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Xiaomi, the world’s third largest smartphone maker by some estimates, isn’t a public company, so we don’t really have a good idea about how much money it’s making or not making. But reporters from the Wall Street Journal were able to take a look at a few confidential documents — after Xiaomi’s VP and public face (for the Western media, anyway) Hugo Barra spoke at the Journal’s tech conference — and it sure looks like the company is an emerging behemoth.
According to the report, Xiaomi recorded 27 billion yuan ($4.4 billion) in revenue last year, and ended up making a profit of 3.46 billion yuan, or $566 million. That’s a lot of money, and considering that Xiaomi says it sold 18 million smartphones (mostly in China) in 2013, that works out to an average of $244 per smartphone sold. (Xiaomi has since added other kinds of products to its lineup, including a fitness band, tablets, smart TVs and set-top boxes, and even stuffed animals.)
The company is forecasting that it will sell 60 million smartphones in 2014. Earlier this year, executives said the company doesn’t plan to go public for “the next five years.”
These numbers are coming a week after Ryan Mac at Forbes reported that Xiaomi is seeking to raise money at a valuation of $40 billion. Taken with the WSJ numbers, this indicates that Xiaomi is looking for a high revenue multiple — a valuation in the neighborhood of 9 to 10 times its 2013 revenue. The Forbes article says that $40 billion would be roughly four times projected 2014 revenues.
For comparison, Motorola Mobility had revenue of nearly $11.5 billion the year before Google purchased Motorola for $12.5 billion in 2011, plus a bunch of important patents. Google sold Motorola earlier this year for $2.91 billion. But that’s an imperfect comparison, because Motorola’s smartphone business was losing money, and Google primarily wanted its patents.
Another good way to put the Xiaomi numbers in perspective is Beats Electronics, another electronics company with largely undifferentiated products but a strong brand, which Apple purchased for $3.2 billion earlier this year. Some investors, including Carlyle Group, claimed that Beats was pulling in around $1.3 billion a year in revenue before Apple purchased it.
If Xiaomi is profitable, why is it looking to raise more money? Probably so it can purchase or make more video content. On November 4, the company sent out a message on its Weibo account that it’s looking to invest $1 billion in online video.
The thing that makes Xiaomi’s ambitions seem a little outsized is that the company doesn’t really have its own unique technology — unlike the company it’s frequently compared to, Apple, which famously wants to control all of the technology it uses. Xiaomi smartphones, such as its flagship Mi4, are like any other Android smartphones, with displays made by companies like LG and processors from Qualcomm. [company]Xiaomi[/company] smartphones are, largely, commodities. And commodity smartphones come with razor-thin margins in the current marketplace.
Xiaomi develops its own Android-based firmware, MIUI, which allows it to eschew Google services in favor of its own paid themes and games from its Mi Store, but there are other companies making Google-free Android distributions and app stores as well.
What could make Xiaomi worth its valuation is that more than any other smartphone maker besides Apple, it’s developing a strong fan base. Some people on Sina Weibo describe themselves as Xiaomi fans the way someone who watches baseball would describe themselves as a San Francisco Giants fan.
Xiaomi events look like Apple launches. They’re open to the public, and Xiaomi posts recaps and live blogs on its website, which has a few well-trafficked forums. Just look at these photos. Xiaomi has low marketing costs because its fanboys and fangirls do it for them.
Xiaomi’s real innovation then is its heavy use of the online flash sale, which allows it to minimize inventory risk — it sells out of how ever many phones it makes — which combines with the belief that someone with a Xiaomi product feels like he or she has earned it, instead of simply having purchased it. It’s the kind of approach that makes people think of Xiaomi less as a generic hardware vendor with good prices and more like a company that is also a “friend.” Xiaomi is successfully bringing its flash sale strategy to other markets, like India.
But just as Xiaomi’s chief executive Lei Jun can “borrow” techniques he admires from Steve Jobs and Apple, so can other Chinese companies steal from Xiaomi.
Lenovo, the electronics giant which just purchased Motorola, recently came out with its own China-focused smartphone that looks a lot like an iPhone and absolutely outright copies Apple marketing materials, the way Xiaomi did in its earlier days. Lenovo is also working on its own direct sales channels. If its main competitor has already caught up to the company’s tactics, Xiaomi is going to need to show more to be worth $40 billion.