Among Chinese smartphone makers, OnePlus stands out. It’s only five years old and only has around 700 employees, but it has carved out a niche for itself amid fierce competition from much bigger companies. And it has something giants like Huawei don’t have: A foothold in the West.

OnePlus was founded by a group of 7 Oppo employees in 2013, including its CEO Pete Lau, who was Vice President at Oppo, and Carl Pei, a Swedish college dropout who was in charge of overseas marketing for the company.

Carl Pei described how his staff at Oppo pulled out their phones at a cafe… and none of them carried their own devices. They were all using iPhones.

“We asked ourselves, who makes the best smartphone in the world? You had to say Apple. But second? There was no No.2. We saw a gap,” Pei told the Wall Street Journal in 2015.

But the Oppo employees didn’t quite leave for a brand new company. OnePlus is part of BBK Electronics -- the same parent company as Oppo, as well as another Chinese smartphone maker, Vivo. The combination of OnePlus, Oppo and Vivo would make BBK Electronics the world’s third-biggest smartphone maker.

It’s also why OnePlus, Oppo and Vivo often have similar handsets. Lau has said in the past that OnePlus shares Oppo’s factories and supply chains -- giving the smaller company the advantages of a company many times bigger.

Still, being a separate brand from Oppo allowed OnePlus to have a fresh identity. And the startup’s aggressive overseas marketing soon brought it international fame.

In 2014, it ran a “Smash the Past competition”, where they chose 100 people from an email list, and the lucky 100 would get the OnePlus One for US$1... if they filmed a video of them smashing their existing phones. (The rules were apparently a little confusing, and people were smashing their phones even before the campaign started.)

But good marketing is not the only reason OnePlus became popular. One of the big selling points for OnePlus has always been delivering high-powered handsets for low prices. Its CEO Pete Lau is also known as a low-profile leader who’s strict about product details and user experience.

A OnePlus handset being assembled in Dongguan, China in 2015. (Picture: Bloomberg)

All that contributes to its unique position among smartphone makers. While it’s not as nearly big as Apple or Samsung, or even close to its siblings Oppo and Vivo, its fans have traveled across cities or lined up for hours to get their hands on a OnePlus phone. That hardcore loyalty is rarely seen with Android brands.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In 2015, it quickly opened 45 offline stores across China... but had to close all of them within a year and half, because it didn’t have enough revenue to support them. The company also admitted that the OnePlus 2 was a failure, a result of “arrogance” from the success of the OnePlus One.

And then it turned itself around by with two well-regarded new handsets: OnePlus 3 and 3T. Even though originality is not its strength, it’s hard to argue with solid power and neat design for an affordable price. In 2018, The OnePlus 6 sold more than one million units in just over three weeks -- becoming its fastest selling smartphone ever.

OnePlus is starting to catch on in the US, but it’s limited by the fact that it doesn’t have a carrier partner. The company may be the biggest unbundled smartphone vendor in the US$400-600 price range in the US, but only 10% of smartphone buyers in the country purchase handsets without carriers, making OnePlus dominant in a small slice of a small slice. But there’s hope on the horizon. It could start selling handsets via T-Mobile soon.