It was a pitch designed for a politically polarized audience. Erik Finman, a 22-year-old who described himself as the world’s youngest Bitcoin millionaire, posted a video on Twitter for a new type of smartphone that he said would free Americans from their “big tech overlords”.
His sparkling video, released in July, featured rousing music, American flags, and references to former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Donald J. Trump. Conservative pundits sold Mr. Finman’s Freedom Phone, and his video garnered 1.8 million views. Mr. Finman soon had thousands of orders for the $ 500 device.
Then came the hard part: setting up and delivering the phones. At first, he received bad reviews for his plan to simply put his software on a cheap Chinese phone. And then there was the lackluster work of shipping phones, hiring customer service agents, collecting sales taxes, and dealing with regulators.
“I feel like I’m practically prepared for anything,” he said in a recent interview. “But I think it’s the way you hope for world peace, in the sense that you don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Even for the most generously funded startups, it’s hard to compete with the tech giants who have their markets under control and valued at trillions of dollars. Mr. Finman was part of a growing right-wing tech industry that rose to the challenge and relied more on the aversion of its conservative customers to Silicon Valley than on expertise or experience.
There are cloud providers that host right-wing websites, a so-called free speech video site that competes with YouTube, and at least seven conservative social networks that try to compete with Facebook.
Parler, the right-wing social network funded by conservative mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, struggled for its life earlier this year after Apple, Google and Amazon shut down. Another social media company popular with the extreme right, Gab, has struggled to gain prominence without a spot in Apple or Google app stores. And Gettr, a social network created by veterans of the Trump administration, was instantly hacked.
Mr. Finman, who has pale blond hair and a brown chin strap, describes himself as an agent of change for both tech and republican politics. In a frank interview about lamb kebabs in a Turkish restaurant in Manhattan, Mr. Finman commented on British politics; quoted both Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, and Karl Lagerfeld, the German fashion designer; and explained why he considered the modern Republican Party “pathetic”. The party’s leaders are complaining about big tech censorship, he said, but are doing little about it.
In 2014, New York magazine portrayed Mr. Finman, a 16-year-old from outside of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, who had gotten rich by giving a $ 1,000 gift from his grandmother to Bitcoin a few years earlier.
By 2017, his wealth had exceeded $ 1 million and he posted photos of him online posing with YouTube celebrities, getting on and off private jets, and setting $ 100 bills on fire. But he’s tired of the cryptocurrency scene. “I hate talking about bitcoin,” he said. “It’s like ‘Rolling Stones, play the hits.'”
He immersed himself in politics. He said that by the age of 12 he considered himself a libertarian. (It was at a rally for Ron Paul, the former presidential candidate, when someone first told him about Bitcoin.) But his politics changed when Mr. Trump stepped onto the national political stage. “I drank the Kool-Aid in 2016,” he said.
For the next several years, Mr. Finman said, he was concerned about what he thought was censoring the conservative voices in Silicon Valley. He also discovered a business opportunity with other Republicans who shared his concerns. So he targeted Apple and Google dominance and tried to create a new far right smartphone.
“Politics is the new national pastime, baby,” Finman said. “Even apolitical things like a goddamn pillow end up being political,” he added, referring to Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow, who spread 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 provides a free, open version of the software that developers can modify. So Mr. Finman hired engineers to remove all signs from Google and load it with apps from conservative social networks and news outlets. Then he uploaded the software to cell phones that he bought in China.
Google and Apple declined to comment.
To reveal the phone, he recorded a commercial calling tech companies enemies of the American way. “Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg banned MLK or Abraham Lincoln,” he said in the video. “The course of history would have been changed forever.”
At the same time, a number of far-right personalities threw the phone to their followers. They made $ 50 for every customer who used their discount codes.
Let us help you protect your digital life
Thousands bought the $ 500 cell phone. Others, including some Conservatives, quickly panned the animated pitch. “It’s not a bad instinct,” said Zachary Graves, a technology policy specialist with the Lincoln Network, a libertarian think tank. “But when I first saw the video, I waited for them to say, ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!'”
News outlets quickly reported that the Freedom Phone was based on an inexpensive handset from Umidigi, a Chinese manufacturer that had used chips that had been shown to be prone to hacking. Mr. Finman, who marketed the device as “the best phone in the world”, was on the defensive.
In a July interview, Mr. Finman admitted 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. Mr Finman said he had 15 employees in Utah and Idaho.
Mr Finman said he was not surprised by the criticism but was stunned by the sales. That left him juggling responsibilities he hadn’t planned on, including getting certified with the Federal Communications Commission and special rules for shipping lithium-battery devices. He was hiring people from his hometown, Idaho, to fill a makeshift customer service center, and he was struggling to resolve sales tax issues.
Within a month of the phone’s release, Mr. Finman had a solution: sell someone else’s phone and be the branding front man. Just as Mr. Finman’s political inspiration, Mr. Trump, sold Trump steaks and Trump vodka without running a cattle ranch or distillery, Mr. Finman relieves himself of the difficult task of running a business that makes phones.
“When the going gets tough, bring the 50-year-olds with you,” Finman said in a recent interview. “They can be the ones with the sleepless nights.”
He teamed up with a 13-year-old company in Orem, Utah called ClearCellular that had already developed a phone that was separate from Apple and Google. The company also had experience with logistics, shipping and customer service.
The companies added the American flag wallpapers and conservative apps to the ClearCellular device, calling it the Freedom Phone. Mr. Finman said the phone also has its “PatriApp Store,” although ClearCellular provides the technology support for the App Store.
Mr. Finman will get a share, but they won’t say how much.
The reviews of the new phone have not been positive. CNET, the product review site, said the $ 500 device appears “almost on par with a $ 200 budget Android phone”.
Michael Proper, 46, the founder of ClearCellular, said that Mr. Finman “is really building a brand.” Starting a phone company is ambitious, but “not just software, security, hardware, but also supply chain, inventory and capitalization,” he added. Mr. Finman’s strength is “connecting with people within the freedom community”.
Finman said he had orders for about 12,000 Freedom Phones and sales of about $ 6 million in just over seven weeks. Mr. Finman and Mr. Proper said they had about 8,000 phones left to ship. Mr. Finman declined to associate the New York Times with any clients.
Mr. Finman said that Mr. Proper is “like my Phil Knight and the Freedom Phone is like the Jordans,” referring to the Nike co-founder who helped make Michael Jordan’s shoes a cultural and commercial hit.
The deal has allowed Mr. Finman to focus less on running a telephone 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 the Freedom Phone could take on liberals and free its customers from big tech.
He said that during the election he planned to have the Freedom Phone direct users to nearby polling stations. And he wanted to create a news feed on the phone to promote conservative articles.
“I absolutely see it as one of the ultimate policy tools,” he said. “Everyone has one in their pocket.”
Comments are closed.