Exclusive: How Poco registered 300% growth in India with a product portfolio ‘leaner than even the iPhone’ and what’s next

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Updated: May 24, 2021 9:24 PM

"It is harder to crack the social media of the country than probably the market itself."

Poco, Poco F1, Poco X3 Pro, Anuj SharmaPoco F1 on the left, Poco X3 Pro on the right. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

“In tech, there’s no such thing as a legacy brand,” Poco India country director, Anuj Sharma tells me over a video call. “The reason why Apple or Samsung are still relevant today is because they continue to churn out brilliant products every year. The reason why Xiaomi is still in the news is because they put out products like the Mi 11 Ultra or Mi Mix Fold,” he adds.

The key to staying relevant lies in being open to change. To adapt and keep innovating. Not sticking to just one formula or dated tech.

Sharma is setting the stage for some exciting news that Poco has in store for us today. Hot on the heels of overtaking Realme and OnePlus to become India’s third online smartphone brand, the Xiaomi spin-off has recorded 300 percent year-over-year (YOY) growth in Q1 2021, according to data released by IDC. As per the firm’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, May 2021 report, Poco is currently the fastest growing brand in the world’s second largest smartphone market.

It’s probably not the most important metric, Sharma says, but it’s good to have from a business perspective in these challenging times since “a 4X growth over last year means that many of the key strategic directions that we have taken, seem to be working well.”

One of those decisions was not limiting itself to the 20-30k price band. With the Poco X2, it started being “a little more inclusive.” The idea was to reach the heart of the market, or at least, get closer to it. Thereon, it forayed into other, more affordable price bands under the M- and C-series, all in the middle of a global pandemic while sticking to its core strategy to maintain one of the leanest product portfolios in the market, something that’s in sharp contrast to Xiaomi.

“We don’t agree with (the concept of) launching a barrage of new products just to stay relevant. Our portfolio is leaner than even the iPhone today,” Sharma says adding Poco would rather operate in bands its products could do some justice to and that “overwhelming consumers with (too many) options may not always be best solution.”

One of the main concerns that Poco had while getting into the 15,000- or 10,000-rupee price bands was (limited) consumer awareness and the fact that it has not really done any Above the Line (ATL) marketing, relying solely on its product choices to do much of the talking. In that sense, phones like the Poco M2 and Poco C3 are special considering how they have been able to turbo-charge Poco’s confidence, not to mention, sales and business.

A tricky business

Being an enthusiast-only brand is tricky, especially from a business point of view. Take OnePlus for example. The brand that started off with the proverbial “flagship killer” phone has over the years, transitioned into building actual flagships with premium hardware and relatively exorbitant pricing. Even though it is keeping the whole flagship killer category alive in some form or the other, you can tell a lot is going on inside closed doors, as OnePlus works on finding the right balance.

Sharma believes there is some merit in this since it is wrong to assume a tech enthusiast is only looking at a specific price point. You could be interested in tech and you could have different levels of enthusiasm after all. You could be in it without caring about rooting a phone or flashing custom ROMs on it. Or maybe, you could just be looking at all the shiny new hardware (and well optimised software) and saying to yourself, hey, I could see myself using that, better if I could (also) get it inside my budget.

There is no line as such that sets an enthusiast apart from an average buyer and it is only fair that brands like OnePlus (and Poco) are working relentlessly to break from that mould. That is not say that it is easy doing what these brands are doing since “anytime you are changing strategies, it is a nervous time.” When Poco says that the Poco C3 is for the tech enthusiasts, it is a slightly different play (on words and feature set). The same is true about its other products.

Back in the day, Manu Kumar Jain had said the reason why Xiaomi didn’t launch any phone upwards of Rs 50,000 in India was because the technology simply did not exist to justify those higher price tags. (Fast forward to 2021 and we have a phone like the Mi 11 Ultra taking on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and OnePlus 9 Pro. It is Xiaomi’s most ambitious product in the country to date, a new dawn for the company in question if you will.)

Sharma says there is another aspect to it rather than just technological limitations: the economics of the country itself. “If I have a $500 device in India then I am only catering to say 3-4 percent of the overall market. If I have a $500 device in Singapore, I am catering to almost 80-90 percent of the market,” Sharma explains. From a business perspective, the brand will also have to take into account “if there is a sizeable market that I can reach considering that I do not have (enough) resources to be everywhere as Poco.”

Breaking perception

Like Xiaomi, Poco must also brave the storm of perception in India. Its first product, the Poco F1, was so ahead of its time, it’s almost like a cult classic and a successor is awaited to this day. However, in the last three years, people’s expectations have changed, Sharma says and “just having a superlative performance is not enough. People want different boxes ticked. They want the best-in-class display, top notch cameras, so on and so forth,” so much so that, “a Poco F1 might not even be possible in 2021.”

In fact, even if you imagine the Poco F1 in 2018 with a high-quality display or a glass body, “it would have costed more.”

Sharma hopes Poco has been able to pacify some people — waiting for a Poco F1 successor — with the newly launched Poco X3 Pro but of course “people still want to see how far we can go” and it will take time to break perceptions. As and when the Poco F1 successor does show up, it will follow the economics of things as per the market. In other words, don’t expect it come (as) cheap.

That is alright though, Sharma says, as over the years, more people have opened to buying a device at 30-40k. The market has moved, and the expectations have changed and if people are looking at a Poco F1 follow up, “they are likely not expecting to get it at 20-25k.”

As and when it comes, it is also likely to face tough competition. Question is, why is India such a hard market to crack.

“The way I see it is that India missed out on this entire automotive wave that happened in the 60s, 70s, 80s, even the 90s. That enthusiast market never really picked up for automotive, but it picked up for electronics. This is where a lot of people have genuinely got excited about it. A lot of people identify themselves as excited about tech, or genuinely caring about tech, which also means that their expectations are always higher,” Sharma says adding, “it is harder to crack the social media of the country than probably the market itself.”

5G tax

India is probably one of the few global markets where 5G smartphones have arrived way before the network itself — that too in a big way. The same social media, that Sharma says is a tough cookie, is buzzing with the keyword. Many of the conversations, especially regarding affordable 5G phones, seem to revolve around the topic of “5G tax” which is to say that every new budget 5G phone has some or the other caveat.

But that is expected, so says Sharma, as 5G hardware (like upgrading from a 12MP camera to a 48MP camera for instance) is going to cost more money and it will be all about “figuring out the balance and see if we can provide both.”

Poco will “probably” launch a 5G phone in India this year since at a certain point, “it will be pretty much impossible to not have a 5G device” in its portfolio. The “real” challenge will be “how to keep our portfolio clean while doing that.”

It will also be a challenge deciding the number of 5G bands to consider. OnePlus has been called out by many for launching the OnePlus 9-series in India with a cap of two bands at max, when globally the same phones support more.

“The only band that matters is the one which we can use, and the indications seem to be in the 77-78 range. The expectation is that at least one of the network operators will be faster from auction to market (deployment) and it would be one of these bands and most 5G phones will work fine,” Sharma says. “One concern is that while we travel, it might not work in another country. That challenge will always be there.”

Given a choice, Sharma would choose a band he can use versus having a spreadsheet with gazillion bands but not be able to use much of it. “I think the right band is more important than the number of bands you have,” he adds.

Poco’s upcoming 5G phone(s) in India will be based on the same philosophy.

Future plans

Poco is working with a limited audience. Its products are only sold online. There is no retail presence whatsoever. No India R&D. Here’s what Sharma has to say about each of these aspects:

On offline expansion: “Not at the moment, but you never know. We are keeping our fingers crossed, hoping things get back to normal soon.”

On team expansion: “Expansion is happening, but we are taking it slow, adding as per requirement.”

On India R&D: “R&D is a little trickier. We have been working closely with the global Poco team now. Setting up R&D beyond the product testing, is a little tough. It requires people working together and currently it is hard to pull a lot of people and put them into the same office. But it is definitely on the cards. At least the main R&D, which will come in from a software perspective, we are looking at that, working together with the global team and creating something there.”

On Poco F1 successor: “We are still due to deliver an F-series follow up. Hopefully, we will pull something off there soon.”

Also Read | Poco revamps brand identity in India as Xiaomi spin-off looks at life after Poco F1

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