Manu Jain’s rise as a corporate leader at Xiaomi will not surprise anyone who has seen him from close quarters at Jabong, his entrepreneurial venture. His ability to predict trends and course correct has helped him to get the best out of both the stints. As the co-founder of Jabong, he was instrumental in setting the company up for a great ecommerce rivalry with Flipkart, and later challenged the dominance of Samsung, in India’s highly competitive smartphone market with an ultra-aggressive online sales strategy at Xiaomi.
The 37-year-old Manu, who co-founded Jabong in 2012, is one of the more affable leaders in the tech ecosystem. After completing his BTech from IIT Delhi, he started his career as an engineer in Headstrong. He then did his MBA and joined McKinsey in 2007, where he put in a five-year stint.
That’s when he decided to turn an entrepreneur. With the ecommerce industry beginning to take shape, he co-founded Jabong. When he left Jabong to join Xiaomi, Jabong had established itself as a very strong player in the market.
Manu joined Xiaomi India as the managing director, and was its first employee in the country. Edited excerpts from the interview:
YourStory: You created a huge ecommerce brand with Jabong, and then made a successful switch back to the corporate world with Xiaomi. How tough has the journey been?
Manu Jain: The journey so far has been a truly wonderful learning experience. There is so much I have learnt over the years during my time with Jabong, which allowed me the opportunity to disrupt the fashion segment of ecommerce. Moving on to Xiaomi also followed with its own sense of fulfilment, both professionally and personally. Xiaomi is an internet company, which aims at providing smart products and services across different segments, and this gave me the opportunity to similarly disrupt the smart ecosystem in India.
YS: Which was the Eureka moment that convinced you to start a company like Jabong? Can you elaborate on the sequence of events that led you to become an entrepreneur?
MJ: I was driven to create a meaningful impact, and find solutions that would help make a lasting positive difference in the society. I often sought inspiration from people like Sir Ratan Tata and Shiv Khera, who displayed the power and dedication to bring about such positive change. Jabong was the opportunity which helped me effectively using the power of internet to bring in greater shopping experience and its long-term benefits to people everywhere.
YS: What were the early challenges that you faced while trying to build Jabong? Can you narrate an incident that captures the difficulties back then?
During my days at Jabong, some key challenges we learnt about was mostly around the internet penetration, which still felt at its fairly nascent stages as compared to other global markets. And simultaneously, people’s level of accessibility to smart devices was still growing for them to be able to experience and enjoy the wider benefits of internet.
Another challenging aspect was people’s perception towards fashion ecommerce. We worked hard to change consumers’ mind-set towards buying fashion products online, and helped them discover several benefits that ecommerce brings towards picking fashionable products of their choice.
YS: You left Jabong at a time when the ecommerce industry was developing into a powerful sector. What prompted you to take such a decision? Clearly, it wouldn’t have been easy. Can you please take us through those days?
MJ: During my time at Jabong in Delhi, my wife was based in Bengaluru; and so I decided it would be best for me to move to Bengaluru to be with my family. However, I’m really glad that I was able to contribute immensely towards revolutionising the fashion sector in our ecommerce space with Jabong.
Then, when I travelled to China on a backpacking trip, I stumbled upon Xiaomi. It is here I met Lin Bin and Hugo Barra. And the rest is history.
YS: Your entry into Xiaomi took everyone by surprise those days. How easy or difficult was this choice? Not many would have chosen a Chinese company back then.
MJ: What truly got me interested was Xiaomi’s philosophy, which is very unique and promising. At Xiaomi, we believe in making innovation accessible to everyone by offering high-quality products with the best specs at an honest pricing.
This company works with a global mind-set, along with pursuing international benchmarks of the industry. Whatever market Xiaomi operates in, we function entirely as the local company that best serves the respective market. In India, we started with a six-seater office, and in less than five years, we are now a 450+ strong team. We recently moved into a 700 seater office. The rate of expansion speaks for itself.
YS: Xiaomi today is a huge force to reckon with, in the mobile phone market. Did you surprise yourself here with the pace at which the brand has grown?
MJ: At Xiaomi, we constantly focussed on delivering our philosophy - innovation for everyone. And therefore we strived to ensure we delivered innovative products with the best specs at an honest pricing, which helped benefit so many consumers and resulted in our continued rapid growth in India. Our customers are also hugely responsible for this rate of success. They have had firm faith in our products since day one, and frequently offer us sincere feedback on how we could build smarter and better products for our customers in India.
YS: Xiaomi’s online sales strategy was spot on in India. How did you get this so right?
MJ: Xiaomi is an internet company, and believes in bringing its internet efficiency across all of its platforms. When we entered India in 2014, we were looking to sell only online. People told us we were crazy to implement this strategy. The Indian market was skewed and extremely fragmented with brands heavily focusing on traditional offline retail sales. The online smartphone market was barely 10 percent of the overall market at the time.
However, with a strong line-up of our products and with the continued love and support of our Mi fans, we were able to gain major success and sustain our rapid growth within the online segment. Today, the online market contributes to about 30 percent of the overall market share, and we believe that our efforts certainly paid off in propelling this growth.
YS: How do you think the Indian mobile phone market will develop in the near future? There is so much competition out there, and no brand looks safe enough.
MJ: The Indian smartphone market has a lot of potential in hand, and we are already witnessing a high rate of growth in the market. There has been an increasing penetration of 4G, which has further propelled this growth. We have also been seeing big potential in the feature phone market for conversions.
Xiaomi is more than just a smartphone brand. We are an internet company at heart, and we strive to innovate and offer the highest quality products and services while making them accessible to all. Furthermore, we have capped our margins at 5 percent on our hardware products to ensure that we continue delivering on our philosophy.
YS: What is your view on Walmart acquiring Flipkart, your competitor at one point in time? Do you think the deal will give fresh confidence to all the entrepreneurs out there? What lessons can we learn from this deal?
MJ: I’m unfortunately unable to comment further on this topic, however, I’d like to wish Flipkart team the best and I hope this association brings major long-term benefits for both parties.
YS: What is your take on having multiple founders at a startup? Clearly, there are advantages but it could give rise to problems as well.
MJ: I believe in the power of a dynamic team that is whole-heartedly driven to turn their vision into reality. Having a diverse pool of talent contributing collectively to an idea is never a problem in my view.
At Xiaomi, each of our founders has a crucial role in shaping the company to what we see of it today. Another element that works well with our team is the clarity in our goal - our team at Xiaomi aims to offer high-quality products with the best specs at an honest pricing to our consumers. And this is what we all continue to strive for.
YS: How do you view the funding ecosystem in India? Investors seem to be more wary now.
MJ: The startup ecosystem is currently thriving in India. We constantly hear of several technology startups - mobile, fintech, and consumer solution startups brimming in India.
Speaking on behalf of Xiaomi, we are definitely keen on funding promising startups that are aligned with our goals of providing the best of innovation at an honest pricing to all customers.
YS: The Indian entrepreneurial scene is one of the most vibrant in the world. What makes us tick? And any advice for the budding entrepreneur?
We as a nation may have our set of challenges, like most growing economies. But, therein also lies major scope of opportunities to innovate. This is one of the driving forces of several entrepreneurs, in my opinion, who want to bring in a positive change in their respective industries.
Xiaomi also is a company with a strong startup culture, and we are constantly striving to come up with innovative tech solutions for all communities in India, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds. We want to ensure that every individual should have the right to access the best of technology without having to splurge excessively for it. And that’s exactly what makes us tick - bringing the best of technology at the most affordable rates.
YS: If someone were to tell you that you would become this successful 10 years ago, would you have believed him?
MJ: If someone told me in 2014 that Xiaomi would be so successful in such a short time, I would not have believed it. In my opinion, our journey at Xiaomi still has a long road to cover, and there is plenty of untapped potential towards delivering technological innovation at every individual’s doorstep in India. When I look back 10 years ago, I still had this vision in my mind and I hope to not rest until I have given my complete share of contribution.
YS: What does the future hold for Manu Jain? How would you want your career to take shape further?
MJ: I believe that the work we’ve been doing so far has, to a good degree, contributed tremendously in shaping the tech sector of our nation, and helped change everyday lives of our people for the better. I hope to continue delivering towards the greater good and ensuring that at the end of the day, our society benefits immensely from the work I do. I have been fortunate that Xiaomi provides me the opportunity to do just that.