How Cracking My Screen Led Me To Build A $2.7M/Year Business
Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?
My name is Matt McCormick, and I started TechUnwreck. We do bulk iPad, iPhone, Chromebook, and Laptop repairs for schools & businesses through a unique mail-in solution. We’re a division of JCD Repair which I started in 2008, catering to retail customers needing an iPhone, other smartphones, or iPad fixed in about 30 minutes in person.
Techunwreck’s core customers are schools with a fleet of student devices. It turns out that when you give 5th graders a computer or iPad, they break about 10% per year. We also work with several constructions, real estate, and finance companies repairing their company-owned smartphones, tablets, and computers. We even fix iPads for a local pro-sports team.
In 2021 we expect to do about 30,000 device repairs per year and $3 million in sales.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I worked as a Microsoft software developer for about 4 years and quit in 2007 to start a company building websites for small businesses. I had a nice nest egg built up from working at Microsoft (and living frugally) and a set of good clients right away. Financially I was comfortable and enjoying the freelance lifestyle. The one problem with the freelance lifestyle is you only get paid when you’re actually working. I knew eventually I wanted a business that could pay me even if I was golfing or fishing or traveling.
Our biggest key to attracting & retaining customers is a core philosophy of hiring great people, training them well, treating them even better, and then setting them loose on customers.
Many of my customers would ask about website design, SEO, Google Adwords, and more. I decided it would be good for me to start a small e-commerce website to learn and practice some of these concepts. Not as a “real” business, per se, but so I could learn what worked and help my clients. But what business to start?
This is when fate intervened. In the summer of 2007 (pre-iPhone), I broke my cell phone screen and ended up paying $300 to buy a new one. Two weeks later it broke again. Instead of buying a new one this time, I decided to fix it myself. It was a T-Mobile Dash. I was able to find the screen and tools on eBay and a decent YouTube repair tutorial. After a week of waiting for parts and a couple of frustrating but fun hours repairing, my phone was fixed, and I had a great idea for my “practice” business.
Take us through the process of building the initial business.
It took about two weeks to build a crappy website (I’m a solid developer but my design skills don’t go much beyond Craigslist). The site had a single offering: T-Mobile Dash screen repair through the mail. I bought some Google Adwords, and a week later people from all over the USA were mailing me phones to fix. It wasn’t life-changing, 5-10 phones a week, but my initial investment was just $600 and my time to build the website. That $600 got me web hosting, some initial inventory, and kicked off my Google Ads campaign. The business was cash-flow positive from day one - though my core job was still building websites for other companies.
A year later I decided to travel Europe for 5 weeks. I’d work on client websites in the morning & site see in the afternoon. I convinced my brother in Wisconsin to handle the mail-in phone repairs. I set him up with everything he needed in his basement, paid him $15 per repair, and changed the mail-in address on my website. Then I packed a bag and headed to Europe.
A good friend joined me in Prague about 3 weeks into the trip. He was also looking for something new to do and as we talked about my phone repair business, he said, “You know, that could be a real business. How about we partner up and go at it full-time?”
I had been wanting to move from Seattle, where I started and ran the business in my basement, to Chicago. Besides, there was a business where I could get paid without having to do the actual work. My brother fixing the phones while I did a walking tour in Berlin had shown me that. So in late 2008, I partnered with my friend. He stayed in Seattle to run that office and I moved to Chicago to start a second office there.
Describe the process of launching the business.
As I mentioned above, the process of launching the business was pretty straightforward. Obviously, it helped that I knew how to build my own website (complete with an online payment option) so I was able to avoid that expense. I was also fortunate that not a lot of people were in my business when I launched, and Google Adwords was still relatively new and cheap.
All I had to do was set up a small repair bench in the basement of the house I was in, and I was off and running. When the iPhone 3G came out the entire business changed. It went from a predominantly mail-in business to an almost exclusively in-person business. People do not want to be without their cell phones for more than an hour. This meant, in many ways, we had to relaunch the business in early 2009 and have a physical location for customers to come to. Initially, we rented a desk in a shared office space which also offered a waiting room and conference room. This made setting up a physical location both inexpensive and low risk because the rent was about $150/mo and it was a month-to-month lease. After proving the in-person repair model for about a year, we looked for and rented our first retail space in Chicago. That was a bit scarier because the rent went up 10-fold and we had to do a multi-year commitment, but because we had spent a year proving the model, we were fairly confident it would work.
Starting in 2011 we started getting schools regularly contacting us to fix iPads. By 2014, this, combined with Chromebook repair requests, was becoming so common that we decided to start a new branch of our company focusing on device repair for schools. This business grew steadily from 2014 through 2019 (going from roughly $50K per year in sales to $500K). Then the pandemic of 2020 hit and our business literally tripled overnight. There are about 50 million K-12 students in America. Pre-pandemic, only about half of them had a device issued by the school and of that, only a fraction went home with kids at night (about 10% of devices that go home with students break each year compared to about 1% that stay in the classroom at night). The pandemic changed all of this. About 10 years' worth of techEd development happened in about 6 months and suddenly almost every student in the USA had a device and the vast majority of those were going home.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In the early days, we were lucky that Google Adwords was inexpensive and there was little competition in our space. There just weren’t that many companies fixing cell phones at the time. This meant our SEO efforts yielded fruit early, and since “winners win” in the SEO space, we simply kept getting higher rankings.
Our biggest key to attracting & retaining customers is a core philosophy of hiring great people, training them well, treating them even better, and then setting them loose on customers. We believe a happy employee creates a happy customer, and happy customers result in great business. As the screenshot below shows, it works. Customers trust us because other customers love us and we make sure they tell everyone.
As we’ve launched our TechUnwreck brand, targeting schools and businesses with bulk repair needs, this online reputation from JCD Repair (the parent company) has been invaluable in convincing them they’re dealing with a good business.
To meet potential customers, we go to TechEd trade shows (there are regional and national shows). We have found the more specific the conference, the better. For example, going to a general education conference will get us some decent leads, but going to a conference focused on just IT administrators is much better. We then have a salesperson that follows up with each contact.
In addition, we are fortunate that most schools make all their information public. As a result, there are software companies out there that aggregate all the public information on what schools buy and who they buy from. Our sales team uses this software to not only target people buying device repair services but can refine their pitch based on who they’re buying from currently. We know who our competitors are and what their weaknesses are, so we can cold-contact a school’s IT department and immediately hit on their current pain points.
Lastly, we have a very defined system for tracking our sales team's progress and results. We track all existing businesses, what’s in their pipeline, how likely they are to close, etc. This may not sound much like a marketing channel, but setting clear goals for your sales team and then holding them accountable with real numbers is very important to growing a business like ours.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our future looks extremely bright. While I wish the pandemic had never happened for many reasons, it does turn out that 50 million K-12 students going virtual in American schools is very good for a business that fixes Chromebooks & iPads. Basically, 10 years' worth of technology advancements happened in the last year.
Starting in the fall of 2020 our business tripled overnight as schools started collecting and sending in thousands of broken devices to be fixed. We don’t expect this business to slow down any time soon.
In addition, it’s not just the schools that have gone virtual. Many businesses are now allowing employees to work remotely and a working computer and smartphone are critical to making that system work. We feel the future of TechUnwreck is extremely bright!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned so much by making so many mistakes over the years. First, hiring is not only really important, but it also’s extremely difficult, and your management team - and the founder - should take it very seriously and devote a lot of time to the process.
For us, we have an initial resume screening, then a short phone interview, then a 1-hour in-person interview (that requires them to “learn” how to fix a device no matter what position they’re interviewing for), then a 4 hours “test” day. If all that goes well, we hire the person and then do 2-week reviews for the first 8 weeks. These reviews are meant to not only help the employee but to let us know quickly if it was a bad hire and then let them go before investing a lot more time in them.
I am a firm believer in starting a business part-time while you have something else to support you. I always tell people that you can expect to go at least two years before you’ll be able to pay yourself in a bootstrapped business.
Speaking of hiring, we believe that if you hire someone smart & motivated, they will succeed. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never fixed a device before - we can easily teach someone smart & motivated to do that. We also hire for our company culture though not a cultural fit. We believe you want to hire people that make your culture even better and immediately move on from someone that makes it worse.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Whatever you think of their founders, we have found Basecamp to be a critical tool to our success. The biggest reason is that we are a distributed business with offices around the country. It’s a great way for us all to stay connected with each other without the firehose approach of Slack. Stay informed but not distracted.
Our sales team loves CapsuleCRM for its simplicity and I love it for its low cost.
Our support team uses HelpScout which is great for centralizing all customer communication in a way that anyone can pick up a thread and run with it (or assign it to the person best suited to handle it).
We use RingCentral for our phone system. It allows us to ring any number, record calls for training purposes, set customer voicemail messages for when we’re open/closed, and just generally works well. Though I do find its interface a bit confusing so there is a decent learning curve with this phone system.
Lastly, we are a Google Apps (or is it now Workspace?) shop. We use it for email, spreadsheets, documents, storing files, etc.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I like to read and listen to a combination of how-to and aspirational content.
For how-to advice, you can’t go wrong reading Andy Grove’s High-Performance Management. It is a no-nonsense book filled with information about how to run a successful business.
If you can find a copy of it, you should also get Poor Charlie’s Almanac on your bookshelf. It’s a collection of content from Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s right-hand man at Berkshire Hathaway, and it’s so full of common sense advice that you may find it changing your entire life.
For podcasts and inspiration, you should definitely listen to Guy Raz’s How I Built This. The first season of Startup from Alex Blumberg at Gimlet Media is an amazing audiomentary of how a business starts and survives.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
I am a firm believer in starting a business part-time while you have something else to support you. I always tell people that you can expect to go at least two years before you’ll be able to pay yourself in a bootstrapped business. It just takes that long to develop a product, customer base, and then get employees trained and onboard.
Speaking of employees, you know how important hiring is but you are still going to underestimate it. It’s not just about finding someone that can do the work. It’s about finding someone that can do the work, cares about your business's success, and is a joy to work with. Warren Buffet once said that his favorite part of being a business owner is getting to choose who he works beside every day. I completely agree with that. Do not shortcut or settle in your hiring process. Be diligent about finding someone great and then compensate them well because 1 great employee is worth 2 or 3 mediocre ones. You spend too much time at work to not love the people you work with!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are growing super fast and looking for repair technicians, support staff, salespeople, and more at our Chicago repair depot. We offer good pay, solid benefits (including insurance & retirement account), and we do a 4-day work week (40 hours) which everyone seems to love.
If you’re interested in working for us, just email: [email protected].
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
TechUnwreck has provided an update on their business!
4 months ago, we followed up with TechUnwreck to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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