One-on-one with OnePlus's Carl Pei: 'We got arrogant'

The company's co-founder chats with us about the future of OnePlus, what he regrets, and how he hopes to foster a stronger community.

carlpei

Carl Pei is the co-founder and Head of Global at OnePlus. He’s the guy answering your questions during the company’s Reddit AMAs. He’s the type of executive you can tweet and he’ll actually tweet you back.

Pei has made himself openly and readily available to OnePlus fans on the Internet. He’s committed to his job of growing OnePlus as a smartphone manufacturer, but he wants the company to be more than just another OEM for Android fans to pine over—he wants to foster a community that empowers its users to strive for something better. I briefly chatted with Pei during the launch OnePlus 2 in San Francisco to get a better sense of who he is behind his online handles.

Greenbot: Where do you guys see yourselves a year from now?

Pei: If you went back a year and asked us the same question, we would have said something completely different. It’s really hard to foresee the future. In the beginning, we never thought of selling a lot of units. At least not in the initial years.

I asked our CEO [Pete Lau], ‘We’re launching a product, shouldn’t we set a sales goal?’ He said, ‘Well, sales are important but not the most important thing.’ If you make a good product and treat your users well, that will automatically lead to other things, like good revenue, good profit, good growth. If you focus on the growth or profits first, your direction is wrong. You’ll never be able to make a good product; you’ll never be able to reach your goal.

Greenbot: So, do you guys plan to position yourselves as the “anti-corporate” smartphone of the Android world?

Pei: It depends on what you mean by “corporate.” Isn’t there some other way of running a corporation?

Greenbot: You have to run it a bit like a corporation if you want to make money and keep people happy, right?

Pei: Despite that, we had to set some goals. We [figured] if we sell 30,000 phones the first year, we’d continue doing this. We’ve done more than 1.5 million…We were not ready for that, but we improved quite fast. So now, if you ask me what will happen in a year, it’s really hard to say. We haven’t had a product for 15 months. Normally smartphone companies will refresh their phones in 10 or 12 months.

Greenbot: Do you feel that everything is hanging on the OnePlus 2?

Pei: It is. We also feel we got a little bit lucky. Every company will make products it believes in. So, saying that we made a good product doesn’t really work because everyone tries to make good products. The luck comes from the fact that what we thought was good was also accepted by the market as a good product.

We don’t know if we still have the same luck this time around because we had a lot of leaks recently, and some of the leaks weren’t really pretty. [They] put the phone in a bad light…It wasn’t final hardware, the lighting and angles—everything was bad.

Greenbot: But don’t you want a little bit of that, though? That’s what happens to companies like Samsung and HTC, and that helps build hype.

Pei: We already do a lot of our own hype by just releasing the specs. Sure, [the leaks] might have helped, but the photos were really bad. A lot of people were tweeting me, “if that’s the OnePlus 2, I’m really disappointed.”

Greenbot: Do you guys have any goals to be as big as Samsung, LG—the big players in the Android world?

Pei: Not in the short term, but eventually we want to be the third choice. In all mature industries, you don’t have more than three players. Like sodas: you have Coke and Pepsi. I think it will happen with smartphones as well. When that happens, I hope we’re still around.

Greenbot: Companies like Huawei and Cyanogen want to be number three, too. What do you guys offer that would make you the third best?

Pei: The things we’re going to focus on is the product, customer support, and community. I think if we do these three things well, we’ll be very differentiated and have a lot of people support us.

We’re on a good trajectory already—we don’t know about the OnePlus 2 yet, but the One did really well. A good product has a longer lifecycle than a bad product; people like it for a longer period of time, they recommend it for a longer period of time. The entire premise of the invite system wouldn’t have worked if we had a bad product, because in its essence, the invite system is based on people recommending a good product to their friends. I wouldn’t recommend that my friends buy something I hated.

A lot of our growth comes organically from our product. Internet has developed to a stage where consumers have a lot more power over their buying choices. Information is a lot more transparent. Just because you have a big marketing budget, doesn’t mean you’ll get that support from users.

As for customer support, we think the entire landscape and communications have changed. There’s so many different tools to use. We also know that in the long run, it’ll be really important.

We also know that because of the speed we’ve scaled, customer service experience has been far from ideal. In the beginning, we had a very small team doing customer service, doing tickets, and when we suddenly started sell a lot of phones, that team was so overwhelmed. At one point, the entire company was doing tickets. It was a difficult period.

Now that our team is big enough, we need to work on the processes: making the returns easier, making the replacements easier.

Greenbot: It sounds like you guys are running a family business and everyone’s pitching in whenever they can.

Pei: We’re still in the early days—we’re still less than two years old. We’re all pretty young as well. We’re just figuring things out. For things where we don’t have experience, sometimes it’s just about putting in more hours to learn it faster.

Greenbot: Don’t you feel proud about the fact that you’ve grown so quickly and managed to drum up so much press in such a short period of time?

Pei: Press doesn’t equal business—It’s not an indicator of a healthy business. I think we got a little bit arrogant somewhere in the middle. After we launched the first OnePlus One, we didn’t spend any money on marketing—we spent maybe $200 total. It became three Twitter trending keywords. We thought we were geniuses.

What happened was, we were a bit too optimistic. We ordered a bunch of inventory, but then we ordered too much and recently we had to sell some of that—spare parts to manufacturers at a discount. We lost a bit of money there, but we learned a lesson in humility.

Greenbot: I appreciate you sharing that. Not a lot of companies would be so forth rite about that sort of thing.

Pei: I don’t understand why that is. I think there’s not much you can’t talk about.

If you look at what happened at Reddit, for example: first of all, you don’t own the community. Secondly, the community expects you to be a human and not a PR-filtered robot. I think that’s more the case in communications. And third, community: our community is pretty active. I think we haven’t done a great job of giving back to the community. We haven’t interacted as much as we could, we haven’t been doing fan gatherings around the world as much as we could. Now we set up a team especially for our community outreach. Hopefully the community will feel better in the future—and relatively stronger. We’re also gradually opening up more offices around the world and that will make things easier.

Greenbot: How do you guys plan to keep the community strong and engaged?

Pei: What we wish to do is to attract more people to the community. Then, we want to start nudging them to do better stuff. Somehow, we want to teach them; maybe share lessons with entrepreneurship, music, entertainment, and fashion, to try to make their interests more broad and not just focused on the tech stuff.

We want to have people understand that if we can launch a company in such a short time, then if they really want to do something they should also go for it. We don’t know the exact format of making this happen, but the goal is not just to have a group of fanboys. We want to empower people to do something better.

This story, "One-on-one with OnePlus's Carl Pei: 'We got arrogant'" was originally published by Greenbot.

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