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Nothing is speedrunning the OnePlus playbook, but for good reason

With the launch of CMF by Nothing, we already have the "Nord" portfolio it took OnePlus years to build.

Published onOctober 21, 2023

Earlier this month, Nothing took the wraps off a new sub-brand called CMF by Nothing. In contrast to the mainline brand, CMF exists as a “volume” division. Its entire purpose is to house inexpensive products that the company can sell a lot of in a short period of time. This distinguishes it from the “halo” portfolio of Nothing-branded phones and earbuds, which are more expensive and niche.

Interestingly, OnePlus started a similar strategy with its own Nord portfolio a while ago. Products under the Nord brand are less expensive than standard OnePlus gear and are laser-focused towards emerging markets. Even more interesting than this, though, is that Carl Pei himself (co-founder of OnePlus and now founder of Nothing) was integral in launching the first OnePlus Nord smartphone. You might remember his significant involvement with this sub-brand’s creation in a series of documentary shorts.

When Nothing first started, it was difficult not to make the OnePlus connections, given Pei’s tenure with the Chinese brand. But with the launch of CMF now only a few years into the brand’s existence, it appears Pei is not only heavily cribbing the OnePlus playbook but also speedrunning it.

CMF by Nothing: Already in the ‘Nord Era’

After launching its first smartphone in 2014, OnePlus stuck to a strategy of single or dual smartphone launches per year, with a couple of earbuds here and there. It wasn’t until the introduction of the Nord line in 2020 that the company began to expand. Just in 2022, we got six new Nord phones — a departure from the more conservative high-end releases. The Nord line also has a smartwatch and multiple lines of earbuds, all priced to move.

It took OnePlus at least six years to reach a point where it could start cramming a ton of products into Nord, its volume brand.

What took OnePlus over six years to do, Nothing has done in less than three.

Meanwhile, Nothing has only been around since 2020 with a focus on higher-end earbuds and phones. Now, with the CMF sub-brand launch, it has already reached the “Nord Era” of OnePlus in record time.

I’m not saying there’s something wrong with this strategy — quite the contrary. OnePlus was incredibly successful in its early years and it’s only logical that Carl Pei would use many of the same tactics he learned at OnePlus for his own company. Besides, Nothing needs cash to help bolster the razor-thin profit margins it gets from its halo products. (Thanks to Pei’s transparency about what goes into making a Nothing phone, we know it barely makes any money on those expensive devices.) CMF by Nothing could keep the company in the black while it makes its next moves.

The sheer speed of this progress is what’s notable, though. Pei is running the OnePlus playbook so quickly that one can’t help but wonder what will happen when he can’t crib from it anymore.

But where will Pei and Nothing go from here?

It was around the launch of the first Nord phone that Pei left OnePlus. Between mergers with OPPO, a surge of Nord products with less focus on flagships, and a less-than-ideal transformation of Oxygen OS, OnePlus’ story is still unfolding without him, but it doesn’t look like a playbook he’d want to emulate anymore.

So what would the Nothing playbook look like from now on?

Pei was very vocal during Nothing’s original launch about looking to Apple for inspiration on what to do and what to improve upon. Nothing’s goal was laid out as an open ecosystem that combines numerous products into a smooth, uniform experience. To achieve that, though, Nothing needs to launch many more high-end products, not just phones and earbuds. A flagship tablet, a smarter smartwatch, and possibly even a laptop or other gear could be in Nothing’s future. Pei can still look at OnePlus for inspiration on how to do good with a tablet and how to avoid a smartwatch disaster, but the playbook says nothing about a laptop as OnePlus hasn’t announced any yet.

The next few years will be very exciting for Nothing as it fully steps out of OnePlus' shadow to become its own thing.

But whatever Nothing launches next in its halo portfolio, it’s likely that CMF by Nothing will be paying for it. The company can’t operate on thin margins forever, and its investors are going to want to see a return sooner rather than later. In a way, the next few years will be exciting for the brand and its fans as it fully steps out of OnePlus’ shadow to become its own thing. It must also be thrilling for Pei, who has successfully navigated bringing a company up from nothing (sorry) to a brand that can stand on its own feet. We’ve seen countless brands try this and fail — remember Essential? Nextbit? Facebook? — so we’re relieved to see Nothing defy the odds and thrive.

Now it’s time to do that without the OnePlus playbook to rely on, and that’ll be the real test.