When you’ve got a problem

Image above used under the Fairphone Creative Commons license and borrowed from here

I was listening to the story of the evolution of the Fairphone on Sunday. Fairphone is a company that started in 2010 with the desire to connect consumers with the story of their products – how are toasters and televisions made, and what happens when we no longer need them anymore? Where do they go? What effect do abandoned electronics have on our ecosystems?

What began as an awareness campaign about how materials were mined in The Democratic Republic of the Congo transformed into a company with a product and a purpose: to make all parts of the supply chain of a mobile phone ethical. The challenges were incredibly complex, and founder Bas Van Abel did not shy away from telling the audience just how hard it was to “disrupt the entire electronics industry”. Clearly, the Fairphone team were exceptionally dedicated to making their shared vision come to life. From the launch of the first phone in 2013, they haven’t stopped iterating since.

However, Bas (above, left) said something about the original Fairphone team that really surprised me.

“None of us were entrepreneurs. And none of us knew how to make a phone.”

Conventional wisdom teaches that those with experience are the best fit for the job. They know the bumps in the road, and they’ve honed their craft over many years. Failure and success may have come in equal measure, but at least they were learning that particular skill. I thought hiring for expertise meant you were already ahead of the pack.

Surely, if you were going to try and make something as complex as a mobile phone, you would want at least one person, if not a team, to assure you and your future customers that they could successful do this, before you started the company…? Surely, there would have been concerned employees at certain conglomerates Fairphone could have lured over to Amsterdam, with the promise of ethical craftsmanship and the unmistakably frenetic buzz of a new start up?

Surely…not. Bas flipped this belief I had on its head. He didn’t hire people who knew how to start and run new businesses. He didn’t prioritise practical skills or concrete, mechanical knowledge of supply chains and electronics and software.

Image used under the Fairphone Creative Commons license and borrowed from here

Bas didn’t explicitly say who he did hire, but at the start of Fairphone that there were only six staff members. I don’t imagine these jobs had KPIs, or set work hours, or annual reviews. Reading between the lines of the interview, my guess is that Bas hired those who bought into the vision, came with diversified skills which were applicable across many industries, and those who came with a truckload of grit. They had to deliver a product to 25,000 crowdfunding supporters, and in Bas’s words, “We had no choice. We couldn’t fuck it up”.


The network I have of those who do similar work to me is invaluable. There’s a camaraderie of spirit, of purpose, and of shared frustrations that can’t be matched anywhere else.

Hearing Bas’s story though, it’s reminded me of the situations where another perspective has helped a lot more. Sometimes we don’t need expertise. We need a reframe.

A job hunter who knows the value of stability.
A friend who’s just moved overseas and knows home isn’t something to take for granted anymore.
A couple who’s just had a third baby and knows now that chaos can still be a functioning state.
An ultra-marathon runner who knows about discipline.
A Board Chair who thinks of the big picture.
A volunteer who knows the real value of time.
A musician who can lose themselves in their art.
The granny who just wants to create memories.
A sober friend who doesn’t want secrecy to win anymore.
A six-year-old who just wants me to shut up and bounce on the trampoline.

Without experience in my area of expertise, any one of these people can instead bring light, empathy and insightful questions to the problems that I’m having. That difference is what cracks the problem open. They aren’t stuck like I am, because they don’t know what they don’t know. Often, they won’t care, and that’s just what I need – emotional detachment to the outcome.

Through words or actions, in difference of opinion and background, I’m reminded that of the smallness of my problems. That this doesn’t really matter. To look up at the sky. That my gut is probably right. That this too shall pass. That if I can change it, not to worry. And if I can’t change it, not to worry.  

All this to say that expertise is highly valued in our culture.

So too should be naivety, difference, life experiences and grit.


Listen to the interview here:

2 Replies to “When you’ve got a problem”

  1. Hi Jemma,
    Thanks so much for your kind words and the write-up – really interesting take on how to be crazy enough, to actually pull something like this off 🙂
    Glad you reached out to us, so I could discover your work. I love the other features under “inspiration” – especially “comfortable with uncertainty”.

    Best regards,
    Jan (Fairphone’s content creator)

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