One Minus: Will Carl Pei’s exit “unsettle” OnePlus?

The face of OnePlus leaves

by: - Last updated on: October 13th, 2020

‘Two colleagues-cum-friends start a tech brand. The brand takes off and becomes one of the most popular names in the tech market. One of the co-founder then steps away to start a new venture…’

Sounds like a story we have all heard before, right? But the tech brand we are talking about here is not Apple and the two colleagues-cum-friends are not the two Steves, Jobs and Woz. This is actually a more recent, more modern day separation happening at one of the most popular brands in the market at the moment — OnePlus.

carl pei oneplus

The OnePlus phenomenon

OnePlus was co-founded by Pete Lau and Carl Pei back in December 2013 and it wasn’t long before the brand became a very ‘unsettling’ competitor for the rest of the smartphone manufacturers in the game, living up to its “Never Settle” tagline. OnePlus entered the market with a tunnelled approach where the brand offered high-end specs and features bundled with comparatively low prices. The strategy paid off and OnePlus not only managed to make space for itself in one of the toughest price segments but ruled it, even though it was a relatively new brand in the business at the time.

Over the years, OnePlus has launched a number of smartphones and has even moved to launching other products. Of late, the brand has not really been sticking to the same strategy which it once swore by. But just when we were getting accustomed to all these changes, the biggest change-bomb exploded, right before the launch of the brand’s flagship device launch.

OnePlus’ global face has left the building

The news of Carl Pei leaving the OnePlus office consumed the headlines and even though no official statement had been released from either OnePlus or from Pei’s side, the claims seem too strong to be just another leak or rumour.

If Pei is indeed bidding farewell to the brand, this could be a very sad day in the history of OnePlus. Ever since the day OnePlus stepped in the smartphone world, Pei has been the face of the brand. When the company first started out, all Chinese brands came with baggage, the tag of being “Chinese” was heavy and did hold them back. But thanks to Pei, OnePlus never really came across as a Chinese brand. He actually managed to make OnePlus appear very global.

Shades of THAT Steve and THAT Steve

jobs woz

In some ways, the Lau-Pei partnership was very like the Wozniak-Jobs duo. Just like Jobs, Pei remained the face of the brand and did most of the talking while Lau handled all things administrative – the truth might have been very different but that is the perception that was placed out there and it certainly worked for the brand. Language used to be a big barrier between Chinese founders/ CEOs and mainstream or global media, but with Pei by OnePlus’ side, the brand did not have that problem.

His comfort with English, his European education (he studied in Sweden), boyish charm and his clear enthusiasm for the brand meant that he spoke of, hyped and highlighted products and features in a way that otherwise would have been very difficult for a “regular” Chinese executive to do to a global audience (and we have seen them try!).

The right person at the right place and at the right time

carl pei pete lau

He was the right person at the right place – the ideal image of a co-founder that OnePlus needed when it first ventured out. His young, millennial, cosmopolitan image went hand in hand in with the direction OnePlus was moving in. He was the young innovator who was promoting a brand that went with a stock Android like interface and minimalistic design at a time when other Chinese brands were coming with UIs that had more bells and whistles than a Christmas Tree in a Delhi Mall in mid-December. The chap with a Steve Jobs bobble head on his desk!

During the initial years in the business, OnePlus did not invest in means of advertising and relied heavily on means of communication that were very unorthodox for the time – social media and online and offline community interactions. This is where Pei was a total hit. OnePlus created an extremely strong community and unlike other founders at the time who weren’t that interactive and indeed were often quite inaccessible, Pei was front and centre of OnePlus’ social media accounts. Some of his utterances were controversial, but he was one of the most participative senior executives out there in smartphoneland. When we put up a special crossword dedicated to OnePlus, he was one of the first to try it and tweet about it. That sort of stuff!

He made sure he communicated and talked not just about products but about the brand and it’s values. Pei was one of the very few co-founders who seemed like the guy next door, which was very refreshing to see. Very different, and just what a new brand needed.

He humanised OnePlus, which is something many brands struggle with even today.

A departure that some foretold…

Truth be told, the news of Carl Pei’s departure does not really come as a massive surprise. In fact, if you consider recent developments, they all add up to his decision to step away. For a person as vocal and out there, Pei was getting quieter and more formal regarding all things OnePlus of late. One the other hand, Pete Lau, his partner, who seemed like the reserved kind, now seems more involved with the company’s promotional activities and even on social media platforms. There had been some whispers that he might be looking at fresher pastures. Rumours that were never quite confirmed, because Pei, in spite of his relatively lower profile of late, was largely inseparable from OnePlus.

The launch of the Nord, something that seemed very close to Pei’s heart, did make us believe for moment that may be, just may be, he wouldn’t part ways with the brand. But reports now suggest (or more like claim) that Pei has packed his bags. He leaves behind a brand that has expanded well beyond being a phone brand and is now making serious inroads in the TV and audio space, and will also get into wearables if some of our sources are to be believed. More importantly, he leaves behind a brand that thanks in a large measure to his own efforts, is one of the few Chinese brands that is identified that premium quality. There are many who believe that OnePlus is the spiritual successor to the Google Nexus, and while the brand’s engineers and scientists have played their role in this, Pei was the face that told the story of the brand that refused to settle.

Whatever’s….NeXT?

carl pei

So it is kind of fair that his own departure is unlikely to unsettle the brand in terms of operations. OnePlus is unlikely to lose market share because of Pei’s departure. Or brand equity.

What it will lose is a dose of humanity. It will lose a bit of quirk that made the brand so different. Perhaps it will find a successor. But it will be quite a task.

While this farewell stings, reports also claim that Pei is moving out to start his own thing. If that is the case, we certainly are waiting to see if it would be his NeXT or something more permanent. Will he settle? Does he want to? We will find out in the coming days. One thing is certain: OnePlus is not going to be same minus him.

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  1. It will definitely be a little different but I think overall both the brand and the Pei will be fine especially if the latter has his eyes set on developing something new.

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