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Need your smart phone fixed fast? Take it to the guy who gave up working on F-15 avionic systems to start his own veteran-owned business

Oops! That new smart phone just tumbled out of your bag, crashed into the sidewalk and put an ugly spider web crack in the screen.  Relax – that phone will be fine.  There’s somebody in Omaha who once worked on F-15 avionic systems for the U.S. Air Force who can make that phone as new as the day it came off the shelf.

Jeff Wharton is that somebody, and First Aid Cellular, the business he founded with his father, a retired U.S. Army veteran, has gotten off the ground thanks to an SBA Patriot Express loan.  Go ahead, ask him what’s the worst damage he’s seen.

An owner putting a smart phone on top of a car and absent-mindedly driving off?  

The construction worker dropping one into a cement mixer?  

How about an iPad falling off a five-story building to the ground?

All fixed.

And dealing with the most exasperated and panicked customer or business owner bringing in shattered pieces is a snap for a company run by a couple of veterans who have made multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both military service and entrepreneurial sense in his blood

Wharton came up with the idea for First Aid Cellular on a recent deployment to southwest Asia, and even successfully applied to trademark the name of his new company while still stationed overseas.  But repairing smart phones wasn’t the first entrepreneurial idea he’s had.  Three years ago, he ran an e-commerce site from his laptop in Baghdad but folded it after struggling to find a niche.  And back in 1996, while in college, he attempted to start a custom computer business.

Both military service and business sense is in Wharton’s blood; an ancestor served as a lieutenant under George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and one grandfather apprenticed for a peach wine farm in Pennsylvania later starting his own peach brandy business.  His aunt and uncle run an auctioneering business in Superior, Neb.

So when Wharton ordered a heavily discounted iPhone in need of repair off an online auction site with an eye toward fixing it and using it himself, upon opening the case he discovered that to him, the compartmentalized parts inside the device reminded him of troubleshooting electronics inside the high-tech Air Force jets he worked on during long hot days on a flight line on a base in Florida. 

“Working on an F-15, when I was finished I couldn’t have any leftover parts,” Wharton said with a smile, “and on your phone, I won’t have any leftover parts, either.”

First Aid Cellular

Jeff Wharton outside First Aid Cellular's location off West Center Road in Omaha.

Drawing on his lessons learned as an entrepreneur, Wharton knew marketing his nascent company would prove crucial.  He reached out to an online site matching skilled multimedia designers with companies that need specialized work—such as a 15-second promotion spot to build a little online buzz about First Aid Cellular.  The cost was cheap, so Wharton went back to them for his next 30-second commercial, a cheeky segment with an actor playing a frightened customer pleading with a pretend doctor and nurse to save her smart phone.  

Wharton said he wanted to continue working with the advertising company, not just because of the low cost producing the spots, but because the firm employs veterans, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, as designers. “Plus,” he added, “they told me that they really liked my company and they thought I’d be a national franchise soon.”  

Learned there's no regulation book to follow when starting a unique veteran-owned business

When he returned from his deployment to Omaha, Wharton attended a seminar offered by the SBA’s Nebraska District Office and the Nebraska Business Development Center, where he learned about the Patriot Express loan program.  While he got some business from a social networking site, and tried to work with a local computer repair business who offered to incubate his start-up, he was discouraged.  He knew he needed capital to grow, but was turned down for a loan from two area banks.

“One of my frustrations is that while there are all these services, like the SBA, SCORE, NBDC, there isn’t a regulation book to tell me how to do this,” the Air Force vet said. “Worse when you start a business, you have all these legal, marketing and operations worries.  Sometimes you can’t sleep. But it’s when I stopped worrying about every little thing, that’s when stuff started to happen.”

Wharton offered a presentation on his business—including playing his commercial--before Greater Omaha Chamber Tips Group, a gathering he joined of businesses who meet to share leads, referrals, tips, information and advice directly supporting an ability to drive business.  In the audience that day was Travis Havlovic, small business specialist at US Bank.

Havlovic was charmed by Wharton’s business idea, and with his help, First Aid Cellular was approved Aug. 8, 2012 for a $15,000 loan under the SBA’s Patriot Express program.  Wharton’s father signed for the loan as CEO of the company, but it’s Wharton who does the work—“my dad wouldn’t know the first thing how to fix a phone,” he laughed.

The approval happened just in time as Wharton had 460 potential customers holding coupons from an online voucher site seeking smart phone repairs.  He found a storefront site in a strip mall on West Center Road in Omaha and needed to open the doors--fast.

Preparing for further growth

Another coupon online, this time a national deal, offering a 10-foot earphone cable popular with smart phone users, could “do $180K in business in seven days,” Wharton claimed.  Social media ads, in fact, generated more than $31,000 in business in October 2012 alone.

First Aid Cellular boasts most repairs are done in 24 hours, and are proud to have customers across the country ship damaged smart phones and tablets to the small Omaha store for the quick turnaround and discount prices compared with the smart phone service providers.  Large, publicly-traded companies have endorsed First Aid Cellular by listing them on employee discount pages as part of company benefits.

Eventually, Wharton may have to bring on employees to handle the additional work.

“My biggest question is how do I find people to carry on my passion?  I still have that inner feeling, that drive of working on a phone to make it just as new as it came out of the box,” he explained.  “Even though the best interest of this company is making a profit, sometimes I even lose money on a job because I want it done right.”

After almost a year of work to start his business, Wharton has some advice for other veteran entrepreneurs fresh from hanging up the uniform. He’s a believer in the monthly Veterans in Business Forum, an Omaha networking event on the first Friday of each month to help make connections.  But starting a business doesn’t end there.

"Do the most with the least amount of money.  And watch your money,” he said. “I know how much to start a company, but now I have to figure out how to pay myself.  And how do I market with no money?  As a new business owner, you’ll get bombarded with people who say they want to market your company.  You can’t spend time overanalyzing them all.  You have to spend ads on something that suits you.

“Don’t worry about what people can do for you,” Wharton added. “You have to get it done.  You have to make it happen.  Reach out to people, but it’s up to you to put it all together.”