Louis Rossmann didn’t want to keep paying a couple hundred dollars an hour to a therapist who kept asking him questions about computers. So, in 2012, the repair technician started talking on YouTube instead. It was part life struggles, part repair techniques and part glimpses of what would become Rossmann’s right to repair advocacy.
“It wasn’t supposed to be for people to watch,” said Rossmann. But now, after amassing more than 1.5 million subscribers (a number that baffles Rossmann himself) on YouTube, he’s no longer a “random person ranting at a camera for therapy,” as he saw himself at the start. He has become a major player in what’s known as the right to repair movement.
The right to repair is the concept that when something breaks — a phone, a car, a computer — an owner should be able to get it fixed without needing to go to the manufacturer or the seller. Right to repair advocates say companies like Apple have a financial incentive to make monopolies out of repair, directing customers back to them when devices have problems. That way, they argue, companies can overcharge for repairs or cast off a device as irreparable to persuade a customer to buy a new one.
For third-party iPhone and MacBook repair shops not officially authorized by Apple, getting parts can be difficult. Apple contractually forces recycling partners to shred old devices, according to a 2017 Motherboard investigation, preventing the parts from being reused.
At 32, Rossmann runs Rossmann Repair Group, a tech service shop in Chelsea with an annual revenue, he said, of $1-2 million. The blunt, fast-talking, born-and-raised Staten Islander rules the 16-person workplace the same way he talks to his audience on YouTube — with “brutal honesty,” said chief operating officer Steve Younis, adding that he’s also “very generous.”
When customers come in and can’t afford the cost of a repair, Rossmann will offer them the materials they need — a screwdriver, a keyboard — and tell them to watch instructional videos to learn how to do the repair on their own. If a customer can do it, there’s no charge.
“What drives Louis,” said Younis, “is the ability of people to have control of their own devices.”
Before repairs and YouTube and activism, Rossmann did some internships and jobs as an audio engineer. Back in those days, circa 2008, he had bought a MacBook on eBay for a project. It arrived broken. So he fixed it, finished the project and then sold it. “And then I thought, huh, so I’ve never had a real job, I used to work minimum wage, make $400-600 a month. I just made $250 for something that took me 15 minutes. Let’s try that again,” said Rossmann.
The self-taught repair technician has a process for figuring out fixes on a new device. “I buy one that’s used, I try to fix it, I destroy it, then I curse and then I try to fix it again,” he said. “Then I destroy it, then I buy another one and then I go, ‘Ah, that’s how you do this.’”
He asked other repair companies how long and how expensive their repairs were and figured he could charge less for a faster job.
“I thought, wow, there’s a lot of room for even just someone who’s showing up at customers’ apartments or offices in his basketball shorts to make a decent living here,” said Rossmann.
He opened two Rossmann Repair Group shops in 2012, one in Manhattan and another in Brooklyn that closed six months later. That same year, he took to YouTube and has since made more than 2,000 videos.
To film, he’ll often sit at a desk in his apartment and talk into a microphone, perhaps an expected setup if not for the jumbo rubber duck on his desk, the Christmas trees in the background (even in May) and the cameos from his black cats Blackberry, Clinton and Oreo.
“I don’t like any of my YouTube videos, to be honest,” said Rossmann. “If I’m at work, and I hear someone playing my own video, it’s like, ‘Turn that crap off.’”
He doesn’t know how he gained such a huge following (ask the algorithm, he said in a text). But he thinks people like watching someone “who does what they’re not supposed to do, who learns as they go and shares it in an honest way.”
And, he added, “there’s also the giant middle finger they vicariously get to give through me.”
Rossmann doesn’t shy away from critiquing Apple or NYC real estate or anti-repair lobbyists in his videos – and tossing out a few expletives while he’s at it. Some videos are totally random. In this April video titled “It’s time to say goodbye, you adorable bastard,” Rossmann lectures a stubborn mouse that doesn’t want to leave his store. (Spoiler: The mouse is kicked out.) In others, Rossmann gets into the nitty-gritty of MacBook board repair. And in many, he talks about the right to repair.
Rossmann made his first foray into advocacy in 2015, when he and Jessa Jones, owner of iPad Rehab, a repair shop in Honeoye Falls, New York, headed to Albany for a day of lobbying organized by The Repair Association, which works to promote repair-friendly legislation and standards. In addition to attending lobby days, he speaks at public hearings and records them for YouTube.
“I want to make the process transparent to all the people that are watching,” he said. “I want them to watch with me, feel like they’re following a sitcom or a storyline or a drama show or something, see all the twists and turns, get aggravated at it and then, at some point, think to themselves, ‘I want to do something about this.’”
The decades-long fight for the right to repair isn’t limited to tech. In 2012, the Massachusetts legislature passed automotive right to repair legislation, and a majority of the state’s voters answered “yes” to a right to repair question on the general election ballot.
The Repair Association, inspired by the Massachusetts automotive right to repair, sought to extend that right to other industries. “Our goal is to get bills filed in states,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director. So far, bills are on the table in more than 25 states.
The Repair Association, she said, “would have loved” to also try a direct ballot initiative like the one in Massachusetts, but polling and advertising would have been too costly. For a 2020 automotive right to repair amendment in Massachusetts, an update to the 2012 legislation, the sides collectively spent more than $50 million dollars. The Repair Association just doesn’t have that kind of money.
But Rossmann hopes to raise it. As a repair technician slash right to repair advocate slash YouTube personality, he has expertise and clout that he’s looking to leverage in his latest endeavor: trying to put the right to repair for consumer electronics on the ballot in Massachusetts.
“Louis is really good at getting people to respond to villains,” said Jones of iPad Rehab. “He’s really uniquely able to shine a spotlight on wrongdoing and mobilize people to respond.”
To do so, Rossmann started the Repair Group Preservation Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, and launched a fundraiser on March 30. So far, he has raised more than $700,000 toward his $6 million goal, which by all accounts isn’t nearly enough, given his potential opponents could be tech and telecom giants like Apple, Verizon and T-Mobile.
“It’s not that we’re against it,” said Gordon-Byrne. “God bless him for trying. But I think our ability to sponsor that is very limited. We gotta find some friendly billionaires.”
The move is risky, even if Rossmann can raise $6 million.
“If you lose on the ballot, that really makes it tough to get other people to pick it up again, because it’s kind of like you’ve lost your proof of concept,” said Nathan Proctor, director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s right to repair campaign.
But for Rossmann, it’s worth a try. The deadline to submit a petition for the ballot initiative is in August — and Rossmann plans to submit if he raises enough money. Then it would be a year and a half of campaigning and fundraising for a 2022 ballot option. If the measure passes, Rossmann will work to pass the right to repair in other states. And if it loses, he said, “I’d probably come home and down a bottle of Southern Comfort.”
Rossmann doesn’t know where he’ll be long term, though he said he wants to leave New York entirely. Why pay for Manhattan real estate, he reasons, when over half of his customers are mailing stuff in.
For now, he’s working on educational materials about repair, looking to push forward the direct ballot initiative and posting several YouTube videos a week. He closes them with variations of the same refrain, delivered fast: “That’s it for today, and as always, I hope you learned something.” Sometimes, he’ll even give the big rubber duck a satisfying squeeze.
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.