Counterfeiting is a billion dollar industry in China. It's not just the fake Louis Vuitton bags being peddled on Canal Street in downtown Manhattan, either. Chinese manufacters are making ripoffs of everything from sneakers to microchips to designer clothing to iPhones. But one Chinese electronics company is taking the concept to the next level. They're not just counterfeiting a product. They're counterfeiting a philosophy, a mindset and, believe it or not, an icon.
Meet Lei Jun, the Steve Jobs of China. Lei is the founder and CEO of Xiaomi, a smartphone maker that's working hard to emulate the Apple zeitgeist and the cult-like following it inspires. It's not so much about the company's devices. They look like smartphones but aren't necessarily ripoffs of Apple's iPhone. You can't say the same thing about Lei, though. He wears black shirts and jeans almost exclusively. He launches new products in the Jobsian style--that is, months of speculation and secrecy followed by a big reveal in a keynote. Photos from these events look like they could be taken at an Apple event if not for the Mandarin characters on the screen. Lei even works hard to maintain some exclusivity about its products, releasing them in small batches, so that lines of fans flow out of the stores and around the block.
The whole schtick is working pretty well for Xiaomi. The company is seen as the emerging Chinese tech industry's wunderkind, having become a $4 billion company in less than two years. China is ripe for its own Apple, HTC or Samsung," Chinese venture capitalist Hans Tung told Reuters. "The country is big enough, there are enough mobile Internet users and mobile phone consumers. Therefore having its own mobile ecosystem built up by a domestic brand makes sense." But for Americans, it's hard to look at Xiaomi and its founder Lei without thinking about Apple and its visionary Jobs. He even sounds like Jobs when he talks. "We're not a company that chases sales volume. We chase customer satisfaction. We look for ways to give the customer a great surprise," Lei said recently.
It's worth considering that this corporate counterfeiting isn't such a bad idea. The Apple model works really well--not only for Apple which has become the richest company in the world but also for consumers who benefit from the company's innovations and stiff competition they create. Looking at my iPhone sitting sleekly on the tabletop, images of Jobs on stage in 2007 flash into my head. The black turtleneck, the Levi's jeans, the New Balance shoes, the pacing across the stage, the deliberate trickle of leaked information that left the audience on the edge of their seats--this Jobsian aura is as much a part of the iPhone as glass, silicon and steel are. And it's proven to be an extremely powerful marketing tool for Apple. When Jobs died last year, we were told that he'd left four years worth of products for us, and Apple fanboys simply can't wait to see what they are.
If you look around the tech industry, you'll see a lot of, shall we say, facsimiles. You don't need to look hard to find a headline like "Jeff Bezos is the new Steve Jobs," though the comparison doesn't quite work if you know much about how Amazon works as a company. Unlike Apple's premium product approach that yields wide profit margins, Amazon sells in bulk and hopes to make a few pennies off each item. Then, you've got Mark Zuckerberg, a young college drop-out just like Jobs who managed to earn the Apple founder's praises. It's unclear how much of Facebook came out of Zuckerberg's head, though. Putting the Winklevii aside, the website hardly resembles the product that Zuckerberg coded in his Harvard dorm room nearly a decade ago, as cadres of Zuckerberg's lieutenants build out new features constantly. It was said that Steve Jobs had a hand in every single product that Apple produced.
Lei Jun takes the model a stage further. But maybe it's just a coincidence. Black shirts and jeans are a pretty sensible combo, and wearing the same outfit over and over surely saves Lei time when he's getting dressed in the morning. The keynote thing makes good business sense, and Xiaomi isn't the only company taking advantage of the format. Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook do these sorts of keynotes all the time. And the thing about the exclusivity and the lines around the store -- what company wouldn't want that kind of enthusiasm about its products?
It's fun to call Lei a counterfeit Jobs, because it provides an interesting lens through which to look at not only Xiaomi but every technology company. Just like the iPhone created a whole new market of gadgets, Jobs created a whole new kind of company. You can't blame anyone for wanting to take a page from the manual.
Image via Xiaomi