Kyle Wiens is the CEO of iFixit, the free repair manual. He’s dedicated his life to defeating the second law of thermodynamics, a battle fought in the courtroom as often as in the workshop. The Right to Repair campaign has, so far, successfully legalized cell phone unlocking and tractor repair.
A dropped laptop in a college dorm room — and a subsequent failed online search for repair directions — was the inspiration for Kyle Wiens to co-found iFixit.com, an online database of user-generated digital repair manuals. Eleven years later, iFixit.com is the world’s largest online repair manual, with more than 3 million users a month fixing up their products for free on the site. “We’ve kind of forgotten how things work,” Wiens admits. “The moment you open any kind of electronic is challenging — it takes you out of your comfort zone. If you have a repair guide to walk you through the process, it’s really impressive what people can do.”
John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect the people, the planet, and your privacy and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider, and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.
John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I am so excited to have with me back again my good friend, Kyle Wiens. He is the CEO and founder of iFixit. Welcome back to Impact Kyle. How are you today?
Kyle: Oh I’m doing great. Thanks for having me on, I am really looking forward to this.
John: It is an honor to have you on. You are one of the great entrepreneurs that I have in my life as a friend, your friend before anything else, and your website what you have created has made one of the biggest impacts around the world in terms of the environment, and in terms of making life better, and easier for everyone who uses your website. So to me, it is just fascinating, before we get talking about iFixit and all the other great things you are working on. I want you to share a little bit you, the Kyle journey leading up to becoming a world-class entrepreneur who is an entrepreneur in technology because you have a website but you are also that is all around technology your websites and the impact that you made. So share a little bit of the journey of growing up and then dreaming up this very, very important iFixit website.
Kyle: Well, you have to fail first. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Yes.
Kyle: There are do things that do not work.
Kyle: Yes., I mean I worked it when I was in high school. I worked at the Apple-authorized service center doing a repair. I remember the original iMac getting those in and that was really fun working on when Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 98.
Kyle: Dating myself a little bit and then when I got to school, I started a web development company. I was building websites for other people and I realized that I hated it. I like to build the building website part what I hated was that they would not pay me to spend as much time to make it as good as I wanted it to be. I am kind of a perfectionist and I realize it when you are doing work for other people, they are always going to cut you off at some point and say that is good enough and I wanted to be able to keep working until it was good enough for me.
John: Right, right, right, right. So after that what happened?
Kyle: So after that, I kind of fired my first clients and we had figured out that well, I had been trying to take part my iBook because I was in the dorms at university and I drop my iBook on the power plug which I imagine this happened to a lot of us. And if you wiggled the connector just right, I can get the computer to charge and so I knew it was just a loose connection inside it. I started trying to take it apart and very quickly I realized I was in over my head like this thing was hard. I Googled it like anybody else would do trying to find the serviceman of this thing and I could not find the serviceman anywhere. I fumbled my way through the rest of the repair but afterward, I was like no one else should have to suffer if I just suffered like there ought to be information online about how to fix this. The first thing we take anything apart is the hard part, the second time we do it is easy. So I took it apart again. I took pictures and put them up online and that was the beginning of iFixit.
John: And what year was that?
Kyle: That was in 2003.
John: Unbelievable. So 17 years, even though that was only 17 years ago of 17 years ago in the world of technology is many times over a generation ago. How much has it grown? I mean, I love your website. Obviously, we have done a lot of business together and that more important you are a great friend and an inspiration to me all the time with your massive success. How much has the website iFixit? For our listeners out there, it is www.ifixit, F-I-X dot com, ifixit.com. How much is it grown over those 17 years?
Kyle: I mean, it is significantly. It is to the point now where over a hundred million people around the world use iFixit every year to learn how to fix something. I am here in California and then the last 12 months, one in five Californians used iFixit to learn how to repair something.
John: Unreal, unreal. One in five.
Kyle: This is the amazing thing about open source, right. All of our information is free, we give it all away. We have no idea what the impact of it is. We just put the information online and make it available for people to use and then they do with it what they want.
John: It is incredible. But you have demystified electronics. The meaning for me, I mean that business you have demystified electronics because you are always the first to publish how do we repair and what goes into any new electronics that come out. You first to market always. Unbelievable.
Kyle: Yes, what we have realized is that people are just afraid. It is not something that we are taught when we grow up how to take things apart and so if you have said a smartphone, smartphones need a new battery every eighteen months to two years.
Kyle: But the company is when you buy your phone, they do not give you information on how to get the battery change or how the change at yourself. You just kind of on your own. So we give people permission to believe in themselves. We show you ahead of time what is going to be inside and we make as soon as this possible for people who have never done electronics repair themselves to do it, and that is really cool.
John: Wow. Let us say is I can not even one in five Californians is approximately 40 million Californians. That is just an incredible number, a hundred million people every year on your website. I mean it just exploded. It is fascinating. Talk about what do you want to do like, what do you want to go from here as an entrepreneur? I mean, 17 years you are doing this and you are growing every year. I am always fascinated by you. I am always inspired by you. I go to conferences with you. I hear you speak. You have come to the show numerous times. What is next as an entrepreneur? What do you have your sights on? What are you working on next? Your brain is always working. I am fascinated by always where you want to take things next.
Kyle: But we are always trying to identify what are the obstacles to repair and how can we help facilitate that. This year, when I will set my team working on was hospital equipment, how can we help medical professionals maintain the equipment that they have. The technicians at hospitals who do repairs, every hospital has in house repair technicians, they are called bio-medical technicians or biomedical engineers and they usually live in the basement of the hospital, and every piece of equipment that breaks if the nurse knocks over a vital sign monitor, they take it down to the basement, they fix it and they have it back in the hospital running next day. We have learned that they have the same problems that I had back in the day that they have challenges getting access to service documentation. So all of these ventilators that hospital has been pressing in the service from the national ventilator stockpile and elsewhere, they are not coming with the repair manuals that they need. And so We have spent, I pulled on a lot of my stuff off at their normal jobs and we spent most of this year building an open public service manual database for hospital equipment.
John: So amazing.
Kyle: Which has been this crazy learning curve because there is all of these machines everything from some of them has overlap with the electronics world like they use ultrasonic cleaners. We use those in cell phone repair. But there are many other machines that I had never heard of. I did not know how complicated the hospital bed was. But they are many robots, they go up and down. They articulate in seven different ways and they break regularly, and it is up to the bio-meds to fix them.
John: But Kyle, we will see, help me out here. Where is the disconnect in just proper and appropriate business that they are not coming with manuals and fix it? And with the right kind of documentation, I do not understand that. These things are costing a lot of money to these health care agencies.
Kyle: Well, if you are a medical device manufacturer would not you like to charge the hospitals again after you sell the product? So what they do is they sell service contracts. You will buy an x-ray machine for say half a million dollars and then they will want another $50,000 a year for a service contract to come out and maintain the product.
John: And those are typically even more profitable than the product themselves.
Kyle: They are vastly more profitable than the product and so the medical device manufacturers are starting to see the hospital repair technicians is there competition because if the hospital can fix it, they do not have to get a service contract. And this is intensively being fought, you have Phillips, the x-ray, they make x-ray machines. They are suing third party maintenance companies for helping hospitals do repairs, Meanwhile hospitals are afraid of these technicians traveling around the country, and coming into the hospital is limiting who has access to the machinery. So this pandemic has sort of brought this problem to the fore and we said, “Well, we can maybe help by at least sharing the information. I can not go into the hospital to help these techs physically but I can help them digitally.”
John: Wow. So wait a second now. So now you have taken your some of your people off of their typical work and they have now done what they did for small electronics now to hospital equipment and that is up on ifixit.com now?
Kyle: Yes, so you go on iFixit.com and look for anesthesia machines or ventilators or any other COVID support equipment, physical therapy equipment. Yes, and it is been a massive project now, we are doing this differently than we do our other information where traditionally iFixit we create new manuals. What we are doing here is we are organizing existing manuals and it was bigger than our staff could handle so we recruited a network of about 200 volunteer librarians, and they helped us organize it and get it all into tip-top shape. So now it is the largest single place for iFixit is the largest single place for medical repair information on the world which is cool and I was not expecting. If you ask me in January what we were working on this year, I would not have said this.
John: This is incredible. This is just super incredible and what a great impact you are making a positive impact during this crisis to help healthcare workers, our frontline workers keep their stuff in working order which is critical to help to keep people alive right now.
Kyle: It is surprising that this is needed, right. You would expect that when you buy a machine that would come with a service manual but this is a fight that is been happening behind the scenes for a while and I knew about it because we have been lobbying with no working on right to repair legislation. We had hospital show up testifying in favor of the legislation alongside us we are like, wait for a second, we did not know this is a problem in medical equipment. So that has been the last couple of years to the hospitals had been educating me that they have the same problem repairing medical equipment that we have repairing iPhones and I was huh.
John: That is how you got tipped off to their problem.
Kyle: Exactly, yes.
John: And then you solved it.
Kyle: Well, I would not say we have completely solved it. We have to put a down payment towards solving it.
John: Well, sounds like you have done one heck of a job lot more than others. So thank you for that and living through this COVID-19 crisis, it is just all the gaps that this crisis and tragedy is exposed in healthcare across America has been fascinating and shocking at the same time and now you have just exposed another one, and I am so glad that you have helped fill that void because I am sure it is saved scores of life. So thank you from all of us, Kyle, that is just great stuff. Talk a little bit about, let us go into that very important topic that I know you want to share with our listeners, the right to repair and that is something that is really near and dear to your heart and that you have been working on for many years now. Share a little bit about that journey when you started when you decided to take up that mantle and how that is been going.
Kyle: Absolutely. So if you think about the car, if your car breaks you have a few options, you can call the dealer. So if you have got a Ford, I have been a Ford, F-150. It is a great truck. I can take it down to the Ford dealership or if I want I can go to my local mechanic and he can work on it or I can work out myself. I have these options and I can go to AutoZone and I can get parts. I can go to the Ford dealership and get parts. There is a whole ecosystem that is thriving and works well. In general, in America, we do not have problems getting cars fixed and we have affordable alternatives. We got a spectrum of options. So that is working well now. What if I told you it does not work that way in any other industry that car repair is special and that repair of tractors does not work that way, repair of medical equipment does not work that way, repair of iPhones does not work that way. Then every industry except automotive, manufacturers has set up barriers to prevent other people from competing with them and they have been able to like the medical device manufacturers, it been able to monopolize certain kinds of service.
John: Let me just back up. You shocked me in the tractor, the tractor seems more like an automobile than an iPhone. Why is not the tractor covered under what are typical standard operating procedures in the automobile industry?
Kyle: And so a buddy of mine Bryan Talley runs a family a farm. It is a moderate-sized family farm here in San Luis Obispo and his big enough farm that he has a full-time mechanic that works for him at the shop and you go into the shop and he will say, “Hey, you see that F-150. If the transformation goes up in that F-150, I can swap it out, I can fix it myself. Now, you see that John Deere tractor right there if the transmission goes out in that I physically can change the transmission but I do not have the software in the diagnostic tool to make the tractor see the new transmission.” And so they are not able to do repairs on farm equipment that they can with cars and the reason we see and why in the world is it different? The reason is that the United States has going back to the 1970s passed the right to repair laws that require the car companies to support local mechanics. We do not have those laws. Those laws are very narrow. They only apply to motor vehicles but they do not apply to anything else. It does not apply electronics. It does not apply the farm equipment. It does not apply the road equipment, boats, airplanes, you name it. Cars are special. It is a really interesting contrast where we can look and see, well, how does the automotive economy work and overall it works pretty well. Cars retain their value as well. It does not matter how small a town is in rural America you have got a local auto mechanic, right, but that same small town does not have a cell phone mechanic and part of the reason for that is that Apple is doing everything they can to prevent the local independent folks from being able to perform repairs at the same quality that Apple can.
John: Right, right, right, right.
Kyle: So I will give you an example, let us say that the home button in your iPhone stops working.
Kyle: I get a new button. I could even take a button from another iPhone. I can put it in your phone. I cannot make that button work. If you go to the Apple Store, they have special software. They plug in, they hit the button and it makes your home button work. I cannot do that no matter how talented or smart I am. I do not have a magic software.
John: So tell me you now realize tractors and small electronics. So when did you start lobbying for the right to repair?
Kyle: We started probably back around 2011 and the first bill that we were worked on was not right to repair, it was around cell phone unlocking and those who were really on behalf of recyclers like you guys where if you have a cell phone and it is locked to AT&T if it is an older phone maybe there is no market in the United States for it. But you want to sell it overseas in order to do that, you have to unlock it first. And the United States due to complicated silly reasons was the only country in the world where it was illegal to unlock a cell phone. And so we got a law through congress with I think your help and some other folks help that making cell phone unlocking legal again and it has been legal ever since. So that was a wonderful kind of the first accomplishment. And then after that, we said, all right, now let us work on the right to repair.
John: Got it. And how is that going now?
Kyle: I feel some times a little bit like Don Quixote, we have been tiltings at this windmill for a while. We have had the bill introduced every year in the last several years a number of states. So far this year in 2020, twenty different US states have introduced the right to repair legislation but it has not passed anywhere yet. And the reason that it has not passed is the Apple, and their friends are pulling out all of the stops they possibly can to prevent it.
John: And this is that means all the OEMs is it typically pushed back against by all the OEMs?
Kyle: It really not a lot of the OEMs do not mind it. Some companies like Dell, HP, and Lenovo already do everything that the right to repair law would require so it has not really been. It really seems like Apple has been the ringleader opposing it. The other main opponents to right to repair laws have been John Deere.
John: Right, the Tractor Company.
Kyle: Tractor Company, yes.
Kyle: And also Medtronic of medical side. So in New York state the right to repair bill has– they have to register who is lobbying against certain bills and we have 2.5 trillion dollars in market cap registered to lobby against the right to repair in New York. So it is a large hill that we have to climb but what is cool about this issue is that pretty much all humans are on our side. No one is out there saying I wish I did not have options to get my car fixed or myself on fixed. It really is only these large corporations with their interests and so they do not have very good arguments against the bill aside from it to something they wish would not happen so they could continue their monopoly.
John: Got it. Got it. Got it. Where do you think the legislation goes at post COVID? We are going to get through this tragic period in world history.
John: Vaccinations will come out, God willing. It would not be a super bowl and would not be one winner. They will be like third grade or probably be what, five, seven, eight, nine vaccine winners out of a hundred and twenty that are in testing now. And we will be able to get a vaccine and go back to some sort of normal, whatever that means, I do not even want to say the word new normal. I hate that. I just want to say you know. So even though guys like you and me we were chatting before we got on the show today that we both do not miss planes, that is for sure. We do not miss travel. We do not miss the airports. Where does the legislation go from here in the years ahead? What is your vision? Because you are so smart on these things and you have a way of navigating some of the toughest waters out there.
Kyle: Right, we anticipate that this is going to get right back up as soon as the legislature goes back to business as normal and they start working on non-emergency legislation. This is one of the top priorities. They are hearing it consistently from their constituents that people want this. It is a very popular legislation. We have in the state of Massachusetts over half of the House and Senate have co-sponsored the bill. So if we could get a floor vote it would pass.
John: Got it.
Kyle: I mean, do you want to be on the record building against the right to repair? It is not a very politically savvy perspective and this is a bipartisan issue. We have many Republican states introducing the bill and other places Democrats are introducing this. It is really all about supporting local small businesses and both these are hugely in favor of that.
John: Right, right, right.
Kyle: So an optimistic, we are going to get this done. It just got delayed maybe by year.
John: Got it. Got it. And what happens? This happens and lets us say best-case planning. Your back on the show in 2 years and we are talking about this, and it is passed in the majority of states that the legislation is pending right now. How do things improve? Just how tells our listeners or share with the listeners the likely outcomes if this legislation passes.
Kyle: Well, one thing that is cool about this bill is that we do not have to pass this in every state. We only have to pass it in one maybe two. Because the bill says that if you are going to sell a product in our state, you have to make public service information and tools available and so it is really they are going to make it available online. Massachusetts is the last state that passed on the right to repair bill and after they passed that all the makers agreed to apply the Massachusetts bill nationwide.
John: I see, I see.
Kyle: So even though we are working on a national multi-state effort. It is really whichever is the first state to get this across the finish line is going to change things dramatically.
John: Got it. Understood.
Kyle: So what this means for consumers? Well, it would mean that if you buy a thing that the manufacturer would have to support it with parts and information.
John: Got it.
Kyle: And that is really essential. You think about buying an expensive smartphone. Smartphones have batteries. The batteries wear out after about 18 months. That is normally when those people start to see degradation and they need a new battery. But there is only one smartphone company that will sell you a battery and that is Motorola. No other company, Samsung would not sell you a battery. Motorola would not sell you a battery, I am sorry, sorry, Apple would not sell you a battery. Google would not sell you a battery. So this is the equivalent of having a car that comes with special Ford tires that Ford would not sell you, and they say when your tires were out just buy a new car.
John: Oh God. Got it.
Kyle: They would never put up with that and yet, that is the status quo for smartphones. It makes absolutely no sense.
John: Are they farmers on your side like, do our farmers lobby with you on this also?
Kyle: Yes, absolutely. And so this is one of those interesting fun issues were on our side we have hospitals and farmers and environmental groups.
Kyle: And on the other side, we have got some of the largest corporations in the world.
John: Wow. So interesting.
Kyle: This is why I am saying is like humans versus the corporation.
John: [laughs] Wow, that is fascinating. I had no idea about hospitals obviously before this conversation today and no idea about the farmers and the tractors as well. Wow. Well anyway, that sounds, the journey sounds like you are making progress is obviously things the whole world is taking a pause now to get us through this COVID-19 crisis.
John: But when it comes back, it looks like you are going to continue to make progress on this very important legislation.
Kyle: Absolutely. What I have to say while we are waiting for a right to repair, the partnership that we have with you guys with ERI has been an escape valve for the right to repair. For example, Amazon will not sell us screens for Kindles, but we have been able to through the electronics recycling parts harvesting.
Kyle: Rescued a Kindle from the shredder will take the screen out will recycle the rest of it and then the screen can go and give another Kindle a new life.
John: That is awesome. Yes, we are proud to partner with you. You do great work. You are just an amazing entrepreneur and partnering with you is one of the best decisions we ever made with the parts harvesting concept which you were the one who brought that to our attention years ago and you have predicted parts just like in the car industry became a very big and viable part of the car repair industry, just like that. Its also become a very big and very important part of the small electronic industry and we are grateful for your wisdom and your leadership on that. And it is been very viable and growing every year for us, and that is thanks to you, Kyle, so we are grateful for that. How big is your website going to get? I have always fascinated by iFixit and it still had a hundred million, a hundred million puts you in such where eras as a dot com where do you grow from here, I mean really, I mean, is it 10% growth a year? 20% growth a year? Where do you grow next year?
Kyle: It is really just limited by our community in what people are interested in. iFixit as Wiki so anyone can contribute. So if you know how to fix something that I do not know how to do then you can post step by step photos online. And so people put coffee machines, a lot of our folks in Europe are interest in espresso machine repair and so that is been popular. We have been tinkering with power tool repair. One thing that is hard about electronics is they get smaller that sometimes it is harder to work on some of these really small things like an Apple Watch is small enough that they are a little bit challenging to work on. Were with power tools, they are all designed to be repaired and everybody is got the power tools so no one should ever throw away a power tool that is not working. They can all be fixed. The manufactures support them with spare parts. So if you have got a trigger a clutch on a drill, that is not working, you should look into getting a new one. We have now on iFixit, we have got thousands of exploding diagrams so you can look up exactly the part that you need.
John: Got it. Got it.
Kyle: I mean you think about how many power tools are out there. I am a big power tool junkie. I am a big Makita fan. I have lots of tools and it is nice to– I mean, like my grandfather all his power tools, he passed them on to the grandkids and he sort of dug them up and everybody got a claim which ones that they got.
John: Oh, come on. And what brand were they? What brand were your grandpa is?
Kyle: So he used was Makita and that was I got Makita, yes.
Kyle: But I have got like one of his original skill brand electric drills. Yes, super bowl.
John: So you get the whole tinker bug, that is in the DNA from your grandpa.
Kyle: It is contagious, yes, it is [inaudible]. Absolutely.
John: Wow. All right, that is so awesome. When people out there thinking about the electronics besides power tools and obviously small electronics. Are there any other electronics people are not thinking about? And now, you have also brought to everyone is attention, hospital and healthcare type of electronics ventilators, power beds, and things of that such. Any other things that our listeners out there should be coming to iFixit.com to see what they could fix instead of throwing it away and having to buy new.
Kyle: Yes, I think you think about the last thing that broke and maybe hang on to it, give yourself a little bit of time to tinker with it. I had my refrigerator stopped working and I was like, “Oh, man, this is going to be a pain. I have got all the food in it, you know that expensive.” And then this the process of getting rid of a refrigerator and then having to go again, I guess is a pain in the neck in the refrigerator. And I did a little bit of Googling, I learned that there is the compressor. That is the big expensive thing that makes it cold and on that compressor is a capacitor. It is a start-up capacity to help it get going and it is a $10 part, and it just unplugs and plugs on and turns out that was the problem. I saved myself from having to get a refrigerator and it was literally 30 seconds to unclip the old one and clip the new one on. It was vastly easier. I would have said I could never fix a refrigerator and I have no idea how to do it. Ah, boy, that was easy. So you wonder how many things are like that in our lives where if you just do a little bit of research you can save yourself a lot of money.
John: I love it and for our listeners out there to find Kyle and his great work at iFixit, you could go to www.ifixit.com also, you can go to facebook.com/ifixit or Twitter, ifixittwitter.com/kylewiens, W-I-E-N-S.
Kyle: K-E Wiens.
John: K Wiens, sorry. Kyle K Wiens, sorry about that. So Twitter, Facebook, and of course on the world wide web. Kyle, any final thoughts before we say goodbye to our listeners today and have you back on to continue to talk about the March ahead after we get through COVID. Anything else that you want to share with our listeners today.
Kyle: When we talk with people that have never done a fixed before. They are intimidated and they say to themselves, I could never do this. Go online, look at the instructions. Look step by step and say can I follow instructions? If you have ever built a piece of IKEA furniture, you can fix a cell phone. But you have to do it yourself and even say to you the whole interview saying this guy is good at fixing things, but I could never do that. You can, you absolutely can do this. You just have to believe in yourself.
John: I love that. I love that. So it is for goofballs like me that do not know what they are doing, I could use it and fix something using your website. I love it.
Kyle: The biggest obstacle is your mental block. Once you get past that, once you pick up their screwdriver remove the first screw, you are going to succeed.
John: Listen a hundred million people can not be wrong. Go to www.ifixit.com and fix the stuff you have instead of throwing it away. It is a great website. Kyle is one of the world-class entrepreneurs. I have a friend as a friend in my life and I am telling you right now I am on his website right now. It is literally one of the most visually gorgeous websites out there but it also has some How-Tos on everything whether it is thermal fuses or strip screws or it is literally how to fix everything you have in around your house or your business. There are no excuses except as Kyle said people like me mental block of saying I can not do that. I got to hire someone to do that or I got to throw this stuff away. So hundred million people, right, go there. Next time we talk to Kyle probably a hundred and fifty million people, www.ifixit.com. Kyle, listen, I just think you are the greatest. You always inspire me and you are the reason I do this show. People like you were making such a positive impact on this planet. I am so grateful for you making the world a better place and inventing something that has made the world, for sure better place. Thanks again for being a guest today on the Impact podcast.
Kyle: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on.