Duane McHodgkins had a five-year timeline to build up his part-time computer repair business into a full-time operation. But a sudden change in his employment situation forced him to fast-track these plans.
Find out how he overcame the challenges of turning a solopreneur side hustle into a thriving local business, and the people, systems, and tools that were key to his success.
Table of Contents
- Scaling and Success
- Hindsight: What McHodgkins would have done differently
- Other useful tools
- McHodgkins’ Read List
- McHodgkins’ Productivity Stack Quick Reference
- More About Duane McHodgkins
Challenge 1: How to get customers on a shoestring budget
When McHodgkins started “Duane’s Reliable Computer Services” in 2010, he had a full-time sales job. He started his day job early in the morning and finished by noon, so he had noon to early evening to work on his business. But he didn’t have a marketing budget to advertise or reach new customers. According to McHodgkins, “The first couple of years, the biggest thing I struggled with was getting customers.”
Solution: He used Craigslist ads. The posts were free and he would have four ads to refresh to the top of the page. He adds, “People would call me and then I would drive to their house. Seems a little scary today, but it worked at that time.”
Systems: Free online advertising through platforms like Craigslist
Challenge 2: How do you start networking?
It was a slow start and took time for the business to get traction. About a year or so in, McHodgkins realized, “What do business people do? They network.” But he had no idea how to get started.
Solution: Fortunately he found MeetUp, a platform that allows people who share the same interests to arrange get-togethers. He found a few groups and began getting to know other small and local business owners.
Even though it was intimidating at first, he introduced himself to people, told them he repaired computers, and got to know what they did. The results were not immediate because people didn’t know and trust him yet. The first customers he gained from networking came about three to six months after he started.
Challenge 3: When your part-time business suddenly needs to be the full-time source of income
In late 2012, the company where McHodgkins worked a full-time sales job went bankrupt. He was not even halfway through his 5-year timeline to get his business to a sustainable level, but now he had to make it his sole source of income. He mentions, “When your back’s up against the wall, you have no other options.”
Solution: He took inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s words – “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” When he didn’t have clients to attend to, he would pull up a spreadsheet he called “Seeds” where he put down different tasks that would help the business get more clients. He would do some networking, post on Facebook, or follow up with a previous customer and he would keep track of all these marketing efforts on his spreadsheet. He used this system for a few years and it kept him productive and motivated as he could keep score of how specific efforts yielded fruit months later.
Systems: Planting seeds, using all his free time prospecting, and trying to find and reach more clients
Tools: Spreadsheets like Google Sheets
Challenge 4: How to sustain marketing efforts when you are tied up with the operations of the business
His daily “planting seeds” paid off. McHodgkins reached a point where clients were steadily approaching him. “Instead of waking up in the morning and wondering what I was going to do, I wake up in the morning and wonder how I’m going to get it all done.”
He decided early on that he wanted to maintain a personal touch with his clients. He would send mailers (physical mail) to new clients a month after they contracted his services and to existing clients he had not heard from within a year. His mailers contained a formal letter thanking them for their business with a request for referrals (in exchange for a Starbucks gift card), or a follow-up letter asking if they needed any of his services. He enclosed a couple of his business cards as well. The fact that he used physical mail made it a little more special and memorable for his clients, and he got great responses and callbacks from these mailers.
However, being the sole operator of the business he couldn’t keep up this massive mailing effort by himself. “Once I started getting busy, it got to the point where I was dropping the ball.”
Solution: He hired a virtual assistant (VA) to take over this monthly activity for him. He met the first VA who took over his mailers at one of his networking events. After a few months of getting to know her, they eventually had a one-on-one meeting where they agreed on the outsourcing arrangement. When the first VA eventually took another job, McHodgkins once again looked into his network and found a VA company, Office Mercenary, that could take over.
They still take care of his mailers today. They would ask him for the mailing list for the month, he would send the details over and they take care of the rest of the process. “I knew it was important and I knew that even if I pay a little bit of money, it’s going to pay for itself every single month.”
People: McHodgkins, VAs and VA company Office Mercenary
Systems: Outsourcing tasks
Challenge 5: How to manage work you cannot outsource
There are some administrative aspects embedded in McHodgkins’ day-to-day client calls that can be challenging to track or can take up a lot of time if he does them manually. Time management is critical as he is the only one doing the computer repairs and services.
Solution: He shared a few apps that have helped with his productivity and efficiency.
TripLog is a mobile app that automatically tracks mileage on all service calls. It allows him to quickly pull up total mileage for deduction as a business expense instead of having to manually jot this information down for every service trip.
He uses Quickbooks not just for bookkeeping, but also for instantaneous billing, and even as a directory of his clients. “At any point, I can flip to a customer, hit the map and it’ll tell me how to get there.”
For scheduling client calls, he had tried Calendly before but the fixed time slots and the inability to factor in the extra time needed to resolve different client issues didn’t work for him. He uses Outlook now, where he manually inputs time allotment for each case based on complexity.
He uses remote connection software, SimpleHelp as well. He can schedule remote consultations back to back in the morning while he is still at home or another time of day when he has a few hours in between service calls.
Systems: Using specific apps to aid in record keeping, billing, scheduling, task batching for remote work
Scaling and Success
Challenge 6: Distribution: How to systematize content creation and distribution
Recently, McHodgkins decided to restart a monthly newsletter sent through email and to post on Facebook three times a week. He started with the newsletter earlier in the business but just got so busy that he stopped by the third month. This time around, he knew his schedule simply wouldn’t allow him to accommodate these additional tasks and that he needed help to get these done.
Solution: He tapped the VA company handling his mailers to execute his newsletter idea. He sat down with them and discussed his key priorities, and they worked out the process of how to get them done: McHodgkins writes the content and passes it on to the VA, who handles layout and distribution. The VA also posts blogs on the website, Facebook and Linkedin.
Recently, they have been discussing keyword research to get more traffic to his Youtube channel. He mentions, “Once you find a virtual assistant that you can really work well with, it’s really easy to turn over more things to them. If a task doesn’t have to be done by me and if I can send it to them, I send it to them. My billing hours are much higher than their billing hours. So why wouldn’t I do that?”
McHodgkins has also hired a marketing staff member who helps him shoot four to five videos a week in their local library green room. She edits in the appropriate backdrops or videos and uploads these short clips to Facebook. The content posted on social media is aligned with what he puts out in newsletters.
McHodgkins usually gets content ideas from the issues he encounters during his client calls and other unpublished materials. He has streamlined his content production – previously, his blog would be separate from his newsletter articles, now he uses one of two or three newsletter articles to repost on the blog, Facebook and LinkedIn.
People: McHodgkins, marketing staff, VA Company Office Mercenary
Systems: Outsourcing tasks, batching content production, repurposing content
Hindsight: What McHodgkins would have done differently
McHodgkins wishes he had been able to follow through with his newsletters much earlier. Since restarting it he says, “Not a month goes by that I don’t get at least two or three people calling me up, or better yet replying to the newsletter saying, ‘Hey, I need help with this.’ That’s why I’m really kicking myself that I didn’t keep it up when I’d done two of them a few years back. Communicating with your customers is so important.”
Other useful tools
McHodgkins recommends Screencast-o-matic for screen recording, which is very helpful when making “how-to” tutorial videos for his clients. This inexpensive, simple tool also has basic video editing functions.
Consistent efforts in prospecting, client outreach, and networking were the foundations on which McHodgkins built his thriving computer service business. His experience in “planting seeds” reminds us how some of our actions take time and need patience and consistency to bear fruit. Moreover, the success of his mailer and newsletters in generating repeat business and referrals highlights the importance of nurturing client relationships.
Today, McHodgkins is focusing on social media visibility to reach a wider audience by using educational videos on Facebook and YouTube. Because of this Duane’s Reliable Computer Computer Services, Inc. is now more accessible to those in need of his computer and tech expertise.
McHodgkins’ Read List
- Tax and Legal Playbook by Mark J. Kohler
McHodgkins’ Productivity Stack Quick Reference
Scaling & Success Stack
More About Duane McHodgkins
Duane McHodgkins is the owner/operator of Duane’s Reliable Computer Services, Inc, which is a mobile computer repair business in Metro Denver. He has been helping individuals and small businesses with their technology needs for 12 years. He is also the author of Lessons from the Business Heroes of the Pandemic, where he shares tools and ideas on how to stay relevant in today’s business world.
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