Meet Aillio Founder Jonas Lillie
Jonas Lillie, the founder of Aillio, is a multi-faceted entrepreneur, who spent a decade as a fashion photographer, but ended up building coffee roasters.
Not your typical route to running an international company, in other words.
Aillio’s Head of PR Jacob Juul — Yes, it’s us interviewing ourselves :) — sat down with Aillio’s founder for a chat about how it all got started, what Aillio is all about, and what kind of future he envisions for the company.
Could you start by telling me about your background?
Jonas Lillie: Yes. I was educated as a photographer in Copenhagen. In 2000, I moved to Hong Kong and started working as a fashion photographer. Being thrown to the lions in Hong Kong’s fiercely competitive fashion industry was a rude awakening that quickly shook off the rosy-red illusions of my innocent inner artist. After the initial shock I found my feet and gradually learned how to navigate in the world of business. It was during those formative years that I first experienced the importance of dedication and persistence, but also increasingly became aware of the limitations of my trade, which led me towards creating Aillio.
That sounds interesting, can you elaborate on what those limitations were, and how that led to Aillio?
Sure. I had this gradual realization that as a photographer, my success was directly linked to me as a person and to the number of hours I would work. That to me felt like confinement in the sense that I was my own limitation. I wanted to create something that was bigger than me, something that would have its own life without me as a bottleneck. Those were the initial thoughts that led to the ambition of creating a physical product, instead of the service I was selling as a photographer, which then materialized in the vision of a coffee roaster. So, while that all may sound a bit abstract and philosophical, it was in fact exactly how it happened.
And why a coffee roaster, what’s the story there?
Well, one of my photography clients and good friends in Hong Kong was running a company selling coffee equipment, knock-boxes, tampers, cups and so on. It was during my work with them that I came up with the idea of a 1 kg coffee roaster. I pitched them the idea but they weren’t interested and found it too complicated. I, however, couldn’t stop thinking about it, and the more I thought of it, the more it seemed like a good idea.
That makes sense. From those thoughts, how did you move on to the next steps?
I shut down my photography studio in Hong Kong, scribbled down my idea and a set of values on a piece of paper, and moved to Taiwan. And that’s where the real work began. I spent the next two years in a tiny apartment, eating cup noodles with my head buried in books about product design, engineering software and manufacturing processes. That was a challenging time but also a time with a steep learning curve. I guess my photography background had taught me attention to detail and an eye for aesthetics, while the endless hours of photo editing had equipped me with the patience to deep-dive into the details. So in that sense, my background did become useful after all.
A two-year development process sounds like a long time, at least to my untrained ear. What were the challenges you faced?
For a product as complex as the Bullet, two years of development time is actually very fast. It is important to understand that we set out to bring something completely new to the market. In the case of the Bullet that was the ability to roast up to 1 kg purely with electricity from an American 120v outlet. Existing roasters at the time were either sample roasters that roast 100–300 grams, or large gas-powered industrial roasters. So we developed a completely new solution based on induction heating, which we were eventually able to patent as well. It was during that time that my twin brother Jacob got increasingly involved. (Jacob is today a co-owner).
When I first started talking to Jacob about making a new kind of coffee roaster, he was unimpressed. He didn’t think what I was trying to do was special enough. After a few weeks of thinking of a way to differentiate the product, I suddenly had the idea of using induction to heat the drum. I researched it, and then called Jacob. This was the moment where Jacob changed his mind towards my idea. It took me 6 months to build a contraption that could roast coffee. I ordered some prototype parts, 3D printed others, and then gutted an induction cooktop which I used to drive the heating system. The prototype jig only lasted 1 roast, but proved that we could reach high enough temperatures to roast coffee.
From there I went all out on learning CAD and studying product design, and understanding how to design for manufacturing — which is critical!
Jacob spent his free time developing the controller and software, but he was also a good mentor in teaching me what to pay attention to and asking critical questions to my ideas. All the physical parts are unique and loads of toolings had to be created. That in itself is a huge challenge, but a decision we’re happy with, as this is the only way to make a product that is truly unique, not only in function, but also in appearance. And that thinking is now at the heart of Aillio, a holistic product approach where nothing is left to chance, and the software and hardware are on par. That’s the goal anyways.
When did the Bullet launch? And were you prepared for the demand?
Bullet was launched in 2015. It immediately created waves in the coffee roasting communities where initial skepticism turned to enthusiasm, as people got to test it out. And I’m not saying that to toot our own horn, but it is just simply how it happened. We had been talking about roasting coffee with electricity and induction technology for a while, without having the physical product to back it up. So when we eventually launched the Bullet and it lived up to, and in some instances exceeded, the promises we’d made, demand really started to grow.
In the following two years we spent a lot of time ironing out manufacturing issues, and also made a series of upgrades to improve the machine. Initially, we couldn’t produce enough units to meet demand, so we focused on getting the production line and the supply chain set up in a way that allowed us to expand. We looked into manufacturing in different countries and finally decided on manufacturing everything right here in Taiwan.
Taiwan seems like an unusual choice for manufacturing these days. Can you talk a bit about that?
For us Taiwan was an obvious choice. Taiwan possesses a huge pool of manufacturing expertise, excellent infrastructure and a transparent political system that we can relate to and navigate in. Taiwan’s relatively moderate size means we’re close to the production at all time, and can be on the ground in our factories within hours whenever challenges arise. When looking strictly at pricing, we probably could have obtained lower prices elsewhere in say, China. However we’re not in the business of chasing the lowest possible price, we’re in the business of making great products, and on that parameter Taiwan is hard to beat. We love Taiwan and we love being part of the local economy here. In many ways Taiwan’s identity represents the values that we like. Taiwan is a shining, humane and democratic diamond in a rough, competitive and sometimes hostile world. While in no way comparable to the plight of the Taiwanese people, we do, as a company, resonate with the values of going our own way, standing up for what we believe in, and going forward with a positive mindset.
Sounds like a match made in heaven :)
Let’s skip forward a bit, what does Aillio look like today?
Today, Aillio is a young and somewhat successful company. We’ve passed the initial and very uncertain start-up period, and are now in a place where we have a market and a good organizational set-up. That being said, we’re still very much at the beginning of our journey. We currently employ 28 people and have offices in Taipei, Bangkok and Denmark. We have customers all over the world and have sold around 7,000 Bullets. So, that’s a very good feeling, knowing that there’s a real demand for our products, and that customers enjoy using the Bullet.
We have started a new ambitious project and we have our hands full with manufacturing, support, customer care and new developments. So never a dull moment here.
Speaking of new developments… What’s the status of the new roaster — AiO?
Well, now things get really interesting :)
AiO is in many ways a whole new chapter for Aillio as a company. It is a completely different beast, and much, much more advanced than the Bullet.
While the Bullet will always be the first-born and have a special place in my heart, AiO is another level. With AiO, we’re stepping into a new world of artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation and intuitive product design.
When I decided we were ready for a new product, my first thought was to find a design company from Denmark, as I wanted a closer connection to my roots, having been away from home for almost 20 years. After being introduced to Kilo Design by a close friend, it took me 3 months to convince them to take this project on board. I guess it was the fact that we see AiO as a green-tech product that finally convinced them. So Danish idealism trumped short term profit in that case, which I like :)
We’re showcasing AiO for the first time at the Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston, in April. So we’re working around the clock at the moment to get everything ready. We have a working AiO prototype at the Bangkok office and the results so far are looking good. The exterior design is as stunning as anything we’d dared hope for. It looks exactly like what it is: a smooth, high-tech machine with an inviting, organic form-language that resembles nothing before seen in our industry. The interior is a precise, intricate and compact build-up of all the components we wanted, fitted into the bare minimum of space.
Our design partners from Kilo Design in Copenhagen challenged our engineering skills to the point of desperation by insisting on the insanely hard to manufacture shapes, and space constraining dimensions, of their original design. In the end, we overcame that challenge and today we couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.
Speaking of constraints — can you describe AiO in three short sentences?
Three sentences? I can do that in one sentence ;)
To me AiO is much more than just a machine. It’s the physical manifestation of our core vision, which is to create products that enable anyone to realise their dream coffee and build the businesses, and the lives, they desire.
So is it a “dream machine”?
Haha, well that’s probably going a bit overboard, but in a sense, yes. If you can dream it up then AiO can make it come to fruition. You bring your coffee dreams and we give you the machines to help you realize them. So keep dreaming :)
I’d like to round off our conversation today by looking ahead. What can we expect from Aillio in the future?
You can expect us to continue on the path of new developments and improvements.
As I mentioned earlier, we’re in the business of creating great products, and that’s not going to change. Products that challenge our perception of what we believed possible is the only way forward for us. That thinking is at the core of our brand, and it’s also what excites us. I want Aillio’s journey to be an adventure, for our awesome customers, our valued business partners and all the wonderful people working here.
Just the other day I came across that paper with the idea and the values I had scribbled down at the very beginning. It reads — Create awesome roasters! Courage, integrity, honesty, creativity and adventure.
Those words are as relevant today as they were back then, and we’ll carry them into the future too.
Maybe I’ll frame that little paper to make sure we never forget what this is all about :)
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, it was interesting and a pleasure.