Categorized | Workplace

Proud to Be a Geek

Posted on 21 February 2009

Inside an elite squad of computer technicians.

Bill Gates might be offended if you called him a geek, but 31-year-old Robert Stephens would not. Though Gates put the word into the everyday lexicon, Stephens has truly elevated the “geek” to cool status.

Stephens is much more than a computer guy. He bills himself as “Chief Inspector” of the Minneapolis-based Geek Squad (geeksquad.com), a 24-hour quick response team that promises to fix any computer problem. The 45 “Special Agents” who work for him tool around town in black-and-white VW Geekmobiles, all marked with the Geek Squad logo. Agents don a signature uniform: starched white shirt, clip-on black tie, black pants, and matching black jacket.

This squad seems to be a cross between a SWAT team, the Mafia, and the Ghostbusters.

You have to like and trust these guys because they really love what they do.

Gimmicky? You bet. But behind those eye-catching uniforms and flashy cars is a thriving business–all created by a techie with unusual entrepreneurial instincts. In just six years, Stephens developed a unique business and captured his share of national headlines. He’s even written a book: The Geek Squad’s Guide to Solving Any Computer Glitch (Fireside, 1999).

“I’m a publicity slut,” Stephens jokes.

Idea Into Action
He is an inspiration to aggressive techies with fantasies of capitalizing on the demand for computer support technicians. The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks computer support as one of the five fastest-growing occupations, along with computer engineering, systems analysis, database administration, and desktop publishing.

Way back in 1994, while Stephens was running a small consulting business and studying for a computer science degree at the University of Minnesota, the Geek Squad idea was born. From first-year revenues of $40,000 to projections of more than $4 million this year, the business has prospered. But even the current numbers cannot compare to what he stands to earn when Geek Squad divisions are opened in other cities. He just kicked off what he calls a “virtual office” in Los Angeles. Job orders are taken either over the phone or via e-mail, then relayed to a nearby Geek Squad tech. “It’s easier than ordering pizza,” Stephens explains.

Stephens occasionally gets a buyout, merger, or franchise offer–which could mean instant growth for the Geek Squad. But, he’s not about to give up control over the business he built from the ground up. His best ideas hit him when daydreaming at traffic lights. The name Geek Squad “has a sense of urgency,” he explains. The uniforms are “a powerful marketing tool.”

How Does It Work?
It all starts with hiring the best techs he can find to service his business and personal customers. “The techs are not really geeks, just cool people who love computers,” says Stephens. “You have to like and trust these guys because they really love what they do.”

Although money seems to be a prime motivator, these geeks actually relish the self-esteem that comes from doing a job you love. “Give people the opportunity to do a great job,” Stephens says. And pay them well for their efforts. There is no ceiling on what these techs may earn: Beyond a base salary, they can also make hefty commissions.

He gets about 500 resumes per week from candidates across the country. Of that number, maybe two or three match up well against the Geek Squad list of requirements:

“Impeccable verbal communication skills a must. General familiarity with PC systems, software, and hardware necessary. Help desk experience is a plus but not required. Organizational skills should be at anal-retentive levels or higher. Must look good in a clip-on tie.”

Even so, the staff comes from diverse backgrounds. “Some agents have taken college courses,” Stephens says, “but most haven’t. Many worked at stores like Kinko’s. Most are self-taught. Practically none are certified.”

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