Ralph spoke to Downtown about what inspired him to start up the company, which is in the midst of tremendous growth. He opened up about Smartbulance’s new partnership with the MTA; the first kiosk under this collaboration launches in May. For more on all things Smartbulance, please visit www.smartbulance.com.
Before launching Smartbulance, you owned several Sprint stores. When did you first get a cell phone?
Ralph Shulberg: The answer to that question is quite ironic. I opened my first store in 1998 during my Junior year at St. John’s University while working on completing my undergrad degree. My mother had given me all her savings to get started with my first store. I didn’t get my first cell phone until four months after I opened because I was trying to keep costs down.
Out of curiosity, what kind of phone do you own? Or at least use regularly?
Ralph Shulberg: I currently use an iPhone 7. I have been using a 4.7-inch screen since the iPhone 6. The first reason for choosing that model is because of the size, it is extremely important to use the phone with one hand to accomplish a task quickly and move on. The second reason for that model is the operating software, iOS is user-friendly and stable. No wasting time trying to figure things out.
How does Smartbulance different from the average retail location where someone can get their phone fixed?
Ralph Shulberg: From the consumer point of view — the average retail location:
1. Find a shop, be aware of their hours, and you should make sure that they have your item or part in stock before you go so you don’t waste a trip.
2. Once you have decided to use that shop you must travel to the shop by foot, train, or car. If by train you’re spending money and time to travel. If by car you still spend money and time but now you must look for parking and risk getting a parking ticket.
3. Once you get to the retail location you must give up your phone and either wait a minimum half hour, or if they are backed up you could wait up to three hours to get your phone back. If you don’t wait at the shop now you must leave WITHOUT A PHONE and come back later to pick it up. The entire process can take anywhere from an hour up to four hours of your day, a waste of time for consumer or small business.
Smartbulance offers several options for the consumer…
Curb Side Service
A state of the art Smartbulance repair truck and technician conveniently arrives at your location. Simply bring the unit or units down to the tech and they will perform the repair in the truck in 20 minutes or less per device. Loaner phone available. If you have a Smartbulance repair truck stationed near your office simply walk over and drop off your phone for repair.
Desk Side Service
In the event you cannot come out to a truck we offer desk side service. An experienced technician will come to your office, apartment, neighborhood coffee shop, middle earth, wherever and perform the repair or repairs in 20 minutes or less per device.
Smartbulance 24/7 is a fully automated self-service repair and recharge kiosk. Located in Grand Central – 42nd street Station, in the “S” shuttle passage corridor. Drop off your broken smartphone, get a loaner and pick up a few hours later. Or pick up a portable battery pack charger, available for purchase or rental. We are planning to install these automated kiosks throughout the NYC Subway system and office building lobby’s.
Does someone need to make an appointment? Or they can just walk up for a repair?
Ralph Shulberg: You can simply walk up to any Smartbulance repair truck and get your smartphone repaired quickly. You can also make an appointment on our website, www.smartbulance.com, and we show up within a two-hour time window that the customer chooses. We are currently servicing New York City’s five boroughs, and Hudson County New Jersey.
Where did the idea for the ambulance come from? Did you have the idea for the vehicle before you had the name?
Ralph Shulberg: Retail stores have been suffering a steep decline in sales and customers due to internet sales taking over. An article published on wired.com by Davey Alba on 4/27/16 stated that the smartphone market will reach saturation by the end of 2016. Market saturation is a huge problem for brick and mortar wireless carrier stores and independent retailers. Sales continue to decline while they struggle to keep up with their expenses leading to an overall decline for that business model.
I identified this trend and timing of the market saturation early in 2012. I developed a transition strategy to downsize my brick and mortar locations down to 2, apply to business school with the end goal of entering the mobile device repair industry when I graduated. I enrolled in Rutgers’ Executive MBA program in 2013. It was during this time when I realized just how busy working professionals are. They are busy with work, family life, and many had decided to go back to school thus reducing their free time even further. My classmates constantly were showing up to class with broken devices with no time to get them repaired. I asked about their IT departments and most of them laughed and explained how inefficient the repair process was for enterprise accounts. By January 2014 I had developed a business plan on how we would use state of the art repair trucks to bring the repair shop to enterprise customers, their employees, and individual customers. So the idea for the trucks came first.
I wanted to create a brand that would outlast the smartphone trend and that would be sustainable for decades to come. The name for Smartbulance came after taking a series of marketing classes during the Rutgers Executive MBA. I learned the criteria for establishing a strong sustainable brand. The name Smartbulance doesn’t necessarily mean emergency service for smartphones. Smartbulance can eventually offer emergency services for Smart Homes, Smart Cars, Smart Drones, Smart Wearables, Smart Appliances, Smart Offices, eventually Smart Cities, and all the Internet of Things. I chose the name Smartbulance because it met all the criteria listed above, the domain name was available along with all the proper social media handles, and I was able to successfully trademark all the relevant corresponding intellectual property.
I graduated with my Executive MBA from Rutgers on May 20th took 10 days off and started Smartbulance on Jun. 1, 2015 by purchasing my first truck. It took 2 weeks to customize and we were on the road and in business by Jun. 15, 2015.
Ralph Shulberg: I had spent a lot of effort researching on what was the best option. I had considered using actual ambulances. New ones were too expensive to buy, had unnecessary features, and were not set up the way that would give the customer and the technician the best experience. Used ambulances were extremely beat up and would require a lot of customization and a full mechanical overhaul. That would be a waste of time and resources. The vans were purchased completely bare and completely customized.
I created a mock-up Smartbulance in the back of one of my retail stores based on the measurements of the inside of the truck. Then with the help of my best friend George, I proceeded to make a full blueprint for what the inside of the Smartbulance would look like. I took those blueprints and sourced all the materials from multiple vendors across the county. I showed the shop my blueprints and then delivered all the materials and asked them to put it together. They thought I was crazy, but since I was a paying customer they did exactly what was asked of them and even provided additional feedback to make the first Smartbulance better.
We took the comfort of the technician and the customers interaction with the truck as top priority to create the most efficient and user friendly design for both parties. The trucks are fully insulated to keep the technician comfortable in extreme hot and cold temperatures. The trucks have awnings to project the customer from rain or the sun when they are standing by the walk-up window. The trucks have full lighting and electrical systems, white spot light on the side and back of the trucks to create a warm inviting lit environment during the darker hours of the day. There are many other state of the art features that you’ll have to see for yourself when you call a SmartBulance for your next repair.
Smartbulance will be working with the MTA. How did that relationship come about?
Ralph Shulberg: On Jan. 8, 2016 the governor made a speech to modernize the MTA and bring the MTA into the 21st century to dramatically improve the travel experience for the millions of Yew Yorkers and visitors. (https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/8th-proposal-governor-cuomo-s-2016-agenda-bring-mta-21st-century-dramatically-improve-travel)
In January, I pitched the idea to the MTA as part of the Governors initiative to have these Smartbulance branded 24/7 fully automated self-service repair and recharge rental kiosks throughout the busiest stations in the NYC Subway. After many rounds of presentations and document submissions, the MTA agreed that this will bring high value to their customers, the subway riders. We were granted full approvals, signed the contract and we were given a high-profile location for the pilot deployment. The location for the pilot program is in the Shuttle passage at the 42nd Street Grand Central Station that connects Grand Central to Times Square. There are roughly 700,000 people passing through each month.
Ralph Shulberg: The subway already has a wireless network and WiFi built by Transit Wireless. Mobile usage has skyrocketed in recent years. Mobile phone ticketing is coming to the NYC subway system and is already in play for Metro North and Long Island Rail Road. Soon, you will use your phone instead of metro cards to get to get into the subway.
Once the first kiosk goes live by May 1, 2017, the plan would be to deploy the full-service technology kiosks throughout the NYC Subway, Long Island Railroad, and Metro North. The objective is to support the MTA in keeping the commuter connected to emergency services, their loved ones, work, or whatever is most important to them.
MTA collaboration aside, what is coming up for Smartbulance? More locations? Any proprietary technology?
Ralph Shulberg: We are in negotiations with a couple of high-profile global property management firms — we can’t disclose names until negotiations are complete — focused in Manhattan to install these technology kiosks in the largest commercial buildings in Manhattan as an amenity. The amenity is quickly becoming a necessity. Like this kiosk is the first of its kind, we are working on a new proprietary technology that will enhance the consumer experience for 2025 and beyond. I am just not at liberty to discuss now.
Do you have any major goals for Smartbulance? Like a certain number of locations you want open? Or the brand having a certain reach?
Ralph Shulberg: Our goals are to deploy a national network of fully-automated “Repair, Recharge, Recycle, Replace” kiosks strategically placed in mass transit systems, corporate buildings/plazas, hospitals, universities, and airports all over the U.S. Simultaneously, we will be deploying Smartbulance trucks to service the kiosks, enterprise customers, and individuals nationwide.
Ralph Shulberg: Part of our transition strategy was to retain the key members of our Sprint retail chain and convert them into key members of our Smartbulance team. We have all worked together for at least ten years and consider Frank, Juan, Laurence, Ray, and Fernando Jr. to be my second family! Together we have close to 100 years of experience in the wireless industry. I have had the privilege to have guidance from two of my Executive MBA professors at Rutgers, Nacho and Shen. Fellow classmates Jorge, Matt, Josh, Alec, Chris, and Alex have also been a tremendous help.
When not busy with Smartbulance, how do you like to spend your free time?
Ralph Shulberg: Free time is not something I have had a lot of in the last two years building Smartbulance. I am working every waking moment to make this the biggest success in the shortest amount of time. When I do have free time, I enjoy traveling the globe and learning about new people and cultures.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
Ralph Shulberg: Whatever restaurant my wife wants to go to is my favorite restaurant. I have an amazing, supportive wife Victoria and try to make her happy every chance I get.
Finally, Ralph, any last words for the kids?
Ralph Shulberg: 1) Follow your dreams. 2) Get the best education you can without going into debt. 3) Setbacks will only better prepare you for your next success. 4) Get a good pokerface. 5) Have a strong stomach.