Max Gunawan is the founder of Lumio, a multi-functional modern lighting device that unfolds from a book.
After leaving a career in architecture and a highly successful kick-starter campaign in 2013 that raised over US$570,000 after aiming for just US$60,000, Gunawan went on popular American investment TV show Shark Tank in 2015.
And after all five investors made him an offer, Gunawan accepted Robert Herjavec’s investment of US$350,000 for 10 per cent of his company.
Headquartered in San Francisco, Lumio has an international office in Hong Kong.
We talk to Gunawan about his strategies, future plans and being stranded on a desert island with British designer Alexander McQueen, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and Spanish chef Albert Adria.
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Apart from appearing on Shark Tank, what has been the most inspired decision you’ve made since you founded Lumio?
The decision that I made to not limit myself to be in one place just because of work constraints or just doing things out of obligation. When I made that decision, it really changed the way I work. I live in San Francisco, and I’m still based there, but I only live there six months out of a year. I come to Hong Kong every other month, and the rest of the time these days, I travel around the world for meetings, design related events like Maison et Objet in Paris, and the rest is just to find inspiration.
I used to feel guilty, because it’s the Chinese upbringing – you work, you work hard and you work in an office. When I started to part ways with all of that guilt and thinking that there's only one way of working, I think it really freed me up to think bigger about the vision and what I want out of life and how I want to push the brand forward. I remember when I started two years ago, I was like a hungry entrepreneur wanting to really push the success and getting the business right.
What strategies are you putting into expanding the presence of Lumio globally?
I always look at things long term, and my philosophy is that I let people do what they do best. What I mean by this is that – I’m a designer, and I want to focus on the creation of things. This is also very tough, but a conscious decision. I need to do what I do best, which is creating and designing, and I'm trying to focus on that. In the design world, today you can be very hot and tomorrow you’ll be forgotten. I believe in longevity, I want to keep on creating, and this is just our first product.
With expansion, it requires really good knowledge of the market on the business side. I try to find partners in each local market, be observant and look at who are the best players in terms of retailers or distributors. I try to identify the key leaders and experts in each market to form long-term relationships with, and these are people that I want to associate and align our brand with.
That's part of the strategy. So I don't have a grand vision of the next five or 10 years, but I do have a vision of what the brand should be, which is very organic, and very much like the way I approach design. The way I approach business is very relationship and human based.
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How much importance does Hong Kong and China play in the expansion?
I think it’s essential. We do manufacturing here and now it's the hub for our operations and logistics. Hong Kong is our only international office, so the creative stuff still happens with me in San Francisco, but geographically Hong Kong is set up perfectly for expanding into Europe and the Asian market, seeing as it’s smack dab in the middle.
What factors have been taken into consideration for more expansion into Asia?
When it comes to market share and potential, Asian consumers are very sophisticated and we're at a phase where people are seeking to be unique and being individual. People are looking for authenticity, not only in fashion, and how they represent themselves, but in homes as well. More attention is being put on the space where people live and how it reflects their personal style and represents them as an individual. In that sense they don't only look at the big brands. Now, people are actually looking at the small designers, smaller brands that are different.
It’s a really good opportunity for us to really expand into this market and educate the consumers about Lumio. The products that we do it's kind of like in the lighting category, but it's not quite lighting – so we’re in a unique category, and I feel that what new consumers are seeking for something unique.
What’s next for you and Lumio?
There are a lot of things that are next, but to simplify it, it's really just to execute the vision of the brand and make people understand what Lumio stands for. Most people think that Lumio is just the book light product, but it’s way beyond that.
This next spring, we’re launching our second product in a different category. So the vision of the brand is really bringing craftsmanship and well crafted objects with embedded, invisible technology [to the market]. We don't design products that will be obsolete in six months. We want products that are long lasting and that hopefully down the line are classic.
I try to be very sensitive in terms of layering the different senses that we have. The first one – our book lamp is a very visual product. The second one – I haven’t shared this and I won’t say much, but I’m working on this sound product, but like this lighting product, it’s not just another portable speaker. So … more to come. But that is the second product, and I also already have plans for the third one.
What was your first job? What was your best/worst memory from that job?
It was at a cafe off campus in Connecticut – I was serving tables basically. As a starving college student, all you eat is instant noodles or sliced bread and eggs. At the cafe, if you’re an employee, you’re entitled to eat what they have in the store. That was my best memory – just eating there. I wasn’t there for the money, I was there for the food.
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If a fire broke out in your home, what are the three objects you would save?
This is really tough, because OK I admit it – I like nice things. Not necessarily fancy things but I really like well designed objects. I want to save everything! So it all comes down to the story and the memory of the objects. On my desk there are mementos that would mean nothing to other people, but hold a special memory for me.
I was supposed to go to the Christo’s floating pier exhibition in Italy with a good friend of mine, but I couldn’t make it last minute, so she saved me a loose thread, so I saved that in a small vial. Little rocks I’ve collected from beaches in Portugal.
If you were trapped on a deserted island for a month, which three celebrities would you like there with you?
The first one would have to be Alexander McQueen – I’ve always been a huge fan. He’s a genius! He comes from nothing, and he worked his way to where he is now. I really admire him, and I just want a portal into his brain so that I can see how he thinks.
The second would be Wong Kar-wai, because I grew up with his movies. I’d also be curious to see what the both of them (McQueen and Wong) would come up with.
The third one would have to be a chef, because I have to eat. Spanish chef Albert Adria – the way he approaches food is fun and quirky. I love the ideas behind his creations, and he plays a lot with food.
If you didn’t have your current job, what would you be instead?
A baker. I love bread – there’s something about bread making. Especially the old ways of doing the sourdough. People say French bread is the best, but I go to Portugal quite often and there’s this rustic bread that is so underrated. I even follow a lot of these bread bakeries on my Instagram.
What is your one guilty pleasure?
I try to stay healthy, but I love babka – the Jewish bread. I also love fruitcake. Those are my weak spots. I would feel guilty afterwards, but I would totally binge on those.