For Xiaomi, community is the key to building a mobile empire

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What if you could complain directly to Google about every little thing that bothered you about the Android operating system? And what if every time you complained, Google fixed a bug just for you?

The Chinese handset maker, Xiaomi, has built an empire of 100 million users worldwide on this exact premise. “We’re an Internet company,” said Bin Lin, President of Xiaomi, at a press event on Thursday. “We’re not just interested in making handsets.”

While it’s true that Xiaomi has been particularly successful selling directly to customers rather than through other retailers or carriers, that’s not what Lin was referring to. He was boasting about the company’s massive user base overseas, which has grown rapidly thanks to savvy social media tactics. “They are not our customers, they are our fans,” added Hugo Barra, a former Google executive who left in 2012 to serve as Vice President of Global Operations at Xiaomi.

xiaomi adcampaign Florence Ion

Xiaomi shows off one of its more popular advertising campaigns where two of its founders stood on top of a Mi Note box to show its durability. 

Xiaomi has gone to great lengths to accommodate these “fans.” For instance, when the company launched its first ROM in 2010, there were only 100 users, but after it started making devices and its marketshare grew, Xiaomi honored those that had stuck with them from the beginning by printing their name in the MIUI boot loader.

Then there was the time a fan requested that Xiaomi make it easier to turn on the flashlight from the Lock screen. He argued that his parents wouldn’t have caught him coming home drunk if he wouldn’t have made such a racket dropping his keys. A week later, the developers pushed out a software update that included that exact feature. “Everything we do is with social as a platform,” said Barra. “Every market we enter has its differences, but at the core everyone is social, everyone is emotional, everyone loves to be spoken to—to be marketed at.”

Xiaomi in the US

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Hugo Barra, formerly of Google and now a vice president at Xiaomi, shows off the Mi Note.

Xiaomi’s entrance into the U.S. mobile market will incorporate some of the tactics that have made it famous overseas. Although the company won’t initially sell phones and tablets—Barra said “the amount of effort required to bring those products to market is significant”—it does plan to appeal to U.S. customers (sorry, fans) in a similar manner. Barra cited its recent success in India. “When we entered India, we didn’t know how things were going to turn out. India got it. They understood what we were coming to market with…We were bringing more than anyone had ever brought.”

Unlike India, the US already has “more.” It has Apple, Samsung, HTC, LG, Microsoft, and a whole array of manufacturers vying for marketshare. It also has carriers; most customers don’t buy smartphones and tablets directly from the manufacturer when they can get the device subsidized from their cellular provider. There’s incentive there that Xiaomi will have to compete with, not to mention a pattern that users have become accustomed to ever since mobile phones became a necessity.

There’s also the question of how Xiaomi plans to market to the everyman—users that aren’t necessarily “in the know,” but who do a little research for their bi-annual phone upgrades. I asked Barra about this—about how he’d get someone like my Mom onboard the Xiaomi train—and he bluntly answered, “You’ll buy her one.” Essentially, Xiaomi is banking on its existing “fans” to convert their friends and family members, too.

Unfortunately, we won’t get to see Xiaomi’s plan in action for some time, since it’s limited on what it can sell here in the U.S. But the company is very optimistic about its future stateside. “Building a fan base [in the U.S.] is no different than how we built a fan base in India,” said Lin. “Driving marketshare and having a great experience…is really the most important goal for us.”

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