By Jack Nikas, New York Times Company
It was a pitch for a politically polarized audience. Eric Feynman, 22, who calls himself 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 splashy video, posted in July, featured provocative music, American flags and mentions of former presidents Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump. Conservative pundits have seized Finman’s Freedom phone and garnered 1.8 million views on his video. Feynman soon received thousands of orders for the $ 500 device.
Then comes the hard part: making and delivering phones. First, he received bad reviews at first for his plans to keep his software on a cheap Chinese phone. And then there were shipping phones, hiring customer-service agents, collecting sales tax and working with regulators.
“I think I was ready for virtually anything,” he said. “But I think it’s kind of like you’re hoping for world peace, in the sense that you don’t think it’s going to happen.”
For even the most stylish financed startups, it’s hard to compete with technology industry giants that have a death knell in their market and that are worth trillions of dollars. Feynman was part of a growing right-wing technology industry yet accepted the challenge, relying more on the annoyance of their conservative customers for Silicon Valley than on skills or experience.
There, cloud providers are hosting right-wing websites, a so-called free-speech video site is competing with YouTube, and at least seven conservative social networks are trying to compete with Facebook.
The parlor, a right-wing social network funded by conservative megadonor Rebecca Mercer, is fighting for its life after Apple, Google and Amazon pulled their services earlier this year. Another popular social media company on the right, Gab, has struggled to gain traction without space in Apple or Google App Stores. And Gettr, a social network created by veterans of the Trump administration, was hacked instantly.
Feynman, who has bleach-blonde hair and a brown, chin-strap beard, claims to be an agent of change in both technology and Republican politics. In a free-wheeling interview about lamb kebabs at a Turkish restaurant in New York City, Feynman relied on British politics; Quotes from both the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and the German fashion designer Carl Lagerfeld; And explained why he thought the modern Republican Party was “pathetic.” Team leaders complain about Big Tech censorship, he said, but don’t do the slightest thing about it.
In 2014, New York magazine identified Feynman as a 16-year-old from outside D’Elin in Idaho, who spent $ 1,000 on Bitcoin from his grandmother a few years ago.
By 2017, his fortune had risen to 1 million and he was posting pictures of himself online with YouTube celebrities, boarding private jets and burning 100 100 bills. But he’s tired of watching cryptocurrencies.
“I actually hate to talk about bitcoin,” he said. “It’s like playing ‘Rolling Stones, hits’.”
He entered politics. He said that at the age of 12 he considered himself a freedom fighter. (There was a rally for former presidential candidate Ron Paul when someone first told him about Bitcoin.) But his politics changed when Trump came on the national political stage.
“I drank Cool-Aid in 2016,” he said.
Over the next few years, Feynman said he became concerned about what he saw as a censoring conservative voice in Silicon Valley. He also found a business opportunity among other Republicans who shared his concerns. So he noticed the dominance of Apple and Google and tried to create a new right-wing smartphone.
“Politics is the new national pastime,” Feynman said, referring to Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPilo, who lied about the 2020 election.
He had to rely on Google to make smartphones. The company’s Android software already works with millions of apps and Google has created a free, open version of the software for developers to modify. So Feynman hired engineers to snatch any sign from Google and load it with apps from conservative social networks and news outlets. He then uploaded the software to a phone he bought from China.
Google and Apple declined to comment.
To unveil the phone, he made an informative record in which he threw the technology company as the enemy of the American method.
He wondered if Mark Zuckerberg would ban MLK or Abraham Lincoln, he said in the video. “The course of history would change forever.”
At the same time, a series of right-wing personalities handed the phone to their followers. They stand to earn $ 50 for each customer using their discount code.
Thousands of people bought the phone for $ 500. Others, including some conservatives, quickly pan animated pitch.
“It’s not a bad instinct,” said Zachary Graves, a technology-policy expert at the Lincoln Network, an independent think tank. “But when I first saw the video, I was waiting for them to say ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!'”
Quickly, the media reported that the Freedom phone was based on a low-cost handset from Chinese manufacturer Umidigi that used a chip that showed risk for hacking. Feynman, who marketed the device as “the best phone in the world,” was defensive.
In an interview in July, Feynman admitted that Umidigi made the phone but still said he was “100% sure” that it was more secure than the latest iPhone. Apple has thousands of engineers. Feynman said he employed 15 people in Utah and Idaho.
Feynman said he was not surprised by the criticism, but he was shocked by the sale. As a result, among the responsibilities he did not plan for, he continued to work with the Federal Communications Commission’s certification and special rules for sending devices with lithium batteries. He hired staff from a temporary customer-service center in his hometown of Idaho, and he fought to solve sales-tax problems.
Within a month of the phone being released, Feynman had a solution: sell someone else’s phone and act as a branding frontman. Just as Feynman’s political inspiration, Trump sold Trump steaks and Trump vodka without running a cattle farm or distillery, so Feynman forced himself out of the difficult task of running a company that makes phones.
“When it gets tough, bring 50-year-olds,” Finman said. “They can have sleepless nights.”
He met a 13-year-old firm in Uterus Orem, known as 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.
Companies have added American flag wallpapers and conservative apps to ClearCellular’s devices, calling it the Freedom Phone. Feynman said the phone has its “PatryApp Store”, although Clear Cellular provides technical support for the App Store.
Feynman will collect a cut, though they won’t say how much.
The review of the new phone was not positive. CNET, the product-review site, said the $ 500 device seemed to be “the equivalent of an Android phone with a budget of about $ 200”.
Michael Proper, 46, founder of Clearcellular, said Finman is really building a brand. Creating a phone company is ambitious, but “not just software, security, hardware, supply chain, inventory and capitalization”. Feynman’s strength is to “connect with the people of the freedom community.”
Feynman said he has orders for about 12,000 Freedom phones, which have grossed about 6 6 million in just seven weeks. Feynman and Proper said they have about 8,000 phones left on the ship. Feynman refused to associate The New York Times with any subscribers.
Properman said Proper was “like my Phil Knight, and like the Freedom Phone Jordan,” referring to Nike’s co-founder who helped make Michael Jordan’s shoes a cultural and commercial hit.
This arrangement allowed Feynman to focus less on running a phone company and more on running political activities. In a telephone interview from Washington last week, where he was meeting with potential investors, he said the Freedom phone could free its customers from Big Tech as well as take liberals.
He said that during the election, he planned to deliver the Freedom phone directly to the nearest polling station to the users. And his goal was to create a news feed on the phone where he could promote conservative articles.
“I see it as the ultimate political tool,” he said. “Everyone has one in their pocket”
This article was originally published in the New York Times.