Meet Nothing, the startup betting on earbuds — and tech you may see by
Back in September, OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei started to contact friends in the tech industry to tell them he wanted to start something new. Since then, Pei has dropped small teasers for his new company, Nothing, even as the details were still wrapped in mystery. On July 27, we’ll see the first product from his venture — the Ear 1 true wireless earbuds (you can watch the launch event at Nothing’s website at 9 P.M. ET/6 A.M. PT).
The 11-month stretch feels like a short turnaround time to bring a new tech product from conception to market, especially during the pandemic, but Pei doesn’t see it that way. “For me, it’s been pretty slow,” he said in an exclusive interview over Zoom.
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Nothing originally settled on April as the date it would launch its first product, but it had two false starts with iterations of the Ear 1 true wireless earbuds. The previous versions didn’t live up to Pei’s vision for what the company should be. The essence of that vision? Transparent products that are intuitive to use and fit seamlessly into people’s lives.
Pei set himself a huge challenge — a bigger one than he realized at the time. Not only was he joining the ranks of former tech execs who had left big companies to strike out alone in building consumer tech (including Andy Rubin’s Essential and Tom Moss’ Nextbit), it turned out that making a physically transparent product was harder than expected.
“What took time for us was getting the transparent design to fruition,” Pei said. “Now I know why not a lot of companies do this.”
In spite of these challenges, Pei said he has succeeded in his mission and is glad he pushed. “The two other designs we canceled wouldn’t have stood out as much and wouldn’t have made us proud,” he said.
A lot is riding on the Ear 1 earbuds, which will mark the first time we get close enough to put Pei’s vision to the test (a second device is coming from the company later this year). He’s parlaying some of the goodwill and credibility built up over his time at OnePlus, where he was known for launching affordable but feature-packed smartphones that garnered a following among phone and Android enthusiasts. At the same time, his earbuds face significant competition from Apple, Samsung and OnePlus itself.
We have yet to see the final design of the earbuds, but we do now have pictures of the case, which gives us some strong hints of what’s to come. The first 100 limited-edition, engraved units are available to bid on now at StockX.
The Nothing Ear 1’s open case.
As promised, the Ear 1 is almost completely transparent, which will make it easier to glean whether the buds are in their charging case. A solid white module sits in the middle and joins to a USB charging port. Meanwhile, red and black contact points will hopefully match up with colors on the earbuds, making it intuitive to fit them into their respective slots. On the top, an inverted bubble in the plastic will hold the buds in place. It also doubles as a playful element, designed to please fidgeters who might enjoy spinning the entire case between thumb and forefinger.
Squeezing the wireless charging tech into this largely transparent shell gives us a hint at the challenge Pei set for himself when he chose to make earbuds as his first product. Whereas headphones used to require little more than speakers and wires, now they also need to squeeze Bluetooth connectivity, radio antennas and batteries into an already compact piece of hardware.
In terms of battery life, CNET can reveal exclusively, the Nothing Ear 1 case will offer up to 24 hours with active noise cancellation on and 34 hours with ANC off. Inside the case will be a 570-mAh case battery that will support wireless charging and fast charging, with 10 minutes of in-case charging offering six hours or eight hours of battery life (with ANC on and off, respectively).
The Ear 1 might have been tough to make, but choosing a set of true wireless earbuds as Nothing’s first product made the best business sense for the new company, said Pei. It’s a growth category, with 310 million units expected to ship this year, according to Counterpoint Research. And any new company that wants to make money needs to choose a slice of the market where there’s an opportunity to shift products in volume.
A clear design vision
The wireless earbud category has the potential to showcase what will set Nothing products apart from those made by rival consumer tech companies, Pei told me. He described a slide that will feature in his upcoming keynote presentation in which he’ll show eight different earbuds currently on the market, then remove their logos. “They all look the same — white with a stem,” he said.
“You can never make comparisons to Steve Jobs, but that’s the mix he possesses.”
Web Summit Founder Paddy Cosgrave on Carl Pei
For Pei, displaying the Ear 1 with its transparent elements next to the lineup of almost indistinguishable rival products will be the company’s opportunity to prove it means what it says about differentiated design. He compares what Nothing is doing with its earbuds to Apple’s aqua-colored unibody iMac bursting onto the desktop computer scene in the ’90s, when the landscape was awash with generic beige and gray box PCs.
“We’re in a similar space today, everybody’s products look the same,” Pei said. “We’re not going to become a mass-market brand from day one. But even Apple had to take a gradual path by targeting the creatives first and then slowly expanding.”
Although Pei cites Apple’s journey from wacky rebel to market leader as one worth aspiring to, it’s another mainstream tech brand — Sony — that’s more heavily influenced Nothing’s design direction. Across Sony’s early product lineup was a consistency that Pei admires. It demonstrates that the company developed a perspective on design, something he believes is missing in a lot of consumer tech companies, many of which rely on seasonal color trends to tweak their products between different iterations.
Like Sony, Nothing’s plan is to implement its design philosophy across its product lineup for the long term, allowing people to observe continuity across the range. Even before the first product launch, this philosophy is set in stone — or, at least, it’s been committed to paper.
You should be able to see the hallmarks of Nothing design in different generations of products.
Over Zoom, Pei showed me a hefty-looking tome — the Nothing design bible — assembled only for the eyes of the Nothing leadership team. It contains pictures of early Sony products alongside design influences from the worlds of typography, fashion and interior design.
As he flicks through the first half (the second half remains under wraps, as it contains reference designs for future Nothing products), I see X-rays of products that reveal their underlying circuitry to the naked eye, along with transparent furniture and lighting elements. Pei cites the French-Italian fashion designer Pierre Cardin and 2001: A Space Odyssey as significant influences.
Distilling this philosophy down has been more of a challenge. Pei points to Tony Fadell — inventor of the iPod and the man behind the revered design of the Nest thermostat, now also one of Nothing’s investors — as the person who forced him to focus on the details.
“He just kept asking for tighter and tighter plans,” Pei said. “Like, have you thought about this? Have you thought about that? Who’s your consumer? Can you be more specific?”
How to win friends and invest in people
Along with Fadell, Nothing has a raft of high-profile investors on board, including Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave and YouTuber Casey Neistat, as well as Alphabet’s investment arm, GV.
“It was never like a super strong and focused pitch,” he said about how he secured support from some of tech’s most recognizable names. Instead he outlined some of the problems he saw in the industry — such as everyone sharing the same supply chain, products being too similar among different brands and between generations, as well as what he perceived as “an overall negativity about technology.”
He credits these conversations with friends as helping him turn nebulous ideas into a concrete deck. But in the meantime, many of those same friends came on board as investors. According to Cosgrave, who said he’s known Pei a long time, the Nothing CEO possesses a “unique alchemy” that sets him apart from other founders.
“There are very few, if any, entrepreneurs in the world who understand hardware and software, marketing and design, better than Carl,” the seed investor in Nothing said over email. “You can never make comparisons to Steve Jobs, but that’s the mix he possesses. And I think it’s the reason so many of the biggest names in hardware, some of whom worked closely with Steve Jobs, have personally invested.”
You’ll definitely know whether or not your earbuds are charging.
While getting investors on board was an organic process, finding manufacturing partners willing to work with them to take on the challenge of making transparent tech was a whole other story. “We got rejected quite a lot,” Pei said. “Investors, they look at your future potential. But factories, they look at your present potential because they want to make money.”
The magnets that feature in the new case are a classic example of why. Magnets in tech are usually hidden behind plastic, but in Nothing’s product casing there is nowhere for them to hide, so they needed to be perfectly polished with no blemishes. These are requirements manufacturers aren’t used to meeting, leading the company to be fired by two magnet factories along the way.
“Now I know why not a lot of companies do this.”
Carl Pei on designing transparent technology
But his perseverance has paid off. During our chat, Pei was in Shenzhen, China, where he had just returned to the office from the factory. “Our products are being manufactured live as we speak,” he told me. In addition, the day prior, the company received its first payment for actual product sales.
Talent and timing
In spite of Pei’s presence in China on the day of our conversation, Nothing isn’t headquartered in Shenzhen. Instead, Pei chose London as Nothing’s home base.
Historically, London might not have been the best choice of location to found a tech company, Pei said. But now that almost all tech companies rely on the same established supply chains, that isn’t true anymore.
What he sees as setting tech companies apart now is finding talent who can specialize in the creative side of doing business and can design products that resonate emotionally with people. The British capital has an abundance of people with these skills, Pei said — even though he’s lured a handful of Nothing’s 80 employees (a number he hopes to boost to 200 by the end of the year) from US tech giants who happen to be working in the city along the way.
Following Brexit, he sees potential for the UK to be more business-friendly and aggressive in shaping policies that can benefit tech startups. He chose London after also considering Sweden and Germany. It’s “a great place to start a global tech company from,” he said.
“Big visions require a step-by-step process.”
Pei doesn’t think Brexit will impede his access to talent from the rest of Europe either. Nothing has also relied heavily on input from founding partner, Teenage Engineering — a Swedish company primarily known for its design-led synthesizers.
“They have this immense design sense and creative direction, and we can bring scale, speed and really high quality execution to the table,” Pei said. “Together, we create a type of company that doesn’t really exist at this moment.”
Nothing’s relationship with Teenage Engineering is unique because it was brought on as a founder, and its expertise in sound engineering has been put to good use, along with its design chops. But Pei doesn’t rule out collaborating with experts in other fields for future Nothing products that fall into other categories.
From when the company was first announced publicly in January, the long-term strategy has always been to create an ecosystem of devices — something Pei admits is “an overused buzzword” and for Nothing is largely “still directional thoughts.” Pei isn’t giving away any clues right now about what to expect from Nothing’s sophomore product — he is entirely focused on this first launch.
“These big visions require a step-by-step process,” he said. “If you try and jump too far, you might end up on very loose ground and end up having the company become a failure.” This has been the fate of Andy Rubin’s foray into the world of consumer tech startups (in fact, Nothing acquired the intellectual property rights held by Rubin’s company back in February). It might well be why one of Nothing’s core values is simply: survive.
“If you survive, it means you have another day to try and fulfill your vision,” Pei said.
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