The World’s Largest Online Repair Manual with iFixit.com’s Kyle Wiens

March 21, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good and we’re so honored to have with us today Kyle Wiens. He’s the Co-Founder and CEO of iFixit, ifixit.com. Welcome to Green is Good, Kyle. KYLE WIENS: Hey. Thanks for having me on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey Kyle, first time on this show. We’re so excited to have you on because you really are changing the world for the better but before we get into your great website, ifixit.com and what it does, talk a little bit about the Kyle Wiens story, the biography, your history. You’re still a very young man. What got you to this point of co-founding this great website and what did you do before? KYLE WIENS: Sure. I grew up in Oregon and moved down to California to go to engineering school and I was a couple months into engineering school when I dropped my laptop off of the bed and on to the power plug and it was one of those things where if I held it just right, I could get it to work and I thought there’s got to be a way. Inside there was just a loose connection and it’s working sometimes if I wiggle it just right so I started to try to take that computer apart to put a little bit of solder on that connection that was broken and I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to take it apart. Folks my age tend to assume that if information exists, it’s on the internet and so I started Googling for disassembly instructions. I wanted the service manual for the computer so I could get inside it and I couldn’t find that information anywhere so I ended up getting the computer apart but I broke some stuff along the way, got it back together. I got the computer working but it wasn’t as good as it would have been if I had had a manual and so I started doing a little bit of digging to see why isn’t there a service manual for this computer. I learned that Apple has specifically been using legal threats to keep their service manuals off the internet. They don’t want anyone but their technicians to know how to fix their computers. There’s a lot of reasons for it but one reason is planned obsolescence. They just want you to move on to the next product and so I said that’s not really okay and in a fit of peak, I figured out how to take the computer apart. I know how to do it now. I didn’t before but I know it now so why don’t I take some pictures, put them online, and we’ll see what happens so we did that and that’s kind of the nice thing about being young and stupid is you don’t really know what’s not possible. Nobody told me I couldn’t write a repair manual for Apple’s laptops. I just did it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right and therefore, that was the epiphany and the aha moment of starting to think there’s probably a lot of other OEMs that need this to be done and I’m going to do it. KYLE WIENS: I didn’t think there was going to be a whole lot of demand. I did it for my own gratification. I put it online and we had like 10,000 hits the first weekend that we put this repair guide online. Clearly, there’s a lot of pent up demand for this. People want to get in to fix these things so we started writing manuals for more things and covering more OEMs and I think it just kind of snowballed from there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What year did you launch iFixit.com? For our listeners out there, it’s www.iFixit.com. Simple and it says exactly what it is. What year did you launch that site? KYLE WIENS: We started back in 2003 so we’ve been at it almost ten years. It’s a little more than ten years and we’ve just been systematically adding more repair guides and it’s a community site so anybody can share manuals so if you know how to fix a blender or a toaster or a digital camera, you can take some photos of the process and share it on the site and over the course of the last decade, collaborating with repair technicians and interesting people around the world, we’ve managed to build the largest online repair manual. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Unbelievable and I know you’re a humble guy but I’m on your website now. First of all, it’s visually beautiful and it’s easy to operate and easy to work with but let’s talk about these 11 fascinating years. How big is the site now in terms of traffic and how big is it in terms of compendium of information, of how many items you could find manuals for to fix? KYLE WIENS: We help over 3 million people a month, all around the world learning how to fix things. I got an email from somebody last week saying, ‘Hey thanks, I fixed my toaster using a manual on the site. Somebody posted a photo on Twitter this morning of them fixing their iPhone. It was probably a dead battery. The batteries on these phones go out after a year or so and it’s pretty easy to out a new battery in an iPhone so people all around the world in every country on earth are able to get online, get access to the free information, and learn how to do the repairs. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And now there’s hundred of thousands of repair manuals on your great website? KYLE WIENS: We have right now about 10,000 repair guides but more are being added every single day. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Do you still get the same satisfaction now that it’s 2014 when you get these photos or these emails? Three million people. Talk about a person and talk about a company that’s making the world a better place. Are you still as jazzed as ever before when you even started the company? KYLE WIENS: Yeah, I feel like we’re still just getting started. There are so many things out there that people just don’t know how they work anymore. We’ve kind of forgotten how physical things work and the moment that you open any kind of electronics, it’s challenging. It takes you out of your comfort zone and most of us are not electrical engineers. We’re not really accustomed to what’s inside these electronics but if you have a repair guide to walk you through the process, I think it’s really impressive what people can do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great and then e waste, I know that’s a growing problem. It’s probably the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world. What got you specifically into e waste? I know that you’re bombarded with so much information every day and have so many things pulling at you. Why e waste being an interesting topic that you’ve taken a larger interest in? KYLE WIENS: I’ve been really interested in the problem for a while and I had heard a lot of environmental groups and Greenpeace talking about the problem and I wasn’t really sure whether to believe them or not and I had heard reports of some of the electronic burnings that had happened around the world where people are mining electronics for raw materials and I decided to go and find out for myself so I went to Ghana and Agbogbloshie, which is this famous scrap yard in Ghana, just to visit and talk to these guys and find out what they’re doing and it turns out a lot of these folks that are mining these things for raw materials would much rather be repairing them than burning them and getting a small amount of copper out of these old computers. They just don’t know how. They don’t have the knowledge and the training. The manufacturers, ‘We only make service information available to our authorized service centers’. Apple and HP and Dell don’t have authorized service centers in Accra, Ghana. They’re not over there training anybody and so what ends up happening is you have all these very complex toxic electronics that end up in Africa because people need to use electronics in Africa. They don’t have a formal recycling channel there and they don’t have the information they need on how to repair and maintain and keep these things lasting. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, so you went there first hand and met the people there? KYLE WIEN: I tend to not trust other folks. I want to see with my own eyes and talk to people and really understand the problem from beginning to end and it starts with when you’re digging raw materials out of the ground to make a product and goes through however long people are using things and then where these things end up at the end of life, I really wanted to know and there’s a global travel of these electronics that is completely unintuitive. You know, you might use a phone for a while and then sell it and then where does it end up afterwards? JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. Let’s go back to a couple of words that you used at the top of the show. Is planned obsolescence, the words you used, still a problem, the issue that’s underlying e waste and other items right now? KYLE WIEN: You can ask yourself why can’t you put additional storage in an iPad? iPads come with 16 gigabytes, 32 gigabytes. It would be super easy and there’s still plenty of space inside for there to be a micro USB slot for storage in your iPad but they make so much money selling those upgraded models, they want to push you on to the next one. There’s no way they’re going to make it upgradeable. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So planned obsolescence is still really part of our society in so many ways with products. KYLE WIEN: I think there’s an opportunity for consumers to push back. The manufacturers that have been making renewable upgradeable products haven’t been rewarded in the marketplace so we’re seeing products like, people might not realize the iPad is glued together. It’s not upgradeable. It’s got a battery that lasts a couple of years and then it’s designed to go in the trash. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha. For our listeners who just joined us, we’re so excited to have Kyle Wiens with us. He’s the Co-Founder and CEO of iFixit.com, www.iFixit.com, very simple and intuitive and just an amazing website, 3 million people a month, over 10,000 manuals on how to fix your own materials. Kyle, what are the most common breakdowns now with regards to PCs, smartphones, other electronics? What are the most common that you get emails or you get queries on? KYLE WIEN: The most common thing is batteries in phones, particularly phones that have batteries where you can’t just pop the back panel off and put a new battery in so that’s phones like the iPhone and a bunch of others, where you have to have special screwdrivers to get in. It’s usually pretty easy to swap the batteries once you get in. You just have to have the right tools so that’s number one. Broken glass on tablets and smartphones is number two so whether that’s a Galaxy Tab or an iPad or a Dell tablet, all the way over to on the phones, Samsung Galaxy S3 and 4 and the iPhones and HTCs. It’s pretty straightforward to get replacement glass for those devices. We sell replacement screens and tools but you can get them from a variety of places and that’s why you’re seeing all these small local repair shops popping up all over the place. They’re just using the online manuals and parts they can get online to do repairs. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, right. When we talk about planned obsolescence, since you’ve been at this specifically for 11 years, with regards to the technological revolution, 11 years makes you really like one of the godfathers of the industry then. Are the lives getting shorter or standing still or getting longer? If you were to choose between all three of those, when you see the biggest OEMs, are they creating shorter lives? KYLE WIEN: That’s a good question. It depends. I think the trend that we’re seeing recently is laptops in general have been lasting longer, the upgrades cycles on laptops, and I don’t think people have much of a problem holding onto a laptop for five years now. Where we’re seeing accelerated life spans is on the cell phones and tablets. The average American hangs on to a cell phone for about 18 months now. Even though the contract is two years, we’re only using the phones for 18 months and there’s a couple reasons for that but I think the biggest driver is that the batteries in phones only last for about 400 charges so at the end of 400 charges, the battery is pretty weak. It’s not intuitive how easy it is to replace batteries in these things. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, the battery isn’t lasting that long, Let me just go and get a new one,’ so that’s a result of the manufacturers building a consumable end of the device that’s not replaceable. A battery is just like the tires in your car. It’s something that needs to be replaced after a while. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Besides a brilliant entrepreneur like you, who has now evolved to become, really in many ways, a social entrepreneur or a conscious capitalist in that what you’re really doing and the problems that you’re solving, you’ve changed the world on a micro basis with your amazing website. Basically, you’ve democratized the process. On a macro scale, what policy changes are required to encourage more repairs to happen? KYLE WIEN: Right so our goal is to shift people’s behavior and our culture around our things away from a culture where we’re just consuming thing after thing to start to be where we’re more a part of the process and that involves getting information in the hands of more people. We’ve been writing repair manuals as fast as we can for ten years and we’ve got 10,000 repair guides online. The problem is that at CES, the big Consumer Electronics Show every January, they introduce about 20,000 new electronic gizmos so as fast as we can write manuals and get them online, we’re not able to keep up. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s interesting. Wow, gotcha. KYLE WIEN: And the great irony of what we do at iFixit gathering information and putting it online, is that the manufacturers already have repair manuals for everything that we’re disassembling and figuring out how to fix. They’re just not sharing it with the rest of us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: No kidding. I’m sure you’ve gotten their attention by now. Even at this point, they haven’t tried to broker a truce with you and just hand them over? KYLE WIEN: I don’t know. You’d be surprised. Well, you tell me, on the electronics recycling side, do you get information from manufacturers on how to recycle electronics? JOHN SHEGERIAN: No, they’re asking us typically. They’re asking us. They want to come and watch us recycle it so they can maybe make it better. Actually, in the last years, they’re coming and watching us recycle so in theory, they can make their products greener with less disposable materials, more recyclable materials or make the products more recyclable. That goes for some of the OEMs. Obviously, as you know and I know, some of the OEMs never come to our facilities and watch us recycle because that’s, again, not their goal so you’re absolutely right. KYLE WIEN: Again, that’s a good thing that they’re watching but it seems crazy to me that you’re the one doing the R and D on their behalf to figure out how to recycle their product. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re 100% right. That’s a great point and that’s a fascinating data point. CES puts out, highlights or platforms 20,000 new products and to me, 10,000 manuals sounds amazing. That’s what you’ve accomplished in 11 years with 3 million people a month. That’s amazing but I guess, like you say, we have a long way to go yet and speaking of that, when I asked you about how you feel after 11 years and you still feel like it’s the top of the first or second inning, which is such a great way of putting it, where is this going to go? Where is iFixit going to go and where do you want it to go in the next three to five years? As an entrepreneur, what’s your vision, Kyle? KYLE WIEN: Sure. Our mission is to teach everyone how to fix everything. That’s where we’re going. iFixit is like Wikipedia. We are the comprehensive place where you go to learn how to fix anything and if we don’t have the repair information yet for how to fix the thing you’ve got that’s broken, then that’s something we need to work on and we’re adding more manuals all the time for things like appliances and we even have how to change the oil on a John Deere tractor so our goal is to get the information in the hands of the people that need it and we’re going to keep plugging away, whether that’s us creating manuals or partnering with manufacturers or even, there’s been some work to pass some right to repair laws recently. In Massachusetts last year, they passed a right to repair law that requires manufacturers to share service information about cars and that’s fantastic. That’s what the local repair shops need and that’s our goal is to get that kind of information out there so when people have stuff that’s broken, they can actually affect a repair. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Now that your company has become very successful, Kyle, and quite large in terms of its touch and its relevance and value, who do you look up to as an entrepreneur? Who is your CEO role model that’s out there and doing it right and someone that can help guide your company in terms of evolution and things of that such? Do you have one or two role models that you could share with our audience that you look up to currently? KYLE WIEN: Sure. That’s a great question. Probably the company and the CEO that I look up to the most in the world right now is Patagonia. Patagonia has a company ethos that carries through everything that they do. Yvon Chouinard, the Co-Founder and CEO, making climbing gear and then they got into clothing and they have really gone all the way to the roots. They’ll go to the farms where they’re growing cotton and then they share and they show photos and they tell people, ‘Here’s the farms. This is where it goes all the way through. Here’s the geese that we’re plucking the down from to make the down jackets,’ so I think there’s an honesty in what they do and an authenticity that has been very impressive. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so interesting. We’re down to the last two minutes or so. There’s a lot of young people that listen to this show, not only in the United States, Kyle, on Clear Channel’s iHeart network, but also after it uploads on iTunes. We get thousands of iTunes downloads every week around the world and there’s a lot of people that will look at what you do but I love the photo of you. It is like the great All-American entrepreneur and our listeners can go and see it on greenisgoodradio.com but what can you share backwards with the youth around the world that want to be an entrepreneur like you that makes the world a better place? KYLE WIEN: There’s something that I said about being young and not knowing what’s not possible. I would say don’t take no for an answer and don’t be afraid to fail because sometimes, if you set your expectations a little lower and you say, ‘I have no idea whether this is going to work or not. Let’s just try it,’ and that’s something as we get older, we have more fear of failing and so we take fewer chances and we tend to do less interesting things. I would chase any opportunity no matter how crazy it seems. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great and Kyle, I just want to say this: I think what you’re doing is so important. Being in the e waste industry myself and having just a snippet of knowledge of what’s going on, what iFixit is doing is truly revolutionary in so many ways and is really making the world a better place and for our listeners out there that want to share their version of a manual back with Kyle or go and learn how to fix something, please go to Kyle’s great website, www.ifixit.com. It’s a great website. It’s easy to access and easy to use and I encourage everybody to be part of the process and part of the solution. Again, Kyle, this was great today. Thank you so much for coming on Green is Good and we’re going to have you back on so you can continue to tell your story and thank you again for creating a great website that democratizes our ability to fix electronics. You’re a sustainability superstar and truly living proof that green is good.