During his four years at Princeton High School and the year after graduation, Adrian Hertel was known as Mr. Fix-It for technology. Cracked iPhone screen? Take it to Adrian. Water damage? Adrian will have it in working order by the end of the week. So many people brought their devices to Hertel that he was able to turn his skills into a phone repair business in 2012 called Princeton Tiger Tech.
“With Princeton Tiger Tech I was living the dream of being excited to go to work every day,” Hertel said. “Being around my friends too is something I really loved.”
People who graduated around the time Hertel did may be surprised to know that Princeton Tiger Tech is still in business, albeit under a different owner. When Hertel went off to college in the fall of 2015 after taking a year off from school, he sold Princeton Tiger Tech to Tigerlabs, a business accelerator and office co-working space at 252 Nassau Street. Joshua Stone, who owns a similar device repair business called Digital Doc, now runs the business.
Stone initially knew Princeton Tiger Tech as a competitor, although not directly. After leaving cloud communication provider Arkadin in 2014, he moved from New York City to Princeton, where he founded Digital Doc. He hoped to turn Princeton University students into customers, but quickly discovered that Digital Doc’s location in the Princeton Shopping Center was too far removed from downtown to be a significant draw. Then Tigerlabs bought Princeton Tiger Tech and approached Stone about running it. “It was a perfect fit, I think, because I’m interested in expanding the business,” Stone said.
Viewing Princeton Tiger Tech’s office — a small cluster of tan desks near the front of Tigerlab’s open floor plan on the second floor of 252 Nassau Street — might give one the impression that the business is a one or two-person startup that is not far removed from its origin as an extracurricular club. That’s not quite the case, though. Although employment varies by season, there are at least five people working at Princeton Tiger Tech, most of whom are professionally certified in device repair. Even more employees work at Digital Doc, which often shares staff, space and resources with Tiger Tech.
Patrick McGwier, a two-year veteran of Princeton Tiger Tech, is one such employee. McGwier learned how phones and tablets are wired by using broken devices as practice.
“Each cellphone opens differently and each cellphone has components in different spots. You have to spend time to really learn the ins and outs of each device you’re repairing. Sometimes the best way to learn that sort of thing is hands-on,” he said.
Curiosity and an aptitude for technology are top qualifications for Stone when he seeks new employees. “Everybody knows somebody in their family who they can go to with a technical question and those are the people I look for,” he said.
The company’s growth has shocked its former owner and founder, who never intended for the business to be anything more than a side venture. Hertel had to abandon plans to travel the year after high school because more people were asking for iPhone repairs than ever before.
“I didn’t have a goal for monthly revenue or annual revenue or how many repairs I wanted to do per month; I was just focused on growing it, but not with any kind of goal in mind,” Hertel said. “I didn’t have expectations for it for my gap year, but it exceeded any expectations I even could have had.”
Even as the business continues to grow, Hertel doesn’t regret leaving Princeton Tiger Tech behind. In addition to feeling as though he wasn’t learning anything new, Hertel saw trouble on
the horizon. Princeton Tiger Tech’s price advantage over in-house Apple repair was starting to erode.
“I think I moved out of the business at a good time. When I was leaving, Apple was starting to reduce its prices to the point that one of the big advantages of third-party repairs was gone,” he said. “Nowadays, Apple’s prices are pretty similar to repair shops.”
Princeton Tiger Tech hopes to ward off competition from mobile manufacturers by offering repairs for multiple devices. Under Hertel, Tiger Tech only fixed iPhones, which left the business vulnerable to undercutting by Apple. Now the store repairs tablets, Android phones and computers. Stone has also expanded outreach to the community.
“(The business) had previously not done any advertising or marketing,” Stone said. “I take ads out in the local newspapers along with doing fliers and promotions at the university, in addition to supporting some of the high school activities.”
Therein lies Stone’s other strategy; embed the business within the Princeton community so that when people’s devices break, they immediately think of Tiger Tech. Local high school students, people who are the same age as Hertel was when he started the business, regularly become part-time staff, especially during the summer. Stone, who lives in Princeton, regularly meets Princeotn Tiger Tech customers in the community.
“I want every transaction to go, from the customer’s eyes, perfect because I’m going to see my customers when I pick up my son from school and when I go to see my daughter at her play. I don’t ever want to feel like I have to avoid somebody because we didn’t communicate well with the customer about a repair,” he said.
That connection makes the whole business run, says McGwier, who believes phone repair is a uniquely personal business. “When you drop a phone and you’re worried about your data, it can be tough. You can come in very upset,” he said. “I enjoy making the customer feel whole again.”
Meanwhile, Hertel is doing a summer internship in California. He is still repairing phones, but
he’s doing it the way he did before Tiger Tech started — for friends and family, not for money.