Posted on April 29, 2013 11:51 am

Building a Small IT Consulting Business Based on Linux (Video)

from the they-love-you-as-long-as-everything-works dept.

When you call your business Penguin Computer & Telephone Solutions, it’s obvious that Linux is your favorite operating system. Company owner Frank Sflanga, Jr. happily works on Windows, Mac and whatever else you want or have around, but he is a Linux person at heart; in fact, he’s a founder and leading member of The Southwest Florida GNU/Linux Users Group. But the point of this interview, which some will want to label an ad (although it’s not), is to show how Frank started his one-man consulting business and made it successful so that other Slashdot readers can follow in his footsteps and become self-employed — if they are so inclined. You might want to note that most of Frank’s clients were not familiar with Linux when he first started working with them, and most are not particularly interested in software licensing matters as long as Frank keeps their stuff working. You might also want to note that Ft. Myers, FL, where Frank is located, is not exactly famous as a hotbed of leading-edge technology, which means that even if you live someplace similar, where business owners ask “What’s a Linux?” you might be able to make a decent living running a Linux-based IT consulting business.

 

 

Robin: I am Robin Miller, ‘Roblimo’ to some of you, on the line with Frank Sfalanga who has a small computer consultancy in Fort Myers, Florida. He specializes in Linux although he does all operating systems though he can tell which one he likes most because his consultancy is named

Frank: Penguin Computer and Telephone Solutions.

Robin: Yes. Whereas if it was named Windows Telephone or Bite An Apple or something, well it’s not. So that’s what he does. And Frank, you switched an awful lot of people, both individuals and small businesses to Linux. Was it hard?

Frank: You know it is actually much easier from a support standpoint, because the people seem to have a lot fewer problems. The initial setup is sometimes a little more complicated. I have several businesses that use Linux on the desktop and then use some particular software in a virtual machine type thing, and they sometimes have multiple monitors. But once it is set up, from a support standpoint, I get far fewer calls on the Linux side of things – it just works.

Robin: So that actually cuts your income, doesn’t it?

Frank: No, becausewell, my business customers are under contract. And they really don’t want to have problems. They just want to know that somebody is going to be there if they do have a problem. And of course, I am there. So it doesn’t really it does hurt to break fixed work, we are constantly going in and fixing this and that but hardware still breaks, software does have problems at times, but it is not things like, ‘I’ve misplaced my printer icon, can you help me find it?’ kind of stuff. I don’t get a lot of that stuff.

Robin: So basically what you are saying is something I said a long time ago, that Linux is boring.

Frank: Well, if you want something that just works as advertised, and does what you need it to do, particularly if you are in a work situation, and if you want something that acts as a tool, and doesn’t run you around in circles fixing it constantly reminding you that this needs to be upgraded, and you need to defragment that, and you need to update your Adobe Acrobat, and this that and the other things, I mean it actually helps you get a lot more work done.

Robin: But that isn’t as much fun, is it?

Frank: It is for me because I like to tell people, my company is Penguin Computer and Telephone Solutions, but I really want to call it ‘Solutions, Penguin Computer and Telephone’ because I am really more about solving problems, and I try and solve them long term, and leave people with a roadmap that is not going to leave them stuck in a corner, or constantly on the upgrade treadmill, coughing up dollars, and doing updates and whatnot.

Robin: You make a pretty decent living, don’t you?

Frank: I make a pretty fair living, yeah.

Robin: I mean you could afford a new car every ten years or whatever.

Frank: Sure.

Robin: You are going to have a girlfriend?

Frank: I do. You know, once you have a house and a couple of cars, what else do you really need? I mean that’s my thing. I like solving problems.

Robin: Sailboat. You need a sailboat. And you need a country club membership.

Frank: I do. And there’s actually a country club right here where I live and I am probably going to join it.

Robin: Oh, well, I did not know that. Well, excuse me. What you are in a way you are living proof, and you are not the only one in the country by a factor of some 1000’s the idea that instead of having one real richie, the Larry Ellison, or the Billy Gates or whatever, that with Linux you have a whole lot of people out there, doing support and whatnot, and with free software and making an okay living. That would be you, wouldn’t it?

Frank: Yeah. You know, I don’t sell a lot of the stuff, a lot of the solutions that I provide. Linux offers a use value to my customers, they don’t mind paying me for my time, they are going to do that anyway, but if I can leverage open source or free software, something that perpetuates software freedom and something that doesn’t cost money for the customer, they don’t care, as long as it works. They just want something that is robust and reliable and that’s what they get.

Robin: Okay, you are not exactly Fort Myers, Florida is not in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Frank: Wait a minute. Lee County is a big technology place.

Robin: Oh please, you know, Lee County, Florida, people, well I think the alligator population outnumbers the human population by a good bit.

Frank: Yeah, that’s probably true. That’s probably true.

Robin: It is so bad that I actually see you, I am hearing thunder and rain outside and I am seeing you crack up a little bit on the screen; but it is not bad, we’ll drive on. People, he doesn’t look like that – he is smoother, okay? In Florida it is the time of the year that suddenly we get those bang thunderstorms. And I am getting it, and Frank is not, even though we are not that many miles apart.

Frank: Right.

Robin: In any case, in the middle of the thunderstorms and all that, do you find that most people, the people you’ve put on Linux, had they heard of free software before?

Frank: Most of them had not, and I have a little spiel that I go through with them, that explains what it is and how it works pretty succinctly – as long as you don’t use a lot of esoteric jargon and acronyms and whatnot you can generally get the idea across to people. And when they find out, surprisingly, they actually love the idea.

Robin: But they are primarily, I am assuming they are not primarily caring about licenses but that stuff works?

Frank: No they are really not caring about licenses. One thing they do like is the way the distributions have repositories with thousands of cost-free applications – they do enjoy that. They do enjoy being able to just type in a search for a game and being able to select from thousands of games rather than going to somebody’s website who may or may not have malicious software, downloading and executable, and installing it unknowing. They like that it is easy, I mean installed with a single click, uninstalled with a single click, and they appreciate that.

Robin: Now here’s something that I’ve just had to deal with, because I went to Windows 72 or 78 or something, some sort of horrible thing, and you know, naturally I immediately installed Classic Shell so I could get the desktop all the time. But still I had to update a bunch of software. And the secret codes that you have to type in are real long and stupid.

Frank: Yeah.

Robin: After you spend some time using free software I find the secret codes, the secret proprietary tends to be just a huge irritation. How about you, how about your clients?

Frank: Well, I work with all different types of software so the code thing over the years I’ve been doing this almost 20 years now – I’ve typed in my share of codes over the years. I appreciate not having to type in a code. That is helpful. But it has actually cost customers time and money too. When I go to upgrade something or install a new workstation, and they can’t find their CDs, in some cases, the software is not available from the proprietary provider over the internet, and then we have to hunt down CDs or order them in the mail, and they have to wait – I mean it does become a bit of a runaround at times. And yeah, I don’t like wasting my time. So yeah, the code thing is nice to not have to deal with on the Linux side absolutely.

Robin: I have a friend up here way up north here in Bradenton; people, it is like 50 miles difference; you will notice he took a drink, because see that is the Marco Rubio thing

Frank: You want me to jump out of frame?

Robin: No don’t you know, come on, you are slick. You are not him.

Frank: I am also not a senator or representative so

Robin: No he is a senator now.

Frank: Oh yeah, he is a senator?

Robin: He is, hard to believe, but what are you going to do? The thing is: You got this going, you got people doing it. Now you’ve been doing this for 20 years – you haven’t been on your own for 20 years, have you?

Frank: No I’ve spent a lot of time in the industry but working for other people. This is our third year as Penguin Computer and Telephone Solutions. So the third year.

Robin: Okay.

Frank: So 17 years on the outside, I guess.

Robin: 17 years on the outside, 3 working for yourself. And how long did it take the business to support you decently?

Frank: It was pretty much right off the bat. I mean it has gotten better as time’s gone on but right off the bat, I had a few consulting jobs that I was doing on the side even as I was working, in market research and telecommunications before that. I’ve always had a small cabal of highly exclusive, very trusting people that have used my services. So when I started out on my own, I did bring them with me.

Robin: Do you have any advice for someone else who wants to do as you have done?

Frank: Work. I mean it is really work. I mean it is working for yourself, I don’t know, people say that you can’t really appreciate what a job is until you work for yourself. That really is literally a 24-hour day thing. I don’t have a secretary. So I do accounts payable, accounts receivable, billing, taxes, you know, the whole nine yards, aside from the actual technical work and services. And then I have to have people to back me up if I am unavailable – my customers need to know that somebody is going to be there to help them. I usually schedule it – that’s another challenge that I’ve overcome with having a lot of the keys to the places that I actually work at, and I do a lot of stuff off-hours; and they appreciate it too. Because they don’t have to be interrupted in what they are doing. If I have a major rollout to do or some big change, I will do it after five sometimes and I will do until midnight at times.

Robin: So they are trusting you that much that you literally have the keys to their castles.

Frank: And access codes absolutely. You know, I control the security on their IP infrastructure and their network, why wouldn’t they trust me with physical security?

Robin: I don’t know. It is just I’ve never heard anybody we just haven’t had this conversation, I haven’t with anybody. So it is a good thing to think about. How do you build that much trust with people, because it is a lot?

Frank: It is. It is reputation. And of course, I have insurance as well. And you know, I guess I am just a trustworthy looking kind of guy I guess, I don’t know. I’ve had almost no pushback, most of my work is by referral. Most of the relationships I have built with my customers, I have built over years. They know that they can rely on me. They know that they can trust me. And they know that I’ll respond in a timely manner and I will get their issues straightened out. So they trust me.

Robin: You belong to Chambers of Commerce or any business groups?

Frank: Yeah, I belong to the Professional Business Resource here in Lee County, we meet actually in the same building as my office. And we meet every Thursday morning, and we have our business meetings, and our extracurricular meetings, and we have a lot of fun. I’ve met a lot of good people that way.

Robin: Okay, so you have obviously, then an office outside the home. You don’t work from home?

Frank: Both. I work from home, and I have an office – both.

Robin: Why do you have the office? Why don’t you just work from home?

Frank: Well, I could if I wanted to. But it is just a personal decision. I find it is a lot better to be able to focus in a controlled environment where interruptions are kept to a minimum. There is a secretary out front that if I have an appointment or something, they’ll let them in. I don’t have to have everybody know where I live. You know, that kind of thing.

Robin: So it is a shared office situation?

Frank: Yeah, it is an executive suite. And I am one of the tenants in the executive suite; there are probably 160 or 200 offices in the building now.

Robin: Because I know somebody who owns an executive suite building in Bradenton. How does it work for you? Is it better than just having your own little office?

Frank: Well it actually does help. Because there are a lot of other businesses in the executive suite and many of them use my services. In fact, there is actually another computer place, it is more of a retail computer place than I am even. I am by appointment. But there are enough tenants in the building that you know somebody always needs help with something, and that’s good.

Robin: I never thought of it. But besides that, dealing with clients, I know it is nice to have a you don’t have a secretary, but in a way you do, – you just have a shared secretary, right?

Frank: Right, exactly, a receptionist.

Robin: Right. It sounds like you’ve really figured it out. I hope people are listening to this and follow in your footsteps. And do well for themselves. I would like to see a lot of Slashdot readers in their own businesses and prosperous and stuff.

Frank: Yeah.

Robin: And you are a Slashdot reader since what, since the beginning about, right?

Frank: Yeah, oh yeah, the late ‘90s maybe, so I remember Commander Taco, I remember when they probably were doing it in their garage back then; I have no idea. You know these people, I don’t know them. I guess they were in college when they started.

Robin: You mentioned people who can take over if you are going to be out for a bit.

Frank: Absolutely.

Robin: Who are they? How did you meet them? Why do you trust them?

Frank: Well they are all technical professionals like myself. Some of them worked for hospitals, some of them worked for Comcast or Centurylink or some internet service provider. We all met through the Linux users group of which I was one of the founding members in the late ‘90s. Three, me and two guys, Ed Gray, and Bert Rapp all worked at Sony. And Chris Williams as well. And I started the Linux users group, it was in the late ‘90s but I really don’t know when it was – ’98, ’99, or ’97, I have no idea. And we just met a lot of people. And over more than the last decade, we’ve met at Edison Community College once a month, we’ve met at FGCU once a month, we’ve met at Perkins restaurants once a month, public libraries – so we’ve just all kept in touch. And through our mailing lists and our websites, we’ve helped each other with technical issues, and we built and forged strong friendships you know you watch these people year after year, you watch them get married, have kids, their family – these are very good friends of mine and I completely trust them, and it is mutual, I am sure. And I know that I can depend on them.

Robin: You are telling me that the Linux users group is a valuable business resource?

Frank: Oh, it is indispensable. I could not have done this and I could not continue to do this without the Linux users group. I mean just being able to have a simple question answered in a timely manner or somebody help me with a particularly challenging issue even in email, even emailing back and forth to have that support, particularly when you are out on your own – you know, it can be daunting and discouraging to realize that if you think of it as you are doing this yourself you may just freak out, but in reality nobody does it alone. Everybody uses Google. EVERYBODY uses Google. Including your customers. And ultimately issues get resolved, problems get solved, solutions are provided; people are made happy. And that is what it is all about. Just making a living, doing something that you enjoy doing. And that is what I am doing.