It was a message tailored to a politically divided audience. Erik Finman, the world's youngest Bitcoin millionaire, produced a video on Twitter promoting a new type of smartphone that he claims will free Americans from their "Big Tech rulers."
In July, he released a film that had powerful music, American flags, and tributes to past Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Donald J. Trump. Mr. Finman's Freedom Phone was promoted by conservative pundits, and his video received 1.8 million views. Thousands more orders for the $500 item were quickly placed by Mr. Finman.
Then came the difficult part: manufacturing and shipping the phones. First, he received negative feedback for his idea to simply install his software on a low-cost Chinese phone. Then there was the grunt job of shipping phones, hiring customer support representatives, collecting sales taxes, and dealing with authorities.
In a recent interview, he added, "I feel like I was nearly prepared for anything." “But I guess it's similar to how you hope for world peace, in that you don't believe it'll happen.”
It's difficult for even the most well-funded start-ups to compete with IT sector behemoths with a death grip on their industries and valuations in the trillions of dollars. Mr. Finman was part of a rising right-wing IT business that was up to the task, relying on conservative customers' dislike of Silicon Valley rather than competence or experience.
Right-wing websites are hosted by cloud providers, there is a so-called free-speech video site that competes with YouTube, and at least seven conservative social networks are attempting to compete with Facebook.
After Apple, Google, and Amazon dropped their services, Parler, a right-wing social network sponsored by conservative megadonor Rebekah Mercer, found itself fighting for its life early this year. Gab, another far-right-leaning social media platform, has struggled to gain popularity without access to the Apple or Google app stores. Gettr, a social network founded by Trump administration veterans, was hacked almost immediately.
Mr. Finman, who has bleach-blond hair and a brown chin-strap beard, describes himself as a change agent in both IT and politics. Mr. Finman weighed in on British politics, cited both Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, and Karl Lagerfeld, the German fashion designer, and explained why he believed the present Republican Party was "pathetic" in a freewheeling discussion over lamb kebabs at a Turkish restaurant in Manhattan. He claimed that the party's leaders whine about Big Tech censorship but do nothing about it.
Mr. Finman was profiled in 2014 by New York magazine as a 16-year-old from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, who had struck it rich after he spent a $1,000 present from his grandmother on Bitcoin a few years before.
By 2017, his net worth had surpassed $1 million, and he was uploading photographs of himself posing with YouTube celebrities, boarding private aircraft, and burning $100 bills on fire on social media. However, he had become bored of the Bitcoin scene. “I despise talking about Bitcoin,” he admitted. "It's like if the Rolling Stones said, 'Play the hits.'"
He got involved in politics. He claimed to have been a libertarian from the age of 12. (The first time he heard about Bitcoin was at a rally for former presidential candidate Ron Paul.) When Donald Trump entered the national political scene, however, his politics changed. He admitted, "I drank the Kool-Aid in 2016."
Mr. Finman said that during the next few years, he became concerned about what he saw as Silicon Valley's censorship of conservative viewpoints. He also saw other Republicans who shared his concerns as a commercial opportunity. As a result, he set out to challenge Apple and Google's dominance by developing a new right-wing smartphone.
Mr. Finman declared, "Politics is the new national pastime, baby." “Even nonpolitical items like a friggin pillow end up being political,” he continued, alluding to MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has peddled election-related misinformation.
However, he had to rely on Google to create a smartphone. Google's Android platform already works with millions of apps, and the corporation provides a free, open version for developers to tweak. So Mr. Finman paid experts to remove all traces of Google from the device and replace them with conservative social media and news apps. He then installed the software on phones he purchased in China.
Google and Apple declined to comment.
He made an infomercial to promote the phone in which he painted IT corporations as enemies of the American way of life. In the video, he says, “Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg banned Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln.” “The entire trajectory of history would have been changed.”
At the same time, a number of right-wing figures advertised the phone to their supporters. For every consumer who used their discount codes, they stood to make $50.
The $500 phone was purchased by tens of thousands of individuals. The animation appeal was soon ridiculed by others, including some conservatives. Zachary Graves, a tech-policy specialist at the Lincoln Network, a libertarian think tank, said, "It's not a bad inclination." “However, I was expecting them to say ‘Live from New York, it's Saturday night!' when I first viewed the video.”
News sites quickly claimed that the Freedom Phone was built on a low-cost device from Umidigi, a Chinese manufacturer known for using hackable circuits. Mr. Finman, who touted the phone as "the best phone in the world," was caught off guard.
Mr. Finman revealed that Umidigi made the phone in a July interview, but insisted that it was "100%" more secure than the current iPhone. Apple employs tens of thousands of people in the engineering field. In Utah and Idaho, Mr. Finman said he employed 15 workers.
Mr. Finman said he wasn’t surprised by the criticism, but he was taken aback by the sales. That left him juggling responsibilities he hadn’t planned for, 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 sort out sales-tax issues.
Within a month of the phone’s release, Mr. Finman had a solution: sell someone else’s phone and act as the branding frontman. Just as Mr. Finman’s political inspiration, Mr. Trump, has sold Trump steaks and Trump vodka without running a cattle ranch or a distillery, Mr. Finman unburdened himself of the difficult task of actually managing a company that makes phones.
“When the going gets tough, bring in the 50-something-year-olds,” Mr. Finman said in a recent interview. “They can be the ones with the sleepless nights.”
He teamed up with a 13-year-old firm in Orem, Utah, called ClearCellular, which had already created a phone that was disconnected 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 ClearCellular’s device and called it the Freedom Phone. Mr. Finman said that the phone also has his “PatriApp Store,” though ClearCellular provides the technological support for the app store.
Mr. Finman will collect a cut, though they won’t say how much.
Reviews of the new phone haven’t been positive. CNET, the product-review site, said the $500 device appeared to be “nearly on par with a $200 budget Android phone.”
Michael Proper, 46, the founder of ClearCellular, said Mr. Finman was “really building a brand.” Creating a phone company is ambitious, but “not only software, security, hardware, but supply chain, inventory and capitalization,” he added. Mr. Finman’s strength is “connecting with folks inside of the freedom community.”
Mr. Finman said he had orders for about 12,000 Freedom Phones, putting revenue at around $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 connect The New York Times with any customers.
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 turn Michael Jordan’s shoes into a cultural and commercial hit.
The arrangement has freed Mr. Finman to focus less on running a phone company and more on building a political operation. In a telephone interview last week from Washington, where he was meeting with potential investors, he said the Freedom Phone could take on liberals in addition to freeing his customers from Big Tech.
He said that during elections, he planned to make the Freedom Phone direct users to nearby polling stations. And he aimed to create a news feed on the phone where he could promote conservative articles.
“I see it absolutely as one of the ultimate political tools,” he said. “Everyone has one in their pocket.”