Leadership Corner: James Kerr
Interviewed by Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
Name: James Kerr
Title: President and chief executive officer
High school: Wilmington Friends School in Wilmington, Del.
College: Bachelor of science in mechanical engineering, minors in philosophy and Japanese studies, University of California, San Diego
Breakthrough job: Kerr tried starting a business in Tokyo similar to Outward Bound. "I failed and called Sony," he said. He wound up working for six years in Sony's R&D Planning Group, and then in its New Business Development Group for digital still imaging.
Little-known fact: As a youngster, Kerr was an avid equestrian. He even left home at one point in his early teens to train for international competition.
Major challenge: "I tell my gang our biggest challenge is ourselves," Kerr said. "People simply want a geek who is knowledgeable, friendly and responsive. The first company that can deliver that consistently wins. There is so much opportunity. We just need to get the job done."
Q. You've used images of superheros and action figures to advertise your company SuperGeeks. How important is branding and name recognition to your company?
A. I think it's critical, largely because we're in a consumer environment here; we're in a public space, and people want to identify with the company they're doing business with. They want to develop some allegiance to it, so we need to promise them something, and that's our brand. And we need to deliver on that promise. We need to live that story.
Q. Has your company name alone attracted business?
A. Oh, yes. In our industry, which is so fragmented, you don't know who to go to. So for a company like ours, we have to stand out above the rest. We need to do a good job, of course, at a fair price, but we need to distinguish ourselves from the others. ... We own the name in three federal trademark classifications. We spent a lot of money to boilerplate this name. It's probably worth more than the company.
Q. How does the image of a superhero reflect what you do?
A. We're geeks, we know what we're doing and we're here to save the day. We might be geeky, but we get the job done.
Q. Prior to SuperGeeks, you ran Computer Safari, which provided after-school enrichment programs for children. How did you make the leap from teaching computer-based classes to troubleshooting networks and building Web sites?
A. A few years into it, parents started asking for tech support (on their home computers). I would do it for $15 an hour. I just wanted to help them, not because I wanted to start a business. ... I began to realize this was a growing industry. Computers were here to stay, but the whole world was arcane to common users. ... There's this enormous gulf between what computers can do and what people know or want computers to do. I felt it was my job to bridge that gap between technology and its application.
Q. How hard is it to find "geeks" who know computers but also are able to explain terms and concepts to common users who aren't so techno-savvy?
A. That's difficult to discern in the first interview, but it's easy to recognize after you put them to work. ... It starts with the hiring. Because this is a people business, we want to capture those natural-born geeks. Customers want the job fixed the first time, so we need geeks who are extremely adept, and with the aptitude to stay current. ... They need to love technology and love learning about technology. They also need to know how to communicate, because communication obviously plays a critical role with our customers. You could be a terrific geek, but if you can't communicate, it just isn't going to work out. Our job is to pull out the thorn in the lion's paw, so all of our people need to have black belts in empathy. They've got to come wired that way already. They gotta be the kind of person who just wants to help people. So we're looking for techno-savvy geeks who can communicate and who are genuinely concerned about customers. That's a winning combination.
Q. What kinds of services do you offer, and what are your plans for growth?
A. Our job is to help people with their computers. This entails troubleshooting, upgrades, networks, maintenance, Web design and training. Lately we have made a strong push into data recovery and remote tech support. ... My vision for SuperGeeks is to become a nationally branded chain of conveniently located tech centers, to be like the Jiffy Lube or Kinko's or Starbucks of tech support. I envision these centers to be places where people know what to expect in terms of quality: They can expect a certain set of services, and they can get the help they need.
Q. When you started SuperGeeks in your two-bedroom home in 1998, what was your goal?
A. I used to own a van then. I always said if business went south, the Ford Astro Van was big enough in the back for me to sleep in if I had to. But business grew because of our focus on quality. (When you start a business) you have to make a decision: What would the focus be on quality? Price? Location? Our customers have computer problems and they don't mind paying for it. ... We decided we weren't going to be the cheapest, but we were going to be the best. We would charge an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. We would stand by our quality and grow the business one customer at a time.
Q. You now have thousands of clients, with service centers on O'ahu, Maui and the Big Island and plans for two more this year. What's been the biggest challenge of managing this growth?
A. The biggest challenge is just executing. Our biggest challenges is ourselves. The opportunities are out there in front of us. Everyone has a computer; everyone has computer problems; everyone needs help. We just need to deliver.
Q. Your advice to young entrepreneurs interested in starting their own business is to do something you love and have fun.
A. You gotta enjoy going to work. You figure you spend the bulk of your day at the office. If you want to retain the best people, you have to make it fun for them. Life is for the living; it's too short for the drudgery.