When Your Screen Breaks

Making house and office calls to fix busted mobiles helps companies' business boom.

Scott and Corey Schard were underemployed in 2012 when the brothers—after many hours of brainstorming business ideas—fixed upon a way to earn money by making life easier for busy New Yorkers cursing existence after shattering their iPhone screens.
 

The Schards figured that a physical store—where people suffering from Instagram withdrawal could bring their busted mobiles—wasn’t necessary to repair smartphone screens. In this golden era of come-to-you services (see: Seamless, Instacart and the laundry apps of the world), the brothers started making on-demand house and office calls in Manhattan with nothing but their bicycles, messenger bags and, of course, iPhone parts. They fixed iPhones on the spot in about 10 minutes, barring water damage and warped frames.

 

"I got to see firsthand that when you work 60 hours a week, you can’t always leave for two hours to drop your phone off," said Scott Schard, who started the company, Gotham iPhone, after being laid off from a finance job, while his brother had just earned a master’s from Seton Hall. "Our whole attitude was to [provide] an awesome customer-service experience, and [we thought] if these guys in Chinatown and in bodegas can fix iPhones, we can, too. We knew there was an appetite for this kind of service."

 

Dozens a day

Three years later, the brothers, along with two part-time employees, repair an average of 30 to 40 cellphones per weekday, capitalizing on the popular devices’ inherent breakability. They are among a slew of entrepreneurs offering a similar repair service.

With the latest iPhone iteration revealed in September, the number of people with the updated device is expected to grow, creating an opportunity for entrepreneurs looking to fix the smartphones—in person. (The brothers do not work on ­Androids.)

Lauren DeLisa Coleman, a digi-cultural-trend analyst and author, refers to modern urbanites as “neo-humans” who need their devices to extend beyond their limitations. When a device breaks, repairs are needed immediately, simply in order for the user to function. In-person iPhone repairmen are capitalizing on the central role smartphones play in our everyday lives.
 

"We’re in a need-it-now economy of on-site, on demand and on my time," Ms. Coleman said. "It should be no surprise that this is a booming cottage industry that will probably get bigger and extend into other ­devices."


Brendan McElroy started his iPhone and Mac device-fix business, Dr. Brendan, solely by making house calls. Business was so good that he grew to four brick-and-­mortar locations around Manhattan. That "was kind of a mistake," he said. "The house-call service was something our customers really enjoyed, and it’s part of who we are."

 

In 2013, Mr. McElroy downsized to one store, on St. Marks Place, that fixes electronics, and has once again started offering free home/office repair service, which he expects will account for almost 40% of his $1.5 million in sales this year.

 

There are also the big players. iCracked is a San Francisco startup that employs a model similar to Uber. The company uses contractors called iTechs in the U.S., U.K. and Germany, including 74 in New York City, who set their own prices. Last year, iCracked hit $25 million in revenue, while iTechs made $10 million, a company spokeswoman said. The techies fix iPhone, iPad, iPod and Samsung Galaxy devices.

 

Before launching Gotham iPhone, the Schards spent more than 100 hours ripping apart cellphones and putting them back together, so the routine became muscle memory. They declined administrative help, communicating with clients by email and strategizing SEO at night. Their only expenses are parts sourced from several manufacturers in China and two part-time employees they hired this year to take some of the physical pressure off their biking bodies. "You get pretty exhausted around 3 or 4 p.m.," Scott Schard said.

 

Competitive pricing

Business has been good. The service takes 10 minutes at $90 to $180 a pop, comparable with Apple’s in-store price range of between $109 and $129, plus a wait at the Genius Bar. Sales were $40,000 in July, up 125% from a year earlier, and profit margins were around 50%. Scott Schard estimates 35% of referrals come from Google searches. Yelp, Facebook and Twitter also make up some of the referral traffic.
 

This year, the brothers have launched another venture, Screasy.com, which teaches people how to fix their phones and sells them the parts to do so.

 

Having served thousands of clients, the brothers have heard every story about how a phone can break. Babies and bicycles are major hazards for iPhone users. But "the No. 1 [cause] is easily alcohol-­related," Scott Schard said. 

 

A version of this article appears in the September 28, 2015, print issue of Crain's New York Business as "Phone-repair firms: Give us a break".

Photo © Buck Ennis