How Carl Pei built fashion’s favourite tech brand

The founder of cult tech brand Nothing, whose transparent designs have become a cool kid favourite, talks disrupting the phone market and bringing fun back to design.

We first noticed Nothing around 18 months ago, when we began to see the brand’s transparent design hanging from the ears of several notable It” kids. The clinical millennial white of [insert well-known earphone manufacturer] this was not.

The Ear (1) was jarring in its rawness, an earphone in which the insides were displayed for all to see. The much-hyped Phone (1) followed last summer, with its so-called Glyph Interface” seeing the phone’s back flash according to notifications (perhaps the most fun thing a phone has been able to do since the iBeer app). Then the brand debuted its then-latest earphone, the Ear (stick), at Chet Lo’s SS23 show SS23 show. Nothing’s status as cult fashion favourite was secured.

So when we were invited to meet Nothing’s Swedish founder, Carl Pei, we jumped at the chance. Pei is somewhat of a cult figure himself, co-founding the multibillion-dollar smartphone brand OnePlus in 2013, before jumping ship to start Nothing in 2020. With the new and improved Ear (2) out now, and a more premium” Phone (2) rumoured for later in the year, we met at the brand’s first ever shop in the trendy bit of Soho where all the Palace kids hang out. Naturally.

The Nothing Phone (1).

Nothing was announced just over two years ago. Has it flown by? And have you aged?
It’s been a rollercoaster ride. Some weeks have aged me a lot. But overall, it’s been good.

Good! What was the first phone that you remember using?
Nokia 3310. I was nagging my parents to buy it for me because all my classmates had one. And then after they bought it, I just put it on the shelf. They got really upset. They were like, Hey, we spent this much money and you’re just putting it on the shelf?” So I brought to school and started playing Snake with my friends. I was 12. You don’t get any phone calls when you’re 12.

What did you want to do with your life at that age?
It depended on what movie I’d watched. I wanted to be a kung fu teacher, after watching a couple of Bruce Lee films. I wanted to be a policeman at some point. One time I told my dad I wanted to be a business person. He’s like, What kind of business person?” I was like, I don’t know. Maybe I just have my own store. Doesn’t matter.” He’s like, What? if you aim this low, you’re gonna fall on the ground. You gotta aim really high and then maybe land somewhere in between.” So I remember that interaction.

How much of your day now feels like you’re a business person and how much of it feels creative?
I feel like a janitor, if I’m honest. I look at the company, what needs to be fixed, and I just kind of fix it. But hopefully, once I fix it, it doesn’t break again. I think maybe in two years, I can do creative things within the company. But there’s a lot of infrastructure, setting the foundation, first.

At what point did you realise you would enter the world of tech or consumer products?
The Internet is one of my parents. My parents were very busy. I got a computer and a broadband connection very early on, so I spent a lot of time online, just learning about making websites, all these new web services, like when YouTube and Facebook had just come out. I was 15 or so and wanted to be in the consumer internet space to create my own Facebook or whatever. But at the same time, I always played with the latest gadgets. I was the first kid in my school to have the iPod. I was the first of all my friends to have the iPhone. So somewhere in the backburner was all the kind of hardware, new consumer tech stuff.

Human interaction with the pocket computer hasn’t changed for 20 years. That’s what I think we should be working on. How do we make technology more efficient for the user?”

Carl Pei

When did you realise that design would be such an important part of your work with Nothing?
Not in the very beginning. We’re quite a young company and in the first couple of months we were trying to find our way. I happened to meet Jesper [Kouthoofd]. Jesper is the CEO of [Swedish consumer electronics company] Teenage Engineering. We just sat together and talked about making tech fun again. And we decided to work together. So by working with him, I got to learn a lot more about the other side: creativity, design and all that. Before that I was more focused more on technology and product. He’s like the creative director for this company. We’re almost organised like a fashion company. We have a creative director that sets the tone for everything.

You mentioned the word fun”. What did you feel was lacking and what did you want to add to the market?
So, Apple is 45 years old as a company. When they were still a startup, they were targeting the more creative consumers, because back then computers were all for business, and they started to make personal computers available for creatives. Over time, they built really good relationships with the creative community, which made Apple cool and they became a big brand. I think now they’re just a big brand, like Microsoft from 20 years ago. I felt like maybe there’s an opportunity to surpass them over time. And that we should start with making things fun, because that’s how we entered the market. Everything is so boring. This is only a bunch of big companies: Microsoft, Apple, Samsung. In the beginning, we had to focus on design, because it’s the easiest thing to do. Focusing on technology costs a lot of money, a lot of time. Whereas design is very fast. Hardware design is even faster than software design. Everything you see here, it’s mainly like hardware design or visuals. But starting this year, we’re going to be able to do a lot more on the software side as well. And overtime, as we get stronger, we can also do technology. Like, how can we invent new technologies that elevate and make things more fun? It’s a step by step process.

That feeling of being a janitor… How much are you thinking of tinkering with the software in the coming months?
In terms of how we interact with our phone and how we interact with technology, you have iPhones coming out every year, but actually, the same experience was there in the old Nokia smartphones. You have a desktop, you have some icons. You click an icon and it becomes a full screen. It’s still the case today. So the human interaction with the personal computer or with the pocket computer hasn’t changed for 20 years, despite there being new iPhones with better cameras. That’s what I think we should be working on when we have enough resources. How do we make technology more efficient for the user? As an example, if we want to grab dinner, you might feel it’s easy because you do it all the time. But it’s actually quite complicated. First, I’ve gotta have a chat app, WhatsApp or messaging, and say, hey, let’s have dinner.” Then I’ve gotta go to Yelp or Google Maps and find a good restaurant. Then I call the restaurant to book. Then there’s something in my calendar to remind me that I have a thing. Then before I leave I need to call an Uber to get there. So it’s like five or six apps to accomplish one thing. But that’s not how humans work. We just have the intention of having dinner. So I think, ultimately, how can we make all that happen without needing to go into any app? That’s where we’re trying to take it

The Ear (stick) was debuted at Chet Lo’s fashion show back in September last year and the company has achieved a certain following in the fashion industry. How much is your courting of that world a deliberate move?
I think it’s very important. But it has to be real. I think a lot of big brands make it look very fake and feel very fake. I think we should just see ourselves as creatives. And it’s very natural for us to interact with other creatives. Maybe as a company, we have a bit more resources than some of the up and coming fashion designers, but we can support them in their creative endeavours and just be a part of the community in a very real way.

The Ear (2).

Who is the Nothing user?
We have a lot of really young consumers. Among all the Android, and I guess among Apple as well, we probably have the youngest user base. They’re very tech enthusiastic. They know technology in and out, they know how to find us. Because we’re quite a small brand. They know what blogs to read to find us. And if you ask them, what’s the number one reason that they bought our product, it’s because of design. So I think there’s a sweet spot between the tech users and the design users. That sweet spot is designers and people working at other companies, designing products or designing fashion items. That’s a crowd that we’re really over indexing on.

What has been the feedback from those users and to what extent do you listen to that?
We’re quite serious about community. I know every company will talk about community, but I think we’re really doing real things. We allowed our community to invest in the company, so they’re also shareholders in the company. And we’re doing our board meetings, we also have a community representative, hopefully keeping us honest.

What about your own feedback? When you look at the product, what are you really proud of and what would you want to change?
I think for both those questions, the answer is the Glyph Interface”. Because I think it has a lot of potential. The entire idea was inspired by calm computing, which was a concept developed by Xerox. Imagine you’re a pilot driving a plane, you have lights and notifications in your periphery, but you’ve got to focus on what’s ahead of you. So you have an interface around you. With a glyph, that’s kind of what we try to build where you don’t always have to be on your phone. You just have your phone in your periphery and you still kind of know what’s going on, but it’s not in your face. I think that has a lot of potential, but because of our engineering resources, we didn’t get super far in terms of the feature set. But how can we make that more useful? That’s one of our main focus areas in our product right now.

I know you’ve described the Nothing Phone (2), rumoured for release later this year, as a more premium” device. What can users expect the main differences to be?
Well, a lot has changed for our company. Our team has gotten a lot more professional. We have a lot stronger engineering than before. On the hardware side, we’re stronger; on the software side, we’re stronger. So a lot of these ideas that we wanted to implement, we can now do. And if you look at our industrial design, it’s very differentiated. But our software design isn’t yet right. I think that will be one of the key areas of focus for the next generation. How do we make the software feel distinctively Nothing as well?

If you continue to get bigger, how do you make sure you don’t become just another big, boring company?
I think we need some mechanisms in place – having a community board member is one of these mechanisms. But the honest answer is: I don’t know. We have to keep reinvesting as we go along. But ultimately, if you’re delivering great products that people love, people are gonna vote with their wallets. If you’re big, you get big because people love your products.

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