How Busted Phones Created a Booming Business

How Busted Phones Created a Booming Business
Image credit: Peter Crowther
This story appears in the December 2014 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Charles Hibble took to repairing iPhones out of desperation. His wife, Diane, kept breaking her device or dropping it in the hot tub, and the couple had used up all their upgrades. 

So in 2011, Hibble got online and started hunting down parts suppliers. Once he found a solid source for screens, buttons and new batteries, the mechanically inclined realtor from Scranton, Pa., discovered that he was pretty good at fixing phones. 

“Once I had [Diane’s] phone up and working and figured out how to fix these devices, word started to spread among our friends,” Hibble says. “My business partner, Chad Altier, brought me a couple of broken iPads and iPods from his kids.”

Hibble spent a little time figuring out how to raise those gadgets from the dead, too. Within a few months, he had a backlog of repair jobs, with some 50 people begging him to fix their phones. “I was overwhelmed; I don’t know how it got so big so fast,” he says. “I called Chad and said, ‘I think we have a business here.’”

By the beginning of 2012, the two men indeed had a business, launching their iDropped repair shop at Scranton’s Steamtown Mall. As of early 2014, they had five locations in eastern Pennsylvania. And since launching a franchise program earlier this year, iDropped has taken on three franchisees, has 10 more units in the works and aims to open 200 to 300 units in the next five years. 

We got Hibble to tell us how he has turned broken phones into big business. 

Why franchise?

When we opened our first store in Steamtown, the demand was unbelievable. We were the only phone repair shop in town, and there were people driving two hours to get their phones fixed. We had to hire eight full-time staff. So we opened our second location pretty quickly, and after that opened stores three, four and five. 

We’re franchising because there’s still so much room for growth in phone repairs. According to an industry report by IBISWorld, this is a $1.4 billion sector, and it’s only in its infancy right now. There are not enough repair companies out there to serve everyone, and in some states there’s not even a repair shop. 

Shouldn’t people get their iPhones fixed by Apple?

We tell people that if their phone is under warranty they should go to the Apple Store. But most people don’t care; they want their phone fixed now. They don’t want to send it into the company for repair or get a refurbished phone as a replacement. A lot of times, they have to drive two hours to the nearest Apple Store. Typically, we tell people we can fix their phone in under an hour, and usually in under 20 minutes. 

Often, what we find is if they’ve had their phone repaired by someone else previously, it’s missing half the tiny screws inside, and the shields haven’t been reinstalled properly. Even if we’re just replacing a screen, we check the power button and make sure the camera’s working right. We want the customer to have a super experience, and we offer a one-year warranty on all the work we do.

What’s the most common repair job you get?

Broken screens are the biggest issue by far, but dead batteries, broken power buttons and dock connectors are all problems. 

My best advice to customers is to use a case with a screen protector. I’m guilty of not using a case, but just imagine your phone is $800 in cash. Would you throw it up in the air or have it hanging out of your pocket? No, you’d take care of it. That’s the value of your phone if you don’t have an upgrade available, so pay attention to it.

Will you be able to fix all the new gadgets coming out?

I’m not really concerned about changes in technology. We’ll fix whatever comes along. Before the iPhone 6 came out, parts were already available. 

Things like the Apple Watch make me really excited. This mobile society is starting to feel like The Jetsons. Even though right now people are looking for devices with bigger screens, I see it turning the other way. We’re going to go to devices that are more sophisticated. If you can do everything a phone does on a watch and project the screen on a wall, then I think big will go back to small.

How often do you fix your wife’s phone now?

She hasn’t broken it since I’ve started the repair company! But I’ve broken my phone three times in the last year. 

It’s funny—I’ve always liked opening things up and exploring. You know, being adventurous and just getting out there and doing it, you never know what kinds of doors are going to open for you.

Edition: October 2016

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