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Columbia resident Trevor Robinson: from drug dealer to business owner

Friday, September 14, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:22 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Trevor Robinson repairs iPhones and iPads for the company he started, Columbia iRepair.

COLUMBIA — Sitting at his work table, Trevor Robinson removes the back of a shattered iPhone 4 and throws it onto a pile of old electronic parts for recycling. 

He picks up a magnetic Phillips #000 screwdriver and loosens a piece that is smaller than an apple seed.

With a pair of tongs, he carefully removes the motherboard and places it gently onto a paper plate. Then he tinkers with a few more parts and snaps on a fresh cover.

The iPhone is like new again.

Robinson learned how to do this by watching YouTube videos when he was in rehab.

Two years ago, he was caught in a federal drug bust and spent 12 months in a rehabilition program. During that year, Robinson taught himself to fix iPhones, iPads and other electronic devices by watching videos on the internet.

Completely changing his lifestyle, he has set up a business called Columbia iRepair in his studio apartment at the corner of Cherry and 10th street. Now he spends his time fixing hand-held Apple products.

Most people take their broken iPods, iPhones and iPads to an Apple Store — but for Columbia residents, that means making the trek to either Kansas City or St. Louis.

Jessica Simpson took her mobile to iRepair.

"I broke my phone late one night, and I texted Trevor the very next morning," Simpson said. "He fixed it that day in just 45 minutes. He also customized it to be a rose gold mirror color."

Robinson offers same-day service, and through referrals and other basic marketing tools, he said he handles at least five devices each day.

“Word of mouth is still the main way people know of my business,” he said. “People hear about me from someone whose phone I fixed, and they know they can trust me."

Robinson's office is in the basement of the white Victorian house next to Harpo's, and the one-bedroom studio looks more like a crash pad for a '90s band than headquarters for an entrepreneur.

Its layout is unconventional. The path leads from the kitchen to the living room, down a step and through an arch to the table where Robinson spends hours performing tedious electronics repair.

He even Skypes with members of the Apple team in China to get an early grasp on advances and changes in the industry.

“I work hard to always be learning new things,” he said. “I know this is kind of geeky, but I’m fascinated by the details of the trade.”

The networking skills Robinson now relies on for business are the same ones that also made him a success as a drug dealer.

“I have never had a doubt I would be successful in what I do,” he said. “It just came down to putting my time and effort into more positive things.”

In 2010, Robinson was one of Columbia's leading dealers, working with a supplier who brought the drugs in by van from California. 

That year, during a shakedown in Topeka, Kan., the van was stopped by federal authorities and his supplier was stung.

Soon after, Robinson was asked to meet the same supplier in a restaurant parking lot instead of their usual spot. He didn't know the guy was wired.  

Robinson was arrested and charged with a class B felony, distributing a controlled substance. He was originally sentenced to seven years in prison, but with the help of his lawyer, he would spend just one year in the Boone County Drug Court Program.

The program offers an alternative sentencing curriculum to non-violent offenders charged with substance-related felonies. It is a court-monitored rehab program with counseling sessions, frequent drug testing and mandatory involvement in school or work.

Between his arrest and approval to enter the drug court program, Robinson struggled to find employment, even in minimum wage jobs. Though he was frustrated, he understood the logic.

“As a business owner now, if I were deciding between two different people for a job position, I would pick the one with the more trusted background,” Robinson said. 

When he finally entered the program in April 2011, he said, a transformation had begun.

“I decided I was going to either do this program all out or fail,” he said.

Along with newfound sobriety came newfound interests and friends. Once he turned his back on illegal activities, relating to his old crowd of friends became difficult.

“That lifestyle is hard,” Robison said. “Paranoia. Thinking someone is your friend and then they’re not. I had a low self-worth seeing the people around me excel while I was just excelling at trafficking dope.”

He fully embraced the lifestyle change, began volunteering at ParentLink and enrolled in MU’s Trulaske College of Business. 

Winter 2011 brought Robinson yet another step closer to his new passion. When his iPhone broke, he did not want to spend the hundreds of dollars to fix something he thought he could figure out himself.

It wasn't that easy.

“It’s like when you watch someone hit a fastball and you think ‘I could do that,’” Robinson said. “Then you go do it, and it’s a lot harder than you thought.”

Using some intense Googling, he stumbled upon a series of YouTube videos and blogs. After successfully mending his phone, he continued to experiment with the device.

He began deliberately breaking it, then working out the repairs. By tampering with the hardware and the software, he taught himself how malfunctions occur.

“I would watch a 10-minute video on how to fix something, but it would take me an hour to do it,” Robinson said.

With growing confidence in his abilities, he moved on to his friends’ phones.

“Trial and error is what taught me the most,” he said. “I’m a smart guy. I found something, and I figured it out.”

Now that he's established, he's looking ahead. Though the business is growing, Robinson said he plans to continue running iRepair from home to keep expenses at a minimum.

“I do everything I can do to keep a low overhead,” he said. “I want people to come to me and get a good deal and leave happy." 


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Comments

Andrew Brown September 14, 2012 | 7:23 a.m.

This is one of the most inspiring stories that I have read in a long time. Trevor Robinson is an example of success for rehabilition in the United States criminal justice system. Who knows what would have happened to him if he would have been placed in jail for seven years. He almost certainly would not be where he is today.

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