Xiaomi buying spree aims to build brand to rival Apple, Samsung

World's No3 smartphone maker invests in dozens of start-ups as it seeks to catch up with Apple and Samsung beforethe next technology cycle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 January, 2015, 3:58am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 January, 2015, 3:58am

Xiaomi zoomed past Apple and Samsung Electronics in China smartphone sales just three years after releasing its first model. Founder Lei Jun is now on a buying spree to take that momentum beyond handsets.

Since November, the maker of Mi devices has participated in more than US$600 million of investments in three companies and announced it bought into dozens of start-ups making everything from an air purifier to low-energy light bulbs.

Xiaomi, which doubled revenue to US$12 billion last year, could be just getting warmed up. Lei wants to be No1 in smartphone sales and has committed to spending US$1 billion on content as he seeks to build a brand bigger than Apple and Samsung within a decade. Much like with Apple's success, the idea behind his investments is to assemble enough products and services that customers will be glued to Xiaomi.

"Xiaomi is expanding into the smart home and following the lead of Apple, Samsung and others," said Neil Mawston, executive director of researcher Strategy Analytics. "We expect Xiaomi to build an ecosystem of Mi devices and apps for the home, office and car."

Lei's push has credibility because of Xiaomi's roots in software. The Beijing-based company only started selling phones after developing an adaptation of Google's Android software called MIUI, which now has more than 85 million users worldwide. Xiaomi is the world's fastest-growing smartphone maker and ranks No3 globally.

Xiaomi has added applications and offered themes that allow devices to be customised. The company followed with a popular instant-messaging app, cloud services and software to explore restaurants, buy movie tickets, track packages and make medical appointments.

"We have made significant progress, investing in more than 20 hardware companies making smart products," Lei said. "We believe that this ecosystem we are building will be Xiaomi's most important competitive advantage in our rapid growth ahead."

James Roy, a Shanghai-based analyst at China Market Research Group, said: "Most other Android players are not software companies; they have hardware DNA. Xiaomi seems to be different, and they are investing in it."

Xiaomi's extra services and its low-cost model of selling from its website helped the company flourish in China, where Google is largely absent, said Neil Shah, a Mumbai-based research director at Counterpoint Research. Competing overseas will be harder for Xiaomi, which started sales in India and Singapore, and it may take years to catch Apple and Google.

"Xiaomi has done a fair bit to differentiate itself from an average Android player and position itself more effectively in the minds of consumers," Shah said. "But Xiaomi has its work cut out to develop the scale of applications, software and services to fight the big giants."

Xiaomi's rapid growth, with smartphone sales more than tripling to 61.1 million units last year, underpins a valuation that surged to US$45 billion. The company in December raised US$1.1 billion from investors, including Yuri Milner, who said Xiaomi's valuation could reach US$100 billion.

Xiaomi will focus on three areas: phones and tablets; smart TVs and set-top boxes; and routers. By spreading investments across startups it can bring out new products without tying up resources on design and development, Xiaomi president Bin Lin said in an interview last month.

"Xiaomi is looking to dominate the next big technology cycle after smartphones: the internet of things," said Cyrus Mewawalla, managing director of London-based CM Research.