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11/7/2004

Geeks on Call

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — It’s amazing how pernicious computer bugs can transform your machine from a gateway to a world of information into a giant paperweight.

Most of us aren’t skilled enough to be able to dig into the guts of our computers and solve the problems ourselves. Thankfully for us, there are geeks.

Specifically, Geeks On Call, a franchise that provides mobile computer support and repair services to small businesses and individuals. Started just three years ago in Virginia, the company now has more than 200 franchises in 14 states and the District of Columbia.

“I think the thing I hear the most is, ‘I am a complete idiot with my computer,’ or something to that effect,” said our local franchise geek, Brian Billings.

A former denizen of the high-tech world, Billings left a solid job with an optical company to work as an independent contractor. That was 2001 — early 2001.

“Everything was roses at that point,” said Billings. He was able to find contract work — until the tech implosion hit and everything dried up.

In the meantime, Billings and his wife had a baby. The couple made a strategic decision: She would go to work full time and the geek would become a stay-at-home dad.

That ended last fall, when Billings bought a Geeks On Call franchise. These days you can find him tooling around in his Chrysler “PC” Cruiser, an essential part of the uniform when you’re a geek on call.

“There’s not really very many people doing the mobile computer business,” said Billings. “I think my biggest competitor is Best Buy and their Geek Squad.”

Billings charges $99 for the first 15 minutes, and flat rates thereafter depending on what the problem is. Spyware, pop-up ads, spam — all of these are common problems that can really mess with a computer. Part of what Billings provides is simple education for the user — be they a total novice or someone who is comfortable attaching a file to an e-mail.

Experienced with hardware, software and a variety of operating systems, Billings has pretty much seen it all when it comes to the snags and vexations that can bring an online mah-jongg player to her knees.

“It is partially consulting — this is what you need, this is what you’re going to spend,” he said. “I think the worst one was this poor old guy in Arvada. He complained his computer wouldn’t come on; I turned on the monitor and it came right up.”

That gentleman would be the exception, however. Most users’ troubles are a little more serious than that.

Billings was a lifesaver for Brenda Ridgely, the owner of Saddleback Grapes & Grains in Firestone.

“Well, at one point my entire system crashed,” Ridgely said. “It’s a (point-of-sale) system, and I’m just not the best computer person in the world, so I gave them a call.”

Billings’ territory covers about a 30-mile radius in the Longmont area. When people call the toll-free Geeks dispatch number, Brian will get the call, unless he’s too busy to handle it. Then, someone from outside the territory will come in and help the customer.

Ridgely said her whole store is basically PC-driven, and having it crash was akin to a truck driving through the front door.

“It was a show-stopper at the time and he did get me up and running again,” she said.

She has since signed up for the Geeks On Call quarterly plan. For a flat rate, Billings comes in regularly and makes sure she has all the appropriate updates. He also rids her system of any World Wide Web droppings that accumulate on her hard drive.

She found out about Geeks On Call when she saw a feature on The Today Show, right around the time she was having computer problems. That’s not unlike how Billings found out about the franchise; he spotted it on a Denver television station.

“We saw the ad and I thought, ‘Boy, that sounds like Brian,’” said his father, Ron Billings, who helped his son become a franchisee.

Territories are being claimed fast in Colorado, but Longmont was still up for grabs, so the Longmont native put up the approximately $50,000 it takes to become a franchisee — including getting a PT Cruiser in a specific color — and signed himself up.

“I know the area, I know all the backroads. It just made sense,” Billings said.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.