PolyTronics: How cracked screens started a business

Arinee Rahman and Brittany Tesmer | Special to Mustang News

It was the middle of a hot summer day. Parker Smith sat inside his silver Saturn wagon on Higuera Street playing Digable Planets on his stereo with a McDonald’s tray, some tools and a shattered iPhone in his lap.

That was PolyTronics then.

Now, materials engineering sophomore Smith runs the iPhone repair business from his house on Santa Barbara Street. Before he got involved in PolyTronics, however, he was fixing iPhones in his residence hall.

Smith runs PolyTronics from his house on Santa Barbara Street, repairing iPhones from his desk that he built himself. | Avrah Baum/Courtesy Photo

Humble beginnings

“I blame it on the Legos,” Smith said when asked how he started rebuilding and
repairing electronics.

Smith was always intrigued by technology. In high school, he took apart computers and put them back together. When looking into colleges as a prospective student, he instantly clicked with Cal Poly and its Learn by Doing motto.

Throughout his freshman year, Smith helped out friends in his residence hall with their broken iPhones — sometimes fixing them for free. His friends would buy the parts and let him experiment with their phones. Smith said it was a process of trial and error.

“It doesn’t feel awesome when you’re learning on someone else’s phone; because if you mess up, it’s not just your phone,” Smith said.

Kinesiology sophomore Alex Gaekwad was Smith’s roommate last year and saw Smith’s interest in iPhone repair grow.

“His iPhone was broken in some capacity for pretty much all of freshman year. He broke, fixed and broke it again,” Gaekwad said. “He worked hard to learn how to replace his shattered screen. And two days after he did, it fell off his desk and broke again.”

Gaekwad saw Smith’s repair skills improve over the year as he fixed phones for people in their residence hall.

“By the end of the year, he had replaced his screen, touch ID, camera and speaker,” Gaekwad said. “But it taught him how to fix pretty much anything that goes wrong with an iPhone.”

Video by Vinny Van Patten

As Smith honed his repair skills, he met mechanical engineering senior Ryan Lembitz, the founder of PolyTronics. The two formed a partnership and friendship that continues today.

Near the end of Smith’s freshman year, Lembitz was offered an internship position with Apple until January. It was then that Lembitz passed on the business to Smith.

Taking over the business

After his freshman year, Smith came back from Seaside, California to San Luis Obispo for the summer.

“I had $1.70 in my account and I was kind of living in my car for a bit until I moved to this place,” Smith said. “I had to kind of stick it out. I was like, ‘Hey I’m young. I don’t necessarily need all this money right now. So I might as well take a risk and put it into this business.’”

After spending a summer repairing phones in his car, Smith finally moved into a house. Between the kitchen and backyard, Smith works in a small room converted from a sun porch to an office where he repairs phones. A stool, a small wooden desk and a lamp are all that occupy the space.

Most nights, Smith can be found with his glasses on, delicately removing parts of an iPhone and reassembling it with new components.

“I really like my workspace. It is an amazing space,” Smith said. “I built my desk myself.”

Graphic by Avrah Baum

With his workspace set up, Smith was ready to handle any issue that came his way. But that didn’t mean challenges never came up.

“I fixed a phone for an on-call doctor, which was pretty nuts,” Smith said.

Smith went to the hospital and was surprised when the doctor asked him to begin repairing his phone in the doctor’s lounge. “You’re really not supposed to be here, but you’re fixing my phone,” the doctor said.

Smith had to keep the doctor’s phone on as he fixed it in case anyone called him.

As luck would have it, the doctor’s phone began ringing halfway through the repair and Smith had to “throw the speaker in real quick, in pieces.” Stress was added to the situation when a small screw was stripped and Smith had to replace it with a screw from his own phone.

“It was kind of a cool, crazy experience,” Smith said.

The business motto

Consistently thinking of the customer is a priority for Smith and part of PolyTronics’
business model.

PolyTronics chooses its suppliers through a trial and error process. The company researches the suppliers online before ordering from the suppliers. Once they have the chance to use the products, they decide which supplier to work with based on the product’s quality. PolyTronics goes through this process frequently.

“We will have a supplier who is getting us good products and then all of a sudden [will] change and we have to start over again,” Smith said.

PolyTronics obtains its original parts from China and its refurbished parts from a company in New Jersey. Refurbished parts are parts that have been sent back to the manufacturer and are certified as working.

“Refurbishing saves on costs and gives people better quality phones,” Smith said.

PolyTronics often refurbishes iPhone screens because of the nature of the LCD. The company orders most of the screens in bulk from suppliers in China. LCD screen repairs range from $30 to $180. The cost to repair an iPhone 7 is $250.

“I never try to finagle people; I am always very honest,” Smith said.

Smith allows customers to see him fixing their phone during the session. As he pulls apart the phone, Smith explains how each piece of the phone operates and what needs to be repaired.

“I like to bring people in and tell them, ‘this connector does this and this is what I am replacing,’” Smith said. “I do not take advantage of people’s lack of knowledge of these complicated devices.”

Video by Avrah Baum

An odd partnership

Even though Apple is its largest competitor, PolyTronics has a strong relationship with the Apple store downtown and uses parts that are compatible with Apple products.

“I have talked to Apple employees and we actually get recommendations from the Apple store on repairs they do not do anymore, which is really cool. We have a relatively good relationship with them,” Smith said.

The Apple store in downtown San Luis Obispo will refer customers to Smith if they no longer do the repairs the customer is requesting. | Avrah Baum/Courtesy Photo

One customer who has seen the benefit of PolyTronics’ work is business administration sophomore Kaile Stockham. Stockham had to repair her iPhone 6 screen. She was sending her old iPhone 6 back to Verizon for its trade-in program and was looking for cheaper repairs than what Apple offers.

“I looked around at different phone repair businesses in San Luis Obispo and found PolyTronics, which offered iPhone 6 screen repairs for $90,” Stockham said. “It was the cheapest option and I was only looking to get it fixed to get my full refund back from Verizon.”

Smith repaired Stockham’s phone in less than 20 minutes.

When Stockham contacted on PolyTronics, she received a reply from materials engineering sophomore Claire Drewery, PolyTronics’ secretary. Drewery’s duties are answering the phone, scheduling appointments, recording the amount of repairs completed, keeping track of the finances, and taking inventory.

“My salary is generally a commission, like how many appointments I can schedule. I get $5 per phone [repair],” Drewery said.

On average, PolyTronics processes four iPhone repairs a day, with Friday being the busiest day.

“Usually Fridays after I have gone to class for like five hours and I get out at 6 p.m., I come back to a bunch of phones that need repairs,” Smith said.

Smith sometimes stays up until midnight repairing phone. This is the life of a student entrepreneur.

The future of PolyTronics

When Lembitz returns from his Apple internship in January, he and Smith will begin the process of creating a brick-and-mortar shop for PolyTronics. They’ve seen student entrepreneurs build businesses throughout their college career, but then let their businesses go once they graduate.

“One thing Ryan and I talked about is that we want to keep it going and take that momentum and turn it into something that’s permanent and a little more official. So it’s not just fixing phones out of my little workspace,” Smith said.

In the future, Smith wants to continue repairing things and working with other electronics, not just iPhones.

“I definitely want to keep building things,” Smith said. “I definitely want to keep being creative, having the freedom to do all that stuff. And I think that this business will help me do that.”