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.


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.

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