27 Sep Esq. Jonathan Cartu Says – Tech repair companies play key role as demand for…
At Tech Defenders — a business that specializes in repairing, refurbishing and reselling laptops and mobile devices — processing a used device and finding it a new home used to take about 60 days.
Thanks to a demand boom from remote working and distance learning, the Grand Rapids-based company now processes and resells devices in as little as three or four days.
“It’s really lopsided supply and demand right now,” said Josh Verhulst, director of business development at Tech Defenders. “When you look at it on the surface, having a strong demand for devices and products is very good — it’s a great problem triangle to solve at Tech Defenders. At the same time, you need to continue to bring devices in so we can fulfill the needs of our customers.”
Tech Defenders, which belongs to the billion-dollar I.T. asset disposition industry, partners with clients that have high-volume device or technology needs, including school districts and businesses that have significant remote workforces. Tech Defenders is under the same ownership group as Mobile Defenders, which focuses specifically on cell phone and tablet parts distribution. The group also created — and eventually sold — Genius Phone Repair, which specializes in repairing broken cell phones, smartphones and tablets.
Pandemic pain points
Tech Defenders has found unique opportunities in the remote-centric nature of schools and businesses during the pandemic. The market climate has certainly maintained business, but it has also created its share of pain points in the process.
Scant inventory is one of those issues for a company that relies mostly on refurbishing and reselling devices for roughly 90 percent of its revenue. Tech Defenders also generates revenue by administering repairs and pre-paid repair programs.
“Pretty low is an understatement,” Tech Defenders founder and CEO Garry VonMyhr said of the company’s inventory. “We actually went into the pandemic with good supply. …We ate through all of that and so we are processing (devices) just in time for the most part right now.”
For Tech Defenders’ business model, the flood of devices that is slowly seeping into the market from OEMs will eventually affect the company.
VonMyhr acknowledged the excess could ultimately drive down prices for refurbished devices, but Tech Defenders has sufficient channels to easily find the devices a new home.
“When we bring them back, quite a few of (the devices) stay in the U.S. but we ship them across the world at the end of their life cycle,” he said. “There is almost always a use for the devices, it just becomes a different challenge for us to find those markets, but we’re pretty well established throughout the globe.”
Laptop shortage hits nation, schools
Tech Defenders has also helped clients through what has become a national laptop shortage. Recent reports using estimates from the world’s largest laptop makers Lenovo, HP and Dell found a shortage totaling around 5 million.
Not only has demand skyrocketed, but the problem has been compounded with sanctions on Chinese suppliers.
Verhulst and team work with school districts, some of which have felt this crunch more than others. He said the overwhelming need from schools is laptops and devices as well as more frequent repairs because devices don’t stay within school walls.
“More than a resource for product, we are really trying to be a consultant to the schools,” Verhulst said, particularly with matching students with devices and protection plans. “And again, this pandemic has really forced a lot of these schools to jump into this, especially those that were a little reluctant. There are a lot of questions around how to do this whole thing.”
Zeeland Public Schools I.T. Director Mark Washington said his district was fortunate to have robust technology pre-pandemic, including a one-to-one student-to-device program for about eight years.
“From a device standpoint, we’ve been very fortunate in the fact that our community said technology is important and they’ve funded it,” Washington said. “We weren’t scrambling for devices. What we ended up scrambling for was getting devices repaired and parts availability. We had to hire a bunch of extra staff members to do the ZConnect program, and getting laptops was just brutal.”
In fact, Washington was told by suppliers it would take six to nine weeks to secure 25 laptops for staff. He also doesn’t anticipate being able to fulfill new requests for laptops until December at the earliest.
And these are pain points for a district that was well equipped. He said the problems are magnified in districts that lacked the necessary resources or were hesitant to embrace technology. Getting the gear is the “hard part,” he added, while some vendors are marking up prices.
“It feels a lot like the (personal protective equipment) piece back when the states were competing against each other to get PPE,” Washington said. “Technology has now become, at times, the new PPE.”
Low-income households left behind?
Some households rely on personal computers and devices to access school work, leaving low-income families throughout West Michigan especially vulnerable.
Comprenew, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that focuses on refurbishing and recycling electronics, created the Connect All Michigan Program (CAMP) to provide relief for these populations.
Through the program, Comprenew connects low-income families who don’t have a home computer with free or discounted technology.
Sarah Laman, director of marketing and development at Comprenew, said some children are forced to access school work through a parent’s smartphone or a number of kids in one household are left to share a single desktop computer.
Comprenew refurbishes old, broken and retired electronic devices from the community and corporations to either resell at one of its retail stores or use in programs. Despite the pandemic, Comprenew has been able to maintain a fresh flow of inventory with help from corporate partners.
The pandemic has validated CAMP’s mission and shone a light on Michigan’s digital divide, Laman said.
“I think everyone at Comprenew feels very refreshed in terms of their commitment to the cause,” Laman said. “We’ve always had a piece of our vision to help bridge the digital divide in our community. We’ve…