Tech support meets community action.
Most people wouldn’t look at a computer store and think about what it does for the community; but then, most people aren’t like Susan Labandibar, owner of Boston-based Computer Warehouse. As an environmentalist who also wants to help small businesses, she’s built a company that swirls together technology and community. She talks about what a long, fun trip it’s been.
Why did you decide to start the business?
In the spring of 1994, I had just returned to the United States after a year of biking through Europe, living in an eco-village, and marching through France on an anti-nuclear protest. I was tired of feeling at odds with the rest of society. I wanted to build a strong business that exemplified my core values: honesty, industry, compassion for others, and concern for the environment. I realized that college students in the city needed better access to inexpensive computers so that they could type their papers at home instead of staying at the computer lab late at night. I started putting flyers on college bulletin boards advertising complete used systems with free home delivery and setup. After a little over a year, we became so busy that we scouted out a retail location.
What was your greatest difficulty in growing from a home-based business to a retail one?
We were a bit concerned because we weren’t sure the neighborhood we selected–Andrew Square in South Boston–was ready for a high-tech computer store. In fact, as I was lugging computers into my new retail space, a passerby spotted my used computer monitors and asked if I was opening a television repair shop.
How do you work to minimize the store’s impact on the environment?
I recycle cardboard, paper, cans, plastic, and glass. We also recycle as many computer parts as we can into rebuilt computers. Our corporate giving program includes a high percentage of nonprofit environmental organizations. And this year, I purchased a Toyota Prius, which is a hybrid vehicle. Not only do we laugh every time we pass a gas station, but it has a cool GPS system built in so my technicians can finally stop getting lost.
What are some of the things you’re doing that other companies should be noting for their own operations?
Computer Warehouse has an internship program for students who love computers but want to acquire technical certifications and some real job experience. Other companies should have internship programs. They should also be careful about not throwing out used computers and components that people could really use. You would be surprised at how often I ask an IT director what happened to his old equipment and he responds breezily that he threw it away.
What kind of challenges do you find in running Computer Warehouse?
Computers are extremely unpredictable. There is no one set of troubleshooting procedures that will work under all conditions. We constantly strive to provide the best value to our customers by making tough decisions in the field about when to stop diagnosing a system that is not functioning as per the documentation and move on to plan B.
What future directions do you see for the company?
This year, we hit on an idea to help our nonprofit clients with more than just computers. Some of our clients do really neat things, such as organize sports activities that integrate both disabled and non-disabled people, teach Web design to inner-city kids, or take care of abandoned pets. We created the Boston Charity Events Web site to help our clients publicize their fund-raising events. They can submit their own listings.
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