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Manu Kumar Jain: The smartphone man

  • The country head of Xiaomi, the largest seller of smartphones in India, talks to Lounge about maintaining the lead in a crushingly competitive industry
  • Jain also talks about how he almost didn’t make it to IIT Delhi, and co-authoring a comic-strip with wife Minu

Manu Kumar Jain.
Manu Kumar Jain. (Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint)

When he notices that I use a Xiaomi phone, Manu Kumar Jain, managing director, Xiaomi India, starts questioning me about the features I like and dislike. For the next 5 minutes, we discuss RAMs and megapixels and proximity sensors, along with problems I have faced with the MI cloud feature and its stubbornly uncooperative authentication process. Jain takes notes and offers solutions, and when I mention that my last four phones have been Redmis too—the price-to-quality ratio is tough to beat for someone who regularly loses or damages phones—Jain says a heartfelt “thank you", almost as if he’s touched someone would pay to use his humble product.

It is anything but. Xiaomi now sells more phones in India than any other smartphone brand (10.4 million handsets in the quarter ended June) and has led the market for the last eight quarters, according to data from the International Data Corporation’s Asia/Pacific Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker report. And it’s not just smartphones—Xiaomi is the No.1 smart TV seller in the country and leads in categories like power banks and fitness bands.

Jain feels so strongly about every aspect of the products he sells that he sounds more like a startup founder who has developed them than a high-level executive. In fact, he agrees that his journey with the Chinese smartphone maker has been quasi-entrepreneurial. Jain set up the India office for the young company (founded in April 2010, Xiaomi Corporation is less than 10 years old) and was its first India employee in May 2014. “It was almost like a startup within a startup. If you look at our first office—we still have those pictures—it was literally half of this room," he says, indicating the mid-sized conference room in a Bengaluru tech park we are sitting in. Dressed in blue jeans and a black T-shirt printed with “I <3 Mi", Jain, 38, says he still doesn’t have a cabin. He sits on a desk outside the conference room which he shows me later during a tour of the office—littered with books and papers and photographs of his family.

Jain clearly loves to talk about the company’s five-year journey in India—from a no-name brand to the top-selling one. “There were only six people (in 2014). So, the journey started almost like a startup, and the initial days were very tough," says Jain. “I am an employee, but I feel hugely responsible for whatever happens overall at Xiaomi. Especially Xiaomi India. I feel that I own... I am responsible for this company."

Xiaomi’s first product in India was the Mi 3 smartphone in July 2014. Jain had no background in selling a tech product—he had just exited, an online apparel seller he co-founded that was later bought by Flipkart. “The first business plan was very simplistic," says Jain. “It was, sell 10,000 phones a week and have a team of 10 people. No logic. But we just said 10,000 is a good number—actually the first objective was 10,000 total sales because we had 10,000 followers on Facebook."

Jain says there were two reasons the plan was “so simple and so small. No one on the founding team was from the smartphone industry, so they didn’t know what a reasonably ambitious target would be, and they thought they were facing “such big giants"—Samsung and Micromax were market leaders—that it would be difficult to dislodge them.

“There were 300 brands in India, and we were the smallest," says Jain. The company did not want to spend huge amounts on marketing. When they told people they would be selling online, without a marketing budget, they were laughed at. “Traditionally smartphones are sold through offline (retail), and by spending a lot of money on marketing—take TV ads, spend on cricket series, take big brand ambassadors. So, we were told ‘you are late to the party, your strategy is wrong’, and third, people said it’s a very difficult name to pronounce—Xiaomi," says Jain. “In fact, some people told me, ‘you are making the biggest mistake of your life. Before it becomes public that you joined this company, leave it.’"

Jain believes they overtook the competition within three years simply because their product was superior. When I point out that it might also have something to do with the fact that the phones are extremely affordable, Jain agrees, but says this is part of what he calls the “product". “So (Xiaomi founder) Lei Jun had this vision. He said ‘innovation for everyone’. Around 8-10 years ago, a lot of products were very high cost," says Jain. “But people who need the technology most are unable to afford it. Their lives will change with technology. People at the top already have the best technology. So his vision was, how do we bring latest high quality technology and make it accessible? And that’s what we followed for the last 10 years."

Low margins and high numbers have helped the company, which went in for an IPO (initial public offering) at the Hong Kong stock market in July 2018, turn profitable but so did its social media led, low-cost but effective marketing strategies. The brand created a large fan-base, with symposiums, contests and giveaways. Jain added a personal touch—even today he takes part in marketing initiatives for every product launch, like hand-delivering a few products to early buyers. His Twitter feed, with over 250,000 followers, is closely followed by fans and a large part of it centres around Jain’s personality.

Xiaomi’s strategy of flash sales—releasing a limited number of phones online, once a week, when they are first launched—helps whip up a frenzy. This was an effective marketing strategy, says Jain, but admits he is now dissatisfied with this model. “Today we are selling Redmi Note 8 and Note 8 Pro, and every week we have a few lakh units available and it still goes out of stock in a few minutes. It’s a good problem to have. Was it useful earlier? Yes. Do I like it today? No," he says.

Given his Indian Institute Technology, Delhi (IIT-D) and Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIM-C) background, it is surprising to learn that when he cleared his class XII exams, he didn’t know about the IITs or the IIT entrance exams. He was from a family—a large joint family in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh—of merchants. It was understood that younger members of the family would get a BSc or BA degree and set up a shop. Jain’s father owned a car accessories store and repair workshop. “I was an average student. I would be ashamed to tell you my class X and XII board marks," he says, laughing. When he was in class XII, someone advised Jain to take the state engineering entrance exam. He cleared it while the topper of his school didn’t. “When I went for counselling (pre-admissions at the engineering college), someone asked me my IIT rank. And I was like, what is that?" He decided to drop out and apply for IIT-JEE (joint entrance exams) the next year—which his father thought was a huge mistake given he had only got in “by fluke"—and cleared it, getting admission in IIT-D. “That was a huge turning point," says Jain. After his graduation, he worked at a Bengaluru tech startup for a couple of years and later joined IIM-C. “That’s when I met my wife, Minu. Our roll numbers were next to each other," says Jain. He talks about how they were initially just friends, and how they became “boyfriend-girlfriend" when he went to Africa for a year after his MBA degree (he was working with McKinsey then) over online chats. He has also co-authored a comic strip with his wife, chronicling their life together, called DINK Couple. When I mention this, he blushes, saying: “Oh my god, that hasn’t been updated for five years." Today, the couple have a six-year-old son.

Jain is riding high at the moment—he reportedly made a fortune when Xiaomi went for its IPO, being the only Indian employee who held a substantial number of shares for the company. At the same time, Chinese brands like Realme and Vivo are snapping at Xiaomi’s heels. Does this bother him?

“This is bound to happen in any industry—that the market leader will change after some time. But in other industries, this happens over 20-30 years. In smartphones, that change happens within four-five years. And probably one of the biggest reasons is the degree of innovation—the highest amongst any industry. If you look at automobiles, one of the big changes happened in the mid 1980s/early 1990s. And another change is happening now. In smartphones, it’s very fast. When we launched a 5.5-inch phone, people said it’s too big. Now 6.2-inch phones are common. In 7-8 years, we have gone from 2 megapixel cameras to 108 megapixels today," he says. “In smartphones, if you lose one trend, you can make it up. But if you continuously lose two-three big trends, it will be very difficult for you to survive."

It is not too hard to predict that Xiaomi might be many, many quarters away from having to face that predicament. Most people in India today know how to pronounce “Xiaomi".


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