Nerd alert: it ain’t always easy

Nabil Morshed has done the occasional job for NearbyNerd fixing computers in Sydney’s western suburbs.Ever dreamed of starting an online business that will just sweep the cyberspace? Turning a web page into commercial success can take longer than anticipated, discovered Gilad Bakas, the founder of computer-help site, NearbyNerd.

It’s been more than three years since the 30-year-old immigrant from Israel launched the website, aimed at connecting the technology-savvy with those among us who despair over hung computers, broken iPhone screens and network problems.

The idea was as simple as it was compelling: If you have an issue with your computer, mobile phone or tablet device, you get online, put in your postcode and find a local nerd who can fix the problem. Clients pay the nerds – many of them computer science or electrical engineering students – an agreed-upon sum, usually below the rates of professional IT consultants.

When they take on jobs, the nerds pay Bakas’s site a commission of $10 for standard repairs to $25 for more complex tasks. Customers evaluate the nerds online for other users to see.

So what defines a nerd? “It’s someone who is passionate about technology,” Bakas says, dismissing notions of the technically advanced, socially awkward overweight kid speaking in binary code.

Promoting his venture on online tech forums such as Whirlpool and university job boards, Bakas has been able to build up an impressive network of more than 1900 tech geeks across the country, ready to take on the odd troubleshooting job to make a few bucks on the side.

“And what I found is it’s much easier to get nerds because they are already online and have huge incentives to join,” says the entrepreneur, who emigrated to Australia five years ago as a computer programmer. “It’s much, much harder to get the customers.”

So far, about 4000 clients have taken up NearbyNerd’s services. So what’s holding the business back? Is it the fact that people actually have to go online to find nerds when they already have troubles with their computer?

That’s “not a major issue,” Bakas maintains. “Nowadays the majority of people have more than one device to access the internet – they can always find a mobile phone, the work computer, there’s always another way.” His most common clients are users aged 25 to 45, who have multiple digital devices and are used to finding solutions on the internet, as opposed to older people who might “find the whole concept of the internet a bit frightening maybe”.

And adding a call centre to help people over the phone would prove too costly, he says.

Bakas reckons it comes down to getting better known as a business, and he has stepped up investments in TV advertising and search engine optimisation to direct more traffic to his site.

“Talking to people in the industry…. I still see the issue that people are not aware [of the concept], and not that people are aware of it and don’t like it,” he says.

It’s an impression shared by one of his geeks, Nabil Morshed. The second-year electro-engineering student has done the occasional job for NearbyNerd fixing computers in Sydney’s western suburbs. He charges $40 for the first hour and $20 for every subsequent hour, but calls for help come in irregularly: “I don’t think a lot of people know about the company,” he says.

Still, Bakas is optimistic his concept will eventually take off on a larger scale.

Three years in, the site now largely pays for itself in terms of ongoing costs. Having pumped more than $70,000 into his start-up using money he made working as a commercial IT consultant, the business was “probably just crossing the line of being profitable,” Bakas says. “It is growing all the time and to keep it going doesn’t take much work.”

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