Joe Hollier, co-founder of Light, dives into the startup’s background and what it means to “go light.” A first of its kind, the Light Phone is built to be used as little as possible.
What is the story behind Light? How did you meet?
Kaiwei and I met at a design-focused Google Incubator program. I joined the incubator from a graphic design background and Kaiwei came from the cell phone industry as a product designer, so our skills complemented each other perfectly.
Most of the ideas spun out of the program were centered on retention and feedback loops in mobile apps. However, we felt compelled to focus on the exact opposite: we wanted to build something that freed people from smartphone addiction. In our first experiment with our earliest beta testers, we learned that not having a smartphone resulted in anxiety. After overcoming this mental block, users quickly began to associate the Light Phone with a strong sense of freedom, which reinforced the entire concept.
How has building Light changed the way you think about time and productivity?
The Light Phone is always on our minds, given how much time we spend thinking and talking about it. That keeps us grounded, mindful, and light. In a way, it forces a balanced, healthy relationship with technology.
Similar to our core users, we find that when light, we can appreciate everything so much more, even if it’s just a short coffee break.
Being a founder requires you to be “on” a lot of the time, how do you stay light, despite those constant demands?
I genuinely feel my productivity improves when it’s just me and my Light Phone. Without all the noise and distractions, I can simply focus. This is really important to me as a founder because there’s always so much to do.
It’s also a physical reminder for me to reset, whether it’s by grabbing coffee or just enjoying conversations with people around me. And, of course, it also allows me to reach out if something pressing does come up.
Who are your favorite designers?
Paul Sahre, a graphic designer, who was also my mentor. He approaches problem solving with beautiful and powerful designs.
Naoto Fukasawa, a minimalist product designer.
Dieter Rams, another product designer whose work Kaiwei and I love. He emphasizes simplicity and utility as the core of thoughtful design.
What are some great designs you’ve come across recently?
I love the human-centered, practical design of Fukasawa’s rice cooker, Muji. On the top of the rice cooker is a discreet place for you to put your spoon while the rice is cooking. Simple, thoughtful designs like this impress me.
I’m also fascinated by interior design, especially in homes and offices. It strikes me as an interesting design problem because we spend so much of our time in these spaces. A particular design that recently inspired me was a tree house.
If you never had to work another day in your life, how would you spend your time?
Honestly, it would probably be similar to my life pre-Light. I would dedicate most of my time towards learning, whether it’s more university, independent study, or traveling. I can’t imagine a life where I’m not constantly learning.
I would also continue to translate ideas into ways to inspire others, but I’m not completely sure where I would place my focus.
Where smartphones are powerful, the Light Phone empowers you to enjoy your day without being connected all the time.
Most of us are so addicted to constantly having our phones on us, any pro tips on transitioning to a Light Phone (“going light”)?
There are a million reasons why you would prefer a smartphone to a Light Phone. However, where smartphones are powerful, the Light Phone empowers you to enjoy your day without being connected all the time.
The “transition” doesn’t need to be extreme. I’ve found the best way is to ease into going light because the initial anxiety naturally goes away. It can be as simple as leaving your smart phone at your desk for a 30-minute coffee or lunch break. You quickly forget your old habits of checking your smartphone every second.
Crowdfunding has obviously been great for you. What are some of the challenges it provides?
Light Phone might not have been possible without such platforms. That said, we’re aware of certain challenges, especially in building physical products. There are so many unforeseen factors in the intermediate steps between crowdfunding and engineering, specifically the partnerships you need to build.
Also, in our experience, crowdfunding tends to attract tech-enthusiasts. This is a huge advantage, especially for getting feedback to refine the product. However, you also need to figure out how to resonate with an audience that is wider than just the early adopters.
How does your experience with Kickstarter compare with that of equity crowdfunding?
For us, Kickstarter was more about introducing the concept, proving validity in the idea and getting the larger sums of financial support required to kick off the building of the phone.
Republic offers a new opportunity to our earliest supporters, the ones who have shared us numerous times, told their friends, and tested our software updates. As investors, they can now become part of the company financially. It’s also a chance for us to share Light Phone with a new audience.
What’s the most surprising learning you’ve had while building Light?
I’ve found that we are all universally vulnerable to smartphones. We’ve sold Light Phones in 72 countries but the appeal of going light is the same in every country. We can all relate to the addiction of a smartphone, whether it’s checking emails or seeing our latest notifications.
What is something you know to be true that barely anyone in the world realizes?
Producing a design that actually has a serious impact is much more than just a rendering. By making people more conscious of certain habits, we wanted the Light Phone to be inspiring before it even existed. Coming from an art background, this was one of my biggest learnings.