PEOPLE

Don't call me Steve Jobs, says Xiaomi founder Lei Jun

He is behind China's first indigenous tech brand to be seen as 'truly aspirational'

Although Mr Lei Jun usually wears black shirts and jeans at his firm's annual product launches and is the founder of the country's largest smartphone manufacturer, don't call him China's Steve Jobs.

The 45-year-old tech giant has bristled at such comparisons, insisting that while Mr Jobs was a "huge inspiration", their business models are hugely different. Still, his Xiaomi Technology stands tall in a competitive and fast-changing industry. It recently became the world's most valuable start-up.

Investors, reportedly including Singapore's sovereign wealth fund GIC, injected US$1.1 billion (S$1.5 billion) into the firm last month. That shot the five-year-old, privately held company to a valuation of US$45 billion and counting, sealing Mr Lei's reputation as one of China's savviest businessmen.

Born in Xiantao, a small city in central Hubei province better known for producing Olympic gymnasts than billionaire entrepreneurs, Mr Lei - who was named Forbes Asia's Businessman of the Year in 2014 - studied computer science at Wuhan University.

But it was a book, Fire In The Valley, about the early days of the PC industry, that inspired him to follow in Mr Jobs' footsteps. "I was greatly influenced by that book, and I wanted to establish a company that was first class," Mr Lei told The New York Times in 2013. "So I made a plan to get through college fast."

After finishing his coursework in two years, he spent the early part of his career at Kingsoft, a Chinese software company that produced word- processing and anti-virus software. Earning a reputation for being hard-working with sharp marketing skills, Mr Lei rose quickly through the ranks to become chief executive within five years. Kingsoft's successful listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 2007 was also achieved under his watch.

He then dabbled in various investments, such as in browser maker UCWeb, which was acquired by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba last year.

By then Mr Lei had a cult following in the tech scene as an angel investor in China's early Internet scene. But it was his founding of Xiaomi in 2010 with former Google executive Lin Bin over late nights and steaming pots of chrysanthemum tea that has really seen his fortunes skyrocket. He is now worth more than US$9 billion, making him China's eighth-richest man.

The firm has enjoyed phenomenal success with its sleek, high-specification phones that sell for less than half the price of similar Apple or Samsung devices. Xiaomi is now the fastest-growing phone maker and ranks No. 3 globally, chalking up US$12 billion in revenue last year. Sales have more than tripled to 61 million units from the year before.

In a country where foreign products are often perceived as being more sophisticated and of better quality than home-grown versions, this is perhaps the first indigenous technology brand to be seen as truly aspirational, noted a Financial Times report.

"Lei Jun got it on a deep level," Mr Phillip Lisio, a consultant who has worked with Xiaomi, said in the report. "He is among the first to realise that Chinese consumers need a brand they can believe in."

With products like MiPhones and MiPads, some critics have, however, labelled Xiaomi as an empire built on aping Apple. But the firm has also branched out into other investments. It has bought into dozens of start-ups that make everything from air purifiers to low-energy light bulbs - in line with what analysts say is its strategy of building an ecosystem of Mi devices and apps for the home, office and car.

Apart from the fact that Mr Lei is married and has two daughters, he has revealed little about his personal life. Media reports have described him as a workaholic who consistently puts in 100-hour weeks. He also seems to be a good sport.

Last August, he participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge - a social media campaign to increase awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -after being nominated by Russian billionaire financier Yuri Milner. In return, he nominated Hong Kong actor Andy Lau, Foxconn chairman Terry Gou and search engine Baidu's founder Robin Li. It seems that with friends also at the top of their game, Mr Lei is similarly setting his sights on bigger things.

"I've said on many different occasions that if I had been called the 'Steve Jobs of China' as a 20- year-old, I would have been very honoured," Mr Lei told a crowd at a Xiaomi publicity event last January. "As a 40-year-old, however, I don't want to be considered second to anyone."

esthert@sph.com.sg