David Chen, CEO of Kata Digital, on why decisions are better made after a cigar break.


As the CEO of Kata Digital, a US-based smartphone and electronics company,  David Chen has had to make decisions, big and small, when creating the brand’s devices: from the build, to the design, to the materials, to the processor, to the positioning of the speakers. When he needs to take a break, he puffs on a cigar—a hobby he recently acquired—and returns to the task at hand with a clearer and calmer mind.

A full-sized cigar, which typically takes one-and-a half hours to finish, lasts almost 10 times a typical cigarette. Cigar-smoking is a hobby said to have been introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus, who came across tobacco when he “discovered” the Americas in the 15th Century.

A gentleman who acquires the habit must acquaint himself with the accompanying etiquette: do not ask another smoker for a light; do use a cedar spill to better appreciate the taste; do put out your cigar only when a fourth remains unburnt; and so on. These rules are, however, a matter of opinion.

Much like fine wine, cigar smoke is drawn to the mouth and sometimes swirled to bring out the flavor of the tightly rolled fermented tobacco leaves, and, unlike cigarette smoke, is rarely—if ever—inhaled. Cuban cigars, revered by cigar smokers (Mr. Chen included), are like Latin American country’s most vaunted export, and the fourth largest after nickel, medicine, and sugar. According to AFP, Habanos, the makers of Mr. Chen’s favorite brand, had global sales of US$439 million in 2014.

Puffing a cigar, or two, to come back relaxed is reminiscent of Kata’s tagline of “making life easy” as cigars also make Mr. Chen’s life easier during stressful moments.

When did you start smoking cigars?

A friend of mine brought it for me for my 40th birthday. He said, “David, here’s a cigar box, these are really nice Cuban cigars.” And I said, “Okay, thank you,” because I’m not into smoking. I decided to give it a try six months afterwards. So I developed a taste for cigars.

Cigars are really, really cool because you don’t inhale. You smoke for the taste of it. It’s relaxing and helps puts my mind at ease after a stressful day.

Do you have a favorite brand?

Romeo y Julieta. It’s a Cuban cigar. I buy it at airport duty-free shops, I grab them when I pass by Hong Kong. They have it in a lot of stores but I’m always traveling so I buy them at the airport.

How often do you smoke?

It depends on how stressed I am. Normally, I don’t smoke it because I’m not a smoker, right? But when I find I’m really stressed then I grab one—sometimes I do two a day—though sometimes I don’t smoke at all.

When I was in Los Angeles, I didn’t smoke because I only do it when I’m really stressed, when there’s a lot of things happening. It just helps me relax a little bit, put things in perspective. It’s like a walk: some people like to walk.

I use it during stressful moments. I started trying it out at the end of the day but then I figured out because there’s a lot of decisions to make — and some decisions are bigger than the others. You need a moment to calm down a little bit, have yourself take a breather and then come back to the decisions I hate, so you can make a better decision. So it’s all about improving the decision-making, I guess.

I believe I make better decisions after a cigar. I’m the type that’s very fast in making decisions and I react very fast as well so a cigar slows me down a little bit and put things in a better, calmer perspective.

Obviously, when you decide, you make some good decisions, you make some bad ones and sometimes you see things that don’t go the way you want it, especially when you’re [in the business of] making phones—there’s really a lot of decisions you have to make, thousands and thousands, just to make one device so cigars helps me calm down a little bit.

If I retire, I think I could live without it but not while I’m working, no. It’s a good thing to have.

How many did you smoke while designing the M2 LTE, Kata’s new phone?

It took me a lot of cigars because the M2 LTE took about a year to put everything together. We revamped the way we think, the way we do things. We conceptualized based on how devices should be used rather than on how they are made.