Slapped on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times Business page is a picture of Steve Jobs, resurrected. It’s clearly taken at a new product launch where a black-shirted, blue-jeaned CEO stands confident and alone on stage. But there’s something off. The product description is in Mandarin. The CEO is wearing Converse, not New Balance. Oh, and Steve Jobs is dead.
That picture, rather, is of Lei Jun, the billionaire founder of Xiaomi, a new and so far smashingly successful technology company that people are apparently calling the “Apple of the East”. And much of that impression comes from Lei’s personality, way of doing business, public speaking strategies and, yes, wardrobe. It’s no coincidence either. Lei’s explicitly said that when he was younger he read a book about the Apple visionary and decided to emulate his strategies. So while some compare Xiaomi to Apple, it’s perhaps more accurate to compare Lei to a counterfeit Steve Jobs.
Still not sold? Maybe this line of thinking sounds familiar: “We’re making the mobile phone like the PC, and this is a totally new idea,” Lei said recently. “We’re doing things other companies haven’t done before.” Except Apple, because that was pretty much the takeaway of Steve Jobs’ keynote when he introduced the first iPhone.
So if Lei can steal Jobs’s persona, why can’t Apple steal a few things from Xiami? The Chinese company has been wildly successful in its three short years of existence. The company’s first smartphone, the Mi-1, sold out in just two days, and the company is looking selling over 15 million phones this year. Such quick and explosive success is noteworthy for any company, regardless of whose strategies its ripping off. It’s probably worth Tim Cook’s time to make some of these Xiaomi strengths Apple’s own:
Supply Chain: Xiaomi’s strategy isn’t all about sneakers on stage or scarcity marketing. Apple could borrow a couple of pages from their biggest fanboy across the Pacific. For instance, Apple’s had caught a lot of flak for its manufacturing methods lately, a troubling chain of revelations beset chronicled in The Times‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning iEconomy series last year. Xiaomi doesn’t have many problems with middlemen, though, because it doesn’t really have any. The phones go straight from the factory to the consumer, and everybody saves money.
Openness: Apple is also famously secret, a strategy that’s starting to lose a little bit of its luster. Lei and his company take the opposite approach to developing new products and iterates constantly. David Barboza explains, “Xiaomi … outsources designs and features online from its so-called Mi-Fans, and releases a new version of the operating system every Friday, to add new features and keep the Mi-Fans excited.”
The Whole Company: The last thing that Apple could steal from Lei — and I realise I’m reaching here — is Xiaomi itself. The Cupertino kids are sitting on about $US145 billion of cash, more than enough to buy the hottest mobile company in China, the most important emerging market for Apple. I mean, the marketing departments would definitely get along well, and they’d surely win even more caché in China’s tech scene, where Lei is viewed as a demigod of sorts.
Smartly stealing ideas and strategies from other companies was Steve Jobs’s philosophy before it was Lei Jun’s; there’s no reason it can’t be Apple’s again.