Home Feature Meet Stephen Wakeling, Atlanta Founder Rethinking E-Waste & The Circular Economy

Meet Stephen Wakeling, Atlanta Founder Rethinking E-Waste & The Circular Economy

by Maija Ehlinger

Entrepreneurs working in the circular economy see both the financial and environmental advantages of rethinking e-waste.

Atlanta entrepreneur Stephen Wakeling has watched the space transform over the last decade while building Phobio, a SaaS platform designed to facilitate electronic device trade-ins.

“The useful life of a phone is being elongated, and so is the path they travel around the world.” The circular economy, Wakeling says, might be more accurately described as a spiral now, as devices have several owners before ultimately getting recycled.

And with key partnerships with Apple and Costco, the bootstrapped startup has big plans to reimagine the life cycle of more consumer products.

Wakeling’s entrepreneurial career brought him from journalism to marketing and ultimately over to the consumer electronics and technology space. After spending fourteen months in Hong Kong studying the realities of the e-waste industry, he and his co-founders built Phobio from the ground up in Atlanta.

Times have changed, Wakeling says, since personal cell phones first hit the market. “The sales model for consumer electronics, and specifically for mobile phones, was really predicated on planned obsolescence. Now, devices are more expensive, but they have a longer useful life.”

Early on Phobio focused on collecting devices after a few years of use in the First World to distribute to the Third World. An $1,000 new iPhone might be out of reach, but a refurbished three-year-old phone for around $75 became an important segment for Phobio’s business.

But as iPhone prices surged over the last five years, Phobio started to see a growing domestic appetite for trade-in phone products.

“We’re in an advantageous position,” he adds when asked about the changing device trade-in industry. “Up until about five years ago, we were exclusively focused on mobile phones. Then with our relationship with Apple, that broadened to include all their hero products, like Macs, iPads, and Apple Watches. And those were not really part of the circular economy before..but now people domestically are more comfortable purchasing those items used.”

What’s Next In The Circular Economy

Bootstrapped to date, Phobio has found itself on the Inc 5000 List and named as one of the 40 fastest-growing middle-market companies in Georgia.

As students and employees scrambled for devices at the start of the pandemic, Phobio’s business soared. But Wakeling says it also provided an opportunity to take a step back and ensure the team was taken care of.

“I do feel like the mantle of CEO changed in 2020. You had to really voice opinions and take a side on things that you wouldn’t have had to two or three years ago,” Wakeling says.

For Phobio, that meant putting together a small fund for employees who needed help navigating pandemic realities and raised salaries.

While Wakeling and his team have grown the company out of Atlanta, customer support, partner success, and engineering teams are spread across the US.

The team now sees an important opportunity to bring different products into the circular economy moving forward.

Be it power tools or furniture or even drones, Wakeling believes “the expectation should be that when you go to a Home Depot or a Lowe’s or a Target, there should be a couple of items you could ultimately trade-in.”

This opens up new doors for Phobio, Wakeling adds. “We’re really excited to be the software hub of the circular economy as it expands to other consumer durable goods. The big challenge for us five years ago was ‘how do we move a pallet of 28 inch iMacs?’ Now we’re excited to figure out how you do that with other products that haven’t had an easy trade-in process before, and how to make that easier for retailers and consumers.”

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