China

Eight takeaways from Xiaomi founder Lei Jun’s viral speech

As Jack Ma and other company leaders lay low, Lei Jun is becoming the most beloved tech figure in China.

Lei Jun
Photo: VCG/Getty Images

Jack Ma is so last year. For the next Chinese tech leader accumulating a cult-like following, look no further than Lei Jun. The 51-year-old founder and CEO of Xiaomi — currently the world's second best-selling smartphone brand — gave an hour-long speech at a Xiaomi product launch this Tuesday, and the attention it received eclipsed any product released that day.

Lei is often referred to by fans and critics as "the Steve Jobs of China," which started as a sarcastic aside but has become a genuine piece of praise. Lei's latest speech, in which he recounted 10 difficult decisions he made as CEO and shared personal anecdotes of embarrassment and humiliation, has only bolstered those comparisons.

Below are eight major takeaways; you can watch the full speech or read the 10,000-character-long script here.

People want a tech CEO icon

As Jack Ma's previous fans turned against him and other tech founders lay low, Lei is increasingly filling the role of the charismatic, industry-changing, celebrity tech leader.

What were once mocked as Lei's drawbacks — like his countrified Chinese accent and his humble upbringing in a small Chinese town — are now adored by the public.

It's a long way from Lei's early years at Xiaomi, when he was "shy, reserved ... and made any speaking opportunity sound like a product launch," according to He Yifan, veteran journalist and former deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek's Chinese edition. Now, Lei has become one of the few tech CEOs who give public speeches often and even seems to enjoy them.

Life post-IPO is not 'happily ever after'

For many Chinese tech companies, at least before DiDi's IPO fiasco, going public has meant that they've made it. But a big chunk of Lei's speech is about the rollercoaster ride Xiaomi experienced after debuting on the Hong Kong exchange.

Xiaomi's stock price almost immediately fell post-IPO and for months sat below 50% of the debut price. It took the company two years to finally come back up, and Lei said it became his priority to convince the market of Xiaomi's value. Even though the speech didn't mention it, Xiaomi's eventual comeback relied on an accident: Huawei had to exit many overseas markets because of U.S. sanctions, and it left a big gap in the smartphone demand that Xiaomi filled.

Failure stories have wide appeal

The stock market journey gave Lei Jun immense pressure, and he shared several personal anecdotes that the public hadn't heard before. One of them, which instantly spread around the web, is that Lei Jun was too embarrassed to meet with the media after Xiaomi's stock slipped under its IPO price on the first day. "After the [opening bell] ceremony, there were many media publications at the entrance [to the stock exchange]," Lei said. "None of us wanted to face the embarrassment, so we hid in a storage room." There's even a photo capturing the moment.

In another anecdote, Lei said he was reprimanded face-to-face by one investor for more than an hour "as if we were grade-school students." These anecdotes are consistent with Lei's image as one of the more down-to-earth tech leaders in China.

Set ambitious goals

Lei is no stranger to ambitious goal-setting. He opened the speech with a callback to seven years ago, when he publicly promised to turn Xiaomi into the world's biggest phone brand within a decade. He also mentioned that Apple's senior vice president Bruce Sewell, who was at the same event with him in 2014, jokingly commented: "It's easy to say; it's much more difficult to do."

As market analytics firms reported, for the first time, Xiaomi has dethroned Apple as the second best-selling phone brand in the world. Lei's goal from seven years ago seems more realistic now.

Patriotism still sells

One section of Lei's speech is dedicated to the story of how Xiaomi fought back the Trump administration's decision to classify it as a Chinese military-controlled company.

The story has been reported before — how the U.S. Department of Defense based its decision partly on a (rather meaningless) government plaudit Lei Jun had received as an entrepreneur. Xiaomi eventually won the lawsuit against DoD and took itself off the investment blacklist, and Lei retold the story in his speech, casting it as an important achievement for Xiaomi. "This is an unprecedented win," Lei said, taking credit for other suits against Washington. "Inspired by Xiaomi's success, several other Chinese companies have also sued [the U.S. government] and won."

Tend the fan economy

Xiaomi has always branded itself as a company that stays extremely close to its customers, many of whom are brand fanatics. Lei announced Xiaomi will offer a refund to every single person who bought one of Xiaomi's first smartphone model as a thanks for their early support. It will involve 184,600 buyers and cost about $57 million, Lei said, but it's a price Xiaomi is willing to pay.

It's always time to buy on livestreaming

Lei's speech could be watched live on almost all Chinese social media platforms, including several livestream ecommerce apps. Even when Lei wasn't directly plugging any Xiaomi products in his speech, the apps that carried it were constantly prompting the audience to buy a Xiaomi product.

As Chinese publication Dianshang Zaixian reported, on Taobao, over 1 million viewers of Lei's speech purchased over $10 million worth of products that day.

Expect more speeches like this one

This is the second time Lei has given his "annual speech." It started in 2020, the company's 10-year anniversary, when Lei gave a three-hour-long presentation that summarized Xiaomi's journey. Judging from the attention this year's speech has garnered, it looks like this will become a new annual tradition for Lei.

Entertainment

Beat Saber, Bored Apes and more: What to do this weekend

Don't know what to do this weekend? We've got you covered.

Images: Ross Belot/Flickr; IGBD; BAYC

This week we’re listening to “Harvest Moon” on repeat; burning some calories playing Beat Saber; and learning all about the artist behind the goofy ape pics that everyone (including Gwyneth Paltrow?) is talking about.

Neil Young: Off Spotify? No problem.

Neil Young removed his music from Spotify this week, but countless recordings are still available on YouTube, including this 1971 video of him performing “Heart of Gold” in front of a live studio audience, complete with some charming impromptu banter. And while you’re there, scroll down and read a few of the top-rated comments. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

'Archive 81': Not based on a book, but on a podcast!

Netflix’s latest hit show is a supernatural mystery horror mini-series, and I have to admit that I was on the fence about it many times, in part because the plot just often didn’t add up. But then the main character, Dan the film buff and archivist, would put on his gloves, get in the zone, and meticulously restore a severely damaged, decades old video tape, and proceed to look for some meaning beyond the images. That ritual, and the sentiment that we produce, consume and collect media for something more than meets the eye, ultimately saved the show, despite some shortcomings.

'Secrets of Sulphur Springs': Season 2 is out now

If you’re looking for a mystery that's a little more family-friendly, give this show about a haunted hotel, time travel, and kids growing up in a world that their parents don’t fully understand a try. Season 2 dropped on Disney+ this month, and it not only includes a lot more time travel mysteries, but even uses the show’s time machine to tackle subjects as serious as reparations.

The artist behind those Bored Apes

Remember how NFTs are supposed to generate royalties with every resale, and thus support artists better than any of their existing revenue streams? Seneca, the artist who was instrumental in creating those iconic apes for the Bored Ape Yacht Club, wasn’t able to share details about her compensation in this Rolling Stone profile, but it sure sounds like she is not getting her fair share.

Beat Saber: Update incoming

Years later, Beat Saber remains my favorite VR game, which is why I was very excited to see a teaser video for cascading blocks, which could be arriving any day now. Time to bust out the Quest for some practice time this weekend!

Correction: Story has been updated to correct the spelling of Gwyneth Paltrow's name. This story was updated Jan. 28, 2022.


Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.
Workplace

Mental health at work is still taboo. Here's how to make it easier.

Tech leaders, HR experts and organizational psychologists share tips for how to destigmatize mental health at work.

How to de-stigmatize mental health at work, according to experts.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

When the pandemic started, HR software startup Phenom knew that its employees were going to need mental health support. So it started offering a meditation program, as well as a counselor available for therapy sessions.

To Chief People Officer Brad Goldoor’s surprise, utilization of these benefits was very low, starting at about a 10% take rate and eventually weaning off. His diagnosis: People still aren’t fully comfortable opening up about mental health, and they’re especially not comfortable engaging with their employer on the topic.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Fintech

Robinhood's regulatory troubles are just the tip of the iceberg

It’s easiest to blame Robinhood’s troubles on regulatory fallout, but its those troubles have obscured the larger issue: The company lacks an enduring competitive edge.

A crypto comeback might go a long way to help Robinhood’s revenue

Image: Olena Panasovska / Alex Muravev / Protocol

It’s been a full year since Robinhood weathered the memestock storm, and the company is now in much worse shape than many of us would have guessed back in January 2021. After announcing its Q4 earnings last night, Robinhood’s stock plunged into the single digits — just below $10 — down from a recent high of $70 in August 2021. That means Robinhood’s valuation dropped more than 84% in less than six months.

Investor confidence won’t be bolstered much by yesterday’s earnings results. Total net revenues dropped to $363 million from $365 million in the preceding quarter. In the quarter before that, Robinhood reported a much better $565 million in net revenue. Net losses were bad but not quite as bad as before: Robinhood reported a $423 million net loss in Q4, an improvement from the $1.3 billion net loss in Q3 2021. One of the most shocking data points: Average revenue per user dropped to $64, down from a recent high of $137 in Q1 2021. At the same time, Robinhood actually reported a decrease in monthly active users, from 18.9 million in Q3 2021 to 17.3 million in Q4 2021.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.

Workplace

Asana’s productivity expert wants you to ditch the 30-minute meeting

Professional organizer Joshua Zerkel says, sometimes you just need to stop working.

Joshua Zerkel is one of the first Certified Professional Organizers through the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals.

Photo: Asana

When he entered the workforce, Joshua Zerkel didn’t know that productivity consultants were a thing. He was always the organized kid, alphabetizing his comic books and grouping his toys by category (G.I. Joes could never mix with Transformers). But his connection to productivity really clicked when he started working in web design. He quickly became the go-to employee for tips on staying focused.

“There are a lot of great talents that designers have, but one of them is typically not project organization and time management,” Zerkel joked.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins