At Percolate, we believe that social and mobile have transformed the way we live and work, and that it’s critical to study the companies and technologies that are driving this change.

We’ve written about many of the big players: Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WeChat. However, there’s a company that’s well known in tech circles but is still reaching the mainstream: the Chinese tech company Xiaomi. Here’s your cheat sheet for this rising tech superpower.

1) Xiaomi is the fastest growing smartphone maker in the world

In the first quarter of 2014, Xiaomi shipped 11 million smartphones, with virtually all of them (97%) going to China. While it’s total volume is only 10% of 97M phones shipped that quarter in China, Xiaomi has already doubled its market share from the second quarter of 2013, when it held only 5%, making it the fastest growing smartphone maker in the world, and third in the Chinese market, behind Samsung and Lenovo.


2) They are a young company founded by Chinese software veterans

Xiaomi was founded only four years ago, in April 2010, by eight partners, including Jun Lei, CEO, and Bin Lin, President. Lei was an early employee at Kingsoft, a Microsoft-esque software company in China,  and led the company as CEO to a successful IPO in the Hong Kong stock exchange, where it has a market cap of about $3.6B. Lin was previously worked at Microsoft, before becoming VP of the Google China Institute of Engineering, where he worked on mobile search and Android app localization teams.

3) Xiaomi raised funding at a $10B valuation nearly a year ago.

In August 2013, Xiaomi announced they had raised an undisclosed amount of funding in a Series D round, which more than doubled their valuation from $4B to $10B. In the previous three years, the company had raised nearly $350M in funding over three rounds. For comparison, Apple’s market cap in August 2013 was about $420B and Facebook’s was $101B. Still, both of these companies have been around for many more years than Xiaomi.

4) A company built off the back of a modified Android ecosystem

One of the biggest differences between iOS and Android is that Android is open source software. This means that any developer or company can freely use the main code base and modify it in many ways, while still keeping it compatible with hundreds of millions of Android applications. Amazon’s Fire tablet operating system is based on a heavily modified version of Android. Similarly, Xiaomi developed Android-based software called MIUI and in October 2011 shipped its first smartphone, the M1, which ran MIUI or “stock” Android. Far from being a minor set of alterations, a new release of MIUI is shipped every week to a group of core testers.

5) Their product line includes phones, tablets, smart TV’s, and now, wearables.

Xiaomi rapidly diversified its product offerings, and currently a large number of products, including three different smartphones: their entry-level Redmi, the Redmi Note, and the flagship Mi 3 (soon to be replaced by the M4); as well as a tablet, Mi Pad, a 47inch 3D smart TV: Mi TV, and most recently, a Fitbit competitor called Mi Band.

6) Xiaomi’s has built a clamoring fan base off of high end quality products at middle class prices

Xiaomi famously sells its products only online, in fairly small batches (~100k units) and never in retail stores, a practice perhaps inspired by CEO Lei’s experience seeing one his investments nearly tank because it held onto too much inventory that it later couldn’t sell. Their model means that new batch of phones can sell out in seconds, creating hype and excitement around their brand that some have compared to new Apple product launches.

Xiaomi has learned to fan the hype flames through social media very successfully (Lei has nearly 10M followers on Weibo) and spends far less on marketing than other manufacturers (Xiaomi allocates only 1% of revenues on advertising vs Samsung’s 5%). These cost-savings have allowed Xiaomi to ship with the quality and feel of higher end phones but sell them at prices that middle class citizens can afford: an Mi 3 retails $270, less than half that of an iPhone in China.

7) Revolution is baked into the company’s name

On their about page, Xiaomi claims their logo “MI” stands for “mobile internet” or even “Mission Impossible”, but this may be a backronym. The characters (xiao mi) literally means “little rice” or millet, and some say it is a reference to Chairman Mao’s description of how the Communist party, armed with only “millet plus rifles”, would still beat out the Nationalist Party’s aeroplanes plus tanks. A fitting analogy for a technology upstart.

So with all this said, the company is still not out of the woods yet. Samsung is still the undisputed leader in smartphone makers, while domestic competitor Huawei has also made a strong showing in 2014. But having recently snagged Google’s head of product for Android, Hugo Barra, to head global expansion efforts, the future is bright for “little rice”.