Pete Lau, the Founder and Chief Executive of OnePlus is calm, efficient and determined to give people the best smartphone they can have. He’s only just getting started, it would seem.
Passion for perfection. One of the things that sets visionaries and achievers apart from others. It is this passion that makes them keep at something they believe will change the world, or change the lives of people, or simply make them and their environments better. It’s not easy and the chance of success is small, but they continue to work on the ideal. That’s also how Pete Lau views his work, and it seems he’s on a mission to do all of these things.
How is it that OnePlus, the technology company Lau founded and runs as CEO, has become a bona fide contender in the cutthroat premium smartphones market? Much of it has to do with the 43-year-old’s belief that he’s out to offer the best possible device experience there can be—and not just limit himself or his company to specs and price wars.
OnePlus, founded in late 2013, has been called the disrupter, the challenger, taking on the likes of Apple, Samsung and Huawei on their turf, and still managing to carve a distinct identity for itself. Paul Nunes and Larry Downes wrote in the U.S. edition of Forbes magazine in 2015, “OnePlus clearly represents the ‘Big Bang’ phenomenon: a company launched with a product that is better, cheaper and more closely tailored to what customers want than anything offered by competitors.” An apt synopsis, but it doesn’t capture the depth of OnePlus’ consumer-centric approach. The company and its smartphones have a very vocal community that supports them, as OnePlus continues to produce polished devices.
“We have always had a focus on delivering the best technology possible. Around that, a very vocal, tech-focused and detail-oriented user community has developed, and they are quick to call us out on everything from design to user experience. It helps us create what is most cutting-edge and up-to-date,” says Lau, adding, “From the OnePlus One—a product that itself was created by fans—to every device we’ve made, you can see the valuable input of our fans-—users in everything—from product packaging to hardware. They’ve always felt like they’re a part of the brand, and they have a sense of belonging and ownership.”
The genesis of OnePlus lies in the belief that no matter how good you are, you can be better. It kind of mirrors Lau’s belief. Born in Hanchuan, a small town in China’s Hubei province, Lau was an inquisitive kid. “You need the courage to challenge the status quo. Once, when I was in school I was doing homework, but in one of the books, the answer to a question printed at the back of the book was wrong. I brought it to the attention of the teacher, instead of following it blindly. Maybe I realised that the other students wouldn’t doubt it and may not take anything away from it,” he says. And it’s something he would still do.
STARTING AT THE TOP
Lau cut his teeth in Oppo, one of the largest smartphone manufacturers in China, and then branched out to create what he felt would be a product that scaled up consumer delight. But it wasn’t about merely surviving as a startup, it was a chance to create an ecosystem around a product, focused on customer lifestyle and attitude that excited him. Lau is equal measure pragmatism and pride when he says, “From my perspective, technology should improve people’s lives. It is never technology for the sake of it, but determining its value to the user.”
From the OnePlus One to the just-launched OnePlus 6, the company has created products that have become benchmarks in their price range, as well as ushered in a number of novel business mechanisms. An initial invite-only system, outsourced manufacturing and a distinct design philosophy have stood it in good stead. Chasing volume can often deaden customer experience, and Lau and OnePlus have steered clear from that since the beginning. He gauged early on that the youth is about openness and stuffy attitudes relating to brand loyalty were beginning to melt away. As some brands have developed fans, like Apple in the electronics business and Mini Cooper in the auto business, OnePlus sought to create its own clan.
It has obvious advantages, of course. Online retailing tends to help reduce cost and consistent customer feedback allows you to perfect design, materials and even manufacturing. But Lau says his goal is much bigger. “The Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming propagated the concept of innate knowing, and the idea of a sense of knowing and doing the right thing,” he says. “This ties in very closely with the corporate culture and key values of OnePlus. Doing the right thing even during testing times. Very easy to say, but much harder to do.”
One could say that’s where the tagline “Never Settle” comes from, but Lau points out that it is more than a tagline—it is an ethos and it reflects in every aspect of the product. Lau, in fact, has written on the OnePlus blog: “Good design—truly good design—does not deliberately pursue the exaggeration of the external form. In fact, it may even extend to a prioritisation of the internal form: the material, the craftsmanship, and the tiny details.” There has to be balance and experience allows you some self-discovery, he feels.
KEEPING IT REAL
The differentiation between smartphones is sometimes uneasily small, as each player scrambles to offer more features. The numbers tell a story: IDC reports that a total of 1.46 billion smartphones were shipped worldwide in 2017, but also that the number will grow to only 1.68 billion units in 2022. Gartner further reports that Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo remain the main players, now accounting for over 60 percent of the market. India, which has become the second largest cellphone market in the world after China according to Canalys, is set to play a bigger role.
Yet, there is an aspect that allows a brand like OnePlus to carve its own niche. This is the replacement market and a prime determinant of that is peer referral. Here again, it is Lau’s singular focus on quality above all else that seems to have allowed the company to make noticeable headway. Says Lau, “India is a unique market. I’ve heard of many different perspectives, but what is clear is that consumers here expect value for money. But for us the focus has been on premium quality throughout the world. The same global standard, the same excellence in product—it’s not a simpler or cheaper version. ‘Fast’ is something users still demand as a holistic experience and there are a lot of aspects to it, including system optimisation and Dash charge—a day’s power in half an hour—which users in India have remarked, is one of their favourite features.” But, more than anything, he feels that it is OnePlus’ obsession with product design and ‘premium hand-feel’ that keeps people coming back. And, in fact, support the brand quite zealously. Now, with OnePlus offline presence across India, this interface can prove to be better, because the “Process of iteration never stops. We have an internal team that’s focused on evaluating all the feedback constantly because that is so important to us,” says Lau.
“I tend to look at myself more as the ‘Chief Experience Officer’ because every aspect of design and development is my favourite task,” he says with enthusiasm. “The elegance of curves, the nuanced materials, the smoothness and intuitive aspect of gestures, every aspect that gives the device its character. And this is the process where you want to create something that people feel lucky to experience—that’s the ultimate goal.”
The brand seems to be close. Already, its devices’ horizon line and characteristic curve have become recognised elements of its design language, and Lau maintains that he’d like to keep the design “honest.” He elaborates on his blog, “It means respecting what a product should be, rather than tacking on additional elements just for the sake of hype. And I believe users will naturally gravitate towards more ‘honest’ designs.” Take the new OnePlus 6, for instance. The glass back contains five printed layers of ‘nanotech’ coating, a first in smartphones, and it is one of the first to feature the newest version of Android OS. This meant delaying the launch, but, “We’re compelled to create as close to a perfect product as we can,” says Lau.
STAYING AHEAD IN THE GAME
In the world of technology, preferences can often be contradictory and appeal can dip faster than you switch off your data. Even as demand for smartphones is likely to rise, so is consumer fatigue in some markets. In others, people will continue to upgrade but seek greater value. “I think device longevity is based on application and usability. We have a strong focus on device performance and optimisation to prompt fans to retain their devices,” says Lau optimistically.
As companies explore the boundaries of devices and the complexity of connectivity over the next half-decade, they are investing in everything—from robotics to augmented reality, to deliver consistent value. OnePlus, for its part, plans to stay true to its core. “If we do create something in a different technological space, it must be something that is disruptive and changes the paradigm. We won’t create something that’s just good enough. We’d want to create something more holistic than what’s available now,” says Lau, adding that in the future, the idea of a ‘single device’ will be more about something that acts as a “portal of connectivity.” He adds, “It may not be a smartphone as we know it today, it may be a form of wearable, or it may be something that responds to voice commands. But it will connect to a whole ecosystem of devices, beyond what we have today.”
Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy, but OnePlus isn’t following a conventional path anyway. It’s evolving, learning and growing. Does Lau seek to emulate any one leader or thought? No. “I learn from people’s specialities, so I’m always in a state of learning and looking at what it is that makes people amazing at what they do. But a couple of books have been meaningful to me: Built To Last [by Jim Collins] for personal and professional growth and the other, The Hard Thing About Hard Things [by Ben Horowitz].”
And keep it nimble, he adds, while keeping the fire and perspective alive. “Looking at the yin-yang of life allows you to have a calmness of thought, and for that you need to detach yourself from the situation,” he says. And if it gets too stressful? “One thing I do is put the issue aside, and sleep on it. Literally, sleep. It is the best way to de-stress. I would recommend that for everyone. We also have a management goal to walk 8,000 steps a day, and everyone must do it, no matter how busy you are. Call it a company activity,” he laughs.
At the end of the day, technology is momentary. To stay stable, Lau says you have to “Make a great product, and stay focused on the long term. You have to have an almost spiritual belief in that.”
PHOTOGRAPHED BY SHIVANGI KULKARNI