Geeks on Demand
Oakland, Calif. — The broken printer frayed Ross Armstrong’s last nerve.
He had to make photo copies of the death certificate of his late husband, Jay Stern, who died in May. But it was Stern who had always handled home tech repairs, and Armstrong, drowning in the grief of his loss, broke down at the small but horribly timed irritation.
“Having the printer break was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I thought, ‘What else now?’ ” Armstrong said. “Before, every time something went wrong, I’d say ‘Jay, fix it.’ ”
Nearly two hours on the phone with Hewlett-Packard and $90 later, a new printer was on its way to Armstrong’s Oakland home. But he left it in the box in his bedroom, he said, without the first clue about how to set it up.
“I thought I could spend two hours trying to do this and cursing and sweating and probably not get it right,” said Armstrong, who is 60 and retired.
So he Googled “Geek Squad,” the tech support and repair service owned by big-box retailer Best Buy. The results Google gave him included not only Geek Squad’s website, but another name: Geekatoo.
Geekatoo is among a growing crop of startups offering Uber-style, on-demand service for home and office tech repair, setup and troubleshooting. These companies dispatch tech experts when summoned to fix everything from a cracked iPhone screen to a tricky Nest installation or a laptop riddled with malware.
A tech expert from San Francisco-based Geekatoo arrived at Armstrong’s promptly at 9 one morning this month to set up the new printer.
“Once he started typing in commands I thought ‘Boy, am I glad I didn’t do this,’ ” Armstrong said. “It was way under an hour that he got this thing done.”
If such a service sounds familiar, it’s because Geek Squad has been offering it since 1994. But, with classic Silicon Valley hubris, startups have declared that business too slow and expensive, and are each battling to become the tech Superman who will swoop in and dazzle consumers with their solutions to tech frustrations large and small.
They’ve got a ways to go. Geekatoo is among the largest, with 7,000 independent contractors serving across the country; it’s raised $2.1 million from investors since 2013. Co-founder and CEO Kevin Davis says he started the company shortly after Geek Squad kept his laptop for three months, lost it along the way and then told him they couldn’t fix it. Eden, which launched in May, has raised $1.3 million from investors and employs about 35 people who serve Bay Area residents. And Enjoy, another startup that emerged in May, has about 140 employees, has raised $30 million and serves the Bay Area and New York City.
Geek Squad, by comparison, has 20,000 employees and is in every strip mall across the country that houses one of Best Buy’s 1,049 stores.
“These startups don’t have distribution,” said Robert Stephens, Geek Squad founder and former chief technical officer of Best Buy. “Target’s not going to buy them. They are basically sitting around waiting for a phone call.
“I said to these guys: ‘What are you doing? Why are you repeating history?’ ”
But, so far, customers have been tickled by these startups — particularly retired or older customers who use technology at home, are sometimes overwhelmed by it and have the cash to pay someone to fix it.
Laurel Suess, a retired Realtor in San Francisco, used the same tech repairman for years — but he moved out of state, and when she found herself with a new Comcast modem that wouldn’t connect to the many Wi-Fi devices around her home, she didn’t know who to call. A neighbor recommended San Francisco-based Eden.
“Within two hours I had a handsome, muscular, smart, courteous young man in my home,” she said. “He was so efficient and went right about the business. He took care of it. He didn’t hang around talking.”
The U.S. tech support industry makes about $30 billion in annual revenue, according to research by Parks Associates, a consulting firm. And with the growth of the Internet of Things — devices such as thermostats, door locks and hot water heaters that are connected to the Internet to gather and share data — the need for home tech service is expected to grow. Devices such as Dropcam, a Wi-Fi video streaming camera for home security, aren’t the easiest things to set up at home, even for the tech-savvy.
“When I look at the market opportunity and all the wireless systems that people want to get installed at home, it’s a great time” for companies like Eden, said Rebecca Lynn, a general partner with Canvas Venture Fund, which has backed Eden. “It’s not just ‘Hey, come fix my laptop.’ ”
Eden hires technicians who must pass tests on their technical as well as people skills — they have to be polite, take their shoes off in people’s homes and be patient with customers who are frustrated, said CEO and co-founder Joe Du Bey said.
“People want their homes to be a place where everything works,” he said.
The company is in the process of reclassifying its technicians from independent contractors to employees. Menlo Park-based Enjoy also hires full- or part-time employees who are experienced in IT. Geekatoo’s technicians, however, are contract workers. The company says many of them are self-employed and use Geekatoo to earn extra cash on the side — but Geekatoo can expect to take some heat for how it classifies its workers as all on-demand tech companies face mounting backlash for overreliance on independent contractors.
Enjoy offers a service slightly different form the other two: Customers can buy high-end gadgets, such as a GoPro camera or drone, from the Enjoy website; the startup has a deal with hardware companies to buy their products wholesale and sell them at retail prices. For no extra cost, an Enjoy technician delivers the gadget to the customer’s home, sets it up and connects it to other wireless devices in the house, and gives the customer a tutorial on their new toy.
Said Ari Bloom, Enjoy’s head of marketing and communications: “People think they just want some help, but when they get an expert in their house, they realize all that they don’t know.”