Joel Interviews Lumio Creator and Founder, Max Gunawan.
Length: 10 minute read
Joel recently had the opportunity of sitting down with Lumio creator and founder, Max Gunawan. Max talks us through how he navigated launching a new business, from product design right through to creation, publicity and the logistical nightmare of global shipping. He gives us his top tips for small business owners and an insight into how to hustle for a feature in the New York Times!
Can you please tell me a bit about Lumio and how you got started?
It started organically about 3 years ago. I was training as an architect and I did a lot of retail architecture and around 2012 I hit a point where I realised that my work was more project management and less of the creative form of designing or architecture that I really wanted to do. I realised that where I was working had no path for doing more creative work so I thought rather than complaining just do something about it! As it happened my friend knew that I wasn’t happy at work and he signed me up for this workshop where people are free to come [and use] big machinery, like laser cutters. I started going there and at first it was very innocent, I was like “okay I’m gonna’ go there after work just to do something creative with my hands.” That’s how it started.
The first few months I was just making things and then slowly, gradually I thought well if I really enjoy this, why don’t I start thinking more strategically and actually make a product that I can potentially market? In October 2012 I came up with the first working prototype of Lumio. At that point it was at the beginning [of] crowdfunding and kickstarter campaigns. After playing around and prepping all of the collateral for Kickstarter, I realised if I want to do this, this excites me. I know myself too well, I cannot do things half way, so I quit my job at the end of 2012 without knowing where things are heading, so no safety net! Fast forward to February 2013 and I launched the campaign with the goal of raising about $60,000 USD, thinking that will give me enough funding to do all the basic machinery and in a month it blew into close to $600,000 USD. At the beginning, the goal of making a few hundred and making it more of an assembly line in San Francisco turned into okay how do I make 10,000 units? That’s full on manufacturing. That’s how my company was started 3 years ago and today we’re in 2017 and in 35 countries.
Predominantly selling online?
We have a website hellolumio.com and we basically have 3 distribution channels - the Museum Design Shop, and smaller selected design shops and also bigger, higher end department stores. It was just a passion project that somehow snowballed into what it is now. It’s still a small business, and it’s slow growth, I’m still the sole owner.
Tell me a little bit about your inspiration and your design process, from the first design concept through to the first and second stage of your product development?
I remember when I started with the workshop, not too long before we just moved to a new home and we had this beautiful Nelson Pendant lamp. I remember we were so afraid of damaging it, and it was this massive cumbersome thing that we had to carry around. I thought if I were to design an object, I would want to design something that is related to architecture so for me it was natural to choose lighting as an object to design and [I had to] really think about "okay how can I make this Nelson lamp collapsible if I want to move to another house? How can I transport it easier?" and that’s kind of how it started. I started building models. I am horrible at doing beautiful drawings, but I don’t do beautiful 3D rendering so what I do is I create a lot of models.
Well it gives you an idea of the shape, the scale, the texture the different materials and how they bond together. I think that’s a good way to ideate!
Yeah! And also part of it is because I came from the background of architecture versus product design where it’s intensive drafting. You do products and you do the detail, I don’t know how to do that. It’s almost like you do the thing that you do best, and what I knew was building models so I just started building models. I sketch on my moleskin and my model is collapsable so I would just slip it in my notebook. It’s one of those things, like people think "oh my gosh you have this great idea." It’s an iteration and slowly it progresses into the form that it is now. There’s something about the idea of illumination and a book, a source of knowledge. I know that’s kind of going down the cheesy route, but that’s a little bit of how it all started.
That’s fantastic! So how did you come up with the naming, the identity and the brand? Did you come up with that at the beginning of the product development or was it half way through?
When I decided that I wanted to launch on Kickstarter as crowdfunding and go to the public, I knew that part of selling a product is also selling a brand, and so I realised I needed to take it seriously. The branding and all of that is part of the whole package that I put together. The branding, the naming and gosh, like naming sounds so simple… but to come up with a simple name, it’s so difficult.
What were some of the challenges with the naming?
Finding something unique, something short, two syllable. All the rule of thumbs!
And availability! URL, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter
Exactly! It’s almost impossible these days. So, all of the rule of thumbs that a lot of branding people know, it’s the same exact thing except that I’m not an expert so it was just me on my iPhone with my notes. Every time I came up with a word I would jot it down. Of course the origin is lighting so I thought something like ‘lumin’ and I played with that. In the end you just toss it around friends and ask what they think and that’s how the name came about.
I notice you’ve called it ‘Hello Lumio’, it’s not just Lumio. Was there a reason why you added ‘hello’?
No, it’s actually Lumio is the brand name. As you mentioned earlier, unfortunately sometimes URL is not available and Lumio wasn’t available, so I had to come up with something that is easy to remember and Hello Lumio came around. It’s just a website name. Sometimes it does confuse people. We did this event in Dubai and everyone was calling it Hello Lumio and I said "no no no, there’s no hello! It’s just Lumio!"
It probably works in some cultures but not others. I suppose that’s one of the challenges is clarifying that in different markets.
And that’s why it’s so important to find a name that rolls off your tongue easily, no matter what language. Lumio is very universal, the hard part is making it simple but unique as well.
Absolutely. I think you’ve done well! One of the other things I wanted to talk about is your kickstarter. You got some momentum and then you started to go out to market as an actual product, can you please tell us about your approach and your strategy to communicating your product?
Well first let me touch on the manufacturing part because there was like a huge gap before we went to market. At first you think getting the money is the hardest part, but then once you get the money you’re like ‘oh my gosh’ [and you have to think about] the manufacturing. It was this close to not making it, but lucky enough for us, during the kickstarting campaign there was a lot of press coverage so the anticipation was high but I had to deliver.
So the focus for me at that point was being fully funded. I knew right away this is not about just taking the money and ship the pre-orders and stop. This is just a stepping stone to the business. I had to quickly came up with a website for pre-orders and during that whole process I was manufacturing, taking little steps to build the brand and also reaching out to the press that we had during the Kickstarter to let them know that about the lag, because there’s a lag from when it’s fully funded to when you need to deliver.
And you need to keep that momentum of press and keep people excited and up to date.
Exactly! And at the same time I knew it wasn’t enough to just lay low, so while I was manufacturing I was also looking for other coverage and I think one coverage piece that was really great for us was the New York Times. They put it on the front cover of their gift guide the year we were shipping to our backers. So that boosted the sales and also people started to know about the product, and Mona picked it up and it snowballed.
So how did you get the article in the New York Times?
Lots of begging! People think that press is all about connections… no! You can hire the best PR agency, but at the end of the day it’s [all about] being genuine and if you have a good story, you don’t need PR. PR agencies are for building smoke and mirrors, not to say there’s no value in it though. If you’re a big company, it’s fine, but if you’re a small entrepreneur, the best thing is to stick with what you do best, and that’s telling your story.
And you’ve got a good story!
That’s what people are interested in. So as I was doing detective work on the big publications [and] I learned that the editor of the design section went to the same university as I did so I stalked her. At first she was like ‘no you haven’t launched the product, we don’t do products that are not in the market yet.’ So I said ‘Julie just give me 10 minutes, I just want to show you. We’re going to ship this in the next few months, 10 minutes is all I ask.'
I was in New York ready to meet with her and then the day before she said she had a deadline and couldn't meet. It was typical, right? To her it was probably like ‘this is just another person begging on my doorstep’ but to me it was like ‘oh my gosh please just meet with me.' So I told her ‘I’m already here, I won’t take too much of your time, I will just deliver [the product] and I’m just gonna' get of your way’ and she was like ‘okay fine’, because I was persistent. That’s the thing, you just need to be persistent. We reached out to 100 plus press and we only got 10%, but out of that 10% that’s the one that really makes an impact. You work with what you’ve got, right? And with this she met with me and she ended up spending like an hour with me and then that was that. With the gift guide she had to weave the product into a story, and my product was one of the ones she chose to tell a story about. That helped.
That’s fantastic! That’s such a great story. How did you build your social media presence?
I feel like I’m not there yet, Joel. I’m learning, but some brands I feel are doing stellar with their social media [and] with me I feel like I’m so lagging behind. I know how to design but with social media… I feel like I’m not good to be quite honest.
Is it just you mainly managing your social media or do you have a team of people helping you?
It used to be, but we have one of our team members handling it. I haven’t cracked the code yet. I’m still trying to figure out what it is that really hits a nerve with the public, because sometimes it doesn’t have to be a beautiful post.
I think from our learnings at JSD, it’s definitely that interaction with other brands and other people, you know, commenting and such. You have to regularly interact and like posts, so it’s a bit of a full time job.
Right! And that’s one thing that I didn’t put a priority on and I’m actually paying the price a little bit. I put so much emphasis on trying to get press coverage and all of that, and that was like very grass roots. When I started the kickstarter, no one knew me and I was begging my friends and family but that’s what helped me [get to] where I am. Once I launched the product I focused too much on the sales and on the retail aspect, but I think you’re right in terms of… I never really saw the value and put a full time person in [social media].
In hindsight I think that’s one thing I will do better. It’s a tricky thing as well, you can’t just hire someone and just no matter how good they are it’s almost like you need to clone yourself, because you need to be the voice of the brand and like you say, you need to be genuine because people who are attracted to your brand want to know the creator and who you are. But once your posts start to feel a bit polished you get a bit removed from the DNA [of the product] and people aren’t interested anymore.
Yeah, the posts definitely need that authentic and genuine direction, imagery and tone for sure. What are some of the things you learned along the way that you could share? If someone was setting out to launch a product or a service, what are some of the tips that you could give them in terms of branding and marketing and product?
I think specifically, because my product has a lot to do with manufacturing and logistics, if you’re creating tangible objects give yourself lots of buffer. A lot of padding in terms of your timeline because looking back, there was so much stress. I needed stress because I felt like ‘oh my gosh we have to do this by this deadline’ but then I didn’t give enough time for the team to be successful. So, give yourself a lot of leeway and [don't] just to slack off, but be realistic.
Anyone who has done home construction will know that the rule of thumb is you double your construction budget and time, and then you’ll hit the right spot somewhere in the middle. Do the same thing when it comes to manufacturing and launching a product. When it comes to product and logistics… never underestimate logistics. It’s the most boring thing. Shipping worldwide is one of the hardest things.
So would you say that’s your biggest challenge?
One of the biggest challenges is manufacturing, [that] was the hardest thing. And keeping consistency and quality. I think creating something and then having the first batch for example hit the spot, that’s one thing right, but you have to do it continuously and consistently. When it comes to customer service you’re as good as the last bad product that you sent out. People complain and the minute you get just one unsatisfied customer, they’ll blab on Facebook. So I'm still learning, it’s hard, it’s really hard. Especially when you’re a small business.
So have you have any bad experience with customers where they haven’t been happy?
How did you deal with that?
At first it was nerve-wracking. I was like ‘how do we handle this? How can we cover it up so that it doesn’t feel negative?’ but the more confidence I gained, I began telling my team ‘you know what, we can never satisfy everyone.’ At the end of the day you just be honest and be your best. At first you have this tendency of inflating everything and making it feel like it’s the end of the world.
It’s not the end of the world. You can always rebound. The best thing is not to cover up but always be honest. Tell [the customer] 'you know what, I’m sorry.' Listen to them and agree with them. Tell them that you totally hear them and that you didn’t intend for that to happen, give them the reason why it happened and then [give them] a solution. A lot of the time people just want to be heard and people just want to get a solution from you, and if you can do that, that’s the best that you can do. You can’t make everyone happy.
So have you got any fantastic turnaround stories where someone has had an issue and they’ve voiced it and you’ve provided them with a solution?
As simple as it is, sometimes you get this raging email and then all of a sudden, you tell them that you’re really sorry they’re having this experience, that you hear them and here’s what we’re going to do for you. Immediately the next e-mail is like ‘oh my gosh you guys have the best customer service.’ And that’s the thing, I always take criticism with a grain of salt. Sometimes people are just emotional and the way they write doesn’t necessarily reflect the way they feel, it might just be what they think in the moment. Some people are, I’m sorry to say this, unreasonable and you can only do your best. I never thought a lot about this but there are a lot of trolls online. At first I took it to heart and then I realised they’re just trolling. But that’s just white noise.
I think they’re always going to be there. If you could give some tips or pieces of advice to someone either in business or starting a business, what tips would you have to offer? What are some of your learnings?
I know probably a lot of your readers have heard of this but you just have to find good people and invest in people. It’s one of the hardest, but one of the most rewarding things. I think with entrepreneurs and with first time business owners, we might have a lot of passion but when it comes to stability and sustainability of the growth of the company, you need [the right team]. That’s my biggest learning - building a team is one of the hardest things but you need that. When you’re starting a business you always think everything is a fire drill. It will always be a fire drill but put your people are a priority because you need them on the front line.
The second one relates to the first one; you cannot think that you’re an entrepreneur, you can't just roll up your sleeve and do everything. I learned that the hard way in the first two years I was just like oh I can do this I can do that, but at the end of the day you need to be able to know how to delegate. So find the right people and know how to delegate.
The third is that you just have to be very, very intuitive. You’re starting a business because it’s your passion, but when I hire people I also try to understand what makes them tick, what really gets them excited, what their passions are and [what] their core competencies are. You need to know and be aware because I always try to assign projects or things that excite them, because that will make them give 110%.
I don’t know if this is advice but this is just an observation, and something to share for what it’s worth. I started because I was very enthusiastic. I created something and everything happened organically. I never thought that I would be where I am right now, I’m very thankful for that. But when it comes to business, it’s not all about passion. I mentioned earlier about sustainability. The business aspect is knowing the long game, you might feel like you’re a rock star because a lot of people contact you and they want your product and you have to say no because you don’t have enough stock or whatever it is, but everything is a cycle and you need to think way ahead. You need to know your 5 year and 10 year plan. Don’t think too far ahead, but at least know your vision. Having a vision is so important for a business to thrive or else you’ll get lost.
That’s fantastic! Thank you very much for your time Max.