It started at a bar, amid a scene familiar to any smartphone owner: to look up from the vortex of your phone, feeling asocial and slightly ashamed, only to find your behaviour validated and mirrored by everyone around you. At our most social, we are also at our least; alone in a room full of faces made pallid by the glow of a digital screen.
This was the setting that would inspire Van Gould and two of his friends to launch the NoPhone—a polarizing product that is so single-serving, it’s hard to be sure whether it serves any purpose at all. As they looked around the bar and realized everyone was clutching onto their phones for dear life, inspiration struck. “[We thought] it’d be kind of funny if everyone could hold a piece of plastic,” Van recounts, “and actually hang out with each other.” The next day, the insight felt just as true, so they got to work.
Weighing less than 100 grams, the NoPhone is, as the name suggests, not a phone. Instead, Van and his co-founders have designed and trademarked a piece of plastic meant to replicate the size and feel of a phone in your hand. Used as a social crutch in lieu of a real phone, this piece of plastic would help smartphone addicts wean themselves off of their mobile devices. It’s timely social commentary. After Van and his co-founders launched the website—intended as satire, with no real plan to manufacture anything—the idea spread quickly. And when it did, they quickly realized that they had a real product on their hands, although the product, ironically, was a fake phone.
With the help of news outlets, bloggers, and a successful Kickstarter campaign, the NoPhone has, to date, assuaged the nervous clutches of over 3,000 customers from all over the globe, reaching as far as Réunion, a tiny French island east of Madagascar. Many were purchased as gag gifts for the holidays, for friends and family members looking to curb their cell phone addictions. A third of customers have even opted for the “Selfie Upgrade”—a mirror affixed to the NoPhone to enable “real-time selfies.” Van has definitely used the NoPhone to reduce his own level of smartphone usage—with some degree of success. As someone who works in advertising, he admits it could never replace his real phone.
If 3,000 purchases seem high to you, you’re not alone; critics of the NoPhone aren’t hard to find. “People have too much damn money if they're willing to waste it on a piece of useless crap like this,” said one A.V. Club commenter. “Dumbest project ever created,” commented another, when Business Insider reported it. It’s the same reaction some people have to minimalist modern art. $12 USD for a piece of plastic shaped like a phone? Is it a joke, or is the joke on us?
When I brought this up, Van chuckled. “I feel like this is one of those ideas that many people have thought of as a joke. Just like we did, right? But they never put it forward, because it’s ridiculous—why would you?” But that was part of the appeal. Sure, the product is absurd and tongue-in-cheek, but Van and his co-founders knew there was a chance that it would catch on: after seeing the success of quirky crowdsourced initiatives like the Potato Salad Kickstarter campaign, “we were definitely aware that people were using Kickstarter in fun ways.” So they went ahead and did it.
The hardest part, Van notes, was figuring out how to start a side business. The opportunity landed in their laps, in a way—none of them had any experience launching a product before. They didn’t know how much production would cost, how to ship large quantities of product, how to do taxes as a business. It forced them to learn on the job, and part of that meant seeking third-party solutions—they’ve enlisted Bench for their bookkeeping, and LegalZoom for all of their legal help.
But those are minute hiccups in what is otherwise a smooth sailing venture—no mean feat considering that the business is a first for everyone involved. And even though the sales of the NoPhone have not enabled its founders to quit their day jobs just yet, everyone is genuinely surprised by the product’s success. It’s the afterglow of capitalizing on a budding idea: they had nothing to lose going into it, and the initiative paid off. “We’re still amazed that this is actually a thing,” Van admits. The NoPhone success leaves him hopeful for any side projects yet to come—knowing that it could all work out if you just do it. After all, this did start as a joke in a bar.