Exclusive: One-On-One with OnePlus Founder, Pete Lau

I met Pete Lau at the OnePlus headquarter in Shenzhen, China. His office in the main building is completely in synch with the rest of the space, a minimalist office with just a desk, a storage unit and a sofa with not much on the walls and a set of books authored by Kazou Inamori, a Japanese entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder of Kyocera and KDDI Corporation, who has been an inspiration for Pete. There are not many interviews of Pete in the media, it’s Carl Pei (co-founder) who is generally the go to spokesperson for OnePlus. Pete does not speak English and from whatever little I read about him, I was a nervous about my interview with the man, nervous – because I was quite sure I am going to get very short answers from him, or maybe even monosyllables, but thankfully that wasn’t the case. When he started speaking about OnePlus, I could see how passionate he was about the company and the OnePlus phones.

Pete Launched OnePlus in 2013 when he was in his mid thirties and in just about four years OnePlus has gone from 6 employees in a cramped space in one part of China to 600 employees all over the world, making OnePlus a global brand almost from the word go. One particular aspect of the phone that floored the tech experts and the users alike was the design of the OnePlus phones and the attention to detail, I found out almost instantly into my chat with him that it’s majorly because Pete is obsessed with design. When not in his office or working, Pete tells me he likes to spend time on Pinterest, looking at different designs. And I wasn’t surprised at all that he looks up to Steve Jobs as an inspiration because there is a great similarity in his love for the OnePlus flagship phones and Job’s remarkable pursuit for the iPhone, so I started by asking him when exactly did his love for technology kindle?

Pete: When I was young, there was not much time for me to focus on anything else except my studies (in high school), but when I started working in 1998, I started to have an interest and passion about electronic products. Back then, there wasn’t so much information available, so I was always seeking for news and especially about technology from publications from North America and Europe.

And when I am talking about technology, I also had a very specific focus towards the design parts. So, whenever there is a new product being launched, I would try and find out how the components are put together inside the phone and also how this whole product is getting designed.

What was the first technology device that you owned?

Pete: I did not have a lot of allowance to buy or own any electronic product, but when I got my first salary, it was 200 RMB (Roughly Rs. 2000) back then. But I spent 800 RMB (roughly Rs. 8000) to get an electronic beeper in those early years, a pager. I always wanted to get the best product in the market back then. When the first-generation iPhone was launched, I got one even though it couldn’t be used in China but I just liked playing with it.

So when exactly did you start conceptualising OnePlus?

Pete: When I was in Oppo, I was in charge of the DVD player category. In 2004, I was having a specific focus on North America and Europe market, especially with online solution channels. In 2013, I realized that smartphone market is emerging and growing and that there are a lot of opportunities. I also realised that when compared to DVD, the unit price of smartphone is quite high and when it comes to shipment volume on a yearly basis, it’s not very high. But then I saw that smartphone was becoming a day to day usage for most of the users and especially with the giant opportunity on marketing it was going to be a really good way for me to not only focus on product, but a brand that can impact more people and consumers.

Your focus from the very beginning was on design more especially when most of the other players were focused on pricing. So how did you think about the strategy for OnePlus?

Pete: So, my initial idea was not actually about focusing on a pricing strategy where you just wanted to offer a cheap phone. I wanted to produce a good product. One of our early advantages was our business model, we started from an online business and we’re still focusing on e-commerce and that allows us to really give the actual margin to the users. So, it’s not like we are targeting the cheap price category, it’s just that this is how our product costs. Even when we first launched in India, our unit was Rs. 22,000. So that is relatively more expensive compared to e-commerce based pricing. But even now we have gone through a couple of price increments because the BOM cost has really increased.

Talking about India, India has clearly been a very important market for OnePlus from the very beginning, has the India market met the kind of expectation you had from it?

Pete: The Indian market actually is really satisfactory. According to the latest data from IDC, between $400 and to $600 category, we’re actually ranked as second place right after Samsung. We just want to always focus on our product and offer only the good products to the consumers.

And we’re also overwhelmed but in a good way by the Indian users. Indians love our brand and it can really give you confidence. Indian users are really-really passionate about our brand, that’s what we are grateful for.

You are also deeply involved in making of every single flagship device, what is your process?

Pete: Yes, I am deeply involved in each and every process -- even the material or should it be polished or where the line should be positioned, the phones are well crafted by everyone, I think that whenever we are using all our efforts on one point then the product will certainly reach its profiting stream.

I don’t think of me only as a CEO, I am also a product manager and I like to leverage all -- the whole company’s resources to just build this one product.

So apart from work, what a day in your life looks like?

Pete: I spend most of my time in office. When I am not too busy, I would go through Pinterest on a daily basis and just go through the designs. Sometimes I play tennis as well, but I don’t really get a lot of free time. I think it’s not very easy for me to separate work/private life.

You said you are only focused on flagship phones when all smartphones brands are branching out to various categories. How do you plan to bring something new every time with your smartphones and will OnePlus look at other categories in future?

Pete: Taking AI as an example, it’s a tool for us to really optimize our product. At the end of the day, OnePlus values are to always offer what the users want. So, AI’s being used for trying to understand the user experience and how to optimize it, for example, how to optimize your battery life etc. Best user experience is what we want to focus on. And in terms of extending the product line into other categories, we don’t really have the plan right now. We just want to focus on smart phones.

You have come a long way from 6 employees to 600, how do you select your team? What is it that you look in a potential OnePlus employee? And how important is it to have a global team?

Pete: In the company, we have the core culture, I think that the whole team should pursue the same goal, so if you are holding the same value as the team and you can really fit into the culture, that’s what we want to evaluate when it comes to human resource. I think it’s definitely very important to have a true global team for our company because since the beginning, OnePlus was regarded as a global brand. It helps us to understand needs or the kind of mindset from different culture from different backgrounds. When it comes to team development, which is also very important for us, I think that we should always keep an open mindset so that everyone can grow.

Are you happy with where you have reached so far in the couple of years that you have been around and where do you look at yourself in the next five to ten years?

Pete: So, we don’t really set up goals for us, especially like five-year goal, there is a core value which is like making the best product, I mean ensure the best technology reaches everyone. I think if we just keep moving forward with this value, we will end up in a good place.

We are not looking for drastic changes -- of the corporate revenue or trying to expand the company to certain level, we wanted to be a healthy and sustainable brand and a sustainable company. So, after five years, or 50 years if we’re still in the market place and people are still going, okay, there is a brand called OnePlus, this is what we want to see the most.

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