There are oftentimes circular opportunities around products that the manufacturers don’t realize.

Launched out of Wiens’ college dorm room in 2003, iFixit is akin to a Wikipedia for information on repairing electronics, appliances, vehicles and more. Wiens also launched Dozuki, in 2012, which focuses on documentation software. We talked to him while researching our trend report on the circular economy, an alternative, more sustainable economic model whose principles include keeping goods in circulation for as long as possible rather than tossing them into landfills. Wiens discussed why brands should get more proactive about helping consumers fix their products, which brands are doing so and which consumers are most interested in making their own repairs.

What was the inspiration to create iFixit?

I was just trying to fix my computer. I was a student, and I wasn’t able to afford a new computer. I had dropped my laptop on the power plug; I knew it was just a loose connection—if I could take it apart and just put a drop of solder on the connection, it would be fine. I was looking around on the Internet for how to open the computer, and I couldn’t find any information anywhere. I got it fixed, but it was never perfect again.

It turns out most repairs are like that. Once you’ve done it once or twice, it’s easy, but the first time is difficult. We decided to take some pictures of the process and put them online for our own satisfaction, just because we were annoyed at how hard it was. We had 10,000 hits the first weekend. It turned out there was a lot of pent-up demand, because it was something the manufacturers just weren’t doing.

To frame it in a circular economy context, there are oftentimes circular opportunities around products that the manufacturers don’t realize, maybe because they’re not entrepreneurial enough internally. Maybe it’s just an opportunity that hasn’t gotten big enough for them to choose to take advantage of it. And in this case, the manufacturers have left a gaping hole in the market.

In order to have a repair economy work, the person doing the repair—whether it is the consumer or repair technician—needs three things. They need the knowledge of how to do the repair, they need the tools to get in and open the product up, and then they need replacement parts. iFixit provides all three of those. So if you break your iPhone and need to repair it, we provide you with a replacement screen; it comes in a kit with the tools you need, and then the instructions are free on the web or in an app. We make it really easy to go through and do the repair.

What are some of the drivers behind your company’s success?

We are a community website; we teach about 3 million people a month to repair their own things. And it’s not just information we’re creating. Anybody can write a repair guide, so you can think of us like a Wikipedia for repair. People want to know how to do everything from changing the oil in their car to fixing their phone. If we don’t have an oil change guide for their car, then once they figure it out, they can take some pictures, put it on the website and other people are able to use and improve them. And over time, it turns into a very valuable resource.

There are two major economic impacts we have: empowering consumers to make their products last longer and empowering the same consumers to make better purchase decisions around products. People tell us that once they have successfully repaired a product, they’re more likely to buy something from the same manufacturer.

We did a survey of about 13,000 community members last year. We asked, “If you fix something, does that make you more likely to buy something else from that manufacturer?” And 95 percent said yes. We asked whether repairability was a factor in purchase decision, and 93 percent said it was at least somewhat of a factor.

These are the kind of market research questions that very few people are asking. Nobody is talking to consumers. If the data were more widely known, you would get companies designing products differently.

For brands, it seems that by getting involved in the repair process, they’re developing a deeper relationship with the consumer, going beyond just that one-off purchase.

Exactly. The other area where we feel like we are having a significant economic impact is empowering independent service organizations. So, helping people start small repair businesses. In the ’80s and early ’90s, there were thousands of electronic repair businesses all over the U.S.; every neighborhood had a TV repair shop. Those guys all went out of business because the TV manufacturers stopped sharing repair manuals and service parts. That was a bad thing for the economy, and it’s certainly a bad thing for sustainability.

We’re seeing the opposite trend now, in the last three or four years. Now we have thousands of cell phone repair shops popping up all around the country. What’s interesting is, unlike the TV repair shops, where they had a direct line to the manufacturers, all these cell phone repair shops are working without support of the manufacturers. They’re using crowdsourced service manuals like iFixit. They’re using supply chains where they’re getting parts direct from suppliers in China or from companies like us that are importing those parts. The Internet and open access to information has allowed them to circumvent the blocks put in by the manufacturers.

Basically, the circular economy is happening around these companies’ products whether they’re participating or not.

Do you foresee a future where manufacturers start to get behind this?

I think it’s inevitable. We just launched a partnership with Patagonia. They are very eager to teach their customers how to repair their products. They’re doing everything from basic repairs—how to patch a hole—to how to replace the zipper on a jacket. We’re doing sewing clinics with them where we’re going into their stores and teaching customers how to sew. They provide instructions on how to fix the handle on one of their luggage lines. Then they’re actually looping that information in and improving the design of the product to make it easier for customers to repair their things.

Are any other brands doing similar things?

But there are a lot of companies out there that really support and stand behind their products. Zippo has built their entire brand around a product that’s repairable and lasts forever. You can take a Zippo from 50 years ago, mail it in to them, and they will repair it. You would think of a Zippo as a disposable product—I mean, they sell for $10—but it’s part of their brand identity that the Zippo is a quality product.

Timbuktu is a messenger bag company that just announced a big repair initiative. Dell and Lenovo are two electronic companies that really are doing the right thing and are making repair information available to their customers: Let’s say the circuit board in your laptop dies, and you’re under warranty. You call them up and they say, “You have two options. You can mail it to us, we’ll fix it and mail it back to you in a week. Or we’ll send you a circuit board and the instructions, and you can install it yourself. If you want or need your laptop working overnight, that’s your fastest option.”

And it’s a really good model not just for consumers but also for IT shops and companies. One of my first jobs was an IT guy at a software company, and when we had Dell laptops that failed, I would just have them send me circuit boards. By doing the repairs in-house, I was able to provide a much better level of service for our folks internally rather than having to make them go without their computer for a couple of days.

Do you foresee this becoming something that’s mainstream, where people are taking on fixing things themselves, or do you foresee these little repair shops springing back up around the country?

It’s exciting to see these repair shops happen. And it’s really something where the manufacturers have missed out on a significant business opportunity. If you look at Apple, they have 400 stores around the country. And their retail stores just can’t keep up with the volume of repairs. It’s frustrating for consumers, because even if you wanted to go in and have them fix your screen, you have to schedule an appointment so far in advance. And they’re not convenient enough to where people are. You want to be able to go into a mall and have somebody right there.

Brands need to embrace the community and understand that the best customer experience sometimes is the one you can’t control yourself. Dell is not there holding your hand when you do the repair. But they want to do everything they can to make sure you have a successful experience doing it. It’s really about figuring out how you can support the ecosystem and support reuse and repair around your products.

There’s a great Ikea hack community. People are taking old Ikea products and making new things, and that’s a great thing for Ikea’s brand. It’s a great thing for the circular economy. It’s a great thing for the environment as a whole. Ikea just has to figure out as a brand how to embrace and extend that.

Have you noticed whether this is taking off among any particular generation?

We see it as something that’s really across the board. If anything, it’s skipping a generation. The current generation is very interested, and the older generations are very interested. When we do local reuse clinics, we’ll have grandparents teaching young folks how to sew and how to do repairs. And the old folks are really into it, and the young folks are really into it. The middle-aged folks just sort of skipped a generation of practical skills.

Overall, though, it is hugely empowering for consumers. You have a jacket where the zipper is jammed or a computer that won’t turn on, and you spend an hour or two learning about the product, getting engaged and tinkering, and then you take a leap of faith in yourself. You get to the end and it works; it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

What’s next for iFixit?

We’re really focused on expanding the types of information we have on iFixit. We don’t have a whole lot of bicycle repair information, but we’re working on it, we’re partnering with some bike companies on that. Timbuktu just announced that they’ve got a bunch of repair guides on iFixit, so we’ve been working with them on that. We’re doing some more outdoor-gear work this year. We’re adding more and more repair guides for cell phones. We’re adding repair guides for toys. We don’t always know what’s up next. It’s up to the community. It’s what people are interested in.

What do you think brands can take away from iFixit’s success?

For me, the key takeaway is not just to support repair but also to really support and empower consumers and independent organizations that are working with your products. It’s about embracing the community and allowing other people to take ownership, and integrate your brand into their lives. Just make information available, that’s all it takes. Make the information available about how to repair your product, and people will do amazing things.