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Downtime

mountains-nature-sky-vacation-130111The better you do your job, the more downtime you have. The more you have automated, the more you have scheduled, the better your communication and cooperation with clients, the better you keep tabs on coming changes, the more redundant your arrangements, the more consistent you are, the less you’ll be barraged and beset with problems.

Yes, you’ll get PEBKAC and surprise failures and outages, but they’ll be manageable if you have other things in order. Downtime is one of the best parts of this job because you get to decide what to do with it: please don’t spend it sitting at your desk all day.

First, sitting at your desk in front of three monitors all day is bad for more or less every part of your body.

Second, you don’t need to compulsively check on everything all the time. Staring at your dashboards does not help anyone. Configure, refine, improve, and test your notifications, and move on.

Third, browsing the web and social media for hours does not count as “keeping up on tech trends,” although that is a legitimate part of your job. Have your feeds, lists, boards, and news sites that you follow, check them, and then move on.

In general, be task-oriented. Instead of aimlessly clicking around at your computer all day, spend:

  • 30 minutes checking news
  • an hour working on new scripts
  • an hour trying to get new clients
  • 30 minutes researching new hardware
  • a full lunch hour
  • 30 minutes on social media (for advertising and networking)
  • 15 minutes reviewing your financial books
  • 15 minutes reviewing system reports

That can and should vary from day-to-day; you’ll have scheduled meetings and scheduled on-site checkups and installations, and of course you’ll be “interrupted” with support requests and notifications, but you’ll still have downtime because you don’t have someone else filling your schedule for you. That’s one of the best things about this job: working on your own schedule and by your own rules. The responsibility of that perk is that you need to make the schedule and the rules, which means you need to know how you want to spend your days, aka your life.

So come up with a daily routine to maintain and advance your business, then move on to the rest of your life.

Stay in Touch

cellphone-cellular-communication-connection-263564One of the odd or at least frustrating aspects of tech support, for clients, is that we come to set everything up, seemingly disappear, and yet they keep paying. Then when something goes wrong they wonder what they’ve been paying for.

For the most part, clients don’t really understand what we do, so it becomes a challenge to remind them that when they don’t call us and we don’t call them, it’s because we’re doing a good job keeping everything running. They can easily forget why they’re paying us and think that since everything is fine, they don’t need us.

And yet you don’t really want to call them, because you’ll get a, “While I’ve got you on the phone…” aka “I have a bunch of questions not important enough to have called you about, but I’ll rattle them off now since you called me.” You’ll hang up the phone and immediately wonder, “What did I just  do?”

You also don’t want to email them basically to say, “Everything is fine,” because then you’re on the record saying something is fine and you know as soon as you do that, something will break and you’ll look incompetent.

So as much as you want to let them know you’re accessible and working hard for them, you kind of want to keep your distance. You need to, “Keep your distance without trying to keep your distance. . .” in the words of Han Solo.

The best thing to do is to have an automated report sent to them every month with a few basic status updates so they know that “Systems Are Nominal.” The report can include, for example, that:

  • systems are up-to-date
  • antivirus programs and firewalls are enabled and up-to-date
  • CPU/RAM usage is within normal parameters
  • HD storage is not at/nearing capacity

That’s enough to remind them that things are running because you’re keeping them running and that you have your eye on their systems. Realize they probably won’t even read this report, but seeing it in their inbox will be enough to diffuse their wondering about whether your services are expendable.

Orientation

photo-of-people-doing-handshakes-3183197Amidst the whole project of onboarding all of the systems and users of a new client, it’s easy to be so focused on the technical needs that you forget about the people using them. But if you don’t acclimate your new users to your way of doing things, they’re just going to keep doing what they were used to, and eventually that’s going to cause confusion. Maybe you changed the permissions or password policies, maybe your support request procedures differ… whatever it is, you need a chance to explain the changes. So an orientation of some sort is a great way of giving them a chance to learn your way of doing things and ask questions and a great chance for you to realize their needs and limitations.

In a small office you can probably just have a group meeting, in a large office a Microsoft Teams meeting where you can show a few PowerPoint slides and share your screen to show a few procedures might work best. You can also send out an introductory email if the office doesn’t really have meetings, just so they’ll feel welcome to ask questions. Remember that users have varying degrees of technical understanding and they can get very frustrated and insecure about asking questions, especially because they can’t even explain what’s happening. So if you can let them know what changes are coming, how to deal with them, and how to contact you if they have trouble, you can ease their anxiety.

Whatever you do, your goal is to orient your customers to your procedures so they don’t have the rug pulled out from them and so your policies accomplish their purposes.

 

The Basic Setup

men-working-at-night-256219My recommended setup for the One-Man-Show MSP is pretty straightforward. But first, remember that used systems are your friend. You don’t need to pay the premium on new systems when you can get used i5 systems with 512GB SSDs and 16GB of memory for a few hundred bucks and you have access to your own Windows licenses via your Microsoft Action Pack.

1. Desktop

The most important thing about your desktop setup is that it has three monitors. That sounds like a lot of monitors, but remember that you’re going to have at least a dozen dashboards open each monitoring something different and you don’t want to be nipping and tucking these things around all the time as you work. You’ll want to keep at least some of them open most of the time.

Also, when you remote into a client’s system via one monitor, you’ll want to have a second monitor to use to look things up and then a third to pull up the system in your RMM software to get stats, run scripts, etc.

2. Test Systems

You really need one Windows server and one Windows 10 desktop to tool around with and test out updates. And it really needs to have an SSD so you can quickly restore Windows from an image after the tooling or updating goes awry.

3. Wiping System

Everybody has and gets hard drives to wipe and it’s really annoying to have disks in the process of being wiped constantly clicking away at your desk, especially noisy ones. So get an old system, leave a few SATA/IDE/etc adapters connected to it, and stick it in a far corner wiping drives.

4. Laptop

Obviously your laptop needs will be dictated very much by your unique preferences, but from my experience get something with onboard hdmi, ethernet, and at least one legacy USB A port because you do not want to be fussing around wondering whether something is not working because of a finicky dongle.

5. Multi-Function

No, they’re not perfect at anything, but you’ll end up doing a little bit of everything. You’ll scan some packing slips, registrations, and confirmations. You’ll print some invoices, labels, envelopes, instructions, and promotional flyers. You’ll make some copies of statements and contracts for your accountant and lawyer. You’ll print some coloring pages for your kids because they get up so early.

6. Tablet

A tablet isn’t essential, but comes in very handy. It doesn’t give any functionality beyond a phone’s, but it takes some of the load off your phone and gives you another tool to use so you’re not constantly reaching for your phone. It’s also handy to have an additional device to leave at your desk for the purpose of answering endless MFA prompts without whipping out your phone again and again.

7. Wireless Earbuds

They’re expensive, but the more useful the more mobile you are. When you’re away from your office, you’ll find untangling a snarled mess of headphone cables or trying to find a quiet place to put the client on speaker phone is very stressful and sometimes impossible.  Worse, you answer the phone flustered and sound unprepared.

8. Smart Watch

This is definitely something to wait on until you, your business, and your workflow have all matured, but this is the best way to get the push notifications for support requests, system alerts from your RMM software, and texts. Remember that you shouldn’t be doing this job sitting at your desk all day. Whether you’re working onsite at a client’s office or are talking with prospective clients, you need to be out and about, albeit connected, and you can’t be compulsively checking your phone.

No Shopping Sprees

working-macbook-computer-keyboard-34577Yes, it’s fun to buy computers, gadgets, and all of the fun tools and paraphernalia that go along with the IT business. There’s also a good chance that the ongoing excuse to buy things is many people’s favorite part of the business. That said, I would caution against going on a buying binge, even early on. Why?

First, if you’ve been in the business for a while or even if you have just been an enthusiast, you already have a lot more than you think you do. At least try it all out for a while and see if it suffices and, if it doesn’t, how it fails to meet your needs: then at least you’ll have some idea about what would best replace it.

Second, “writing things off” is often misunderstood, and we recall from this famous exchange from Seinfeld:

Kramer: Jerry all these big companies they write off everything.
Jerry: You don’t even know what a write off is.
Kramer: Do you?
Jerry: No. I don’t.
Kramer: But they do and they are the ones writing it off.

You can’t just “write off” your tech purchases if by “write off” you mean “not pay for.” All “writing off” an expense means is that said expense won’t count toward your income, so you won’t pay income tax on it. For example, if you make $1000 and buy a $100 computer part that you needed to fix your computer, the tax law considers that $100 an investment in your business and not profit, so you would not have to pay income tax on it, and so only pay tax on $900 worth of income.

So businesses often like to “write things off” because the more you “write off,” the lower your effective income, the less tax you pay. Obviously this arrangement is ripe for and rife with bad faith accounting, in which business owners try to deem everything they buy “business related” and thus eligible to be “written off.”

So don’t do that and don’t buy a lot of tech stuff just because you’re “writing it off.”

For more details and Seinfeldian examples, check out this great post from Aharon Schreiber at Seinfeld Law.

Third, you can make do. I started my business with and spent the first year using only a Mid-2012 MacBook Air and a Core 2 Duo Acer laptop with 4GB of RAM and an unactivated version of Windows 10. I only bought a new phone because at the time I was using a flip phone.

I’ve since added hardware, of course, but all hand-me-downs from friends and family or systems clients were junking.

Now I probably purchased too conservatively. I was definitely constrained by not having a dedicated Windows laptop with me, not having enough storage on my MacBook, not having a test system to play with, and not having all my apps on all my systems.

I kept money in my pocket, but I paid in inefficiency and, to some degree, stress. It’s worth it for a little while so you don’t waste money buying the wrong or unnecessary things, but it’s not worth it in the long run. It’s also not worth it if the impositions of not having the right tools is hurting your ability to serve your existing clients or to get new ones or making it so stressful to run your business that you can’t function.

But if you can hold off a while, then when you realize where your systems and setup are lacking you’ll know exactly what you need to replace them. The right tools and an efficient mobile and desktop setup take the stress out of meeting client needs and give you confidence in your services. That’s good for you and good for your business.

Technician Licenses

black-and-white-hard-disk-drive-2582931Most paid software has different licenses for home, commercial (used internally in a company), and technician (used on client systems) use. Some companies only charge a little more for the technician license, some charge a lot more, and some confusingly distinguish or don’t distinguish between their technician and commercial licenses, leaving you to call their rep or guess what to do.

You’ll also be in situations where the software will technically work for your purpose, but you’ll be in violation of the license or Terms of Service, say, by using a free license for commercial purposes, or a free or commercial license on a client computer. A few things to remember:

First, there’s nothing wrong with telling a client they need to purchase a piece of specialty software for a particular project. You can’t run your business profitably by paying out-of-pocket for software you need only for one project, especially if the software costs more than the project.

Second, however, there is some software that you are reasonably expected to have access to as a Technician. You have to define the line between specialty and essential software for your business. If you buy every piece of software out-of-pocket, you’ll end up spending too much money. If you make the client pay for everything all the time, you lose value as an IT Service because you don’t bring a suite of tools at your disposal as part of your service offering.

Remember that some purchases are an investment in your business because they allow you to do more, or do something better or more quickly, which makes your service more valuable.

Third, there’s a difference between once or occasionally or in an emergency using your commercial license on a client system, and deploying your commercially licensed software to all of your client’s systems for regular use. In the first case, the need only slightly oversteps the intent of the license, which is to protect the vendor by distinguishing between small and large scale environments. In the second case, you’re trying to appear small and so pay only a little for software that you’re using on many computers and that is, presumably then, an important and profitable part of a larger business.

In general, you want to respect the licenses that make the tech world go around and you want to bring a valuable suite of services to your clients, but while not breaking the bank.

Everyone’s an Administrator

iconUnfortunately on Windows, the default user account privilege has been and remains Administrator. This has two frustrating implications for MSPs:

  1. Users expect to be able to do anything on their system.
  2. Developers assume software is going to be run as admin so they don’t pay attention to what privileges it actually needs.

So if you start slimming down privileges to Standard, users are going to complain, usually that they can’t install software, and software is going to malfunction, usually when it tries to update. Sometimes you can tweak policies to make users happy and sometimes you can give users enough access to allow software to update, but not always. You can—trust me—sit there fastidiously editing policies and privileges, only to have the client call and say, “Can’t you just make me administrator?” in which case your power of persuasion and virtue of patience will be put to the test.

Unfortunately though, users occasionally need to be given administrative privileges, in which case the only thing you can do is set up extra notifications for certain changes and be prepared to roll them back, if needed.

Gathering the Passwords

antique-close-up-equipment-hanging-615350One of the hardest tasks to finish when onboarding a new client is collecting their passwords, which are in all likelihood disastrously organized. The situation is like changing your address after you’ve moved: you never quite get them all and years down the line you’ll realize you’ve still forgotten one.

Some passwords are obvious:

  • servers, workstations, email

Others less so:

  • databases running on servers, routers and firewalls, printers and copiers

Now depending on your Statement of Work for your client, all of that might not be your responsibility, so just get whatever credentials your client has and then go about resetting the rest. Don’t put this off, or you’ll naturally need access to something in an emergency and you don’t want to be fussing around resetting passwords.

If your client has previously been using the services of another MSP, you should recommend that your client request all the credentials their old MSP has on file. This most commonly includes:

  1. User Names & Passwords
  2. Encryption Keys
  3. License Keys
  4. Physical Keys (for servers and network cabinets)

Note that MSPs will often set up an email account in the name of a client, with the client’s permission, but which only the MSP uses, manages, or has access to. This is so that an MSP can use an email account to create and manage other accounts for the client that the client technically owns but isn’t the client’s primary email account.

So for any account made with this MSP-managed email, you won’t even be able to reset the password without a great deal of trouble, since you don’t have access to the email tied to the account either. Similar difficulties can arise in trying to access accounts with multi-factor or two-step authentication enable, since you’ll need access to another email account or device.

So definitely encourage your client to ask for any credentials their old MSP has on file, reset and record the ones you need, and leave the rest with the client.

Contract & Statement of Work

person-holding-silver-pen-signing-photographers-signature-175045Your Statement of Work and Contract are two of the most important documents you will use to communicate your business relationship to your clients and to protect yourself. The two documents should work together, with the Statement of Work specifically outlining what you’ll be doing and the Contract (sometimes called a Service Agreement) designating various warranties, indemnifications, remedies, and details that define procedures and responsibilities of the parties.

Some examples of the importance of a Statement of Work:

A. If a client complains, for example, that the domain name registration has lapsed or that a particular system has viruses, you could say that “Domain Renewal” and “David’s Home Laptop” are not listed in the Statement of Work. 

B. An “Exclusions” section of your Statement of Work would exclude from your responsibility problems that result from use of systems in a way that is not recommended. For example, if a client disables an antivirus or refuses to put passwords on the system. Likewise you can exclude problems that arise from a client preventing you from performing required maintenance and updates, perhaps by not giving you access to the system.

C. If a client complains that he couldn’t get in touch with you, you can show that you offer support hours from, say 8am to 5pm.

In general, the Statement of Work is essential to protect you and accurately describe what services your clients are getting from you. Without one, clients will tend to assume that anything and everything related to technology in their office is your responsibility.

Now while your Statement of Work protects you by putting limitations on what your actual services and responsibilities are, your contract spells out a lot of protections for you, such as:

  • indemnification (compensation) from client breach of the contract
  • protection for breach of contract on account of acts of God (aka force majeure, i.e. unforeseeable circumstances)
  • 3rd party products are provided without warranty
  • what happens if they don’t pay you, or don’t pay on time
  • ownership of intellectual property
  • under what circumstances either party may terminate the contract
  • scheduled downtime
  • confidentiality

Overall, the contract is going to protect you in all sorts of ways from all sorts of liabilities that you can’t foresee, which is why you should have a lawyer prepare one. They know the language, and they not only know what to say, they know what not to say. If you take things into your own hands or simply try to tweak a prefab contract, you’re going to leave something out or misphrase something such that you put yourself on the hook.

This is not the place in your business to cut corners and save a few bucks, not only because your liability insurance will be less if you operate with a contract, but also because you won’t have such a risk of liability.

So have a contract and statement of work prepared for you to use with clients and at the start of their trial period with you, leave them a copy to review. Then after the trial period is over, you and they sign off on them. With your mutual consent you’ll be able to change them later on, for example to add systems or adjust rates, so don’t feel that you’re limiting yourself.

Finally, if they want to change anything before they sign, don’t panic or take offence. Just take their suggestion and refer it to your lawyer. Remember that they need your services but that they need to protect themselves too.