yio, Gerald, Patrick and I ate dinner at a restaurant called Top Hat, which is also one of Gerald's clients. Great food, and great company. Afterwards we tried to go to KL tower, but it was late and the observation deck was closed, so we went to a bazaar in chinatown instead. It turns out Gerald is a fearsome negotiator when it comes to getting bargains! I purchased a famous-name watch (clearly counterfeit based on the price, but you couldn't tell by looking at it) as a souvenier. It was listed at $988 RM (Rinngit Malaysian, or about $320 US). The vendor offered it for 120RM, which seemed like a good deal to me. Gerald insisted 25 was a fair price. After considerable haggling we got the watch for 70RM (about $20), which Gerald insisted still left the vendor with a good profit. We did some similar bargaining for a few more souveniers, then we said our goodbyes and called it a night.
Tuesday I needed to catch up on some work, so I spent the morning doing that, then checked out of the hotel at noon. I got a much-needed haircut, then set out to walk around and maybe do some more shopping. I really wanted to get a nice shirt - for some reason I like to buy clothes as souveniers, since they'll be more use to me than just some trinket sitting on a shelf, so I have shirts from Las Vegas and Cairo, and a sportcoat from Bucharest. I figured adding a shirt from Kuala Lumpur would be a nice addition, plus it's as good a reason as any to walk around the city.
KL is a gorgeous city - clean, lush, modern, and safe. "Tehksi"s can take you almost anywhere for about $5US, but I prefer to walk. Having been told the Petronas Towers were too far to walk I started out at a local shopping district called Buket Bintang, but after a while I decided to see just how far the towers were so I started walking that way. It's not too bad, so in 30 minutes I was there. Underneath the towers is a huge mall called KL City Center, so I went into a local coffee shop in the mall for a liquid lunch of iced coffee. Outside the mall is a nice plaza area with ponds and waterfalls, so I wandered through there for a bit before deciding to head back. I took a tehksi to Buket Bintang, still in my quest to find a shirt. I did find a shirt, and bought the largest size they have (XXL), but later I learned that Malaysians are generally much smaller than Americans, so the shirt was nowhere close to fitting on my (and I normally wear XL back home). Ah well, it'll be a souvenier for someone else.
My last memory of KL was a visit to the KL tower with Yio and Gerald. Like similar towers in other cities, an observation deck high in the sky gives a clear view of the city and the surrounding countryside, so that was enjoyable. But all good things must come to an end, so Yio and Gerald drove me back to the airport where we had time to eat a quick dinner in the food court. There's something symmetrical about starting and ending my Malaysia trip with airport food. I said goodbye to my Malaysian hosts and teammates, and caught my flight on to my next destination - Australia!