After the Oxford Dictionaries named "selfie" as Word of the Year at the end of 2013, LuMee fittingly launched in 2014. Since then, the LED-light phone case has not only contributed to the rise of the selfie but has also become a pop culture phenomenon.
"It's funny how people just get used to taking bad photos because they don't have light, so we were solving a problem people didn't realize that they had," said Allan Shoemake, inventor and founder of LuMee. "When they see there's a solution, literally, the light bulb goes off. Usually people poor-pooh selfies and say they're narcissistic, which I totally disagree with. It's self-expression. Everyone is their own director now. I love that."
Shoemake came up with the idea of LuMee after Skyping with his daughter, who was studying abroad, from a laptop. The lighting was so bad for the both of them; Shoemake was in a dark room, while his daughter was poorly lit by a fluorescent light above her head. With decades of experience as a professional photographer, Shoemake took inspiration from lighted makeup mirrors and attached Christmas lights to a foam core board that he placed behind his laptop screen. Skype sessions were much clearer with his daughter, and his wife eventually encouraged him to apply for a patent and create a proper prototype. "That's when the real work started," remembers Shoemake.
He and his wife were still working full-time jobs from their hometown in New Jersey, just outside of New York City, so it took years of nights and weekends to patent his invention, as well as develop a LuMee phone case that was well-lit and, of course, flattering. The time and hard work paid off: Over the past three years, LuMee garnered the approval of Kim Kardashian, snagged Apple as one of its retailers, inspired a slew of knockoffs and has set the bar for the perfect selfie.
Ahead of LuMee's "Destination" summer collection release, we caught up with Shoemake, who's now based in Park City, Utah, over the phone to talk about how his invention works, partnering with Kim Kardashian, what's next for the company and his best selfie-taking tips.
From a lighting perspective, how exactly does LuMee work?
When I was doing photography, someone told me this and it seemed counterintuitive, but when you move a light closer to the subject, the light gets softer and more flattering. Generally the same principle applies with selfies. We put the lights on both sides of the phone, and then we put diffusion on the rails to make that light spectrum broader. As you hold your phone — most people hold it two or three feet out — it's the perfect length to create that soft, butterfly lighting.
One of the things you get when you're just working with ambient light, like fluorescent lights in a room, are these dead shark eyes. I learned lighting back when I would look at the catchlights in the model's eye. You could tell what lights a photographer would use, like the softbox or a ring light or umbrella; it was off to the right from the reflection of the model's eyes. It also makes the eyes more sparkly. That was one of the motivations — creating a light that could give you good catchlight and make the eyes pop and really make them the focal point. Otherwise, eyes without catchlights are, to me, dead and uninviting.
How did you attract customers when you launched?
In 2014, we still had an office at home, and we launched a small website. One of our partners' sons had a LuMee protoype, and he was at a party in Hoboken. These two girls were having a trouble with a selfie, so he came over and gave them the case. One of the women coincidentally worked for ABC on the online divison and posted an article on it the next day, and that went worldwide. Daily Mail picked it up, the Paris press picked it up; suddenly we were getting flooded with orders, which was crazy. Customer service was born, and that was just me. I was shipping, answering emails, listening to customers and taking their advice. We keep doing that today. That's how we get the best product we can come out with. We keep changing and adapting to make it better — to make the lighting brighter, softer and wrap around the face more.
How did Kim Kardashian get her hands on a LuMee?
Our business model from the beginning, and it's still true to this day, is we give out 1,000 cases, maybe more, a year to influencers and celebrities. And so I'm not sure if we gave Kim some, but I know that early on we sold 20 cases, which was a big order back then, to a jewelry store in Los Angeles. The store was giving them as gifts to the Kardashians and one day, I got a call from Shelli Irzoff, the general manager of The Forum in LA. She wanted to put the LuMee case in the gift bags for the concerts, which are given to A-List guests of the venue's headliners. She said, "I handpick these things, so can you send 100 of them?" I said, "Sure, absolutely." And then two weeks later, she was calling and was like, "Oh by the way, we were at an after party for Sam Smith and Khloe [Kardashian] came running up to show me the case and how amazing it was. Kim is really interested and she uses it a lot."
And how did she end up partnering with your company?
At one point, I learned that Kim wanted to talk to me, and so I had her give me a call. She was coming back from Paris and we talked for 40 minutes. I talked to her mom the next day, then we got the attorneys involved and then that went on for a couple of months. We were getting closer to a partnership, but she got pregnant and said, "I don't have time for this." We were bummed, but I kept sending her cases and I would send her emails, and she always responded right away.
In September 2015, she did an article with Vogue.com, which tagged LuMee and had a link to our website. Holy crap, that was amazing. So I wrote her a letter to say thank you for that and I also said, "Just want to let you know, we really value your brand. We never used it for our gain and there's no ask from me, just thank you." And then she wrote back, "I still really love your product and I believe in you guys. Let's start talking again about partnering."
Finally, our CEO [Robert G. Pedersen II] and I went out to visit Kim in LA. We drove up to Hidden Hills and met with her. But we actually almost didn't because she had a sinus infection and was very pregnant, but she met with us and we talked for an hour and a half. I think she even gave birth the next day or after that. [Editor's note: Saint West was born on Dec. 5, 2015.] It was really gracious of her to meet with us. She was super nice and had great ideas. By late December, we signed the deal.
Did you immediately see the effect of Kim Kardashian's approval for LuMee?
January 2016 was the first time Kim promoted it, and we doubled the sales from 2015 in one month. She certainly moves the needle. It was great because she used LuMee organically before she partnered with us. We're working on other collaborations with her now, developing new cases to bring out by the holidays. That's been fun. She really gets excited about that stuff. She's super creative and has great ideas.
What are your future plans for LuMee as a company?
We want to be the experts in the lighting space with products that are really true to our core proposition of making people look better with light. Sometimes we get in a meeting and stray with crazy ideas, but we have to come back to our core proposition. How do we make people look better? How do we help people be better social recorders and up their Instagram or FaceTime game? If not, we won't do that. We have tons of ideas and we just hired a new product development person just to do that. That's super exciting.
What are your top selfie-taking tips with a LuMee?
I always like keeping the light a little up, instead of straight out. If you lift your arm a foot up, everyone looks better looking up than down, which is like putting a flashlight under your chin. I also like finding light sources in the back, so if you're taking a selfie with the LuMee lights on, find a window in the back instead of a boring flat wall. Find a background that's interesting or a window that's in the far background on one side. And try to take yourself off center. It's Photo 101, the rule of thirds; your subject is in one-third of the picture — not in the center, but to the right or left of center. The other two-thirds can tell a story about where you are. It makes for a more compelling and interesting photo.
This interview has been edited and condensed.