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Dial-a-Nerd: Colin Thornton

In an industry known for its competitiveness, Dial-A-Nerd stands out as a leading light

Entrepreneur

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Colin & Aaron Thornton

The story of Dial-a-Nerd starts just likemany other companies in the IT industry: two friends, Colin Thornton and StuartCullender, who met during their studies at Wits, discovered they had a knackfor technology and set to work fixing computers for their friends and families.However, that’s where the similarities end: while many IT start-ups founderalong the way, Dial-a-Nerd has experienced mushrooming growth, leading to theestablishment of branches in Johannesburg and Cape Town and, ultimately, thefounding of Nerdworks (Pty) Ltd.

How did it all happen? “When Colin andStuart first established the business in 1998, they worked out of my parents’garage, fixing computers as and when needed,” recalls Aaron, Colin’s brother.One year later, demand for the company’s services – along with new customersrequiring PCs and upgraded components – had grown to the extent that formaloffices were required. It was then that Aaron joined the company on a part-timebasis, and the Dial-a-Nerd trio continued to make waves. By the end of 2002, it had taken on fivetechnicians and moved to larger premises in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, and while still servicing itshome-based clients, Dial-a-Nerd’s business clientele was growing steadily.Shortly thereafter, Stuart left toconcentrate on his studies, while Aaron decided to join the company as afull-time member. More exciting changes were in store: having grown its staffcomplement to seven technicians, two of Dial-a-Nerd’s employees – Andrew Burnsand Xavier Nel – put forward a proposal to establish an arm dedicated tocorporate clients.

With expansion already on the cards, Colinand Aaron received a call from Roberto Caprio and David Collins, partners in aCape Town-based company called Orange Dot, who were interested in bringingDial-a-Nerd to the Mother City. The new branchopened its doors in 2003 – but the company’s growth did not end there. A fewmonths later, software expert David Tayler joined Dial-a-Nerd to focus on itssoftware division.“We decided to capitalise on the strengthand profitability of the brand by filtering it into other business,” Aaronsays. And so, in the latter half of 2003, Nerdworks (Pty) Ltd was formed.Colin, Aaron, Andrew, Xavier, Roberto,David Collins and David Tayler are all partners in the business, which todayincludes Software Nerds, Network Nerds and, of course, Dial-a-Nerd. The groupnow boasts offices in Parkhurst, Bryanston, Cape Town and Tokai. It employs more than 50people countrywide.

While the rapid growth of the company maymake it sound like an entrepreneur’s dream, Aaron admits that it has not beeneasy. “In our early days, we were badly hurt by issues like fraud and debtors.”Even now, as the company continues on itsever-upward trajectory, the partners are faced with the challenges ofmaintaining the unique Dial-a-Nerd culture and ensuring that all branches countrywideshare the same ethos. How has the company overcome these challenges?“For a start, we’re a great team,“ Aaronmaintains. “My background is in the restaurant industry, so I’ve always placedgreat emphasis on delivering flawless service. That’s become the foundation ofa culture dedicated to service and delivery. Colin, on the other hand, isexcellent at formulating strategy and making sure we’re all working towards thesame goal.”

At the same time, the company is notprecious about who does what – if there’s a problem, the managers will quicklystep in to sort it out. “We’ve remained very close to the business.”Dial-a-Nerd has also gained a reputationfor trustworthiness. Unlike many IT companies who discard their smaller clientsas soon as bigger fish come on board, Dial-a-Nerd has never lost its focus onhome users and small companies. Because of this, the company’s technicians areable to gain a thorough understanding of their clients’ needs. As Aaron putsit: “We’re looked upon as trusted consultants. We’d never sell technology forits own sake; rather, we look at what the client needs and advise themaccordingly.”Of course, the quirkily distinctiveDial-a-Nerd brand helps too. Aaron reports that Colin first registered thebrand in 1998, primarily as he liked the idea of a nerdy face being thecompany’s representative icon.

While the brand has been refreshed sincethen, with the icon made to look more professional, it remains a core featureof Dial-a-Nerd, one that clients respond to. “Despite this, as many as 80% ofour clients have been attracted through word of mouth rather than marketingactivities,” Aaron reveals.What does the future hold for Dial-a-Nerd?“We’d like to see the company rolled out on a national level, using the samebusiness model,” Aaron says.Meanwhile, the company will concentrate onimproving its processes. “Because our growth was so rapid, we have tended to bemore reactive than proactive in our functioning. If, in an ideal world, we weregiven a large cash injection, we would use the money to tighten up processesand see where we’re losing money and where we could make improvements,” Aaronsays.

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