It was a pitch tailored to a politically polarized audience. Erik Finman, a 22-year-old who called himself the youngest Bitcoin millionaire in the world, posted a video on Twitter for a new kind of smartphone that he said would liberate Americans from their “Big Tech overlords.”
His rousing video, posted in July, featured rousing music, American flags and references to former presidents Abraham Lincoln and Donald J. Trump. Conservative pundits hacked into Mr. Finman, and his video has been viewed 1.8 million times. Mr. Finman soon had thousands of orders for the $500 device.
Then came the hardest part: building and delivering the phones. First, he received bad early reviews for a plan to just put his software on a cheap Chinese phone. And then there was the unglamorous work of sending phones, hiring customer service reps, collecting sales tax, and dealing with regulators.
“I feel like I was practically prepared for anything,” he said in a recent interview. “But I think it’s kind of like you hope for world peace, in the sense that you don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Even the most lavishly funded start-ups have a hard time competing with tech industry giants who have a lethal grip on their markets and are valued in the trillions of dollars. Mr. Finman was part of a growing right-wing tech industry that nevertheless rose to the challenge, relying more on their conservative clients’ distaste for Silicon Valley than on expertise or experience.
There are cloud providers hosting right-wing websites, a so-called free-speech video site competing with YouTube and at least seven conservative social networks trying to compete with Facebook.
Parler, the right-wing social network funded by conservative mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, fought for his life earlier this year after Apple, Google and Amazon shut down their services. Another social media company popular with the far right, Gab, has struggled to gain traction without a place in Apple’s or Google’s app stores. And Gettr, a social network created by veterans of the Trump administration, was immediately hacked.
Mr. Finman, who has pale blond hair and a brown chin-strap beard, calls himself an agent of change for both tech and Republican politics. In a freewheeling interview about lamb skewers at a Turkish restaurant in Manhattan, Finman weighed in on British politics; quoted both Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, and Karl Lagerfeld, the German fashion designer; and explained why he thought the modern Republican Party was “pathetic.” The party’s leaders complain about Big Tech censorship, he said, but do little about it.
In 2014, New York magazine profiled Mr. Finman as a 16-year-old from outside of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, who had become wealthy after spending a $1,000 gift from his grandmother in Bitcoin a few years earlier.
In 2017, his wealth was over $1 million and he posted photos online of him posing with YouTube celebrities, getting on and off private jets and setting $100 bills on fire. But he was tired of the cryptocurrency scene. “I actually hate talking about Bitcoin,” he said. “It’s like ‘Rolling Stones, play the hits.'”
He dived into politics. He said that at age 12 he considered himself a libertarian. (It was at a meeting for Ron Paul, the former presidential candidate, when someone first told him about Bitcoin.) But his politics changed when Mr. Trump appeared on the national political scene. “I drank the Kool-Aid in 2016,” he said.
Over the next few years, Mr. Finman said, he became concerned about what he saw as the censorship of conservative voices in Silicon Valley. He also saw a business opportunity with other Republicans who shared his concerns. So he aimed for the dominance of Apple and Google and tried to create a new right-wing smartphone.
“Politics is the new national pastime, dear,” said Mr. Finman. “Even non-political things like a freaking pillow eventually become political,” he added, referring to Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow, who has been spreading 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 is making a free, open version of the software for developers to customize. So Mr. Finman hired engineers to strip it of every sign of Google and load it with apps from conservative social networks and news outlets. Then he uploaded the software on phones he bought in China.
Google and Apple declined to comment.
To reveal the phone, he shot an infomercial depicting the tech companies as 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 changed forever.”
At the same time, a series of right-wing personalities threw the phone at their followers. They would earn $50 for every customer who used their discount codes.
Thousands of people bought the $500 phone. Others, including some conservatives, quickly pan the animated pitch. “It’s not a bad instinct,” said Zachary Graves, a technology policy specialist at Lincoln Network, a libertarian think tank. “But when I first saw the video, I was waiting for them to say, ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!'”
Soon, news outlets reported that the Freedom Phone was based on a low-cost handset from Umidigi, a Chinese manufacturer that had used chips vulnerable to hacks. 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 he 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 employed 15 people in Utah and Idaho.
Mr Finman said he was not surprised by the criticism, but he was surprised by the sale. That left him juggling responsibilities he hadn’t planned, including certification with the Federal Communications Commission and special rules for shipping devices with lithium batteries. He hired people from his hometown in Idaho to staff a makeshift customer service center, and he struggled to solve sales tax problems.
Within a month of the phone’s release, Mr. Finman had a solution: sell someone else’s phone and act as a branding frontman. Just as Mr. Finman’s political inspiration has sold Mr. Trump steaks and Trump vodka without running a cattle ranch or a distillery, Mr. Finman relieved himself of the difficult task of actually running a company that makes telephones.
“When the going gets tough, bring in the 50-year-olds,” Mr Finman said in a recent interview. “They may be the ones with the sleepless nights.”
He worked with a 13-year-old company in Orem, Utah called ClearCellular, which had already made a phone that was disconnected from Apple and Google. The company also had experience in logistics, shipping and customer service.
The companies added the US flag wallpapers and conservative apps to ClearCellular’s device and called 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 collect a portion, although they won’t say how much.
Reviews of the new phone are not positive. CNET, the product review site, said the $500 device was “almost comparable to a $200 budget Android phone.”
Michael Proper, 46, the founder of ClearCellular, said Mr. Finman was “really building a brand.” Setting up 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.”
Mr. 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. Proper said they had about 8,000 more phones to send. Mr. Finman refused to contact NewsMadura with customers.
Mr. Finman said 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 settlement has given Mr. Finman the freedom 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 met potential investors, he said the Freedom Phone could target liberals in addition to freeing its customers from Big Tech.
He said he planned to have the Freedom Phone direct users to nearby polling stations during the election. And he wanted to create a news feed on the phone where he could promote conservative articles.
“I definitely see it as one of the ultimate political tools,” he said. “Everyone has one in their pocket.”