- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

For a bunch of geeks, they sure drive cool cars. That black PT Cruiser with a yellow logo you may have seen jetting around Washington isn't carrying some hep cat to a downtown jazz club. The odds are good it's Jeffrey Phelps, a technician from Geeks on Call.

Mr. Phelps, 40, is a co-owner of the Washington franchise of the Norfolk-based company. A former computer technician with the Department of Agriculture, the affable 42-year-old has made a business out of swooping in to cure the maladies of computer users.

The new laptop won't boot up properly. The machine spits out gibberish instead of words. For Mr. Phelps' customers, digital life has become a long string of "fatal errors." For a cost of $25 per 15 minutes, Geeks on Call will fix those errors.

"We liken ourselves to the Old West doctors who made house calls," Mr. Phelps said as he cruised down Connecticut Avenue toward Adams Morgan.

Mr. Phelps, who lives in Triangle, Va., with his wife, Laura, and 4-year-old son, opened the business in July with Gary Barber, his former supervisor at the Department of Agriculture.

The two motorcycle enthusiasts they both ride Harley-Davidsons hit the road for Florida and stopped in Norfolk to chat with the corporate heads about a Geeks on Call franchise in Washington.

"We chewed it over on the beach in Key West and dropped off the deposit on the way back," Mr. Phelps said.

Mr. Phelps mortgaged two houses and moved into a cheap rental unit. Mr. Barber kicked in some savings it cost them $100,000 to get going and offered up his house in Northwest as an initial base of operations.

A few months later, the two men hired four other technicians and started making house calls.

"Some of the technicians had problems with being called geeks," he said. "But they're getting over it."

Calling on people at home has taken some getting used to, Mr. Phelps said, though he did more than his share of free-lance jobs while working full time. He has seen domestic disputes, aggressive dogs and one woman who appeared at the door in her underwear only to exclaim: "Oh, you're here so soon."

Mr. Barber and Mr. Phelps hope to secure regular contracts with small businesses that can't afford full-time "geeks" of their own. The real money, Mr. Phelps said, is in regular service calls.

On most days, the team meets around Mr. Barber's dining-room table at 7:30 a.m. over juice and muffins before heading out to service calls. Mr. Phelps oversees technical operations and tends to customers while clad in a white polo shirt and beige baseball cap, both emblazoned with the Geeks logo.

Setting out in his manual-transmission PT Cruiser, Mr. Phelps programs the target address into his electronic navigation system. A crisp, British-accented voice guides him through side streets and main thoroughfares to the next customer.

On one call last week, he landed at the home of Tom Doyle, 42, a frazzled Adams Morgan resident who had tried in vain to fire up a new computer and save the data on his old one.

"I spent hours on the phone with Sony and Microsoft," Mr. Doyle said. "I can't deal with it anymore."

Mr. Phelps got to work setting up the new computer and removing key components from the old one.

"We have to swap over your old network card into the new computer," he explained to Mr. Doyle, a marketing consultant for hotels.

Hooking up Mr. Doyle's high-speed Internet access proved to be a tougher chore. With the new computer, Mr. Doyle had a new operating system, so his software from Verizon no longer worked. Mr. Phelps told Mr. Doyle he would have to come back later with the right program, and that he would bring an Internet security device with him too.

Mr. Doyle wrote a check for the services and thanked Mr. Phelps for the help.

Mr. Doyle's problem was largely fixed, but his frustration with computers remained: "I can't take it anymore."

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