It used to be that a broken smartphone meant the need for a brand new phone. A shattered screen, an unintended dip in the sink or a broken LCD were once cause for great frustration – not to mention another hefty investment. That’s just what happened to Robby Reaser, and it led him on the path to co-found SmartPhone MD, a non-warranty repair provider for mobile devices. The company repairs many of today’s most popular devices from manufacturers including Apple, BlackBerry, Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony and Motorola, among others.
Four years ago, after damaging his iPhone, Robby was left with no choice but to drive to the Apple store in Charlotte to try to have it repaired. Only, once he arrived there, he was told it couldn’t be fixed and that he would need to purchase a new phone.
That frustration led him to approach Demetril O’Neal and Cubby Culbertson about starting a business in Columbia to repair smartphones destined for the recycling bin. As a result, in 2009, SmartPhone MD, then known as SmartPhone Medic, was born.
The flagship establishment was opened in Five Points and is now located on Gervais Street across from the University of South Carolina. It’s a prime spot considering the number of smartphones in use on the school’s campus. Second and third locations were later opened in the Village at Sandhill and on Killian Road, respectively. Ironically, one of the newest SmartPhone MD locations was opened in Charlotte earlier this year, the same place that helped to solidify the need for a company like SmartPhone MD in Robby’s mind several years before.
The company’s plans for growth have been aided by a 2011 partnership with a Charlotte, N.C.-based franchising group led by Martin Sprock, founder of Moe’s Southwest Grill and Planet Smoothie, and Chuck Morrison, a marketing professional and entrepreneur. A conversation between Robby and Chuck planted the initial seed for the idea for SmartPhone MD: Chuck had the first iPhone that Robby had seen, and he said people were going to break the phone’s glass screen repeatedly. And he was right.
After Robby’s ill-fated trip to Charlotte to attempt to repair his own phone, he approached Chuck with his idea for Smartphone MD. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early 2011, Chuck realized the opportunity in the emerging industry. That opportunity hasn’t been lost on SmartPhone MD, which opened a fifth store in Orangeburg in May and plans to open a sixth in Charlottesville, Va. this month and has plans to open additional locations by the end of 2013.
SmartPhone MD’s Charlotte location is serving as a model for future stores. It’s located in the heart of downtown Charlotte and occupies less than 500 square feet. That strategy, of opening a smaller location in a densely populated area, allows SmartPhone MD to have excellent foot traffic and draw more customers. And with the influx of new customers comes the opportunity to serve additional needs. “As we grow, we are learning about new opportunities,” says Chuck, who also serves as president and CEO of SmartPhone MD. “We have built a strong services business, and, in support of that, we now are selling accessories, including chargers, batteries, SD cards and even designer cases.”
The need for accessories is unique, as the SmartPhone MD team has discovered. For example, Chuck was surprised by the strong sales of nine-foot micro USB cables. After talking with customers, he realized that people traveling often need longer cords in airports or hotels, and college students need longer cords to reach the top bunks. “It’s a wonderful niche to be able to fill,” he adds.
It’s a niche SmartPhone MD looks to rapidly fill across the nation. “We are getting 10 to 15 serious franchise inquiries a week,” says Chuck. And after extensive industry research, the SmartPhone MD team has become very adept at recognizing what a market needs. Because of the immense interest, Chuck and his team see tremendous potential for growth over the next five years, targeting the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions first, with plans to expand from there.
This explosive expansion is also due in large part to the extraordinary word of mouth of SmartPhone MD’s customers. “The overall response has been better than we expected,” says Demetril, who serves as Chief Operating Officer. “People are so happy when we are able to save their phones for a fraction of the cost of replacing them or using their insurance.”
That certainly was the case for Gloria Beaver, whose daughter broke her smartphone shortly after it was purchased. The screen cracked all the way across the phone, making it difficult to use for much more than voice calls. After speaking with her provider, Gloria learned that the phone was only covered under partial warranty; if she wanted a new phone, she would need to pay additional money for it. Coincidentally, shortly after the mishap, she and her daughter drove past SmartPhone MD. “I saw the sign, and I went in out of curiosity,” she says. “Of course, to my daughter, separation from her smartphone was life threatening. Fortunately, the team at SmartPhone MD told me they would have the screen replaced and the phone repaired within an hour.” And they did.
“They were very professional in addressing what they could do for me and also very prompt,” continues Gloria. “You often run into businesses that don’t understand the importance of customer service and customer relationships. SmartPhone MD gets it. The cost of service is minimal compared to what I would have paid for a brand new phone.” Gloria has since become a repeat customer and is happy to spread the word about SmartPhone MD.
No doubt, the customer service and quick turnaround have been instrumental to SmartPhone MD’s success. It doesn’t hurt that most of the major wireless carriers have moved away from repairing devices. This has left a void – and a distinct need – that SmartPhone MD happily fills. And it’s not just smartphones; SmartPhone MD also repairs iPads, iPods, tablets and MP3 players. As of September 2012, the company had already repaired more than 1,000 iPads and 3,000 iPhones, not to mention all of the other products they have given a second life.
In addition to cracked glass replacement, LCD replacement and water damage treatment, SmartPhone MD also provides general troubleshooting, in hopes of helping anxious customers figure out their unexplained smartphone issues.
So how is SmartPhone MD able to repair devices so cost effectively? According to Demetril, there are a couple of reasons. First, they have built good, solid relationships with many parts vendors and have proven that they will order from them on a consistent basis; the parts companies, in turn, give SmartPhone MD significant discounts on their orders. Second, the team at SmartPhone MD is continuously looking for more efficient repair methods that help reduce repair times and allow them to be more productive. Certainly, with a growing team that services local, state and nationwide clients, efficiency and productivity are necessities.
The SmartPhone story is a case study in entrepreneurship, finding a niche, creating and cultivating an idea and having the courage to give it a go. It doesn’t hurt to have a strong team in place. “We have been very fortunate to have a great partnership and mutual respect,” says Demetril. “We each bring different strengths to the table, and it has worked out really well for us.” It also hasn’t been so bad for the thousands of smartphone owners who have been able to save their lifelines.