Now Xiaomi, well known for its array of inexpensive smartphones sold only online, is aiming to build a global brand. In February, Xiaomi announced it would begin reaching out to markets in Latin America: It has plans to start selling its smartphones in Brazil this year, which would mark Xiaomi's first time taking its Android-powered smartphones outside of Asia.
Hugo Barra, vice president of Xiaomi's global operations, has said the company is in talks with manufacturing partners in Brazil to skirt the country's high taxes on foreign-made electronics. The company also announced it would establish an online store in the U.S. sometime this year to begin selling headphones and other smart accessories, including its smart TV and fitness wristband—a starting point for Xiaomi to muscle its way into the U.S. smartphone market and potentially challenge Apple's dominance.
Read MoreSmartphone maker sets world record
"Apple is a great role model for many Chinese companies because of its ultimate brand value and high-quality products," said Edith Yeung of the 500 Mobile Collective Fund, which invests in mobile apps start-ups in China and the U.S. "Chinese companies no longer want to just copy, but to innovate, so they can be compared to Apple."
Xiaomi's tentative step into the U.S. with its smart products is a savvy play to try to win over American consumers who might be reluctant to surrender their iPhones but may be more willing to try a different set of headphones. In the process, that'll naturally put Xiaomi in competition with Apple, which looks to be a brewing battle. At the end of April, Apple announced that sales of the iPhone rose 72 percent in China, where Apple hopes to expand business just as Xiaomi hopes to expand business in the U.S.
Still, there are uncertainties for Xiaomi. As a young company, its portfolio of patents is small compared to other companies, and it will need to beef up its own intellectual property as it looks to expand outside of China to protect itself from claims of technology infringement. (In December, Ericsson sued Xiaomi in India, alleging the Chinese tech company hadn't licensed Ericsson inventions that allow connections between wireless devices and networks.)
What's more, expanding into the U.S. could make Xiaomi a bigger target for Apple, not only in the market but also in the courtroom. Last October, Apple design chief Jony Ive accused Xiaomi of copying Apple's designs. After Xiaomi released its MIUI 6 software for its Mi 4 smartphone last summer, Cult of Mac called the software the "most blatant ripoff of Apple to date." (A call and email to Apple was not returned before press time.)
But the ever-increasing global footprint of Xiaomi is indicative of a growing trend of successful Chinese tech companies that have prevailed at home and are now trying to make inroads in the West, first by going to emerging markets in Latin America—Brazil, Argentina, Mexico—where it's easier for consumer-facing technology companies to get established, before cracking into the entrenched U.S. tech market.