An internet entrepreneur is trying to change the way we think about our disposable gadgets, one repaired smartphone at a time
Author Arnie Cooper Illustration Carl Wiens
It happens too often. You’ll be reaching for your smartphone to tweet about what you’re having for breakfast and—bam!—the thing falls to the floor, shattering the glass. From that point, there are only two courses of action. The first is to lament the incident using what is generally referred to as “adult language.” The second is to go out and get a new phone.
There was a time when our response to gadget mishaps was to see if the broken object couldn’t be repaired. But that idea, of course, went out with rotary phones and pocket calculators. Today, at least in the developed world, we’re about as likely to have a shattered iPhone fixed as we are a burned-out light bulb. Which is what makes Kyle Wiens, 29, such an unusual addition to the world of modern entrepreneurship.
Wiens’ story starts in 2003, in his dorm room at Cal Poly. While his computer science peers were getting rich creating apps and digital doodads, Wiens turned his attention to more practical matters, like getting his iBook to work. Unable to find an online repair manual, he and his buddy Luke Soules launched iFixit—a website that started out with the modest aim of providing step-by-step Apple repair guides, but which has since developed into something much more interesting.
Launching such a site in a time of so much conspicuous consumption might have seemed counterintuitive, but the iFixit guys guessed that the impulse to mend stuff was dormant rather than dead. And they were right. “There was a huge pent-up demand” for the manuals, Wiens says, and by the time he graduated in 2005, he and Soules had acquired a cultlike following. Their aim now is to make “a free repair manual for everything,” which is as much a rallying cry as a business proposition.
Wiens’ childhood in Bend, Ore., was marked by an obsession for tinkering—on the iFixit site, there’s a photograph of Wiens, age 4, working on his parents’ vacuum cleaner. In high school, having worked at a computer repair shop and a software company, he abandoned his ambition to build airplanes and launched himself headlong into the digital arena.
From the start, Wiens’ entrepreneurial efforts have been driven more by idealism than by the prospect of wealth and success. While iFixit has been profitable since day one, it was never one of those startups that could promise their founders billion-dollar buyouts. Even today, with more than 7,500 how-to manuals published, the company’s revenues remain relatively modest (2011 sales nudged $6 million). But the true measure of iFixit’s success, according to Wiens, is the kind of shift it brings about in attitudes.
“There’s a lot more we could be doing to make money,” he says. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of financial sense to write these manuals and give them away. But it makes tremendous ecological sense.” (To stay profitable, iFixit sells tools and parts to accompany its manuals.) He adds, “Ripping material out of the ground to use in things for a little while before tossing them away is something that needed to be changed.”
Increasingly, Wiens finds himself in the role of spokesman rather than repairman, and he has gone about raising his public profile in novel ways. Last year, for instance, he made headlines by announcing he refuses to hire people with poor grammar. “I understand missing a comma, but if you use ‘to,’ ‘too’ and ‘two’ incorrectly,” he said at the time, “it shows me you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
On a more serious note, Wiens has repeatedly squared off against tech industry superpowers, railing against their obsession with slimness—a form of “design anorexia,” he says, that’s made it almost impossible to do something as simple as replace a cellphone battery. “If enough attention is paid, we’ll influence consumer behavior, which will influence design.”
Wiens says there already are signs that his company is making a difference. Last summer one of iFixit’s employees happened across a roadside iPhone repair stand while on vacation in El Salvador. When he asked the owner how he got started, the guy flatly refused to divulge his “secret.” After being pressed, though, the repairman admitted he learned all he knows from iFixit. That, for Wiens, is something to crow about.
ARNIE COOPER, a writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif., admits to having a mountain of computers, keyboards and cables gathering dust in his closet.