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.
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.