Meet the Hero of the Indo-China Smartphone War Manu Jain has led Xiaomi to become the most preferred brand among consumers and the second largest shipper of smartphones in the country

By Agamoni Ghosh

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Entering a market like India, where Chinese consumer technology products for long have been considered as low-durability, can be rather tough. To top it, to get an audience to recognize a brand that is alien without spending the big bucks on marketing is even more challenging. Manu Jain was entrusted with this mammoth task by Lei Jun, the Founder and CEO, Xiaomi in 2014, after he exited Jabong, the company that he had co-founded. In less than three years of full-scale operation, with almost negligible offline marketing and some of the best selling smartphones challenging him, Jain has led the Chinese company to become the most preferred brand among consumers and the second largest shipper of smartphones in the country.

Building Brand Xiaomi: "It was just me when we started off in India. The presence of the brand was almost non-existent outside China and we wanted to enter a market where close to 300 brands operate in the mobile sector alone," said Manu Jain, while discussing the building and growth of Xiaomi. The company today has one of its largest fan bases in India with a Strategy Analytics report showing that 26 per cent of users in India consider Xiaomi as the most preferred smartphone brand for their next purchase. This is more than double that of second placed Samsung at 12 per cent.

Bucking The Trend: How did an alien brand within such a short period of time manage to amass such audience and climb such heights? Quality product for the right price is of course the key, says Jain, but in terms of strategy it was the desire to chalk a new territory, adopting techniques that few dared to. "When we entered, most companies were trading offline and we decided to go for the online mode. We also decided not to spend on marketing the way other brands do and let our product do the talking. After listening to my strategy, most experts in the telecom and mobile sector, including some of my personal mentors, told me that I am making biggest mistake of my life. I was even told that the company will shut down in sometime and I would be figuring out what to do next," said Jain. That of course did not happen as not only is the company the leader in online mobile sales in India, but controls 40 per cent of that market. And Jain is proud that all of this has been achieved without spending crores on marketing and focusing purely on an online strategy.

Rising The Ladder: From virtually being absent and tucked away somewhere in the others segment in mid-2014, Xiaomi has carved a sizeable space in the smartphone market in India, gobbling 17 per cent of the pie as per the latest numbers. Its revenue has also sprung up drastically with the company claiming it clocked a little over $1 billion for 2016 in India alone and plans to aim for a $2 billion target in 2017. "We had started by selling 10,000 phones a week and come 2017 that number has risen to more than three lakh units a week. We sold four million phones in the first quarter alone," said Jain.

Leading From The Ground: While the Chinese company's products have been a hit world over, Jain's leadership is instrumental in making India the second largest market for the company. The former entrepreneur believes much of this success belongs to the modest 250 member team that he works very closely with, and sees accessibility as a major attribute that leaders should posses. "Hands on approach and transparency in operations are two leadership strategies that I had adopted from day one and have stuck to it," said Jain. "We have an open seating style and don't believe in over hierarchy and almost anyone can have a conversation with the senior management including me. I truly believe that you need to get everyone more involved, as much so that more people are in the loop about bottlenecks," he added. In addition to being the India Managing Director for Xiaomi, he was made the global Vice President of the company after Hugo Barra's exit from Xiaomi last year.

Beyond Smartphones: The company's long-term strategy for India is not just to make money from smartphones and hardware, but monetize from its software and other smart products range like Mi Routers, Mi Air Purifier, Mi bands and more. "At its core, we are a smartphone company but along with the hardware we also build our own OS, the MIUI. Further, our plan is to venture beyond the shadow of phones and have already started our own offline retail network through MiHome in a very different and tech-enabled way to make it easier for the customer to have a hassle free purchases," said Jain. Xiaomi is also among the few foreign companies to have adopted the "Make in India' initiative by setting up their manufacturing units here. Currently 95 per cent of Xiaomi smartphones are assembled in India and the company says it is contemplating opening factories for other products as Mi band and power banks.

(This article was first published in the September issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)

Agamoni Ghosh

Former Staff, Entrepreneur India

She was generating stories out of Bengaluru for Entrepreneur India. She has worked with leading national and international business publications, including Newsweek, Business Standard, and CNBC in the past. 

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