Ann Arbor's Beagle Brain Gain

Ben Falk is a boomerang. Determined never to look back, the 30something took flight from Michigan, set down in Florida, then landed in New York City a little more than five years ago. But to Ann Arbor's gain, Falk is back, bringing Beagle Brain, his computer repair business, with him.

Beagle Brain anchors the northwestern end of the Nickles Arcade, facing Maynard Street. The technology business may seem at odds with its vintage surroundings, but not to Falk. "I don't think of us as high tech. We're not here for computer people – we're here for non-computer people," he says.

The tall windows that flood the space with natural light attracted him, along with a downtown location in close proximity to campus, a nearby parking structure, and the beauty of the setting. "It's nice having huge windows. I really like being in the arcade. It's aesthetically superior compared to anything you'd get in a strip mall," Falk says.

The stability of the arcade also attracted him. In five years, a strip mall could go from flourishing to being riddled with vacancies. The arcade, he says, won't be torn down.

This is the third stage for Beagle Brain. It launched three years ago out of Falk's apartment in Brooklyn, finding immediate success by offering pick-up and delivery service to well-heeled but time-poor New Yorkers. When he moved back to Ann Arbor, Beagle Brain operated from a small space on Thayer Street with a staff of two and low overhead. Beagle Brain version 3.0 opened Jan 7, 2009 in its current space. It currently employs seven people. Growing the business is a balancing act between staffing up and repairs backing up, Falk explains.

"We're really at a perfect spot right now -- busy but not backed up. Now we can offer same-day (or) next-day service for a lot of repairs. In a community like this, people depend on their computers," he says.

Why did Falk bolt the Big Apple for a Midwestern backwater?  "New York is really an incredible place. I still feel that way. But community doesn't exist there. There are pockets with a small amount of community: You and your street, for example. That was painful for me. I didn't like the detachment – or the poor air quality," he recalls.

Falk explains that community can't be advertised as a big city asset because it's one of those things people don't value until it's gone. "New York has incredible people, good restaurants, a lot of cool things," Falk says, but "for me it comes back to the idea that you're walking down the street, seeing hundreds of people every day and for the sake of survival, you ignore everyone. You could do this and feel normal."

Falk believes that that kind of city living can wear you down and leave you depressed. "It's like walking through the woods and seeing another person – you would never walk on without acknowledging them. You have to actively disconnect just to get down the street. It's sad, and in a lot of realms." 

Upon his return to Ann Arbor, Falk felt a community spirit immediately. "People move a little slower. Even before going to New York City, I thought Ann Arbor had the perfect mix of downtown city, nature, and trees. You've got the river, you can see hills."

"I grew up near Detroit and went to school in Ann Arbor. I'm glad I went and experienced all the things about New York. I even said, ‘I'll never leave.' But this is my home."

Falk ascribes Beagle Brain's business success in part to community spirit because he offers free estimates."Giving free estimates is a simple process that works fine for us so why are some places charging a diagnostic fee of $50 to $100?" he asks. "If you give them a fair price, they're going to give you the job. I love the idea that our first interaction with our customers is stress-free from a financial standpoint."

Falk points out that much of the computer repair industry is headed in the wrong direction. "Lots of people just rip off customers. Everyone needs a trusted mechanic who gives them good advice about their cars. It's the same way with computers. They're indispensable. A lot of computer places don't want to offer trustworthy service," he observes.

The free-estimate model has won over a few of his competitors, he notes. "The idea is being adopted by places that never had free estimates. I've seen their signs changing," he says.

Beagle Brain has a big showroom filled with mostly empty shelves. Falk looks forward to changing that someday. Focused on repairs, he doesn't have the money for inventory to stock the store at the moment. That would require a substantial investment, as much as $20,000 to $30,000.

A close focus on repairs and having the storefront in town are big pluses. "Nobody wants to send off their computer. And you have (our) warranty if anything goes wrong again – that's huge," he offers.

Next for Beagle Brain: Even more repair services. Beagle Brain offers complex repairs, and in some cases, is the only such shop in Ann Arbor to take on certain projects, Falk says. Retail has always been an afterthought. He'd like Beagle Brain to have a carefully edited yet comprehensive selection of merchandise with close-to-online pricing, so people can be confident they're getting a good deal.

Finding a partner to coordinate consulting is also on his wish list. "Everyone here has huge knowledge of how to solve (technology) problems. I'd like to go out and help companies maintain their computer worlds, keep systems up and updated. It would be a valuable service. I'd love to expand," he says.

Classes, even Beagle Brain shops nationwide, aren't beyond his vision.

"Five years from now, I'd love to be everywhere we could be," Falk says. "I believe in the value and service of what we're doing. What we're doing is a good service."
Constance Crump has an uncanny sense of timing. She is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was Cultivating Cooperation: The Michigan Political Leadership Program.

All Photos by Dave Lewinski


Ben Falk-Beagle Brain

Nickels Arcade Storefront

Delicate Repair Work-Ramen Removal

Ben Doing Some Repair

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.

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