Founder Casey Profita wired up his first Gophermods outlet while attending the University of Minnesota, and immersing his team in the college’s University Technology Enterprise Center (UTEC) program.
Profita’s going-on-six-year-old consumer electronics repair company is now expanding from a regional perspective while the entrepreneur considers its potential as a national brand.
“The economic downturn is the only reason why we are in business,” Profita said. “Before that we were a throwaway economy. It’s not just the most tech-savvy users. Our customers are time-conscious people who rely everyday on their devices and can’t live without them.”
From campus to business accelerator
Gophermods got started by hiring and training students to fix video game consoles and then broadening the scope of services to include smartphones, tablets and Macintosh computers. Profita, 26, had relished the on-campus location and its proximity to a pool of tech-savvy learners who set the tone for Gophermods’ approach and became his first employees.
When it was announced in 2012 that the UTEC building would close to make way for student housing, he struggled with that decision as Gophermods opened its flagship store a short drive from the school in northeast Minneapolis. That coincided with the launch of a branch location out of the Cottage Grove, Minn.-based Business Enterprise Center accelerator program.
Those experiences led Profita to consider the next play for Gophermods, and helped him realize that the ability to hire and retain the right workers was based more on the startup’s people, passion and culture than a physical presence at the university.
“I thought we would lose that connection by not being on campus,” he said. “We liked pulling from that talent pool. To be able to find an IT or engineering student who can walk to work and do what he or she loves at the same time. It took us a couple of years, until this year, to wrap our head around it. We are still close to campus. We can still hire freshman and sophomores and work with them all the way through graduation. By that time, they are standouts in the business.”
Incubating in West Des Moines
Profita, who traveled to Des Moines for a conference, was first exposed to the Iowa business community in early 2014. The trip opened his mind to another viable marketplace – accessible via a fewer-than-four-hour drive from Gophermods’ headquarters.
The company conducted its market research and began performing its due diligence as it applied, and was accepted, into the West Des Moines Business Incubator program. Within six months, Gophermods opened its first Iowa retail location in Urbandale.
“The market was well educated,” Profita said. “The demographics were there. I didn’t want to go all the way to Dallas. If it worked in Iowa, that’s great. If it didn’t, we could pull out and go back home to the Gopher State. It did work and we are more experienced as a result. There was no unnecessary risk.”
Today, Gophermods operates a total of seven locations in three states, including Iowa and Nebraska, and recently brought on its 21st employee. The company, which graduated in June from the West Des Moines Business Incubator, is actively seeking space for a second storefront in the area.
“I never put any thought into opening another location outside of Minnesota until my first trip here,” Profita said. “Now we know the challenges we’ll be facing in month one, month six and month nine. Looking back, the incubators acted like a springboard from which to test out our ideas. They were invaluable experiences and without risking everything allowed us to put all the right people, proper training and necessary systems in place.
“We can prosper, pull in good talent and have people recognize our story. Our initial fears did not become reality.”
Todd Razor is a Des Moines-based writer and multimedia storyteller who covers technology and innovation in the real estate, construction and manufacturing industries.