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Shattered devices boost uBreakiFix


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Justin Wetherill

Apracticing physician, Tom Lessaris is also a franchisee of Buffalo Wild Wings and Brixx Wood-Fired Pizza, where he keeps the books while a cousin operates the restaurants.

But when he dropped his iPad—that sickening moment when an essential device shatters—he was directed to the uBreakiFix outlet near his home in North Carolina.

“Two hours later I walked out with a fixed iPad,” he recalls, and also information about buying a franchise. “Literally I broke my iPad and became a uBreakiFix franchisee.”

That scenario is common for uBreakiFix, which began franchising in March of 2013. The founder himself, Justin Wetherill, knows the feeling. “It started quite simply with me dropping my own phone,” an iPhone he bought from AT&T for $199 in 2009. He went to get it fixed, and Apple wanted $199 to do so, which didn’t make sense to him.

“Being a techie person, I tried to fix it myself and ended up breaking it worse. Then I said, if I can’t do this there are probably others in the same boat,” he recalls.

He became proficient at repairing phones, and with a friend and business partner, David Reiff, began selling the phones they fixed on eBay, taking the profits and financing the purchase of more parts.

Then another friend, Eddie Trujillo, sold his business and insisted the two set up a store to make people come to them. “He said, I’ll put all the money up for the first store,” and take equity in the proceeds, “and pretty soon that little store did more than the whole country.”

UBreakiFix, with 138 stores and counting, went from zero to 47 corporate stores before starting franchising, and so built the systems and procedures that were then turned into a franchise system.

With an average ticket charge of $100, it’s still a pricey proposition to fix a phone rather than upgrade to a new one, and Wetherill says his greatest competition is not other repair chains but rather the urge to replace in a throwaway culture. “Ninety percent of the people who break their phones say where am I going to get a new one, rather than where am I going to get this fixed,” he says.

He believes quick and excellent customer service will win people over. Nothing will raise awareness more, he adds, than people seeing “more uBreakiFix stores on the way to work or to the gym.”

But he also emphasizes “repair diversity,” that is, being the local electronics repair store, not just the local smartphone repair store. “We could debate all day on what form uBreakiFix will be in the next decade, but we could be fixing robots or drones.” There’s no telling whether that vision will come true, or go the way of the TV or vacuum cleaner repair shop, now a memory.

Wetherill has tweaked the business model since starting, especially in hiring people to fix the phones on-site. At first they hired techies. Now they hire people who have no technical experience, and train them in a three-week course in Orlando, company headquarters. Then a traveling trainer goes to each store for the first three weeks of operations.

“Early on we tried to hire people with technical experience, and we found it was much harder to teach people how to be nice than it was to teach them how to fix a phone,” Wetherill says.

Wetherill is 28 years old, and has been learning his business lessons on the job. “I certainly never thought I would be running a chain of electronics repair stores. There was no chance,” he says. “I did graduate college when I was 19, so I was always shooting for the stars.”

He attended the College Academy in South Florida, where students complete the last two years of high school and the first two years of college at the same time. His degree is in accounting, and he has a conservative attitude toward raising money—he says groups are calling him regularly these days, asking to invest, but he is rejecting those queries for now.

“My conservative nature toward capital might be more naivete than anything else. Having never built a business before, or been in these conversations” with would-be investors, most of what he has learned he read in books. “Unless there’s significant value to add, it’s expensive money,” he says about private equity.

The worst days at his company were about 24 months ago, when his point-of-sale system went down. “It happened one day for five or six hours, and it was a nightmare,” he says, so he invested heavily in infrastructure and systems are now backed up in the cloud.

The best days have come recently, when seasoned franchisees of other systems take a look at uBreakiFix, such as Tom Lessaris, the physician previously mentioned. Lessaris plans to open 20 to 30 stores in the Indianapolis area.

Another is Eric Miller, a one-time McDonald’s franchisee who owned eight restaurants before selling them in 2012, angered by such Obama administration policies as the Affordable Care Act. “I didn’t agree with where he was taking things,” he said about the president. “It was time for me to fold up the tent and go home.”

Then one of Miller’s business partners—you guessed it—dropped her smartphone and went to a uBreakiFix store. “She was so impressed with how quickly they turned it around. She said we’ve got to get on it,” so they signed an agreement to develop 10 stores west of Washington, D.C. That’s despite the fact that President Obama is still in office, he is reminded, but Miller says this operation is so much simpler that healthcare policies and the like aren’t much of a factor.

“With eight locations I had 400 employees,” he says about his McDonald’s restaurants. “Now I’m dealing with about 20 employees.” Plus, the investment to open a store is around $100,000 to $125,000, a fraction of the cost of a restaurant. “I sleep better at night,” he says.

The main attraction, though, is how crucial devices are to people’s lives, and here Miller quotes Eddie Trujillo, vice president of franchising at uBreakiFix. “When you talk to customers and you ask them would you rather go through the weekend without your right arm or your cellphone, unanimously everybody says take my arm, take my arm,” Miller says with a laugh. He figures that’s a pretty good spot to be.

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