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We talk with Carl Pei about Nothing's new Community and the boring tech industry
Update, May 25, 2021 (07:45AM ET): Shortly after publishing this article, Nothing shared a link to register your interest for its community forums. You can find the form here. We also made minor corrections to clarify what is and isn’t visible to non-members.
OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei has a new company with an interesting name: Nothing. Pei announced the brand a short time after he left OnePlus, and the company already has its first product in development, a set of true wireless earbuds known as Ear 1. Recently, though, the Nothing Community opened up, which will act as a private forum for fans to connect with Nothing staff.
Old-school OnePlus fans will note that this strategy is not all that different from the early days of the OnePlus forums. In fact, Nothing is promising early access to its products for forum members — a move that carries faint echoes of OnePlus’ infamous invite system. However, Pei is hoping to take things even further than OnePlus by working on ways to incorporate Community members into even the highest levels of company leadership.
Android Authority had the chance to sit down (virtually, of course) with Pei and discuss the new Nothing Community. We also discussed some background on Ear 1 development, Pei’s opinions on how the tech industry has become stagnant, and the surprising way that Pokémon fits into the Nothing brand.
Nothing Community: More than a forum
Although Nothing’s aptly named Community seems like a simple web forum, it’s actually a lot more than that. Pei’s vision is for the forum to act as a way for Nothing to get constant feedback. To keep things manageable, you’ll need to apply to earn one of the limited slots for posting privileges — and certain people will have first dibs on those slots (more on that in a bit). Anyone is able to view the forum, however, though certain areas will remain locked off to members only.
“We’re not looking at getting a lot of people on board, just maybe a couple of hundred,” Pei said. He’s hoping those select users will help guide the company and even help Nothing realize its own vision.
Pei pointed out that the Nothing Community won’t be just chatting away in the forum, though. “We really want a high-quality, close-knit group of people who are not necessarily just tech enthusiasts or fans of Nothing. We want them to have something of substance to contribute, whether they’re good at graphic design or maybe product testing, or whatever.” The goal would be for these users with particular skills to give valuable feedback on company development.
Of course, the problems that could arise there are the methods in which the actual company employees communicate with users. That’s where Nothing is looking to take things further than pretty much any other firm in its category.
‘A bridge between the company and the wider community’
Pei explained the plan is for the Nothing Community to elect its own board representative. This person would act as “a bridge between the company and the wider community.”
“[The community] would elect a representative to sit on the board of our company as an observer,” Pei explained. “What that means is that, as we present to our investors and other board members, certain parts of that conversation would also be privy to that board member. There would be structures in place for this board member to be swapped out every year by some kind of voting mechanism.”
We asked Pei if there would be limitations to what this Community-elected board member would be able to talk about. Pei said that Nothing might bar certain sensitive financial topics from general dissemination. The goal, however, is to be as open as possible.
The community will vote on a leader to represent them at Nothing's board meetings.
“I think this is a really good corporate governance safety measure to ensure that we always have our feet on the ground,” Pei said. “Hopefully, by doing this, even as we grow, there will always be somebody representing the consumer, reminding us and holding us accountable.”
The Nothing Community is just for investors…for now
Although Nothing is promoting Community now, it actually soft-launched the forum last week. The initial invitees for the forums were restricted to just early investors. That’s right: you can buy a private stake in Nothing if you believe enough in Pei’s vision.
“We opened up part of our Series A — which was led by Google — to the community,” Pei explained. “We allocated $1.5 million, and the interest was pretty big: we sold out that amount in 54 seconds. So everybody we’ve brought to the forums right now has been investors in the company. We figured that these guys are the ones who are the most passionate about what we’re doing. They actually invested in the company despite things being vague so far.”
Unfortunately, due to legal limitations, Nothing had to leave out users in North America and Japan during the first investment round. However, Pei hopes to rectify that with a second round at a later date. Also, at some point in the future, you won’t need to be an investor to gain access to the forum. Pei didn’t have much clarification on how non-investors will gain access, though.
“We will figure out a way of allowing some of these users from these countries to participate in our forums without having invested,” was all he disclosed during the interview.
Later, a Nothing representative clarified that, in the next few weeks, you’ll be able to register interest in joining the forum. There will then be “multiple opportunities” to join Community over the coming months.
Ear 1: Transparent design with a Pokémon codename
Other than the fact that Nothing plans to launch a set of earbuds called Ear 1, we don’t know too much about the product. However, Pei was uncharacteristically eager to discuss some of the details behind the development process of the earbuds.
“It was always really important for us to find our own path,” Pei says of the design of the Ear 1. “If you don’t have your own path, you just follow whatever trend there is this season. Like, this season, this color is trendy, and next season, that other color and finish are trendy.”
Notably, the Ear 1 will feature a transparent design, something you don’t see too often these days. Pei says Nothing is “committed” to transparent design. This heavily suggests Nothing would incorporate that aesthetic in all or most products. That might seem simple, but Pei explains that it’s not so easy:
“I don’t think the final product is going to look exactly like the concept designs,” said Pei, “but we wanted to really show our philosophy of transparent design, so it looks very different from anything you’ve seen. You put a lot of pressure on the team by creating a transparent design. Because what that means is not only does the product look different, but every piece of the product underneath that the consumer can now see needs to be as perfect as possible.”
An undisclosed product the company is working on is codenamed Abra.
“Like, we have to do things as crazy as making our own magnets because, previously, magnets were never exposed to the user,” he explained. “We found that exposing the ready-made magnets on the market to the user didn’t look pretty enough. That pissed off a lot of magnet suppliers because they never had a customer ask for anything like that.”
Pei also was pretty keen on telling us that the codenames for all Nothing products will be Pokémon. The codename for Ear 1 is “Aipom.” Pei also said another undisclosed product the company is working on is codenamed “Abra.” Funnily enough, Pei actually had a plushie version of Abra on his desk during the call, which he showed off happily to the camera.
Theoretically, there would probably be some sort of software related to the launch of the Ear 1 headphones. This brings up the question of where Nothing stands on privacy, which becomes a more sensitive topic with every passing year.
Pei says Nothing will abide by all the best practices when it finally starts selling products.
“We have some of the world’s leading investors behind us,” he said. “We have no other route than to use whatever is the best practice in the industry. I think it’s a very sensitive topic, yeah. All our servers are Google servers, and we’ll be adopting the industry’s best practices when it comes to privacy.”
Although Pei was born in China and formerly worked for a Shenzhen-based company, Nothing is incorporated in the United Kingdom and based in London. This puts the firm in a much more rigid position when it comes to privacy and security rules. The Nothing Community will likely appreciate that the company plans to follow all the rules in this regard.
‘I haven’t seen anything I’ve wanted to buy recently’
Since leaving OnePlus, Pei hasn’t been shy about expressing his opinions on the state of the tech industry. Most of the time, those opinions are quite negative. In Pei’s view, tech companies these days are stagnant. He thinks they are focused only on the tiniest bits of iteration from one generation to the next. They are also hyper-focused on short-term success rather than long-term development.
During our chat, he didn’t have any change of heart. Android Authority asked him if there was a tech product he had seen recently that excited him or if something has come along that he’s really wanted to buy.
“Nothing really comes to mind for me right now,” he said bluntly. “I just feel — and I don’t think it’s just me because I’ve also spoken to customers and focus groups — that it’s just kind of a perceived lack of inspiration. It feels like every generation is just a slight upgrade from the previous one, so I don’t know. Really, I haven’t seen anything I’ve wanted to buy recently.”
The influence of OnePlus
Towards the end of the interview, we circled Pei back to his time at OnePlus. Notably, there were only a few months between the time he announced his exit from OnePlus and announced Nothing. Pei either moves really fast, or this had been something in the works for a while.
With that in mind, we asked Pei what is the most important thing he learned from his time at OnePlus that he’s bringing to Nothing.
“Wow, I learned so many things,” he says with a bit of a chuckle. “I basically grew up over there. I think it might be the idea of working backward from the consumer and satisfying the consumer.
“You need to figure out what’s really important for you and what your belief is for how you’re going to satisfy your consumer,” Pei continued. “Work on those things, and your sales volume, reputation, and all those other things will just come as a result of doing the right thing.”