The Light Phone is a phone that defies expectations. It’s designed to be as simple as possible, helping you eliminate distractions and stay present. The average smartphone user touches their phone over 2,500 times a day–but how many real connections do they make? We are overconnected. We’re prioritizing quantity over quality interactions.
But while many would like to give up their smartphone in the abstract, we know that is not realistic for most people. So, Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang got together to create a solution: The Light Phone. The Light Phone is a secondary phone that uses software to sync with your existing phone number. This means you can make and receive calls on the Light Phone using the number you already have. It’s simple: you leave behind your smartphone when you want, and take the Light Phone instead. It’s the size of a credit card so you’ll barely notice it’s there. But you’ll be fully reachable and be able to make and receive calls. Then, when you need to use your smartphone again, you just turn off the Light Phone, and you’re back.
The Light Phone is also special because of the makeup of it’s founders. Joe is an artist and Kaiwei is a product designer. The Light Phone is a great example of how fantastic new ideas can be born from the fusion of artistic and technical excellence. We caught up with Joe and Kaiwei for this interview, who answered the questions together.
It’s rare for a tech startup to have a co-founder who is an artist. Can you talk about the value of art in the digital age and intersection of art and technology?
Art has always been to us a way to experience ideas, whatever medium that may take. I think what is really interesting about using a platform like a consumer electronics device (the Light Phone) is that we can say something artful about our consciousness of our own time and attention in a way that consumers, who might not “do art”, can interact with still.
Something we’ve realized very early on, and it’s something that John Baldessari attributes to effective art is that the Light Phone gets very polarizing reactions. Some people immediately understand and love it and others seem almost offended by the concept and are really dismissive. To us that is the interesting part! The Light Phone was always meant to be a conversation, and whether or not someone ever buys or tries the Light Phone, there is an idea within the object that can have value regardless. Value of course is a very overused word these days, but one might think differently about their phone, even just a little, after seeing our idea. Many people never ever thought about the idea of having a second, simpler phone, we sort of just bring our smartphones everywhere because it’s our phone. So maybe it’s just that they delete Facebook from their phone, or get an alarm clock instead of sleeping with their smartphones, there are lots of ways the Light Phone can inspire and I think that is the artful touch of the object. It is not a tech spec device, surely you can get phones with more features for less money, but that’s not the point of the Light Phone. We wanted to design a phone to be used as little as possible.
Too often the technology world, as is with most businesses, moves full speed in a direction that turns around maximum return for the tech corporations. Engineers can invent new technologies and MBAs will find an “opportunity” and business model, but I think it takes an artist to really look at the context of these products in our lives. Just because we can build something, and we might even become hooked as startups like to call it, does not mean it makes our lives better. That is where art is able to question the technology world, are we creating solutions or just complicating our lives, taking us away from appreciating the simply beauty that is our lives.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about creating a startup that produces a physical product?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions is in our expectations around pricing. Having seen just what has gone into making a simple phone like ours possible, with the huge teams working on the design, sourcing from hundreds of factories, and an extensive assembly line, it would be ridiculous to imagine that I could get that phone for $10 as some people have suggested. Surely we all enjoy paying next to nothing for everything, and modern scale has allowed us to experience this warped perception of what goes into making a product and what that value should be. Obviously $150 is a lot for such a simple phone, but the reality of the cost would surprise most people if they understood what it costs us.
Also I think the second biggest misconception is that we are selling a phone, when in reality we selling an experience. It’s not at all about the phone itself or what features and specs it has, it is all about experiencing life without a smartphone, going light as we like to call it. It’s a powerful experience, one that usually starts with some initial anxiety but that actually is what makes it feel real, you realize how vulnerable we have become to our smartphones and once you are free and overcome that little anxiety bump, it feels magical. It’s a feeling, and to be honest, most times I go light, I do not make a phone call at all, it’s more of a symbol to myself, a glorified pet rock of sorts, that I chose to be my best self today and leave behind those distractions.
A train of thought and our undivided attention are crucial to creativity or any serious work
What are the biggest lessons you guys have learned about how to effectively work as a team, especially given that you both have very different backgrounds?
In starting off, we both shared a lot of tasks and responsibilities and as we grew we learned how to divide some of those things up in order to be more efficient. I think the best lesson though is just how important a co-founder is. A start up is a constant rollercoaster with highs and lows, things going so well and then falling completely apart over and over again. We can’t imagine doing this without someone to share those celebratory moments or to confide with when things seems impossible to overcome. We both come from different perspectives and have learned a lot from each other, and it makes Light stronger as both of us than either of us could be on our own.
As users of the Light Phone, what affect has it had on your daily lives and experiences with others?
One of the best things about constantly going light, aside from the escape, freedom, and relaxation that it provides, is that when we come back from being light and dive back into what seems like a lot of stressful things at work, we are reminded how much we believe in this concept. Going light is something we have always felt conscious of, prior to the Light Phone, which is why we wanted to encourage others to try the same by leaving behind their smartphone from time to time and raising general awareness that when we go into our phone we are taken for granted our time and attention.
I love simple light moments, it does not always need to be 10 days off the grid to rest when we’re so connected, it could be a simple coffee break, leaving your smartphone at the office that can bring a more regular, steady balance into your life.
A train of thought and our undivided attention are crucial to creativity or any serious work for that matter. Being that we are taking on such an enormous task of brining a independent technology company to life, a seemingly impossible task sometimes, those focused moments become vital to getting everything done.
What advice would you give to someone looking to raise money for a tech product on Kickstarter?
Kickstarter is an amazing platform that has allowed artists, designers, musicians and film makers alike to get their projects off the ground. I think when it comes to tech products, it’s a revolutionary platform, but it comes at the trade off of a sort of reversed design process. We had made a few prototypes but it is really hard to accurately decide all aspects and specs of the product, timeline especially, without really diving deep into the DFM (design for manufacturing). A lot of our speculations ended up being impossible when we really got our hands deep into the design process, for example we had predicted a much longer battery life than we were able to achieve and we shipped the phones 6 months later than we had set as our goal. These things are very common with Kickstarter tech products, but I would say to give yourselves way more time than you expect and to try your best to not over promise specs. You can always pleasantly surprise your backers by overachieving, but it is really not a great feeling to fall short on aspects or miss your shipping date a few times.
Although the Light Phone is seemingly simple, it must have been a lot of work to design. What was the hardest part about bringing the project to fruition?
There was an enormous amount of customization (custom parts like battery and keypad made specifically for our phone) with increases the costs significantly, especially at a small scale. There was no other way to achieve the small form factor that we were able to pull off without it, but it was quiet a challenge. Aesthetically we spent months and months trying to perfect the lighting of the keypad and display, it ended up being more difficult than we could have ever imagined. Right now it is a special matte glass and paint and film formula that gives it the desired look, which is something we had to iterate on many times to learn.
you realize how vulnerable we have become to our smartphones and once you are free and overcome that little anxiety bump, it feels magical.
Will there ever be a 3G or LTE version of the Light Phone?
Yep! We’ve been actively exploring a 4G LTE version. Having taken feedback from our nearly 10,000 users, we’ve learned a lot and have a few surprises for the next phone that we are really excited about. We always saw the Light Phone as an experiment and the first step in bringing Light, an alternative option to the technology landscape, to life.
Which color of the Light Phone do you each prefer?
I prefer the white. The black is in a way more usable and legible because of the contrast, but the white just feels so the opposite of a smartphone with it’s big black screen that feels like a hole, even when it’s off. The white lights on white is really something nice under the right lighting conditions, and I think it has the specialness that we aspired for.
What’s next for Joe Hollier, Kaiwei Tang, and the Light Phone?
We are going to keep building Light as a human voice in this crazy world of technology that seems to be moving in only one direction, not necessarily aligned with our quality of life, but the interests of the tech monopolies. We are working on a new iteration of the Light Phone and look forward to creating a variety of beautiful tools that respect and empower. Objects that help us appreciate life more; that serve, not enslave us.