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How Nothing CEO Carl Pei is breaking barriers

Carl Pei, CEO and co-founder of consumer electronics company Nothing, doesn’t believe in labels. “I don’t like people who say that they are an ‘entrepreneur’ or a ‘disruptor’. I think your work should speak for itself,” he says.

At 34, the Chinese-Swedish Pei is one of the most recognisable “entrepreneurs” in the world of consumer technology—the brains behind brands such as OnePlus, and more recently Nothing, which has sold millions of devices worldwide since its launch in 2021, thanks to an innovative design approach.

Also read: Business Lounge with Ajit Mohan of Snap Inc: Momentum man

We are meeting in Gurugram, Haryana, ahead of the launch of the company’s latest smartphone, the Nothing Phone 2a. Sitting across the table in a conference room in the Nothing office—at a WeWork co-working office space—Pei is dressed casually in denim jeans, a black T-shirt, a thin track jacket and white sneakers. It’s a look you could call the modern-day CEO uniform. Instead of the usual tea-coffee, we opt for a fizzy drink, after which he describes how he went from creating websites on Pokémon games to running a business of exporting phones from China to the US and Europe, and dropping out of college to building two of the most coveted smartphone brands in the world.

In a short span of three years, the London-based company has achieved significant milestones. In its first two years, Nothing shipped 1 million products worldwide. In year three alone, according to an official Nothing Community post from November 2023, the company doubled this number to 2 million products. On 12 March, Nothing sold 60,000 units of the Phone 2a in the first 60 minutes after it went on sale in India.

Born in Beijing, China, to parents who were both Alzheimer researchers, Pei was the first child in an extended family. “I was very lucky…I was everybody’s kid… Everybody would buy me gifts all the time.”

In 1993, his father moved to the US to pursue a research job. Pei and his mother followed a year later. The move, however, was not easy. Pei recalls being bullied in school and his parents struggling financially. “It was a big contrast…. We were starting from scratch in a new country. Back then, China was very poor, so we didn’t have a lot of money.”

Three years later, he experienced another culture shift when the family moved to Stockholm, Sweden: a more egalitarian society, in his own words, where everyone was nice to each other. “I think I brought that New York toughness with me,” he adds. “A lot of these formative years shape your personality.”

From the very beginning, Pei was keen on earning money. “I just had this deep desire to make money.” It all started when a schoolteacher taught him HTML. These were exciting early years of the internet—Sergey Brin and Larry Page had just started Google as a research project at Stanford, the Internet Archive had been founded, Sony had entered the PC market with the release of Vaio and the PNG file format was introduced.

While others made simple websites using animated GIFs and GeoCities (a web-hosting service), Pei’s first website, at age 12, was on walkthroughs (a guide to help players) to beat the Pokémon game. “I took the Japanese walkthroughs and translated them on AltaVista and cleaned up the English. Then I made a Dragon Ball website… When I was 14, I had the biggest website (called Rebel Vers) in the world for downloading games.”

Along the way, Pei remained curious about the Chinese economy. “I would hear about it in the news in Sweden. It was growing very quickly. I felt I had no exposure to it,” says Pei. At 15, after finishing high school, he moved to Guangdong province, a hub for electronics and communications manufacturing in China, to explore the market. With no knowledge of how to register a business, Pei simply started exporting items from China.

“I just went to the ATM and withdrew money (funds he had generated through advertising on his websites). I had a pile of cash in my pocket and went to the computer market to haggle on the electronics and then made product pages,” Pei explains. “We started off by selling on the Swedish version of eBay, and then also eBay—selling to US and Europe… I had one of my Swedish friends move (to China) as well to handle customer service.”

But Pei’s parents were not convinced this was “a real job” and wanted him to finish his studies. So, he returned to Sweden and enrolled at the Stockholm School of Economics (2008-11). But he was disappointed. “We just learned about old-school things like macroeconomics, microeconomics, statistics…. In the three years I was there, we didn’t do a single lesson on e-commerce or global trade.” He passed all his classes but stopped short of submitting his thesis and getting a diploma. This is probably why his LinkedIn profile mentions him as a college dropout.

Around the same time, Pei had built a fan site for the smartphone company Meizu. It was a global forum with more than 70,000 users. During a 2008 lawsuit between Meizu and Apple on intellectual property rights, the Los Angeles Times interviewed Pei for a story “as a representative of Meizu fans all over the world”. “Meizu didn’t respond. They didn’t have an international press office,” says Pei. But this caught Meizu’s attention, which invited Pei to join the company in Hong Kong in 2011. “They wanted to expand internationally, and I was their go-to person,” Pei adds. He spent a year with the company handling international PR and marketing, helping create their first launch event and keynote.

When he left Meizu, Pei was in talks with Oppo and Xiaomi (which started in 2010). He opted to join Oppo in 2012. “The Oppo team was more from a manufacturing background. They felt we needed something to counter Xiaomi’s business model, which was fully online at the time. Oppo followed traditional offline distribution.” And thus, OnePlus was born (co-founded with Pete Lau, the brand is now a subsidiary of Oppo, owned by BBK Electronics). “OnePlus was to counter Xiaomi’s growth in China. There was no global or international plan,” Pei says. “I pitched my way into OnePlus (to take it international).”

Pei built the brand internationally from scratch—be it forming a sales and marketing team from a pool of English teachers (“Most foreigners in China at the time were English teachers,” he says) or striking a partnership with American software company Cyanogen. The first OnePlus device (2014) shipped with CynaogenOS, a commercial variant of CyanogenMod, an Android-based operating system for smartphones. “I got just 1,000 devices to start. That’s why I rationed the devices through an invitation system, which went viral,” Pei recalls. The device also reached India eventually—after a lot of user interest and demand—with OnePlus partnering with Amazon to sell the product here.

In the seven years Pei spent at OnePlus, it gradually became one of the most popular smartphone brands in the world. In 2023, according to data from global market intelligence firm IDC, the brand had a significant share of shipments in the entry-premium and mid-premium segments in the Indian market. “OnePlus was my first real job. I was very lucky…. OnePlus also had a great product culture. We always said that the most important thing is to have a great product. Even when things are not going well, the number one thing is to focus on creating a better product. That was a great learning,” he adds.

So, what prompted him to leave and start Nothing in 2021? Pei says while he admires the “late mover strategy” at OnePlus, he felt he wanted to take the next big step. “It was a gut feeling… I felt I should contribute something back to technology and not just wait for other people to define a category and then take a space in that category. Although it’s a very good strategy,” he adds. “Technology is accelerating. Maybe in the future, you are not going to catch the next wave,” he adds. “My 31st birthday was my final day (at OnePlus). It was like a birthday gift to myself.”

When Pei co-founded Nothing in 2021 with Akis Evangelidis, he had said it was “time for a fresh breeze of change” and to “remove barriers between people and technology to create a seamless digital future”. Its products have certainly brought back a buzz for smartphones among users: be it the transparent design philosophy or the much-discussed glyph interface.

Pei says the biggest obstacle since forming Nothing has been dealing with the pressure of being responsible for everyone who is invested in the company, and not just financially. “Even when we started hiring people (for Nothing), I was anxious about ruining other people’s careers…. Of course, there’s a lot of business, supply chain issues to deal with. But the hardest thing was probably my own mental challenge to be able to take on more pressure.”

Having dealt with the Indian market with OnePlus, Pei admits that selling smartphones in India is different compared to other parts of the world. “I think it’s the most competitive smartphone market,” Pei says. “It is a big market. There’s a lot of volume that we can chase after. The market is also going through a premiumisation right now as people are buying better and better products, but they are still very cost conscious,” he adds. “You are going to get really challenged by users here, if you don’t deliver good value for the product.”

Beyond work, Pei is an outspoken user of social media. He is one of the more vocal technology leaders speaking directly to customers. “Just be honest… I think one of the things that Elon Musk helped everybody understand is that you can have a personality. Just be yourself,” he says.

While Pei currently resides in London, he is thinking of moving to the US “because the AI revolution is not going to happen in Europe”. Speaking about AI, he says, “I think it’s on a par with the invention of agriculture. It’s going to change society in a much bigger way than just a new way of communicating more efficiently.”

With so many things keeping him busy, does he take time off? Pei says that skiing is an activity that he’s been doing a lot lately to unwind. “I recently went to Gulmarg (in Kashmir) to ski. But in the past half year, I have skied in many places around the world. I get the most energy from working,” he says.

Before we close the interview, Pei says he hopes his journey reaches more young people. “Let’s show them it’s not hard (to make it big in life).”

Also read: Nothing Phone (2) review: A phone with a personality

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