China is notorious for its knockoffs. But now comes a knockoff of one of the gods of American ingenuity: Steven P. Jobs.
In a country where products like iPhones are made but rarely invented, Lei Jun — entrepreneur, billionaire and professed Jobs acolyte — is positioning himself and his company as figurative heirs of Mr. Jobs. The Chinese media have nicknamed his company, Xiaomi, the "Apple of the East."
The title is a stretch, by almost any measure. But Mr. Lei nonetheless is carefully cultivating a Jobsian image here, right down to his jeans and dark shirts. He is also selling millions of mobile phones that look a lot like iPhones. Chinese consumers — and deep-pocketed investors overseas — seem to be believers.
And yet Mr. Lei's biggest believer may be himself. He bounds onto podiums to introduce new cellphones. He proclaims things that may, to many, sound outlandish. For instance:
"We're making the mobile phone like the PC, and this is a totally new idea," Mr. Lei, Xiaomi's chief executive, said during an interview at the company's spacious, high-rise headquarters here. "We're doing things other companies haven't done before."
That might come as a surprise to Apple and Samsung Electronics, the twin giants of smartphones. But Xiaomi (pronounced SHAO-mee) did sell $2 billion in handsets in China last year. It is emerging as a force in China, the world's largest mobile phone market, and it expects its revenue to double this year.
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Mr. Lei, for his part, hardly discourages comparisons to Apple and Mr. Jobs. And why would he? Founded by a group of Chinese engineers three years ago, his company sold seven million mobile phones last year by using designs that mimic the look and feel of the iPhone and using marketing that seems right out of Apple's playbook.
It's no surprise that entrepreneurs aspire to create a Chinese Apple. Many talk about moving China beyond the dead end of assembling devices for other companies.
So far, however, true innovators have been scarce. At best, they have adapted others' technology to the Chinese market.
Mr. Lei has attracted believers because no company's annual revenue has reached the $1 billion mark in China faster than Xiaomi, not even Amazon, which took five years to get there. Xiaomi did it while earning a profit.
Its backers include Qiming Venture Partners, the venture capital arm of Qualcomm and Digital Sky Technologies, an investment firm run by Yuri Milner, an early backer of Facebook, Groupon and Zynga.
Xiaomi, which is privately held, says an initial public offering is years away. But the company is worth $4 billion, according to its latest round of financing last June.
If that valuation holds up, it would make Xiaomi one of China's most valuable technology companies, behind Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent and Netease.