[TechTalkies] “We Just Wanted to Sell Ten Thousand Phones” – Manu Jain, Xiaomi India
“It has been better than what I expected, much better than what I expected. In every possible perspective.”
Manu Jain shakes his head in mild disbelief when asked how his journey with Xiaomi has been since 2014. He may be an ‘Internet entrepreneur and wannabe cartoonist’ as per his profile on Facebook, and he might also be the co-founder of Jabong, but it is as the country head of Xiaomi that Manu Jain is best known. Oh, and as Xiaomi’s “Mr. Handsome,” as the company’s global vice president Hugo Barra refers to him (see him smile and you will know why!).
And judging by the width of his smile as he speaks to us, he is very much enjoying his time with the “Apple of China.” Xiaomi might have had a slightly rough ride in its home turf, but in India, 2016 was the year which saw the brand register a surprising level of success, riding on devices like the Redmi Note 3 and the Redmi 3s, and even surviving a decidedly below expectations reception for its flagship, the Mi 5.
For Manu Jain, 2016 marked a milestone in what has been one heck of a ride by any standards, even smartphone-y ones.
2014-2016: Starting with ten thousand, going to millions
“Business has been going phenomenally well,” he says. And then repeats his opening stance. “Sometimes I say it and people don’t believe it but that is the reality: when we launched we expected to sell only ten thousand phones. Ten thousand was our target. We used to feel that if we could sell ten thousand phones, we would be a big success.”
Given Xiaomi’s penchant for “all phones gone in seconds” penchant, one asks him “yes, but ten thousand phones in how much time?”
Jain laughs. “Like just ten thousand phones. Because the whole logic was, we had ten thousand people following us on Facebook. When we launched Mi 3 (the first launch we had), we had ten thousand people following us on Facebook. So, Hugo and I, we were debating on how many phones we should bring to India and he said ‘ten thousand.’ Like that was the whole plan. After that, obviously, we would bring some more but we did not know in how much time we would be able to sell ten thousand phones. Our entire aim in life was to sell ten thousand phones.”
He shakes his head in disbelief and switches to the present.
“So from there to here,” he pauses, then rolls off the numbers in true MBA style (he is one after all, from an IIM no less). “You have already heard of all these numbers, right? Two million in Q3, 150 percent growth, 1 million in October. So from there to here. I think it has been a phenomenal journey.”
But while it has been good, the last couple of years have not just been about business for Jain. He has a reputation for being a “people’s person” (too much of a people’s person, if some sources are to be believed – he has been seen as being too nice in some quarters) and his next statement sees him live up to this.
“What matters to me a lot is the kind of people that I work with. Co-founders, our board members, Hugo, our team members here in India,” he ticks them off his fingers, then gives up and says with a smile: “Like everybody, I would say. A bunch of incredible people to work with. Most of my leads here in India, I can say they can easily be my bosses. So capable, so talented. Each one of them can basically be my boss. They are an incredible set of people to work with. I have thoroughly enjoyed building this team. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with these people. I have learned a lot from our co-founders and from their philosophy. I think we have done a lot of things right. And when I say ‘we’, I don’t mean me and my team, I mean more at the co-founders level.”
Xiaomi’s success is all the more remarkable when one considers the fact that when the company came to India, it arrived with an online-only, no conventional ads in traditional media model. Something which many said was a recipe for disaster in a market like India. It is a statement that Jain has not forgotten.
“When we started, a lot of people came and told me that we will never succeed because we are selling online, we are not doing TV ads, we are not doing print ads…so why should we succeed? Because that was the whole mantra of smartphones and success. So basically, we launch offline: you give a lot of margin to distributors, you do all sorts of TV ads…”
He pauses, seemingly savoring the pleasure of having proved some people wrong. Thoroughly. He is not a vengeful man but he did take his share of criticism when the brand was launched in India (“**** you, Xiaomi” had been the headline of a piece that had been critical of the brand’s online sales model). So victory must be tasting sweet. He continues, “We now are number one online, one of the top three in overall terms. So from that perspective, we have been able to prove some of the early notions wrong. And this is also something which is very satisfying because we have come in with something fresh and we have been able to create some difference.”
He thinks for a while, and then adds with a slightly impish smile, “The fact that a lot of so-called experts, who basically said we will die, then themselves launched the brands of products online following a similar philosophy, makes me feel a little bit better.”
And as he bursts into an impromptu guilty giggle on his chair, you realize there might be a slightly vengeful streak about the man after all.
“If the product is not great, there is no way that you can succeed”
But talk of succeeding against overwhelming odds, of course, leads to the inevitable question: just how did Xiaomi do it?
Up come the fingers again. “I think three things,” Jain says. “First, at the core of this is definitely our product. If the product is not great, is not good, no matter of what you do, the chances of success are low. That is the whole basic fundamental of business. And it is not just us, you take any product driven company – Google, Facebook, anybody else. The product is what you are selling and that is what the consumer is using on a daily basis. It has to be great. If it is not great, there is no way that you can succeed.”
But how on earth can one ensure that a product is great? It surely is not just a matter of R&D, is it? Clearly not, for Jain elaborates on a hidden element in the Xiaomi way of product testing.
“One of the key things Lei Jun basically emphasises on, and I haven’t spoken about this before to anybody,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye, before continuing “is that he forces all of us to use a product for at least three months before we launch it. If we look at my two Mi Max phones. This Max (picks it up) is a factory sample – you can see something written over here in Chinese. Which means it is a factory sample. He gave it to me in January. And we launched it in June or July beginning. I used it for six months before we launched it. One of his necessary conditions was: you yourself should use it for six months. If you don’t like it, there is no way we should launch it.
“We were supposed to launch a phone this year which Lei Jun used and decided we will not launch it. Because it did not meet his quality standards. We will never launch a phone or any product (that) we don’t feel comfortable in using. I should be comfortable in using this (holds up his Mi Max) and this should be my primary device. Whichever device it is. Phone, laptop or any other device. I should be comfortable in using this as my primary device and then only I can launch this device. It is a very high threshold.”
“Do less, but do a good job”: Thinking Different… and Thinking Small
There is also the matter of thinking different, no matter how similar it sounds to the mantra of a Cupertino company that many feel Xiaomi is inspired by.
“The first thing actually has to be the product. The second thing which has helped us is thinking differently. If you look at most of the companies, they either innovate on product or process,” he stops on seeing our quizzical looks and tries to make his point clearer.
“Let me try and explain this. Google was not the first search engine. Facebook was not the first social media company. There were others before them but they innovated on the product and came up with a new kind of a search and social media platform – they innovated on the product. If you look at most of the e-commerce platforms, say Flipkart and Amazon, they innovated on the process because it is the same clothes, same shoes that you buy offline but it is a new digitalised way. And if you look at Uber and Ola, the same taxis that we used to book earlier but now you book it in a new process. I think we have thought of it in a way of innovating in terms of both process and product.”
He moves his hands in the air as if carrying the thought process to Xiaomi. “Innovation of MIUI, innovation of product, and selling it in a very different manner which is only online. And doing marketing differently which is just led by word of mouth rather and social media rather than going through the normal loop.”
And his hands come together as he moves on to the next point, which is rather surprisingly about keeping things, well, small.
“Every time we do something, the usual philosophy, if you look at most of the other companies is: go big. Our philosophy is usually: go small. Go small but do a good job and build something which is scalable and sustainable.”
The idea seems so unusual for a brand that is doing so well in numerical terms that Jain moves on to elaborate:
“Let me give you an example, when we started online sales, we only worked with one platform: Flipkart. But the aim was to become a dominant banner on Flipkart and then go on other platforms like Amazon, Snapdeal, Paytm and others,” he pauses for emphasis and continues. “But we only started with one. We could have started with four but we only started with one. Even now when we are starting to do business offline, we started with only the south and now we are expanding to a few other cities. In the cities where we are happy. We are not one of those companies who would all of a sudden want a distribution channel across hundreds of cities. The philosophy is: do less, do small but do a good job.”
Once again, the extrapolates the concept to his own company.
“This year we have only launched four phones: the Mi 5, the Mi Max, the Redmi 3s, and the Redmi Note 3. Just four phones. But with four phones, we have number three position in the market. Do few but do a good job. I think, the thinking of innovating on process and doing fewer things and doing them well is a very different thing.”
“The most important thing is: will the users like it?”
Which brings us to the third point for Xiaomi’s success in India – attention to consumers.
“What we want to do basically revolves around consumers,” says Jain. “Every time I meet one of my board members, one of our co-founders, they basically tell me: everything else is secondary, the most important thing is, do you think the users will like it? Will users appreciate this? Will users be happy? Or as we call them, Mi fans. Will Mi fans be happy? If Mi fans will be happy and they will like it and if we think it is sustainable, and if you think they will continue to use this, then you should launch this.”
But isn’t that good old common marketing sense? The consumer is king and whatnot? Jain shakes his head with a wry grin.
“This is a very very different way. Before this (Xiaomi), I was with Jabong and before that I was with McKinsey. The thinking over there is very different. There it is about: how do you make money, how do you scale it up. Here the philosophy and thinking are very different. It is about whether the consumers will like it or not. Whether the consumers will appreciate this or not because the whole point is: we don’t make much money on hardware. We do make money from the hardware towards the end of the cycle but our aim is to make more money through the software.
“You can only do it if users just love you or like or there is a certain amount of stickiness around us. That is why the whole company model is built that way. So even though it is not every evident, a lot of decisions we have taken have been taken not to chase numbers but based on whether the users will be happy.”
Cue cynicism from us. Cue another example. And by now it is clear that Xiaomi’s India head has a penchant for calling up examples the way in which a Roger Federer pulls out backhand volley winners.
“Let me give you one example,” he starts and then corrects himself. “Actually multiple examples. Service centers. When we started, a lot of people basically started claiming about 500 service centers, 1000 service centers but if you walk into many of these, all of them are multi-brand. And the quality of experience you get over there is pretty bad. I am not saying we are the best but one of the things we started doing was keeping in mind what the consumers like. We said: we will establish exclusive service centers. In the first year itself, we established 70 exclusive service centers. Which is a pretty big cost to us, a pretty big investment for our company, but we thought we should still do it. Why? Because the consumers will like it. It will never get covered. Xiaomi has 70 exclusive service centers while some other brands do not even have one. Because usually, people will just cover the overall number saying, ‘oh somebody has 500, oh he has 250.’ Only half But have you ever seen the quality within that?”
He moves on to another example. Xiaomi India has opened its own in-house call center, quite a move for a company that is relatively young. “We just thought that it would be much better for us because the kind of agents we can hire and train ourselves will be much better and much more technically competent as compared to an external one,” he explains. And moves on to the Make in India initiative.
“That’s the reason why we started doing ‘Make In India.’ Obviously, there were economic benefits but we actually had announced our manufacturing plans before the Government had announced tax benefits. So, yes, now we get all the manufacturing benefits and the tax benefits but the intent was not just that. The reason why we announced manufacturing even before the Government had announced tax benefits was because we genuinely thought that people would appreciate and like that. In fact, it was a pretty big cost to us but a lot of things that we have done at the backend, we believe we have done keeping in mind what consumers will like. It may not give us instant results but from a long term perspective is much more sustainable.”
“Think of us as guinea pigs”: trying ads, going offline…the start-up’s right to experiment
But has not Xiaomi moved away from its self-attested core values, we ask. After all, when it arrived in India, the company had claimed it would never use traditional media for advertisements or use the offline retail channel for selling its products. But have happened subsequently. Is this a classic case of misreading a market initially and then adapting, or a sign of desperation, as some would have us believe?
Jain actually bursts out laughing at the mention of desperation. Then composes himself, and replies.
“The best thing about a start-up,” he starts and noting our slightly incredulous expressions, pauses to elaborate. “We are a start-up. A six-year-old company. We are younger than most of the start-ups in India. Xiaomi India is even a younger start-up which is just two years old. This is the second year.”
Having cleared the point about start-up status, he moves on. “The best thing about start-ups is: you should always experiment with things, you should try out new things and then whatever works, you should scale it up. So we love doing experiments. When I go and meet my partners, one of the big things that I tell them is: think of us as guinea pigs. You can do any kind of experimentation on us. We would always be open to it. Whatever experiment you want to do from a business model perspective and other things, we would be open to it.”
There are limits to the holy spirit of experimentation, though. “There are a few things I will never sacrifice,” he clarifies. “Like you want to launch a Rs 2,000 product with very poor features. We will never do that.” He goes back to the idea of experimenting.
“Within the frame of what we can do, I would love to experiment. So, if we look at today, yes we are doing something offline but again that offline is very different from traditional offline retail that people have done. Traditionally people used to have a national distributor, regional distributor, a micro-distributor, wholesaler then a retailer, right? We are not doing any of that stuff.
“We are basically saying we will always go directly to the retailers and we are basically saying we will give to our partners, they will directly sell to the retailer. We will directly send to the retailer by cutting these 3 or 4 layers in between. We are trying to see if we can use technology to deliver this.”
He elaborates on the model Xiaomi is following.
“It is not a push model, it is a pull model. A tradition model would be where a brand will go to a national distributor saying, ‘you buy these many phones and only if you buy these many phones, will you get discounts.’ They basically force the distributor to buy. And once the distributor has bought it is now their responsibility to get rid of them and push it to next level and the next level and the next level and finally retailers. And once it reaches the retailers, the retailers are then forced to sell it to the consumers because he has invested money in it. Ours is a pull model. Because we are basically saying you don’t need to do any of this stuff. You can sell two phones every day. You come and buy just two phones from our partner’s app and then you only order those phones. So, it doesn’t block your working capital or money.
“It allows us to be extremely cost-efficient. Because as per the tradition model, people give away anywhere between 20-50 percent because there are so many layers. And we can spend much lower money and have the same pricing between online and offline. Traditional offline does not allow you to do that. When we started we had around 1000-2000 shops. Now we have 8500 shops. India has hundreds of thousand more shops that sell mobiles. But nobody will come and push us. Nobody from our co-founders or board members or I will go and push my team saying ‘target 10,000-20,000, 50,000 shops.’ We don’t have that mad rush. Our point is, let’s do right in these 8500 shops. Let’s build a sustainable business model and if it is sustainable, we can scale it up.”
He brings out the wry grin again. “Why we have done some of these changes is because we love experimenting. Not because we are facing any challenges. We have grown 150 percent this year as compared to last year. 150 percent. Q3 last year we crossed one million. Q3 this year, we have done close to 2.4-2.5 million. 150 percent, right? There is no desperation. Look at the numbers. There is no reason why there should be desperation if we look at this or even the overall numbers. One out of four phones sold online is basically a Xiaomi phone.”
He pulls out his Mi Max phone and shows us some figures.
“If you look at overall, we are number three. And we are pretty close to number two. Number two has just sold 40,000 units more than us. In the entire quarter. And sometimes we sell a 100,000 in a few minutes whenever we open sale of Redmi 3S. So, that is not a big number. So from that perspective from being zero to being number one in online and number three all over India without spending any marketing dollars, I don’t really think it is a sign of desperation. It is basically that we love to experiment and we will continue to do so.
“This is not the first and the last time. You will continue to see many more experiments from us. Sometimes you will surprised and will be wondering why these guys are doing this but this is our way. We are not a 100-year-old company which is set to work in a way. We love experimenting. We do different things and then whatever works, we scale it up.”
“We have launched more in India in the first two years than in China”
We move on to another topic which is rather touchy among Indian consumers, including Mi fans. Why do so many devices get launched by Xiaomi in China but never get to India, in spite of constant claims to Xiaomi trying to be part of the Indian fabric? The much-hyped Mi Mix, Mi TV, and Mi Notebook Air, not to mention a whole range of products ranging from rice cookers to Ninebots are on the “why not launched in India” complaint list of many consumers.
Jain ponders this for a while. Then answers, “At the heart of this, the same philosophy of doing less but doing good. But look at the first two years of Xiaomi there (in China) and compare it with the first two years of Xiaomi here. The first two years of Xiaomi there we had just launched MIUI and one phone. In the first two years of Xiaomi here, we have launched 8-10 phones, we have launched air purifiers, we have launched Mi bands, power banks and accessories and tablets and so many more products.
“Actually we have done more. We have launched much more in India in the first two years as compared to the first two years in China. You can say it is not an apple to apple comparison because six years back we did not have a full portfolio but in Xiaomi China, for the first one and a half years, we were not even making phones. For the first one and a half years we were just doing one thing: launch our MIUI OS. And then for the next two years, we were just doing phones apart from MIUI. It was four years after that when we were dominant, we thought, ‘now can we build on this portfolio and launch more devices like TV, routers, air purifiers, water purifiers’ and now we are building this whole eco-system. In India, we started with phones and obviously MIUI. We launched tablets, we launched Mi band, accessories, power banks and now we have launched air purifiers, too. You will definitely see many more products coming. But doing less is good, than more but an average job. Our philosophy is if we can do ten things but average things in most of these or can do two things and do a great job, I would prefer to do two but a great job than doing ten with an average job.”
There was also the little – or not so little matter – of personnel.
“Our team was very small,” Jain remembers. “Today we are 160-170 people. In the beginning of this year, we were only 40 people. Before that, we were only four people. So we have just grown from one to four to 40 to 160 people. And these 160 people include everyone – our product team, our logistics team, our warehouse team, our import clearance team, our customer care team, our after-sales team, our admin, our HR, our finance, our sales, our marketing, our offline sales, our online sales… everyone.”
He stresses the point by tapping the table. “Let’s not do that. Let’s not do an average job. Let’s do a great job, in whatever we can do.”
“This is very small if you compare it to any other company of similar scale. Very very small. So, there are only limited numbers of things that we can do. Some of these products require a parallel organization. For example, take TV. Amongst this question of why don’t you launch other products, the number one product is TV. TV requires a parallel organization. Whatever I have, I just have to replicate it once more to start doing TV.” He rolls his eyes at the sheer scale of the task. And then explains:
“Why? Because I can’t do the same logistics because it has to be shipped in a different way. It cannot be shipped the way we ship phones or power banks or Mi bands or even Air purifiers, too. A TV will be big and heavy. It cannot be air shipped, it has to be ground transported. So the logistics are different. The warehousing is very different. Right now, I have big steel racks for every product which we cannot have for TVs. So your warehouse design has to be different. Your after sales have to be different. You cannot carry a TV to the service center. You basically have to go to the user’s home to do the after-sales services. It requires installations which are not required for any of our devices right now.
“And on top of it, we are basically not a company which would sell washing machines and refrigerators and feel good about it and make Rs 1000 from it. We are a company who would rather not make those Rs 1000-2000 or sell it on cost or whatever that money is… We would rather make money from our software content or OS layering. We are still far away from bringing the sort of content that we have in China to India. Very very far away. We are still working on it. Once we have all these things ready, that is when we can basically launch all the other products.”
There are cultural and usage differences too. Out comes another example, this time of the Mi Water Purifier, which has become very popular because it tells users on their phones when to change filters and which filter to change – these can be changed without calling any technician either.
“It is a great product which I think will do phenomenally well in India,” says Jain. And before we can ask, he anticipates our query. “Now, why haven’t we launched it? Because in China, nobody needs a water tank. So, the water filter does not have a water tank. It is live flowing water. In India, you can’t have a water purifier without a water tank. I bought a new water purifier one year back and my wife went out to make this purchase with me and the first question she asked was, ‘bhaiya kitna bada tank hai?’ (How big is the tank?). We don’t think we would be able to launch the same model here. So we are trying to see if we can redesign the water purifier.”
But what of the Ninebot, which has been seen at demo zones at media events and which Hugo Barra has ridden on to the stage for a launch?
Jain shrugs his shoulders. “We thought of launching the Ninebot. We experimented this with roads here, but unfortunately, a lot of the road conditions here don’t allow us to launch the Ninebot.” He laughs cynically, “Who will ride a Ninebot on the roads of Delhi or Bengaluru? There is the problem. If you go to USA or China, you can see people riding Ninebots or Segway. Here I cannot imagine that. Not at least for some time.”
He, however, signs off on a positive note for Indian Mi Fans. “You will see some of these products, not all of these, but some of these being launched every year now.”
The Xiaomi effect: “I have become more patient”
Stepping away from the business for a while, we ask him how his tenure at Xiaomi India has changed him.
“I would say a lot,” Jain cheerfully confesses. “First off, I have become more patient. Not at everything, just like in life. Not everything has been perfect. We have seen a lot of challenges. A lot of things have not gone right. But what is important is that when things go wrong, how do you learn from them and don’t make the same mistakes again. And that is something I have learned the most at xiaomi. Because we have done things at a phenomenal rate and we have made a lot of mistakes. But we have been able to learn from these mistakes. It may not be visible from outside but from inside, you can see a lot of corrections that we keep doing. And that is something that has made me a lot more patient as a person than I was two and a half years back.
“The second thing which has changed for me is my relationship with my team members and my philosophy of working with my team members. Before Jabong, if you look at my life before that, I had worked in two companies. I had worked in a tech start-up where I used to code and at McKinsey, I was basically a business consultant. And in both of these places I was not required to work in big teams. I was required to work in small teams, deliver a project and move on. And I was great at that. Jabong was the first time when I had to build bigger teams. And we grew at a pretty fast pace. Like where we hired like a few hundred people in first two months, five-six hundred people in first six months. And we made a lot of mistakes. Because we did not really pay attention to the kind of people we were hiring. Or the people we were bringing on board. We did not think about the dynamics between us and the different team members.
“I think that is something I have learned from some of the mistakes I made at Jabong. We were slow in building the Xiaomi Indian team. For the first few months, I was alone then I got the first few team members then I got two more team members. For the first few months, we were only four people. After the first 7-8 months, we were only 30-40 people. Again, unlike any other start-up, we believed in the same philosophy of doing less but doing good. The kind of people that we hired here, as I said, were incredible. Like I said, my leads can be bosses here. I generally believe in that. I respect that. How do you work with these people and make them successful and make yourself redundant is something that I have learned at Xiaomi.”
He gathers his thoughts. And concludes: “This is the first company or the first job or first place where I can say very confidently that my overall philosophy is not to do everything myself but to hire people who can do this job and can do it better than me and obviously get out of the way. They would obviously be furious if I would be involved with them on a daily basis and I don’t think I need to be involved in everything on a daily basis. I think that is a big mindset change that has happened to me during these two and a half years at Xiaomi.”
When not at work: the Dad-Son time principle!
So what does he do when not at Xiaomi? The answer is prompt.
“Number one, I play with my son. That is a number one priority. As much time as I can give to him when I am not working, I try to do it. So I get up about an hour in the morning because he gets up at 7 and all of us leave the home around 8-ish. I come to the office around 8. My wife drops him to the school and then she goes to the office. I try to reach home to spend one and a half-two hours with him in the evening. Which is pretty good for me. And then if I have to work post this, I work once he has slept. Because this basically gives me enough quality time to spend with him every day. Plus weekends, I try to spend a lot more time with him.
“We have a weekly schedule of going to a place called the little gym. It is a gym for kids. And then we basically play there for an hour or two. Every week we do it. Exactly the same. It is a dad-son thing. We do a lot of stuff every week. As a family, we have started going to Zumba classes every Sunday. All three of us: husband, wife, and son. So I try to spend as much time with my family, my son. That is one. Sometimes, not regularly, I try and go to the gym because I have been gaining weight. So how do I lose weight is one of the big things on my mind. Yeah, I think that is pretty much it.”
No, we don’t think he needs to lose weight really.
If I could change one thing…
So much for having changed. But if there was one thing he could have changed in his time with Xiaomi, what would it be?
The Xiaomi India head lapses into silence for a while. Almost a minute passes before he sees us staring at him with semi-amusement and he breaks into a guilty giggle.
“The reason why I am taking so much of time is because I am finding it difficult to pinpoint one. There are so many,” he confesses, breaking into laughter. He then composes himself and tries to give the matter due attention. “I think, again there have been a lot of mistakes that we have done. Whether it is working with our partners, whether it is the way that we have to build up businesses. It is like everything you can go back and say ‘maybe if we would have done things differently, it would have been better. If we had started Mi.com two years back, it would have been different. But think it was also a benefit because we worked with one of the strongest partners in the country, Flipkart. They really helped us in our initial days. Now we work across multiple platforms and have a very strong Mi.com and we are getting a million visitors a day on Mi.com.”
He smiles a little wistfully. “Maybe one thing that I would say which is more on the lighter note, is that I could have learned a little bit of Chinese. I can’t speak anything, except for four-five broken words. Many of our leads in China, they don’t speak English. Most of our co-founders do, many of our leads do, but a few co-founders and some leads don’t. And whenever I interact with them, my communication becomes, like even though I have a translator always or they have a translator always, but it is not as efficient. So maybe if I would have learned Chinese it could have been a little better.”
As we come to the end of the interview, we ask a question that a lot of people have wondered about – what is it with the shiny “no hair on head” look that has become almost iconic for the Xiaomi India head? Where does it come from?
He pauses and looks at me in real surprise. And then bursts out laughing.
“It comes from me losing hair. I will show you a picture. My dad is bald, my uncles are bald. So I am guessing this is a little bit genetic. Or at least I would like to blame it, even if it is not. It is the genes, right? Why blame myself that I did something wrong? I started losing hair but not much when I was in IIT. And then when I was working with the tech start-up, it was okay then. I knew it was receding, the hairline was receding but I never worried about it.”
He finally finds the pictures he was looking for and shows us images of a more follically prolific Manu Jain.
“This is me in college. Me and my wife at IIM Kolkata. So I did have hair at IIM,” he adds triumphantly. Then concedes, “Even though you can see that the hairline is receding here but it is okay. It started receding and by the time I got married, it started becoming thinner and thinner. And sometimes I joke with my wife and tell her it is because of her that we got married and after the marriage because of all the tension my hairline started receding but only as a joke.”
The idea for the clean shaven cranium evidently came from Jain’s better half.
“She said ‘instead of you having hair and showing a bald patch, why don’t you just shave off your head?’ So that’s what I did,” he recalls. “And then I kind of stuck to it. I just keep it short. Once in two weeks, I have this machine at my home, the one that you go to the barber for, and that I basically use myself and I am kind of like a pro at it.”
And what were the reactions like? Jain bursts out laughing once again.
“It was funny because when I used to work at McKinsey, that was the time when I started doing it regularly. One of my clients was the CXO of a big automobile company. So, I used to meet him every week. Every week he used to meet me and used to see my hair being the same length. After like six months of working, he asks, ‘what is happening? Why isn’t your hair growing? And I just said, it is not that they are not growing, I just shave it off every week. And he was like ‘really?’ So yeah, that is what I have been doing for last many many years.”
And how has it been working with the man everyone calls the Nexus Man? Manu Jain smiles as he thinks of Xiaomi’s global vice-president, Hugo Barra, the man who many people consider synonymous with the brand.
“Amazing,” he says with sincere admiration. “I think there are a lot of things that I have personally learned from Hugo. I really admire him. One of the best things that I have learned from Hugo is, he is one of those guys who can see a very big picture but can also go in details. I think he is one of those guys who can do both the things really well. He’s got the big vision, the big picture but if he wants he can also go in details. You have seen people who have strong personalities one way and find it difficult to go the other way. That is a great thing about Hugo.”
He pauses for a second and then adds in a tone that is oddly warmer and almost affectionate. “Another thing that I admire and I have learned from him a lot is his ability to care for people. He really cares for people. And I think a lot of people care about others but they are not good at expressing it or showing it. But he is one guy who can care for people and express it, and make others feel that he cares for them. I think that is something which is really good about him.”
Before we can ask, he adds “And obviously, his amazing communication skills.” Yes, the Pasha of Presentations has an adherent.
“Mere paas ma hai…”
And well, out comes the inevitable closing question: what next can we expect from Xiaomi.
“Mi Pop,” Jain answers with a laugh, referring to the Mi Fan event where he and many other Xiaomi executives (including Barra) will be performing. He adds tactfully:
“A lot of exciting stuff. 2016 has been good and I’m pretty confident that 2017 will be great. So a lot of exciting stuff.”
As we pack up our bags, I ask him to utter the famous dialogue from the film Deewar “Mere paas Ma hai” (“I have a mother”) that he used at the Make in India event last year. Most India heads would bridle at the notion, but Jain just laughs and belts it out with due gusto, adding “Aur meri ma ke paas Mi hai!” (And my mother has got a Mi phone!).
As he giggles and hugs us goodbye, he in a way reflects the brand he has been building in India – slightly crazy, experimental, innovative, super communicative but insanely pleasant. There has been those who feel he has been overshadowed by the incredibly charismatic Barra and at times by the high-profile Jai Mani (another former Google man), but at the end of the day, Xiaomi India is this man with the big grin and little hair, who somehow refuses to take himself too seriously.
If it had been Hugo Barra in Deewar, we reckon he would have said: “Mere paas Manu hai.” (“I have Manu Jain.”)