One of Central Florida’s biggest entrepreneurial success stories is also a growing family business. So it’s only appropriate that the nationwide tech-repair chain uBreakiFix, which expects to reach $98 million in sales this year, grew out of an experience the CEO had while spending time with family.
Back in 2008, University of Central Florida graduate Justin Wetherill, then 21, was visiting his grandmother in South Florida when he dropped his brand new iPhone 3G on the concrete ground. When he learned it would cost more to fix the smartphone—$200—than he paid for it, he looked around online, ordered some parts and tried to fix it himself.
After a process of trial and error that involved purchasing broken phones online to practice fixing them, Justin and his childhood friend David Reiff began offering affordable, mail-order phone repairs online. By August 2009, the co-founders opened their first brick-and-mortar store in East Orlando, which repaired smartphones, tablets, computers and game consoles on-site.
Around that time, Wetherill’s parents came to grasp the significance of their son’s undertaking.
“We had one store and a website. And I’m telling my parents about what an opportunity I thought it was,” Wetherill recalled. “And [I remember them] not being too excited about it. I was like, 'You guys, we made $30,000 in sales last month! I feel like you guys are not taking this seriously.’” The reaction was immediate. “They’re like, ‘Justin, you didn’t tell us that!’”
Mom and pop join the shop
His parents, Ike and Gina Wetherill, opened their first uBreakiFix store in early 2010. Today they run nine locations throughout South Florida, including two corporate stores they co-own with Justin and his partners. Ike, whose background is in airport operations and management, says joining his son's business has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.
“He’s the best boss I’ve ever had.”
Justin's father brought to the table decades of experience developing people throughout their careers, which translated perfectly to an environment where the typical employee was between 18 and 26 and where the initial hiring model was scrapped early on.
“In the beginning, one of our prerequisites was experience with some type of electronics,” Justin said. But not only did experienced workers bring their bad habits to the job, their customer service skills were lacking. “What we realized was it was easier to teach someone how to fix something than it was to teach them how to be nice.”
The biggest benefit of working with dad, says Justin, is honest feedback. “When something is happening that is a big change – which happens a lot because our space changes constantly and complacency is a killer—he doesn’t just say, ‘Change is good.’ He’ll say, 'Why are we doing this?' And I kind of have to justify it with them, which is just good practice.”
Ike recognized Justin’s leadership ability when he was still in high school. The family adopted two younger siblings when Justin and his brother Trevor were teens, Ike explains. “There are really two generations of siblings. And Justin and Trevor were just fantastic big brothers.” For him, the way they welcomed Sequoia and Zachary, now 19 and 20, into the family was strong evidence of Justin’s ability to create an inviting, collaborative culture. So he’s more than comfortable working for his 29-year-old son today.
“What I do as a 55-year-old father talking to a 29-year-old son is I defer to what he thinks is best,” Ike said. “Justin doesn’t make quick decisions. He’s really good at thinking things through, considering all the things there are to consider and how it affects people. And that sends a great message to the staff. They’re attuned to what we’re doing because this is a team effort.”
Today, says Ike, the team includes store owners who worked as employees at those early locations. “They’ve learned how to run the stores, to become managers of stores, and then go out and become owners.”
The uBreakiFix business model couples the benefits of a family business with an aggressive, entrepreneurial mindset, says James Combs, a professor of management at the University of Central Florida. “You don’t see that many high-tech family-owned businesses,” he noted. “It’s very common to see parents help their kids and pitch in, but I can’t think of another example of kids founding a business and then bringing the parents in.”
The upside-down configuration may well provide a business advantage. In a study of multi-generational German wineries, Combs found that the most entrepreneurial and innovative businesses had a few things in common, including learning from the younger generation or "entrepreneurial bridging." In the traditional wineries, younger family members learned the ropes by working side by side with their parents. By contrast, the more innovative wineries made “entrepreneurial leaps” when children re-entered the business after gaining outside work experience.
“In entrepreneurial families … the child is the teacher,” Combs explained recently in the Wall Street Journal. In some ways, he said, "UBreakiFix jumped directly to the 'entrepreneurial leaps' that are due to the younger generation doing the entrepreneurial stuff while the parents keep the ship steady. It is a nice setup and should mean many years of steady leadership as the younger generation matures."
Franchise model diversifies the family
In 2013, Justin and Reiff made the decision to franchise, beginning with employees. They made it easy for store managers to become owners, charging a fee equivalent to a month’s sales and offering zero percent financing. Today, an internal team reviews prospective owners and the terms differ, but franchisees' connections to headquarters remain high.
One reason is the internal IT system, which Reiff oversees. Called Portal, the system actively manages and monitors franchisees' successes and failures on a unit level, from training videos to point of sale to message boards where stores trade repair tips. It's basically everything franchisees need to meet their goals. Portal is able to identify weaknesses before they become big issues, Justin explains.
If sales are way off the mark or labor’s a lot higher than it needs to be, franchise-support representatives who monitor stores in real time reach out to the owners to coach them and offer support. In this way, uBreakiFix has co-opted the franchise model to expand its family-business ethos. “It’s been a powerful relationship for us in that it allows us to harness local operators, like my dad, who have their hands on the pulse of the business at all times,” Justin said.
Co-founder Reiff sees another benefit: diversity. “All our early franchisees were friends and family who took huge risks to make this happen. Now we have a hybrid of people who make up our franchise base—friends, former employees and investors. It’s really a mashup of different people and personalities.”
Compared with what the typical franchisee gets, it’s a great business model, says UCF’s Combs. “Ongoing service is very important. Typically the main thing you get is a brand. This is the brand and support.”
Seven years since its founding, the Wetherill family business is still in growth mode. By the end of 2016, uBreakiFix expects to have 275 locations in 25 states, Canada and the Caribbean. In October, uBreakiFix was named repair provider for Google’s new Pixel smartphones, and plans call for 150 new stores in 2017.
Family involvement is also growing. Justin’s 27-year-old brother, Trevor, owns stores. His younger brother and sister both work in stores, and he’s sure they’ll own stores some day. As for the family dynamic, Justin says the shared work relationship benefits the whole family.
“UBreakiFIx is a business, but it’s also our hobby,” he explained. “I think it’s actually made our bond and family time better because we have one of the most important things in the world to us in common.”