THE LIT­TLE COM­PANY AP­PLE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT

The guys be­hind iFixit want to show you how to fix ev­ery­thing from your iPhone to your toaster—for free. By do­ing so, they’ve built a huge busi­ness.

Inc. (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID WHIT­FORD IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY ALEX MURAWSKI

Even though Ap­ple to­tally hates them.

HERE—STAND ON THAT,” says Kyle Wiens, po­si­tion­ing him­self op­po­site his vis­i­tor and reach­ing for the switch. Then comes the elec­tric hum, fol­lowed by the soft jolt and the ground re­ced­ing. It’s a car lift, me­chanic’s grade, sal­vaged from a deal­er­ship, re­in­stalled on a con­crete pad in Wiens’s back­yard in Atas­cadero, Cal­i­for­nia.

Wiens—who’s wear­ing jeans, a check­ered shirt, steel-rimmed glasses, and the kind of hair­cut you might give your­self with a pair of dull scis­sors—has about two slop­ing acres on a rise over­look­ing U.S. High­way 101, mid­way be­tween Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco. The high hills be­yond are green from this win­ter’s drench­ing rains. There’s a stucco main house, a pre­fab out­build­ing, a chicken coop, a pa­tio with a mon­ster grill, and a work shed that houses mo­tor­cy­cles, dirt bikes, kayaks, wet­suits, a gen­er­a­tor, a com­pres­sor, a weld­ing torch, hammers, wrenches, and drills, as well as sev­eral small piles of dis­as­sem­bled equip­ment: his many works in progress. The lift is just out­side the shed. Wiens uses it for jobs most peo­ple would del­e­gate to a pro­fes­sional, like swap­ping out the trans­mis­sion on a truck. And for cheap thrills: “It’s so cool!”

It’s also there be­cause fix­ing stuff is his life’s work. Wiens, 33, is co-founder and CEO of iFixit, a com­pany whose mis­sion, he says, is to “teach every­body how to fix ev­ery­thing.” On iFixit’s web­site is a vast li­brary of step-by-step in­struc­tion sets cov­er­ing, well, let’s see: how to ad­just your brakes, patch a leaky fuel tank on a mo­tor­cy­cle, sit­u­ate the bumper sen­sor on a Roomba vac­uum cleaner, un­jam a pa­per shred­der, reat­tach a sole on a shoe, start a fire with­out a match, fill a scratch in an eye­glass lens, in­stall a new bread-lift shelf in a pop-up toaster, re­place a heating coil in an elec­tric ket­tle, and—iFixit’s spe­cialty—per­form all man­ner of del­i­cate re­pairs on busted Ap­ple lap­tops and cell phones. More than 25,000 man­u­als in all, cov­er­ing more than 7,000 ob­jects and de­vices. Last year, ac­cord­ing to Wiens, 94 mil­lion peo­ple all over the world learned how to re­store some­thing to tip­top work­ing con­di­tion with iFixit’s help, which frankly was a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing. Wiens’s goal was 100 mil­lion.

Some of the knowl­edge stored on iFixit’s web­site is pro­duced in­ter­nally. Most comes, wiki-style, from the world at large. Ei­ther way, the in­for­ma­tion is al­ways free. You don’t have to regis­ter. There’s no ad­ver­tis­ing. IFixit makes about 90 per­cent of its rev­enue from sell­ing parts and tools to peo­ple who wouldn’t know what to do with them if iFixit weren’t also giv­ing away so much valu­able in­for­ma­tion. The rest comes from li­cens­ing the soft­ware iFixit de­vel­oped to write its on­line man­u­als, and from train­ing in­de­pen­dent re­pair tech­ni­cians, some 15,000 so far, who rely on iFixit to run their own busi­nesses.

“We im­pact the econ­omy in a far big­ger way than we cap­ture our­selves,” Wiens al­lows. He’s OK with that. That’s how you get to every­body and ev­ery­thing. But it’s a real busi­ness. A 14-yearold, 125-em­ployee, five-time Inc. 5000 hon­oree grow­ing 30 per­cent year over year, iFixit topped $21 mil­lion in sales in 2016 and de­liv­ers steady prof­its. “We give away a whole lot for free,” says co-founder Luke Soules, who’s 32. “We like that, and it still works, even if only a frac­tion of those peo­ple give us money.”

Con­sider how we as con­sumers re­late to our elec­tronic gad­gets and giz­mos. We can’t live with­out them, but we have no more idea about what goes on be­neath their shiny ex­te­ri­ors

“WE GIVE AWAY A WHOLE LOT FOR FREE. WE LIKE THAT, AND IT STILL WORKS.”

than the apes did about the mono­lith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. When they break, we feel help­less; we want a new one right away. But there are con­se­quences to con­sum­ing like that—en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences, as our dis­carded toxic tech­nol­ogy makes its way into land­fills and dumps; re­source con­se­quences, as fi­nite sup­plies of cru­cial el­e­ments like irid­ium are rapidly con­sumed and dis­carded; eco­nomic con­se­quences, as we reck­lessly empty our pock­ets to keep pace with the lat­est and great­est; and hu­man con­se­quences, as we grow in­creas­ingly frus­trated by the mag­i­cal ob­jects on which we de­pend.

IFixit and its noble mis­sion may not seem like much of a threat to any­one, least of all the most prof­itable com­pany on the planet, but Ap­ple has been watch­ing iFixit care­fully. Ap­ple doesn’t like iFixit, be­cause iFixit writes its own in-house ver­sions of Ap­ple’s top-se­cret re­pair man­u­als and shares them with all com­ers. It sells re­v­erse- engi­neered Ap­ple- equiv­a­lent parts and bun­dles them with cus­tom- de­signed picks, tweez­ers, spudgers (tiny

plas­tic chis­els), and screw­drivers in af­ford­able, ev­ery­thingyou-need kits. Work­ing with iFixit, you can re­place a cracked screen or a fried bat­tery for a lot less than if you were to take your prob­lem to an Ap­ple store, which might not be an op­tion for you any­way, depend­ing on where you live. Plus, iFixit won’t try to sell you a new phone. (Ap­ple ig­nored re­peated re­quests to com­ment for this story.)

Then again, iFixit doesn’t like Ap­ple ei­ther. At iFixit head­quar­ters in San Luis Obispo, Cal­i­for­nia, the re­cy­cling goes in cans la­beled with iFixit’s logo—it re­sem­bles a Phillips screw head—while the cans with the Ap­ple logo are for trash. In eight state leg­is­la­tures across the coun­try, the two com­pa­nies are fight­ing over so-called right-tore­pair laws (see “You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Re­pair,” right) that, if passed, will loosen Ap­ple’s strict, cra­dle-to-grave con­trol over ev­ery­thing it sells and eat into its stu­pen­dous re­pair rev­enue. Ap­ple doesn’t re­port just how huge that re­pair rev­enue is, but trade jour­nal War­ranty Week es­ti­mates that one proxy for that—sales of Ap­ple’s ex­tended-war­ranty re­pair pro­gram, Ap­pleCare— de­liv­ered the com­pany a stag­ger­ing $5.9 bil­lion world­wide in 2016. “It’s the world’s largest ex­tended-war­ranty pro­gram,” says War­ranty Week ed­i­tor Eric Ar­num. “Big­ger than GM’s. Big­ger than Volk­swa­gen’s. Big­ger than Best Buy’s or Wal­mart’s.”

IFixit wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Ap­ple and ev­ery­thing about it— its in­no­va­tion, its ubiq­uity, and its ar­ro­gance. IFixit is ba­si­cally a par­a­site if you think about it that way. Or maybe a pilot fish, swim­ming with the shark and sub­sist­ing on its left­overs. Yet that doesn’t be­gin to cap­ture the full­ness of this com­pany’s rad­i­cal mis­sion, or the am­bi­tion of its founders, both of which Wiens has spent much time re­flect­ing on.

“I’m re­ally con­cerned about the transition in so­ci­ety to a world where we don’t un­der­stand what’s in our things,” he says. “Where we are afraid of en­gi­neer­ing, afraid of fact, afraid of tin­ker­ing. When you take some­thing like a phone or voice recorder and you take it apart and you un­der­stand it enough to be able to fix it, a switch flips in your brain. You go from be­ing just a con­sumer to be­ing some­one who is ac­tu­ally a par­tic­i­pant.” This may not be as cool as hav­ing your own back­yard car lift. But still, it’s pretty cool. WIENS AND SOULES BOTH GREW UP in Ore­gon, but they didn’t meet un­til they got to Cal­i­for­nia Polytech­nic State Univer­sity, where the motto is “Learn by do­ing.” That was 2003, and they’ve been to­gether ever since—as friends, room­mates, 50-50 busi­ness part­ners, and river kayak­ing buddies. (When Wiens an­nounced he was get­ting mar­ried, his other friends told him he would have to di­vorce Soules first.) Wiens talks more than Soules and sleeps less; he’s the pub­lic face of iFixit, its chief ex­plainer and grand strate­gist. Soules over­sees op­er­a­tions and man­ages iFixit’s China sup­ply chain; he’s also a pilot and a clar­inetist. At Cal Poly, they bonded over their shared geek­i­ness. “I re­mem­ber him go­ing home for Christ­mas break,” says Soules. “He had a big, old-fash­ioned desk­top com­puter. He brought it with him on the train.”

Wiens’s other com­puter was an Ap­ple iBook G3, the curvy, can­dy­col­ored lap­top known as the “toi­let seat Mac.” He dropped it one day, and it broke. Wiens was un­fazed. As kids, he and his brother were al­ways tak­ing apart and re­assem­bling old ra­dios and kitchen ap­pli­ances that their grand­fa­ther bought for them at Good­will. He “spent his life mak­ing and main­tain­ing things,” Wiens wrote of his grand­fa­ther in a eu­lo­gis­tic es­say pub­lished on The At­lantic’s web­site in 2013; he schooled Wiens in the war against “en­tropy: the sec­ond law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics that guar­an­tees ev­ery­thing will even­tu­ally wear out”; and he sent him off to col­lege with a toolkit and a sol­der­ing iron.

Wiens needed a G3 re­pair man­ual. He searched in vain on­line. Ap­ple doesn’t share such knowl­edge with its cus­tomers. That ticked him off. It was his com­puter, af­ter all. Bought and paid for. Why shouldn’t he have ac­cess to its in­ner work­ings? “This shall not stand,” Wiens re­mem­bers think­ing, and so was born the idea for a busi­ness.

Wiens and Soules worked it out over the next sev­eral years. Ini­tially, they thought they’d write their own re­pair man­u­als and sell them, but—first les­son—in­for­ma­tion is a tough sell. (No one would pay for eHow’s ar­ti­cles or videos, ei­ther.) Parts and tools, on the other hand, aren’t, so Wiens and Soules be­came on­line re­sellers, clear­ing out the screw­driver shelves at Sears, or­der­ing hard-to-get parts from cat­a­logs, and filling or­ders, Michael Dell–like, from their dorm. They called their fledg­ling com­pany Pow­erBook Fixit, un­til Wiens got scared that Ap­ple might

hunt them down for trade­mark in­fringe­ment. Next, they tried PBFixit, which didn’t stick ei­ther. “Peo­ple thought it stood for peanut but­ter,” says Soules. Still, peo­ple came. “We didn’t make money our first month,” says Wiens. “We made money our sec­ond month. And we’ve made money ever since.”

They roomed to­gether, sleep­ing in bunk beds so they’d have more space for in­ven­tory. Sopho­more year, they moved off cam­pus to a two-bed­room apart­ment, and even­tu­ally to a three-bed­room house with a three- car garage that served as a parts ware­house. Tak­ing care of busi­ness while keep­ing up with classes pre­sented cer­tain chal­lenges. “I’d be on the phone with a cus­tomer, try­ing to walk them through in­stalling their hard drive, and I’m look­ing at the clock think­ing, ‘I have a midterm across town in 20 min­utes,’ ” says Wiens. “You can’t tell the cus­tomer that.” Even­tu­ally, they hired help. One day, an em­ployee ar­rived for work at the house hav­ing for­got­ten his key, so he picked the lock. The boss was im­pressed. “To this day, we still teach lock-pick­ing to new em­ploy­ees,” Wiens says. (At times, iFixit has sold branded lock-pick sets de­spite cer­tain com­pli­ca­tions; it’s il­le­gal to ship them via U.S. mail.)

“In the be­gin­ning, we were very care­fully it­er­at­ing on the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence around parts,” says Wiens. “Then cus­tomers would say, ‘Well, that’s fine, but how do we in­stall it?’ So we wrote them a man­ual. And they would say, ‘Well, that’s fine, but we don’t have tools,’ and so we sold them the tools. And they would say, ‘Well, the tools are too ex­pen­sive,’ so then we started build­ing kits and just bun­dled the tools into the price of the parts. It turns out that we were do­ing some­thing that no­body else in the parts busi­ness was.”

The year they grad­u­ated, 2007, was the same year the iPhone made its de­but, pre­sag­ing a dra­matic shift in their rev­enue stream from fix­ing com­put­ers to fix­ing hand­held de­vices. What had be­gun as a part-time gig was by now a prof­itable, fast-grow­ing busi­ness. It didn’t pro­vide them with just spend­ing money while they were in col­lege—it paid for col­lege. It also cov­ered the down pay­ment on the $690,000 house in Atas­cadero that would serve them over the years, some­times over­lap­pingly, as their shared home, an em­ployee bunkhouse, and iFixit’s head­quar­ters. “This could very well be a ca­reer for us,” Soules re­mem­bers think­ing se­nior year; the thought had never oc­curred to him be­fore. So much for wor­ry­ing about find­ing a job.

THE FRONT DOOR AT IFIXIT head­quar­ters on the edge of down­town San Luis Obispo is locked. A sign says “by ap­point­ment only.” There is a bell, how­ever, to which a smil­ing, bearded 20-some­thing re­sponds. He leads the way through an empty wait­ing room into a steel-girded, sky­lighted barn, filled with other bearded 20-some­things and a few of their fe­male coun­ter­parts. This build­ing used to be the car deal­er­ship where Wiens got his lift. He left the other lift out back for his em­ploy­ees’ ben­e­fit, though it’s

“WE STILL TEACH LOCK-PICK­ING TO NEW EM­PLOY­EES.”

not clear how many drive, much less own cars. On their first day, all iFixit work­ers re­ceive—in ad­di­tion to a desk, in parts, which they’re ex­pected to assem­ble them­selves—$400 to­ward the pur­chase of a bike. The park­ing lot is mostly empty.

Ren­o­vat­ing the place took more than a year. The big­gest chal­lenge, Wiens says, was fig­ur­ing out how to in­sert an up­per level into the ex­ist­ing frame­work and make ev­ery­thing wa­ter­tight with­out bring­ing down the roof. (“It’s much harder to re­pur­pose and re­use an ex­ist­ing build­ing than to build a new one from scratch,” he con­cedes, irony ap­par­ently un­in­tended.) There’s a grand stair­case bi­sect­ing the cen­tral atrium, made with re­cy­cled aca­cia and wal­nut. Twin mon­i­tors on the land­ing track global ac­tiv­ity on the web­site. The pan­el­ing at the top of the stairs is made with two-by-four oak-fla­vor planks, dis­carded by the re­gion’s winer­ies. It smells good in here. Not like wood or wine, but fa­mil­iar and clean. Like a freshly opened box of elec­tron­ics.

Soules is vis­it­ing the com­pany’s sup­pli­ers in China this week, but Wiens is at his sec­ond-floor “desk.” It’s a tread­mill set to walk­ing pace, fac­ing a high-top ta­ble hold­ing a stack of out­dated soft­ware man­u­als, re­pur­posed as a plat­form for his lap­top.

Wiens doesn’t ad­ver­tise it, but he’s a de­vout Chris­tian. Jen Wiens, iFixit’s com­pany chef, wasn’t sure what to make of her fu­ture hus­band the first time they met, in Bi­ble class—an in­sis- tent chat­ter­box, a vo­ra­cious reader (later she would learn that he lis­tens to au­dio books at dou­ble speed), a man given to big ideas and noble pro­nounce­ments. “I worked at a law firm down­town,” she says. “I was al­ways pretty tired from a 14-hour day. He would sit next to me and just keep talk­ing. He was al­ways re­ally ex­cited. Even­tu­ally, I de­cided maybe I should pay at­ten­tion.”

One of the first times they hung out to­gether, Kyle told Jen that he wanted to change the world. He was still in col­lege, still work­ing out the de­tails of his big vi­sion for “fight­ing the growth of dis­pos­able cul­ture,” as he would write years later in iFixit’s em­ployee hand­book (a 50-page man­i­festo il­lus­trated with draw­ings lifted from a 1903 edi­tion of the Boy Scout hand­book), “pro­mot­ing sus­tain­able de­sign, de­fend­ing own­er­ship rights, and shed­ding light on the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of elec­tronic waste.” Kyle wasn’t quite there yet, though it was clear to Jen even then that when Kyle talked about chang­ing the world, he meant some­thing more than dis­rupt­ing some tiny cor­ner of the tech in­dus­try and mak­ing a lot of money for him­self. “I knew where he was go­ing,” she says.

Where he was go­ing, of course, was this busi­ness that would even­tu­ally in­fu­ri­ate Ap­ple. But it would also thrill a few en­light­ened cor­po­rate al­lies—no­tably Patag­o­nia, which part­ners with iFixit to help ful­fill the life­time guar­an­tee it of­fers on all branded gear. “We’re re­ally im­pressed with their ethos,” says Nel­lie Co­hen, Patag­o­nia’s “worn wear” pro­gram man­ager.

In some ways, iFixit is a con­ven­tional suc­cess story. It’s made money, cer­tainly, though not as much as it could have if that had been the main goal all along. One rea­son its founders stopped ap­ply­ing for in­clu­sion on the Inc. 5000 sev­eral years ago, ac­cord­ing to Wiens, is they weren’t in­ter­ested in hear­ing from any more po­ten­tial in­vestors. “I think we’re both scared of the re­spon­si­bil­ity to grow and make money at all costs that that would bring,” says Soules. And al­ready iFixit has had far more im­pact, in its own in­dus­try and be­yond, than com­pa­nies many times its size—re­mem­ber, it reached 94 mil­lion do-it-your­selfers last year, and has trained thou­sands of tech­ni­cians scat­tered across the U.S.

“I can’t think of any­thing else as ex­cit­ing as this or as needed,” Wiens says. In a world marked by a huge eco­nomic di­vide, he is con­vinced— as well as con­vinc­ing—that iFixit can help make own­ing tech­nol­ogy more af­ford­able while cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­de­pen­dent re­pair shops. Add to that the en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fit of throw­ing less stuff away, and maybe the hu­man ben­e­fit of mak­ing us all just a lit­tle bit hap­pier.

One of Wiens’s fa­vorite books is Matthew Craw­ford’s Shop Class as Soul­craft: An In­quiry Into the Value of Work. Craw­ford, a re­search fel­low at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, has an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in physics and a PhD in po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. His book ties all that to­gether with lessons learned in his other ca­reer, as a mo­tor­cy­cle me­chanic. “We evolved to be tool users,” Craw­ford says. “What peo­ple are look­ing for is that ba­sic ex­pe­ri­ence of in­di­vid­ual agency, to see the ef­fect of your own ac­tions and take care of your own shit.”

That Wiens and Soules have cre­ated a boom­ing busi­ness that can help with that? Very cool.

“I can’t think of any­thing else as ex­cit­ing as this or as needed,” says iFixit’s Kyle Wiens.

QUAL­ITY CHECK

IPhones equipped with iFixit re­place­ment screens, await­ing test­ing.

UNBOXING

IFixit staffers pitch­ing in to process the com­pany’s lat­est de­liv­ery of tools from its sup­pli­ers. This time around, iFixit re­ceived more than 2,000 boxes.

VIEW FROM THE TOP

IFixit founders Kyle Wiens (left) and Luke Soules in a loft atop a rock-climb­ing wall. Note the strate­gi­cally placed iFixit lo­gos on their lap­tops.

UN­DER­NEATH IT ALL

Kay-Kay Clapp, iFixit’s di­rec­tor of out­reach, hard at work at (well, un­der) her desk at com­pany head­quar­ters.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

A set of screw­driver heads, wait­ing to be mounted on an iFixit-branded han­dle. On their first day at iFixit, new em­ploy­ees are given a desk. There’s one catch: They have to assem­ble it them­selves.

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