Geek Squad Founder Robert Stephens Inspires ChannelCon AttendeesEver wonder how Geek Squad got its start? Attendees at ChannelCon this year got to hear the definitive Geek Squad story firsthand from the one person on the planet that knows it best: its founder Robert Stephens…or as he now affectionately refers to himself: @rstephens  

I was fortunate enough not only to be in the audience, but to be in the right place at the right time to briefly chat with Stephens following the keynote. In this post, you’ll learn 10 key takeaways:

(This is an especially important read for independently owned computer repair businesses that feel that they indirectly compete with Geek Squad. Personally, I think these entrepreneurs would be better off pursuing smaller niches, where they can be big fish in smaller ponds, rather than trying to compete head-to-head with Geek Squad’s roughly 24,000 agents.)

  1. When you’re first getting started and you have no money for marketing, everything that you do is marketing. Robert Stephens talked about the very early days of Geek Squad, when it was just him and his iconic logoed car. To get in front of high net worth decision makers, he went to where they already hung out: the local opera house. Was his company a sponsor/patron? No. Did Geek Squad advertise in the playbill/program? No. Admittedly Stephens didn’t know anything about opera or even like opera, but he knew it attracted an affluent buyer. So he found out what time the opera let out and slowly drove his Geek Squad logoed car at 10 miles an hour around the block several times while people were leaving the building. Sure enough the next day the phone would ring. (This was in the mid-1990s, a decade before smartphones.)

  2. Advertising is the tax that you pay for being unremarkable. Instead of being a copycat, stand for something different. Unique. Remarkable. Worth talking about.

  3. A geek is a nerd with better self-esteem. Or as Robert Stephens explains it: A nerd doesn’t know that he or she is a nerd. A geek knows and doesn’t care.

  4. Let your life experiences shape how you develop your company culture. If you grew up in the 1970s like Stephens did, there’s a pretty good chance that you saw the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory at least once. That movie made such an impression on Stephens that the movie’s legendary labor force, the Oompa Loompas, inspired how the Geek Squad founder envisioned his labor force. Loyalty above all.

  5. When it comes to hiring employees, there are three skills that can’t be trained. Curiosity. Ethics. Drive.

  6. For branding inspiration, look outside of your own industry. Did you ever wonder why some of the early Geek Squad trucks looked like UPS and FedEx trucks? It’s no accident. When starting out, Stephens was looking for affordable transportation choices that scaled well. And those trucks were the answer. Did you ever see early Geek Squad cars that look like they’re right out of the 1960s TV show Batman? Again, growing up in the 1970s Stephens was inspired by Batman and Robin. (Stephens wasn’t the only one who grew up in this era enamored by Batman. Seth MacFarlane, the TV genius behind Family Guy, actually created Mayor Adam West as a long-term recurring character in his hit sitcom.) 

  7. Retro uniforms stand out from the crowd and are affordable to scale. For uniform inspiration, Stephens looked to another admired group: NASA engineers of the 1960s.

  8. If you speak at industry conferences, don’t expect all of the technology to work all of the time. In spite of being one of the most financially successful computer repair business owners ever, Chief Inspector Robert Stephens was realistic enough to manage audience expectations about the reliability of presentation technology.

  9. Social media enables the small things to rise to the top of awareness. A generation ago, as in when Stephens founded Geek Squad way back in 1994, you usually needed a big PR budget or advertising budget to get attention in local print or broadcast media. Today a great message and a small, but solid base of raving fans can do wonders to spread your message.

  10. Those who give keynote speeches are often a lot more approachable than you realize. A few minutes after Stephen’s talk was over, I saw a few people gathered around chatting with him in the hallway. Two were former Geek Squad employees. Two of us were simply curious to learn more. (My question: If IT companies should look elsewhere for branding inspiration, who looks to IT for inspiration?)

At ChannelCon, I did listen to some “Debbie Downer” attendees complaining about the messes they clean up from Geek Squad and how Geek Squad upsells various services. And sure, it’s always possible to find fault with competitors and nitpick various issues out of context.

But big picture though: Owners of computer repair businesses should be studying examples of success, like Robert Stephens, rather than searching out reasons to belittle.

(You’d have to search fairly far and wide to find examples of IT channel success even in the same ballpark as Stephens. The only even bigger one that comes to mind is Mark Cuban.)

And whenever I’ve blogged about independent computer repair shops competing with national competitors, my general advice: go for a niche or go broke trying to be all things to all people.


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