It’s a pitch tuned for a politically polarized audience. Erik Finman, a 22-year-old who calls himself the world’s youngest Bitcoin millionaire, posted a video on Twitter for a new type of smartphone that he says will free Americans from their “big Tech lords.”
His popular video, posted in July, features rocking music, an American flag and mentions of former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Donald J. Trump. Conservative pundits have fallen in love with Mr Finman’s Freedom Phone, and his video has raked in 1.8 million views. Mr. Finman soon had thousands of orders for the $500 device.
Then comes the hard part: Build and deliver the phone. First, he received bad initial reviews about his plan to simply put his software on a cheap Chinese phone. And then there are the ridiculous jobs like shipping phones, hiring customer service agents, collecting sales tax, and dealing with regulators.
“I feel like I’m practically prepared for anything,” he said in a recent interview. “But I guess it’s like how you hope for world peace, in the sense that you don’t think it’s going to happen.”
For even the most lavishly funded startups, it’s hard to compete with the tech industry giants that have gripped their markets and are valued at trillions of dollars. However, Mr. Finman is part of a burgeoning right-wing tech industry that is up to the challenge, relying more on their conservative customers’ distaste for Silicon Valley than on expertise or experience.
There are cloud service providers hosting right-wing websites, a video site called free speech that is competing with YouTube, and at least seven conservative social networks trying to compete with Facebook.
Parler, the right-wing social network sponsored by conservative donor Rebekah Mercer, fought for its life earlier this year after Apple, Google and Amazon withdrew their services. Another social media company popular with the right wing, Gab, has been fighting to gain traction without a foothold on the Apple or Google app stores. And Gettr, a social network created by veterans of the Trump administration, was immediately attacked.
Finman, who has bleached blonde hair and a brown beard, calls himself a change agent in both technology and Republican politics. In a freelance interview about roast lamb at a Turkish restaurant in Manhattan, Mr. Finman weighed in on British politics; cites both Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, and Karl Lagerfeld, the German fashion designer; and explains why he thinks the modern Republican Party is “pathetic.” Party leaders complain about Big Tech’s censorship, he said, but do little about it.
In 2014, New York magazine featured Finman as a 16-year-old from suburban Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, who became wealthy when a few years earlier he spent a valuable gift $1,000 from his grandmother into Bitcoin.
By 2017, his fortune had grown to $1 million and he had posted online snaps of himself posing with YouTube celebrities, boarding and disembarking private jets, and burning fires. Burn the 100 dollar bill. But he is tired of the crypto scene. “I really hate talking about Bitcoin,” he said. “It’s like ‘Rolling Stones, play hits.'”
He dived into politics. He said that at the age of 12, he considered himself a libertarian. (It was at a rally for Ron Paul, a former presidential candidate, when someone first told him about Bitcoin.) But his politics changed when Mr. Trump took the political stage. nation. “I drank Kool-Aid in 2016,” he said.
Over the next few years, Finman said, he became worried about what he saw as Silicon Valley censoring conservative voices. He also spotted business opportunities in other Republicans who shared his concerns. So he aimed at the dominance of Apple and Google and tried to create a new right-wing smartphone.
“Politics is the new national pastime, honey,” Mr. Finman said. “Even non-political things like a freaky pillow become political,” he added, referring to Mike Lindell, founder of MyPillow, who has been selling lies about the 2020 election. .
However, to make a smartphone, he had to rely on Google. The company’s Android software already works with millions of apps, and Google makes a free, open version of the software for developers to modify. So Mr. Finman hired engineers to remove any sign of Google and load it with apps from conservative social networks and news outlets. Then he uploaded the software to the phone bought from China.
Google and Apple declined to comment.
To launch the phone, he recorded a commercial piece in which he saw tech companies as enemies of the American line. “Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg banned MLK or Abraham Lincoln,” he said in the video. “The course of history will be changed forever.”
At the same time, a series of right-wing figures were selling phones to their followers. They earn $50 for every customer who uses their discount code.
Thousands of people bought a $500 phone. Others, including some conservatives, quickly turned the dynamic pitch. “It’s not a bad instinct,” said Zachary Graves, technology policy expert at Lincoln Network, a liberal think-tank. “But when I first watched the video, I waited for them to say ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!’
Quickly, newspapers reported that Freedom Phone was based on a low-cost handset from Umidigi, a Chinese manufacturer that used a chip that was vulnerable to hacks. Mr Finman, who marketed the device as “the best phone in the world”, was on the defensive.
In an interview in July, Mr. Finman acknowledged that Umidigi made the phone but still said he was “100 percent” sure it was more secure than the latest iPhone. Apple has tens of thousands of engineers. Finman said he has recruited 15 people in Utah and Idaho.
Mr Finman said he was not surprised by the criticism, but he was surprised by the sales. That leaves him with responsibilities he didn’t even plan for, including certification with the Federal Communications Commission and special rules for shipping devices with lithium batteries. He hires people from his hometown of Idaho to staff a makeshift customer service center, and he struggles to deal with sales tax issues.
Within a month of the phone being released, Finman had a solution: sell someone else’s phone and act as a brand frontman. Just as Mr. Finman’s political inspiration, Mr. Trump, sold Trump steak and Trump vodka without running a ranch or a distillery, Mr. Finman took on the responsibility himself. The difficulty is actually managing a phone manufacturing company.
“When the situation gets tough, bring the 50s,” Mr. Finman said in a recent interview. “They can be the ones who have sleepless nights.”
He teamed up with a 13-year-old company in Orem, Utah, called ClearCellular, which made a phone that disconnected from Apple and Google. The company also has experience in logistics, transportation and customer service.
The companies added American Flag wallpapers and conservative apps to ClearCellular’s device and called it Freedom Phone. Mr. Finman said that the phone also has its “PatriApp Store”, although ClearCellular provides tech support for the app store.
Mr Finman will collect a cut, though they did not specify how much.
Reviews of the new phone have not been positive. CNET, the product review site, says the $500 device appears to be “almost on par with a cheap $200 Android phone”.
Michael Right, 46, founder of ClearCellular, said Mr Finman is “really building a brand”. Creating a phone company is ambitious, he added, but “not just software, security, hardware, but supply chain, inventory, and capitalization.” Finman’s strength is “connecting with people within the free community.”
Finman said he had orders for about 12,000 Freedom Phones, bringing sales to about $6 million in just over seven weeks. Mr. Finman and Mr. True said they have about 8,000 phones left to ship. Mr. Finman declined to connect The New York Times with any customers.
Mr. Finman said that Mr. Right is “like my Phil Knight, and Freedom Phone is like Jordans,” referring to the Nike co-founder, who helped turn Michael Jordan’s shoes into a cultural and commercial hit.
The deal freed Mr. Finman to focus less on running a phone company and more on building a political operation. In a phone interview last week from Washington, where he was meeting with potential investors, he said Freedom Phone can reach libertarians beyond liberating its customers. from Big Tech.
He said that during elections, he planned to have Freedom Phone direct users to nearby polling stations. And he aims to create a phone news feed where he can promote conservative articles.
“I consider it absolutely one of the ultimate political tools,” he said. “Everybody has one in their pocket.”