Transcript - Sebastiaan de With on Outlier Academy - Ep. 35

Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Sebastiaan de With, Co-Founder of Lux, the design studio behind the award-winning photography apps, Halide and Spectre. From Episode #35 of Outlier Academy.
Last updated
July 7, 2021
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Before founding Lux, Sebastiaan took a two-month motorcycle trip from San Francisco to the Alaskan Arctic and back.
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Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Sebastiaan de With, Co-Founder of Lux, the design studio behind the award-winning photography apps, Halide and Spectre. We discuss following your passion, physicality in digital design, and the definition of success.

Transcripts for other episodes can be found here

“People often think that if you chase your passion and you don't succeed, that you have wasted your time. You may have failed, but you never waste your time. You learn the mistakes that make you the person you are, and you will produce better outcomes eventually.” – Sebastiaan de With

Sebastiaan de With (@sdw) is Co-Founder of Lux, the design studio behind the award-winning photography apps, Halide and Spectre. He started his design career at age sixteen, creating icons for HP, before taking on design at Apple. He was Chief Creative Officer at doubleTwist before creating Halide, an award-winning photography app that has been named the Apple's App of the Year of 2019 and iMore's App of the Year 2020. Along with his co-founders, Sebastiaan has created one of the most successful indie app development businesses in the camera space.n.




Daniel Scrivner:

Sebastiaan, I have been looking forward to this interview for so long since we first tried to plan it, I don't know, maybe six months ago. So thank you so much for coming on Outlier Academy. I'm so excited to chat with you.


Sebastiaan de With:

I'm really excited to be here, Daniel. Thanks for having me.


Daniel Scrivner:

So I feel like depending on the sphere you're in people will know you will know a little bit of your story, but for people listening that aren't familiar with your background, can you just to kick things off, I guess, share just a quick high level sketch of your journey and how we got here. And I know that's a really deep question, but what I'm interested to explore is how you found design a little bit and what are some of the mile markers along the road?


Sebastiaan de With:

I'll skip the existential part of it. The philosophical part. I'll just start on a small farm in the Dutch countryside, which is a nice mental picture for everybody to start up. I grew up as a wee blonde lad in the Dutch countryside, and it was really just the middle of nowhere. I was always like a pretty creative kid. I was also a rather independent kid, so I didn't love living there in the countryside. And so I decided to run away from home when I was 15 and drop out of school and went to art school instead.


Daniel Scrivner:

All the things no one wants you to do.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yes, yes. By that time I was already spending a lot of my time... Like I just love making random art in Photoshop and I never had the foggiest notion that that could one day become a job. Didn't really think or care about that but in art school, it started becoming a job because I got a laptop. My first laptop, it was a Mac and honestly it intrigued me. Before then I was just messing around in Photoshop, but I realized that even doing small things on that computer made me delighted. It was this extremely strange experience where what should be mundane felt really pleasant and capturing that sensation, just filling it initially was already interesting. And then the idea that you could capture that sensation started really fascinating me.


Sebastiaan de With:

And I started to try to recreate some of that delight with the thing that fascinated me the most, and that was icons. So I designed lots of icons. And back then, this was before the iPhone was out. So this was in the early 2000s, people still did quite a bit of customization on their computers and so icon sets were a thing. People like me would make little icons in Photoshop and you could replace the icons in your system with those. So to add some pretty interesting designs and put those on the internet, I got in touch with my first clients. They hired me to get design icons for their software, still very grateful for the chance they took on me. And before you knew it, I did that full-time. I eventually started working for bigger companies that just approached me, but I got a little bit of a name for myself in making icons. I was a teenager at this point, I was 17. 17 making icons for HP.


Daniel Scrivner:

Just a little early.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah, 16, 17 making icons for the likes of HP for the new touch screen computer, for like Frog design, for big design agencies. Interestingly, now I understand why, like I would be puzzled at such a giant agency would send an email to a random teenager saying we need icons tomorrow basically sometimes, literally tomorrow, yesterday. Now I get it. It's a very pressing need and you need someone quickly to do what he was good at making those things.


Sebastiaan de With:

And I had that niche pretty well locked down and I was pretty comfortable doing that. And I started getting more into the other little bits around the periphery of icons, the user interface. So designing what makes an app actually delightful. The iPhone started coming out so I started designing iPhone apps and around, I think it was maybe a year after the iPhone came out I got an email from Apple I was 18 and they asked me if I wanted to become part of the iPhone design team to interview.


Daniel Scrivner:

Wow.


Sebastiaan de With:

It was shocking because I think until then very quickly, I wasn't a macro Apple person until I got that laptop. So when I was like 16 or so very quickly my ambition was to become a designer at Apple. It seemed like the thing that I wanted to do and working with Steve, still was there at the time, Steve Jobs was like, oh my God. I ended up not taking him up on it. One of the reasons was because I dropped out of art school because I was just full-time doing freelance design at that point. And to get to the U.S. you needed a visa and the main H1B visa, which a lot of people get when they move from abroad to work at a big tech company requires a degree.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. We could kind of work around it. And that was actually really flexible about it. But I decided I didn't want to upend my whole life at the time and try for it. So I kind of let that go, but ended up actually doing freelance work for them. So for two years, full-time I worked as a freelance designer for Apple on MobileMe, or I call it before it was iCloud was a product called MobileMe, maybe one of the weirdest and worst brands Apple has ever made.


Daniel Scrivner:

It is. Even reflecting it does stand out. It does stand out as being especially unique.


Sebastiaan de With:

It's bizarre looking back now that, if you can believe it, that wasn't something you bought, you bought the online service. It was optional. I think it was like a $100 something like that, a box, it used to be called DotMac. And that would be like your online services. And Steve at the time, I was like, oh, it's going to be [inaudible] to work with Steve. Steve was extremely unhappy with MobileMe and how it went.At it's launch it basically melted down. It was a terrifying time to be working there because all of his focus was on it, but it was his [inaudible] it wasn't his admiration. He thought this is make or break it, and mostly it's breaking.


Daniel Scrivner:

You don't want that, Steve.


Sebastiaan de With:

You don't want that, Steve. So it was immensely, immensely challenging, much more challenging than I could've ever thought it would be. But that was two years. I was also like, "okay, I need a break from things." I decided to finally move from the Netherlands. Me and my girlfriend broke up and I was like, okay. I moved to the United States. I'd already fallen in love with San Francisco. I was 23 at the time. And I started interviewing a few different companies. I think I ran into you at Square back then.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah.


Sebastiaan de With:

I was interviewing there with Jack. I interviewed at Apple. I interviewed at HP, which by then had bought webOS which I had done a little bit of work for.They sunsetted that entire product in less than a half year after I interviewed. I'm very glad I didn't go with that. And there was a startup called doubleTwist, which I had done design work for, they were an Android company. And I thought that was the most promising and interesting one just because I was maximizing my impact and doing something entirely different than Apple. They made Android apps, windows phone apps, totally different.


Sebastiaan de With:

So I thought, okay, we'll do that. I became the head of design at that startup and was there for a few years. They basically spun down their operations, moved to Texas and then I decided to take a break from a lot of things going on in life. I took a bit of a sabbatical. We can get into that later, if you want to hear my story on how I moved to the U.S. because that's kind of a crazy one, but basically I got divorced.


Sebastiaan de With:

I left that job, had a moment of reckoning of finding my passions in life, then [inaudible] design sense basically. And then I was just living in San Francisco, being a freelance designer until my friend Ben sent me a fateful message saying, "hey, you want to make a camera app together?" Almost four years ago today we released this little app called Halide. And it was an app we made just because we were both avid photographers. We love photography. And we figured for us, there was no good solution out there. And maybe if we could make something for ourselves, it would be good for a handful of other people that might enjoy it. And since then it has become a business.


Daniel Scrivner:

Just been slightly more successful than that.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yes. It has, to put it mildly, exceeded our expectations. And it's gone very, very well. And now we're the top camera app on the app store. And we have a second app, which got the iPhone app of the year by Apple in 2019 called Spectre. And now our hobby, our little tiny project has grown into an impromptu business with incredible success. And we're very excited about that.


Daniel Scrivner:

Well, it's an incredible story and we're going to get into a lot more of it in just a second. I normally try to limit the questions I'll ask on someone's background, but there's two questions I have to ask just kind of knowing yours. I think the first is that for that two year period, I had the experience of working at Apple and depending on what team you're in your mileage, just totally, there's not really a similar experience. It really depends on where you are in the company there. So you obviously weren't at the company full-time but you were freelancing full-time and you've got to work on something it sounds like was, I'm sure it was rewarding, but also really challenging. What did you take away from those two years? Were there any kind of big aha moments you learned about product design, about what it means to take those mundane things and make them delightful? What nuggets did you take away that you can pass on?


Sebastiaan de With:

Honestly, I think it was one of the greatest learning moments of my career easily. And I think you hear that a lot, right? That's like a thing you hear from Apple. People say two things. One, I learned a tremendous amount and two, it was incredibly, punishingly a lot of work. They work you to the bone. I think it's because they tend to hire people that are really passionate and you just can't turn that off. Your work consumes you. I have a friend now and she's pretty far along in her pregnancy, but she says like, "oh, having a kid will be easy. It's my job at Apple that's hard." It's almost-


Daniel Scrivner:

Puts it into perspective.


Sebastiaan de With:

It puts it into perspective. I think one of the things that really blew my mind was this was so different for me as a designer, I'd worked with clients large and small. Like I worked with Sony's and Mozilla's and the HPS and all that stuff. And I would make a design and we present it to stakeholders. We would present it maybe to design directors or CEOs and we'd be like, "okay, this is design" people would say like, "okay, good." Or like, maybe we need to rethink it or something. But overall it was a fairly normal design process with conception, idea, just a little bit of iteration and completing. At Apple, it was you make complete, polished, perfect designs, not concepts, not sketches, not wireframes. This was back in the day when it was basically like dimensional artwork. These were like very-


Daniel Scrivner:

Especially MobileMe.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yes.


Daniel Scrivner:

I think the epitome of the kind of physicality that Apple-


Sebastiaan de With:

Physicality is a great way to put it. Yes. So we were working with materials like rendering wood, metals and all those things in the user interface and that would be your design proposal. And we make several of those. It wouldn't just be one type of design. Oh, do you like it or not? No. We'd make 10. And same thing with iconography. We'd make the best icons I'd ever make. And then it would go to a Steve review and the feedback back would simply be like, no. Just like the word, no. The first time that happened to me, I can recall it really well. I was just dumbfounded. I was like, what do you mean no.


Daniel Scrivner:

And where do you go from there?


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. I put my everything into this. I loved this work. And you're like, "yeah," everybody else who was already used to it just acts like it's the most normal thing in the world. And I'm like, "yeah. Okay. So we go back to work" and it's like, but I gave it everything and you didn't until now you just didn't realize that you hadn't given it all. And the most valuable lessons that I had was sometimes it seems like it's impossible. Sometimes it's great just to throw it out and start over, but that's how I made my best work. And it's also, I think, why it burns people out.


Daniel Scrivner:

I have to ask you a follow up question on that as well too. And I'm sorry, I'll get out of this rabbit hole in just a sec, but-


Sebastiaan de With:

I appreciate the rabbit hole.


Daniel Scrivner:

I had a similar experience at Apple where I had done a lot of freelance work up until I ended up working there for three and a half years. When I was there a lesson that I've taken away because I've seen no company, no design team I've been a part of has embraced deep exploration as much as Apple does. And the story that I tell people is we would work on a project they would literally set aside the first month or two months, which if you're working at a startup, that sounds insane. Like if you go to a startup founder and you say, "hey, we're going to take one to two months to do explorations." We're not going to ship anything, just explorations. They would blow a gasket, but Apple would do that.


Daniel Scrivner:

And I guess the lesson I took away from it was you knew at the end of the day, and I worked on the marketing side a lot that what was going to end up shipping on whatever project you worked on was going to be this beautiful, but kind of small iterative step forward. But to get there, Apple would make you literally blow it out. You'd look at crazy ideas, mild ideas, simple ideas. And then you take the best of those things and bring them together into the project. Anyways, it was just a totally different way of thinking, but it informed so much of how I try to think about what you need to do to actually create great work. Is that your takeaway as well, too? And for other people that maybe hear that and think it's insane, what would you say to them about why it's not insane or why that's worth doing?


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah, it's interesting because it does seem really wild as a process, but you can't really tangibly see the benefits of it until you go through it. And we actually, I think we see this in our day-to-day lives where we are sometimes just forced to confront resets like that. We make reconsiderations, readjustments in life at the risk of sound starting is not very philosophical. It applies to a lot of things and it is an excellent way to get better and explore what's out there. And while it takes a lot of effort, I think what Apple shows is like people notice if you put that level of effort into something, that level of deliberation is something that is noticeable to people, even if they don't see the finer details of the design.


Daniel Scrivner:

[crosstalk] feel it in the final design and the final execution. Super interesting. The way I've thought about it myself or the best way I've found to articulate it is just that through super broad exploration, because typically in design, you kind of do a lot of thinking, do a lot of learning, do a lot of research. And then I think most of the time you hone in on a pretty narrow approach really quickly and then you just go deep down that rabbit hole.


Daniel Scrivner:

And Apple is very different where you stay up on the surface level for a long time, you explore this thing literally from 360 degrees, like you're going to have to, I mean, literally like part of the job was just sitting there being like, well, what else could I try? What else could potentially work? And that is really uncomfortable because when you're doing that, you're struggling, you're banging your head up against the wall. You don't feel super human in that design process, but you get better work out the other side.


Sebastiaan de With:

It's very true. I think one of the anecdotes that I can share by now was like, we worked on like Find My Friends was like one of the apps and I got to be honest Steve just didn't like the concept of it. So he wasn't really on board with it from the get-go. So our job was just to make funny designs that made it less creepy. I mean, this is a different era. I actually right now have like 30 friends on Find My Friends and there was Zenly and there's all sorts of Snap Maps. This was before social media location sharing was really a thing. It was deeply creepy and that's how Steve felt it was. And a lot of companies would just be like, oh, slap the default UI on it, it's fine.


Sebastiaan de With:

It was clear to Apple that we had to do something kind of wacky with the visual design to make it, I don't know, make it stand out or disarm users a little bit with some visual delight and maybe we threw everything, Daniel. Like I have the craziest Photoshop files on my desk still. We tried some really weird stuff. And like you say, you approach it from every angle just to see what you can get. It was weird stuff, but it was very polished.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. The last thing I'll say about that, let me get out of this rabbit hole and move on. But the last thing I'd say about that is what you learn going through that process is that's the only way you ever get to something surprising because everything else is going to just be like, well yeah, of course. You have to really push past the obvious stuff, which is really challenging. And I think it applies to a bunch of other disciplines. But the example that I'd share is I remember this was, I mean, now I think iTunes has gone through or two rebrandings now to music [inaudible] totally changed, but this was at a point in time in the previous version of it when it was still called iTunes and they were searching for a new icon for it and we brought on two full-time people that literally all they did was explore different executions for that icon.


Daniel Scrivner:

And I specifically remember, we have these pinup foam boards that Apple would use all over the place. And for anyone that hasn't seen one, these things are like four feet, five feet wide by like seven feet tall. And literally two of those were covered and it was everything from what looked like a circus tent to what looks like a movie theater booth to physical stuff, not physical stuff, simple stuff, metaphorical stuff. This is everything. Anyways, I think for anyone listening, I think the conclusion to maybe draw from this is if you ever look at something that Apple does and you're just like, wow, how did they get there? It's not like there's geniuses that snap their fingers and have this idea in 30 seconds. It's a lot of brutally hard work that she made the point.


Sebastiaan de With:

Emphasis on the brutal.


Daniel Scrivner:

The other thing I want to talk about a little bit is your journey is fascinating to me because I remember when you would come up with those icon sets and I would still put you in the top handful of people of icon designers, visual designers in the world in terms of the ways that you can execute that, and maybe that's comfortable or not comfortable for you, but it still feels that way to me. But at the same time, you've managed to be not only great at visual design, but great at product design, which in my mind are two different things. So I guess I'm curious, the question I would ask from someone on the outside looking in is, how different are those things really and do you find a lot of commonalities there? And just anything else to share about how you made that journey and what it was like to take that leap and go from one to the other?


Sebastiaan de With:

I think initially, because I'm such a visual person, I conflated that a lot and it was just like, if it looks good, it's probably good. And that led me because you just breathe and live like you're a very visual person you start absorbing a lot of that. You pull in products that verbiage [inaudible] things, you just eat and live and dream it. And you quickly notice where the hang ups are, where the visual polish stops and the sort of bumpy road lies underneath. And I think that is what eventually made me transition towards being like, if I want to do this right, I have to design the whole thing. I can't just put a layer of paint on it.


Sebastiaan de With:

I think the first time that it really came up was with HPU and they just hired me to do things like icons and stuff and then eventually I just scope creeped my way in there. And I was just like, "also, I just made this whole design. I know you have an existing user interface here, but I just made this whole design. I think this is kind of better." I would just shamelessly email it one level up the chain and stuff and it would be like someone saying, "oh, this actually looks really good. When did we do this?" Probably pissed some people off that way, which I've gotten a lot better at since, but I was just an unruly teenager. I'm so sorry to anyone listening who worked with me back then. Jonathan, I'm deeply sorry. But yeah, that's kind of how I transitioned into that I think. And it's a lot, I think of just using things and then being really frustrated. It's like that thing that people say when you teach someone about typography and they will never enjoy the world again, because once you see.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's true.


Sebastiaan de With:

The amount of terrible choice [crosstalk].


Daniel Scrivner:

You can't unsee.


Sebastiaan de With:

And then you will want to become someone that makes the world a better place.


Daniel Scrivner:

Or you'll just wish you could shut that part of your brain off.


Sebastiaan de With:

This is true. Please just cut it out.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's difficult. Okay. So jumping then I want to start getting into the story around your first app and then how that transformed to locks. And we talked about at the beginning that I know you shared this for anyone that's interested. I actually don't know the website, so I know people would go to luxcamera.co.


Sebastiaan de With:

Lux.camera, yes.


Daniel Scrivner:

Lux.camera. Okay. Almost got that right. So for anyone curious, please, please, please go to lux.camera to be able to see all the different apps. And I know there's a blog post there you guys recently shared where it has a little bit of the origin story. But I think what I was curious to explore is if you could just flesh out a little bit more how that app came to be. So I know you guys are both photography buffs. I know you probably felt like you had a great photo in data stored somewhere, but maybe you couldn't get it into the app. Like talk about, I guess, was there a moment where you decided to build this and knew exactly what it was, just what was that journey like? Because I think it's interesting you scratch your own itch and it's also interesting that you entered a space that I think for a lot of people would say, there's no way you can innovate in this space.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. It's interesting that you say that because I was talking to someone yesterday and I was reminded of when we launched it four years ago. My mother was visiting at the time and I was living in North Beach in this apartment in San Francisco and I hadn't really kept up with her and what I was up to. She knew I was doing consulting with companies and putting together design teams and that stuff. And she saw me working on my laptop and working a lot and she's like, "what are you up to?" I was like, "oh, I'm actually making a little camera app thing." It was one of those things where you're like, don't worry about it's nothing. And she's like, "oh, interesting." And she doesn't know that much about apps. She doesn't have a lot of apps on her iPhone, but she literally said, "aren't there just a lot of those kinds of apps already."


Sebastiaan de With:

So yeah, I did it against like knowing better, basically getting into it, but I'm not sure if people remember the older iPhones had a camera app that had this really nice, silver metal sort of interface. And if you took a picture, there was an aperture shape that closed on top of your, it was really cool because it was an effect they used to hide just how atrociously slow the camera was. It was just a very poorly performing, very bad camera, but it felt really magical. And I think since then I got more and more into photography and when I moved to San Francisco. It's actually the reason I moved to San Francisco and that's a whole longer story altogether in a way.


Sebastiaan de With:

But I always wanted to do something with that passion. Like I felt like there was a good overlap there between the interface and the camera. Because if you use a digital camera nowadays, you know how frustrating it is to be overwhelmed with all the knobs and buttons. And if you use your iPhone, you're almost similarly frustrated especially back then with how little control you have. So I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to explore if there is a middle ground here. Because my mom was right, there were a lot of other apps, but they all resembled, if you've seen the [inaudible] they have this control room and it is filled with, I think 39,000 unlabeled buttons and dials and like little lights. That's how they feel to me. And it's fine. Some people want all the complexity, all the control, but to meet someone who is a photography enthusiast, that's intimidating. And I can't imagine how other people are using that. So I thought maybe we can do something here. Yeah.


Daniel Scrivner:

Super interesting. And so there's kind of two parts of that that I would love to explore a little bit. I think one is obviously the design user interface layer, but the other is the kind of underlying technology in all the engineering work that goes into that. And I know something I think that's unique about what you're building is you and Ben are both amazingly talented at what you do and you knit both of those sides together. So I guess my question is, it sounds like on the design side you were looking for something in the middle, you maybe had a little bit of an insight about where this app could kind of slip into that on the engineering side, was there like, oh my gosh, here's all these things we could take advantage of that no one's taking advantage of. And what were some examples of that?


Sebastiaan de With:

The way it kind of all started was actually Ben sending me a Twitter DM, isn't Twitter great by the way? Twitter changed my life honestly. The amount of people I met through Twitter, that's the whole thing altogether.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm with you.


Sebastiaan de With:

But truly gratitude for a moment there. But he reached out to me after I think it was WWDC 2016 when Apple announced that they were going to add an API to take raw photos on your iPhone and the stock camera app wouldn't support it, but you could then control the shutter speed, the white balance, there was going to be some programmatic controls for things like manual focus. And Ben had just read an article I wrote on the Leica M which was a camera that is very much a purist camera. I love that camera to death. I used it for a while. I literally crashed my motorcycle and fell on top of it. And like, I was hurt more than the camera I think, they're beasts. They're just tanks. Lovely, super German utilitarian design, nothing but admiration there.


Sebastiaan de With:

But having read that, he was like, you seem like an interesting person to develop a camera app with. So he sent me a message saying, "hey, this is possible now, would you be open to working on an app like that together?" And like I just mentioned thinking about that for a while and I was like, "yes, let's meet up." So we met up in a coffee shop in San Francisco, halfway between North Beach and Venice where he lived and immediately just clicked. Like he had a little prototype. There are some hilarious screenshots I can link up.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm sure it looked great.


Sebastiaan de With:

It's one of those plastic engineered designed apps. I think it was called Zeit back then. And then we just started working on it as a little side project and I think it was a bit under a year later that we decided to launch it.


Daniel Scrivner:

Maybe the last question I want to ask there is what did that year look like? We talked a little bit about that Apple process. What was the process of you and Ben flushing this thing out together? And I think too, what was your process on the design side to try to get to what you felt like oh yeah, this is what this app should look like and feel like?


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah, that's so interesting. The process is like, it was so refreshing to me because at the time freelance design for me was like coming into companies and either becoming a design lead for a little bit or putting together a team for them or just doing individual contributor stuff and designing products. And it was always with the team and I'd come off the design manager role, like head of design and a start up. And before that it was obviously cog and the large Apple machine, this was a delightful little one-on-one project. And if collaboration is good, it can be great if you are really in tune and me and Ben are just incredibly in tune.


Sebastiaan de With:

And that first year we didn't build prototypes, we built actual functional apps. We would just be like, "oh, let's try this." And then we just build it. And we would just play with that and that's how we came to like a lot of the gestural interactions that are in there that make it special. We never bothered with, I'll put a framer thing like previously with other companies we built prototypes, but this was so close to the medal you want to have a real camera that we just kept using it. And that was an awesome process. We would work on it mostly like two or three days a week. So on the weekends, I had a lot of design work. I was working with an email company called Nylas at the time designed their product and yeah, I think it accelerated towards the end because we had let it sit for a little bit because we were both a little too occupied. And then I think in April, 2017, I sent a mention to Ben I was like, "okay, let's finish it. Let's wrap it up and we'll get it out before WWDC." And we really worked hard on it. That was like, we were very much just working seven days a week at the end there.


Sebastiaan de With:

And just like any other project like that, that your personal projects, you know it's from your own websites, you're deeply unhappy with it, but you're like, "[inaudible 00:25:15] this. It's not done, but I think we should get it out and then we can say we did it." That was like what that year was like. And we really had no expectations of finishing it. We truly were just like, "that's all right, let's just release it."


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm sure you had bolstered it for so long at that point.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm curious, so obviously this started out as a hobby. You guys were scratching your own itch. You ship this app. It ends up becoming not just somewhat successful but really successful enough to where you could move from having just one app to having a company with multiple different apps. Was there a moment when you knew that the app had really taken off or where you were both just, wow, this is like already beyond our beliefs of where this could go. And then I think another question I'd really be curious to know kind of where you come in on is what contributed to the app success as you think back on it?


Sebastiaan de With:

And it came out and it was funny because yesterday I was at a dinner of my friend whose birthday it was. And I remember the day after I launched that, I flew to Palm Springs to go be with him for his birthday. Initially just seeing it on every website was wild. Like it's not in usual tech websites, which I kind of expected like, oh, maybe it'll get a make rumors article or something [inaudible] very much the Apple Community websites. And then there's the Verge, which is like more of a mainstream tech website. And then outside of that you know that you've done something very special if it hits outside of tech, because then it's something else. And I didn't do very much press outreach Like I do now. I did send it to some people and it was like, "hey, check it out I just launched an app," we highly recommend that to anyone who starts a project like that. It never hurts to send people in the press. Let's say, "I'm doing this, it's cool. This is why it's cool." Just a little short message.


Sebastiaan de With:

But it started getting picked up by lifestyle websites. So it goes on like, I think it was on New York times and it was [inaudible] Highsnobiety had it. Design websites started picking it up. And that was really cool. And that really made me feel like, oh, this is a big deal, but it still feels really, you close the lid of your laptop and you go back to life. And then I flew to Palm Springs and I was, I think, at the Ace Hotel and I saw someone install the app. And I knew that it was my app because we were at the top charts. And I wanted to talk about like, it's your own project. You do your own silly things. We made it so the onboarding has a tiny little facsimile of a camera manual. It's like a little paper thing you thumb through.


Sebastiaan de With:

I never learned my Ultrix from Apple clearly when I was designing all these various physical things but it's like another little tiny little camera Polaroid manual almost you leaf through it to get to the permission screen. And I saw someone leafing through the pool. And I was like, "oh my God, this is crazy." [crosstalk].


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. It's amazing. I'm curious too. How much of it do you attribute to building it for yourselves? Because anytime somebody is able to have a breakout success in the origin story is not that they did a bunch of market research, talked with a bunch of people, try to figure out what the quote unquote world wanted and took the total opposite approach, which I think it generally seems to be shunned or at least seems to be a lot less popular, a lot less recommended of just scratching your own itch. What did you learn about the importance of that and how much do you contribute to the app being successful with just doing what you are passionate about and making it for yourselves?


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. A huge part of great products usually and this is not just me talking about hell, I'm just talking about things I enjoy are things that comfortably go for a niche that are very opinionated and just don't work for everyone. There's different products that of course out of necessity have to work for everybody. But if you make something, it's okay to try to not make it appeals to the greatest common denominator. And this is actually something Apple kind of did because when we worked there and I'm not sure what it is nowadays it might be very different, but there's very minimal user research. Apple does a lot of stuff by feel. And I think one of the greatest underrated things in technology nowadays is intuition.


Sebastiaan de With:

A lot of people try to kind of chase the metrics, look at the absolute things and you think you have control over it. You can get lost in those things and give yourself the illusion of control. But when it comes down to it, design and engineering, a lot of it can be made great by just trusting your intuition and going after passion. And I think for us, that definitely contributed greatly to the success because if we had asked, and this was a very tired trope, it's like the Ford quote, like if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said like a horse with wheels.


Daniel Scrivner:

[crosstalk] say that way [inaudible].


Sebastiaan de With:

A faster horse, but I'm just making them funny. But like we looked at what users wanted it would have been a drastically different product and maybe that would have been a different niche altogether. But I think there is something really to be said for opinionated products.


Daniel Scrivner:

I love that you have so many great little points in your answer there. So I want to transition now and talk about Lux. And there's a couple of things that I think are super interesting there. So you have this first successful app, then you end up shipping Spectre, which is the second successful app. Now it's turned into a company that looks like it's, I guess, from the outside looking in, it seems like you're building the next great camera and photography company. How do you guys think about the mission and why be photography specific in what you're building in that space?


Sebastiaan de With:

We started out by just following our passion and we were both just passionate photographers and that's how we ended up with that project and ended up with the project looking and feeling the way it does. And that has completely shaped the company culture. We've grown, like we took our first engineer and we were very deliberate in trying to find growth there. We weren't just like, "okay, we need more engineers." So, that's fine for any engineer. Our dream is to work with Rebecca Slacken. She was a friend. She's a peer. She's incredible, just an inspiring and fantastic developer. And we didn't want to compromise just like we didn't want to compromise on what we deliver as an app.


Sebastiaan de With:

We set off to make that possible and we did. And that's kind of been like the guidance ever since. And you're observing very correctly and that we are really aiming to become a photography company. We've actually done a little bit of consulting with larger camera brands for improving the photography experience. And we intend to keep doing that as long as it fits in our realm. I think everything is going to keep being driven by that North star of just we're passionate about imagery, photography and everything that is adjacent to it.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. And you found this amazing fit of you're creating software that people broadly really want. And it has a really unique aesthetic and look and feel to it. And I love that you brought up, I love the intuition part of your answer because I agree with you that I think that, that's something that now a lot of people I think have learned not to trust or been told not to trust and I think that a lot of people are losing touch with that. And I think if your background is in design, if your background said something creative, I think there's just a disorderly large part of your brain that's tuned in to intuition because I think that's frankly how a lot of the job kind of happens.


Daniel Scrivner:

The other question I wanted to ask is, and it's maybe a little bit of a follow-up on what we talked about before builds off some of the themes, but I think just to nerd out for a second, something else that I love about your app is it seems to me you've leaned in really hard into that physicality element. One that seems like your background. I know that you have a deep affinity for physical things, so maybe you could talk a little bit about cameras and motorcycles and what you've learned from that, how it's influenced the way you build products. So maybe we can start there and then I've got a couple other follow-up questions, but I'm curious for your take on your love of physicality and how you see that fitting into the software work that you do.


Sebastiaan de With:

I feel like that's almost like a paradox, right? I think that was probably the great struggle we all experienced back when design for the [inaudible] when design was so detailed is that we were coming to grips with the fact that we had these lifeless slabs of glass but we tried to make them feel a little bit like how satisfying it was to do things with textile objects. And you're so right. I'm obsessed with delight, physical sensation and like physical products. I'm holding a little pen right now. I'm fidgeting with that has just district incredibly nice action, like twist that a little sort of knob at the end of it to-


Daniel Scrivner:

Who's it made by.


Sebastiaan de With:

I forget exactly what the company is, but it's of course what else it's a Japanese company and they make these, it's just one solid piece of, I think, plated brass and just a little neural knob at the end has a very, very nice action. And that's one of the things I noticed with photography. Like I love the physicality of the older film cameras. Like I got into it with Canon, like anybody does when it is little digital bodies and it feels like a fight kind of that you have this thing that is a little computerized. It kind of tries to be smart. You all see people like the flash comes up and then people push you back down and you're like, oh, but if you give like a film camera to someone, the first thing they do without fail is they look at it and they're like, "oh," and they see it looks really pretty because usually they're silver and they reflect light, which is like, there's a whole thing to be said there about the way cameras used to interact with the light they capture and now they're just black.


Sebastiaan de With:

And then they start pulling those little nubs. It was like, all these satisfying little, little tiny aperture rings and focus rings and shutter speed rings. And even if you don't know what they mean, it's clear that someone put a lot of thought into how it feels to you. So it's a good, tactile sensation. And that it's a pleasant thing to create as an extension of your eye. And that's something that kind of gets lost a lot, I think, in modern appliances. And we can either oversimplify things. So it's just completely featureless stuff. There was a YouTube account at one point, I think maybe it still exists called Knob Feel and there's just someone going to like Hi-Fi stores or whatever. Maybe don't Google searches on YouTube, so it's safe, but he just twists little Hi-Fi equipment knobs and it goes like and if it's like good it's, it's good. You know? Yeah. That was definitely a big inspiration and an endless pursuit because how do you make that app on glass tactile? How do you get some, if you want like that, it's very, very challenging.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. It's easier with haptic feedback. Well, I would guess you guys spend a lot of time iterating on animation timing and super small details. And I would love to talk about that for a second and we can take this question a bunch of different directions. It could be around animation and other things, but I mean maybe to draw a little bit of a parallel, something that I love that you did, which it seems like is maybe inspired by like or just the kind of typeface typography that you would find on camera lenses, which is very unique. I don't even quite know how to talk about it otherwise it looks mechanical.


Daniel Scrivner:

Actually, I've got a book at home that's an older book. It has one of the weird vintage books I have for no other reason than I just find it pleasing. But it's like a leather bound book and it's basically a book for engineers and a lot of it's done in a draft style type phase and it has just a bunch of different diagrams and anyways, it feels like it fits into that world. But I imagine that also seems like something that could be indulgent. You're going to go off on this journey to create this custom typeface that I'm sure some people would be like, why do that? So I would love your take on maybe why do things like that and how much better, or how much more unique or how much more interesting does that make the end product? Because it seems to me like that's an important input to making digital products feel like they're made with love and kind of handmade and hand done.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. It's nice to think about, like, I can immediately imagine the book that you just described, that it has that certain feel to it. And I think I'd love having it start out as a side project because I could just go off the deep end with that. And I went fully off the deep end. At some point I was looking at a few of my vintage camera lenses and I realized, oh, the typography on these lenses is so nice because there is a physical restriction here. They had to route the metal with a round router bit and then they have to draw kind of straight paths and they make minimal curves. Basically can't really make the nice humanist typeface as we have nowadays. Nowadays mind you, they can but back then it had to be routed and to do such a mechanical thing I think they probably did it with fairly strict restrictions on how this router bit could traverse like straight or diagonal.


Sebastiaan de With:

So I thought, of course I can spend as much time as I want on this so I'm going to make a typeface that has the same limitation. So we made a typeface for Halide that we set the UIN and we even matched the iconography to be the same weight. So the quote on quote router bit that does the etching and the interface, which is obviously not-


Daniel Scrivner:

I love this level of detail.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah, it's the same size. So it all balances out. And for Spectre and Mark IIs, respectively like our updates and the new apps, we did the same thing. We started making new typefaces to respect the boundaries and respect the style of this thing. And that is one of the ways that we got to capture that. Another, which I thought was fun, was to try to create throwbacks to how cameras work, but without a very clear visual cue to it. So the gestures, for instance, on how you adjust exposure and focus, if you hold a camera out, if you just envision it, if you're listening, if you hold a camera in front of you, there's the lens on the front. And then there's at the top there's usually a dial that you can twist for the shutter speed. You twist the dial when it comes to directions up and down and the lens you turn left and right to basically change the focus. If you're focusing manually, that became sort of Cardinal directions in the app.


Sebastiaan de With:

So you can swipe anywhere like that was that point of frustration I have with the built-in camera app. Like you had to like tap on it to change the parameter. But the moment you tap, you had given intents to the camera and the camera had to guess what you meant. You had to guess, do you want this exposed or in focus and having a two-dimensional interface, lets you declare that intent. So we let you swipe up or down to make it brighter or darker or left or right. Which is kind of a throwback to the way quote on quote, the cameras of old phone cameras work to adjust those settings. That was like just a quite invisible way to bring a textile dimension to the app as well.


Daniel Scrivner:

What are others, and this may be a shot in the dark, but I know just from my own experience, obviously the things that you pour yourself into, the projects you're really proud of, it feels like there's two things that immediately jumped to mind. There's the things that just delight you as silly as they might be and so I'm curious about one or two of those things in the app, maybe we've covered them, maybe we haven't. And then on the flip side, there are the things that you grappled with for so long to try to figure out how to take it before having that aha moment. Maybe an example of each of those.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. The struggles.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yes.


Sebastiaan de With:

[inaudible] the struggles that are things that maybe never were. Obviously things like the typeface is something I love to do and the manual, like making little tiny physical call-outs like that were super fun. We had a little hidden gem in it at one point where the logo itself, most people actually don't know the origin of the name. It's like Halide is the name of silver, a type of silver salt that was used to make the first photosensitive material. So when you look at photography, the film will have a silver halide emulsion on it and that makes it sensitive to light and that lets you capture a picture. So it was like the basic building block. It turns out it's a very hard to pronounce word. A lot of people don't know how to pronounce it. That's kind of like why we named it Halide.


Sebastiaan de With:

And to bring that back, the app icon, which obviously I love to design, I gave it a very soft shimmering, like middle texture that's actually based on the way metal emulsions work. So it has a very even diffused kind of texture. And we even brought that to a little tiny part in the gallery. I'm not sure if it still does it. I think it might still do it actually. At the top if you look at all the images, the icon there actually has a gradient on it that moves as you move your phone. So the sensitive accelerometer and adjust the gradient accordingly because it's silver halide. That's one of those little details that I'm just like, yes, that's very, very satisfying then like the terrain pages.


Sebastiaan de With:

And when it comes to things that were just incredibly difficult, I think on an ongoing basis, honestly, it is that trade off between for one we'd never intended to add years and years worth of features to it. And I immediately realized how hard of a job that people at Apple or like Google have or any phone maker to balance all those features people want and expect in a camera without getting in the way of taking a photo, that is still a struggle. And what I really want to do is allow it to be intuitive and empowering to people to understand photographic concepts through just exploration. So you can choose manual settings and understand how shutter speed affects your picture, because it's a direct manipulation, gives you kind of an idea that continues to be such a struggle, like to try to make it so simple that it is empowering. I'm not sure if I really cracked it yet for some people apparently, but I want to make it so much better. And that's an ongoing project for sure.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. My sense on that one is it seems like one of those never-ending pursuits. It's like a balancing beam and the weight on both sides is always being changed based on obviously the features that are in it, the features that are new, the new APIs that come out, changing behavior. It's a challenge. Once you have something to figure out how to iterate on it intentionally without losing that magic spark that made it work in the first place.


Sebastiaan de With:

One thing I want to say about that it's a big realization I had at one point is that everybody shared these pictures in the photography world. If you look at the business of photography, you have these charts of Sony, Nikon, Canon, et cetera. They might have great news and they might make great cameras, but they have charts and they're all down and to the right, all camera seals are forever declining and people, Apple, especially in their keynotes, like to say, we're the most popular camera now, whether people take photos. What a lot of people think is that photography is vanishing.


Sebastiaan de With:

What is actually happening is that there are more people getting into and it's being exposed to photography than ever. And the transition of just taking a picture on your phone to the act of being interested or approaching photography as art or as a functional discipline has never been greater. It's like the most exciting moment for that. So when I say that, like that is a constant struggle, I also realized how privileged I am to be working on that right now as there is so much potential. And so many people are looking for tools to help them learn about that and are passionate about this new found interest in capturing images.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. That's an amazing perspective. Okay. One more question that we're going to switch over and I want to explore passion because I know that's been a huge force in your life that shaped a lot of your career. So my last question is for anyone listening that's inspired by your story. I think some of the stuff that stands out to me is I distinctly remember back when the App Store first came out, it felt super vibrant and that there was just so many apps and these weren't billion dollar startups, these were people like yourselves and Ben just making these delightful things and being able to make a living out of it. And then that slowly changed over time. And yet here you are shipping this thing that maybe feels like a hobby that ends up turning into a business.


Daniel Scrivner:

So for anyone that's inspired by that, I think the two things I'd love to be able to draw out for those people any advice you might have that's generalizable for building a great iOS app. I know it's an overly broad question, but I'll leave it there. And then the second one would just be any advice you have on the business side of the equation. And I know that can be a really deep rabbit hole. We'll try to stay high level, but I think both on product and business, what advice do you have for people listening that might be inspired by your story?


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. And I hope that if this story reaches someone and you are inspired and you have an idea in mind to go do it, because if anything people like, even my mom was like [inaudible] a lot of apps out there. There are not a lot of good apps actually. And to the people especially if you have a niche and almost any app idea has a niche, it will be like a glass of ice water in hell. If you are thoughtful about making something and that's what I would say, like take your time to make a thoughtful product. It will be received well. It will definitely be received well. Apple exposes them now they have a whole editorial team, worldwide different editorial teams that look for it. They will resonate if you put effort into it, be thoughtful about that. Don't half-ass it and put some effort into it and it will be well-received.


Sebastiaan de With:

On the business side of things we knew that crazy wave of all the people making apps and there was an app gold rush for a little bit in the early days of the app store. And what happened there is we also drove prices into the ground. It started becoming a lot of free games, free apps, or like ads or that kind of thing. In our blog post on our four-year retrospective Ben made this interesting observation. He said Folgers used to be what the expectation around coffee was. It was a five cent cup commodity and Starbucks the second wave coffee came around and started saying, you know if it's a really good cup it's worth five bucks. That transformation business-wise is insane. That is remarkable convincing people of that value. And that's like what we set out to do.


Sebastiaan de With:

Actually, we're comfortable charging, right now we charge $40 for our app one-time fee or there's like a subscription option where we used to be seven as a one-time purchase. We were comfortable charging that because we knew it was worth it. And if you're making something and you've put some thought into it, price it accordingly and people will recognize it as that. And if you discount yourself, people will also assume that you were a discount product. It's okay to put so much work into it, it feels like a premium, then also charge a premium for it.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah, I think that's great advice. I love just the focus on thoughtfulness because I think that so much falls underneath that. And it really does, I think, sum up kind of in one word, the nature of the apps that you've made. And I think why Lux and its apps have stood out in a sea of pretty shitty apps in general. Apps that generally check a functional box or don't make your day better. Aren't something you enjoy interacting with. It's almost like this dreaded thing you have to open and get something done and then hopefully close as quickly as possible.


Sebastiaan de With:

Right? I mean, the light is fundamentally undervalued as well. I'll always say that. Everybody remembers the first time they used Shazam and if you chase that, if you've managed to get that in your product, I think you're going to do just fine.


Daniel Scrivner:

Okay. I want to switch over and explore passion now. As I was thinking about this before the interview, a bunch of different things to explore there. So I think the one that I wanted to start with is I think if you could just talk about why passion has been so important for you. When I think about that in my own life, the common retort that I hear back is this the debate on, should you follow your passion or not? And generally the advice that I've heard is, well, no, you shouldn't, you need to do something logical. And I think it goes into, I don't know, it feels like we're in a wave of life where it's like, don't trust your intuition. Don't trust your gut. You want to use data. You need to use data all the time. That's the only way you can make good decisions. So how has passion shaped your life, your career and why do you feel like it's the right call to follow your passion?


Sebastiaan de With:

There was this great economics interview, I think with or like a lecture in Berkeley at one point. And there was a, I forget he's pretty well known as an economist. And he said, people will tell you to chase your passion, it's bullshit. All of those people were exceptionally lucky and I'm not discounting that, but I don't think it's bullshit. I was exceptionally lucky. And my passion drove me to some of the worst failures of my life and some of the greatest successes of my life. I think those failures though were incredibly valuable. And that's the thing. People often think when they say, oh, chase your passion and if you don't succeed that you have wasted your time. You may have failed, but you never waste your time. You learn the mistakes that make you the person you are and will produce your better outcomes eventually.


Sebastiaan de With:

And I think when it comes to moments where my passion led me to successful things like Halide those are moments I'm like super grateful for and there was also a good amount of luck involved, but like I said, I think the most important thing to remember is when you do things with passion, that other people will recognize it and appreciate it more. And that's why you can almost always get success with it and it will put you in a place where you learn from that.


Daniel Scrivner:

I love that. I love that perspective. There was another question I wanted to ask is just on the note around, I think piggybacking off what you said there, I think for some people they're like, oh, passion equals easy. You know that something is easy. And I think people have a hard time squaring up that you can be passionate about something and it can also be brutally difficult, but it's worth continuing to engage with it. So in your journey you talked about, obviously it's brought you to some of those failures, what's your take on why should passion be easy or not be easy? And I guess when you're following your passion and you end up, I don't know, just somewhere where you're like this clearly isn't where I want to go or this isn't working out. How do you course correct and decide intelligently to pursue your passion but do it in another direction?


Sebastiaan de With:

Totally. Yeah. It's interesting because I think a lot of people confuse working on something passionately with it should be fun all the time, which it's not, there'll be a lot of moments where you're thinking like, why am I doing this? But the fact that you're still doing it while thinking, why am I doing this? That probably indicates that you're somewhat passionate about this. And when I was working as a head of design at this startup, at some point there were times where I was like, why am I still doing this? And I was really quite burned out by the end of it and it took a really.... I was in a bad place and I won't be shy about saying things like, I was very depressed. I was going through a divorce at the time. That job moved away. I felt professionally it was a big setback, seeing the company scaled down and having to force myself to reconcile new things. I thought for a while, am I really enjoying this still?


Sebastiaan de With:

And what really helped me gain perspective in that was taking a really extended break from it. Me and my friend, very grateful and privileged to have an amazing friend that one night was just sitting on my couch and we were drinking whiskey and he's like, "I just learned how to ride a motorcycle." And he's like, "Do you want to go to Alaska?" And I was like, "Stuart, I'm asking you if this is a serious question because if it's serious there's very serious implications, you can't take it back. Are you serious?" And he's like, "yes." And I was like, "okay, let's do it." And we spent three months riding to literally the end of the road in Alaska. We rode all the way to the Arctic ocean. And it was a very, very transformative journey for me.


Sebastiaan de With:

And it was a very difficult time in my life but I remember patching up my bike, like in a small Alaskan town where I was living for a little bit on the way back and thinking, oh yeah, I've craved it. I wanted to design things. I started envisioning things. It just came to me and I realized, okay, this is what I'm passionate about, but I also need to make sure that I balance it correctly with my life, that I have other things in my life that I can lean on other passions, other things and I don't burn myself out on it. And that is so crucial. Everybody will tell you and you will see the landscape literally with the burnt out husks of people that love their passions but burn so bright that they burnt out. And it is so, so valuable to give yourself time, to take a break, to reflect and to realize these are my passions and how can I healthily pursue them?


Daniel Scrivner:

Sure. So maybe the advice is, if you ever feel disconnected from your passion and maybe that's because you were pursuing your passion and you didn't get the results you wanted it, you just are in a, I don't know, a bad segment of the journey of life.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah.


Daniel Scrivner:

Which everyone's going to go through at some point.


Sebastiaan de With:

Especially after the last year. Yeah.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yeah. Yes. I think you're right. I think a lot of people had that experience last year. To take a step away and kind of, I don't know, let that passion speak back to you. I think on the other side too, I guess I'm curious, how do you nurture your passion? And I know for myself, it's just for the stuff I'm excited about. I'm not going to feel guilty about buying a book, even if it's an expensive, silly book, like Latasha and book on, I don't know, a design thing that I just find really, really enjoyable. And so for me, I think there's a little bit of an art form for the things that I really care about. I am never going to beat myself up about feeding that passion, whether it's going to events, whether it's buying stuff. What's your thoughts on the importance of feeding your passion in ways or examples of how you nurture that?


Sebastiaan de With:

I think you honestly hit the nail on the head there with your examples. Like you should allow it ample room to grow and to thrive in your life, but I'll just reiterate, I just think you need to see and make sure that it balances itself out. I know some really, really talented designers. I was recently talking to someone who joined Apple, and they're in the same place I was when I was younger, when I was in my early twenties. And he was like, how do I make this not take over my entire life? And I feel like that's great to indulge in the passions, but instead of giving it boundaries is a really, really good idea. And then in a sense, I think it's great to find a few different ones. If you tend to be passionate about things, there's probably other things that you can also be quite passionate about. And I think that is the greatest way to help you indulge, healthily and sustainably in your passions is to find other ones that you can also indulge in and take a break from.


Daniel Scrivner:

No, that's great advice. You can put one down for a little while, be inspired by another, and then hopefully hear that one call your name again. This has been awesome. So I want to move just to a few closing questions. I think the first is you've talked about a little bit at a high level, but one question I've just really enjoyed asking people recently is for a favorite failure. And I know in your journey that obviously and part of why I like that is, I know for a lot of people obviously are just kind of the common images if it's a failure it just sucks, but I think that there's also those things that you failed at that you're proud of yourself for trying and that you're glad you got to the other end of it and you maybe recognize why it wasn't successful. What is a favorite failure?


Sebastiaan de With:

Oh, there's a couple of good ones. I really just made a lot of bad mistakes in my life. Plenty of material there. We can fill another podcast with it. One of the more notable ones in my design career was getting an intro through a friend of mine, Travis Kalanick, who then had a company called Uber cab.


Daniel Scrivner:

Never heard of-


Sebastiaan de With:

I lived in San Francisco. I'd use cabs for maybe... I was using cabs at the time and the cabs honestly sucked. It was terrible. I would call one for my girlfriend and [inaudible] which wouldn't show up. And then we had this thing. It was slightly more expensive than cabs, but you can just order a car and all that kind of stuff. But Daniel, the design of this app did not spark joy. It was very bad. It was very, very badly designed. So I sent an email and I was like, "hey, the experience here, talk about user experience is incredible, but your actual user experience design quote on quote is atrocious. Can we fix this?"


Sebastiaan de With:

And I literally did the same thing I did that by the time with HP, I just already mocked it up. I had already made super nice comps and turn off when the traveled directly in terms of like, this is really cool. We got to meet. And we met up, I went to the office, it was like a tiny scrappy office by then one of those corner buildings in the financial district in San Francisco. And he was really excited. We had a great meeting and we walked out and they were like, I was still the head of design at this startup at the time clearly still doing a little passion project. He was like, "okay, we love it. Like, we want to put you on design. Let's do it." And I never replied back. I was like, "ah, that's cars, car app kind of boring, whatever."


Daniel Scrivner:

I love that you had gotten that far in where you had already mocked up, which takes I'm guessing hours and hours and hours and hours to get to the point where you're excited about something to share it.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. And of course being the classic me, like I had done like the app icon and stuff too because I couldn't stand. It was like this big red view on a white background with the little glossy effect, the default glossy effect, I was like, "this won't do okay. It's going to be like black, like the cars. It's going to be really nice and premium." Yada, yada, yada. I cringe thinking about it now. Not even saying, "no thanks. Not interested. Thanks for the offer." Literally just ghosting the CEO of Uber being like, "no."


Daniel Scrivner:

That's a good one. That's a good one.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah.


Daniel Scrivner:

Any others come to mind or maybe that's at the top of the list.


Sebastiaan de With:

Another favorite one is kind of like failing by success. Like I mentioned, Steve did not like Find My Friends. He was just not a fan of it. One day we came upon, maybe Steve supplied it, a piece of leather, which he really, really liked and we proceeded to this after literally months, months of designing perfect interfaces. They were so cool and so nice and different versions. They all got shot down. And so we made the app leather. We had three different kinds of leather, a black one, a brown one and the blue one sky blue like bright blue and it became a brown leather. He loved it. He loved it. And when it came out, it took a long time. Now people don't realize this, but apple is a very slow moving company. They're not working on the iPhone 13 now, that's now been done for years. They're working on the iPhone, 15, 16, et cetera.


Sebastiaan de With:

So it finally came out. I was not working at Apple anymore. There was a keynote and DQ was presenting, Find My Friends and his big leather stitched icon shows up on stage the same day they filed the patent application. It's even still named on the patent for that icon. My name is forever attached to it and is a stitch leather icon and stitch leather app. And people were like, what the, I'm not sure if I can swear, but what the bleep, why is this leather? What the hell! Everybody was just making fun of it. At this point, it was kind of like the wave of this physicality and design.


Sebastiaan de With:

Some people refer to a skeuomorphism, but it's only appropriate when that actually resembles a real object but I digress. It was getting a little much, in some cases, a little extreme. We had a game center that was like a poker chip table with Greenfeld and wood. And people were just using this as the example of, okay, now it's gone too far. It became such a joke and I happily took credit for it. Even though people were just like, what is apple thinking, this is the worst design I've ever seen? [inaudible] an article why is apple making the iPhone look like the ugly wild west. It was really funny and it was probably one of my favorite failures of like, I mean, we succeeded in making the design unique and making it go past Steve.


Daniel Scrivner:

Yes. It was iconic.


Sebastiaan de With:

It was iconic. [inaudible] iconic you know? Yeah. That was it. And I think people will still remember it for sure. But it was a notable failure to produce the thing. People I think wanted it to look like.


Daniel Scrivner:

I'm so glad I asked that question because I remember that it's kind of funny. I'll just share it really quickly, but that's not uncommon. Like I remember we were at Square. So before the Cash App, we went through multiple iterations of this thing that was called Square Wallet and tried a bunch of different executions. And I remember one of them was literally modeled off of the denim on Jack's jeans. And that was another example of literally it was like this specific type of denim. What if we can get that into the app and maybe that one was slightly better received, but I wonder if people knew that Steve chose that leather, if that would have been a different take on it, maybe not.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. A lot of people were like, man, "Scott Forstall really liked whatever." And I was like, kind of biting my tongue like Scott. But I remember Robert talking at the time about having a bunch of wallets that you guys bought to explore different leather finishes.


Daniel Scrivner:

And the iconic one was the Hermes wallet that had the right leather green and the wallets cut-ins and all of that stuff.


Sebastiaan de With:

[inaudible] wallet were beautiful projects too.


Daniel Scrivner:

They were beautiful flops and no one wanted to use them. That's a whole separate story. But anyways, that was just a funny parallel there. I'm curious, I want to ask this question because I'm just super curious for your answer on it. What is your definition of success? You can take that any direction that you want, but I assume that that's something you've thought about quite a bit and you probably have an interesting answer there.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah, that's interesting. I think I've been kind of like forced to reconcile that as I see a lot of people that have done different career paths than me and I'm maturing and seeing new people come into the industry and making a choice between like, well, chasing your passion or doing your own personal projects versus just working for the man. And I think either is great and it all depends on your own personal definition of success. And for me, it's just to find absolute delight in what I do.


Sebastiaan de With:

I'm so grateful and so privileged that every day I get up and I get to do what I do. It has become a bit more businessy this year. But as you go through that phase, I'll eventually be able to focus on the things I like again even more, but that is to me just success, just I don't have to do things that don't just make me unhappy. I optimize for happiness and that has never led me down in my life so far. And if that is a selfish definition of success, I'm fine with that. But as long as it doesn't harm anyone else or it does harm to the planet, I think that's my definition of success.


Daniel Scrivner:

That's a delightful answer. I've once heard that set is the goal of having everything on your to-do list to be stuff that you just can't wait to do.


Sebastiaan de With:

Oh, and I like that.


Daniel Scrivner:

It's a rare day, a rare moment, depending on the phase of life you're in that's the case. Okay, last question. You talked about that pen on your desk a little bit earlier, that Japanese brass pen with just amazing feel, what are other well-designed objects, apps or things that you just love. And they can be as silly as stupid and dumb and small, as silly as you want, or they can be like the motorcycle that you drive.


Sebastiaan de With:

I still love Leica cameras. Leica cameras are just delightful. I shoot with a M10 now. And I love just having a male focus lens. And I realized very quickly that it's great to just, if you mess it up and you get the wrong shot, you can say it was me. I miss the focus. I had the settings wrong. It was my bad. That gives me a great sense of agency over your mistakes and over the picture because it's not that fighting out a little pop-up flash thing anymore. It's not saying like, oh, the camera focused on the wrong thing. No, it was you. And it's wonderfully, clearly designed. It's solid. It's been out of brass just like that pen, that just dance. It's lovely. I really like it.


Sebastiaan de With:

Another really nice thing that I recently saw [inaudible] a lot of people that noticed with Polaroid, it's one of the most inspiring stories ever [inaudible] the inventor of the Polaroid continually reinvented photography and the company basically slowly slid into irrelevance and little parts to places in the trademark, went to like Android phones and TVs and all sorts of nonsense. But a couple of Polaroid enthusiasts in the Netherlands bought an old factory, restore it to keep the old way of making that instant film alive. And they did pretty well for a while. And then they managed to get enough money together to buy part of the Polaroid brand to make Polaroid cameras again.


Sebastiaan de With:

And for a long time, it just refurbished old ones. Now they made a new one that's really tiny and it is a really proper little tiny Polaroid. And I like everything about it. It's delightful. I think Polaroid one super small, white camera comes with a tiny square picture. So like all Polaroids square, but much smaller and everything about it, Daniel, everything about it is a delight. It comes with a little sticker set and the sticker set has like a little sticker of it sticking its tongue out to prevent the picture from getting exposed immediately, it actually is a little tongue that sticks out now. So they changed the design a little bit, but every part about it is just designed with so much delight and joy that it's clear that the people who worked on it loved working on it. And you feel that it's so, so cool. Yeah. That's something I think you should check out.


Daniel Scrivner:

That's so neat and it's a perfect place to end on because I think its just an amazing example of people making something out of passion, which is very clearly what you and Ben have been able to do with, with Lux and Halide and just the fact that well-designed things made by passionate people that are done thoughtfully stand out in the world and it's crowded with things that aren't that most of the time. Thank you so much for your time, Sebastiaan. This has been an amazing conversation. I really appreciate it.


Sebastiaan de With:

It's been a delight, Daniel. Thank you so much for having me.


Daniel Scrivner:

And for anyone that wants to follow you or wants to learn more about Lux, I guess, can you just share where people can find you, where you can find your apps and your website?


Sebastiaan de With:

Yeah. So you can search for Halide in the App Store. Today it's the app of the day, I just found out. It's featured on the App Store, which is really cool. But when you're listening to this it probably is not, but you can find on the App Store, it's spelled H-A-L-I-D-E. The other app is called Spectre, but you can find it on the same page. Our website is lux.camera. And if you're looking for me online, I'm, SDW, Sierra Delta Whiskey pretty much anywhere on Twitter, on Instagram, not on paparazzi yet, but presumably soon.


Daniel Scrivner:

You must've gotten that handle in the early days.


Sebastiaan de With:

Yes. Yes.


Daniel Scrivner:

You could still get three-letter handles that actually resemble your name.


Sebastiaan de With:

Totally.


Daniel Scrivner:

Well, thank you so much.


Sebastiaan de With:

Thank you.




On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

Explore all episodes of Outlier Academy, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

Daniel Scrivner and Mighty Publishing LLC own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Outlier Academy podcast, with all rights reserved, including Daniel’s right of publicity.


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