Mobile

Xiaomi wants to be Amazon, but with a smartphone twist

Known in Asia for its affordable smartphones, the Chinese company has broader ambitions.

Xiaomi's television is one of its latest products that isn't a smartphone, which is what it is primarily known for. Xiaomi

LAGUNA BEACH, California -- This company partners with many manufacturers to sell a wide variety of products online. It's willing to sacrifice some profit to ensure its prices are bargain-bin low. It's also one of the hottest tech companies in the world.

Sound like Amazon? It's actually an apt description for Xiaomi.

It's not a household name in the US, but Xiaomi is one of the hottest brands in Asia. The Chinese company is valued at $46 billion, making it the world's second-most valuable startup behind Uber. It built its reputation selling inexpensive but high-quality smartphones, which get snapped up by consumers in Asia within hours.

The company's founder took the time to remind people at a Wall Street Journal conference on Wednesday that it offers a wide range of products, from televisions to air purifiers -- all of which are offered at ultra-competitive prices.

"We are more in the area of smart consumer electronics," said Bin Lin, co-founder and president of the company. "We'd rather be called an Internet company."

Xiaomi's push to broaden itself puts it more inline with massive online retailers such as Amazon or China's Alibaba, which have benefited from consumers' increasing comfort with making purchases over the Internet. It's a retail strategy that could help it expand faster into different parts of the world, as evidenced by its decision to launch a US and Europrean online store in May that features electronic accessories but not phones.

Still, in markets where it does sell smartphones, Xiaomi envisions the handheld device as the remote control for everything. Unlike Amazon or Alibaba, which sell everything from DVDs to Halloween costumes, the Chinese startup is focused on gadgets.

"It's been clear for a long time that it has much broader ambitions and that seeing Xiaomi as just a smartphone company was missing the bigger picture," said Jan Dawson, an analyst for Jackdaw Research.

Lin, for instance, touted the capabilities of his new air purifier, which addresses the pollution issue in China. The device can clear the air around you in six minutes and connects to a smartphone.

He called the MiTV 3 television the company launched yesterday "almost like a phone, except for the bigger display." The television, which packs a 60-inch super-high resolution 4K display, sells for less than $800.

Like Amazon, which looks beyond simply selling hardware to its consumers, Xiaomi believes there is an opportunity to provide media, gaming and other services through the TV, Lin said. It also, of course, connects to a smartphone.

Each month, 130 million people use its smartphones, televisions, routers and other products, Lin said. Xiaomi is "generating decent revenue" from the services related to those products, he added, although he didn't specify how much.

Xiaomi is looking beyond smartphones as its mainstay business continues to mature. "The last couple of years in China the smartphone business is changing from rapid growth to a replacement market," he said. "So the absolute growth of the smartphone market is flat."

Lin addressed the rising concern that smartphones are getting boring, with consumers finding it difficult to get excited about the same metal and glass slab. He hinted at potential innovation in touchscreen inputs and how people interact with devices.

"In the next few months, I'm sure we can come up with something that is super cool," he said.

Xiaomi's Mi Store in the US offers products like battery chargers and headphones. Lin said he was thinking about selling his popular smartphones in the US, but stayed mum on when exactly that would happen.