China’s answer to Steve Jobs grows his empire on geek chic
Lei Jun has built technology giant Xiaomi by providing cheap alternatives to Apple and Samsung phones
Xiaomi founder Lei Jun speaking during the launch of one of its smartphones in Beijing recently. photograph: chinafotopress via getty images
Lei Jun, the founder and chief executive of Xiaomi, China’s hottest technology company, which is worth nearly €7.5 billion, is routinely described as the country’s answer to the late Apple founder Steve Jobs.
While Xiaomi (pronounced shiao-me) is a name with which few consumers outside Asia are familiar – and one that few outside Asia are able to even pronounce – that may be about to change.
Lei likes his Jobs-style soundbites, and dons the occasional black shirt – a polo, not a Jobs-style turtleneck – but Xiaomi and Lei are very Chinese and very unlike Apple.
He hates the Apple analogies, believing Xiaomi’s business model resembles Amazon’s more closely, for example in the way the online retailer sells Kindles cheaply in order to boost its e-book sales.
The Chinese company’s success invite some comparisons with its western tech counterparts, however. “Xiaomi’s original internet mobile phone brand, our research and development, marketing and sales are the key to Xiaomi’s success,” said Lei.
Founded three years ago, Xiaomi sold seven million phones in the first half of this year, thanks to a mix of e-commerce and telecoms partnerships, and plans to sell 20 million of its Android-powered phones this year.
The company has been very successful at providing cheaper alternatives to iPhones and Samsung handsets, which are often too expensive for the lower end of the market.
Set to increase its handset sales almost threefold this year, Xiaomi has for the first time become profitable in the current year.
Revenue in the first half more than doubled to 13.2 billion yuan (€1.59 billion) and may rise to 28 billion yuan (€3.37 billion) for the full year.
China is the world’s largest internet market, with 591 million users, and last year saw a 20 per cent rise over the previous year in the number of people who surf the web from smartphones and tablets.
Last month Xiaomi released its MI3 smartphone, which the company claims is the world’s fastest smartphone, and which has a five-inch screen and a five-megapixel camera and uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon and Nvidia’s Tegra 4 processors.
The handset runs on all three major carriers in China, including China Mobile, the biggest carrier, which has proved elusive to Apple, which is still trying to secure a link-up with it.
The 16-gigabyte version retails for just 1,999 yuan (€240).
“Consumers like Xiaomi because it has gone beyond users’ expectations and established a very good reputation. Xiaomi mobile is a high-performance, cost-effective smartphone,” said Lei.
Lei is in no way your typical Chinese tech entrepreneur. For one, he did not study in the US, unlike like Baidu’s Robin Li. Nor does he speak English. Previously, as an angel investor he involved himself in domestic firms, avoiding higher-profile companies.