Born in Xiantao, Hubei province, Lei Jun had an unusual talent. As a student of the computer science department in Wuhan University from 1987 to 1991 he was obsessed by computers, then a total novelty in China. After finishing his academic credits, he started teaching in the computer lab, and by the third year at university he was making money, earning his first Rmb1 million selling encryption software.
After Lei had graduated he was recruited by Qiu Bojun, the founder of Kingsoft, which dominated the domestic office software market before Windows entered China in 1996. Lei jumped from programmer to CEO, transforming Kingsoft from a software producer into a comprehensive IT firm, involved in anti-virus and translating software, and online games.
In 2007, shortly after Kingsoft launched an IPO in Hong Kong, Lei resigned. “It feels like reaching the finish line after a long time running,” he told China Entrepreneur.
Investor rather than creator
After years of competing with Microsoft, Lei thought he had missed the opportunity to build a company himself in the internet boom that had seen Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba grow from start-ups to major players.
But as an investor, Lei proved successful. The first success came with the sale in 2004 of Joyo.com, an online book retailer in which Kingsoft had invested in 1999, to Amazon (see WiC63). This was rumoured to have brought him a personal fortune of Rmb100 million. Lei also invested personally in Lakala, a third party payment provider (see WiC58), UCweb, an online game site, and Vancl, an online clothes retailer (see WiC109). All have become promising companies. Last year the market value of UCweb was estimated at more than $300 million, while Vancl is said to be worth at least $1 billion.
Other companies keen on raising capital now approach him. Lei says he pay less attention to the business plans piling up on his desk and invests more on the basis of the personalities that he meets. Hence he phoned his friend Tao Liran, the founder of Lakala, when he heard he was starting his own business. He also prefers to focus on two fields: wireless and e-commence.
In 2010 Lei founded the mobile phone company Xiaomi Corp. After spending a year working in R&D on the Xiaomi software and operating system, Lei announced that the first phones would be released for sale in October. The new product has earned a lot of publicity as potentially the world’s fastest smartphone, equipped with a 1.5-gigahertz (GHz) dual-core but priced at just Rmb1,999. Rather ambitiously, Xiaomi is being touted as a challenger to the iPhone 5.
Need to know
Lei says he has dreamed of becoming a Chinese Steve Jobs since he was 18. In August this year he played the part too, dressing in black shirt and jeans to present the new Xiaomi product in familiar Jobs-style.
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