Hugo Barra, Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) former vice president of Android product management, said he leapt at the chance to join Chinese phone manufacturer Xiaomi and help expand the brand internationally. It was an opportunity that had been developing for about a year, and when the time came to make a decision about whether to leave Google, it was one that Barra said he couldn't give up.
"To me, right away, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, truly a dream job, this idea of building a global company which could be as significant as Google, from the ground up," Barra said in an interview with AllThingsD, his first extended interview since the move was announced in late August. "It was just something that I will never come across, with a team whom I know, with a company that has DNA similar to my own and, on top of that, to live in Asia for at least some period of time."
Xiaomi builds Android-powered smartphones for the Chinese market, bolstered by its own localized software features and enhancements, and was the world's 13th-largest mobile phone maker in the second quarter, according to ABI Research. Xiaomi sold around 7 million handsets last year and expects to sell 20 million this year. The company is profitable and expects to have around about $4 billion in projected 2013 revenue; it is now valued at $10 billion.
Years ago, when Barra first started working at Google, he met Xiaomi President Bin Lin, who then headed engineering for Google's mobile unit in China. After Lin left Google to start Xiaomi, Barra remained interested in what the company was doing, and was intrigued by the customized version of Android the company was creating.
"I always visited them in Beijing," he said. "And then they started making phones and I started bringing back phones with me to show them off at Google." Talks about him coming over to Xiaomi started in the summer of 2012, Barra said.
"At first, their questions were, 'How do you think we should go about expanding internationally?' And that evolved into, 'Maybe you should come help us,'" he said.
Barra noted that the Chinese company sets itself apart by doing things like giving customers the ability to design their phones anyway they like via themes, and focusing intently on how users actually use the phones. "The defining characteristic of Xiaomi is that in its DNA is a focus on users," he said. "Every question, every piece of feedback, gets a response, and a significant number of new features were suggested by customers."
In expanding Xiaomi's brand, the goal Barra said, is to first focus on delivering a high-quality product a relatively cheap price and then hooking users on Xiaomi's unique services.
And where is Xiaomi headed? "I think that's the sweet spot for Xiaomi--places like India, Russia, Indonesia, Latin America, Thailand," he said. "It's where the equation of quality and affordability works, because it's in those markets you can replicate what the company has done in China."
Still, Barra knows that Xiaomi has to also rate in the "trend-setting countries," like the United States and countries in Europe. Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE, stymied in their efforts to crack the U.S. infrastructure market, have found the U.S. handset market to be a more welcoming one and have made inroads with U.S. carriers during the past several years, particularly with low-cost smartphones.
- see this AllThingsD article
Google, Nestle ink surprise deal for Android 4.4 KitKat
Report: HTC targeting China with custom smartphone operating system
Android VP Hugo Barra exits Google for Chinese phone maker Xiaomi
ABI: Chinese handset makers are putting more pressure on market leaders