Conversations With Innovators — Q&A with Kaiwei Tang of Light Phone


The Conversations with Innovators blog discusses new innovations, big ideas, disruptive technologies, and the thought leaders, innovators, rebels, entrepreneurs, and trailblazers that make all of this possible. This week we are talking with Kaiwei Tang, co-founder and CEO of Light Phone. Tang met co-founder Joe Hollier in a Google incubator in New York City in 2014 where they were engaged in creating software apps. Then, Light Phone was born.

Light Phone co-founder Entrepreneur Kaiwei Tang

Light Phone co-founder Entrepreneur Kaiwei Tang

What is the big idea behind the Light Phone?

We couldn’t help but feel that the last thing we thought the world needed was another app. There were all of these products and apps coming out left and right all claiming to “make our lives better”. We just couldn’t believe any of it anymore. These products didn’t respect the user or their time. Being more connected couldn’t actually be what we needed to become happier.

We learned the most common metric for success of many of these companies was retention – how many hours a day does the user spend with your product. We are humans, and we are vulnerable. These products are engineered to use our vulnerabilities against us. They are built because we can become addicted to them, but not because we ever needed them.

If how we spend our days is always “connected,” always staring at our screens, that will be how we spend the rest of our lives.

We might scroll for a while, but when we snap out of what feels like a daze, not particularly happy or sad, just kind of tired. Answering a text message can send anyone into a 20-minute hole without even realizing it.

The Internet lives in our pockets. Our smartphones are computers, but we still bring them everywhere because they are our phones. We don’t even think twice about whether or not to bring our phone with us…because, you know, what if?

We are forgetting the importance of solitude, something we once cherished. Having window seats while traveling, taking a walk alone, maybe with a camera or making art for hours at a time, these important conversations with ourselves are lost to our habit of pulling out our screens. Solitude and boredom are essential to creativity or producing any sort of serious work. We are becoming scared of boredom, scared of solitude, scared of conversations with ourselves.

The Light Phone is designed to be used as little as possible, and every design decision along the way reflects that philosophy.

The Light Phone is actually an experience we call ‘going light’ in which the goal is not to use the Light Phone to place lots of phone calls, but to disconnect from the Internet at large and maintain the peace of mind that you are still reachable by those you love the most.

The value of the Light Phone is in its intentional lack of features and the self-empowerment that comes with the conscious decision to leave your smartphone behind.

We see the Light Phone as a supplement, not a replacement. It is the first and only phone designed to be used as your “second phone,” like how we have different shoes and clothes for different occasions. A carpenter has different tools for specific jobs. There is no tool that will work for every single job, at least not well. Why is the same giant phone that is good for things like reading emails or scrolling on instagram also the same phone I take with me to the beach?

What’s the Light Phone Manifesto?  What is unique about Light Phone’s values and culture?

We believe that our time and attention are the two most important things that we too often take for granted. We believe that the products we use need to respect us. They should serve us, not enslave us. We don’t want to buy more, we don’t want to be told that we are not enough, or to be tracked or reduced to some number. We are human, and we are taking our lives back.

So many products are claiming to “make our lives better” and are engineered to keep us hooked. They are being built and funded because we will become addicted to them, not because we ever needed them.

We’ve become habitually overwhelmed. The interest lies in our pockets and we bring our mini-computers everywhere because they’re also our phones. Our phones have become our nervous habit, our invisible crutch. Reaching for them without thinking. We level the illusion of productivity & stimulation that is socially acceptable to abuse. Multitasking is a myth that is addictive and exhausting. It is glorified procrastination. When we consume so fast, there’s no way for us to appreciate anything, and appreciation gives our lives meaning and purpose.

We found it interesting that the website states “designed to be used as little as possible.” Is that really a product differentiator?

The value of Light phone is not just in the phone itself. It is the experience of taking a break from our over-connected life, away from distraction and noise. The feeling is extremely profound.

Most of us never take a break from this mini-computer we all have in our pockets. We forget about how technology is supposed to be our tool, not designed to enslave us or fight for our time. What we are trying to achieve with Light Phone is completely opposite from all other technology products.

If you look at the current state of technoloy, you will see everything that every other company is making is moving us toward more connectiveness. However, there is nothing to balance things out.

Our goal as a brand is to provide this necessary health balance. Through a well-designed product and brand, we want to encourage and inspire more people to take a break.

What’s been the reaction to the Light Phone’s introduction?

We’ve received a lot of media and press attention globally, which is amazing. The reaction I want to say is also very polarized.

Everyone has a reaction to Light Phone. You either love it, or hate it. To me it’s almost like a piece of art, which provokes people’s emotion and reaction.

I think this is a great first step for us, to make people more aware of our relationship with technology, to consciously decide – what do we really need?What technology or tool should we have in our daily life? Does it make sense to have social media with us 24/7? Do you really need all those games in your pocket?

Do you believe that being overly connected can make us less happy?

We believe what makes us happy is to appreciate what we already have and we already have so much in our lives. Being more connected won’t make us any happier. As humans, we pursue happiness relentlessly, but it’s actually pretty simple, just look up, spend time with family and friends, take a walk, or just simply watch an epic sunset in the park.

We don’t need to spend a fortune to take a vacation on an island to make us happy. Sometimes, just taking a walk down the street, appreciate the buildings, strangers, clouds, trees, etc. is enough to make us feel happy.

Does Light Phone have any new innovations on the horizon?

We just announced Light Phone 2 in March. We want to take a step further and inspire more people to go light more often, or for good. We are also very interested in redesigning other technology products from laptops to cameras. Making beautifully designed technology tools that respect us and help us be human.

How would you describe an ideal work environment?

Working with people you like and working on things that you believe in.

What piece of advice would you give to an entrepreneur starting their first business?

I’d encourage people to take time to really think about the vision. Is this something you personally believe in? Do you wake up every morning feeling like this can change/improve people’s lives? Are you ready to give this business all you have even through it might not make any money at all?

My one piece of advice to young entrepreneurs is to spend months to really look into yourself and soul-search.

The life of an entrepreneur is extremely hard and uncertain. There are hundreds of reasons to give up and walk away every day. You have to believe in what you are creating.

What’s your “one thing” that most drives your professional success?

I am not sure I have a professional success. But I am proud of the fact that I am not afraid to be unconventional or different and don’t try to fit in. It is OK to live outside of the box.

What are you reading right now?

The secret life of trees! Just a fascinating book to remind us that every little detail in our lives can actually be extraordinary, if you stop and look.

Kaiwei Tang's Bio:

Kai is a designer and entrepreneur in New York. He loves everything that makes us human and has 10 years of experience in product design, design research and product development. Before co-founding Light, he has brought more than 10 consumer products to life since 2004, including the inconic Motorola Razr.  He has Master's degrees in both Design and Business from the Institute of Design, IIT in Chicago. Light Phone and his designs have been featured in thousands of global press and events, i.e. Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC, Samsung Innovation Center, Mayo Clinic Center, and many more.  Kai was also the first and only designer who received full sponsorship from Google for their inaugural design incubator in NYC in 2014.

For Conversations with other thought leaders and innovators of unique products, see Q&As with innovators of Thirty Third Parallel and innovators of Performance Tea.

For Conversations with other thought leaders and innovators in the financial industry, see innovator Ben Alden of Bettermentand innovator Brian Bollinger of Simply Safe Dividends.

For more information about related legal issues, read our Professional Services industry page.  


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