- people on the move
Inside Track: VonMyhr’s mission: Access to tech
Co-founder and CEO of Tech Defenders repairs laptops and tablets for school districts, donates technology to underprivileged students.
Garry VonMyhr is doing his part to ensure every child has access to technology. As co-founder and CEO of Tech Defenders, he’s been at the helm of a rapidly growing tech repair company in West Michigan with a mission to give back to the community.
VonMyhr first got into the business of technology repair through Jordan Notenbaum. The now-CEO of Mobile Defenders started a cell phone repair business called Note Tech Industries in 2009, a few years after the two of them had finished high school.
“Notenbaum: N-O-T-E is the start of that, so … it wasn’t the best name at the time, which is why we changed it,” VonMyhr said.
One of their first customers was local attorney Dirk Roskam, who offered them a retail space on Plainfield Avenue. VonMyhr and Notenbaum were hesitant at first. The two of them were about to graduate from Grand Valley and weren’t sure whether they wanted to take the business to the next level or pursue a different career.
VonMyhr’s entrepreneurial spirit won over in the end, but Note Tech needed better real estate.
“It would have been a bad decision because it was a really bad space on Plainfield, but we were two young kids,” VonMyhr said. “It was just a little hole-in-the-wall retail space … right next to the Fat Boy there. It’s not really a retail area.”
Steve Barnes, another partner who Joined Note Tech shortly after VonMyhr, talked them out of signing the lease.
“If you know Steve, he likes to play devil’s advocate and challenge things, which is good actually for us,” VonMyhr said.
Note Tech struggled to find a suitable location for a while, VonMyhr said. One early morning, however, he and Barnes were driving around Grandville and came upon the Design 1 complex on Wilson Avenue.
The building’s location in an active retail corridor, along with its proximity to businesses like Verizon, Sprint and AT&T made it immediately attractive to them.
“They (Verizon) probably do a lot of research and probably picked that location for a reason,” VonMyhr said.
VonMyhr, Barnes and Notenbaum opened their first physical store with about $9,000, half of which went to just the signage. The three still had to buy tables, chairs, desks and inventory.
“We wanted to get as big of a sign as possible,” VonMyhr said.
Luckily, the company — now rebranded as Genius Phone Repair — had a friend help with acquiring used furniture for cheap. It wasn’t much to start, but the business took off from the beginning, repairing cell phones and iPods, as well as smartphones and tablets, which were just gaining popularity at the time.
Genius relied on word of mouth to build its brand. VonMyhr said a lot of people at the time didn’t even know a smartphone could be repaired, so not having a lot of competition in the space also was helpful.
“We felt like we had a brand that could be trusted,” VonMyhr said. “A phone is a very personal item. It’s with you everywhere you go. It stores a lot of data, pictures and key information.
“If you go to a new city, and your car breaks down and you have to use a random auto mechanic, you’re super skeptical about that. I feel like a lot of people are that way about their phones, so we try to build trust and credibility.”
All three of the owners had second jobs, but Genius did so well in the beginning, VonMyhr was able to quit his six months after opening. The business made enough money to open a second store at Knapp’s Corner in Grand Rapids a year later.
Genius continued to grow until it opened its fourth store, after which VonMyhr and partners started Mobile Defenders, a distribution company importing cell phone and tablet parts from overseas. The three originally used the company as a resource to wholesale parts to Genius but later expanded to sell to other companies.
The group also formed Tech Defenders in 2014 as a branch of Genius that would work specifically with school districts.
“Most of the schools had laptops and tablets, so the name ‘Genius Phone Repair’ just didn’t make sense,” VonMyhr said. “We wanted to build a business and a team that would be (contacting) school districts to do repair for them.”
In 2014, Tech Defenders had around seven employees. By the end of 2018, it had 137 employees.
Meanwhile, Genius Phone Repair had expanded to 18 locations in Michigan and Indiana, until the group sold it off in 2018.
The main business today is centered around electronics recycling, VonMyhr said. When schools wanted to get rid of their old electronics, they already had a natural partner working with Tech Defenders.
VonMyhr said schools started to heavily implement technology into the classroom around 2012 and 2013. The devices have an average life cycle of four years, so Tech Defenders didn’t get into the position of buying back devices and putting them back into secondary markets until around 2016.
“We continue to do repair and offer repair, but we found it was a lot easier to acquire new schools by calling them and saying, ‘Hey, I want to give you money,’ instead of, ‘Give me your money,’” VonMyhr said.
Repair for school districts is quite a lucrative business because, as VonMyhr said, it’s not like when he was going to school learning to type in the computer lab. Students need their mobile devices for everything, from studying to completing assignments to test taking. On the other end, they don’t tend to last very long as the kids tend to treat them like Frisbees.
“They are breaking them frequently,” VonMyhr said. “They can’t really afford to be without the device for very long … some schools do their own repair in-house, so we have a separate program where we sell parts to schools.”
A number of outdated devices also end up in landfills, VonMyhr said. Through buying back, repairing and sending devices to secondary markets, Tech Defenders saves those devices from ending up as added waste.
Rolling into early 2019, VonMyhr started to notice underprivileged school districts in need of technology for their students. Having already acquired a surplus of used technology from other school districts, the company felt it was important to give back to the community.
“We grew so fast. We were so focused on our own company and continuing to grow that we decided as a leadership team that giving back was something we wanted to be much more intentional on,” he said.
VonMyhr said the company’s current plan is to select one school district in need and help provide technology each quarter. Such a program ideally would focus on the local community, but any school or childhood program could be eligible if in need. Tech Defenders recently donated laptops to an organization in Guatemala.
“We feel like students deserve technology. They should have technology to learn and grow,” VonMyhr said. “You can imagine being a kid and not having something to go on the internet versus somebody else a few miles away that has it — I don’t think that’s fair overall.”
Tech Defenders also donated 225 electronic devices to San Juan Diego Academy in Wyoming in February. The academy is located a few miles away from where VonMyhr lived until he was 4 years old.
“It’s cool to help out a school district that was close to where I lived,” VonMyhr said.
Tech Defenders helped 465 schools nationwide last year, including 320 repair customers and 145 buyback customers.