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These guys have a cool Web strategy Geek Squad gets small business ready for the Net by building a solid tech foundation.
By Maggie Overfelt

(FORTUNE Small Business) – For the past seven years, or about as long as dot-coms have been part of the business landscape, a team of special agents donning clip-on ties and high-water pants has driven around Minnesota's Twin Cities area in Oreo-colored VW Beetles, making house calls to small businesses in need of computer help. These geeks, who demystify technology by literally playing up the nerd role, always ask their customers what they want. More often than not, the answer has to do with getting on the Web. "Even before prepackaged software and FileMaker Pro [a database], they all want a functional Website," says Special Agent #33, a.k.a. lead technician Steve Halligan. Although these special agents have the ability to do so, they don't help customers build Websites. What they do is get them ready.

Whoever they are, are they crazy? Meet the Minneapolis-based Geek Squad, a 24-hour quick-response team that promises to fix any computer problem, via phone or in person. Nope, they're not crazy--they just figured out before a lot of other techies that you need the technology fundamentals in place before moving on to the Web. "We're computer-repair technicians; the plumbers of the industry," says Robert Stephens, Chief Inspector and Special Agent #66. Right now the industry needs plumbers to make sure your pipes are solid before you turn on the Web waterworks. This different approach, while so many other companies are bailing water or drowning, has attracted approximately 16,000 loyal small business customers. "They just know what to do, and they do it with a sense of humor," says Larry King, president of a nine-person tree-shelter-technology company called Treessentials, a Squad client.

So far this strategy has paid off for Geek Squad. Stephens founded the company in 1994 as a one-man, on-the-side consulting firm. Today it's a 50-person company that has been profitable every year except 1997 (due to a change in pricing that year) and sees a 60% increase in revenues annually. Thanks to a friend active in the Minneapolis music scene who steers traveling rock stars with computer glitches its way, the Squad already has the ungeeky reputation as the tech support to the famous. Stephens plans to expand the Squad to Los Angeles in March. With only 48% of small businesses connected to the Internet, according to a June 2000 Cyber Dialogue survey, Geek Squad has a potentially huge audience that is primed for its message and services.

Geek Squad may not build you a Website, but it does everything else to get you ready for one. "Upon the first visit, all of our clients give us a list of technology 'wants,'" says Stephens. "But after we assess where a new company is, we answer back with a list of 'needs.'" That means the Squad wants to make sure that your basic computer setup (new or old) is running smoothly before you move on to larger Web initiatives. Squad technicians sit with customers for as long as necessary, researching the Web and talking about things like which local Internet service provider caters to their particular business.

But Stephens doesn't just help customers get on the Web; he also shows them by example what they can do with it once they get there. "We can create ways in which to use technology for our own people as well as our clients," he says. His best example? The iconic orange-and-black Geek Squad site (www.geeksquad.com) lets any member of the Squad back at Mission Control pull up a map--derived from Yahoo! Maps--and track exactly where any of the Squad's remote technicians are. When the technicians pull up the site for the day's schedule on their cell phones, they see updated traffic reports, directions, and the approximate time it will take to finish the job. If you're on real good terms, the Squad will share some of its in-house Web apps for a small fee.

Geek Squad also uses its site for customer self-service, with tip sheets, links, and house-call-request forms. "We're trying to increase our customer base by offering easy-to-find help right on the site," says Stephens. "The site is there to help, educate, and entertain." If that's what a patient approach to the Web can deliver for all of its customers' sites, may there soon be a Squad in your town too.

--MAGGIE OVERFELT