Founder’s Story: Nothing

EQT Ventures
eqtventures
Published in
6 min readNov 7, 2023

Carl Pei is overhauling the way we think about consumer electronics — and making tech fun again

Carl Pei, Co-Founder and CEO of Nothing

Carl Pei has been compared to Steve Jobs for his unique ability to identify broad trends about the future of tech. But he’s more demure about why he founded Nothing, his London-based consumer electronics company. “The industry was just so boring,” he says.

Pei had been inspired in his childhood and teenage years by the fast-paced revolution that was underway in consumer tech. He was the first pupil in his school to buy the iPod when it was released. He was the first among his friends to get an iPhone. “I’m usually a very early adopter,” he says. He was the first in his group to get on YouTube, on Facebook, on Twitter. “It just felt like everything kept improving all the time when I was younger, and it gave me a lot of optimism that the future would become much better,” he says.

But that has “completely disappeared” in the last 10 years, he says. And it’s not just him: we have seen a lack of faith in big tech companies, and a distrust in their goals and aims. People are the product now. Pei was disillusioned. He felt he was contributing to that, too: in 2010, he got a job at Nokia, then moved to Chinese electronics manufacturer Oppo a year later. In 2013, he founded OnePlus, a consumer electronics company that sought to do things a little differently.

“My entire career was basically OnePlus,” he says. “My identity was OnePlus.” Yet Pei felt that he couldn’t make the significant break from the norm that he wanted to from within OnePlus. He admits it was hard to leave the company, and one he thought about for a long time. “I wanted to take a swing at changing the world the way I envisioned it, without the constraints of a larger organisation, or without the constraints of a mother company deciding and dictating what to do,” he says.

He was inspired to take the leap to leave OnePlus by watching a speech by Jack Ma, who said in your 20s you should find somebody to learn from and in your 30s you should try something on your own. Pei by that point was 30, and about to turn 31. Time was running out. He decided that his 31st birthday would be his last day at OnePlus.

Originally, he planned to travel the world for half a year, but got bored after a week. So he kickstarted the next chapter on his journey a little early. He founded Nothing, his answer to the issues he felt were stagnating tech development, in October 2020. Early investors included YouTuber Casey Neistat and iPod inventor Tony Fadell, as well as EQT Ventures. The goal was simple: “What we want to do is make technology fun again,” says Pei. “Today, tech companies are almost seen as evil companies. Why did we collectively lose faith in technology? And what if it could be different? What if we could do something about it? What if we can make people believe again?”

“I’ve followed him from afar for quite some time,” says Ted Persson, Partner at EQT Ventures. “It’s pretty rare to have a Swedish founder with this ambition. We don’t have many of them.” Persson was impressed with his OnePlus journey. “Two or three years ago, you were realising there’s something to this company that is different,” says Persson. “It’s not just one of these stock Android manufacturers. Nothing is building something truly unique”.

Persson had heard from an ex-colleague that Pei had left OnePlus, was in Stockholm, and was starting something new. The two arranged to meet in EQT Ventures’s Stockholm office. “He’s very special,” says Persson. “There’s something Steve Jobs-esque in his way of thinking. There’s a thoughtful calm, but he’s always very action-oriented.”

In the meeting, Pei explained how he wanted to take his learnings from his past work and create something new. The way he phrased it, Persson remembers Pei saying, is that the consumer electronics industry had stagnated. Nothing would jolt it out of its rut. “There was an immediate enlightenment thinking,” Persson says. “I thought: ‘I think this guy can be really, really big’.”

That hunch proved to be correct. Pei officially launched Nothing in January 2021, with the goal of removing barriers between people and tech, part of a seamless digital future. It quickly became feted by the world — and the tech industry — for charting a path to a different tomorrow that could fundamentally alter our relationship with the technology we use. It would start with the basics: making something people wanted to use.

But Pei remained worried about the plan he had to overhaul the world. “Everything was very scary at the beginning,” he says. “We felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. When the first employees joined us, we were very anxious because they have entrusted their careers in our hands. And if we mess this up, it’s going to negatively impact their careers.” The same was true of taking investment: “it’s not our money,” Pei says. “We’re taking other people’s money, and then we’re responsible for their money. If their investment in us does not grow, then we really mess things up.”

However, the ethos behind Nothing seems to have worked so far. Pei learned from his prior companies, building on his experience, to see what he thought made a successfully-run business. “What I learned is that at its core, it’s all about the product,” he says. “I think a great product is kind of scaling in the intersection between engineering and creativity. And a creative culture is something we didn’t have before [in my other companies].”

Pei has a simple motto for Nothing. “If you’re just doing things like everybody else, then it’s not going to be fun,” he says. “Creativity is very, very important to us.” People are, too. That includes one of Nothing’s founding partners, Jesper Kouthoofd from Swedish design studio Teenage Engineering. “He’s the best creative I’ve ever met in my life,” Pei says.

Nothing has launched five products to date, with the latest being an evolution of the brand’s iconic phone product, Phone (2). In November 2022, Nothing had already shipped over a million units — a major milestone for the firm. “But what I’m really excited about is the power, capability, and the strength of the team,” says Pei. The long term goal is to live up to the promise of the company name, he says. “The name has to manifest: Nothing. It’s technology that’s everywhere, but also nowhere.”

Whereas today our smartphones are already part of our limbs and our exoskeleton, but still separated from us, Pei has a vision of it being technology that exists everywhere but doesn’t get in the way, preventing us from making those human, in-person connections. It includes making that tech transparent, which comes with its own manufacturing challenges. Pei has spent more time than is healthy thinking about how to glue components together so the adhesive is seen as little as possible, while the production line he’s building is as humid as a rainforest. “The goal is to have the dust particles sticking to the surfaces of the machinery, rather than floating into the air, because if the dust is in the air, it would get into the product,” he says.

The founder enabling Nothing to break barriers and revolutionise the way we think of consumer tech sees his role in that team as something far more mundane. “I’m the janitor,” he says. “I just enable things to happen.”

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