Tapping into a broken market

iFixit helps users of electronic devices find repair parts and know-how

Laura J. Nelson / Los Angeles Times /

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Jake Devincenzi was thrilled to get his hands on Google’s new Nexus 4 smartphone. He admired its sleek black case and large touch screen — and he couldn’t wait to tear it apart.

In a small room cluttered with discarded computer parts, Devincenzi picked up a blue plastic stylus and eased the tool into a seam on the side of the phone as three co-workers watched.

Minutes later, a pop. The tear-down had begun.

“We’re in,” he said, and grinned.

Each time Devincenzi plucked a part from the Nexus 4, he took a high-resolution photo and posted it online. By the end of the week, more than 60,000 people had scrutinized the tear-down, curious to know what was inside.

Devincenzi, a 20-year-old student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, works part-time for iFixit, a company that has less of a business mission than a manifesto: “Repair is independence. We have the right to remove ‘Do Not Remove’ stickers.”

With the helping hands of technicians such as Devincenzi and repair guides written by volunteer tech experts, iFixit is tapping into growing frustration with cellphones, tablets and computers that, once broken, are almost impossible to fix. The company says it wants to teach people how to repair electronic devices once again — and will sell them the tools to do it.

“We’re not necessarily actively anti-Apple or anti-‘the Man,’ ” said Scott Dingle, 25, a customer service representative. “It’s more like, we train other people to do it themselves.”

What is now a staff of 35 began as two people. In 2003, Cal Poly freshmen Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules started selling laptop parts out of a dorm room. When they couldn’t find manufacturer-issued repair guides, they wrote their own. The first manual they posted online got 10,000 page views in the first weekend.

They moved their business to a three-car garage, then a house, then a loft-like two-story office in downtown San Luis Obispo. Last year, iFixit earned $5.9 million in revenue by selling parts, kits and tools.

iFixit is not the only website that offers repair manuals, but its tear-downs are special because they expose a company’s proprietary technology, said Scott Swigart, an analyst at Cascade Insights in Oregon.

Persuading non-techies to tinker is one of the company’s biggest hurdles. Repairs can go wrong, and do — even for the professionals. Screens shatter. Wires snap.

“But once people have their first fix, they’re hooked,” iFixit sales manager Eric Essen said. “When I fixed my iPhone and it turned on, I was like, ‘I am a god! I am Frankenstein!’ ”