uBreakiFix president and co-founder Justin Wetherill talks about the company’s “We Come to You” mobile repair service and the future of electronics repairs on this Dynamic Developer podcast.
uBreakiFix, which currently specializes in repairing personal electronics at its corporate and franchise stores across the U.S. and Canada, launched a new program in October 2020 that sends a technician to a customer’s house to fix their broken devices.
The ‘We Come to You’ on-site repair program lets cusomters schedule an appoint for a technician to visit their home, office or other location and complete the repair in under two hours or less. The repairs are performed in a mobile repair vehicle and eligible services include “smartphone screen repairs and battery replacements for most models.” At launch the program covers over 85% of the U.S., and the company plans to add more areas and eligible repairs in the future.
uBreakiFix’s no-contract, on-site repair program for small electronics could definitely fill a gap in the current market for personal device repair. On-site repair services are common in the business market and even in the consumer space for large appliances. Best Buy offers in-home electronics repairs through its Geek Squad group, but only for customers with a Total Tech Support membership ($200 a year) or for those who purchase a Geek Squad Protection Plan when they buy a device. Small electronics, such as smartphones, computers, and game consoles, must usually be taken to a brick-and-mortar location (Apple store, Best Buy, uBreakiFix store, or local independent shop) or shipped to a repair facility for service.
In a special episode of the Dynamic Developer podcast, I spoke with uBreakiFix president and co-founder Justin Wetherill about the We Come to You program, how his experience trying to get his iPhone 3G fixed lead him to start the company, and why now was the right time to launch an on-site repair service. You can listen to the podcast player embedded in this article, watch a video above, or read a transcript of the interview below, edited for readability.
How uBreakiFix started with a broken iPhone 3G
Bill Detwiler: So before we get to the new announcement that uBreakiFix made about mobile repairs. Give me a little bit of a rundown on what the business is, and how you got started?
Justin Wetherill: Sure. Yeah, the journey is super fun. So uBreakiFix is in the business of fixing electronics, phones, tablets, computers, you name it. We want to be the local tech destination for when people inevitably struggle with their technology. We started just over 10 years ago when I broke my own phone. And being a nerd and techie myself, I tried to fix it, and I broke it worse. And rather than getting discouraged and being like this stinks, I was like, if I’m in this boat and I can’t turn these little screws, there’s probably a lot of others in this same boat. So really that was the light bulb moment for me and the beginning of uBreakiFix.
We’ve been trying to really set the standard for repairs in the industry for the past 10 years. It started out 10 years ago with, “Hey, we fix it, if we don’t fix it’s free. You get a 90-day warranty on your whole phone, not just what we touched,” basic common sense things that would drive a mirror wall repair experience. And then over the past 10 years, it’s just ballooned into 600 stores and a bunch of vans, which I’m sure we’ll get into. So it’s been an incredible journey.
Bill Detwiler: And what was it about the existing repair experience back then that just wasn’t working for you. I’m in the same boat you are, I’ve been taking things apart my whole life. I host TechRepublic’s and CNET’s cracking open show where we take things apart. So I’ve been there with you and I feel it from a personal standpoint. Beyond that, if someone just had a device that you needed to get working again, what was it maybe about the existing infrastructure of repair facilities or sending it back to manufacturer that really didn’t work in your eyes and maybe still doesn’t work for a large majority of people?
Justin Wetherill: Yeah. So as luck and destiny would have it, I broke my phone at the perfect time when technology had rapidly evolved, there was an iPhone 3G. Those phones are just getting popular, nobody was fixing them, the OEM wasn’t fixing them. They were still heavily subsidized, like old phones. So exactly what happened to me was I had an iPhone 3G, I paid $199 for it and had it on AT&T like everybody else when it first came out.
And when I smashed it and went to the Apple Store, it was $199 . And I was like, how is this possible, I paid $199 dollars for this phone? And did some Googling and things and realized parts were much more reasonable than the actual repair. And just decided to give it a whirl because of the discrepancy between what was at Apple the replacement costs, and at the time for me, what I thought was the repair costs. Little did I know I was ordering the wrong parts and was in for quite the surprise, but that’s what really drove me to create a repair solution rather than going out there and working with something that was already in the market.
Adapting to an evolving smartphone market and COVID
Bill Detwiler: So let’s talk about that market and how it’s changed, and how it’s leading to this new offering that you have. At first, you were only online and then you launched a brick and mortar locations all over the U.S. and in Canada. And now you’re going a step further and actually bringing that repair experience to the consumer, talk about that?
Justin Wetherill: Yeah. So the journey, like I mentioned has been really wild. So it started on eBay, and then after we launched on eBay and got proficient at repairs and we’re driving some volume. We built our own website and started driving volume nationally at that website, like you alluded to. We then started a store here in Orlando that was 500 square feet, rent was $800 a month, it was in the middle of nowhere, anchored by a dentist office. Month two, that store’s open it eclipses sales for a website that serves the whole country. And at that same time, your phones becoming your new web browser, your camera, your TomTom. It’s taking all of these things that were usually discrete electronic devices that were integral to your daily life. And making it to where, you couldn’t mail out your phone and wait a week anymore you needed it right then. So the store sales eclipse the website that serves the whole country, and that was like, “Hey, stores of the future.” One of my partner Tim Hortons he was like “Hey, we got to run with this. Nobody wants to mail out their phone and wait.”
And we run the store games solely for pretty much a decade and matured with the industry. So started out buying parts on eBay and figure it out, then developed our own supply chain and then became the first third-party authorized chains for some major OEMs. And really brought a new level of credibility to repair and into the industry, which we’re really proud of. And then late last year, it’s just total coincidence with COVID and how life has changed for the last six months. But late last year, we’ve become a part of the Asurion family, stand up a 300 van remote repair network to start doing some claims strictly for their volume and for their clients. With an aspiration to grow that rapidly here in 2020, put hundreds of vans on order in queue waiting, yada, yada, yada. Fast forward to March, the world shuts down, nobody wants to go outside and we’ve got, these 300 and change vans servicing this Asurion volume. But now we’re like, “Hey, we don’t know what’s in store, what this means for the stores. We really need to fast track access to this for our customers.”
So we set up some pilots to put our franchisees and positions to compete in this new environment. And it was clunky, you had to submit a lead and the store had to manually reply, you need to like talk to a bunch of people. So, not like technology has enabled some of these experiences lately, but stood something up cookie cutter. Fast forward that to six months, now we’re in a position where we’ve got almost 700 vans on the road, we cover in excess of 85% of the country.
And a consumer can go on our website, go through a couple of drop-down, select their device, select the repair type, and then they can decide. I want a mail in my phone, I want to walk into a store or I want to have a van come meet me in my driveway, at the Starbucks, wherever you want and complete whatever repairs you’re needed. So to sum it up, uBreakiFix like I mentioned, has always been about just being a solutions provider to people who are distressed with their technology. And this is just really for us, the next evolution of that. And we couldn’t be more excited about it.
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Bill Detwiler: Now what’s the breakdown when it comes to cost. When thinking about mailing the phone in versus bringing it into a store versus having the van come to you. I’m assuming that the repair itself is probably the same across all of those. But are there different costs for the method in which it’s delivered? So do you pay more to say, have someone come to you. Is there a little bit of an upcharge to cover the price? I assume there’s overhead built in whether, it’s a trip charge there’s fuel, there’s the trucks, there’s the extra costs there. How does that work?
Justin Wetherill: Yeah. So in those three service models. What we did, when COVID first set in is actually we subsidized shipping. So that if you mail in a repair or you walk into our store, it’s the same cost to you as a consumer. We’re actually covering shipping to drive volume to our stores in a very fragile time. And also to just make sure that we’re delivering on the expectations of our customers at challenging time. And then for the remote tech, there is a nominal truck roll fee, it’s 30 bucks to have somebody come to you rather than having to go to a store and mail it in. And we’re learning, this is new to us. Is that a palatable number to consumers? Is that what it’s going to be for the next 10 years? I don’t know, we’re really just launching this product, we’re excited to hear what consumers think about it, we’re excited to continue to get feedback. And we’re really excited to just continue to build we have the service and the stores. Continue to build on the service and the vans and drive an incredible amount of value for our customers.
Most people want to keep their phones more than a year
Bill Detwiler: So tell me a little bit about, how you’ve seen the marketplace change with respect to the devices themselves. You talked about, they have really become these essential parts of our lives. And not just from a day-to-day perspective, but also because they hold so much of their information. Hopefully people are backing stuff up to the cloud or they’re backing stuff to our other location. But you’ve got thousands, multiple thousands of photos on there, people’s music libraries again, hopefully they’re storing stuff at cloud, but you just never know. So I imagine, if people are in distress it’s not just, “Hey, I can’t get my emails, or I can’t do work or I can’t do things like this.” But it’s also like I’ve lost these heirlooms, I’ve lost this information. How has that affected the way you approach repairs? The fact that they have become so integral, they’re repositories for all this data.
And they’ve just gotten more expensive to actually fix. It used to be all the phones, like you said were $199 because they were subsidized. And so, but maybe still $499 on the outset. Now, $1,500, $2,000 when you look at some of the foldable, the new Galaxy Fold 2, when you look at the Moto flips, even the new iPhone 12 that are coming out you’re easily into the $1,500 range for a top end model. How’s that affecting the device repair market as a whole?
Justin Wetherill: Yeah. So with prices, devices getting more technologically advanced, we’ve definitely seen repair prices increased with that. So 10 years ago when we started, the glass would be a digitizer and the LCD would be separate. An. You’d be able to replace one or the other, now they’re commonly fused together. It’s not unusual to have cameras into a display or a fingerprint sensor built into a display. So in some ways the repairs have gotten easier because it’s more plug and play. But then you’d bring in IP68 ratings and recalibrating some of the technology that’s built into these really small phones and other. So some repairs are easier, but overall processes harder in terms of the diagnostic tools required and the waterproofing that’s required. It’s really been interesting to watch it develop but you hit it on the head.
I’m a guy that changes my phone six times a year. Every time Google comes out with a new phone I switch, every time Samsung comes out with a new phone I switch. This year more than ever if I usually switch four times a year, is it seven times this year because it seems like everybody’s coming out with more devices than ever additionally. But fortunately the cloud has gotten really good and made my life a lot easier in those transitions. But a lot of people are stuck having all that on their device. And that’s what we see a big driver for repair is. People don’t like change we see all the time. Our most popular repairs, believe it or not lag two years, because it’s people that have had their devices for a while.
They don’t want to change, they don’t want to move their pictures, they don’t want to move their apps, they don’t want to go through the process of transitioning to the new device. It’s still relatively up-to-date, they want to get a new battery, they want to get their screen fixed. It’s easier to do that on a two year old device, where the repair price makes more sense than it is to go buy a new $1,000 device. So, our most popular repairs lag two years, and I think it’s for that reason. That’s where the parts dropped to a point where the price makes sense and that the trade-off between replacement and repair just tends to make most sense in the consumer’s eyes.
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Bill Detwiler: Right. Where do you think that the market’s going to go in the future? Do you think that we can keep seeing the price increases when it comes to phones and tablets or do you think that $1,500 price point is really the top? It seems like a lot of the, for lack of a better word, the PC and device manufacturers that really like to be in that sweet spot between the 1,000 and $2,000 mark, have now just replaced that with the phone. So instead of selling you a laptop at $1,200, we’ll just sell you a phone at $1,200 or a tablet at $1,200. They don’t really care, but there does seem to be a point where maybe too much is, enough is enough and there’s just not a mass market for a super high end, plus $1,500 device. What do you think about that?
Justin Wetherill: Where it’s going to go? The irony is a lot of the device manufacturers rode the computer train before this. And watched industry margins, erode and are holding tightly to the margins they have in these devices. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as they become technologically more advanced, the prices rapidly rise to protect manufacturer margins with that. Everybody’s in a different boat and you even see OEMs chasing different segments, Google chasing $600 phones. And like you said, Apple pushing the $1,500 mark on some of these iPhone 12. I can speak for myself where there’s not a device I’m on more than my phone. At the end of the day, if I’ll spend $2,000 on a laptop, personally won’t think twice about spending $2,000 on a phone that I’m on 10 times as much.
I’m not everybody, I’m sure everybody doesn’t share that opinion. But there’s a strong demand out there for that bleeding edge technology in a phone. Because, people realize just how critical it is to their daily life. And I think that if we want these manufacturers to continue to innovate at the rate they have over the last 10 years. We should expect prices to probably go with that. And not everybody’s going out buying the new $1,500 phone, but obviously a lot are they wouldn’t be making, right?
Moving beyond smartphones to game consoles, PCs and more
Bill Detwiler: Right, yeah. Speaking of phones and you started with phones. But you expanded into other devices. So you fixed tablets, laptops. What about other categories like wearables? Is that something that you do now, or as those markets grow, we’ll look at taking on and doing more repairs maybe too. As we get to the IOT and the internet of everything. Are you looking at new marks like, smart speakers or other “Smart devices?”
Justin Wetherill: Yeah, absolutely. Our saying at uBreakiFix is we’ll fix anything with a power button. And what that means is just like, alluded to at the beginning is. Bring it in, we’ll look at it, if we can’t fix it, it’s free. If we can’t fix it, we’ll tell you what it costs. And if you want to do it great, if you don’t no problem. And I think what’s really interesting about IOT and where we’re going with the brand and the tie up with the sharing last year. Now actually our stores offer a product called Home Plus+, which is a monthly reoccurring product. And it covers everything that connects to the internet in your house, your laptop, your computer, your game console. Essentially everything that connects to Wi-Fi that doesn’t connect to a network.
And you know that you’ve got your local uBreakiFix store. You’ve got this plan that covers everything from your TV, do your game console and you’re covered and where to go get it fixed. We started out like you alluded to with phones, but technology isn’t going anywhere. And the challenges that technology brings along with the benefits aren’t going anywhere either. For the first 10 years of this business, everybody said, “What happened to you when phones don’t break anymore?” If I had a dollar for every time, somebody asked me that like, I wouldn’t have to be in business anymore. Then the reality is we’re super confident that, like I mentioned, as technology becomes more and more pervasive in our lives. There will always be a need for a local expert to help assist folks through whatever their challenges are.
That’s been our mission and our motto for the last call it six or seven years. And that’s part of why we expanded from phones to laptops, tablets, et cetera. Because technology is awesome it enables us to do a lot of things, but it also brings unique challenges to different types of people. And that’s where our challenge is how do we get 600 stores? How do we get 700 vans? How do we get thousands and thousands and thousands of technicians trained to be that local expert for everybody? And that’s really where we see our strength and that’s our responsibility is to make sure that we’re bringing a consistent service level and a consistent service offering across all those platforms to make sure we’re delivering for our customers.
What does it take to be a uBreakiFix franchisee or technician?
Bill Detwiler: I’d love to hear more about how exactly you do that. Because, originally all the stores were corporate stores. And then you started to franchise, and with that you’ve got the mobile service, the We Come to You service. I’m sure people watching this might be thinking to themselves like, Oh, I don’t know if they’re in a small area or a small market. They might be thinking “well, this is something that I could do or they might be interested in that.” How do you ensure that when you have a large franchise operation like this, that you can maintain that consistency in training and in hiring. And it’s a decent supply chain that you have to manage. So what’s that been like because you’ve done it in, like you said, you started in 2009 and really started to expand in 2013. So you’ve done this in a really short period of time to go from a small organization to a big organization like that. How do you do that?
Justin Wetherill: Ironically, its technology. We’ve got eight or nine KPIs that we track really intently and we coach on constantly across the organization whether to the corporate level or the store level. And we have always remained really focused on that. And we have technology we developed in-house called portal that handles our point of sale, it handles our knowledge base, it handles our training. And it really puts everything in one spot for all of our technicians and all of our owners to enable that standardized operating procedure across all of the different stores. And really when it comes down to like any business, no surprise to you we’ve been incredibly blessed to have the best employees, the best franchisees everybody acts like they own it. And that’s the secret sauce that you make the technology with the people. And that’s what has really made uBreakiFix special over the past decade.
Bill Detwiler: So in your estimation, I’d love to hear what makes a great uBreakiFix franchisees an owner and what makes a great technician, is it passion for technology? Is it technical skill? Is it customer service first attitude? Is it all of that together? What is it that you look for and encourage you in franchisees and encourage them to look for in technicians?
Justin Wetherill: Yeah. That’s a great question. We look to align ourselves with folks that have a similar vision to us. Which is if we continue to put our customers first, the rest will figure itself out. To be a franchisee or a technician, zero technology experience required. We will train you, we’ve done it thousands of times, we’ve never had a franchisee come through training get to the end and be like, “I can’t do this. The screws are too small or I don’t know whether to turn left or right.” It’s never happened in our seven or eight years of franchising now. It just comes down to alignment of mission and values which is continue to put the customers first. There the ones that keep the lights on and the rest we can teach and coach and train and et cetera.
Do you worry about OEMs trying to control device repairs?
Bill Detwiler: One thing that I’d love to ask you about too is that, it seems like some of the OEMs, some of the manufacturers are really focused on keeping everything in-house. And then there are the OEMs like Samsung or Google, or some of the other manufacturers, especially in some of the bigger electronics categories, that are much more interested in partnering with local, either repair facilities, local sales facilities they’re used to that channel experience. What do you think is the future for that model? Do you think we’ll stay along that course? And the reason I ask is you talked about, as the price increases people are holding onto their devices and there’s also more devices in the house that they have to fix.
And sometimes like you, they’re looking at a TV and they say “I just bought this TV for $1,500 and something’s happened to it. And I need to take it back.” And they have to make the decision if I still have some warranty or I still have a replacement policy left on it. I’ll just replace it out versus actually trying to get it fixed, but I’ve had it for a while and I paid three grand for it, or I paid 800 for… Whatever it is to you that really matters. How do you see the tension between having the manufacturer deal with it or having the retailer deal with it. Versus having dedicated local repair facilities dealing with it? Clearly your business is doing well so there is a market for that. But thinking down the line, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that?
Justin Wetherill: Yeah. I can’t really predict every OEMs service strategy of the future. I can tell you what’s worked for us and I may sound like a broken record here. But we have a really strong conviction about putting our customers first and we just kept our heads down and worked. And one day Google called and said, “Hey, we’re going to launch our first Google branded phones. And we’re trying to figure out what a differentiated service experience looks like. Would you like to partner with us on that?” “Yes, we would love to.” And then you do a good job for them and you keep your head down and you keep working. And then Samsung calls and says, “Hey, we’re toying with this idea of standing up an authorized service network here. Would you be interested?” Like, “Yeah, Let’s talk about it. That sounds really great.”
We’re going to continue putting our best foot forward and trying to be the best stewards of this brand we can possibly be. And we hope that that leads to a world where we can get alignment with all the technology providers out there. But ultimately we don’t run their strategies. We’re going to keep our head down and keep working and see how the cards fall.
Bill Detwiler: We’ll, Justin it’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate you taking the time and talking about the history of uBreakiFix and the new mobile solution. If they’ve got a broken phone and they are interested in scheduling a mobile service to come out and fix it, or finding through their local location. I assume it’s all the same website to go to uBreakiFix?
Justin Wetherill: Yeah, ubreakifix.com. And like I said, there’s a four, five step process just to walk through and it should be super easy.