For years, we’ve bemoaned the fact that we spend way too much time on our phones, but haven’t been able to get off the grid for more than a few hours at a time. But what if there was a device that restricted our screen time by taking away social media, news, and internet apps altogether? That’s exactly what the Light Phone set out to do. 

Back in 2015, Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang began crowdfunding the first Light Phone on Kickstarter, hopping on the growing popularity of minimalism. Much like Marie Kondo told us to get rid of anything in our homes that didn’t spark joy, the Light Phone II (the latest model) can take calls and texts, and, depending on your preferences, just about nothing else. The original Light Phone was even more pared down, featuring nothing but calls.

Since its initial launch in 2017, the Light Phone has been named one of the “Top 10 Most Innovative Consumer Electronic Companies in 2020” by Fast Company, and has raised $9 million from private investors like Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Lyft co-founder John Zimmer, and Adobe Chief Design Officer Scott Belsky. The Light Phone II is already available, but currently sold out, with pre-orders slated to ship out mid-June.

Joe Hollier spoke about how the Light Phone works, why demand shot up during the pandemic, and his own smartphone addiction.

The Business of Business: Tell me a little bit about the making of the Light Phone, the light bulb moment.

Joe Hollier: Kaiwei and myself were the two co-founders, and we both come from different design backgrounds. I was more graphic, video and typography, and Kaiwei was more a product design, user centered design. 

Basically Kaiwei and I joined this experimental incubator intended for designers, and it was very open-ended ironically enough, sponsored and started by Google. Their idea, their hypothesis was, "If given resources and guidance, what kinds of technology companies might designers create?" Which sounds great. On paper, I think everyone had a little bit of a different idea of what that meant. 

When we joined the program, we had the great opportunity of meeting tons of founders, investors, general tech thought leaders and learning so much about the hows and whys. I think a trend that we saw really early on was, they really wanted us to make things that were sticky. What can you make that people might spend hours a day on? Because if you could make a software product, particularly a smartphone app that people use for hours a day, you can collect all sorts of data and sell all sorts of ads.

This is a little bit more obvious now to the general consumer, but I think at the time everything was, "Let's make the world a better place by connecting in all sorts of new ways." I think they saw the role of us as designers was wrapping up these kinds of business models with some reason for existing and making it seem like a good thing. 

“The Light Phone is really one aspect of, I think, a larger lifestyle change for a lot of people.”

Actually Kai and I said, "Is being any more connected on our smartphone actually going to make us happier or am I actually craving the exact opposite and dying to throw that thing in the garbage can all the time, and finding myself checking email." I was a freelancer prior, the on, off it gets way trickier when on and off timeline when it came to work. I think we sort of said, “What if we encourage people to disconnect thinking a lot about our first experiences with the internet?” AOL instant messenger being a great example of that, where the internet really just lived in one device. We had these away messages where it's like, "I'm going to the pool," and I didn't even have a cell phone at the time. 

We wanted to encourage people, to remind them rather, that we weren't always connected 24/7, and that it's okay to take a break from being so constantly connected and put up some form of that away message. We started testing that hypothesis by giving people flip phones for the weekend and taking their smartphones. I think we gave them 10 speed dials and universally it always ended in a pretty positive place.

They described this initial anxiety of tapping the pockets again and again, or a FOMO that maybe comes with it. But by the end of the weekend, they were like, "Wow, that was the most relaxing weekend I've had in months." There's all these great things, and then when we looked at the flip phones, we realized that no one made any phone calls. It was really this peace of mind that, you are reachable, but whatever product we were creating, we said it should be designed to be used as little as possible because the whole value of whatever we'd create, wouldn't be that we're going to outsmart the smartphone it's that we're going to give them this valuable experience of disconnecting as much as possible. That was how the first Light Phone idea came to be.

We began pitching it in this program as a piece of plastic with some Photoshop. We got very polarizing reactions, people either we're like, "This is the dumbest idea I've ever heard in my entire life” or “I absolutely love it, I need one now. How can I give you my money?" As an artist, it was so interesting to see these kinds of existential questions that people would have. Some people would really respond negatively to the idea, then three months later email us, "I can't stop thinking about that little phone." It really struck a lot of these fundamental philosophical ideas that we had. 

In May, when the program came to an end, Kaiwei and I launched it on Kickstarter, and we're mind blown by what it was able to reach. The polarization only grew more extreme, but it was crazy to see, I think 70 different countries. We had people buying the phone from all different kinds of walks of life than we would have anticipated.

I think in our head, it was like other creative-esque 25 to 40-year-olds, probably working pretty heavily on the computer or email and wanting to take a break and pick cities. But we had Bible belt families, we had CEOs or celebrities and musicians and outdoor enthusiasts and religious groups, just like the Mennonites or the city Orthodox Jewish groups coming and wanting to buy the phones. It really felt like we hit this interesting point. Yeah, I guess that was how we really started to build the phone. That was the original Light Phone, which only made phone calls, which was very extreme and only ever actually intended to be a kind of secondary device. 

Through about two years of having that out in the world, we realized that the people that were using it the most really just were like, "I don't want to go back to a smartphone, if only this had more than nine speed dials, if only this had texting or an alarm clock, I probably wouldn't need my smartphone."

That's how we opened up the Light Phone too, which was an interesting proposition for the phone, that's nothing to be like, "Hey, we're going to start having these tools and what might that be?" That was a really interesting conversation. We did crowdfunding again for the Light Phone too and it was so interesting. Everyone agrees they maybe want a simpler device, but what that means is drastically different on a user by user basis. Those conversations of what's the distraction? What's the utility? What makes sense and not? Is one that's I guess ongoing but we've showed the phone with users for about a year and a half now. I think it was September, 2019. We started shipping the Light Phone too, and it's been really interesting. I think about half of the users do replace their smartphone completely. Some of them may start using it as a kind of secondary device in transition. Then there's parents buying it as a kid's first phone, which is an example we didn't really anticipate. We basically have the phone out there and we're continually rolling out new software tools.

You spoke to The Verge a while back and you said, "It's funny because everyone's one thing that they want their phone to do is different." What do you think, either the most common or most addictive one thing is?

Well, I think the very most common one which is actually what we're working on now is the directions tool. Modern smartphones, it's really insane to imagine now for a lot of people getting around, even in the city they've lived there for 20 years, without the maps function. That's really an interesting one to see. I would say under that, though a less obvious second place, is between Spotify or rideshare perhaps, or maybe WhatsApp, kind of an international messaging platform. Whether it's WhatsApp or Signal or one of these. So is there a number two, but I think directions seems to be the most universally asked about tool.

I feel social media is such an easy one, that's the one to go. That's the one you probably never want to incorporate into the Light Phone.

Definitely. I think a few of the lines that we drew were social media, news, email and an internet browser. I think obviously that sounds like a line that's able to move, but I think because it's such a small black and white screen, it would never be able to do social media the way that social media exists currently. That was a hardware limitation that we intentionally put in, that God forbid we've lost our complete bearings and tried to make an Instagram app. I think social media definitely is the obvious, most toxic one I think for most people. But one funny note about that is a lot of people and even myself in testing prior to actually having the Light Phone too, I deleted social media off my smartphone.

“Kai and I said, ‘Is being any more connected on our smartphone actually going to make us happier or am I actually craving the exact opposite.’”

Then it's funny how you find yourself opening Craigslist or some other app and you're like, "Why am I looking at used guitars? I can't even pay my rent next month." But it's just that need where you're like, I had 10 minutes on the couch in between things and I just wanted to look at something to distract myself. It is really funny how the vulnerability and it's kind of addiction to new information, find a new outlet even when it takes social media out. There is something about the phone being that drastically different, in a way unsatisfying. I've had so many people excited. They're like, "I did a text and I was like, Ooh, my new phone." Then you're like, "Now what? "Because it doesn't give you much else. 

You have to be alone with your thoughts. What are some of the main problems that the Light Phone hopes to address?

I think we feel that there's not enough options when it comes to the actual cell phone landscape. I think you know there's the smartphone, which is the vast majority of phones and they're all the same. We're self-aware enough to know that the Light Phone is not for everyone, but we know that in a world with well over a billion smartphone users, any other product has so many variations, whether it's pasta sauce or shoes or any other thing that we all use. There's so many options but when it comes to phones, the one actually all the flip phones are becoming just smartphones in their own way. I don't know if you've played with any of those in any recent time, but there's not really phones that are intentionally limited, minimal and purpose, and trying to be a more utilitarian device versus an entertainment device.

But I think we just saw Light as a brand, being an alternative to the larger technology world and being able to create products that have different business models. More one to one, less sneaky attention economy, data collection driven things. We'll create these products, whether it's a phone or whatever else we create, sell it at an honest price, not necessarily a cheap price, but what we need to sell it at. Then we can prioritize user security, data, keeping everything safe and not have to try to find all these other ways to scheduling.

What are some of the drawbacks that you've noticed or that users have talked to you about with the Light Phone?

I think there's some expectations perhaps when it comes to our relationships, whether it's friends or colleagues and family. I think some people have had some friction with that, not being in the group chat and getting all the memes and maybe feeling some of that FOMO, or not having all the images on the phone to be able to see the image that the cousin sent that minute. Some people, I guess, feel it as a little bit isolating in a way. I think there's just general minor inconveniences that come with it. I need to look up where I'm going for the day. If I have a few meetings in the city, because I can't just check my email on the fly. A little bit more intentionality is required and then at times because we don't have things like rideshare, you might find yourself like, "Oh, I'm either having to find a yellow cab or walk home."

“Everyone agrees they maybe want a simpler device, but what that means is drastically different on a user by user basis.”

There's definitely some of those moments too that people experienced. But I think overall the attitude of the people that are using it and embrace it well, tend to see those as minor inconveniences for getting their life back. But to some people, those inconveniences have been deal-breakers and they definitely come back to the smartphone full-time and avoid the Light Phone. That's something we saw even since the first Light Phone that had no texts. There's an infinite amount of excuses as to why we might want a smartphone. We're trying to find a balance of, how can we make it more accessible so that people feel comfortable, they have directions on the Light Phone too, or they have text messages or whatever it is that they can feel comfortable without becoming a full fledged smartphone.

Do you think people are going to start caring more and more about what's happening to their data and how much time we're spending on our screens? Do you think this digital detox, minimalism trend is only getting started?

I do think it's grown exponentially since 2015, when we launched our first Kickstarter. Even then some people just really didn't see the problem and I think it was maybe three years ago, the screen time feature came out. That was I think a huge jump up in terms of general awareness on a personal level of being able to be like, "Wow, four and a half hours yesterday." We had a lot of users coming to us after that. Then things like the Social Dilemma film that came out last year in different books like, how new courts digital mentalism, it just has a new one out about email.

Some of these things I think have really done wonders in terms of making awareness. I think I'm always afraid that awareness is a great first step, but if the task seems so daunting, I think people might just give up, in a kind of climate change sense. It's such a massive thing to try to reclaim your data or your time in these ways that we're trying to help encourage people to take some of that step, but it is a daunting task because everything seems to be moving more and more in that direction.

What do you think it would take for larger change to happen? What do you think is at risk with the way we're going now?

I think consumers can guide things in so many ways. I think if people really stand up and say like, "We don't want this anymore," I think that can make a huge difference. I think if there was an alternative to some of these social media platforms, although that's no small task. I think that could really change things, especially if that platform wasn't ad driven and maybe cost money, and had to sort of completely different principles and value proposition. I think that could probably make a huge difference, but the network effect is so strong in a sense that everyone's already on Instagram or Twitter, that to try to think of a platform that could up take that and any significant way. I think the friction in that is, so many people feel that their careers are tied to that internet presence.

“We've been fortunate to find and be able to connect with people through, ironically, social media and the internet and get our idea across.”

It's a balance, a lot of phone users do keep their smart phones at their studio or office. Some of them are influencers or musicians or artists, and they need to be sharing about a show or a project or a thing, but they see it more as a job. They put their smartphone back in the drawer afterwards. There does need to be a balance and there's so many great things the internet has made possible. The two of us being able to even launch a cell phone, that wouldn't have happened 15 years ago without crowdfunding. It's a double-edged sword of trying to utilize the power of the internet without letting it just completely take over all of our thoughts and feelings.

Have you noticed that interest in the Light Phone has changed during the pandemic or just since people have been working from home?

Definitely. I think it's obvious that we've probably seen people spend an unprecedented amount of time, both alone and especially in front of screens. Then with all the over-sensationalized news, it's just been something that people have really been struggling with because it's not like you can just go out with your friends and forget about the screen time. We've actually had our best year of sales ever in 2020, which is only really compared to 2019. 

We were very scared when the pandemic first hit, things were looking quite dismal and we were able to kind of bootstrap ourselves and keep the ship afloat without any investment. Because as a hardware company, we have relied on private investment to make it possible for us to operate. We haven't had any of that in the pandemic. We've been fortunate to find and be able to connect with people through, ironically, social media and the internet and get our idea across. Yeah, we've seen it grow.

I think the perfect place to find people is social media, because those are the people who have the problem, or not even problem, but situation.

Yeah. I've always avoided using the word “addiction,” but in some ways it really does align with more reading I've done on addiction. And including myself who's been completely aware of this. It feels like since 2015, I've used the smartphone in and out over the last few years and the vulnerability is just so real. Experienced it and continue to, even through the pandemic on my computer, you can find your own holes. The Light Phone is really one aspect of, I think, a larger lifestyle change for a lot of people.

What are some of the problems you notice in smartphone usage? One that I can think of is the red alert when you get a ping at the corner of your screen.

Yeah. I know what you mean. It's an irresistible red little dot and you just have to check what that one means, "Software update?"

Exactly. They make it purposefully.

There's a lot of notifications in general, are just irresistible with some if you have news apps and those kinds of things. I think there's a lot in the infinite fitness of it. Then I think the actual curation of the content, the algorithms that are maximizing engagement, they're not intentionally trying to lean negative, but the reality is that negative things tend to grab us in a more significant way. The feeds, the content they're actually showing, it's not chronologically based, that was a switch that pretty much all the platforms adopted to be this algorithm to personalize it. I think that really changed the content that you were seeing, negative thing, negative thing.

I think the content has a huge role in that and triggering our emotions and then now we're angry and we need to learn more about that thing. I think that's a huge one. There's so many tactics with even the notifications, almost creating fake notifications for people that aren't active, that aren't real pressing things. Then I think one sort of issue with all of that is, because you're talking to your mom or texting or on your smartphone, it's so easy to go from replying to a text to opening Instagram, I think because it's all under the same umbrella. It's like unconscious, the amount of people that tell me, "I opened and closed Instagram five times in 20 seconds,' so many people tell us that story and you see it on the train, you'll watch someone close it and then just reopen it.

I think it's those things, because then when you're just doing something innocent, you actually went to do something intentional on Twitter or Instagram. You're like, "I'm going to send this one joke to Connor," but then you're 30 minutes later, "Where did I go wrong?" Yeah. It's really quite crazy. I think a lot of the things that they use relate to gambling industry and particularly slot machines. I think in terms of just general visual stimulation and the timing of ups and downs, they make you feel bad and they show you a notification and then you can feel that. It's way more thought out than you want to think unfortunately.

Instagram is a perfect place to feel bad about yourself. Thinking back to the evolution of the cell phone, can you pinpoint where you think it went wrong?

What's funny is when I think about my personal relationship, I got an iPhone sort of younger than most of my friends. I was in college, so not terribly young, but I remember I got the iPhone, it didn't have any social media apps. It had all these tools that developers were making. I had a thing so I could check if my painting was straight on the wall, it felt like this toolbox of things. It felt like a utility in my mind, something I could use to create more. I could get all these reference images and email them to myself really quickly. I guess it must've been the advent of things like Instagram, and it feels like an unconscious transition that I found myself in a much more toxic relationship with it. I do think once social media really took over the smartphone, that made a huge difference.

Facebook was around when I had the smartphone, but there just wasn't an app, or if there was, I didn't even download it. I think for me personally, Instagram was probably that turning point. That has to do I'm sure with the fact that as a freelance artist, it felt like this portfolio career thing, but it was also where all my friends were. It was neither here nor there.

What does it mean to “go light?”

I guess we always call it an experience and that's mostly because there's not one feature on the Light Phone that we're selling. It's much more of an experiential product. I think it's also something that someone could experience without a lifestyle, but it's really about taking conscious control of how you're going to engage with technology on any given day or more than a day. But specifically saying, “Today I'm not going to do this,” and just taking that responsibility versus just falling victim to it and letting it curate how many times you're going to check it in the one given day. I think for us, we try not to define it by what I like to do when I'm going late, because it's really is an open-ended experience of starting to face those existential questions that you might be sleeping with.

They're avoided when you pull out the phone. A lot of people it's about relaxing and reconnecting with family but a lot of people it's about productivity and learning that language they've been meaning to learn or focusing on that paper that they're falling behind on, or catching up on books they've been meaning to read. It was an infinite bucket list. I'm sure that we all have things we wish we were doing more of and I think that's starting to really carve out that sacred space for yourself.

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