The Next Big Thing

Shenzhen start-up’s One phone opens for online sales after earning global plaudits

Shenzhen start-up delivers high-end technology at an attractive price

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 February, 2015, 1:44am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 12:11pm

The name of the smartphone One speaks volumes of the ambition behind the Shenzhen start-up that is quietly making waves, with positive reviews from tech enthusiasts and users alike.

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, founder Pete Lau said his company, OnePlus, had sold a million phones since the debut of its first model last May, and that it was determined to be "the next big thing".

"We have very big dreams. From the start, we wanted to build a respected global brand," said the former electrical engineer. "We are making a difference. Our company motto is 'never settle'. And we'll stick to that goal."

The company had made "some profit" in its first year, contrary to its own projections, Lau said, without disclosing actual sums.

Even though its sales may look small compared to those of the big players like Xiaomi, which sold more than seven million units of its first phone, OnePlus has made more in-roads in the international market - selling in 19 countries compared with Xiaomi, which is selling in seven.

More than half of OnePlus' sales have been to developed markets like the US and Europe.

The One boasts two key propositions: low selling price and high-end technology.

Such is this rare combination in a smartphone that it prompted a New York Times review to dub it the "unicorn" of smartphones. It is sold at US$299, almost half the price of other smartphones.

The One uses a niche version of Google's Android operating system that is winning the approval of tech enthusiasts. The Guardian said it offered the best combination of hardware and software, comparing it with the top high-end phones from Samsung, HTC and even Apple.

"We want to build a respected global brand and to provide the best product. There are many mobile phones in the market now but very few are of really good quality," said Lau, 40, who founded the company in late 2013 with Carl Pei, 25. Both formerly worked at Chinese electronics maker Oppo.

Yet for all its commercial success, OnePlus has spent little on marketing. Like Xiaomi, you can only buy the One online, but for international buyers, an existing owner needs to send an invitation. "At the beginning, we didn't know how many phones we could sell overseas. We were also under financial pressure. So we decided to have the invite system which allows us to control our inventory and grow along with demand," Lau said.

The team came up with the invitation system to build the brand by word of mouth.

However, the company announced that as from today it will make the OnePlus available for sale globally online every Tuesday, for a 24-hour window.

Sales of the handset will start at 8am London time, midnight in Los Angeles and 4pm in Hong Kong today.

This means that shoppers will be able to buy the smartphone online without an invitation from the company.

The invitation method will be the standard means for retail for the remaining six days of the week, the company said.

That was how Isobel McKenzie, a children's newspaper editor in Hong Kong, decided on the phone. Her boyfriend Patrick Heffernan Ho, who helped her scour online sites, said: "I was looking for the best phone with the cheapest deal online and the top one that popped up was OnePlus' One. It got the biggest number of best reviews ... and the only thing about this phone was how difficult it was to get your hands on it. There are people who spent US$20 to buy an invite."

The by-invitation approach had helped keep costs low, said Lau. The company has not had to spend huge sums on distribution, marketing or advertising.

"We just have to make sure our product is the best. We'll make a reasonable profit out of our products …The cost is just 2,000 yuan [HK$2,500]. For phones that sell at 4,000 to 5,000 yuan, the cost is just like ours."

More than the price, McKenzie said she was impressed by the speed and design of the phone.

"I have been using it for one month now and I haven't found any fault with it. The look is beautiful and the battery is fantastic. It lasts two days. Solid," she said.

On the accolades so far, Lau said being compared with the best phones in the world was "very invaluable" praise.

"We want to make the best Android phones. Our design and craft of the phones is really good and we care about things users value the most," Lau said, adding that the strategy of relying on word of mouth among tech users was paying off.

"The most active users online are people who are into technology," he said.

Lau also attributes OnePlus' initial success to having global and domestic units to cater to two different groups at the same time and having a diverse team of young engineers, who hail from 15 countries.

"Like our co-founder Carl, who was born in 1989, most of our employees are young people who dream big.

"When I first met Carl, he told me he wanted to change the world. I was very impressed," Lau said of Pei, who is now global director of OnePlus.

"Our team has attracted like-minded talents from all over the world and we want to make a change and do something crazy."

Lau said the company was also looking into developing its own software and launching its next model, due to be released in the third quarter of this year.

"Customers' expectations will be higher and competition will be fiercer. We have to move forward very fast," Lau said.