[Tech Talkies] Jai Mani: “Google and Xiaomi are Pretty Similar”
The geeky, Google guy in Mi!
“Sit with me, man. Let’s talk.”
Jai Mani does not give interviews. Xiaomi India’s Lead Product Manager, very much like rebel warrior Katsumoto in The Last Samurai, likes a good conversation. And revels in discussions – he is not a man overfond of his own voice, although that does not stop him from using some rather long sentences.
Introduced to the Indian audience on stage during the Mi 4 launch in early 2015 by Xiaomi’s then Global Vice-President Hugo Barra (who insisted on calling him “handsome” every time he referred to him), with whom he had earlier worked in Google (a lot of mediapersons still refer to him as the “Google Guy at Xiaomi”), Mani has evolved into being the “geek” face of the tech company, the person with whom one discusses the tech side of the company’s phones, be it processor design, camera algorithms or his favourite subject, UI and software. Initially perceived as being a little aloof (he used to take time to get into a conversation), he is now more at ease with his official role as Lead Product Manager and his unofficial one as resident geek guru.
Mind you, these days he spends a lot of his time in China, rather than India. “For the past few months, I have spent most of my time in China. I have been sitting with our Mi Phone hardware team there and really seeing phones, from concept to production. All the way through every step of the process, which for me, is really cool. Because I have come from more of a software background and hardware is very different. So yeah, I have been spending my time in China, taking apart phones, learning things about industrial design, display, cameras, RF, everything.” He smiles, and unlike some of his contemporaries, it is a surprisingly open gin. “It’s really cool. I have been basically asked to take apart a bunch of phones, and I think there is a thousand Rupee penalty for every screw that I lose, so I am very careful about it.”
Has he lost any yet? He bursts out laughing. “So far, nothing! I am very careful about where I keep the screws. It’s awesome for me. It’s a great experience.”
No.1 in smartphones: “Close to best case scenario!”
Which of course brings us to the subject every phone-y person is talking about– that of Xiaomi emerging as the leading smartphone player in the Indian market less than four years after starting out. Had he expected it to be this fast. “I think this is close to the best case scenario I had imagined when I joined three years ago,” he confesses. “E-commerce was not that popular, and many people felt that Indians simply would not want to buy something as expensive as a smartphone online. It also would have been difficult to predict our success online – today one out of every two phones sold online is a Xiaomi phone.”
So what does he think made Xiaomi overcome these odds? Mani feels that there were two factors that contributed to the brand’s dramatic rise. “Unbeatable products, and more importantly, passionate Mi fans as brand ambassadors,” he says. “I think there were three keystone products – beyond the Mi 3 that started us off with a bang – that not only changed our business but the industry as a whole. The first was the Redmi 1S which was half the price of other phones with similar specs. The second was the Redmi Note 3 – it was the first phone that put us into the mainstream. The third, obviously, is Redmi Note 4.”
But driving these products clearly, in Mani’s opinion, is the tremendous support base for Xiaomi in the form of Mi Fans. “They are the core to our success,” he says. “We could spend a lot of time talking about each of those three products, but the thing they all had in common was that they were ridiculously easy for Mi fans to recommend.” And the larger households in India played their roles too. “One key difference between India and China,” Mani explains. “Is that the average household size is much larger here (in India) – 4.8 vs. 3.0. So even if it’s just one Mi Fan per family, his or her recommendation could have a wider impact.”
Starting with finance…but “tech interested person”
The present tackled, we ask him the standard query: how on earth did he end up in technology? Pat comes the reply: “The answer is that I am curious and I always have been more of a tech person from my video game days, back in high school. I played in a team, not professional but played in a league,” he pauses and then gives humility a break. “We were the best team in America.”
No, he has no idea why he was attracted to technology. “I guess just by chance, never really thought about it,” he confesses. “It is just always been tech.” He points at himself and laughs: “Tech interested person.” Of course, that meant he was pretty much the go-to person for friends and family for all matters tech. And that could at times be tough.
“I think I was playing a video game, this game Microsoft made a long time ago, called Allegiance, and it required a Direct X upgrade,” he recalls. “So I upgraded it. And it just destroyed the computer. So then I spent the next week, trying to figure out how to recover all the data. I guess I’m tech support for my family.”
Interestingly, for someone so interested in technology, Mani’s background is not very technical. “I studied finance and business and in high school, in eleventh grade. I grew up in New York, so I started working for a hedge fund, during the summer,” he says. And that is evidently where the tech bug bit him. “They built all of their software in-house,” he recalls. “That is where I kinda picked up programming and more of my technical skills. I was basically an intern, but technically, I was doing a lot of product management. Because we built all of our software in-house, we did a lot of stuff with new year financial products. Like at that time credit default swaps were new, so we built our own software to figure out how to keep track of these trades. I was kind of working on that software.”
He worked there every summer through high school until he graduated from college. It was 2009, and not the best time to be in finance, courtesy the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis sparked off by the collapse of Lehmann Brothers.
Mani is blunt about the prospects he had. “It was the worst possible time to get a job in finance core,” he confesses. And it was then that all that fiddling with software came in handy. Because guess who called? Google!
Ending up at Google through “a crazy set of circumstances”
It was not as if Mani was not familiar with the search giant. “I had a Moto Razr for some time,” he recalls. “And then I had a Blackberry. But I remember using Google Maps on my Blackberry because at that time turn by turn directions on a phone? They were not really a thing. I remember, if it could tell where you were, it was cool. And I was walked outside with Google Maps on Blackberry at that time. It could actually triangulate where you were. So I walked around to trying to figure out, “how does it know!” That used to be my party trick. Using Google Maps.
“I don’t know if I realized it until after I joined Google but I was always a Google fan,” he confesses and ticks off mental boxes. “I had my iGoogle customised. I was among the first people to sign up for Grand Central, which became Google Voice. Actually in fact, in college I wrote, we did a case, business school case on disruptive technologies and I did mine on Google Voice and Grand Central, and on how Android or how Google could change the mobile phone industry with all these different technologies. The Google Voice part was totally wrong, but this was 2006-2007, so the Android part was close.”
And how was conclusion graded? Mani bursts out laughing. “I got a bad grade in that because it said, it was unrealistic!”
Still, getting into Google was a total stroke of luck. “I got referred to Google by a family friend through a crazy set of circumstances,” he says with a laugh. He got his first job at DoubleClick, a Google subsidiary.
And fell in love with Google.
“Once I got there I realized, I love this place,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was so proud to be there. I used to wear Google shirts, everywhere I went, I was such a nerd.”
Still, he would in all probability, have stayed on the fringes or taken his time moving up the corporate ladder even at Google, had not fate once again stepped in. “My big break so to speak was…I used to go to this meeting,” Mani remembers. “I was not officially involved in this meeting, but I used to just sit in on these meetings called the Access team at Google, so there you are kind of responsible for all the Internet-related projects, like Google Fibre, at that time there was a thing called Mountain View Wi-Fi, where the city of Mountain View had free Wi-Fi. A lot of Google ’s Internet-related projects like net neutrality policies and Internet-related policies were on that team.”
He laughs, by now a familiar sound, and then continues. “So I just started going because I thought it was cool, white space, spectrum policies and stuff like that. And eventually, they asked me for an interview. They were hiring people, and I said you guys are never going to hire me because I have zero experience,” he pauses, recalling the disbelief he felt at that time. “It’s all very heavily technical, wireless and Internet folks, but I had been going so long and I guess they kinda liked me and then I interviewed, it went really well because I assumed that I was going to get the job, and then eventually it got to one of the bosses who was like this guy doesn’t have the background, cannot hire you.”
On to Android, by accident…and it was “awesome”
That was not the end of it, of course. Mani continues: “They were really sad and felt really bad about it but because they were doing a lot of mobile Internet, they were connected to the Android team, and one of the guys who had interviewed me moved to the Android team, and he was like, “oh you did not get in there, why don’t you come and join Android.” And actually that was great, I never thought it was possible to join the Android team, so for me, it was awesome. And then I guess, it was like the perfect time to join Android.”
He might have got there by a series of coincidences, but Mani has no illusions about the difference being in the Android team made to his life.
“Android was awesome,” he says. “That totally made my career in every way. And the people who worked on Android? All of them were amazing people and at that time. Google was big. It is not as big as it is now but Android was this tiny little start-up within Google. And this was before Google was divided into product areas. At that time it was functional.
“Like every engineer reported to an engineering boss except at Android. Android was everything under Andy (Rubin). It was a small group of, I cannot remember exactly how many people were there when I joined, maybe like 80 or something, but it’s much bigger in size now.
“So we were like this small start-up within Google. So you got all the great advantages of being at Google and yet we kind of had this start-up atmosphere, where everyone worked really hard, and things moved really quickly. It was awesome.”
“Like my transfer to Android wouldn’t have been approved by any other department at Google,” Mani recalls. “It was Andy and Android executives and those folks like them who said, we want to hire this guy so we will hire him and I did not have the correct background. I think Android is one of the few places in the company that really was like this startup atmosphere. It was fantastic.”
He pauses, as if suddenly conscious of being carried away by his enthusiasm. “I owe everything in my career to the people in Android.”
And before we can ask the obvious question, he smiles and adds, “And of course, that is where I met Hugo.”
Introducing Mr. Hugo Barra at Google… “I think this guy understands”
For many people, Mani is inseparable from Hugo Barra, Xiaomi’s former Global Vice-President (now at Facebook), and also former Vice President at Google’s Android division. The pair of them were seen together on stage a number of times, at Google as well as at Xiaomi. And the affection and respect between them were fairly evident. Not too many have forgotten the manner in which Barra gushed “Well done, son,” after Mani had finished his first major presentation on stage (MIUI 7) in India. Mentor, friend and of course, boss and perhaps even an elder brother, Barra was clearly a massive influence on Mani. So much so that when he left Xiaomi in early 2017, many expected Mani to follow suit. Of course, he did not, but the pair remains close.
So how did they meet at Google?
“My job on Android was,” Mani starts and then, changes tack. “I started out as an analyst, but there were so few people that I ended working with the engineer who actually developed our data and built our data system. So I became the de facto product manager in the analytics team, but we also did Android strategy. So my boss and I put together almost all of these strategic decks (presentations) about Android that included the board of directors meeting. We used to put together this one slide which had everything that was going on with Android.”
He sees us getting impressed, and shakes his head. “It sounds cool, but it was kind of a huge headache. I had to get approvals and everybody and stuff,” he points out. “That’s how I actually first met Hugo and because I was doing data, everybody knew that Google is a data-driven company and everyone wanted to know what’s going on with the data.
“We had this weekly meeting where we presented Hugo, the data from Android. It was called the Android Market at that time – what’s going on in the Android market, what’s going on with the Android activation and stuff like that. And then, one quarter, Larry (Page) asked us to do a deep dive into the mobile Android section with Hugo.”
“I think we were doing Nexus 4 at that time,” Mani recalls. “I always sat outside the room to answer any questions and Hugo was like ‘why don’t you come inside and help me switch HDMI ports and stuff.’ And it actually sounds very dumb, but it was very complicated. All that stuff was new at the time – Miracast, wireless displays and all this was new and finicky like it would sometime switch to portrait from the landscape. Sometimes it would crash. I remember the moment in the meeting where Hugo was speaking, and I was basically queuing up the demos.
“Almost all people underestimated how difficult it is to do a demo, and I remember exactly what it was. It was Google Earth, and at that time Google Earth had that thing where you could see, they had started doing depths. You can see the Colosseum, where you could see the size and everything, but if you just click on the Colosseum, it would take a long time to load. It used to take forever and then it used to switch from satellite to the depth mode. So I had preloaded it and closed the app so that when he opened the app, it was cached (and would load faster). When he took the phone, I remember, I could see it his eyes, “oh I wonder if he did this. Otherwise, it will be really awkward,” and when it worked, he looked back at me and gave me this side look, and I think after that he was like, “okay I think this guy understands what things are about”.”
That simple act of preloading the Colosseum on Google Maps laid the foundation of a very famous tech friendship. “After that we kind of got along,” Mani remembers with a smile. “Then he asked me to do Google I/O. So I basically did the same thing for Google I/O. I was the faceless guy who pressed all the buttons on stage at I/O which again is like, people do not appreciate how much work goes into those things, it is a live demo, and you are not going to make a totally fake Gmail, just for a live demo. So, if I show a Gmail account or notification, you have seen the email address that I have used. So in the next demo, I have to change the email address, so that someone cannot message me in the middle of the live demo. And it used to take me hours to prepare for these things. And I think Hugo was one of the few people who really appreciated that kind of attention to detail.”
He shakes his head as he thinks of demos. “Demos are very difficult. There are little things that still bother me, like people leaving notification icons, or they have an update available, and they are doing a demo. I hate that.”
“You need to go to India…”: When Xiaomi called
Given how close they were, not too many were surprised when Mani followed Barra to Xiaomi. Mind you; it was some time before the duo joined forces. And it was India that brought them together.
“I think Hugo left in August 2013, and I had actually left Google a little after he left and joined a company with the lead engineer in Android analytics,” he recalls. “He left Google, then Hugo left Google and then I was like, I don’t know. When Hugo left Google, I was still doing data, we had a meeting, and we were talking about the job, and a bunch of other stuff and I was like, “listen, you need to go to India. India is the obvious place for you guys to go. It is the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world. Your products will do really well there; you need to go to India as soon as possible.”
“And when they launched in India, almost a year later in July 2014, I sent him a message, “Hey congrats man! But why did it take you so long, it should have been the first thing you did,” and his response was like, “it is just me and one other person (Manu Jain), and we are totally underwater, and we need help.” Then we started talking, and I think about a month or two later, I decide to join. A couple of months later, I came out here, and I think I was the fifth or sixth employee…”
Google to Xiaomi, actually “a bigger change was America to India”
And how big a change was it to come from one of the largest tech companies in the world to a relatively new Chinese start-up? Mani does not seem too impressed by the comparison in sizes of the two companies. “Google to Xiaomi, I think in a lot of ways is…in more ways than not,” he seems to search for words, and then settles on being direct. “They are the same. Just the relentless focus on people. Like one of Google’s mottos is to focus on people, and the rest will follow, and I think our (Xiaomi’s) motto is a little more personal as it comes to the fans which is being friends with your fans, and that’s I think more direct. And Xiaomi and Android were even more similar. They were both led by really incredible visionary people. Andy (Rubin) is amazing, I love Andy, and because of the language barrier, people don’t see as much of Lei Jun outside of China. But he is a remarkable person. So I think in a lot of ways, Android and Xiaomi are similar.”
He sees us smiling and breaks out laughing, answering our question even before it was asked: “And I knew Hugo was there, and we got along, and I figured if he is there, it must be fine.”
But if the core philosophy of his employers did not change much, his environs certainly did, as he had to move from the US to India. “I grew up in America, I grew up in New York,” Mani tells us. “We used to spend our summers in India. Every other summer, we would spend in India. My grandmother is in Chennai, so we used to spend our summers in Chennai. Every other summer we would come to Chennai and the next summer my grandmother would come to America. So if you add it up, I spent maybe like a year or two in India. But it’s very different living by yourself as compared to living in your grandmother’s house where she takes care of everything to an amazing, loving detail.”
He shakes his head and smiles. “Actually a bigger change was America to India, but Google to Xiaomi, I didn’t really think about it too much.”
The Xiaomi effect… “a lot faster than almost any company”
Which is not to say that the two companies were carbon copies of each other. There were differences. “Lei Jun was a CEO of a software company. He does own a lot of internet companies. So our DNA, a lot of our founders, came from the software background,” Mani points out. “That being said we have also hired a lot really, a lot of our co-founders are also heavily technical folks from places like Motorola. In terms of the way we think about people and people use our products. We are pretty similar.
“I think some differences are like Xiaomi is a lot faster than almost any company in the world. I mean, I have only worked in Google, but things that I think will be measured in months in other places are measured in days and things that are measured in weeks are literally hours. And things just move on a dime.”
He nods as if to stress the point. “That is our biggest advantage, that we can move very very quickly,” he says. “Another thing is, this year we will be becoming more of a global company, but I think in India, particularly the stuff we do with MIUI, a lot of the stuff is very local like the stuff we do in SMS where we redesigned the SMS ticket, that was redesigned just for that one SMS. It is one of the most popular text messages in India, but it’s just that one SMS, right? Whereas, if Google were to do something like that, it likely would not be that way. They would want it to be more global, more scalable like every developer from all over the world should use this standard and then all SMSs would look this beautiful.”
“I think there are different approaches,” he points out. “(At Xiaomi) We will release that product, but if use the other approach it might be more scalable, but it would take you much longer. It’s like a cultural difference, almost. We have a department called product operations, where we do a lot of this nitty gritty stuff to get products in a good place, to get stuff launched. Even the business icons in the SMS app, where it shows the logos of like HDFC bank…in all this stuff, we manually get the images, it’s not like an API. That product works really well, but the way we went about it was less scalable, but faster. It’s almost like a different philosophy. That being said, if the product becomes really popular, then we can make it scalable, but the point is to get it to a point which is really really good. Sometimes it’s just much faster do it that way.”
He sums it up: “We got 5000 businesses done by four people in their spare time over the course of two weeks. Which if you did another way would have taken you much longer. That’s kind of a difference.”
And then there are the fans.
The Mi Fans: “I knew something is different…about this company”
“I didn’t know that (about the fans) going into this,” Mani says about the Mi Fans, who are an integral – and some would say, controversial (given their fanatical faith) – part of the Xiaomi community. “I knew about the products, I knew about Hugo, but I did not know the level of passion in the fans. The first fan meet that I went to was in our office when a bunch of early fans came and met me. I was just talking to them, explaining who I am and what I do and I wanna learn about more about you guys and stuff. And one of them stopped me and said, “We know who you are, you have done Google I/O, you were on stage during these demos…”
“Which is like, I was shocked. Because even my family, if I tell them I’m doing this, they will find it hard to spot me because it’s not like I’m speaking. I’m just in the background every now and then. And finding my name would be even more difficult. I was just shocked when they knew it. That’s when I knew something is different the way people care about this company, the way Mi fans feel about this company.”
Mani, of course, got to see the other side of the fan culture when a disturbance broke out during the Mi Max launch in India, and he had to give out his own mobile phone number on stage and ask discontented fans to contact him. Of course, many got back to him. Way too many.
“There were thousands of messages,” he recalls with a laugh. “And I answered most of them myself. Because it was my phone, I cannot just give someone my phone. I had some help towards the end though because it got a little serious. I think in retrospect, I probably would have given my Twitter handle because that way, I could have used the same answer for multiple people.”
He returns to the importance of the Mi Fans. “That’s one of the great things about Xiaomi. I feel a lot closer to the people who use our products, Mi Fans. Because I talk to them every day,” he says. “After an event, the first thing we do is meet with fans. I spend a lot of time after the event talking to the Mi Fans.”
The role of the fans in Xiaomi has however been treated with much skepticism. Many is the media person who considers them nothing more than fanatical cheerleaders, or even fair-weather friends who turn up and scream and applaud at events for the “goodie bag.” For Mani, however, there is nothing superficial in the Mi Fan – Mi relationship.
“Be friends with your fans is our motto,” he says. “It’s a two-way thing, whereas I think in most place – every place that I am aware of – community and the outreach thing is in marketing. It is like push this out through the community, and it’s more like a contract. It’s like “I pay you, push this out.””
Not in Xiaomi, though. Not according to Mani, at least, who believes very deeply in the fan-brand relationship. “I would define it as a friendship where it’s like you put in something, I put in something, and together we build something great,” he says. “I did not know it, going in but as soon as that happened, I realized that this place is different. And it’s great. We get feedback on everything. Everything we do, we run polls; we meet up with people and ask them to think about it. Whether it’s color, new features. Everything like that, we get through the fans.”
In Jai Mani’s book, Mi Fans are not about marketing or business. “When you are friends with someone it is a two-way thing,” he says. “One-way friendships aren’t friendships.”
His closeness with the Fans has also made him more comfortable on stage. Not that he thinks he is any presentation wizard.
“I don’t know, you tell me, man,” he says with a laugh when we ask him how comfortable he now feels doing presentations during the event. “I am more comfortable than I was, certainly in the past. Actually, funny story: before the Redmi Note 4 launch, at that time I did not know it was Hugo’s last launch. He had not told me that he was leaving, and we were actually fighting because I said “I don’t want to present tomorrow. I am not confident. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it. And you do it.” And he was yelling at me, and we were going back and forth on it, and he said, “This is not negotiable, you do it and figure it out. You will be fine.” That was the end of that night, but the next morning, right before I got on stage, he said, “Dude, you are going to crush it. You are going to be fine, ” and I was really nervous. And suddenly I realized I had spent so much time researching that when I just got into it, it was easy for me to explain it because I had spent so much time in it.”
“The real lesson was when I’m presenting things that I have spent a lot of time on, it is really easy,” he smiles. “It’s like I’m talking to you about it because I like doing it.” He thinks about it. “Obviously, he (Hugo) was pushing me to do it for other reason, but I am glad he forced me on there. Now I think I’m more comfortable with the whole thing in general.”
Being friends with Hugo Barra…begin with “That’s like stupid!”
Which of course brings us to the special relationship that he shares with Hugo Barra. The two were supposed to have some arguments of epic proportions, complete with raised voices and slamming doors. Mani bursts out laughing when we mention that.
“Actually, we joke about that. It is actually the opposite,” he says. “It creates a lot of problems for me. We think in a remarkably similar way.”
So when did he actually really meet the man who would share the stage with him at Google and Xiaomi? “The first time I really met Hugo, I was in a meeting with him, and we were actually working together on a script for Google I/O in I guess, 2013,” Mani recalls. “We used to write the script and go through the whole thing and layout, the logical arguments, and he said something. I did not know him that well. I kind of knew that he was the public kind of guy, I thought he was intimidating but he said something that I just knew was wrong, and I just said, “That’s like stupid!“ And as soon as I said it I was like “oh God, I just blew this one.” And he goes, “why?” And so I presented my defense, and he thought about it for a moment. And I was ready for the fight, my heartrate was up, and he was just like “okay, you’re right we will change it.” And I was like, “what? What just happened?””
He smiles fondly at the memory. “That was the time when I really started like him. And we started getting along.”
“When presented with the same information, we often come to the same conclusion which created a lot of problems for me because sometimes people would think I went behind the back and spoke to Hugo and told him what I wanted and then he did it,” he continues. “But actually almost always it was just like he saw the same thing I saw, and said it.”
He smiles again. “We make a lot of public noise about getting in fights, but they are more jokes than anything. It would be a fake slam of the door,” he pauses and considers. “I don’t think we have actually have had a fake slam of the door. To my knowledge, I don’t think we have ever gotten into a fight. We say we get in fights, but it’s more like heated debates.”
And then he quietly sums up what Hugo Barra means to him:
“I would say there’s almost nobody in the world who gets me as much as he does because we have so many shared experiences like Google, Xiaomi and just being friends.”
Android One…“people asked us for it, and so we did it”
Which brings us to Xiaomi’s decision to join the Android One bandwagon with the Mi A1, a decision that surprised many people, mainly because Xiaomi had promoted its own MIUI as being every bit as good as – and in many ways better than – Android. Mani himself is the geek face of MIUI. How did he see the move to stock Android on a Xiaomi phone?
“Most people who asked this question are generally like “what is the business strategy behind this move? What does this mean for Xiaomi?” which I think is a very valid question,” Mani concedes. “But the reason is actually simple. It is not what is the strategy for Xiaomi. We have fans who have asked us for this. Because people asked us for it and so we did it. That was it. It’s not that complicated. Pulling it off is more complicated. The way it happened.
Working with Google, floating the idea and all that kind of stuff, that obviously took a lot of work and people behind it, but the genesis was simple: people asked us for it, and so we did it. Fans wanted it. If you were friends with somebody and you are making gifts for them, and you knew that they wanted and you could do it, you would probably do it. You would not think what does this mean for the future gifts; I give to this person.”
Still, after years of positioning MIUI as a great alternative to stock Android, and indeed even better than it in some ways (Barra would always make it a point to stress how MIUI updates were released more regularly than Android ones), did it not seem odd to be releasing a device that ran on stock Android?
“I don’t think ‘alternative’ is the correct term,” Mani explains. “We are in Android OS. That is why every app works on Xiaomi phones. We get all the great Google apps like on any Android device. I would save we are a different flavor. People asked us for it, so we did it. Right? So what does this mean for us? That could be a whole another interview topic, but I guess the question is what is MIUI”
He ponders the answer to his own question. And then replies, gently tapping the table for emphasis:
“If stock Android is just design, you could have a theme that looks like stock Android. And then would that be stock Android? I don’t know. If stock Android is just updates and Android OS updates, we could prioritize OS updating more on MIUI, and then it might still be MIUI.
Why do people ask us for it? That’s what we want to see.
“Once the Mi A1 gets into the market, we will see what is it that people like about it. And if you look through a lot of the Flipkart reviews, a lot of people asked that “oh, it does not have a lot of these MIUI features or I miss a few of these MIUI features” like dual apps and stuff like that. So a lot of the stuff that is core to MIUI, like contacts, SMS, and phone, those things you could put on a stock Android device, would it still be MIUI? I don’t know. I think it is more about; if you are doing what people want you to do, eventually you will come to the right point. I think we will see what people say. I want to see what is it that people like about the software experience and what don’t they like.”
“More focused on hardware…” but still looking to stand out
Seeing Mani talk so passionately about software reminds us of the time when Xiaomi used to pride itself on being a software company. That theme seems to have receded into the background, with the company seeming to highlight hardware more often these days. Has software been pushed to the background?
“We are much more focused on our hardware right now because it is the core of our business to make sure that our phones are really good and that we have all the right things for India,” Mani explains. “The software and services business in India is still in its early days, not just within Xiaomi but everywhere. Like paying for content is still in the early stages. I think it is working nicely for us. But our focus is far more on quality of the software, performance, battery life and things like that. If we can do a good job on those things, we can figure out how to make money down the line.”
But would not concentrating on hardware make Xiaomi a bit more like the other players in the Indian market, which is rapidly become a spec war destination? Mani ponders the idea, but insists that Xiaomi remains different from other players,
“I would say two things (make us different),” he says. “One is our product philosophy. Lei Jun is a remarkable person. He drives us towards the right decision. I remember clearly a year before Redmi Note 3 was released, he told us, “we are working on this, metal Redmi Note with a fingerprint scanner, and it has a huge battery.” And I remember when we did Mi 4i, Lei Jun was unhappy with the battery, and he put a lot of effort into putting… saw the real results six months, twelve months later. So, I think, our philosophy, our passion, is one thing. The second thing, is our flexibility, speed or we can move very quickly to react to things and change things quickly if we need to. Whereas I think in more traditional companies, things take months or years to change. We can do it very very quickly.”
And actually, Mani feels that one of the strengths of Xiaomi’s portfolio is that the products seem to work on a general mainstream level, rather than depending on a few “killer features.”
“In terms of actual features, I think one of our strengths is not focusing on USPs,” Mani says. “Obviously, we have devices that have unique selling points (USPs), but I think our baseline is not what is the USP of the device but can I use the device for two months myself? If it has USPs on top that, great! We spoke about Redmi 4A, and I said, there is no USP to this device, it is just the best device you can buy at that price.
“I think there is a lot of risk in USP, design where you make a phone, and you say it has X to sell it, but everything else is terrible. You cut corners everywhere else. Our baseline is you have to use the product for two months; I have to use the product for two months. If I cannot use a product for two months, why would I sell it to my friends? Why would I give it to my friends?”
He sits back and smiles. The answer is obvious.
When not at work… “Family and Dog” and books!
As we wind down, it is time to switch to the non-geek side of Jai Mani. What is THAT like? What does he do when not working?
“In China, I have a dog,” Mani says, with a laugh. “It’s Ollie, the dog from all of our launches. So that’s my dog. We hang out all the time. I do not let people look through my phone now because it is all about selfies with my dog and that’s weird.”
No, it is not, we assure him. But he laughs at the notion and moves to more human acquaintances. “One of the Greatest things about me living in India is that my family is very very big. And if you talk to them they will say they never see me, but in truth, I see them so much more often than I would have if I lived in America,” he says. “So I try to spend as much time as I can with them. There is my grandmother. In Bangalore, just on my mom’s side, I have 15 cousins who are all around my age. So, mostly family.”
He pauses and then seeing our expressions, laughs and clarifies: “Family and dog.”
When not in human or canine company in his spare time (which we are told is actually not that much – Mani likes his work), he is with books. “And reading. I do read a lot,” he stresses. “I kind of mix in sci-fi fantasy and non-fiction. Everybody should read The Three Body Problems (by Cixin Liu). Have you read it yet? It is awesome. I think everybody should read fiction. Some people just read non-fiction because they think it makes them smarter but then reading becomes like a chore, but fiction expands the way that you think. One of my favorite movies is Interstellar. And it’s mind-blowing to think about time in the way that they have portrayed it. If time actually were like that, it would change everything. And The Three Body Problem is similar. It is like Interstellar in a book where it is like the stuff that is happening, it’s crazy and amazing, but it all makes sense. Like if it ever happens, this makes sense.”
He keeps in touch with current events, of course, but is not a constant news person. “I stopped reading the daily news because it is too triggering. Too much stuff is going on.
I read The Economist once a week,” he says. And he takes some time out for gaming too. “There is also this game in China. One of the most popular games in China called the Honour of Kings. I think there are a hundred million daily active users or something. It’s crazy. On mobile. Like the League of Legends. I played it because all the product guys are playing and I wanted to learn, and now I’m actually pretty good at it. Even though it is all in Chinese, I’m actually okay.”
The reference to Interstellar makes us ask him if he likes films. He ponders this, as if searching for a correct answer. “I like watching Marvel movies,” he confesses. “But I don’t have that much time. I realized, all these movies that in the past, I would have been in the theatre to see, I don’t even find out that they have been released until they are on Google Play. I do like watching movies; I just don’t have that much time to watch.”
He pauses and adds with a wry grin: “I fly a lot, so that is when I see all the movies.”
There is music in his life too, although it is very eclectic and varied. “I used to play Jazz in high school,” Mani says. “So when I am working, I am usually listening to Jazz. I grew up in America, so I like, Hip-Hop, Indie Rock. One of the first products on the Android team when I was working was Google Music. It was at the time when we were launching the Music Store. And so the Music team had a whole bunch of these really passionate, music lovers and they, introduced me to a whole wide range of stuff. I really didn’t listen to Indie Rock before that, but now it is probably the most listened thing on my phone. Hip-hop and Indie.”
Looking ahead… “the first step in a much longer journey!”
Such varied tastes, and a career that started out in finance. And yet he ended up in technology. And he is glad he did. What does he plan to do next?
“I work in technology because I think, I like solving problems and it is currently the way I think I can solve problems for the most people or the most impactful problems,” Mani says. “Whereas like my dad is a doctor, it’s not like he sells millions of Redmi Note 4s, but the people that he works with have a huge change in their quality of life. I think technology is changing so much that I think things like healthcare, where there used to be more one to one, can have a lot more technology and data related solutions these days. In short, I will do whatever I think can to make the biggest impact, whether that is to the most people with a smaller impact or to few people with a huge impact. And there is a lot of cool stuff that you can do. I really like what I do. Not a bad word about it, to be honest.”
And he is working in a company that is number one in the Indian smartphone business. What’s next? How do they plan to hold on to that numero uno spot, given the fact that the competition is bound to come back? And come back hard. Mani has the answer ready.
“The two most important things are to focus on products and expanding our offline business,” he says. “For products, the most important thing is to make sure that we have the highest quality. For example, we’ve been doing a lot of R&D on thermal performance which is particularly important in India. We also want to bring some new product categories. We launch a lot of products in China, and I constantly get requests for us to launch every one of them in India. Actually, it is pretty amazing, most companies do not launch their full portfolio in India, but nobody holds them to it. Mi Fans hold us to much higher standards, so it’s much more satisfying when we deliver,” he pauses, and continues with a wry grin, “and we also get better feedback when we don’t.”
“Expanding our offline is the next big focus for us,” he continues. “We have a lot of great retail partners as well as our Mi PPP and Mi Home stores. We also need to do a better job of understanding what people care about offline. I have spent close to two weeks sitting in offline stores, watching how consumers buy their phones and I try to go to one of our Mi Homes as a salesperson every weekend.”
He smiles and adds: “And by the way, we don’t just plan to hold on! We think this is the first step in a much longer journey!”
The interview over, he walks us to the door. As we depart, he does not say “this was a great interaction,” or “thanks for the interview,” as many people do.
He says, “It was great talking to you, man.” And genuinely seems to mean it. Not many do.
Jai Mani does not give interviews.
He has conversations.