“How will they do without Hugo (Barra)?”
That was the thought in most people’s minds when they filed into the Lalit Hotel in Delhi to attend the launch of the Redmi 4A, the first device to be formally launched by Xiaomi in India after the departure of its high-profile global Vice-President Hugo Barra earlier this year. The concern was understandable, for Barra had for many people been synonymous with the brand with his dramatic and often immaculate product launches and briefings. In fact, it was rare to see anyone other than Barra doing a product launch or presentation for Xiaomi in India.
How then would Xiaomi fare without its talisman?
In the event, the company did very well indeed. No, one did not see the sort of theatrical flair that someone like Hugo Barra would have produced on stage – but then there is perhaps no one in that league right now in the world of tech presentations. But on the other hand, there was no attempt made to copy the man either – a relief because that would have been very difficult indeed to pull off. Instead, what we had were Xiaomi India’s head, Manu Jain, on stage for an extended period (perhaps his longest stage appearance at a product launch) announcing the commencement of a new plant as part of the Make in India initiative. Jain is not a natural on stage (you could sense him gently seeking the teleprompter at times), but his natural amiability and charm more than compensates. Also, unlike some CEOs, he does not indulge in wild adjective-ism, preferring to remain understated. He also has the knack of playing on emotion – “isn’t it gorgeous”, he said when showing pictures of the new plant. And when he revealed that more than 90 percent of the staff at the new plant were women, he got a rare round of spontaneous applause from the non-Mi Fan section of the crowd (the Mi Fan section was, of course, applauding all too often).
The other man who took stage was Jai Mani, the product manager at Xiaomi India, famous as the man who left Google to follow Barra to Xiaomi a few years ago (Trivia: He was a co-founder at a startup in Silicon valley in between his jobs at Google and Xiaomi). A more regular stage presence – he often presented the software side of products – to him fell the responsibility of talking “tech” in general and of the product in particular. And while some might have winced at his attempts to involved the Mi fan brigade in some of his announcements and others might have shaken their heads at his attempts to explain that the “A” in the “Redmi 4A” stood for “A grade”, and yet others might have felt that he targeted Samsung’s J-series device in the Redmi 4A’s price segment a tad too often for comfort, but the fact is that Mani did walk the audience through the product without getting monotonous or boring. He too had his moment of spontaneous applause – when he showed how the messaging interface had transformed IRCTC alerts to look more like real train tickets. He is much more comfortable on stage now and is developing the knack of talking tech without lapsing too often into jargon – something he had shown while explaining the virtues of the Snapdragon 625 processor in the Redmi Note 4.
There was no attempt at theater or drama, although there was the usual sprinkling of Mi user videos (with some of those in the videos even being present in the crowd being called out) and also a rather well-made video about the new plant and its employees. There were no false notes and things pretty much went according to plan and schedule, with the standard well-designed presentation slides with large fonts. Was Hugo Barra missed? Not too much perhaps because while the event did not have the theatrical touch that was a given with the Brazilian, there was smooth efficiency on display here. There was a reference to him, though, when Jai Mani revealed the price of the Redmi 4A -“This used to be Hugo’s specialty,” he said, referring to Barrio’s penchant for juggling with the price and going “Kitna doge?” (“How much will you give/pay?” in Hindi). He, however, did no jugglery of any sort and showed the price straight away. It was all done and dusted in about an hour, with nary a stutter or stumble.
And that pretty much summed up the launch of the Redmi 4A – efficient and effective. Low on style, but high on substance. The chances are that a few weeks down the line, not too many will remember any moment from the presentation in particular. But the product had been shown, explained and reasonably understood by all those attending.
He may have been Banquo’s ghost at the Redmi 4A banquet, but the event proved that Xiaomi India could still handle presentations and launches well, albeit differently, without the man associated with the brand for such a long time.
“He is not like Hugo,” a colleague of mine said to me as we were packing our bags, referring to Jai Mani.
Indeed he is not. And neither is the charming Manu Jain.
And neither needs to “Be Like Barra” to deliver an effective presentation.