Grow Your Computer Business… Sideways?

What’s all this talk about sideways? When a business grows sideways it simply means new units or areas are added in order to serve customers in new ways. These units can be complimentary to existing functions, or they can be in an entirely new area.

So why should you grow your business sideways? Read on..


Why you should grow sideways
When you grow sideways you don’t have to start from scratch! You can easily market your new services to your existing customers who already know, trust and like your business. New business areas will also attract new customers, and in many cases customers who are very different from the clients you currently have.

Customers who call you for I.T. Services may be at a completely different stage of their business compared to someone wanting a brand new website. Your new customers can then be encouraged to use other areas of your business – so the whole process begins to feed of itself.

In my experience, one of the upshots of growing sideways is you instantly become more attractive to professional businesses. (Lawyers, Doctors Etc.) These businesses who are time poor, but money rich aren’t as price sensitive as other clients, they value your ability to get things done on time without them having to do the run around and find five different places.
This allows you to raise your prices (after all you are now a “value added” company) and develop a competitive advantage above and beyond that of the competition.

To put it a different way, imagine you are starting a business in retail. Which IT company are you going to pick, the people who “fix computers” or the company that can provide a range of business services as you grow? Quite simply you are in a different league.

Why you should not grow sideways
Growing sideways is not all “clients and paychecks” and should not be undertaken on a whim. Many “sideways” moves require specific technical knowledge (such as point of sale systems, websites) which you must develop until it is at business standard. You can hire more employees who already have this knowledge, but if you don’t have the resources to maintain a full time position you may be left trying to fix systems you know nothing about.

This brings me to my next point, you have the potential to do some serious damage to the trust your existing customers have in your business. Without proper preparation and investment (correct gear, training etc) you will be unprepared and amateurish, you could potentially damage their business and cost them thousands of dollars. If you are going to move into a new area make sure you do your homework!

If you do grow sideways it is important that you do not lose your “core message”. A core message is something which clients identify with, it makes them feel comfortable using your brand or services. If you suddenly incorporate point of sale systems on your homepage you may risk turning away the residential customer who feels they are in the wrong place. Remember when considering a sideways move that you can’t be all things to all people.

Areas for Consideration:

Point of Sale Systems
Obviously aimed at the retail / commercial segment the POS system can be used by any business of any size. There are many different kinds of systems ranging from the very inexpensive and most basic systems to a fully integrated database system spanning an entire company.

These systems often require you put your trust in another company’s software and in my experience there can be some incredibly overpriced systems. Most large POS companies have some form of reseller program and offer on the job training, commissions and emergency work as part of a business deal. If you are looking to attract more business clients I would give this some serious consideration
 

Printing
Business cards, Flyers, Fridge Magnets – probably something you are already familiar with. All businesses need this service and there is no reason why you can’t provide it! There are many approaches; you can invest in the equipment yourself, however professional high quality printing presses can cost thousands of dollars, or you can make a deal with a local printing company who has already made this investment.

You can help drive up more business for them, and in turn they can provide you with a small commission. This may seem like a waste of time for some businesses but if you are trying to build a “one stop shop” then printing is a must.

Graphic Design
Closely linked with printing is graphic design, obviously if you already have the skills the decision is easy. If you don’t I would not recommend that you go and learn, put simply there are already far too many excellent graphic designers out there who you can hire.

Also it keeps your time free to focus on the area’s you really excel. Having a graphic designer on staff (or have an arrangement with)  who can also contribute to your own advertising material is a good idea.

Website Design and Hosting
Websites are a good way of attracting business clients and can be easily marketed to your existing customers. Make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew in terms of site design or complexity.

Some website skills can be learned quite easily but again there is such a large body of skilled professionals out there, some people will even design a site for free if they are looking to build their portfolio.

If you already offer website hosting you may want to consider a “premium” approach, offer information like website traffic, time of day, time spent on site etc. You can either host websites yourself or contact one of many companies who offer reseller programs for these services.

Facebook / Twitter setup
Jump on board the new social media revolution, I recommend that everyone should learn how to use these tools effectively, if not for others then their own business! Many clients recognize the value in Facebook and twitter but simply don’t know how to use these tools, or use them effectively. Three – Five hours of research and tutorials and you should nearly be an expert, these systems are not hard, but a professional touch can make all the difference.

Hosted, Managed or Professional Backup Systems
Most responsible techs will have some form of backup system, but it could always be better. Email verification, multiple redundancies, faster recovery time. These are all things to consider and a good test for those wanting to move sideways slowly. (Although to be honest this is more of a “specialization” in a particular area) If you don’t already offer a backup system then you are doing yourself and your clients a disservice.



James Gilbert

About the Author

James Gilbert
More articles by me...
James has always had a passion for trying new ideas and taking risks, he hope to share with you his enthusiasm for IT and pass on practical ways you can grow your business. James been running his own IT business for over three years now and in the past he have dabbled in everything from international imports to hand made wheat bags.

Comments (9)

  • These are all EXCELLENT tips. I actually ended up “growing sideways” because I had so many customers asking me if I knew anyone who did web design, POS, or worked on Facebook. Originally, I was always like “well, of course I do!” But then I realized that there’s a LOT of business in these areas and to specifically market them is a great way to bring in business.

    Of course, for each service you grow sideways with, you open yourself up to have those same customers come to you for good ol’ PC repair. :)

  • Josh says:

    I ended up growing sideways because of late-night ice cream binges while trying to code custom PHP scripts for my website clients.

    But in all seriousness “Horizontal Integration” is a great way to boost revenue if you don’t have to sink a lot of money into doing it.

    I find for my company that getting into recurring revenue services like website hosting, domain names, anti-virus subscriptions, etc. is the best way to go horizontal.

  • Eddie says:

    I disagree, “growing sideways” in most cases means diluting your current services. Trying to take on too many services leads to a “jack of all trades, ace of none” type of company.
    More offerings means more overhead. Look at other professional services; specializing is where the money is and where you’ll find efficient companies. There are different types of Doctors, Lawyers even plumbers.

    When specializing, it is easier to create repeatable processes to “franchise your operation” even if you aren’t going to actually intend to sell franchises. ..And you’ll be able to charge more.
    In our industry look at these types of specialized services and compare their rates to yours:
    Data Recovery
    POS systems
    Hospitality Systems

    Is there some big mystery about setting up a POS system? Not really, but when you package it right, you can get away with charging double what the hardware is worth AND a monthly maintenance contract.

  • James G says:

    @ Eddie,

    I agree that adding too many services too quickly has the potential to dilute your current services, however I would choose to view additional services as a move into specialization for a particular client, i.e. the small business.

    if you build a relationship of trust with one client, and are able to continue to grow your services to match their needs then they won’t be tempted to look elsewhere.

    If the industry rates are so much higher then that just strengthens the case for adding additional business units. Many of my clients simply don’t have the time to search around for another provider. They value us as a “one stop shop” so to speak.

    and as Computer Repair Lansing pointed out, these units become pathways for clients to access other services within your business.

    Regards,

    James

  • Lisa says:

    Growing sideways didn’t work for me, I tended to lose focus on my core business and then once I had marketing going, people didn’t realize I did computer repair. I dropped all sideways business.

  • Chris Rahm says:

    IMHO. Growing sideways is a gamble. I agree with the article when it mentions customers trusting you and appreciating your service. This is a shoe in for you allowing your business to show off your new talents and/or services. Like others have said, it could be damaging as well if you aren’t as good at it as you should be and/or you don’t have the man power to keep up with your pre-existing services. Don’t forget what got you where you are. Grow sideways with extreme caution. :)

    NOTE: We attempted a few sideways expansions and realized that one wasn’t going to work early enough that it didn’t affect us. The other we are still working on and believe that it is making us a very important part in every business we maintain IT services for. If we are able to service this sideways growth as well as we have our pre-existing services, this new sideways growth will make us a highly important staple in each and every business we maintain.

    Good luck everyone with your own sideways research and nice paper James. Not that I agree with everything you said, because I like what Eddie had to say as well. The paper made me think. That in itself is worth it.

  • Chuck Romano says:

    Very thought provoking article, James. Good examples if a business is stuck in a rut or looking for more streams of income. I think you detail the pitfalls and concerns as well. I think it’s also good to note that something like this shouldn’t be done while you are still building your core business, unless there is a great benefit with little risk. I know that many people who are just starting out might be looking for a hundred different ways to bring in income and because of that never actually get off the ground.

  • Micky says:

    Good information. I think like others said it could lead to losing focus on your core business. But it could also lead to new streams of revenue. Thanks for the information.

  • IT Rush says:

    We have to be creative and try to work on other means in order to grow.. Trust is very important when it comes to this kind of gamble.