Last week, after Xiaomi unveiled the Redmi 1S at a café in Delhi, the question and answer session duly got underway. A hand was raised for a question.
In most conferences, this would be the signal for someone (generally a young lady) to walk to the person and hand him or her a microphone to ask their question.
A mike was duly carried to the questioner this time too, but carrying it was the very person for whom the question was intended, Xiaomi’s Global Vice President, Hugo Barra.
Unusual? You bet. Say what you will of Hugo Barra, the man behind the Nexus devices at Google and now for many the face of Xiaomi, one thing that you cannot deny is his knack of being able to do just the right thing at the right time, topped off with a dollop of charm that takes the winds out of the sails of the sternest interrogator.
That sounds like an exaggeration? Well, just consider the facts – in a country whose media just loves to get their teeth into any company that delays the launch of a high profile product in India (Apple will testify to that), Xiaomi released the Mi 3 in India in July this year, even though the device had been launched internationally in 2013. What’s more, the company launched the Mi 4, an upgrade to the Mi 3, on the same day as the Mi 3 went on sale in India. The Mi 4 has still not been released here, and will come only at the end of the year.
Most other companies would have been hauled over the coals for less. They would have been accused of ignoring the potential of the Indian mobile market, and of treating the nation as a “second class citizen in the world of technology.”
Nothing of the sort happened to Xiaomi. The Mi 3 received glowing reviews (from us too), and was selling out within seconds of going online on Flipkart. And the announcement of the prices of the device (Rs 13,999 for the Mi 3 and Rs 5,999 for the Redmi 1S) was greeted by spontaneous applause. From the media. And oh yes, we lost count of the number of people who wanted to get their pictures clicked with the charismatic Xiaomi Vice President.
Yep, Hugo Barra has that sort of effect on people. It is not as dramatic as Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field” or Steve Ballmer’s in your face aggression. But it is very effective in its own way.
We have seen Hugo Barra at two events and in both cases, the man almost forces politeness out of his audience. He does not do so by sheer weight of personality or the brand he represents, but through a very potent blend of informal courtesy and disarming humour. He dresses informally, manages to squeeze a joke into every third sentence he says, and most significantly, does not seem comfortable on the stage and mingles easily with his interrogators. There are some who say that it is an act of sorts, and that the real Barra can be brisk, brusque and at times even harsh. All we can is that if it is an act, then it is a darned good one.
Hugo Barra, unlike a lot of senior executives we have seen in the world of technology, does not talk DOWN to an audience. He talks to it. We saw proof of this again and again at Delhi last week when he often himself carried the microphone to questioners during the Q&A session and on a couple of occasions, even sat down right next to them while answering the questions. And then there was the answering of the questions themselves. When he conceded Xiaomi had misjudged the demand of the Indian market, a voice piped up: “Don’t you think you should hire guys who can predict demand better?” Most CEOs would have bridled at the notion – I remember one CEO telling a journalist very bluntly “Sir, I am not advising you about your magazine. Do not advise me about my company.” Barra? He smiled sheepishly and replied, “I guess we should.” At another stage when asked if they would be releasing the 64 GB version of the Mi 3 in India, he actually stood before the questioner and after saying no, they would not, asked him if it made sense to release a 16 GB version of a product at all in the country, especially if the price differential between 16GB and 32 GB models was very small.
He apologised for the inconvenience caused to those who could not buy the Mi 3 or those who had problems with their units, but defended the flash sales model of Xiaomi. We could see PR executives flinch when he told the assembled media, “If you have a query, drop me a mail, do not bother the PR agency. Talk to me directly” and promptly handed out his email ID. He did not dodge questions and seemed to have a quote generator wired into his brain:
“One thing we learnt in India was: do not launch a device without accessories. Do not! You will burn to death!”
“We want to be an Indian brand. We do not want to be seen as a foreign brand.”
“I have never seen anything like the effect of word of mouth in India. It is amazing. And scary!”
“You will never see a Mi product ad. Unless someone gives it to us for free!”
“If we can contribute to the e-commerce revolution in India, it would have been an honour.”
He roamed around the café, chatting with media persons and bloggers, always answering queries, posing for “I am with Hugo” selfies and at one stage, even sat down in a corner and attempted to scratch the display of a Xiaomi device with a pair of scissors!
At most media events, there is an invisible barrier between the media and the company organising the event – these events are marked by an “us Vs them” feel, often accentuated by the fact that the company representatives sit on a raised area or a stage or in a segregated area with literally a physical gap between them and the media asking questions. Xiaomi’s events, on the other hand, so far have been notable for the access that almost everyone, from the smallest blogger to the most prominent tech guru, gets to the man many refer to as the Nexus Man in his days with Google. Hugo Barra is accessible, he will talk and he is not afraid to say he goofed or apologise for an error. And he does all this with a disarming charm that makes it almost impossible not to smile while talking to him. The “no comment” that is a standard staple of many conferences is largely conspicuous by its absence when Barra speaks – you may not agree with his rationale, but you will listen to it, because he gives it. And does so with courtesy. The result? He is among the few senior executives I have seen in a major tech company to be referred to by his first name – to most Indian bloggers, he is “Hugo.”
It has been one of the most successful charm initiatives we have seen in the tech media in India for a while. And it is certainly yielding dividends. A company that was relatively unknown in India is finding it difficult to meet demand for its products in the country. Small wonder that when we asked a prominent phone manufacturer about why their company was not getting the kind of attention that Xiaomi was in India, their manager threw up his hands in frustration and said:
“We have the products, but we don’t have anyone remotely as hot as he is! We cannot communicate the way he does”
And therein lies a crucial ingredient for the success of Xiaomi in India.
It cannot be manufactured in a laboratory.
It cannot be patented.
It has nothing to do with logistics or supply chains.
There are some who say it is artificial.
But none doubt its efficacy.
It is the charm of Hugo Barra.
And as this is being written, we are sure it will come to the fore again as people ask why the Mi 3 is being discontinued temporarily in India.