awaken* newsletter: Quick Tips with Carl Pei

Quick Tips is a condensed version of our longer-form articles where we offer some quick one-off tips from established Asian founders. In this edition of Quick Tips, we spoke with Carl Pei, co-founder and CEO of Nothing Technology–a consumer electronics startup seeking to challenge the smartphone giants and make tech fun again.

Lots of my friends are debating whether or not to quit their jobs to start their own company. What factors would you recommend them to consider when making this decision?

It depends on whether we’re talking about a proper company or a lifestyle business. If it’s the former, remember that most startups fail, and to increase the odds of success you have to be really great at something. I recommend them to think about what they currently are, or want to be great at, and how that can be leveraged into a business. If they don’t currently possess those skills, they should think about how they can best acquire them.

You’ve mentioned that you want to make tech fun again. Why do you think consumer tech has lost its luster? Why aren’t there more companies like Nothing trying to shake things up?

Consumer tech doesn’t have a healthy ecosystem of competing companies at different lifecycle stages. When companies in this sector get big, they can protect their margins and block startups from competing for a very long time. The natural barriers to entry are already very high to making complex consumer tech products. This, coupled with technology moats and user network effects, and the entry barriers become almost insurmountable.

Steve Jobs had a famous quote: “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.” Is this an approach you subscribe to? 

This saying is correct if the company is able to afford a risk like this, and the source of risk tolerance is free cash flow and defensibility. I believe in building a solid foundation upon which we can take risks. In practice, that means starting with giving people what they want, and gradually shifting to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.

You’ve mentioned the importance of having a creative culture at Nothing. What actions have you done to actively cultivate the culture you want at Nothing? How do you plan to scale this culture when Nothing expands as an organization?

At such an early stage, the people we choose, and the things we choose to work on defines the culture. As we expand, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel in terms of culture management strategies. We just need to tailor the tactics to the culture we intend to build.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken at Nothing and how did it pay off?

We haven’t taken any big risks yet; we’re still building our foundations.

Where do you see opportunities lie in Asia these days? What drew you back to Asia when you moved for the opportunity with Meizu?

They say “A rising tide lifts all boats” right? Looking ahead, if we’re talking about Asia, there should be plenty of opportunities in India and Southeast Asia. When I moved back to Asia, it was more based on a gut feeling, but in hindsight I benefited a lot being in China during the years of its fastest economic growth.

You’ve been a founder in both China and London–has your experience being an Asian founder differed in the two countries?

Not that I can think of. Different regions provide access to different types of talent, and we try to be thoughtful about where we can find the best people for the different objectives that we have to accomplish as a company.