Remember the days before everyone was constantly calling, sending text messages and updating their Facebook status on their smartphones? Sam Maktabi does.
He was only 17 years old when he started a pager sales and service business at a flea market in Dearborn, Mich. Now, at 35, he is building an enterprise on this side of the border repairing the smartphones and tablets that have made pagers almost obsolete.
“Everyone needs a cellphone now. They can’t live without it. It’s changed the way we live. It’s crazy,” he said sitting in front of a colourful poster map of the world mounted behind his desk at his company’s headquarters on Tecumseh Road East.
Mobile devices are a growing, rapidly changing business
Maktabi, the owner of Windsor-based Wireless Warehouse, has already had to shift gears several times since he began his entrepreneurial adventure as a teenager. He went from pagers to activating services plans and supplying cellphones and related equipment for some of the biggest telecommunications companies in the United States, including Sprint and AT&T. His company was among the first to cost effectively find and import cellphones, parts and accessories, he said.
It didn’t take long before the Internet made it is easier for almost anyone to buy such goods from around the globe. The competition quickly heated up.
“Ten years ago I remember thinking: what will happen with the business? But we just keep reinventing ourselves,” Maktabi said.
He sold the U.S. business, also called Wireless Warehouse, to his brothers when he moved to Windsor in 2004 to be with his Canadian wife. The U.S. company now focuses on the wholesale side of the business, supplying and servicing retail operations around the world.
In Windsor, Maktabi established Choice Wireless, which sold phones and service plans for Fido, Bell and Rogers — one of the first Windsor-area retailers to sell for more than one carrier, he said.
But when Rogers and other phone service companies started to trim their retail contractors to those who had six outlets or more, Maktabi lost their business. It was 2009 and the recession was hitting hard. Maktabi had opened a storefront in a plaza on Howard Avenue where he was repairing smartphones and also sold discounted retail goods under the banner Liquidation Center.
He had another Liquidation Center store downtown on Ouellette Avenue which is now being converted to a Wireless Warehouse, where the cellphone repair business has taken off.
How are we breaking our cellphones?
Since we’re constantly playing with our smartphones they regularly slip out of our hands. The most common damage is a screen that’s smashed when the phone is dropped, Maktabi said.
No. 2 is water damage to phones that have been dropped in toilets, followed by ones that were accidentally put in the washing machine.
Wireless Warehouse has even repaired phones that were run over by vehicles, he said. “As long as the main board isn’t bent, most of the times we are able to rebuild them.”
What does it cost to fix a broken cellphone?
The average bill for a major repair done at Wireless Warehouse is $75-$100, Maktabi said. Unlocking a phone or a minor repair related to software or an audio problem is $25-$45.
The arrival of Apple’s iPhones, other smartphones and tablets — the newest models of which can now cost $700 or more — suddenly made customers more eager to repair their broken devices than buy a new one.
They’re also increasingly popular. The number of Canadians with smartphones increased from 38 per cent in 2011 to 51 per cent in 2012, according to a recent report by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
“Repairs have been going up in the past five years,” said Jay Gawri, director of the Canadian Wireless Trade Show, an annual industry event held in Toronto the last three years. “On almost every corner you’ll see shops with cellphone repairs or computer repairs.”
Repairs done under warranties through outlets for the wireless service providers, such as Bell, Rogers and Telus, or at retail locations, like Best Buy and Future Shop, are typically completed by outside contractors. That means the customer is without the phone for several days or even weeks.
That’s driving the demand for local shops that can do it on the spot or within hours, Gawri said. “Who wants to send their phone away and wait?”
Maktabi estimates 65 per cent of his business is service and repairs, 25 per cent comes from selling mobile device accessories and the remainder from sales of new or refurbished phones.
Where to go for repairs
Wireless Warehouse isn’t the only game in town for cellphone repairs, though it has worked hard to establish a good reputation with retail customers and other companies across Canada for which it does repair work, Maktabi said.
Gawri advises customers to ask how long a repair company has been in business and how experienced its repair technicians are, as well as checking out reviews online or talking to previous customers.
Wireless Warehouse has three locations in Windsor, two in London and two in Toronto. It is looking to open more stores in Toronto and possibly Sarnia. Once he has 10 locations, Maktabi wants to franchise the business to keep it growing.
The only other cellphone repair company that he is aware has gone this route is U.S.-based CPR (Cell Phone Repair). Founded in 1997 and with headquarters is Summerville, Ga., CPR claims on its website to be “the largest independent walk-in cellphone repair service provider in North America.” As of April, it had 120 stores across the continent, including three in Ontario.
What does it take to become a cellphone repairman?
Wireless Warehouse currently has 20 employees and has been fortunate to hire some skilled repair technicians, Maktabi said.
Technicians learn on the job and tend to come from the electronics industry, he said. It is not something that is taught at university or college, but some sort of electrical training is helpful.
It takes time to become skilled, Maktabi said, and he’s afraid he may have to start looking abroad to find technicians as he expands. So far, he’s been fortunate to find some good people locally, he said.
“There are so many intricate parts on a cellphone,” he said. At the company’s Howard Avenue location he has a $1,000 integrated circuit inspection microscope that an experienced technician uses for the most difficult repairs.
How to avoid smashing your smartphone
“Probably the No. 1 tip is to invest in a good case to protect your phone,” Maktabi said. Not convinced? Consider that replacing the front assembly of the latest Samsung Galaxy S4 could cost as much as $325.
Look for a case that will act as a bumper even when the screen is uncovered so the glass doesn’t touch the ground if its dropped.
And, finally, backup any critical information on your phone because sometimes it can’t be repaired or it’s just not worth the price.