It’s a financial fact of life: Smartphones can cost an arm and a leg in today’s world, with top-of-the-line models such as an iPhone or Samsung going for nearly $1,000.
Another fact of life: In today’s modern world, it’s seemingly impossible to do without one of the high-tech devices that allows you to shop, make reservations, pay bills and simply stay informed via news sites. That’s not even to mention simply using it to make a call around the world to a family member or friend, or call a tow truck if you’ve broken down on the side of the road.
Speaking of bad breaks, that’s where Brandon Heard comes in. For the past eight years, the Bainbridge, Ga., native has been honing his ability to diagnose and fix smartphones and other devices that people can’t seem to do without, but constantly seem to crack or drop in the water. He started off in Alaska, but returned to Georgia and, specifically, to Columbus, where he is a technician at Georgia Cell Company, 3551 Macon Road, who also happens to manage the place.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with Heard, 35, recently about his job, what kinds of problems he sees with smartphones routinely, and how he goes about putting them back together and in the hands of grateful owners. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. So how did you get involved in cell phone repair?
A. I needed extra cash, so I started buying and selling cellphones on Craig’s List (eight years ago). You see a phone that’s selling for a decent price, you offer them half price. They either say yes or no. At first I was just buying and then reselling them, but with the vast quantities of phones I was getting, I started eBaying. I started looking into fixing a few of them, and I went to YouTube university. That’s how I started and it was easy back then because it was A, B, C, D and done.
It’s not like that anymore. It’s much more complicated. It’s not even a basic phone anymore. Everybody has a smartphone. You have to have a smartphone to deal with day-to-day business.
Q. The phones themselves are more complex?
A. Yes. I started repairing on the iPhone 3G, the second iPhone that came out. We’ve had, what, eight generations since then? I started seeing that parts were selling, broken bones were selling, so I started buying almost anything. I started becoming a businessman in my head. This is worth fixing, this is not. This is worth this much. This is how I’m going to make a profit. I started growing from there and opened a couple of cell phone repair shops (in Alaska).
Q. What was that like?
A. I had a lot of battles with burglaries. When you’re in this type of business, you deal with a lot of unsavory characters. Everybody knows you’ll buy something and it’s like a pawn shop. So if they see that you have stuff … we closed down in (Anchorage) Alaska because we got burglarized seven times in one year. It was pretty rough to have $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 in inventory and have the alarm go off in the middle of the night. You show up at the store and every computer, every surveillance camera you’ve got, every case, everything is swept away by 10 or 12 people in a van.
Q. Speaking of complexity, today’s phones are like little personal computers?
A. Yeah, and some of them are getting to where they’re either not reparable or it’s too expensive to repair and it’s just easier to buy a new phone. Like with the iPhone. With the iPhone 3G, the glass was one piece on a frame. The LCD, you would put it in there and screw it into the frame. Every piece was its own component. Now, since the iPhone 4S, everything’s one piece. Then, with the 5S, you had the home button with the fingerprint scanner. Well, that home button, you can put a new one on it, but you start losing features, like touch ID. And now, with the iPhone 7, you can’t even put an aftermarket or a home button from another phone on it because it won’t function at all. If you damage your home button, you might as well buy a new phone.
Q. So they’re more complicated and people can come you to in near desperation?
A. Oh, yeah. All T-Mobiles in town and Verizon and even Metro PCS, I get floods (of people) everyday saying T-Mobile sent me here or Verizon said come.
Q. So we’ve now got the Samsung S8 out and a new iPhone on the way and others coming out perpetually. How soon after a new phone hits the market do you start seeing them for problems?
A. Within a week, for cracked screens and charging ports and water damage. Those are the big ones.
Q. What happens to the phones?
A. They’ve got it wet or it’s stopped functioning. It’s been in their pocket and they’ve got stuff in there. I’ve seen phones melt (around the charging port area) because they’ll get something in there like lint or maybe some foil from a gum wrapper. All of the stuff that collects at the bottom of your pocket, if it gets up in there and it connects just right, it shorts. People getting their phone wet put it in rice (to dry).
Q. Rice dries it out?
A. What the rice does is absorb the moisture. It helps make sure that, instead of just wiping it off, the moisture on the inside, it’s going to dry it up. I’ve even got little kit bags here that have little gel beads in them. You throw it in there and it sucks that moisture up. It’s cleaner than rice. Rice tends to get that dusty stuff all up in the components.
Q. What’s the strangest damage you’ve ever seen?
A. I’ve had someone bring in one run over by a lawnmower. It had a nice chop halfway through it (that he couldn’t fix). My claim to fame on repairs was an iPhone 4 back in the day in Alaska. We have oil stuff up there. A guy was on a tanker and they were getting ready to close one of the big bay doors after loading the boat. He had it in his shirt pocket and bent over to do something and ... bloop. His phone sinks to the bottom of millions of gallons of crude oil. Well, they transport the oil to where they were going, got there and pumped it all out. Of course, they’ve got to get down in there with their (protective) suits and clean everything up, all the sludge and stuff. They cleaned it up and he actually found his phone. He saved it and put it in a zip-lock bag.
Q. That sounds impossible to fix?
A. The cool thing about being water-damaged with oil is it’s non-corrosive and non-conductive. It didn’t do any (irreparable) damage. So he brought it to me in a bag still with oil in it and I was able to basically take the screen off, it was garbage. A couple of other components were garbage because they were damaged. But his motherboard I was able to give it a sonic bath, clean up his frame and some other parts, and add a few parts, and 45 minutes later I had it purring like a kitten. It worked. It’s like being a doctor. It really is. But sometimes there’s just nothing that you can do.
Q. Is that what you like about the job is diagnosing and figuring things out?
A. I enjoy working on them, because it’s what I can do. I mean, you can give me a box of parts without instructions, and I can figure out how to put it back together. That’s what I’m good at.
Q. What percentage of your business is repairing versus selling phones?
A. I’d say 95 percent are repairs. It’s fixing problems — broken screens, charging ports, software … and it depends on the damage. Can I fix water damage? Most of the time. It depends on what type of water. Salt water, throw the phone away. Pool water, it’s better than toilet water. It’s the truth.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job, the toughest part about it?
A. Customer service … I want what I want and I want it now, but I don’t want to pay for it and you should give it to me because I’m me.
Q. So it’s dealing with unrealistic expectations?
A. Yes. Even when you buy a phone from the customers, like an iPhone 5. They say, ‘Well I paid $500 for this phone five years ago.’ Well, it’s not worth that now.
Q. Is this a year-round business or are their peak times?
A. It’s year-round. You get more business around tax season and before and after Christmas. Why? At tax season, people get them a new phone and get rid of their old phone. And then you have these people who are like, ‘I just bought this phone. Help me.’ And the same thing with Christmas. There are a lot of screen repairs at that time (where people drop them).
Hometown: Bainbridge, Ga.
Current residence: Lives in Harris County
Education: Has taken some college courses
Previous jobs: U.S. Army, which took him to Alaska
Family: Wife, Allison, and three children — son, Kaleb, 6, and daughters Kyleigh, 3, and Kylah, 2, with another on the way (It’s a boy!)
Leisure time: Enjoys going to the beach and swimming with his family