Nothing Tastes as Good as Being Light Feels
![Alt Text](https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/56c346b607eaa09d9189a870/5c858063-74b5-43e0-8ed1-bc349d2acf84/Texting3.jpg) There’s this idea out there that anyone running a tech operation is all aboard cyborg-ifying the human race. That scale and speed is the most important thing we’re living for. That wielding an app for each and every daily task is a measure of one’s app-titude (gag), that screen time is sexy, that a retinal scan to enter a restaurant isn’t such a bad thing, so long as that scan equates to a more customized and tasty experience upon one’s return. All a bit creepy, of course. And then there’s the opposition. Those that can’t relent on the pitfalls of tech, and more specifically, the smartphone. Yes, the privacy concerns, the insta-porn, the carpal tunnel, the ADHD, the instaneity-defeats-the-pursuit-of-IRL-experience, all that. But also those in denial that the back to earth movement is really only viable for a consummate select few, that the influence of tech is dramatically irreversible. We live in a culture fixated on better or lesser, bigger or smaller. Where the assumption that the deprivation or limitation of things equates to a lesser lived existence. Between FOMO and “sticky” capitalism (more on that below), it’s hard to know how to actually, logically, proceed in the pursuit of the contemporary holy grail: balance. And then there’s Light Phone. A tech company that wants you to use its innovation sparingly. You read that right. A nimble, durable, and ocular-soothing device, Light Phone began as a flip-phone experiment. To date, it’s ballooned with restrained yet punchy innovations (I navigated myself to a delicious bottle of naturally fermented Sangiovese last month during Milan Fashion Week, courtesy its Directions function, for instance). But it’s also grown with thousands and thousands of users around the world who enthuse not about what the implementation of the phone took away from their lives, but what its integration created. An enabling of coherent, linear actions and thinking one might not realize were thrown out with the bath water when they chose their Instagram handle ten years ago. I had the privilege of chatting with Light Phone founders, Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang, from their NYC headquarters, as 2022 was kicking off and people everywhere were resolving on a year ahead with less screen and more meaningful moments. Below, we talk startup culture and its occasional errancy, the merits of elective compartmentalization, and of course, the beauty of a less spastic existence.
Flaunt: I’d love to hear more about the ethos of the company and its inception. Joe, do you want to share your background and you came into Light Phone? Joe: I studied traditional graphic design here in New York City. I worked as a freelance animator, illustrator, fine artist, and never really dabbled with the tech world in any super deep way. It was in maybe 2014, September—Google had this experimental incubator for designers. It was premised on this idea that—if given the right resources and guidance—designers would come at problems from a more empathetic place, and that design shouldn’t be an afterthought. From a high level, that’s a great thesis. Kai and I joined this program a little bit skeptical of the Google people, but it was a really great opportunity. They basically introduced us to probably a hundred different founders and investors, and thought leaders in the space, and we got to learn how and why a lot of these apps were being created. The trend that Kai and I saw right away was: “Let’s make things sticky.” They would use this word, ‘sticky’, and it was all about retention. How many hours a day was someone using your product? Even if you only had a dozen users, if they were coming back to your website or app for hours a day, there’s some thinking there that one can scale. That was the dominant VC model that was funding all these things. And how did you bridge the recognition of the trend with your own product ambitions? Joe: I think Kai and I kind of looked at our own experiences with the smartphone, and being a freelancer, I struggled with on and off boundaries. You know, you bring your phone to the beach to listen to a song, you see an email from a client, and it throws your whole day off—when you’re just trying to change the song or something. There’s all these different feelings—going on camping trips and road trips without a phone and being like, “That was the most profound week of my life. What was different? I didn’t have a phone.” We talked with so many different users and it was just obvious that the smartphone came into our lives, and it wasn’t sold to us as, “Do you want to check your email before you wake up and brush your teeth?” It was like, “Hey, we can FaceTime Grandma! Cool, awesome.” But it really snuck up on us, and I think we wanted to create a way to remind people that, hey, you know, we used to put up ‘away messages’—the internet used to live in one box in one room of our house—and you can unplug without being a full Luddite. You don’t have to go off the grid forever to have a Saturday with your kids, or with your passion. We even talked to CEOs who are just struggling with working and focusing. They’re used to having secretaries and now their phone’s blowing up constantly with people. So, our research revealed a full range—to quality of life and well-being—and we started experimenting with giving people flip phones, just seeing how that went for an afternoon or weekend.
And Kai, how about yourself? What compelled you to the project and what have you been through on the journey? Oh, it’s so fun making a phone [laughing]… It was very trying—through the supply chain—to actually bring a customized device to life. Obviously, Motorola, or even Nokia—those are pretty big companies compared to what we were in 2016, when there was just two of us. So, I do have a background in mobile phones and helping Motorola and Nokia and Blackberry with their phone design and development. Before I quit the job, I joined the incubator Joe was talking about. And even then, they started shouting about the power of behavior, smartphones, and apps, and social media, and tried to hit us really hard—everyone, every company wanted to make a lot of money from our intentions. And what we were seeing a lot of: you want to design a phone that looks cool—camera’s good and things like that—but then it doesn’t do the job well? It shouldn’t be, “I design a camera, you use it, and then you have to upgrade so I can make more money.” It shouldn’t be that way. Good design should be honest. The business model of advertisements—we both agree that’s the number one evil in the tech industry—that’s how you make money. And they are making money, everyone knows that social media is not free—we are the customers, we are the source of data. And what challenges did you face en route to launch? Kai: It’s been an uphill battle for us. We both obviously felt Light Phone made sense, but at that time, in 2015, to convince people that maybe we should take a break, that it might be healthy… people have drastically different opinions. Some people think, “Oh, this changed my life. I can see myself become more creative, be more positive. I could break away from this negative engagement and manipulation.” Some other people think, “I love my smartphone. Why do I need to take a break?” But I think the last few years… people realize something is really wrong about how we are living with tech. And this problem is not gonna stop—it’s gonna get worse. So hopefully we offer people an option. How would you describe the differences from generation to generation in users? Kai: You’d be surprised—a lot of our users are our age 25 to 35. The younger generation resonates with what we’re trying to do. That’s interesting… people are hard on youngsters and their supposedly being tethered to the smartphone, but perhaps the real problem could be said to lie in older generations. Kai: Different dependencies, definitely. You know, the older people are like, “Well, I need this thing that I’ve now become used to in the last five years.” In kids, it’s probably more of a social pressure. Joe: Eighteen-year-olds buying the phone are like, “Instagram makes me feel bad, and I’m trying to study,” or something. It’s not a majority of eighteen-year-olds, by any means… It raises the question of elective behavior versus conditioned behavior. Does that concept strike a chord with you guys, as Light Phone’s founders? Joe: Yeah, I mean, splitting the email to a computer was one of the biggest wins of the Light Phone for me. Even the act of opening and closing a full keyboard is meaningful, and if I am to do email, at least I can do it quick, versus how long it might take on an iPhone or whatever… But when it comes to cameras, I’m the same way. I have my little point and shoot that fits in my jacket, I have a big Hasselblad when it’s maybe a Light Phone shoot. Different cameras for different needs, and I think I’ve always gravitated towards that idea—“I got this guitar pedal for that sound” versus a digital thing. You can make every sound on Logic, but it’s not as fun as having things to tinker… Perhaps it’s a personality trait, but I’m sure a lot of our users like having a physical notebook, for example. Obviously, to some people, it’s a huge burden, but for the people who take their notes very seriously, they’re like, “Actually, this is much better than the Notes app. I can draw, hold this thing, and I can save it…” So it’s different personalities or lifestyle choices, but I think that compartmentalization is really important and effective for a lot of our users.
Kai, you mentioned the challenges of creating a phone and presumably, in so doing, you’re up against not only the world of Big Tech, I suppose, but the world of Big Communication. And Light Phone is almost antithetical to these worlds. Have you run into anyone trying stymie what you’re doing, as it goes against the grain? Kai: All the time, all the time. We actually deeply value that everyone has a very strong opinion on Light Phone. It’s what we want, because the product is foreign to a lot of people. I think the reaction increases awareness. We use the word ‘method’, we use the word ‘intentional’. It’s the whole thing. We intentionally designed it without advertisements, without data, without distractions. We hope it’s used intentionally as a tool… I think it goes both ways. I do think the younger generation is more open to breaking away from Big Tech. I suppose as you age, at least as you perceive it, the stakes get higher with family or career or responsibility, right, so it fortifies that tethering we talk about… Kai: Here’s the thing: smartphones are very convenient. But what do we give up with this? Do we really need a million apps, all of the time, 24/7? Wake up with it, go to sleep with it. If that’s the convenience we want, do we want to give it up? If we give it up, what can we get back? People have shared they get back their time, they get back their productivity… and what else might you discover? It’s interesting because you are in fact integrating some cross-over applications into the interface. For instance, you’ve added the maps feature, which is awesome. Visual design is always easier said that done. Yet, you open Light Phone, or you visit the homepage, and there’s an absence of aggressive, bright fonts, even “pitch” style language, right? It’s inoffensive. Can you speak to kind of how you arrive at the decision to onboard a particular application that supports this sensibility and aesthetic? Joe: Definitely can. As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s actually really hard to make something ‘simple’. We came up with this design philosophy—use it as little as possible. From the original Light Phone, the Light Phone 2, I think we try to keep that at the forefront. Kai used the word ‘intentionality’ and I think it’s really almost the same thing—everything that we do on the phone needs to have a clear purpose. No frivolous bills and intentionally creating things that may have some use, but ultimately clutter more than they add value. It’s a constant balance of disappointing people that maybe want extra features, but also trying to stay true to the philosophy. We don’t want to get on a high horse and say, “Oh, you don’t have that because we don’t want that, and we say so.” There’s listening we have to do. And what’s something you’ve listened to recently? Joe: Kai and I just did a survey, and one of the things we asked about were Light Emojis—our own kind of version of emojis—and, to my surprise, so many people wanted that. Kai and I probably never would have considered that, but now we’re like, “Hmm. Maybe that’s saying something.” I think listening, always kind of questioning and testing your hypothesis, and being open to being wrong is really critical. We’ve designed things that on the computer look great, but then people use it, you watch them, and they have no idea how to use it, and you’re like, “No, no! You push that! That does that!” Well, if it’s not clear, it’s not working. So I think it’s an iterative process, and it’s definitely hard on such a small screen. Especially Directions—that was a huge challenge—because when we mocked it up, we were like, “Hmm, an arrow, 300 feet turn left…” But also someone’s going to want to know the ETA, there should be a map. Like, “I’m gonna park, but there’s no street names? Maybe I do need a map.” You’re kind of balancing between this idea that if it’s gonna do a few things, we do want to do them well. We don’t want it to be so light that it’s a not practical experience. Kai: We get a lot of people that are really excited about Light Phone—really passionate about our mission—and when they get one, they’re like, “What does it do? There’s no video?” And well, that’s exactly the purpose. You’re not gonna be excited about a screwdriver because it does the job. The pandemic really deepened our reliance on smartphones and their integration in our day to day lives. I’m thinking of QR codes for restaurant menus or showing a vaccination code to enter somewhere. Surely this has created some challenges for Light Phone. How would you describe your experience with the pandemic? Joe: Obviously, production has been a huge headache across industries, so that’s been really tough, but I think for our users, they’re more addicted to their phones because we’re just at home more than ever. So, I think it’s a growing awareness, because people are like, “Actually, this is taking a toll on me, spending more hours on the internet.” And the other side of that is Light Phone members who maybe felt quite disciplined previously and have now found themselves on their laptop for so many hours and having to rethink things. It’s not like a magic pill—you get the Light Phone and boom, you’re not addicted to the internet anymore. I can still spend two hours looking at things on eBay, if I let myself. It’s about what works for you.
So, in short, you’d say the pandemic actually created an opportunity and a new way to think about your customer? Joe: I think so. On one hand, in a very personal way, it kind of forced us to embrace social media marketing for a little bit which is something we never did—and it’s a little bit ironic, I guess. It’s also an incredibly powerful way to talk to people who are experiencing burnout or the desire to rethink their relationship to tech. The Social Dilemma film came out, during the pandemic, so that was a kind of big awareness bump. I think people reach a max point, and there’s a culmination of people going, “I saw my screen time was eight hours, I read this New York Times article—the Cambridge Analytics—screw that company. Or, I dropped my phone and now the new iPhone is a thousand bucks.” I think the pandemic got people reflecting on a lot of things, hopefully. And what are we looking forward to? What are you guys most excited for this year? Joe: We just did a big software sync, trying to get the phone even more frictionless. That’s kind of our goal—not trying to become a smartphone, but every little quirk we can kind of work out, every bump, kink, or minor utility that makes it easier for someone who switches to find themselves not retreating back to the smartphone. And how about yourself, Kai? Kai: Well, in the studio, I saw these handwritten letters from these 10, 11 year-old girls that chose the Light Phone as their first phone. It was so… It was really just so good. We actually have quite a few people who email us saying how Light Phone helped them. I was gonna say, the feel-good factor must be pretty high for you guys. Joe: It’s a combination. When someone calls you and they’re having Verizon issues… who knew I’d be a middle man doing customer service for Verizon? It’s really tricky because it’s out of our control, I don’t know why… But, yeah. Obviously when someone is like, “I’ve changed my life, I started taking more classes, I played guitar for two hours, I read three books a month,”—these kinds of tangible changes—it’s really great. Obviously, the Light Phone is just a catalyst. It takes a lot of willpower or whatever. But it has had a huge impact on a lot of people. Kai: Definitely really encouraging. And how about wider implications? What’s the Light Phone saying about culture? Joe: I like that it crosses boundaries. Whereas my personal art was speaking to those of a very similar mindset, there’s people on all political lines, geographical, demographical, finding themselves wanting a different phone. Outdoors people, artists, musicians, even some celebrities buy the phone because they’re like, “I have a personal assistant, I just want less noise…” Or a kids’ first phone, recovering porn addiction phone, there’s so many things and I think that’s inspiring… The way things are getting so divisive—we need more things that get us out of those echo chambers.