Local Business Spotlight sat down for an in-depth interview with Frank Masland, CEO of Aardvark Computers, an Information Technology Company in Carlisle, PA.
Frank: We are a locally owned and operated information technologies services company. We build, service, and repair computers. We also support small businesses, networks, and home computers.
We deal with everything from viruses to network set-ups, small business servers, back-up solutions. Kind of a Swiss Army Knife approach to IT support here in
LBS: Do you do repairs on-site or in-house?
Frank: We do both on-site and in our shop. If it’s a repair, we’re going to have people or businesses drop off equipment here, generally for virus removal. But a lot of the work we do on site, particularly business support.
We do some home calls, if we get an older person who can’t get their computer out of their home, we’ll go to them. Then there are some other instances, where it’s necessary. In general we try to do as much as we can here in the shop because it becomes less expensive for the customer.
For the business customers 75-80% of the business is done on-site because we may be dealing with on-going problems, setting up new users, security concerns, infrastructure upgrades of some sort or another.
LBS: Aside from the services you provide, does Aardvark offer any type of products?
Frank: We build both desktop systems and servers. We sell pretty much all types of computer equipment like laptops and tablets. We don’t build tablets or laptops. About 80% of our business we do through a couple of big distributors in the area, Ingram Micro and D & H Distributors in Harrisburg. We’re one of their larger customers in this area.
We are also a Dell Gold Partner. Particularly with servers we tend to work with Dell because of the quality of the servers they make. We like to use them as well as build our own.
We also sell network equipment, wireless routers, hard drives, video cards, switches, printers, and anything like that.
We don’t have a big retail store like a Staples or Best Buy, we do stock some items, but generally if you come in and you want something, we can have it the next day for you from our distributor.
LBS: How long have you been in business?
Frank: There are two senior partners, which are myself and Ken Keck. Ken was the founder of Aardvark Computers, which he incorporated back in 1998 and started as a one man show. I started in the business doing computer consulting in 1996, on my own as the “Computer Tutor.”
We did a lot of business together over the years and joined forces in 2008, moving the business to our current location. We have since taken on some more partners, and employees, and started expanding from two one man shops, to our current five person operation.
LBS: What would you say make Aardvark unique?
Frank: One thing I would say is experience. We have a number of years of experience. Even though we both started doing this professionally in the mid 90’s, Ken, myself, and Jon Trimble who is another partner have been computer geeks since they came out. So we have a lot of experience.
We are locally owned and operated, which means that the support you get is much simpler than going to a help desk in a foreign country.
Along with the local support, and our expertise, we are very dedicated to keeping our customers happy.
In a small town such as Carlisle, many of the customers are friends, or we’ve become friends. Some are relatives. Certainly everybody knows everybody. My family in particular, the Masland’s, owned the largest manufacturing company in this town for many years, and almost everyone knows them.
We are a true hometown sort of a business. A lot of people feel comfortable with that because when you’re dealing with computer issues, where some may have privacy concerns, or you may have issues with trust and security, people know us.
We are located near the Army War College and we do a lot of work with the students there, the Army Heritage Center, and some of the vendors on the Army base. That has gotten us a relationship with them. We are members of a few of their associations and have supported the Army Heritage Center as well.
LBS: Who are your current customers?
Frank: We have a couple of thousand customers in this area split between individuals and businesses. One of the neat things about our business is, because every business has a computer, we get to see and interact with every profession imaginable.
We deal with Lawyers, doctors, dentists, engineers, garages, churches, funeral homes, realtors and little shops. We get to meet retired military personnel, people who are on a fixed income; it’s a very broad spectrum of the local economy that we deal with.
For the most part, we are not supporting large businesses that have their own internal IT staff. Our largest business customers might have 50 – 75 computers,
once they get up to 100 computers or so they would have their own in house IT. But for some of the schools, and other places that don’t have that, we are sort of a local point of reference where they can call in, and we can assist them on a as needed basis.
LBS: What are some of the main reasons you like living and doing business in this area?
Frank: I think all of us here really enjoy life here in Central Pennsylvania. We were all born and raised here.
I lived out of state for a number of years, but came back to raise my family here. My family has been here for a long time and very much a part of the community.
One of the really rewarding things is that in our business we get to help people. Many times when we’re dealing with computer issues, it’s a PROBLEM, something that has caused stress or strain. Maybe a business is in danger of losing some of their data. Or an individual’s pictures of Aunt Tilly, who suddenly passed away, went “poof”, and they are all very distraught about it. We get a chance to help.
Most of the time we can be of some assistance. It’s a way of not only earning a living, but also a way to give back and help people who have these emergent computer problems, and help alleviate some of their stress.
LBS: Can you tell us any more about your personal story and why you got into the computer field?
Frank: I’m 63 years old, so obviously I was not born and raised on computers. I was a kid that liked building radios, doing science projects and all that kind of stuff. So, I was always interested in electronic gadgets.
When personal computers first came out in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I was a very early adopter of all of that. I worked with DOS and when Microsoft released windows 95 I participated in the Beta Testing Program.
It was really a stimulus for me to get into doing the technical support work, as I saw how many problems arose from that.
Ken and Jon were the same way. We’re all the kind of guys that early on were tinkerers and users of computers. We were the guys that all our friends and family
would call and say “Hey can you help me with my computer.”
So, we eventually started to charge for it. That’s kind of how we got into it. We all did other things; I had some other businesses before this. But, I would have to say that out of all the businesses I’ve ever been in, this is my favorite, by far.
It’s very rewarding, and very interesting. Every day there is always some new challenge. Some days you win, and some days the computer wins. But for the most
part, it keeps us very sharp because we get a chance to hone our skills every day.
There is always a new problem that walks in the door, and it’s, “WOW, have you ever seen anything like that before?…NO!” “Can you imagine what might have caused that?…Absolutely not!” “Let’s see if we can figure it out.” That happens almost on a daily basis.
LBS: What have been some of your biggest challenges thus far?
Frank: As I said before, there’s always a new problem. It’s not like you can just go to school and they have a course that teaches you how to do all this stuff. You really do learn as you go.
Other challenges have been, trying to grow the business, while remaining true to our goal of providing the best service. Our business isn’t like flipping burgers; we can’t just hire on a bunch of kids to come in and do it. Otherwise we would have real quality control problems.
So, we try to grow, and we have grown, but we have to do that within the parameters of the fact that our work is very knowledge driven. People are really relying on us and we can’t wing it. We have to maintain quality control.
And that’s always a challenge because the last thing we want to do is make a mistake that costs somebody their data, or fix something and have it come back in the shop four times because it really wasn’t fixed the first three times. Those are constant challenges.
LBS: Are there any defining moments that made you grow to the level you are today?
Frank: In 2008, the joining of forces. Bringing on Jon Trimble was a big step forward. Also, our personnel, our office manager Kris Taylor and our new guy Pete. It’s the people, each time we brought them on it has made a difference. But the biggest defining moment was the move into our new building and the joining of forces.
LBS: Are there any interesting or funny things that have happened at Aardvark Computers you’d like to share?
Frank: We have them almost on a daily basis. It is often humorous.
Everybody thinks that the computer guys are sitting there making fun of them for being stupid. But we do get some peculiar requests and peculiar people that have come in over the years.
We had a guy come in some time ago that had a laptop with a cracked screen. He obviously dropped something on it, or dropped the laptop itself. He thought all he had to do was a system restore on it and like magic it would all be back to normal.
We had a business call one time that thought they had been hacked into because strange things were happening. I asked, “What kind of strange things?” The lady
replied, “Well, I’ll be sitting there working on a spreadsheet and words will start to type on the screen when I’m not even at the keyboard.”
I said, “Really?” So I went in and I looked around, and it wasn’t happening at the time. So I remarked, “Well I don’t see what you’re talking about.” She said, “Well sometimes it just happens.” I asked, “Any particular time it happens?” She replied, “Most of the time when Mary’s in the office next to me.”
Well it turned out that they both had wireless keyboards and they were both going to the same receiver. So every time Mary would type something, it would appear on Susie’s computer. But they thought some bad guy had hacked into their system.
LBS: How has Aardvark changed or evolved over the years?
Frank: We have steered more toward the business market. When I first started I was almost dealing exclusively with peoples’ home computers. Over the last few years we have serviced more small business customers.
It has moved away from where we just do the break and fix thing, more toward network and business support. It’s still a little of both, but that is an area that has changed over the years.
And some of the new devices have changed as well, wireless and tablets.
We get people coming in trying to figure out how to get their cell phones hooked to their wireless network and things like that.
LBS: What kind of trends are you noticing in your industry that might affect your customers or the community?
Frank: Definitely the trend towards a lot of devices other that just the PC and laptops. Now we have the Tablets, iPads, Smartphones, and that has changed things in trying to integrate all that stuff together.
More and more wireless and cellular types of service are springing up so you can be connected to the internet all the time. That’s a big trend that will continue on.
The trend toward cloud based computing, Google Docs, storage of files on the Internet, Dropbox. Social networking and things like that are also affecting the
computer business quite a bit.
It’s not that people don’t have PC’s, Laptops, and servers, they do, but it’s just more devices. Businesses are utilizing the newer mobile devices, but there will always be the keyboard, the mouse, and the monitor for office situations for a more comfortable setting. We see them growing together, not just one replacing the other.
LBS: If someone were looking to purchase the products or services you offer, what advice can you give them to make the best choice?
Frank: Sitting down with somebody that is a professional, like us, we can better help them with their decision making. There is such a large variety of choices out there. Their friends may tell them they should get this, or get that, when maybe that’s not the best thing for them.
We try not to just tell people, “Oh yea, the solution is to buy something we sell.” Obviously we’re hoping they will, but sometimes thats not the right decision.
But the main thing also, is to not be swayed by the initial price of something. Like, “I saw in the paper it’s $399 for a whole computer!” It may be true, but,
what will you do if you need service? Spending hours on the phone with overseas tech support may not be worth the price difference.
Also, what’s under the hood? They all kind of look the same, but that doesn’t mean all the components are the same.
That’s why we exist, because there are many people that say, “I know I can get this a little cheaper at a Big Box store, but I know you guys will be there if I have a question. I can just stop in and ask you if I have a real problem. Also, I know you’ll stand behind it, get a replacement, and I won’t have to spend a week on the phone listening to someone tell me it’s my fault, not the computers fault.”
LBS: Are there any events or promotions taking place at Aardvark?
Frank: We don’t have the big sale, you know, the two computers for the price of one type of thing. That’s not our style of business. We offer good quality and value every day.
We have a promotion on WHP 580 Radio. We do the “Technology Minute” during “Weekend Appointment” with Attorney Karl Rominger, on Saturday’s between 1pm & 3pm. I give computer tips, solve problems, or answer questions. A lot of people say they enjoy listing to our brief Radio spots.
LBS: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Frank: I would just say, if anyone has questions we’d be more than happy to sit down with them. We don’t charge anything for a sit down. We do site surveys for businesses. We’ll come in, look your situation over, and give you some advice. If we can help you, fine, if you want to continue using your existing people, that’s ok too.
LBS: How can a potential customer learn more?