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Voices: A Route Interview Series Feat. Kai Tang

Sep 2, 2021

Creating a Category Despite Goliaths

A black-and-white photo of Light Phone creator Kai Tang.

Slappin’ on your entrepreneur hat and starting your own ecommerce brand is an intimidating feat each and every time. But for Kai Tang, he’s forging his way into a market that few would even dare to think about tapping into—smartphones. In fact, he’s not even elbowing for space for in the smartphone vertical, and instead he’s creating an entirely new competing category with the Light Phone. It’s a phone designed to empower people to be their best selves, and what’s not to love about a mission as wholesome as that?

In 2015, Kai and friend Joe Hollier co-founded Light, the company kicking out these comparatively featureless phones that simply serve users with core phone functionality. With just the basics, Kai put all his eggs in this “phone away from phone” basket, and he’s learned a thing or two along the way. We were lucky enough to bend his ear and farm some of his thoughts about his company, his phone, and what’s next.

Q: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? 

A:  Specifically for ecommerce, because I think that is the norm, the resources and time needed to do customer service.

It took us a lot of time and energy to make sure that our customer service reflects the values of the company. I think that’s especially important to us because we want it to be human and to be sincere. I don’t want people to reply to our customers with robotic messages or anything like that because it doesn’t seem sincere.

In reality, and in a practical sense, it’s just not that easy to achieve. I don’t outsource customer service, I hire people to do it within the team. The right person needs to be patient enough to deal with customer service because some customers are can be really rude.

It’s understandable. though, because if you buy a product and it’s not working ,you get frustrated and there’s no face attached to whoever you emailed at the beginning. Usually when people get really frustrated, the tone is different and they have a lot of different questions because we’re running a global telecom brand essentially, but now we’re a software as a service (SaaS) plan.

I don’t know if I would do anything differently, but I wish I had been more mentally prepared for the amount of resources needed for this task. You have got to be patient and try to be aware of the issues. It’s easy to say, but when you’re actually answering hundreds of emails a day, it’s difficult for sure.

Q: What does the future of ecommerce look like in your mind?

A:  I think it’s going to become more customized, meaning more specific brands trying to meet specific demands. I want to say it’s going to be more niche and less general, especially since this pandemic has shown that many unique needs fall onto ecommerce brands. We are lucky in a way that we’re online and we have retail partners, but our channels include mostly ecommerce now.

We noticed the brands that have a very specific target audience do the best. When everything’s online, you have to separate yourself from all the other offerings and other products. You have got to have a very clear and narrow audience to begin with—not everyone can be Amazon in the beginning. In my opinion, not everyone can be like Amazon as much as we’d like to be, or maybe you don’t want to be because there are lots of problems that come along with that, too.

Q: What is your best failure? 

A: We did not design the Light Phone for kids or parents, but after we started shipping the phone, we got a lot of feedback from schools and parents. They were impressed about how Light Phone could be a perfect kids’ phone, but I didn’t design this for kids. Otherwise, I would have done a lot of things differently. The market feedback indicates that as an interesting demographic for funds. We started to engage with some of the parents and schools to try to push it to that audience even though there are issues.

Pricing and a lot of our tools, meaning apps tools in Light Phone, are not private, which does not prioritize parents’ needs. It ended up gaining interest and doesn’t pan out. Eventually, parents or schools decided not to proceed or make the final exit position on ordering Light Phones. We didn’t promote this phone to be a kids’ phone in any sense or in any of the marketing materials, and we work to recall the initial value inherent to this product.

Essentially, it’s a great lesson learned because it just goes to prove that even though there is interest, and we didn’t doubt that there would be, it wasn’t why we created Light Phone. Maybe down the road there can be a customer segment, but staying true to your values is always the best practice, right? Right.

Q: How have you pivoted strategy during the pandemic?

A: We slowed down our R&D when the pandemic first started. In March of 2020, I basically tossed back on our R&D budget and tried to conserve cash as much as we could. It did work out well for us because the ecommerce orders grew last year after April. The only thing I did differently was move our retail brick-and-mortars to all online.

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