You might know the unlikely origins of some of the biggest tech boom startups, like Napster and Facebook which started in university residence halls. But Cal Poly’s Yosemite Hall was once the original headquarters of iFixit, a site that teaches people how to fix almost anything.
The idea was born in 2003 out of need for a projector in the residence halls. Co-founder and industrial engineering graduate Luke Soules sold computer parts online in high school and his floor mates convinced him to restart his business to raise the $1000 they needed for the projector.
Soules started buying old computers on eBay, extracting the parts so he could send them to people to repair their own devices.
“At that point, we got the money and bought the projector,” Soules said. “But we thought, ‘Why should we shut down a business that is making some money?’”
As Soules and co-founder and computer science graduate Kyle Wiens continued to sell computer parts, they were surprised by the lack of online resources for installing and repairing components. To give their customers instructions, the pair developed “Fixit Guides.”
As an afterthought, they put the Fixit Guides on their website for free and saw shocking success. On the first day alone they had upwards of 10,000 views.
“We quickly started to find that instructions were the big thing that we were known for,” Soules said.
While living in the residence halls, the pair had to keep their business under wraps because operating a business out of the residence halls is not allowed. Soules jokes at the thought of being caught now.
“I think whatever statute of limitations applies has long since passed,” Soules said.
They also became well known at the package center, dropping off up to 20 shipments per day during their first year on campus.
As the business grew, the amount of space needed to store their inventory grew as well. After operating out of an apartment for a year, they rented a house with a three-car garage where iFixit operated until they moved into a formal office space.
They admit that going to school and owning a business was sometimes challenging. Wiens recalls watching the clock while troubleshooting a product with a customer.
“I had a midterm on campus and I didn’t have a good way to tell the customer that ‘I have to hang up talking to you now because I’m going to be late for a midterm,’” Wiens said.
Just before graduation, the senior co-founders had to decide whether to continue to grow their business or try something else.
“Up until then it was just a way to make money,” Wiens said. “For us, it was about, ‘How could we have the maximum impact on making the world a better place?’”
A few thousand views have grown to millions as iFixit now offers over 26,000 repair manuals online for nearly 8,000 different devices. Still based out of San Luis Obispo, the company employs approximately 100 people.
iFixit also founded a technical writing program at Cal Poly in 2009 for engineering students. Instead of writing instructions for an imaginary product, students receive a real device. They take it apart and then write a repair service manual for it. iFixit then publishes the guides with the most popular racking up to 300,000 views, according to iFixit education director Brittany McCrigler.
“It’s always cool for students to say, ‘Hey, I did this class project and instead of going in the trash, thousands of people saw it online!’” Soules said.
The iFixit technical writing program is now at 70 universities and 12,000 students have completed the program.