How One Guy Turned Smashed iPhones Into A College Education
One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, is the ancient expression, except in modern times the junk began as incredibly expensive tech. A $400 smartphone turns pricey paperweight with every new year and iOS update.
There are adoption options for outdated technology — sell it to a friend, donate it to charity, investigate those “too good to be true” late night commercials offering cash for your first gen iPod. The most common recourse is dumping it into a desk drawer graveyard to slide around with each opening until finally it meets its demise at the hands of a hammer in the backyard.
Caleb Larsen is a dead phone collector. His journey started at the age of 17, dumpster diving, not in actual dumpsters but in the organized heaps of front lawn trash known packaged as yard sales. Caleb and his best friend hit up anywhere people sold their unwanteds — flea markets, church parking lot bazaars, anywhere strangers sold mothball scented belongings in search of quick cash. During this time, Caleb taught himself how to tinker, toy and fix just about anything, especially anything with wires or batteries.
“We bought futons, bikes, microwaves and anything we could flip on Craigslist for a few bucks more than we paid,” Caleb explains in an email exchange. “It was addicting.” This beta test into real life buying and cyber selling hooked the young entrepreneur. He’s returned to the online classifieds years later in a tight spot and desperate for cash to pay the rent. He sold his iPhone in about thirty minutes, from listing to meet-up and exchange, and the transaction led to inspiration.
“I noticed a bunch of listings for busted phones. Almost every listing involved a cracked screen. So I bought one, an iPhone 3G, for $50. Just to screw around with it.” He took the phone to a local repair shop for a cost estimate of fixing the screen. Way too much for a broke 20-something working at a Steak N’ Shake to pay the rent.
With only $50 dollars invested, Caleb took the leap and dropped a little more money into buying a new screen online. If he could fix the phone himself, and sell it online, he could make a killing. Way more than the hourly wage flipping burgers.
“I got home around 4am the night the screen was delivered and spent at least two hours screwing around with it. I just couldn’t figure it out. I went to bed pissed. I woke up the next morning and tried it again and within about 45 minutes I got it to work. I was stoked out of my mind. I sold that phone online and pocketed more money than I’d ever had at one point in my life. That was turning point.”
With experience, and luck, came more opportunities and increased cash flow.
“There was one time specifically I remember where I bought a phone I expected just to be for parts from someone for $50. It was bricked. It had some sort of software error and was not functioning at all. The person got a new phone and just decided to sell it cheap because it was broken. I spent a while looking into it and ended up getting it to work and sold it for $300. I remember thinking I made $250 from 1 phone which was more than I would make in 30 hours of work. When I quit Steak ‘n Shake, I was usually pulling in about $500-600 a week fixing phones.”
In August 2011, life and a live-in girlfriend moved Caleb west on I-10 from his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida to Tallahassee, not far from Florida State University. Caleb moved with two goals in mind — avoid getting a “real” job by continuing his cell phone business and enrolling as an undergrad at FSU. He grew up a Seminoles fan and still had aspirations of higher education.
Tallahassee proved to be the Valhalla of broken phones.
“Students break their phones all the time,” Caleb laughed, “and I was buying 3-4 phones a day, sometimes even 10 phones in a day. The phones were in all different types of condition, from slightly used to completely smashed. Kids would sell me phones just to make a quick buck to keep the party going or because they upgraded and didn’t know what the hell to do with the old phone. I bought one phone that survived a toss off the balcony of a frat house.”
When he wasn’t playing Doc McButtons to near-death cell phones, Caleb was crushing courses at Tallahassee Community College. His eyes still focused on the land of the Seminoles, Caleb paid for his two years with the money he’d earned fixing and auctioning iPhones and Crackberry on the world wide.
In the Spring of 2015, the tech-savy entrepreneur faced a decision much harder than iPhone vs. Galaxy or AT&T vs. Sprint.
“I had every intention to transfer to FSU but I could either continue school, get a degree and a job making average pay or take a leap of faith and open my repair shop.”
Within a few months, he opened CapitalTech Smartphone repair. Once again, the young man targeted students by offering a service his local competitors didn’t when fixing a cell phone. His shop isn’t just store, it’s a hangout.
“Think about what you do while you’re waiting for anything? You probably check your phone,” Caleb explains, “alright, well, what do you when your phone is getting fixed? You just sit there. I wanted the shop to be comfortable so people didn’t mind coming in to wait while we fixed their phone that got punted into a lake after a bad breakup. So the place is set up with comfortable futons, flat screens with Netflix, a cooler with free water and soda, magazines, and it’s basically a dorm room that happens to fix phones.”
FSU is still on the radar, and so is franchising, but right now paying for a wedding is first on Caleb’s mind. Second, of course, is business. “My high school buddy from the early days of flea market flipping graduated from University of Florida, and futons, and now runs his own phone repair shop not far from Gainsville. The guy who taught me how to fix phones owns his own shops and is going to be in his wedding. The manager of one of his stores is going to be my best man. It’s all been crazy.”
Business is booming in Tallahassee with school back in session. Who knows, maybe even possibly a couple more flea market stops because it’s amazing what people will throw out these days.
Chris Illuminati is a senior editor with BroBible. Read more of his work here.