Alum highlights billion-dollar secret: little rice
Quick: Name an electronics company whose value grew faster than that of Microsoft, Facebook and Google. Can’t? It’s cellphone maker Xiaomi Corp. (pronounced ZHOW-mee), based in Beijing, China.
Now a shareholder of that $45 billion corporation — which he helped found in 2010 — Purdue computer science alumnus KK Wong visited campus for the first time in 22 years this week and chatted informally with a packed house in Stewart Center’s Fowler Hall on April 9.
After his 1996 graduation, Wong went to work for Microsoft in Seattle, where he had interned as a student programmer. “The Microsoft work was until 2 a.m. every day, and both of my bosses were there, too,” Wong said, remembering how the long hours he had become used to as a Purdue student continued in his professional life.
After nine years in Seattle, Wong, a Hong Kong native, joined Microsoft China for several years. He watched the fast-growing electronics market in that country, and ultimately decided to pursue a new career path. “I realized how fast the China market was moving, how big it was, and also how fast the mobile internet wave was actually moving,” Wong said. “That’s why I decided to move on to the next phase of my life and co-found a new startup at the time — Xiaomi.”
Wong and six other co-founders worked around the clock to build what would become the fastest growing tech company China had ever seen. Taking a cue from Apple — a “food eaten around the world” — Wong said his team picked another globally eaten food to name their company. In Chinese, Xiaomi literally means, “little rice.”
“It was a personable name; a humble name,” Wong said. “We wanted to be personable.”
Being likeable was a central goal for the Xiaomi brand. But even more integral was Xiaomi’s mission — “to bring cutting-edge technology — the premium of the premium products — to a mass market at very affordable prices,” Wong said.
To illustrate how Xiaomi achieved that goal, Wong recounted that when his company was introduced to the Chinese market, iPhones were selling for RMB6,000. “We used all the top components from all the makers that were providing components to China. And when we launched our first phone and the competition was selling their phones for RMB6,000, we sold our phone for below RMB2,000.”
Xiaomi entered the market in 2010 with a quality product whose affordability blew the competition away, and it has never let up since. Nine years later, it is the world’s fourth-largest smartphone manufacturer. It also has carried out its high-quality, low-cost mission into a series of products that include mobile accessories, TVs and speakers, and electronic wearables. In 2018, it added tablets, laptops and smart-home devices.
Now traveling the globe as an angel investor, Wong shared advice with a Purdue audience full of computer science and engineering students eager to incorporate the wisdom of his experience into their own strategies for the future.
Among hundreds of students in attendance was first-year Purdue computer science student and Hong Kong native Man To “Tiger” Tang. A recipient of Purdue’s Hong Kong Legacy Scholarship, Tang said Wong’s advocacy for deliberate learning and market-specific planning resonated with him.
“He said to never go into the market too early, and don’t just jump into entrepreneurship until you have lots of experience and lots of fundamental knowledge of the market,” said Tang, 20, who has worked for Microsoft’s Chinese Minecraft game as a story developer since age 15.
Wong recalled his days as a “diligent” computer science major at Purdue, pulling all-nighters in the student lounge of Hicks Library while eating pizza that he and his study partners got at a deep discount. His only regret? “I wish I had partied more,” he said, expressing only slight disappointment that he missed out on a social life because he was always studying or doing undergraduate research for three professors.