Interview with Kyle Plathe
Tech Support Pro Kyle Plathe specializes in phone repair in California. His extensive experience in tech and community outreach makes him a great asset to the PocketSuite Pro community. Kyle talks to CEO, Chinwe Onyeagoro, about moving out west, the backlogs of the big repair shops and how he’s grown without having a retail presence.
You are one of our prolific members in our Facebook Community. Tell us how you got into this profession. What was the straight path or the windy road that led you here?
So I do iPhone repair. I originally started out with a parts vendor that actually had a companion app to help me organize my business. I was frustrated with their company, and so I was like, I’m going to find my own solution. So when I discovered PocketSuite, everything that the app offered was exactly what I needed as far as managing customers over text messages and having a custom business line. Then I pretty much grew from there. When you added more features like the automated text message marketing and things like that, everything just kept building up, and I never went back to that old system. Kind of a backstory on that company, they were a parts supplier called iCracked and they sold us parts. They didn’t really tell us how to run or manage our business, so it was up to the individual to find solutions.
So we were required to purchase the parts up front and then that got a little bit challenging for some of the other techs. So they ended up going to consignment and they bought back all of our parts and to me, I was offended by that because I had taken the time to pay off my financing, build up my inventory and owned everything. So when they did the buyback program, it was insulting to me because they were taking away the ownership of everything that I had worked for. They ended up selling to Allstate and pretty much laying off all their HQ employees. I just broke out on my own and I branded myself as Instakyle. That was really me taking the bull by the horns and owning everything that I was doing. Me putting my personality into my business made it a lot easier for me to sell and become what I am today.
That’s fascinating. I’ve heard of iCracked. I know there are two or three really large companies that provide iPhone parts. Then there are a number of independent professionals around the country that do repair work and buy those parts. Is that right?
Well, there are a few on-demand services and I’m not exactly sure about their infrastructure. I don’t really mess with them anymore, but there are quite a few vendors that you can buy parts from. So when I broke up with iCracked, I sought out three different vendors where I could actually get the parts at a better cost because they didn’t have that extra infrastructure included in the pricing. So my margins got better. There’s a big community on Facebook as well. Facebook actually has the biggest group of phone repair techs in the world. So that’s where I get a lot of my new information and I connect with other techs. Actually, I recommend PocketSuite to a lot of the mobile techs because it’s a pretty quick and easy solution to getting the best features and the business line. When people are booking an appointment, they can enter in their address and all the features available are very useful for everything that we’re doing.
What made you go down the path of doing phone repair? Did you start there in your career or did you move from some other profession into phone repair?
Yeah, I was doing Uber and I was a sales consultant for a screen printing shop. I was doing t-shirts for people and it was really an investment in myself. I saw an ad on Facebook saying, “Hey, fix smartphones in your spare time.” It just had a little upfront cost and I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to invest in myself.” It was around my birthday, too. It was a month before my birthday. So I was like, “I’m going to put some money towards investing in myself and learning a new skill and seeing what will happen from there.” I actually took it from living in cold Minnesota to moving to Southern California in San Diego. It just completely changed my life.
It was a month before my birthday. So I was like, “I’m going to put some money towards investing in myself and learning a new skill and seeing what will happen from there.” I actually took it from living in cold Minnesota to moving to Southern California in San Diego. It just completely changed my life.
I love that for a birthday most people would buy themselves a motorcycle. But you invested in yourself and created a business. That’s awesome! What have been some of your highest highs in making the transition from working in screen printing and driving for Uber to fully running your own business?
Well, this year has been a pretty wild ride. My business is actually doing really well because of all of the children on their iPads, doing school. Children are pretty hard on stuff and so I’ve been doing a lot of iPad repairs. But really, I think saving up the initial money to move to California was really the biggest adventure. Because I was thinking that if I didn’t do it, I was just going to live with regret. So I went for it and it’s working. Also, the biggest thing is building community around what I’m doing. So I live in Ocean Beach. I’ve learned a few things about finding solutions for my business. Joining a chamber of commerce was huge because they are vital for small business.
There are a lot of events that they coordinate. I try to volunteer and just be active in my community, so people know who I am. One of my biggest challenges is not having a store. People usually automatically assume that they want to go to a retail outlet for dealing with phone issues. So by volunteering and being active in the community, it has put my face in front of a lot of people without me necessarily having to be selling all the time. I’ll hand them my business card or talk about what I do a little bit, but then it’s just me interacting with other people and doing community activities.
I’ve always been curious because I’ve been to a retail store to have Android phones repaired. What’s the calculus that you advise people to do before they call you? If they’ve got a crack in their phone or it was submerged in water, at what point do they call the manufacturer or retailer that sold them the equipment and say, “Hey, I need you to fix this and at what point do they call you?”
With Apple, for example, nobody. The pandemic actually put them in a huge backlog. So nobody wants to go and wait for two weeks to get their phone serviced, especially if it’s an emergency or if the phone isn’t functional. Then also going to a store, working with me helps them avoid leaving their house. I could come to their house, do the repair at their location, and it’s a lot more convenient for them. So, it makes it a lot easier to use me rather than going and waiting for a few weeks to get the store to get their appointment done at the store. I think that Best Buy also has a backlog. I had someone who was waiting for two weeks for their appointment and then they told the customer that they were going to have to hold their phone overnight. They were in the Best Buy parking lot. They saw my information and called me. I was like, “Oh yeah, I can do it right now.” I met them that same day. I got it done and their phone was up and running again.
Oh, that’s so smart. It’s almost like hanging out right outside the Genius Bar. It’s a great marketing strategy. It’s like, “I can fix that for you right now.” Let me ask you this, at what point do you advise clients to just go buy another phone? What’s the beyond repair point for folks?
There’s a couple. If the repair cost is a little higher than someone wants to pay, Samsung is a good example for that actually because their screens aren’t embedded into the frames. If the glass breaks, the replacement part is very expensive. I have to charge nearly $300 for a Galaxy S10 screen. I think it’s part of Samsung’s strategy to sell $1,000 phones. Maybe the carrier offers $300 off so it’s down to $600, they paid it off or they still have a balance. This is another example: I had a customer call me. He had a Galaxy S10. He still had a balance on his plan of $300. The repair was $300 and he was more comfortable paying the phone off and buying a new phone. Which to me seemed a little backwards because you’re putting all this money towards your device and then you’re not keeping it. You’re just throwing it away and buying a new one.
I think there’s a lot of tricky marketing that these carriers do with the incremental payments because if you’re making payments over two years, you forget the value that you’re putting into your phone. Then a lot of times, especially with iPhones, they’re very fragile. With the backs being glass now, over two years, someone who drops her phone a lot, is probably going to just throw their phone away and buy a new one. Another example, like an iPad repair that wouldn’t be as cost effective to repair if the frame is bent and it’s very badly damaged, the new screen isn’t going to be able to rest properly on the frame and so it’s as cost-effective to replace the frame and also put a new screen on it.
What’s your take on insurance? I’m one of those folks who can be convinced at checkout that I should just bite the bullet and buy insurance just in case something happens within the first year. What’s your take on whether or not people should even be considering buying additional insurance for any accidents that might happen?
To me, I always try to keep my monthly payments as low as possible. When adding insurance, basically, you’re adding more to your monthly bills. Also, you’re prepaying for something that may or may not happen. To me, you’re either thinking that the product isn’t good enough, so it’s going to break. Or it’s more like you’re clumsy and you know yourself and you’re going to break it. A lot of times the deductible is going to be higher than an average repair cost. So you’re making prepayments on a repair and then you’re still paying a deductible. So you end up overpaying on the repair anyway.
There is a plan for third party repairs that offers a little bit better of an option where the deductible is a little bit less. It’s more or less a question of whether you know yourself and you think you’re going to break it. I’ve had my phone. I have an iPhone XR. I have a case in a screen protector. I’ve been taking really good care of it because I see the value in it. I paid off the balance and I’m just extremely careful because I don’t want to pay more money for a phone that is perfectly fine.
We’re a mobile app development company. We’ve been amazed at how mobile phones have surpassed desktop computers in so many ways. Mobile phones crossed the $1,000 mark in price and are still climbing. Desktops can be purchased for $300 bucks. How do you think we’ll be using mobile phones in 10 years?
I think in a lot of cases people aren’t utilizing the full capabilities of these phones. They’re so powerful. I personally like to play with different apps. I like to test apps. See which things are fun. I know kids are getting really good at video editing. I watch TikTok videos all the time. Some of these kids are doing really cool transition videos where they’re using their phones and they’re editing these amazing videos. I think that content is going to be King of the internet and whatever can hold people’s attention. I’m kind of biased because I love Apple stuff. I think they’re slightly ahead of the game as far as app development and what’s available. There are a lot of the same apps on both platforms. It’s basically what the user can do with the apps. I feel like the main things that the average user does is communicate, take photos, and a little entertainment like games and videos.
As far as what they’re capable of, I actually was playing with an app, doing animation. I did a clay animation with an app that I built. It was an animated logo. I had these two balls of clay come out and do some movement to build my logo. I think I spent like two or three hours just playing with Play-Doh and making a video on my phone. So it really comes down to what the users are doing because these phones can do anything. Also what Apple has done with their Macs, they’ve kind of reverse engineered the platform. The iOS and iPad apps are now compatible with those machines. So the people that have been trained on the iOS operating system can now jump back into a computer and everything is the same there.
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As you plan for the future, what’s your vision for growth?
There are a few things. I’m getting a little burned out with the phone retail. The market is saturated with phones. Everyone needs a phone and it requires a lot of tech support, customer service, and retail sales. Those are stressful environments. Apple and Samsung are also becoming slightly monopolistic in the repair world. With the newer iPhones, they’re serial pairing parts to the logic board, so if anyone but Apple swaps a part out, there’s a notification on your phone saying that “We can’t detect that these are genuine parts.” Even if you pulled them from another iPhone. They went as far as messing with camera function on the twelves, where if anyone but Apple replaces the camera on a 12, the rear camera, it loses function. So that puts me in a position where I can’t service those phones and because Apple is the leader, everyone else is going to start to follow suit.
I know there was something with one of the Samsung phones too where if you replace the screen, the fingerprint scanner wouldn’t work. So I want to pivot my business into robotic farming from home production to start feeding people. Where people don’t have great access to healthy food, we can start over-producing from home. We can drive costs down to the point where if you have overproduction of food and it’s going to go bad, you pretty much will give it to your neighbor and say, “Hey, I’ve got this food, you should eat it.” My vision was to open a robotic garden store where I could sell the equipment, help people install it, offer maintenance packages, and then also just sell like dirt and seeds and things that help people set up these little garden systems in their house. I actually have a friend back in Minnesota. He has a nonprofit called the Giving Gardens and he actually partners up with churches and he gets volunteers to do the labor, to do the gardening, and then they donate 51% of their crop to emergency food banks and places like that.
Wow, so I wasn’t expecting that response. That’s awesome! I have a few follow-up questions. Why is Apple locking down their phones in this way? Is repair income a meaningful part of Apple’s income or do they just want more people buying new phones? Or is there an intellectual property concern related to reverse engineering their system?
I think it hits on all three of those points. One, there is revenue in the repair market, so they do want people to go to them to do the repairs. Two, their product is really good and so people hold onto their phones for a long time. I know a lot of people still hold onto their 5s the smallest phone that Apple makes. Especially older people, they take good care of their stuff and so they make it last a long time. Their own product is hindering their new product sales because they’re so saturated that everyone and their grandma has a smartphone. It’s hurting their new product sales. So they don’t want them to be repaired. That’s why I feel like with the iPhone 8 model they’ve become more fragile with the glass back. Also, Apple has such a lockdown on their parts that they don’t sell their parts to anybody. So the only way to get replacement parts is through vendors in China that are copying them and they’re copying to 100% exact specs. So the quality is the same, but it’s their intellectual property that is stolen.
It’s funny because when iPhones first came out, I thought there was great pride. Apple had great pride in saying they were building things to last. It feels like that ethos and that ethic has shifted a bit to just the traditional planned obsolescence strategy to growing their income.
Yeah, you can’t have endless profits if your product is too good.
I have a friend who owns a farm in Wisconsin that does aquaponics and hydroponics. Is that similar to robotic farming?
This one’s totally different. This product exists. It’s a very small CNC machine that you attach a track, two tracks to a raised garden bed in your backyard. You program the machine to plot out the seeds, water it, it actually can test the moisture level in the soil, and it will make sure that all the seeds get the proper moisture. It even has information on each seed that you’re planting so you can pair up different plants together so the underground nutrition feeds each other. So it’s maybe not as efficient as the hydroponic stuff is, but it takes away all of the labor. So, once you set it up, there is no labor behind it. It’s like set it and forget it. You have an app on your phone where you can program the plots of seeds and then it tells you when it’s time to harvest. There are a lot of video feeds on it too so you can check in on your plants. It’s also open source.
You’re on your way to your next S curve, if you will, in terms of your development. For folks who are just starting out, what advice would you give them about how to get started in the right way and how to have success making the transition from what they’re doing today to phone repair?
Do a lot of research, learn by practicing and join as many groups as you can in order to seek out mentors. I need to get a little bit better at this myself, but there’s a program called Score where you can get a free mentor. They can guide you through your journey. That’s just basically for setting up your business. As far as phone repair goes, just practice. Get phones, fix them, then don’t worry about trying to sell or make a profit. Learn and do your due diligence to make sure that you’re actually doing everything properly. There are a lot of courses that you can take online and in person. I feel like I’m probably only halfway through what actually the repair market has to offer. I do a lot of basic repairs. You can go deeper into the phone as far as micro soldering, data recovery, correcting shorts on the logic board, and screen refurbishing.
One way to keep the costs down for Samsung devices is if you can actually refurbish the screens in house, which you basically take the glass off of the LCD or OLED, and re-laminate a new piece of glass onto that piece and it’s more cost effective that way. But yeah, just practice. It’s a very competitive market. It’s kind of saturated, but it’s also saturated with phones too. So it’s not really going to go away anytime soon. There’s also a part of the market called phone flipping. I’m not super knowledgeable about that side of it. To me they prey on people because they are offering cash for a device that’s damaged or financed and people that may not be that great at managing their money need quick cash. So they’re getting low-balled to sell their phone. Some of the guys that I know are really good at it. It seems like a very lucrative model, but also they are putting people in a position to not get the value that they have paid for.
What are they doing? Are they flipping those phones on Amazon or on eBay? Where are they selling them once they buy them at a discount from people?
There are buyers in China that will pay for them. Then I think they just disassemble the phones to reuse the parts. Some of these flippers do resell the phones, like fix them up and resell them. You have to get the lowest price you can for it. If you are going to resell it anyway, but it’s something. I’ve been a little bit shy to join that market.
You mentioned that you had to really save to buy into this future. What advice would you give folks in terms of the amount of savings that they should have before they jump in fully to this business?
Well, with what I am doing it’s very low cost. So it only costs $500 to $1000 to get started. I don’t have a storefront, which keeps costs down. Though, it makes it very challenging for business visibility. Actually, that was one of my solutions. I came up with a solution when I moved to California to create a street vending system with an electric bicycle and a flag and a backpack. So I literally just drive around the beach area with a backpack full of parts inventory and people will wave me down and ask me to help them look at their phone. That’s been very useful to get visibility. Then there are just a lot of equipment costs as well, if you do want to get into deeper repairs. So I guess, it just depends on the level you want to start out at. It can be very low cost, but then you can also invest in a lot of things that will bring in more revenue.
You’ve talked about the importance of community and learning from others who are in this space. Are there one or two Facebook groups that people should take a look at if they’re serious about the profession?
Yeah, I’ll probably get some flack for saying this, but there’s a Facebook group called the Cell Phone Repair Shop Talk. That group is pretty good except a lot of people get annoyed with newbies because there are a lot of people asking real basic questions who probably should have done their research before joining that group to ask the question. It’s owned by one of the vendors that I use, MobileSentrix. Then the other group is, I think, just cell phone repair related talk. It’s a pretty long name. I can’t remember the exact name of it, but that one is also by another vendor that I use called Injured Gadgets. It’s very useful. I get a lot of inspiration watching other people succeed in the market. It makes me more motivated to try and see what things there are to offer other people.
As you know, we have a range of businesses in our community from fitness trainers to dog trainers to therapists, life coaches and beauty professionals, but the thing that unites you is that you’re all independent professionals. What advice do you have for the PocketSuite Community?
I think the biggest thing that’s helped me is building my reviews. I’ve created a review funnel using PocketSuite’s Smart Campaign feature. I send a thank you note every time someone completes a repair and after they’ve paid me. The next day, it shoots a little message saying thank you, I appreciate the business, I take pride in my work. Could you share your experience with Google? That’s helped me build my reputation online. I have a 5.0 on Google with 160 plus reviews. There are a lot of shop owners that have been in the game for 10 years. They don’t have that much reputation built up on their Google profile. So that’s helped drive a lot of traffic. I get calls on a daily basis. It’s been really great for growth.
I love that you shared that. What people don’t realize is that the more reviews you have for your local area, your zip code, the higher up you get in any search related to your key terms (phone repairs). So when people are looking for anything, you’re in that top three. 160 reviews in your category for the San Diego area is phenomenal.
The other PocketSuite Smart Campaign feature that I love is the “Missed Call” campaign. I had a call come in earlier while we were doing this interview. I received the PocketSuite notification saying someone is calling your business line. I declined it. I wasn’t worried because I actually use your automated system to send a text message to the client if I miss their call. In that automated message, I offer a $5 discount if they actually go on my online booking site and book their own appointment. With my industry, a lot of people are price shopping. They want to see the price and my competitors don’t list their prices. They make you jump through all these hoops to see what the price is. When mine is just listed on there. It’s a lot easier and more transparent. You either take it or you don’t and then they move on or they book an appointment.
Yeah, I’ve visited those other websites where they ask you literally 12 million questions before they show you the quote. It’s like I know exactly what I need, just show me what the price list is.