What's behind China's Xiaomi, one of the world's top smartphone makers 

What is Xiaomi?

Xiaomi, founded just eight years ago in Beijing, quickly became a global tech juggernaut.

It's currently the fourth-biggest smartphone player in the world, according to market researcher International Data Corporation. While that's a significant position, it at one point occupied the third-place spot, behind Apple and Samsung, before ceding that to fellow Chinese firm Huawei.

Xiaomi isn't limited to smartphones, either. During a recent visit to a Xiaomi store in Hong Kong, CNBC saw customers testing out phones and smart watches on display, centered around products such as wallets, pillows and rice cookers.

The company generates most of its revenues from smartphones, but it has also expanded into other products like music and video streaming, too.

Xiaomi is scheduled for an initial public offering in Hong Kong in early July. That's expected to be the world's largest IPO since Alibaba went public in New York in 2014.

In 2017, Xiaomi’s sales grew more than 67 percent from the year prior, leading some to call it "China’s phoenix."

Less known in the US

While Xiaomi is less known to U.S. customers, the company is active in 74 markets, has nearly 15,000 employees, and says it has more than 300 million people using its products and services.

Xiaomi’s head of international business told CNBC, however, that the company has plans to enter the U.S market.

The 'Apple of China'

Like many companies, Xiaomi wants its smartphones to be just the start of an entire tech ecosystem for its users, which which may partially explain why it’s sometimes referred to as the "Apple of China."

Meanwhile, its physical stores, products and presentations are sometimes compared to those of Apple.

Back to brick and mortar

When it was first founded, Xiaomi only sold its products directly to consumers online in an effort to reduce overhead costs.

The company says it avoided spending money on advertising and relied on brand loyal customers to spread the word.

But its sales fell in 2016 as new low-cost players entered the market and the company found difficulty reaching new customers, particularly those in China’s smaller cities.

It’s now expanding its footprint beyond China, opening stores in Europe — including locations in Milan and Barcelona —and forming retail partnerships in the U.K.

Xiaomi plans to open 2,000 stores worldwide by 2019, with just about half of them in China.

Declining global smartphone sales

Global smartphone sales declined last year for the first time since 2009. In China, shipments suffered a 21 percent fall in the first quarter of this year.

While the industry news is concerning for smartphone players, Xiaomi global sales actually surged 88-percent in the first quarter of 2018, according to IDC. That's compared to a slight decrease for Samsung and a slight increase for Apple.