OnePlus has had a difficult time establishing itself as a serious smartphone manufacturer. The China-based hardware company’s first offering, the OnePlus, was tainted by two distasteful marketing campaigns, one anti-environment, the other degrading to women. Then its follow-up phone, the OnePlus 2, was plagued by manufacturing delays. After that wonky launch last year, it seemed like OnePlus was ready to throw in the towel.
But not so. I spoke with OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei just days before the launch of the OnePlus 3, and he said he’s optimistic his company can turn around the negative narrative. “We need to step up some of the expectations that our fans have of us,” Pei says. “Hopefully this year we can be seen as a serious player rather than a young and cocky, rebellious company.”
Pei wouldn’t share any specific hardware plans beyond the OnePlus 3’s release, but he did speak candidly about the company’s renewed focus on community, and whether it’s worried about the other Chinese manufactures making a play for the American market.
Here are some excerpts from our interview.
On why the OnePlus 3 was launched a month earlier than expected
“Ideally, this will be the best time to release a new phone because there’s basically no competition. Everything has already been released, and the rest are coming later in the year. It’s a really good time for us.”
On OnePlus’s renewed focus on community
“We don’t have the marketing budget that the bigger players have, so we need to grow by word of mouth.
We’ll be focusing a lot more on finding ways of maintaining this relationship. For instance, if you notice in the box of the OnePlus 3, there’s a letter from me. There’s my direct email address for users who have a suggestion. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes in.”
On collaborating with users
“We want to do a lot more co-creation with our users. We used to ask a lot of questions about what users want to see [in our phones]. We [fielded questions] with the OnePlus 3, and then we made an infographic on what our community actually wanted. It’s pretty similar to the end result. Obviously, it’s not a 100 percent fit because users want everything with no compromise—the best battery life with the slimmest profile, for instance—but we want to do a lot more of this [kind of outreach].
We’re also asking users to do reviews. We want to make it fair so that it’s not just the media with access to our review units, but also some of our users who are better at writing. We set the bar pretty high at a 500-word essay to register, and we received 15,000 entries. But that’s just step one. First it’s product reviews, and then there’s more we can do if this works well.”
On capturing the mass market
“We really need to do a great job with our core audience before we get ahead of ourselves and try to capture a mass market. We really need people to believe in what we stand for, and spread the word for us.”
On other Chinese brands gunning for the U.S.
“The U.S. will always be important because American consumers are the most demanding in the world. If you can manage to make it, everything else becomes easier.
Our positioning is quite different from other Chinese brands. We only create flagship products, and we provide good value for the money. But if you look at the broader Android market, the average Android phone is $200 to $250. You have to have a brand that people are willing to pay money for. In China, these players are subsidizing growth with their investments. It’s not a sustainable model.”
On OnePlus’s strategy for the long term
“We know that over time, people will make more of their purchases online. We know that consumers will become more informed about their purchasing decisions, and that a product can’t shine on its own. So we’re focusing on creating the best products, on e-commerce, and on developing a brand that has a defensible margin. Hopefully we can play in a different field where we’ll be okay with having a more focused approach. We might grow slower, but in the long run I think this is the correct strategy.”