“The premium smartphone segment may be small, but buying power among young Indians is surging and will create a huge opportunity by 2020,” Lau, 43, said in an interview. “We have a standard product across the globe, we don’t do a sub-$100 category for India. Lower-tier products require compromises that we are unwilling to make.”
To be sure, OnePlus isn’t even in the top five when it comes to India’s broader smartphone market, which includes phones that cost less than Rs 30,000. Samsung is No. 1 by shipments, followed by Xiaomi, Vivo, Oppo and Huawei, according to Counterpoint.
OnePlus usually introduces a single new smartphone model every year using premium chips, screens and materials. Based on simple designs without flashy colors and features, the phones usually cause a buzz on Android forums when they debut. The phones are sold in North America, Europe, China and other parts of Asia.
India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market, will have almost 500 million users by 2022, compared with 337 million this year, according to eMarketer. Success has been elusive for Apple, which forced out three top sales executives in June as it seeks to overhaul its operations in the country. While the Cupertino, California-based company offers zero-interest payment plans and cash-back incentives, its products are beyond the reach of most shoppers.
“OnePlus’s strategy of packing the best specs into their phones and offering the most competitive price seems to have helped,” said Rushabh Doshi, a research manager at Canalys. “Its pricing strategy has appealed to the cost-conscious and flagship-aspiring consumers in India who want to own the ‘best’ smartphone in the market but at a competitive cost.”
Lau doesn’t speak any of India’s 22 official languages, not even English, but language hasn’t been a barrier. He wants to expand OnePlus’s retail presence beyond a single store in downtown Bangalore, open a research facility and even make the city a second headquarters after China. Almost a third of OnePlus’s $1.4 billion in revenue came from India last year.
“We try not to be overly distracted by what’s going on in the market or our competition,” said Lau, who started as a hardware engineer at China’s Oppo, another smartphone maker that’s pushing aggressively into India. Another rival, Xiaomi, recently held an initial public offering as it seeks to expand abroad. Asked whether OnePlus was ready to do the same, Lau said, “We don’t need funds and I’m not looking to retire — I have at least 30 years ahead of me.”