As 2019 ends and we enter a new decade, I felt the story of OnePlus deserved a bit more examination. In an email interview with CMO Kyle Kiang, I probed the history of a company that is often as shocking in its successes as it is in its marketing misfires. As it crests its sixth year as a smartphone vendor, it's more competitive than ever, coming a long way from the days when it could barely manage to build enough $349 OnePlus Ones using a tightly controlled and very annoying invitation system.
OnePlus has also transformed in ways I don't believe any of us predicted, going from a scrappy, value-first smartphone maker to a legitimate competitor in a field that includes some of the world's most recognizable brands: Samsung, Apple, and Google. And looking back, there were plenty of points at which that trajectory seemed far from plausible.
A Cinderella story—with a few detours
When the OnePlus One was announced, I distinctly remember the absolutely earth-shattering effect it had.
When the OnePlus One was announced, I distinctly remember the absolutely earth-shattering effect it had: a $300* smartphone that promised the performance of those costing more than twice as much, and to also distribute and support it across the world only using internet sales. It sounded like a pipe dream, and I thought as much of it—not a scam, but certainly not a sustainable business model. I, and others, were very, very wrong. (*It eventually turned out the 16GB model was only available in extremely limited quantities, so the OnePlus One ended up being effectively $349. Which, in hindsight, is decidedly the brand of hijinks I would expect from OnePlus circa 2014.)
There were bumps along the way—notable missteps like the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X—but it became increasingly difficult to shake off the company after the OnePlus 3 and 3T delivered on many of the promises OnePlus made about listening to its customers and making continuous improvements. The OnePlus 5 cemented it on our minds: OnePlus was here to stay.
Fast forward to late 2019, and OnePlus isn't just having success with smartphone critics, it's a booming business: OnePlus now accounts for the plurality of high-end smartphone sales in India, having surpassed Samsung and Apple in one of the world's most competitive markets. Growth in the US has been slow and steady, but after inking a partnership with T-Mobile to sell the company's handsets, it seems like OnePlus can only go up from here.
Interview with Kyle Kiang, CMO, OnePlus
AP: Six years later, is OnePlus the company you thought it would become? In what ways has it turned out differently than you imagined?
KK: Looking back, our initial vision for OnePlus was rather modest. We wanted to create an Android smartphone that would appeal to tech enthusiasts like ourselves. In the beginning, we were only concerned with two things: creating a product that would meet our own standards and connecting that product to a community that shared our vision. We quickly found like-minded people who engaged with what we were trying to do. It was then that our vision began to expand. We knew early on that OnePlus had outsize potential, but we never anticipated the level of success we achieved, say, with the OnePlus One, or with our growth in the India region. The fact that our passion for tech has resonated so deeply with a diverse, global community, I think, has been the biggest, and most welcome surprise.
AP: To you, is there a moment in particular that stands out, in which you felt OnePlus as a company had finally "made it"?
"The burden of success did return to haunt us with the OnePlus 2, which taught us a hard lesson—that a single successful product does not make a business viable."
KK: The reaction to the OnePlus One was incredible. It was a massive, runaway success that immediately set the bar in terms of the kind of impact we could look to create. And yes, the burden of success did return to haunt us with the OnePlus 2, which taught us a hard lesson—that a single successful product does not make a business viable, and that to achieve any sort of lasting success, we needed to listen to and–more importantly–act on feedback from our core community. The whiplash that occurred internally between the OnePlus One and OnePlus 2 motivated to get back on track with the OnePlus 3, which embodied the original spirit and ethos of listening to our core community in order to make the best phone possible.
AP: Building an unlocked phone business in America is hard, and it's been relatively slow-going for OnePlus. But so many US publications recommend your phones, and most people who own them love them. Where does OnePlus see the US as part of its business strategy going forward?
KK: The US is one of our most important markets, and it’s one where we have the most room to grow. We’ve put a lot of time and energy towards delivering the best hardware and software approach, which has allowed us to quickly build a reputation for creating no-compromise devices that go head-to-head with offerings from Apple and Samsung. Growth has been very positive in the US. In Q1 2019, OnePlus finished as a top 4 smartphone brand in the US in the premium segment and in Q2 2019 we were the fastest growing smartphone brand in the US, with 152% YoY, both according to Counterpoint Research. Of course, much of our success can be attributed to our wireless provider partnerships.
AP: Releasing two phones (now three) a year keeps OnePlus more competitive in the product release cycle, but competitors like Samsung are now up to five "flagship" phones a year. Do you see a benefit to growing that number further?
KK: As OnePlus grows, we will continue to evaluate whether it makes sense to diversify our product portfolio.
AP: Going forward, what do you think will be the most critical factor - be it a consumer expectation, market forces, or a technical innovation - in ensuring OnePlus continues to grow for another 5 years?
KK: The most critical factor for OnePlus is to continue to deliver the best product possible. First and foremost, we are a product company, and the core of our success is delivering devices that people enjoy using. As we continue to grow it is important we stay close to our community so we can continue to understand what they are looking for in a premium product and then deliver upon them.
AP: Not every smartphone trend has been predictable, and companies often have to explore multiple avenues during product development before finalizing that product. What are some of the toughest decisions OnePlus has had to make over the years about its phones?
KK: The smartphone market is very saturated, but we’ve always aimed to provide the best technology for our community. Instead of chasing smartphone trends, we’ve tended to focus on what we’re doing to reach our goal, which is to put out the best product. With the OnePlus 7 Pro, we decided to introduce the first mainstream 90 Hz 2K smartphone display to the US market, even though the technology was new, expensive, and challenging to implement. We were convinced that we needed to bring high refresh rate displays to market, as users would stand to gain immediate benefits from using a smoother and more responsive display.
The next six years
Some stones, though, were left unturned: OnePlus didn't exactly want to go on the record about how the OnePlus 2 and X led to changes in the company's strategy, though I think so much time has passed that postmortems would be pretty harmless (and very fascinating). I also couldn't get any additional word about the company's relation to Oppo, and I think it's a topic that deserves a deeper dive as we start to think about what's next for OnePlus as a company—with or without them. (I also asked about the OnePlus TV, and no dice there, either.)
The tangled story of OnePlus and Oppo is one which both companies have sought to downplay, but their close relationship becomes obvious simply using their products side by side. But this year, I think that relationship took a turn: Oppo diverged its premium efforts into the new Reno lineup, phones which seek to capitalize on the multi-camera trend more than they do strict specification-to-dollar ratios. Oppo also launched a staggering two dozen models of smartphones in 2019, and sought to compete with OnePlus by offering its phones in Europe for the first time ever.
Though Oppo may contend it targets a different range of customers than OnePlus, it sure looks like OnePlus is about to step directly into its ally's line of fire with a cheaper variant of the upcoming OnePlus 8. Even if OnePlus and Oppo have released products with similar MSRPs for years now, OnePlus has so far (aside from the disastrous X) deftly avoided the cutthroat world of The Budget Phone. Take that along with its foray into TV—a market Oppo has never participated in—and things are clearly changing at OnePlus, probably in the biggest ways since the company was founded six years ago. OnePlus is growing confident and taking risks, hoping that it can succeed on the back of the reputation it has developed among consumers with its smartphones.
Such changes should be a source of enthusiasm for fans of the brand: after all, I think we'd all welcome a little OnePlus-ing of certain products, particularly those which are noteworthy only for their wholesale mediocrity (I'm looking at you, smart TVs). But they're also a sign of a company that, as it has grown, has started growing its ambitions to match. I don't know where OnePlus will be six years from now, but it's one of the few companies for which the possibilities actually excite me. I can't say I saw myself saying that six years ago, but then again, I didn't see OnePlus making it this long in the first place. I'm glad I was wrong.