It’s Good To Be a Geek

September, 2008

In 1998, James Kerr became the original SuperGeek when he started a computer repair company from his modest two-bedroom home in Nuuanu. The former Sony digital camera developer had just $5,000 in the bank and a single piece of furniture — a coffee table, which doubled as a customer service counter by day and a dining room table at night. In his first month in business, Kerr grossed $2,000. “I thought, ‘Great, the company’s growing! I can live off this!’” he says. 

Over the past decade, Kerr’s one-man show has grown into a mini SuperGeeks empire, consisting of four full-service locations on Oahu and, recently, a store in Columbus, Ohio. A Kahului, Maui, location is expected to open by the end of the year. This year, Kerr expects SuperGeeks’ revenues to reach $1.8 million — up from $1.5 million in 2007 — a healthy 20 percent increase. “We’ve been on a steep growth path for 10 years now and it’s getting steeper,” he says.

SuperGeeks services about 5,000 clients each year — of which 60 percent are consumers and 40 percent are corporate clients.  It also offers a managed-care service to organizations such as the Girl Scouts of Hawaii. “Managed care, in a nutshell, means we provide companies with monthly maintenance of their systems for a flat fee,” says Kerr. “We make sure everything’s working as it should and resolve any issues that aren’t.” 

Curtis Leong, CFO and chief of staff for Girl Scouts of Hawaii, says it’s not feasible for an organization like Girl Scouts, which has 18 full-time staff members, to have its own IT department. “But we also recognize that it is not possible to operate a business today without ongoing, reliable and affordable tech support,” Leong says. “So, having SuperGeeks on board helps us find that right balance.” As a result, Leong says he and the Girl Scouts staff can focus on doing their jobs rather than worrying about computer-related issues.

It’s All About Branding

Kerr actually owes his inspiration for SuperGeeks to a big-box competitor. Ten years ago, while shopping at Computer City, he overheard a conversation between a customer and what he describes as a “prima donna geek technician,” who humiliated the customer for not being computer savvy. “It was horrible,” Kerr says. “The technician was so condescending and I knew I could do better.”

That day, the DNA for SuperGeeks was born: to provide friendly, knowledgeable, responsive service. But a good business model wasn’t enough; Kerr needed something to set his company apart from all the others, “like a tall giraffe among a group of penguins,” he explains. That’s when he came up with the name SuperGeeks. “I wanted a company name that would be catchy and attractive to consumers,” he explains. “The play on Superman saving the day and computer geeks was a natural, so when I came up with the name SuperGeeks, I immediately trademarked it and people loved it!”

“I want people to feel like instead of having one technician to solve their computer needs, they can now have all 24 of our geeks to themselves to get the job done right.” –JAMES KERR, CHIEF GEEK

Kerr believes the SuperGeeks brand is worth more than the actual company itself. For many businesses, one of the biggest challenges is to bridge what people want and what they actually need. “People will always have computer problems, that’s a given,” says Kerr. “But our name helps them to remember that we’re the solution — we’re what they need.” SuperGeeks also takes its branding to the streets, promoting its services and turning heads wherever its company cars — red Mini Coopers with mounted flashing yellow lights — go.

Find Your Niche

With computers sprawled out all over the living room floor, Kerr started out in 1998 charging a standard $15 an hour and performed every technical support service under the sun, hoping to build a strong client base. After the first SuperGeeks store opened on South King Street about a year later, Kerr streamlined the operation to maximize productivity. He narrowed SuperGeeks’ menu of services to include diagnostics, repairs, network setup and management, data recovery and forensics, system backup solutions, network and computer security, upgrades and programming. “Our strategy is simple: to be the experts in the field,” Kerr says. “I knew we weren’t going to be the cheapest guys out there, but I knew we could be the best.” 

Computer technicians at Circuit City say a full system diagnostics and repair will cost about $160. Depending on the complexity of the repair, SuperGeeks charges $135 to $200. Turnaround times for both stores are a guaranteed five days. However, the same job could take up to four weeks at Best Buy, due to the high volume of customers, and would run about the same price, according to one of the store’s technicians. Technology entrepreneur Peter Kay says small, local businesses may have an edge in customer service. “We’ve all experienced this before — when you call [a big company] for service and get bounced around, or wind up talking to some person in India.”

Kerr says since SuperGeeks is a boutique computer company that specializes in specific services, it doesn’t have any direct  market competition. “We’re not for everyone,” he says. We don’t have to  be everything to everyone. We just have to do a great job.” However, when CompUSA closed earlier this year, Kerr says business grew by almost 20 percent overnight.

Hire Right

“In order to be the best, we have to hire the best,” says Kerr. What does it take to be a SuperGeek? Certifications are not required, he says, but, in addition to being passionate about computers, all SuperGeeks must be friendly, effective communicators and possess what Kerr calls a black belt in empathy. (See sidebar) The company currently employs 24 full-time SuperGeeks.

Kerr says SuperGeeks has always strived for disciplined growth, meaning the company has expanded when the time was right. For Kerr, part of that growth has meant growing his staff. “From the beginning, as soon as I could afford it, I tried to hire someone who could do the job better than I,” he says. “When you start out, you’re wearing all these different hats. So the sooner you can shed some of those hats and give them to someone who’s more qualified, the better the business is going to be because of it.” 

Last year, SuperGeeks expanded to the Mainland, opening up a service center in Columbus, Ohio, which is run by joint-venture partner Rena Kelley, the former operations manager for SuperGeeks’ Hawaii market. “The Ohio store is off to a slow start,” says Kerr, who doesn’t expect to open any other Mainland outlets in the near future. But he says he’ll continue to experiment with this latest project. “We’re definitely on a learning curve. … I’ve learned there’s probably more business in your own backyard.”

Develop Strategic Partnerships

While word-of-mouth referrals are a huge part of SuperGeeks’ success, strategic partnerships have also significantly helped to increase its exposure. About a year ago, Kerr pitched the idea of having SuperGeeks offer extra computer tech support to Hawaiian Telcom’s Internet customers who needed additional PC, networking and setup support. “Whenever a company sells a technology, they should be able to provide the service that comes along with it,” Kerr says. “That’s where I knew SuperGeeks could help.”

Ann Nishida, public relations manager for Hawaiian Telcom says, “High-speed Internet is a growing part of our business and this partnership allows us to take customer service one step further.” SuperGeeks also has a tech-help counter in Hawaiian Telcom’s Pearlridge retail store.
Since 2006, the company has also benefited from its partnership with KHON2 News. Kerr says KHON wanted an informal computer segment that the average viewer could understand.  The chief geek can be seen every Wednesday morning discussing common computer-related problems and sharing new technology and ideas.

Looking forward, Kerr says the big push for SuperGeeks will be to open more service centers, with plans for a Windward Oahu store slated for next year. “Convenience is so important right now, especially because people don’t want to drive anymore.” He also expects his remote services team to gain more business since about 25 percent of computer-related issues can now be resolved via the Internet. “Essentially, we connect to the client’s computer and perform repairs from our headquarters while the client watches from their home or office,” he says. “I want people to feel like instead of having one technician to solve their computer needs, they can now have all 24 of our geeks to themselves to get the job done right. Now that’s service.”

The SuperGeeks Code of Values

Most successful companies create strategic plans to help chart out clearly defined business goals and objectives. Kerr took the idea one step further by establishing six SuperGeeks values:

 Quality is king. 

Honest day’s work, honest day’s pay. “That means do an excellent job, and don’t be afraid to charge what the job is worth,” Kerr says. 

Treat every system or network as if it were your mother’s. “Because then you know it’ll be done right,” Kerr says. 

Stay agnostic. Since SuperGeeks isn’t joined to any particular vendor, it is able to provide nonbiased tech advice that is solution-based and in the customer’s best interest, Kerr says. “If you go to big-box retailers, their service techs will invariably try to sell you something from their store. We don’t have that kind of pressure.”

 Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to read about in tomorrow’s paper.

 Come hell or high water, make sure the client gets a solution — even if it means referring them to the competition. “People will remember that,” Kerr says. “Just because you can’t help them with one particular problem today, doesn’t mean you won’t get their business later.”

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