VP Hugo Barra on Xiaomi's entry into the Philippines

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Hugo Barra himself arranges the Xiaomi accessories on the table
Hugo Barra himself arranges the Xiaomi accessories on the table

(UPDATED, 8:30 p.m., June 11) He sees Xiaomi's smartphone covers on display on the other side of a coffee shop in Makati City. He must have not liked the way they are laid out as he suddenly makes his way to that spot and rearranges the accessories himself. He then goes back to the other table to prepare his presentation about Xiaomi and Mi, the name of the company's consumer brand.

“This is really how we do it at the office,” former Google vice president and current Xiaomi global VP Hugo Barra, who’s in the Philippines to set up shop here, says when he caught us watching him. “We’re a pretty hands-on bunch. We also move and iterate fast, just like startups.”

But the company is already far from being a startup. Established in 2010 by eight men, mostly engineers, Xiaomi is now the third smartphone manufacturer in China, behind Samsung and Lenovo. In less than four years, it has already overtaken Apple. It sold 18.7 million handsets in 2013, up 160 percent from 2012.

Even business publication Fast Company has ranked the Apple of China as the third most innovative company in the world for “reinventing the smartphone business model in the world’s largest mobile market.”

While other companies depend on brick-and-mortar stores to sell their devices, Xiaomi concentrates on digital, preferring to hold flash sales online. This effectively cuts middlemen and allows for phones that are priced at almost close to cost, one factor that likely contributes to thousands of Mi handsets selling in just a few minutes. We find out from Barra that they will also partner with online retailer Lazada in the Philippines.

While other companies advertise, Xiaomi doesn’t. It relies on social media to get the word out. Here in the country, Facebook and Twitter will be crucial to the firm's marketing efforts, according to the former Googler.

Xiaomi likewise relies on its huge community—16.5 million members in China alone—to help shape its MIUI full Android-compatible operating system. “We’ve taken things away from Android to make things simpler,” Barra says. “We’ve also added a ton of features, so MIUI will be easier to customize. We call it a live operating system. It updates every week on Friday for our beta users.”

The MIUI has been downloaded by about 50 million users on over 300 models.

Xiaomi Mi 3
Xiaomi Mi 3

Not to say that its smartphones can’t stand on their own merits. Mi devices are known for getting the latest components first. For example, the ¥1699 (about P12,000) Mi 3 flagship phone, said to be the world’s fastest handset based on the AnTuTu benchmarking suite and will be the first to go on sale in the Philippines, is the first quad-core handset to ship with Qualcomm Snapdragon 800AB.

How does Xiaomi do it?

“We have to fight teeth and nails for them,” Barra tells us. “We have to work closely with a number of component providers around the world. It’s not easy because everyone loves those amazing components.”

He then proceeds to explain why Xiaomi has chosen the Philippines as its third global market after Singapore and Malaysia. "We're looking at large markets, where we think our products will do well because they're high-specification devices that are aggressively priced."

"It is also easy to do business in the Philippines," Barra adds, much to our surprise. "It is easy to get certified and get partnerships, and logistics work really well."

Xiaomi has already seven service centers and 53 dropoff points nationwide, we learn.

As we leave for another event, he reminds us, “If you have other questions, just email me directly. You don’t have to go through other people to get in touch with me.”

We nod our head. We can't help but compare him somehow to Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, who was notorious for being a hands-on CEO. Hugo Barra could always just refer us to Xiaomi's press-relations team, as most other top executives do, but he insists on fielding questions from journalists himself. If micromanagement has worked for Apple, it seems to be working for Xiaomi, too.

More on the Xiaomi Mi 3, the MIUI, and the exact availability of the company's devices in the Philippines in upcoming posts. Got questions? Tweet us at @aloraguerrero.

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