Meeting the CEO of a company unashamedly called Dial-a-Nerd for the first time one half expects to find the ultimate nerd – complete with braces, chequered pants, goofy smile and spectacles. Instead Collin Thornton is suave, good looking with fine social skills and a business mind to match.
At 29, Thornton oversees a miniature empire with a turnover of R22 million and a network of 15 000 customers. The company’s core business deals with technicians that travel to private homes to solve computer problems – from users who need help with switching them on, downloading music onto their iPods or advice on entertainment gadgets to the more technical aspects like repairs and removing viruses.
Thornton’s love for computers began at an early age and he often found himself spending hours dismantling and inspecting them. “My poor father, he probably lost about three or four machines because of my fiddling,” says Thornton.
His entrepreneurial streak first began to show while still at primary school when he began making and selling candles and, while at the University of Witwatersrand studying towards a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science, he began fixing computers for friends and family for a mere $7 per hour. His time at university was short-lived though as he found he already knew what was being taught.
“I found the course too theoretical and I grew very bored very quickly. The defining moment for me came when my mathematics lecturer chastised me for getting a poor mark on a test, and suggested I just drop out instead. That was the best advice I got at university,” says Thornton. “So I did what he said and in between working as a packer at a supermarket I decided to take my passion for computers and use it to my advantage.”
Dial-a-Nerd originated in his father’s garage in 1998 with just one other technician to help out. A year later, as his client base grew, he realised that to ensure further growth he needed to work out of a presentable and more work-like environment so he rented a tiny office. Today he has branches in Cape Town and Johannesburg and says that other cities like Pretoria and Durban are firmly on the agenda.
The home user seemed to be the obvious target for Thornton as he found that many companies that deal with mending computers find them an irritation. He was happy to take on these customers as he projected that with computers becoming popular in households, it would only be a matter of time before this service was needed on a larger scale.
It seems that whether computer sales increase or decline, Dial-a-Nerd will be in for some good times. With the interest rate increasing and the cost of living getting higher, people want to prolong the life of their existing computers which means regular maintenance is required.
But the company is also taking on larger business clients. Thornton says during the early days he would often turn away corporate clients as he didn’t have the capacity to deal with them properly.
“Corporate customers require fast response times and specific guarantees,” he tells iWeek, “and if I couldn’t deliver perfectly, then I didn’t want to deliver at all. As our existing customers grew, however, they started to require this type of service, and instead of turning them away, I created a division called Network Nerds, which is staffed by highly trained technicians and was specifically structured to meet these needs.”
About 200 small and medium-sized enterprises and a handful of large corporates now make up his client portfolio, but he says Dial-a-Nerd will remain loyal to home users.
Despite the name and the misconceptions that come with it, all their technicians have great people skills. The rapid growth of Dial-a-Nerd has shown that there’s a demand for properly trained technicians who are able to simplify computer-speak and be friendly at the same time.
As they believe computers are the way of the future, Dial-a-Nerd is also involved with social responsibility initiatives that see old computers being refurbished and donated to police stations, schools and orphanages around the country. These users are also trained by the nerds to use the equipment.
Thornton says one of the secrets of the business’s success is the talent that he surrounds himself with. “There’s a joke in my office that I’m the worst technician in this company – and that’s true. All our technicians are IT experts – computers are their life. If a guy comes in here for a job and he says he doesn’t play computer games then that’s a concern for us.”