A Steve Jobs knockoff called Lei Jun
CHINA is notorious for its knockoffs. But now comes a knockoff of one of the gods of American ingenuity: Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
In a country where products like iPhones are made but rarely invented, Mr Lei Jun - entrepreneur, multi-millionaire and professed "Jobs acolyte" - is positioning himself and his company as figurative heirs of Mr Jobs.
The Chinese media has 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.
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," he said.
"We're doing things other companies haven't done before."
That might come as a surprise to Apple and Samsung.
But Xiaomi did sell US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion) of handsets in China last year. It is emerging as a force in the world's largest mobile-phone market, and it expects its revenue to double this year.
For his part, Mr Lei, Xiaomi's chief executive, hardly discourages comparisons to Apple and Mr Jobs. To the contrary.
And why not? 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.
The company is worth US$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.
The company caters to young, college-educated people who want a smartphone but cannot quite afford one, people like education consultant Lu Da.
"I chose Xiaomi because it's good value for the money," the 26-year-old Shanghainese said.
Sceptics say the company produces low-priced iPhone imitations with no significant software or hardware advantages.
They also say the company faces stiff challenges from Apple and Samsung, which are in a position to offer low-price smartphones.
But whether the company succeeds, its rise has solidified Mr Lei's reputation as a start-up wizard.
"Mr Lei Jun is a phenomenal entrepreneur," said former Google executive Lee Kai-fu, who now runs Innovation Works, a Beijing-based firm that invests in Chinese start-ups.
"He's insightful about user needs and markets, and now he has this incredible desire to create a household brand in technology."