One on One: Kyle Wiens iFixit (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)
How did you enter the repair and reuse business? I had an iBook, and I dropped it on its power plug. I decided to try to fix it, but I couldn’t find information on how to do it. I did a little research and found that Apple was sending legal threats to anybody who was sharing repair information. I thought that was a problem and maybe a situation I could do something about. So I took apart my laptop, figured out how to fix it, and then wrote a repair guide. The biggest problem initially was just figuring out how to take apart the device. The first time you take anything apart, it’s hard because you don’t know what you’re doing and you break things, but the second time it’s easier. So I decided to document my struggle so everybody else could do it easier. My repair guide became very popular, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
Did you ever plan to pursue a different career? I went to college at Cal Poly [California Polytechnic State University] as a software engineering major. My expectation was that I would start a software company. After writing my first repair guide, I started iFixit in 2003 with my classmate Luke Soules. We were both freshmen, and we ran the company while we were in school. After getting my degree in computer science, I decided to keep working at the company, so it became my full-time job.
What do you like most about the repair and reuse industry? I think it’s so important to minimize the environmental impact of manufacturing by maximizing the useful life of products as much as possible. If we’re going to expend all the energy and raw materials to make products, we ought to get the maximum utility out of each one. At iFixit, as we put time into figuring out how to repair products and recover parts, we’re creating jobs and helping the environment. Plus, I just think the repair work is fun and interesting.
What do you like least about the industry? I’d like to see more reuse of products, with shredding as the last possible resort. I think it’s hard for us recyclers to see beyond the material in front of us and to realize that we could have an impact on how the products are designed. The products that manufacturers are creating are not designed to be recycled. There’s so little interest in [the concept of] Design for Recycling® or design for extended product life; manufacturers are only focused on making a product the first time and maximizing their bottom line.
What is the biggest challenge facing your company? For us, the challenge is the diversity of products in the market. We’re trying to teach everybody to fix all of their things, and that means providing repair information on thousands of individual products. For instance, we’ve identified 20,000 different Android devices. To know how to fix them, we need to figure them out one device at a time.
What lessons have you learned about business in your career? Advocacy can be good for business. Being vocal about problems and being honest and authentic about the struggles we face has helped iFixit get its name out there. That’s something I’d love to see more recyclers do—be honest and authentic, not afraid to talk about their business problems, and use that as an opportunity to inform the next person.
How do you personally gauge success? For me, it’s all about impact regarding how many people are able to fix their products and how many devices we’re keeping out of the shredder. Last year iFixit helped 94 million people repair things. Our goal is to help a billion people a year.
Tell me about a weird or funny experience in your career. The weirdest product I’ve ever fixed was a robot dinosaur, which was fun to work on but very complicated. Sometimes when I’m giving a presentation on repair at a conference, someone in the crowd will say, “Oh, I designed that,” which is sometimes good and sometimes not, depending on if I feel positively about the device.
What are some of your greatest achievements? We succeeded in getting cellphone unlocking legalized at the federal level in 2014, which was a big achievement. Thanks to that victory, it’s now legal to unlock your cellphone and take it from one phone provider to another. We’re also working to make “right-to-repair” a household term to make sure everybody has the right to tinker with and repair their own products. Also, Luke and I have built a team of over 100 people at iFixit that I’m really proud to work with every day.
Which of your traits do you like the most? I think I have a talent for building software programs. I’m also good at explaining policy issues in a context that people can relate to and understand—and at getting people activated to do something about those issues.
Is there anything about yourself you’d like to improve? I could always improve my software design skills. I’d also like to be a better writer, and I eventually want to learn Spanish.
Tell me something about yourself that would surprise people. I used to build robots. I also like to work on cars, which explains why I have a hydraulic auto lift in my backyard.
You’ve been a supporter of and participant in ISRI in recent years. Why do you think that’s important? Without banding together as an industry and representing our interests, we’re not going to succeed. I’m very concerned, for example, about the safety threats to recyclers from air bags and other products because the manufacturers refuse to share information with our industry. That really has to change, and ISRI is the best tool we have as an industry to effect change.
What are your favorite movies? The Lord of the Rings movies and The Shawshank Redemption.
Favorite foods? Anything involving fresh California fruits and vegetables.
Favorite drinks? I drink lots of soda water, and I like Canadian whisky.
Favorite countries in the world? I really liked Kenya, South Africa, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Favorite TV shows? Planet Earth II and Game of Thrones.
Favorite musical artists? I like the older stuff; I’m a Pink Floyd kind of guy.
Hobbies? I like kayaking, water skiing, and hiking.
What’s your passion? My goal is to enable everyone to fix all of their things, so it’s figuring out how to effect positive change in the world by persuading people to buy less stuff and use the things they already own longer. Outside of work, I like getting into the outdoors, tinkering with things, and woodworking.
What makes you mad? Manufacturers that refuse to take responsibility for their products. We’ve heard so many excuses for why they don’t want to make their products repairable, but it’s all about planned obsolescence. They say you can’t fix your own things because it isn’t safe, but then they design their products so they can’t be recycled safely. They have the gall to tell consumers that repair isn’t safe as a way to cover themselves.
What constitutes a perfect day for you? The perfect day would be when we get right-to-repair legislation passed. We’re close. Eleven states have a right-to-repair bill pending; we just need to get one state to pass it.
If you had three wishes, what would you ask for (besides additional wishes)? First, I wish we had repair manuals for everything. Second, I wish manufacturers would stop adding electronics to products that don’t need them. I don’t need a smart refrigerator, so I guess I would wish for dumb appliances again. And I’d wish that all products had easy-to-remove batteries.
What’s your long-term career goal? My ultimate goal is to build a comprehensive repair encyclopedia that provides information on how to fix anything.