The smartphone industry is a tough sector to succeed in, and it is getting tougher by the day. Thanks to the pressures of trade and the ever-changing environment, it is not rare to see companies changing track as often as some people change smartphone covers. They also end up spreading themselves thin in a bid to hedge against risks. This is why Pete Lau, the founder CEO of the smartphone start-up OnePlus, comes across as different. This reflects in his company too. OnePlus has, for most of its three-year existence, been a one-phone-at-a-time company, focusing clearly on the premium mid-segment, well ahead of the budget phones and much more affordable than the top-end phones from Apple and Samsung, although offering similar features. In fact, Lau is clearly inspired by Apple in this strategy. “I personally prefer the approach of Apple, to be more focused,” he tells me a couple of days after the big bang launch of his new OnePlus 5 smartphone in Mumbai.
Him being here is a clear statement on how important the Indian market is for this company. After all, a third of its sales happen here. Also, the scale of the event clearly underlines the success of the brand, which had modest beginnings as a brand focused at the geeks. Lau is all about focus. He wants OnePlus to stick to its price band, which is between Rs 25,000 and Rs 40,000, where its new phones and older models sell. It has no intention of entering other product segments, like some other start-ups, and no intention of selling offline. If there is any focus, it is, as Lau says, on “creating the best Android flagship” and offering a great experience for consumers. OnePlus doesn’t even want to start controlling its supply chain, a clear temptation once you hit the volumes.
“We are focused on what we are best at doing. This is again the difference between Apple and Samsung. Apple makes just some components, but still produces the best phone,” he says with a mix of humour and seriousness that is difficult to miss. OnePlus is clearly a success story in India, at least after the debacle of its only budget phone—the OnePlus X. That doesn’t mean Lau wants to go all out on India. He has thought of setting up an R&D centre here, like other smartphone companies, but doesn’t want to put a date on it and burden his small management team here. “In the future, we will have an R&D centre in India, I just can’t say when,” he answers in his soft-spoken style with pauses for the interpreter to translate.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not bothered about India at the moment, as he quickly adds that there are a few “Indian colleagues” at their global headquarters in Shenzhen, China. If there is any focus on India, it is his target group: “the young, confident people who pursue good quality.”
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Even when it comes to the product, this clarity of thought stands out. Lau is clear that a 2K display, which many brands are adding to their flagships, is not worth it at the moment as it does not improve the experience for the user. “It just ends up consuming more power.” Even on the performance side, he says the singular goal is to ensure the CPU gets to perform to its best; this means his phones’ focus on cutting thermal dissipation and, as a result, end up with top benchmark scores.
“We only try to tap the full potential of the CPU. We don’t even know how to overclock,” he says, repeatedly writing the words CPU on a pad in front of him. This quest to offer the best phone in terms of performance and design has also kept him from adding waterproofing to the new OnePlus 5. He says this is not a great feature to add if you want to make a thin and a light phone. Anyway, he is convinced that waterproofing is not that big a necessity for the customer and hence there is no need to meet that demand. On a daily basis when you encounter new brands that try to sell gimmicks as innovation and old brands that try new things to stay relevant, someone as focused as Pete Lau does stand out.