Meet Brian Caleda, the ‘genius’ who’s ready to solve all your tech problems

Describe your path to vietnam and opening iKnow.

I was born to Filipino parents and spent the first eight years of my life in Manila. My father had a career opportunity that took the family to Indonesia, so I was raised in Jakarta until I graduated from high school. However, my grandparents had immigrated to Hawai’i over 30 years ago, so I had been going back and forth to Hawai’i for summers and ultimately decided to attend university at Hawai’i Pacific University, finishing a degree in Biology.

I worked in conservation for the University of Hawai’i, dealing with invasive species, and eventually I took a job in environmental consulting. Day-in day-out based in an office, doing monotonous research and technical writing led to dissatisfaction in my career choices, and what changed everything was the day I bought the first iPhone in 2007. An onset of fascination with Apple technology emerged and I pursued a job working at Apple, and became part of the team that opened the third Apple Store in Hawai’i at the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki, where I ultimately ended with a position in corporate sales and had an insider’s experience of all things Apple.

What was great about working for Apple, was that they give you the freedom to choose what path you would like to choose as you continue with the company, so I actually dabbled in positions as a Creative, Specialist and Genius. Eventually, I took time off to travel for 10 months and the conclusion of my travels led me to Vietnam, where I started iKnow (94 Xuan Thuy, D2) in 2010.

How hard was it to set up iKnow? How do you become an “Authorized Apple Reseller”? Where are the products coming from and how do you ensure the products don’t get switched out during the distribution chain?

Setting up iKnow as a business was not difficult at all. However, achieving my expected level of customer service at the shop, developing staff to be knowledgeable enough to understand the connection between people and their technology so as to be well-rounded solution-providers, finding reputable suppliers for parts and products—that took a good three years. And every day we continue to work on this. With the copious amount of repair shops that carry unreliable parts, provide inept repairs and uncaring service here in Saigon, I always wanted iKnow to stand out from that.

As for becoming an “Authorized Apple Reseller,” there are conditions and policy that you must fulfil and adhere to, which requires submitting documentation, providing a substantial amount of capital and also going through a rigorous selection process, which is clearly outlined on the Apple website. I looked into it when I first started the business, but decided that with the technical resources available to us in Vietnam, being directly associated with Apple just didn’t fit what I wanted to do with the shop. For example, if a customer has a problem with their video card, an Authorized Apple Service Provider is obligated to replace the entire logic board, whereas with us, we have the capabilities of solely replacing the card which translates into a much more cost-efficient solution to the customer. When a situation merits it, however, we do work with a preferred Authorized Apple Reseller and Service Provider. They provide us with support in ways that only official Apple Service Providers can, especially when it comes to dealing with warranties.

Products that we carry at the shop are from various sources, mostly Singapore, Hong Kong, the US and products designated specifically for Vietnam. For brand new devices, it’s fairly straightforward to track products and determine origin, legitimacy and warranty through the product’s serial number. Having said that however, of course, there are exceptions.

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When new products are released in the US, how fast do you get them into your shop?

Quickly. Because we are not an Authorized Apple Reseller we are not limited by Apple policy and can tap into various means of getting them before they are officially released in Vietnam.

How can customers tell a genuine Authorized Apple Reseller from a fake one?

The easiest way is to check the Apple website: locate.apple.com.

How do you build trust with your clients to gain repeat customers and recommendations?

We ensure that we communicate to them every step of the way. Just like a consultation with a doctor for an ailment, first we listen to customers regarding the symptoms they are experiencing with their devices. Based on the given issues, experienced technicians run software and hardware diagnostics using resources available at the shop. Then we recommend a repair solution based on what we find and communicate to customers: what happened, why it may have happened, how to proceed with the repair, how much the repair will cost, and what they can expect in regards to wait time and resolution.

We provide a warranty for all our repairs and support customers as needed post-repair. Fairly simple process, but following this process for the last six years has gained us traction and recognition organically. I’ve also been a stickler to providing added value services that most shops neglect to think about, such as free diagnostics or even a thorough cleaning of a device before returning it to its owner.

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When recruiting tech staff, how do you test their knowledge of the products and problem solving?

It is a common misconception that only a certified technician can properly repair electronics. There are some very capable self-taught technicians out there that have been honing their craft with passion. In fact, even in the US, except for some counties in California, no certification is required to operate a cellphone or computer repair shop.

I have gone through proper training courses in the US and in Singapore for technical troubleshooting of Apple software and hardware, however, most technicians who are here in Vietnam do not have this opportunity. So when we hire technicians, we make sure, first of all, that they already have prior tech background in repair or computer science. Either they’ve graduated with a degree in the tech field and/or they have prior work experience in the industry. This creates a good foundation to work with and I personally train our technicians, not only on repair but customer service skills. It’s a continuous process of learning for all of us at the shop.

There are rumors that some repair shops will switch genuine Apple parts with fake ones. Is this true and what do they do with them?

Certainly this happens. Unfortunately, just like any other industry, there are businesses that try to take advantage of their customers. Especially here in Saigon, we hear endless stories of this, consequently giving the tech repair industry a bad reputation. Throughout the years, we’ve received devices taken to other shops prior to coming to ours and discovered other components have been tampered with, removed or missing, without the owner’s knowledge. From experience, I see it more often than I’d like to. I am not certain what these repair shops do with these parts, to be honest. Perhaps they are collected and used as centerpieces on their living room console where they look at them daily.

But it’s not necessarily about ‘fake’ parts that people should be concerned about. If it’s fake, it won’t work properly and you’ll notice that from the get-go. It’s more about the quality and reliability of parts used for repairs. Most parts used by repair shops globally that repair Apple devices are in fact ‘unofficial’ Apple parts. They are produced in the same factories as those that produce official Apple parts, it’s just that they lack the part/stock number officially designated by Apple. If you want to ensure that they are using an ‘official Apple part’ then you should stick with an Authorized Apple Service Provider, but know that you will certainly be paying Apple prices.

In every repair industry, may it be automotive or electronics, aftermarket parts are commonly used and as long as the quality of the parts are certified, guaranteed and warrantied, you should feel confident about the repair.

How important is it to only use Apple products with each other? For example, does it really matter if I use a non-Apple charger/battery to charge my iPhone or Mac?

It’s quite important to use genuine parts and accessories with your Apple products. Again, they don’t have to be Apple products, per se, but they should be quality and genuine parts. Many reputable brands, such as Anker, Belkin, Monoprice and Remax (just to name a few), make compatible and quality accessories and cables to be used with Apple products. Furthermore, just because a part or accessory has an Apple logo, doesn’t mean it’s legit.

For instance, buying a cheap knock-off cable and charger that are non-MFi certified and don’t provide the proper amperage and current to your Mac or iPhone can actually cost you more in the long run because it could cause heating and battery problems, or even worse, issues with the power supply on the main board. Have you ever plugged in a cheap cable that you’ve bought from Saigon Square, and then get the message on your iPhone: “This cable or accessory is not certified and may not work reliably with this iPhone”? Avoid that if you want to keep your phone longer.

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What’s the worst damage you’ve seen to an iPhone and Mac? And were you able to fix them?

There was an iPhone 4s that came in a few years ago and the lady that brought it in was a long-time customer who was going back and forth between Saigon and Alaska. She thought she had lost it one winter and when she came back in the spring as the ice and snow were melting in her backyard, she found her phone, which she realized had been frozen for three months! She brought it to us and we were able to repair it. As for a MacBook, there was a French guy who had been working in an international aid organization somewhere in Africa for awhile and when he came back with his Unibody MacBook Pro 13”, he complained it was running hot all the time. Sure enough we ran it for a few minutes and the thing was like a hot pan that just came off the stove. We opened it up and saw that most of the interior of his Mac was filled with red clay, which was obstructing the fan and causing the heat sinks to be less efficient in diffusing heat. We were actually surprised that it didn’t explode in this condition. We saved that one too.

What are some common mistakes you see customers do to their phones and computers?

Overcharging. Using crappy cables and accessories. Never shutting down their phones and, especially, their Macs. Not putting a passcode on.

Tell us about the apple courses you teach at iKnow.

When I started iKnow back in 2010, the core of the business was actually to 1) teach people how to make their devices work for them in a practical manner and 2) work with kids at the international school to be more creative with the iPad and show them how to use it not just for games, but also as a tool for learning. Since then we’ve put workshops on for students and teachers at the top tier international schools, such as SSIS, BIS, ISHCMC, AIS, and now currently with IGS, providing creative workshops for students using Apple devices. From there, the repair and retail side of iKnow evolved.

At the shop, we cover a range of topics in our workshops, typically in the form of one-on-one or small group sessions, from being more efficient in navigating all the new changes to the new operating system you just installed, to learning how to use Photoshop. Put it this way, if you want to learn how to do something with your Apple device, we can teach you. Even if we can’t help you figure something out, we can at least point you to someone who can!

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Unfortunately, phone theft is rampant here. If a customer wants a phone unlocked, do you first check to see if it was reported stolen? How?

Yes, we take these matters very seriously. If we have a suspicion that a phone or device has been stolen there are ways to determine this. Apple knows that these cases exist and they have actually implemented security features in iOS that work to prevent the further use of a stolen device. So even when you are able to wipe a phone out that has been locked with a passcode, you’ll need to get passed Activation Lock, which can only be unlocked if you know the Apple ID that was previously logged into the phone and its associated password. That’s why enabling a passcode for your phone and configuring Find My iPhone is such an important security habit. What’s great is that as of early this year, Vietnam was given direct support by Apple and has its own call center that you can ring locally. You can inquire about not only troubleshooting issues, but also Apple ID password woes and also iPhone security status. They go through a rigorous verification process for such issues and you can report a stolen phone (as long as you know the serial number or IMEI) and also inquire whether a phone has already been reported stolen.

What are your plans for the next five years? Will you add other brands?

That’s a good question that I can’t really answer accurately! I’d like to think that the concept of iKnow can be taken to other countries, but let’s see. As for adding other brands to the mix, in August this year we just opened a new shop on 94 Xuan Thuy in Thao Dien, District 2. We have partnered up with another company called ITM to provide a one-stop shop for Apple, Windows PCs, Android and Linux devices. iKnow takes care of all the Apple products, and ITM does the rest. We have also bumped up the retail side of the business and offer all kinds of computers, accessories and gadgets.

IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN