Bill Owen of MNPCTech on Succeeding in a Niche Business
When Bill Owen opened MNPCTech just over ten years ago, many people had never heard of “case modding.” In fact, many people today are unfamiliar with the practice, in which a PC owner alters a computer’s chassis to give it a custom look. This relative obscurity doesn’t bother Owen. Thanks to a stellar reputation and a small-but-intensely-dedicated customer base, his ultra-niche business has boomed despite the nation’s economic turmoil.
Like many small enterprises, MNPCTech came from humble beginnings. At a friend’s suggestion, Bill started a part-time PC-building business in his Minneapolis basement to earn some extra cash. Shortly thereafter, companies such as Alienware and Falcon Northwest began offering boutique custom PCs. “The market appealed to me,” Owen says, “so I started offering personalized options like custom windows that expose a PC’s inner workings and fan grills in my systems. Business was good up until interest grew in building your own PC. Luckily, my case mods were starting to get attention online, and I started to focus exclusively on customizing cases for customers who build their own.”
That foresight, combined with a deep understanding of what PC builders look for, led to business success. Owen was MNPCTech’s only employee when it launched in 2001; since then, he’s expanded the team to five staffers and begun offering case-modding supplies for DIYers.
“We were one of the first online businesses to offer case modding exclusively as a service,” Owen says. “Not just windows, but whatever you could imagine. Our craftsmanship and the themes we've done have gained us a lot of attention from the media.”
That media attention begat more media attention, as leading PC manufacturers and publications began turning to MNPCtech with custom case orders to promote major events. Owen enjoys collaborating. “Both parties benefit by the publicity surrounding affiliation with each other,” he explains. “They know the PC hardware community will follow our projects. We have also benefited by getting exclusive access to new products.”
Like many other luxury businesses, MNPCTech shifted its strategy during the downturn. “We [focused] our skills [on supplying] one-off custom parts for private builders and working for case manufacturers on new case designs. International retail sales also carried us through,” he says.
Earlier this year, Owen began hosting a web-based video program produced with Mad Fusion Media called Mod Men. Each episode features MNPCTech staffers building systems, such as a custom gaming or home-theater PC, from the ground up. Mod Men offers both entertainment and tangible business benefits. “Manufacturers are learning that marketing through social media, like YouTube or tech blogs, is becoming more beneficial than through magazines or web ads," he says. Owen and MNPCTech maintain a strong presence on major social networks, including Twitter and Google+, and the company sponsors contests on modding community websites.
Although being a small U.S. supplier in a niche industry dominated by big Asian corporations can be challenging, Owen is unfazed. “You get to do what you love. You get to create interesting things that nobody else can. At times, you're only limited by your imagination, and we have customers and fans from all around the world.”