Bas van Abel / Fairphone
“Naivety is a great catalyst for discovery.”
He invented the world's first sustainable, modular smartphone, the Fairphone — which became the fastest growing tech start-up in Europe — and ran the largest ever European crowdfunding campaign (7.5 million euros). Yet in 2018, Bas van Abel decided to hand over the reins to someone else because of what the pressure of running the company had done to him. “The understanding that I was done fighting had me in tears.”
Interview Daphne van Langen
Translation Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
You founded a sustainable mobile phone company, Fairphone. What was your own very first mobile phone? I’d never owned one before the Fairphone 1. In fact, my initial phone didn’t even have a SIM card; I just carried it around to show to interviewers. I hadn’t really been keen on mobile phones before then. The idea of always being reachable seemed pretty terrifying, and I remained unreachable by phone for a good two years after launching Fairphone.
What does sustainability mean to you? I’d do better by first saying what it doesn’t mean to me, which is neither religion nor dogma. I see it as a practice of weighing our individual needs against the wider consequences of satisfying these needs. It means being prepared to face the dilemma posed by the conflict between your interests and everyone else’s. So there’s a lot more to it than simply being able to say, “We make LED bulbs.”
How would you describe your childhood? In grew up in Nijmegen, in a new-build development, and as part of a family that consisted of me, my younger brother, my dad, a GP, and my mum, a Spanish teacher. Both my parents are called Jos, funnily enough, and they’ve been together since they were teenagers. I, too, have been with my partner Maike, since I was fifteen.
I was a ruminative sort of kid with an acute sense of responsibility. And I was forever taking things apart to find out how they worked, skipping from one project to the next without ever seeing anything through to the end; I had (and still have) the attention span of a goldfish. I loved going to school and found secondary school a cinch. I’d lock myself in the toilet every so often and just sit in the dark, pondering the mysteries of life without distraction. I could be absorbed in thought for hours, thinking about Freud, Jung and all manner of philosophical imponderables, particularly when I was stoned.
Was sustainability an important topic at home? No, on the contrary. My parents were hippies, but they were also part of a generation that was brought up to believe in consumerism.
My mum is chaotic, creative and sensitive, and has a great joie de vivre, while my dad is more analytical, cautious and pessimistic. As hippies they embodied the call to live freely, taking us with them on backpacking trips to Egypt and through Turkey, which was pretty extraordinary for the time.
Sounds like the perfect childhood. Yes, although my mother went through some seriously traumatic experiences in her childhood, which she wasn’t able to deal with at the time. So her enormous zest for life turned out to be a survival mechanism, and it stopped working around her fortieth; she had a bit of a breakdown and turned much of her attention to me in the hope of regaining her footing. My dad wasn’t home much because of his work, and was also grappling with his own midlife challenges. I was in my teens at the time, and it made me develop an odd sense of loyalty and responsibility towards those close to me, which manifested itself in a deep-rooted fear of failure.
How exactly does this fear of failure present itself? In an extreme fear of public speaking. I’ve addressed stadiums full of people after speakers like Kofi Annan, but I’m terrified to death each time — I experience sheer panic. I actually fainted on one occasion. Even now, when I need to address the Fairphone team, I’m usually dripping with sweat. The phobia motivates me, but I know that it is an unhealthy response to the way I think others are judging me.
You studied interaction design at the HKU (University of the Arts) in Utrecht. Why that? After graduation, I took a job with a computer games manufacturer. I began as a games tester, and eventually ended up in their software department. I was interested in programming, and as a result began designing their user interfaces. The mix of technical and creative demands appealed to the autodidact in me, and I discovered that the course of study that encompassed both was interaction design.
How did you find it? It was absolutely fantastic — we were allowed to do everything ourselves. But it was also a prime example of poorly organised chaos: interaction design had only recently been introduced as a course of study, and the field was developing at a rapid pace, which meant that we were actually better informed than most of our teachers, technically speaking.
I loved the HKU but missed the academic aspects of studying, which was why I decided to enrol on a master’s degree programme at the Delft University of Technology in my third year at the HKU, and began researching fears and phobias. A year later I was a third-year art school student with co-authorships on technical reports and academic publications, which was pretty cool. That was my turning point, my transformation from the somewhat lazy student that I’d been to the ambitious and enthusiastic one that attracted recognition.
Does recognition matter to you? Yes, I need to be seen as someone who’s doing a decent job, which I know is connected to my fear of failure.
You went almost straight from Delft University to the Waag Society. Why? The Waag Society exists to support technological developments conceived for socio-cultural purposes, which appealed to me.
What did you do there? I worked for the most part on exploiting the possibilities offered by the open-source model. The thing about the open-source model is that the end user is also a co-developer; it’s a reciprocal process that alters the standard definition of “end user”, and I like that. One of our projects involved setting up a FabLab [fabrication laboratory] in Indonesia to develop lower leg prostheses for less than $50 using local materials and a 3D printer.
You stayed for 10 years. What did you gain from the experience? The confidence to set something up despite being an autodidact. Everyone I met there was on a voyage of discovery. It was at the Waag that I learnt to programme chips, read sensors, manage hardware, and so on. If I hadn’t had that opportunity to develop and channel my talent and enthusiasm for innovation, I seriously doubt that I’d have ended up as the CEO of Fairphone. The experience was also crucial for my understanding of products as platforms for collaboration. It taught me to always ask: “What’s going on behind the scenes?”
Let’s talk about Fairphone, the world's first sustainable, modular smartphone built from responsibly sourced materials and under decent working conditions. Where did you get the idea? A friend, Peter van der Mark, asked if I’d like to work on a campaign for NIZA [Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa] about conflict minerals in the DRC in relation to high-tech products. I wasn’t even aware that it was an issue. Conflict minerals are minerals that have been extracted in conflict-affected zones under conditions that violate human rights. The proceeds from these minerals are often used to finance continuing armed conflict.
Were you immediately enthused? Absolutely! And not with the idea of drawing attention to the tragedy of the Hutus and the Tutsis, but out of a will to dissect the production system and to truly examine the origin of things.
How did you approach the task? I began by researching if anyone had tried asking where these particular minerals came from and who was involved in their extraction. Which was how I discovered The Toaster Project, a Royal Academy of Art graduation project by Thomas Thwaits, who built a toaster from scratch, all by himself, in order to understand what doing so involved. What he ended up with is one of the most beautiful things ever made. It is recognisably a toaster, but it shows you its innards, which is very unsettling. Most toasters try to hide the evidence of their manufacture, but his doesn’t.
And thus you were inspired to do something similar, but within the “regular” manufacturing system. Yes. We wanted to illustrate what is happening over there through the medium of the mobile phone. A phone embodies an extraordinary paradox: it facilitates our potential connection with pretty much everybody, yet we have zero connection with its manufacture.
This paradox offered us a wealth of possibilities; the mobile phone is the centre around which our technological world is being developed, and we knew that our approach would be highly mediagenic. So, I, my friend Peter and the Waag Society founded Fairphone, initially as a campaign for NIZA. We wanted to use the medium of a small “commercial entity” to show what happens when a new company tries to make its own phones.
Were you naive or overconfident? The latter, I think [laughs]. Or perhaps both. We flew to Africa in a state of strategic naivety. The instinctive reaction of most NGOs is: “Nokia and Apple are to blame for the war in the DRC”, but rather than name and shame, we hoped to conduct proper research.
When we returned, we began approaching local telecom companies. Peter Westgeest, of KPN, happened to have just finished reading Congo, by David van Reybroek, and was deeply interested in the subject, so he introduced me to their CFO which led to a deal.
The NIZA campaign ran its course, but you decided to carry on with Fairphone.Yes, particularly after KPN’s commitment. I applied to Bethnal Green Ventures in London and was deeply honoured when they agreed to allow my trainee, Miguel, to develop our business model in their incubator programme. An investor connected with the Waag put in 400K, and the ball began to roll.
You ended up crowdfunding 7.5 million euros in the space of just a few months. How did you manage that? No idea. We simply put a “Buy now” icon on the website. PayPal called us within a day because we’d already received half a million in orders, of a non-existent phone, which they were indirectly responsible for guaranteeing. We had no idea! Luckily for us, we due as guests on the Pauw & Witteman show [Dutch late-night talk show] that very night, so the news added to our credibility. CNN and the New York Times had already carried stories about the “Dutchman who was setting out to create a new mobile phone brand”, so that helped drive donations.
Impressive. Was there a downside to this immediate success? Yes, it brought a lot of pressure. The success of the crowdfunding campaign was the point at which what had hitherto been a playful leap of the imagination became an idea that 25,000 people were willing to back, and I wasn’t entirely sure that we could pull it off. But it comes with the territory of creating a business, and it’s one of the things I like about entrepreneurship. You have to take risks and convince people of your idea, and you can only do that if you believe in what you’re doing. Crowdfunding embodies this in its purest form.
How did you develop the skills you need to run a business? My business skills are actually quite underdeveloped. I’m good at recruiting people to the cause and inspiring and motivating people, but managing an organisation of this size isn’t my strongest suite. I thought I’d have more breathing room if we had a general manager, but I was wrong. I was still the one having to convince our shareholders to loosen the purse strings, still heavily involved in overseeing operations and dealing with whatever problems arose, and I was becoming fed up and exhausted because these weren’t what I did best. So we decided that in autumn 2018, I’d hand over the management of Fairphone to somebody else.
You left the company? No, I’m still very much at Fairphone but doing things an inventor should do which is explore and inspire. A role that suits me much better.
Was it a tough decision to make to hand over the management role though? Very. The understanding that I was done fighting had me in tears. But it was the right thing to do at this stage in Fairphone’s development, and the right thing to do for me; it was simply killing me.
Anything else contribute to the decision? I was ready for a next step, but most of all it was the financial pressure that I had felt for the past years. I wanted the company to build its distribution capacity and build up its stock levels, which demanded investment. I was sure that the proceeds from the sale of the yet-to-be-built new version of the phone would banish any criticism that we were all mouth and no trousers. It was a complete mindfuck. It was already clear six months before it all came to a head that we were on a collision course, and seeing that coming really messes you up.
How did you cope with that? I could barely sleep, was suffering panic attacks and crying fits, and taking oxazepam to function. And then I collapsed. Literally. Found myself curled up in a ball one morning, weeping hysterically. Maike took me straight to the psychiatric emergency department, where I told the admissions staff to either admit me or patch me up so that I could get back to work. It had to be one or the other; no middle ground.
What was your next step? I’d begun secretly working on a plan to save the business, without much of a mandate from our shareholders. I had an appointment scheduled for the next day with an English investor, but he hadn’t sounded like a particularly good match for us as regards our investment needs, so I decided to practice my pitch on him. To my great surprise, in walked this bearded guy in sandals and shorts, who was introduced as a trainee. My first thought was: is this what I got out of bed for? But he actually turned out to be the man I’d been expecting to meet, and was willing to invest a couple of million. I invited all our shareholders to the office the following day, gave them a grand tour of the place and sealed the deal. Then the investor gave me a hug.That’s an angel investor.
Weight off your shoulders. It was indeed. I thought I was some kind of god, and began partying accordingly; clubbing on pills till 6 in the morning. Until my system sent me a loud and clear message that it had had enough. For three long years I’d been running at 300%, working 80 hours a week and flying to China at the drop of a hat. And the toll had been building up. When the dam finally broke, I began having panic attacks, which can drive you mad. I’d find myself weeping in a corner of the supermarket because I couldn’t decide between vegetarian and non-vegetarian lasagne. So, I went into therapy, started taking anti-depressants and began getting lots of sleep. But it was really the suicidal thoughts that made me understand that I needed to get as far away from it all as possible. During a yoga retreat, courtesy of the same investor, who happened to own one, I went along thinking it’d be all relaxing massages, only to find myself weeping along with 60-year-old women in hardcore grieving sessions. The only thing that didn’t need reassessing was my relationship. People often talk about what I’ve managed to achieve, but it was only possible because I had Maike as a safe haven, which has always been a blessing.
What did you learn from these experiences? That your long-term strategy must be underpinned by a good financial model and strategy. That we got wrong. In some respects, things went too well: we were spending all we had to finance our growth, but our extraordinary growth would eventually have run us into the ground.
One of the most valuable personal lessons that I learned was that running a company will expose your weaknesses. I was managing by papering over the cracks out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, but when you’re running a business you need to focus on what the company needs and accept that you cannot satisfy everyone, which is part of the reason I stopped.
What did you mean when you remarked in the documentary The Fair Enterprise that you’d created a monster? I launched the company in 2013 with a single trainee, and within eighteen months we’d sold 60,000 phones, had 40 people on the payroll, were doing business in 20 countries and had over 16 million in sales revenue. That’s too much too soon, and I’m just glad that I didn’t understand the extent to which that wasn’t normal. We were the fastest growing tech start-up in Europe and had run the largest ever European crowdfunding campaign. We were flying a plane that wasn’t quite ready for take-off, and were climbing higher and higher even as work continued on the plane. But the moment we stopped, we were going to crash, so we couldn’t stop. It was a brilliant ride while it lasted, though, aside from all the headaches and the burnout; a real adventure story: a young lad sets out to change the system, is almost done in by it but finds a way to get back on his feet.
How have you surprised yourself the most since leaving university? I’ve become much more open in the last five years, and more prepared to acknowledge my vulnerability — actually, that’s been the case since I tried ecstasy on my 35th birthday. People go on about the adverse effects of drugs, but my experience of it was revelatory. I became better at expressing my feelings, especially around sex, and I don’t mean in a banal or vulgar way; I mean in the sense of how you and your partner can use it to grow and enrich each other and the relationship. This, of course, isn’t unrelated to the fact that Maike and I have been together since I was 15. The strength of my relationship with her and my kids has been the greatest source of surprise.
You’re a pioneer and autodidact through and through. What advice would you give anyone following a similar path? If you’re hoping to build a social enterprise, you must be prepared to expose your vulnerability. You will need to be completely open, honest and transparent about your anxieties and difficulties. People are usually more willing to help when you do this. And you will need to do the same with your company: it’s okay to let people know that your product isn’t quite ready yet. Naivety is a great catalyst for discovery, because there’s a lot you don’t yet know and don’t yet need to know. You can go a long way with a combination of a certain kind of naivety, vulnerability and willingness to embrace dilemmas.
What do you see in your immediate future? Rest. Yoga. Time with the kids. Cooking. I was on vacation with some friends a short while ago, and they observed that I seemed fidgety. That was sobering, because I’m not the restless type at all; in fact, people used to consider me the exact opposite. This new restlessness is the side effect of having to constantly perform at the limit of my ability. And while I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, it was also a five-year manic-depressive rollercoaster.
I’ve got a tricky time ahead. I’ll always be Fairphone's founder and will continue building the brand, but I’ll no longer be the one in the spotlight. It has to do with ego, and I know what I’m like. But at the same time, thank god that I no longer have to deal with things that don’t interest me much, such as human resource management! I’m happy with my decision.