Interview with Carl Pei from OnePlus pt1: OnePlus Story and Direction, Current Smartphone Market, Google’s Pixel Phones & More

Interview with Carl Pei from OnePlus pt1: OnePlus Story and Direction, Current Smartphone Market, Google’s Pixel Phones & More

OnePlus entered the Android market by providing good-value devices that enthusiasts end up enjoying and tinkering with — so much so that their latest smartphone’s sub-forum at XDA has become one of the most active ones in an impressively short time.

XDA Editor-in-Chief Mario Serrafero had a lengthy talk with Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus, about the direction of the company and its place in the market, its new smartphones and their take on software, software updates and the developer community. This is Part 1, where Carl answers questions regarding the ups and downs of OnePlus’ product history leading up to the OnePlus 3, the vacuum left by the Note 7, Apple’s influence in the market, Google’s Pixel devices and more.

Mario Serrafero: How has the OnePlus 3’s reception been in contrast to previous OnePlus launches?

Carl Pei: One metric that we always look at when we do product development is NPS (Net Promoter Scores): Out of a 100 people, how many would recommend it minus how many would not recommend it. The OnePlus 3 is the highest NPS product we have ever made. Our second highest is the OnePlus One actually, but the OnePlus 3 is even higher than the OnePlus One. We kind of made a comeback with the OnePlus 3.

I read the Android subreddit and the OnePlus subreddit every day. If you would have looked at the Android subreddit one year ago, whenever there was something about OnePlus, it would not have been the most positive stuff. But nowadays, all the messages are along the lines of “Next time, I am going to buy a OnePlus” or “I got a OnePlus 3. Buy it, it’s awesome!”. So it feels super nice.

M: That’s something I wanted to touch upon, how does launching a  well-received product like that feel? How does it affect the morale of the team? The OnePlus 2 was kind of a misstep, so how do you feel about that?

C: After the OnePlus One, we thought that we were really good at our jobs. Back then, we did not attribute it to the real reasons that made the device such a success: if you look at it, most of it is timing and luck. Every company tries to release good products — no one goes on to sell a product that they don’t think is a good product to a user. With the OnePlus One, we just got really lucky with our timing. There weren’t a lot of great choices back then, and the product that we made was also the product that users really liked — so we kind of got lucky

In the process [of developing the OnePlus 2], we kind of forgot who our core users were

Sometimes, if you don’t have any setbacks, you tend to confuse luck with skill. So we all thought that we were really good at marketing, at product.With the OnePlus 2, what we said was “Hey, we already proved this much with the OnePlus One. For the OnePlus 2, we should go a little bit more mainstream.”

We started looking at what more mainstream users wanted, instead of what our core demographic — the early adopter, wanted. Therefore, we did not include features like NFC. It made sense if you looked at the overall picture since we were going more mainstream, we did not really need to have NFC. But in the process, we kind of forgot who our core users were.

With the OnePlus 3, we decided to go back to the basics. Our internal goal was actually to redeem ourselves, so all that arrogance had disappeared. Could we use the OnePlus 3 to turn back the clock to 2014?

M: Dialing back to the OnePlus One and the market at large at that point, your company was one of the first to come out with a really impactful yet affordable flagships. Nowadays, this has become a much more common occurrence, thanks to OEMs in Asia particularly. Many of these OEMs are now entering the Western and US markets, and they have similar goals in terms of bang-per-buck, perhaps not the same execution, but they are very aggressive with their pricing strategy. How does OnePlus plan on battling these other OEMs?

C: As a company, we are very internally focused. We get asked a lot of questions: How do you see the market? What do you think about this feature that the competitor has? What do you think about their pricing strategy? What about their sales strategy and channel strategy? Most of my answers have been “I don’t know”, because I have been working on the OnePlus for ten hours a day and I don’t get to look at the market too much. What I do think is that if you have a good product and you have a lean model like we have — we are mostly direct-to-consumer, we don’t have huge teams, we don’t have huge marketing budgets — when you are doing this, you can always deliver a great product at a more reasonable price. Whatever other people do, that is up to them. We believe that we need to build a brand over a very long period of time.

” The people that buy our product in the very beginning are the ones who take the greatest leap of faith, so you should respect these people the most”

You might notice that some brands like to launch with a low price and also keep on lowering the price every few months – this is something we try and avoid as much as possible because the people that buy our product in the very beginning are the ones who take the greatest leap of faith — they do not have access to all the reviews, or all of the user feedback — so you should respect these people the most. In a lot ways, we think about brand building in a different way. We have never ever wanted to be known as a cheap brand. Over time, as we have more R&D into our products – we are doing a lot of stuff with OxygenOS, we had dash charging on the OnePlus 3, we are developing some other cool stuff – we should be able to charge more for our products. But of course, this should be within a reasonable amount because we are still following a lean model for our company.

M: That is one of the things that I see discussed a lot when it comes to new OnePlus launches — is the price going to go up? And it has been going up steadily, but it is fair to say at the same time that the bang-per-buck kept up or went up. From the OnePlus 2 to the OnePlus 3, for about another $20, you get better bang-per-buck. So are you guys open to the possibility of charging more?

C: We always turn the question around: “If we did this, what would users think? If we did this, would our users like it?”. Only if they like it, can we do it. A product is not just the specs — everyone has access to off-the-shelf components. It is what the vision that drives the product. Like for example, why does the volume rocker on the OnePlus 3 feel solid? That is not just coincidence — there is a lot of work that goes behind this. Just to illustrate, in industrial grade mass manufacturing, there is always some slight variance. Some times some things are a tiny bit larger, sometimes they are a tiny bit smaller. In the production line of the OnePlus 3, we separated out the slightly larger volume rockers and we matched them with the slightly larger button holes manually. The attention to detail is not something that you can read on a spec sheet, and it often gets ignored in reviews as well.

M: I have a pet peeve with buttons, so I am always quick to call out when I feel my unit’s buttons are loose. The OnePlus 3 does have great buttons so I guess it is working.

C: If you really try your best to make the best product, you should be able to charge a little bit more. For example, if you have a full metal unibody build, you should be able to charge a little more than compared to a plastic build as it also costs more to produce. In the above case of buttons, it costs more time in the production line. So we don’t really see it as spec-per-spec versus the price, we see it as the overall product.

M: Talking about the market and pricing, there is one recent event that can’t be ignored: the Google Pixel launch. That device is where we see Google taking full control over the hardware to release a fully Google product, and they are advertising and marketing the Pixels quite a bit. However, the enthusiast community, which OnePlus also partakes in, feels somewhat abandoned by Google as Google pushed for a mass market product and ended the Nexus program. Are you surprised by their change in focus? How do you see the death of Nexus as an enthusiast device affecting the OnePlus brand?

C: We are not very sensitive to numbers. The growth and sales are the result of a good product and not the other way around. But the recent events have dramatically increased the demand for OnePlus products. But I do think the Pixel launch is interesting to us because we have always thought that in the mobile space, the company we should be looking up to and learning from is Apple. With the example of buttons was because, all the Android phones have had bad buttons. Why is this so? So we took apart all of the phones on the market, and we figured out how Apple was doing it.

“Up until now, there has not been a real Android flagship that could compete with Apple … That is why the Pixel launch is very interesting to us”

They had this process in their factory, and we implemented the same process. Up until now, there has not been a real Android flagship that could compete with Apple. And eventually, if we do our jobs well then in the next years, hopefully we can beat Apple one day. That is why the Pixel launch is very interesting to us, to see such a great brand like Google have a go at this and see if whether an Android product can do well and compete with Apple. And if yes, it becomes something for us to learn from.

M: Another market event that you could not have missed is the Galaxy Note 7, which left a big, scorching hole in the market. At the same time, the iPhone 7 dissuaded a lot of users by moving away from the 3.5mm headphone jack. How does the market changes with the facts that we have a new giant player in the form of Google, but at the same time, Samsung’s best flagship ever literally burnt away. How do you see this as an opportunity for OnePlus?

C: We think that building a brand is not a short term thing, so you have to think very long term. [These short term opportunities] are not something we think too much about. The incidents with phone explosions, that can happen with any OEM. It could happen with us on our next product, so it should not be something that we use as an opportunity — we should use this as a reminder.

The smartphone market is one of the most competitive markets, and any day can be disrupted by someone new. What the Note 7 incident gives us is that we should always be focused on the quality of our product. We should always be looking around the corner, we are never safe. Although, we are really small, so we do not have the same perspective as Apple or Samsung. But we should never be satisfied and always have in the back of our minds that something could happen, so always be careful and always give your best.

M: On the marketing side, OnePlus has had a web-first approach traditionally. Now, we are seeing more OnePlus advertising in the real world, through sponsored content that mainstream consumers stumble upon. What is the reason behind this shift? Is it more aggressive marketing and how is it playing out?

C: It is a natural development as your company becomes more mature and your volumes get bigger, you have to reach new consumers. Something that I always think about is how much time and effort a lot of our team members have put into the OnePlus brand, which is something that is not visible to all. They work 80-hour weeks, they have been doing this for almost three years, they work weekends, they travel to the US, they travel to Europe — this amount of time and effort put into something should not be restricted to just a niche brand. We would be kind of, a little bit, ashamed of ourselves if we had this great opportunity and we could not become a major player. So we have to become a bigger player as time goes by. Up until this year, we did not have much to experiment with. This year is the first year where we started increasing our volumes, and now we have more money for marketing. So we are testing a bunch of stuff, some of it works, some of it does not.

On part 2 we will be discussing OnePlus software including Oxygen OS and software updates, as well as the future of the platform, and much more. Stay tuned!

About author

Aamir Siddiqui
Aamir Siddiqui

I am a tech journalist with XDA since 2015, while being a qualified business-litigation lawyer with experience in the field. A low-end smartphone purchase in 2011 brought me to the forums, and it's been a journey filled with custom ROMs ever since. When not fully dipped in smartphone news, I love traveling to places just to capture pictures of the sun setting. You can reach out to me at [email protected]