A dream smartphone — one that marries fast, high-end hardware with equally high-end design — is what Pete Lau set out to build when he quit OPPO at the end of 2013 after working there 15 years. He had started as a hardware engineer at OPPO, eventually became the director of the Blu-Ray division and finally led their marketing team through many challenges in their pursuit of creating a great mobile brand. Pete then moved to launch OnePlus, a Shenzhen-based tech startup that aims to disrupt the smartphone industry. Last week, the company unveiled its first smartphone called OnePlus One. With bated breath, the world is waiting to see if this phone — due to hit the market late May — is going to be a game-changer for the industry.
OnePlus One has a Qualcomm© Snapdragon™ 801 processor with global 4G LTE. It is coupled with an immersive 5.5″ 1080p display for over a day’s worth of battery life. With a 13 megapixel camera and features like Voice WakeUp and onscreen gestures, the phone also boasts of a special version of CyanogenMod (based on Android TM) designed specifically for it.
“We chose what we believe to be the best combination of specs available right now, and then we paired it with one of the most popular, safe and user friendly aftermarket Andriod systems in the world,” says Carl Pei, Global Director of OnePlus. He was one of the first to join Pete’s team at OnePlus. Both Carl and Pete go a long way back as they worked together at OPPO too. He was the Director of New Markets there.
Carl took YourStory through the OnePlus story so far.
The Aha moment!
Pete had a tough childhood as his family was poor. “He worked incredibly hard in school to escape that poverty, always finishing as one of the top three students in his class,” Carl tells us. His hard work earned him a spot at the prestigious Zhejiang University of China, where he studied engineering. “Always a ‘product guy’ rather than a ‘money guy’, Pete joined OPPO right out of school and has honed his hardware engineering skills there throughout his career.”
Tony Chen, the current CEO of OPPO, was a mentor to Pete. In his OPPO farewell note, Pete thanked Tony for it. “OPPO has always and will continue to create exquisite products. Incredible build quality and beautiful design are core strengths of OPPO, and ones that are now deeply integrated in my blood from fifteen years of working here,” he had said.
Pete had attended CES as the head of OPPO’s Blu-ray division. “That’s a department that continues to enjoy great global success with products that are largely considered the best in their class.” Many international attendees at CES noticed Pete’s OPPO badge and praised his product. He felt a great sense of pride and achievement for having worked on something that reached a global audience. That prompted him to think about building a global brand with an even more mainstream device. He wasn’t satisfied with any of the smartphones currently in the market, and therefore starting a smartphone company answered both his personal interests and career goals, Carl recalls.
‘Never Settle’ mantra
At OnePlus, “we wanted to create a phone that ticked all the boxes – design, build quality, hardware, software and user experience. We are creating products that don’t settle on quality or design,” Carl says. The mantra of OnePlus, therefore, is ‘Never Settle’.
It was to capitalize on the production and R&D facilities at Shenzhen that this city was picked as the home-base for OnePlus. “Shenzhen is also experiencing a bit of a hardware revolution; anyone interested in hardware should be in or involved with Shenzhen,” Carl adds.
In the beginning of this year, BI Intelligence had released a comprehensive report examining the late stages of smartphone adoption across the globe. They estimate that smartphone shipments will grow by 35% in 2014 to surpass 1 billion units shipped annually. According to them:
- China will be at the forefront of new shipments growth. There will be about 600 million smartphone subscriptions in China by the end of 2014, which is nearly 50% growth over the estimated 400 million smartphone subscribers in 2013. China will account for a 35% share of global smartphone shipments in 2014.
- The next billion will come faster than the first billion did. It took about eight years to reach 1 billion annual units shipped, but with steady, new growth from emerging markets, the 2 billion annual shipments mark will be reached in 2017.
Like OnePlus, new players are posed to enter the simmering smartphone industry. Amazon is gearing up to release its first smartphone in a few months. Reports say that the device that will reportedly feature a 3-D interface and a special wireless plan called “Prime Data.”
In such a scenario, the ‘Never Settle’ mantra of OnePlus makes perfect sense.
The name OnePlus, Carl says, is derived from “two meanings and philosophies. We see One standing for the status quo of what is available today, and Plus is what OnePlus can bring to the table. We will exceed the status quo and bring a stronger product to the market and to users. One also represents a user. Plus represents sharing. We believe that a great product will be organically shared with a user’s friends, family and network.”
Close-knit team, same investors as OPPO
OnePlus too received funding from some of the same investors who had originally invested in OPPO. The startup is currently in talks with other potential investors. “Money is not our primary concern. Any investor must bring strategic value to us,” Carl says.
When Pete quit OPPO, he brought a core team with him — people he trusted and who had a shared background in build quality and design. Pete also recruited people from some of the top tech companies in China, including Amazon, Tencent and Xiaomi, to build the strongest team possible.
“When hiring at OnePlus, we look for people who want to change the world. We look for people who are interested in technology and eager to be a part of the mobile industry. Most importantly, we want employees with integrity and strong work ethics,” Carl says.
True to the startup work culture, at OnePlus too, they work long hours. “We try to provide some perks for the team. We’ve recently implemented a sports night once a week so we can be more active and have fun together outside of the office. We’re also adding a gym, some massage chairs and maybe a chef. We just want to make things a little easier for our employees because they’re all working so hard,” he says.
Pete has a large network of supportive friends and colleagues. His wife and young daughter are also very supportive of his new venture.
Invite-only OnePlus One
The recently unveiled device OnePlus One, Carl says, will be their flagship device. “We are focusing our energy and resources on the OnePlus One for 2014 but have tentative plans for one or two products next year.”
He promises that OnePlus devices will offer the best build quality and overall user experience on the market.
The OnePlus One requires an invitation to be purchased. The logic behind this decision: “Good products are to be shared among family and friends – that’s one of our core beliefs at OnePlus. As we currently have limited stock, we’re depending on OnePlus fans to spread the word organically.”
Targetting early adopters, geeks
Carl says that the OnePlus One target audience comprises early adopters, technology enthusiasts, and geeks. “We are creating a very high-end product and the most avid fans will likely be those who appreciate well-made phones and the specs with which we’ve chosen to build our device.”
The most-talked about smartphone ever since the inception of the company, OnePlus was tight-lipped about the pricing until its unveiling last week: the phone is priced at $299/£229/€269 for the 16GB model, and $349/£269/€299 for the 64GB model. It would be shipped to invitees from the US, EU, Hong Kong and Taiwan currently. “We will gradually expand the availability of the OnePlus One to more regions in the coming months,” the makers promise.
The core team of OnePlus used social media to gather instantaneous feedback from their fans while fine-tuning the product. “They’ll be the ones using our phone so we have sought advice from them on a wide range of design and technical aspects as we designed the OnePlus One. We also use social media to share frequent updates on the progress of our work and our team. Our fans are every bit as much a part of the process as we are, even if they’re not coming in to our office every day,” Carl says.
He agrees that they’re late-comers in the smartphone market. But their business model is completely different from that of the traditional smartphone market, and “we think that will be the key moving forward.”
Right now, they’re not worried about other competitors in the market. Instead, “we’re competing against ourselves to make the best smartphone possible”.
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