Go to series
Loading...
Meet the Leader

Smartphones - and companies - designed for the future: Fairphone’s Bas van Abel

Loading...

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: What if the next time your smartphone broke, you could fix it yourself? And what if you didn't feel the need to buy the latest gadget because your current device was easy to update?

These were among the questions guiding Bas van Abel in the development of Fairphone, the world's first smart phone built with circularity and supply chains in mind. Their phones work like any other Android phone, except with a modular design, easy repairs, and the ability to access spare parts. Beyond the devices themselves, the company also focuses on rethinking the entire phone value chain, from materials to working conditions and reuse, helping to change the industry from within.

On the latest Meet The Leader, van Abel talks about building Fairphone from an awareness campaign about electronic waste and ethical manufacturing to a full-fledged company helping to reshape its sector.

Loading...

Fairphone’s work has been recognized by a number of global entities, including the UN, with its Momentum for Change Award, and even by the World Economic Forum with his selection as a Schwab Foundation social entrepreneur. Since founding Fairphone, van Abel has gone on to found De Clique, a startup tackling food waste.

Social impact businesses have a special opportunity. In fact, recent research from the World Economic Forum and ScaleUp Nation found that start-ups have a higher chance of scaling when compared to commercial companies when both economic and societal goals are combined. Founders building a business that can compete and transform the sector, have a better chance at succeeding at both.

This talk will give you a window into the complexity involved in changing the way we consume and the way we do business. It will also give you a window into the opportunity for change that social impact businesses can make possible and a sense for what excites entrepreneurs like Abel when it comes to the possibilities available to design new business models that could protect the world and its resources. He'll talk about all that - but first, he'll share how Fairphone got started.

Have you read?

How Fairphone got started

Bas van Abel: Fairphone started as a campaign, actually. We've never started it as a company in itself. It wasn't the goal. It was just a means to an end.

In 2011, I was asked by a friend of mine - I was working in technology - and he asked me, ‘Do you know what kind of stuff goes on in all that stuff that you use in technology? From server farms to phones, to anything. And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Millions of people have died in conflicts related to the mining of these minerals. And we use them in our phones, amongst other electronics.’ And this was 2011. It was totally not on the radar.

We all know that there are supply chains and that we got alienated from stuff that's happening at the other side of the world. But in the end - and that is the fascinating part - stuff just comes from the ground. Everything around you, everything we use, if you really think about it, we are able to make something out of rocks and stone, through our economic system, through working together. We can make something as complex as a phone or a computer which we wouldn't be able to do ourselves.

And I think that paradox of something as complex of as a phone, being able to make that through the economic system. Something as personal as a phone. And then on the other side, not knowing anything about it, really intrigued me. And up to the point that I thought, how are we going tell that story of the origin and also the problems that are connected to the origin.

As you can imagine, it's kind of a tough question because, there wasn't an easy answer. And when you set up a campaign, there's two things you can do. Either you make people angry and then they change something. For that, you need a bad guy. Well, we didn't have a bad guy. It wasn't as simple as saying, ‘These guys are doing it wrong.’ It's a bit more complicated than that.

And we didn't have the solution. So we couldn't also say, ‘Well here's the solution, you buy this alternative, or you do this, or you sign a petition and it will solve the problem.’

What we did is we said, ‘Well, we're going to take it somewhat strategically naive. We are going to set up a company making a phone. We'll start in Congo, where most of the problems are actually originating from in terms of conflict minerals. And we're going to look at the world through the eyes of a phone and step by step we're going to look at what we see and what we can do about it. And maybe we can actually improve things. And in the worst case, it's a great campaign to really connect people with what's happening. In the best case, we may come up with a product that is actually an alternative to what's happening now.

So that's just how we started. I made a business card. We made business cards saying, CEO of Fairphone. We didn't even have a company.

We went to Congo. First thing we had to do was bribe some people actually be able to film. And you can imagine, you know, if that's the first thing you need to do, starting something called Fairphone, you're in for a tough ride. It was really that kind of bluntness of just doing it and also facing these kinds of problems like bribery, child labour, all these things that are actually very common in these areas.

And we were telling about it. We were super transparent. We showed the problems, but we didn't have a product yet. It was really about showing the origin of the product. And me, as you know, my background is design and really as a designer, it was such a fascinating experience to be in a mine, holding a stone in your hands, seeing all these people working there without any protection, like hundreds of thousands of people still work without protection to get these minerals out of the ground.

We took some of these stones - we took them back to Holland. And we used the stones to convince people that was going to be a phone, the first Fairphone which we were about to make.

Loading...

What is 'ethical' manufacturing - and why is it important?

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: You’re hailed is the first ethical smartphone. Tell us what the converse is. Give us that contrast.

Bas van Abel: A phone is a complex product, right? It's not a banana. It's not like something that grows on a tree, and you have a very straightforward supply chain. Even bananas, it took like 20, 30 years to get that into fair trade mechanisms, right?

So now with the phone, we're talking about more than 60 minerals that are mined all around the world. You're talking about if you look at the bill of material, which is the list of components that we have in the factory where we assemble the phone, it's over a thousand components.

And these thousands of components are made by hundreds of factories who have also suppliers, hundreds and hundreds. So it's over thousands of factories already. So being able to change one of the things that - when we started Fairphone was like if you want to create a fair phone, and you want to do everything right from the start, you have to create world peace and then you can create a fair phone.

So, it wasn't our goal to say, ‘Well, we're going to be solving all the problems.' No, it's a progress. It's step by step. So we had to define how are we going to approach this, because the problem is so complex.

We need to break it down into certain areas. Up til now we actually have four areas that we focus on. And one of them - the materials, where do they come from? Conflict free materials. Make sure that there's no child labour connected to materials. Just to give you a small example, most of the cobalt, which we use in batteries, it's coming from areas in the Congo where there's still 250-300,000 people working, unprotected. There's tens of thousands of children still working in these mines. And lithium cobalt is being used as the main material for our energy transition. So on the one hand, we're approaching sustainability through speeding up all these transitions.

But it needs materials. And these materials, you can't find them already. by recycling, you have to get to them by going to the origin and really looking at the problems there, you're not only solving problems and you're addressing problems for the electronics industry, it goes even further. It goes to the electric driving industry, it goes to all the industries that use materials, which is basically, everything we see around us.

Loading...

So materials are a really important area that we focus on. Right now we have like 14 focus materials, but there's more than 60 materials in there. We take them from recycled resources. We take them from virgin resources like mines, and we make sure that there's the right balance there in terms of everything we do with these materials in our products. Going from working conditions all the way to the environmental footprint. So that's one area.

We have an area where we focus on how things are manufactured. You can imagine the challenges in factories are different from the challenges in mines. In factories, you're dealing with people working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, overtime issues. We're one of the - actually I think we're the only one - that is really focusing on living wage and actually pays a living wage in the factories that we work with. Obviously, we can't do all the factories. No, I said we’re working with thousands of factories .

So how we approach it, we do one factory, we do two factories. And we show that as possible. We take also other partner, other companies that work in these areas, and we ask them to join. So that's how we scale. We know that we are a small player, but we also know that we have a good broker position to get other companies to join the programmes that we're doing.

Same in mining, we've now got even Google, Tesla, all these big companies to join us on these fair cobalt initiatives that we set up.

I think that's one of the most important areas because we have also an area where we focus on recycling. Recycling is mainly stupid. It's a stupid process. It is just getting your stuff back, which... producing takes most of the energy, it takes most of the footprint.

We're producing, producing, producing, as much as possible into the market. And then we take back the stuff, we shove it in oven and we and we melt it and take out the materials. It's a very stupid process, especially with electronics. So what you want to do, and the most important, I think, in terms of the ecological footprint of the phone is on longevity.

And it's really against all the trends in the industry, to focus on how do you let people use the product as long as possible. It's a very fast cycle. You know, technology has been fast cycle. It is fast cycle. There's a reason for that. It's innovations. But phones are a commodity. There's incremental changes. We are at a point that we can use phones for a very long time.

We focus on how do we make people use their phone as long as possible. Because It's a simple calculation. If you use your phone twice as long, you only need to produce half the amount of phones, and you have half the amount of e-waste.

So, you know, we focus on how do we make people use their phone as long as possible. Because it's a simple calculation. If you use your phone twice as long, you only need to produce half the amount of phones, and you have half the amount of e-waste. And you don't need to make phones, which are made in areas like Congo. You don't need to take the minerals out of the ground where there's child labor and all this shit going on. Everything is kind of connected to that. That is really important, but it's a huge challenge.

So we work on two basic elements there, and that is make sure that we have a phone that people can use longer.

We're kind of suffering from phone anorexia, right? We want to have like, really thin, thin products. The thinner they get, the more difficult it gets to cram all these components inside. So what we do is we just, glue them to the inside. You can't open them. There's a special robot for that, that has to open the phone. And the problem with that is that Is you basically build a threshold for people to change their battery. The quality of the battery, the battery life goes down after two years. It's just how it is. We can't make batteries yet that go longer.

Whereas you could easily use the phone for five years, after two years, your battery goes dead and you think like, ‘Oh, it cost me a lot of money. Not going to change it.’ Your carrier says, ‘Your subscription ends. You want to have a new phone?’ And you say, ‘Well, yes, give the phone.’ And then you toss it in the drawer and you think you might need it sometime. Only 15% of phones get recycled that way.

The problem is really on making it very easy for people to hold onto that phone very long. That's why we made modular phones. People can actually change the battery themselves. Like if you break the screen, you can replace the screen. You just buy a screen online, it gets shipped to you and you replace it just with a screwdriver. We even ship the phones with a screwdriver for that reason.

Loading...

But it's also connected to the other element: you want people to actually want to use that phone longer. We can make phones that last longer, but then if people they see a new shiny model that they want... So that's why we focus also on caring for your products. And we believe if you really show people the inside of products, show the connections with where it's coming from, these kind of things go hand in hand and people start caring more for their products.

Using things longer - what's needed from consumers and industry

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: You had talked about extending the life of the phone. What is the change people could see? Because now people maybe only keep them for maybe two years, maybe three years, depending. But what, might we see, or what could the ideal be?

Bas van Abel: The ideal would be to use it as long as possible in terms of the technology and the software.

One of the things is software is a big issue because, many of the chipsets - the chipset basically is the brain of the phone where the communication happens - they don't get supported after one or two years. On the other hand we see that the phone is actually well capable for 90% of the people to last for 5-10 years. Like I said, it's kind of a commoditized product and your WhatsApp is not going to go faster if you have 16 processors instead of 8.

One of the things that does still make progress is, for example, the camera. So that's also why we made upgrades in the phone. Because there's a modular phone, apart from the repairability, we also made it easy if people see that there's a better camera, they don't need to buy the whole phone. They just need to buy that part. So that's one element. People can actually use that phone longer.

But the main challenge is really how does industry also align their business models with sustainability. And there's no easy solution there.

We just launched a programme where we can align the business model, our business model, more with our mission, which is that we want people to use their phone as long as possible, but in some weird way we still make money from selling you as many phones as possible.

So with Easy we use a subscription model. So you don't buy the phone, you rent the phone. And the great thing about that is that as a company we're now intrinsically motivated to have you keep that phone as long as possible. Because normally I don't want you to come back with complaints about your phone because it costs me money. Once I sold you the phone, I want you to come back as soon as possible to buy your next phone because that's basically making me money. That's purely from the business side. So one of the main challenges there is also to make sure that we run the businesses in a way that we don't shoot ourselves in the foot every time with also having a sustainable model.

And I think, you know, it doesn't go for - you can still ask yourself - is this workable for manufacturers, You know, you can go into remanufacturing for example. If the phones are designed in such way that parts of the phone that do get old are, you're able to replace them, the manufacturing process is still going on, the materials stay in the supply chain, and you make new products out of that.

That's the biggest challenge which needs to happen. I don't think there will be any phone producer that will say on stage to their shareholders, ‘Guys, listen, we're going to produce only the half amount of phones that we produced last year because it's better for the world.'

It works, if you say, ‘We're going to produce only half the amount of phones we produced last year, and we're going to make double the profit.’ And that's really where we have to find the solution.

Apart from that, obviously there will be technological innovations that will be important and at certain points phones will get old. But right now it's only two to three years and that's basically ridiculous because a lot of people can use it for longer.

Sustainability and the opportunity to reshape sectors

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: One of the really interesting things about this time is that people are realizing, yes, we need to embrace new ways of working, new ways of buying, living, consuming. Is that exciting for you? What is that like?

Bas van Abel: It's a bit of a no-brainer to be honest, of course. People want to have purposeful jobs and they want to have a nice job. So it's a combination of being able to work in an environment where you make a difference and also do the work you like.

Companies are getting better and better at that. Just providing that kind of environment. It's also system change, you know? So it's the consumer demand. Customers want to have new kinds of products. They want to keep their products longer.

Shareholders have to accept the fact that the returns might be a bit different because of the growth, right? And then there will be other ways of making money but that will only happen if we disconnect it from using resources. So there has to be a change in terms of how we make money.

And if that happens, you can have that whole capitalist model really working well again. The only problem that I have is with companies at the moment is that companies are basically set up as sociopaths, right? There's not really a lot of human thinking in the operation, in the operating system of the company.

So I don't say that people working there are sociopaths, it's just like the construct of a company. It doesn't take into account what humans are really, really capable of on a philosophical level. And with everything we create, we also destroy, right?

We do have a footprint. We just have that. I also believe that I'm creating in this world. We as human beings are very well capable of finding a balance. Companies are not. So what I see with social enterprises that the right conversations are happening up to the boardroom we are talking about how do we make sure we survive? The dilemmas that come with that are beautiful if you can actually have them in a company and discuss them. Put them in your KPIs - your key performance indicators - just how do you run a company? Where do you measure success? We measure success the more phones we sell, the better. Because we want to show that there is a market for ethical products. But we also want people to use the phone as long as possible. And this is a bomb in the head of a salesperson because a salesperson has to go, ‘Oh shit, I have to sell as many phones as possible. But I can't sell them to people that already have a phone. How am I going to do that?’ And then you have to create creative thinking. And also you challenge yourself in terms of the dilemmas that we really have to embrace in this time that we're living in.

We can always say there's a win-win. There should be win-win. The win-wins are easy. The win-wins are just business as usual, right? If you can make money through sustainability, it's just doing business. But what if you really have a dilemma and you have to think as a human being around these things and it really becomes a challenge.

That is what you want in a company for the future, because that's what really keeps people busy and that's what keeps people also aligned with what the company stands for.

The tough moment that tested a young company's values

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: What is the capability that companies are going to need to build to make sure that they can consider these new ways of working? So that they can move towards a system change, basically destroy everything that made them successful right now ,so that they can create a new way of walking and talking?

Bas van Abel: We have to let go of one thing that really messed a lot of things up in the supply chain - that's everything is about efficiency, efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. You know, cost reduction. It's killing a lot of the joy also in not only the work, but also in what you can accomplish. And also the extra time you can spend on really finding out these questions and things.

I think a great example - we were running a crowdfunding back in 2016, I believe. 2016-17. We sold $10 million worth of phones that we hadn't produced yet. It was a pre-sales campaign. We were 2-3 months late in delivering these phones that we promised to people that were already waiting for half a year for these phones.

And at that moment, the factory calls us, like, we have a problem. We're going to be delayed another two months. But we've discussed it here internally and we also have a solution. The solution is that we're going to, get some agency workers in, make overtime, and we're going to catch up. The delay will only be two weeks. The problem with that was that is all this overtime and all this pressure that you put on people and all the problems that come with hiring people without an employment contract to do temporary work.

So at that point it would solve our problem with, people that are already asking for the phone. You know, 'where the hell is it?' And you've promised it your customer. And on the other hand, your supply chain and what you stand for. And it was really a tough decision.

We were really like, What do we stand for? And that moment was really, for me, it was really an eye opener. It really felt good to make the decision to say, ‘Well, we are Fairphone and we want to have better working conditions, and this is exactly the problem. We messed up and as a company we're not going to solve it by pushing down the supply chain to make it more efficient, to make it faster, to really get it done, because in the end we are responsible. So I wrote an email, sent it to all the customers waiting, and it was really fingers crossed because we knew this might actually really kill the company because people won't just say, ‘Well then I want my money back.’ But you know, a magical thing happened.

We got three people that cancelled their pre-sales, because they really needed a phone, and we got so much good feedback on the decision that we made. And we were really happy about having had that discussion inside the company.

And even if we had chosen differently, I think being open about why you decide these things, what kind of problems you're facing, that is really important.

I think now, in a time where we see that we are able to show more transparency because of the media, because of social media, because of everything happening, we could also embrace a bit more vulnerability as a company and not go for efficiency all the time.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: What was that like in that moment before you pressed send? What were you feeling?

Bas van Abel: Well, I felt proud, to be honest. I really felt proud of the team and us being able to take such a hard decision and just deal with the consequences.

There have also been moments where we took decisions which we had to take. You know, re-organizing the company, letting people go. It's really those kind of things that the company also needs to do. You can't make it like one big kumbaya. It's still a commercial enterprise.

I think balancing that is really what is nice. And, you know, there's a cost to it as well. The cost for any company would be, well, the decision making is slower. If people are more aligned with the mission and their values are really into that, people are very strongly opinionated about all kinds of things. you can't just go and not communicate about things.

That's also something if you ask which future companies need to really embrace, it's the vulnerability. It's also letting go, again, of that kind of efficiency that you want. That ultimate efficiency in the decision making of everyhting alienates people. It also also alienates your suppliers from you because you're just pushing problems down the throat of other people.

The 'gut check' leaders need in tough moments

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: So other people, who maybe don't have such a strong sense of conviction: what should they be asking themselves to sort of stay on the path they'd set on initially? What should they be doing to give themselves a gut check?

Bas van Abel: I think the gut check is one thing. People are people and people are very well capable of facing dilemmas and dealing with it, right? We do that all the time. The only thing is that we haven't set up companies that way. And I think it starts not only with how you run the management team, what kind of KPIs you put in your company, how what kind of vision you have.

It's really the governance of the company even. What kind of shareholders do you have? What do shareholders expect from you? We see that now with integrated reporting and everything coming up, also shareholders taking a different approach to companies. Customers taking a different approach to companies. Employees taking a different approach to companies.

The thing you need to do as a company is okay, but what would be that operating system that fits with that changing landscape? And there are many ways of looking at it, but I believe – I really believe - you have to go all the way.

You have to really do it throughout the company, not just say, ‘We're going to put some sustainability KPIs,’ No, it has to be the DNA of the company. And that is really easier for me to say because we've been setting up companies as social enterprises from the start. Investors knew what they're getting into. Customers – they know why they bought the product.

I'm happy that I don't run a big multinational where these kind of things need to change. And if you just look at, you know, what Paul Polman did, for example, with Unilever and the work that has been done in these big companies. It is tough. On the one hand you see a lot of success, but on the other hand, like even Danone going B Corp, all these things that companies are really trying, you also see that it's tough and it doesn't come easy. And I think that's really what you have to put yourself into.

It's not going to be easy, right? And, and enjoy the ride. If you bump into a problem, if it's about these kind of dilemmas, you have to embrace it and cheer that you find something that you can actually improve.

Driving circularity for local supply chains

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: You have a new startup that's tackling food waste. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Bas Van Abel: I stopped as a CEO in Fairphone when the company got around 20-30 million, up to 80-90 people. And I like to set up things. I'm really good at building something from scratch. So there's a difference between scaling a company and starting a company - I happen to be really good at starting companies.

I'm still involved in Fairphone. On PR but also strategy. I'm still on the board. But next to that, I founded De Clique. And one of the things I also wanted to do, I wanted to stay close to home because I have three kids. I didn't see them that much during Fairphone. Travelled all around the world, which was fantastic. But I wanted to set up something very close.

I wanted to also focus on local supply chains and a very local supply chain that we're dealing with now - De Clique, kliekje in Dutch means leftover. And we have a leftover problem, food leftovers, right? If you go to a restaurant, if you prepare the food, there's leftovers. If you don't eat the food, there's leftovers. Right now, all these leftovers are put on one big pile, with the rest of the waste, being collected in big trucks. It's been driven to the incinerator, it's burned and it's gone.

And that's a shame because it's really a waste because a lot of the stuff that we see as leftovers can be used in a different, much more valuable way. To do that, you have to separate it. So what we do at De Clique is we help professional restaurants to separate the organics, like orange peels, leftover coffee, uncooked food or cooked food. We bring it to the hub with electric vehicles. we make compost from most of the stuff. Wwe grow mushrooms on the coffee. We take oil with partners from the orange peels. And with that we also make new products. We give the compost to farmers, farmers make new products from that and the crops and everything, and the produce that comes from that.

And the beers we make with the oils and the snacks we make with the mushrooms, we sell them back to the restaurants. So this is a super local supply chain where we try to keep the minerals and the values and everything of these organics as valuable and as high in the circular ladder as possible.

Loading...

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: Having already done one startup that had some circular elements to it, what did you learn? What's been helping you?

Bas Van Abel: Well, first of all, I'm CFO now in De Clique. I've done art school. I've done technical university. I've never done anything with finance, but I really learned through Fairphone and how important finance is.

So I love it now and really to the point - not that the numbers matter really a lot to me - but you can really read the company. And De Clique is a complex one. It's very expensive. The costs are very high for us to do something. Why do people burn waste and get a bit of energy out of it instead of using it in this way is because it's cheaper. So we go against the logic of the economic system.

We are very aligned with the logic of an ecological system, but not an economical system. So we have to make money based on doing something that nobody does because it's just, you know, the business model doesn't go. So that's why we came up with the model of selling. also the products to our customers.

The cost of having customers is actually very low on the products. We make five times more in revenue, money, on selling these products than we make on the waste contracts we have with these restaurants. So what I really learned there is that we really have to make sure that the company is self-sufficient, is economically sustainable to be able to scale.

Fairphone is at a stage that we're profitable now. It took a long time but it has been really a fight also in finding out what would be the right way to finance it. We never had really a huge problem with revenues. We had a problem with the supply chain. it opened up my eyes how important it is that your business case starts working to be able to really go and do what you want to do in terms of creating impact.

The second thing I really learned was - and it's not that it went wrong with Fairphone - but something I really wanted to do is to separate money from power. The whole venture capital model is flawed. It's usually flawed for social enterprises. Why? Because the venture capital business model is: put money in the company and then get shares and then sell those shares after five to a maximum 10 years. So basically their model is based on selling shares. The problem with that is the shares they sell, there's voting rights connected to that. What happens is that exactly five years from now, my company will be sold by investors to the highest bidder. It becomes a bag of potatoes that's just sold on the market. And of course the investors you have now are all impact investors, but you never know who's next. It might not be the wrong party, but might well be a big company from the old economy.

So you're setting up something in a new economy, you want to change things, and then you're being sold after five years to a waste company, in terms of De Clique, because your shareholders always want to sell to a strategic investor.

So we didn't want that. So we said we're only going to issue shares without voting rights.

The problem then is that investors say, ‘Well, how we going to sell the shares?’ Well, you can't cause nobody wants our shares. We told them we're going to buy back the shares. And that one, that was really beautiful because all of a sudden we had a discussion about, ‘okay, you look at the company and you have to look at how much the company will be able to actually pay back.’

So you are looking at real value, not the speculative one that many of the startups are dealing with. Many startups, they just blow up. They got bigger and bigger and bigger in valuation purely because the shares are being sold at a higher price all of the time. It has nothing to do with revenue. And now we really had to look at, okay, how much money are we able to generate?

And one other thing is that we've capped it. So we say, you get three, four times back your money, the amount you put in, within five to 12 years.

One element to that as well is that we don't want money to be extracted from the economic system, or not a lot of money. We want it to be capped. That also goes for me as a founder. And then the money that stays in the company can be used for the impact.

That's one thing that we learned, We were able to find investors based on that. And I think it's been a very progressive model.

That's also what I've been talking about earlier, what should you do with a company if you want to create a company for the future? I think these are the things. My design challenge is now is not anymore making a product or chair.. But my design challenge now is how do you design a company in a way that's fit for the future? I think this is a really important element to it.

And on a personal note, with Fairphone I've been the only director for the first five to six years. There were many people involved into making it success. But it weighed quite heavily on me that I was the only board member. And with De Clique, I've started it with two other people. And we have a fantastic team. So that also took away a bit of the pressure that I was experiencing when I was doing Fairphone.

Advice he'd give a younger version of himself

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: What advice would you have given yourself if you could go back in time. What would you tell yourself?

Bas Van Abel: Just go for it. Just go for it. I think the strategic attitude we had - I wouldn't want to change that. We were doing crowdfunding to get Fairphone off the ground. So you have to imagine: I was a designer, an artist. I did art school and was a technician.

And then all of a sudden, when the crowdfunding started, we had sold 25,000 phones and we had seven and a half million euros in our bank account. And to be honest, I had no idea what we were doing. We had never made a phone before. I had never run a company. I had never even ran a team, right? So I was lying in bed, was crying, panicking to be honest.

And my wife was next to me and I said, ‘Oh, we're going to pay back everybody the money. And we made our statement. And I think they got the point. There is a market for ethical products and now let the big ones do it. The campaign is a success.'

And then she looked at me and she said, ‘You p---y. You are going to set up that company and you will never get this chance again. You will never do it again.'

If I'd known what was waiting for me at that time, I would've really p------d out. But I didn't. I got the best advice from my wife, to take the chance, do it, not think too much about it, and just go for it.

With support from my family, it has been a fantastic time. I wouldn't have wanted things to be different, except for maybe some things I learned, better financial strategy, take care of yourself because I ran into a burnout. I had all the things that you can imagine, just taking too much on your plate. But I wouldn't have missed anything.

Harnessing a non-traditional background

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: Do you think that your background as an artist helped you think more creatively about how to, either structure the company or even this new startup, because you weren't locked into maybe systems and formats that were maybe tried and true for other economies, frankly. Do you think that helped you build something new?

Bas Van Abel: Yes, it helped to do the impossible or to believe in the impossible.

We went around to operators and to carriers and to phone manufacturers with the idea, asking what do you think about it? And they, they said, ‘You're nuts. The whole industry is saturated. There's only two big players and nobody makes money except for one big company. And now you're going into a market, which is totally locked. And it's difficult to make phones. So what are you thinking?'

But we said, ‘Well, we're going to do it anyway.’

And because it was so impossible and because we were so naive, in a way, we got a lot of support. It was like, 'I don't want this guy to really hit the wall and let's help him with it'.

So we got help from Deutsche Telekom. We got help from Dutch operators. We asked for help because in the eyes of the industry, we were stupid.

I think that really helped also for other players to really know that we were not, to be in their way. We're really in it to find a way forward for the whole industry. I always have seen Fairphone - my background is open source software development as well, and one of the beautiful things about open source software development is that you see it as a platform and everybody contributes. If you contribute, and you also see the result of that, you create ownership. And I think we've been able to, to make Fairphone a bit like that, to create it as a platform, a safe space also for other companies to do things that they would normally never do. Like for example, Tesla and Google and all these big guys, joining these programs in Congo.

We are a very special phone company because of our size, we're not a huge competition to these guys. And because of our mission, it helps the whole industry. I think that really made a difference. And now I have to be honest, it's really a blessing.

It's really a blessing that we have a lot of people that actually know how to make phones and know how to run a company and all these kind of things.

So, we've grown up. But I think at the time it was needed.

A book recommendation

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there a book that you recommend, something that you think, gosh, everybody should read this?

Bas Van Abel: I love The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. It's very, very heavy stuff, but I think one of the most beautiful things she does in that book is - she's a political philosopher, right? And she is really about, you know, she talks about the commons and the privates and the combination between that. And it's basically about finding that balance, right? What's good for me, what's good for everyone. And that's what sustainability is also about. And one of the things she says about it is that politics basically is the arena of where you try to find the connection between the commons and the private.

And then to do that is storytelling. And it really opened up my eyes in a way, how to look at Fairphone as well.

And I think, looking at Fairphone, I really also see it as a political object in that sense, if you believe that politics is about closing the gap between what's good for me and what's good for everyone.

This transcript, generated from speech recognition technology, has been edited for web readers, condensed for clarity, and may differ slightly from the audio.

Listen and Subscribe

Find all our podcasts here.

Join the World Economic Forum Podcast Club on Facebook.

Podcast transcript

Share:

More episodes:

Meet the Leader

Microsoft’s Brad Smith on tech blindspots and the key lesson that changed how he leads

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum