Designed in China
A while ago, our old electronic water kettle broke down. After a measly 2 years, the thing simply wouldn’t turn on anymore and the manufacturer refused repair.
We bought a new one — this time from Xiaomi. It’s almost comical just how much better of a product the new one compared to the previous, more expensive one, is.
Minimalistic, sleek design vs. clunky, logo-laden monstrosity? Check. Neat UX details like a cable-management nestled into its base or a gradually opening lid to prevent burns by splashes? Yep, gotcha covered. Bluetooth-connectivity, including a well-made app to monitor temperature? Sure, if you need it. All-stainless-steel body? You betcha. Lower price? Actually, yes.
This is just one example of a string of recent experiences I’ve made when buying consumer electronics. Sonic toothbrush, robot vacuum cleaner, air purifier: by and large, Chinese products were not simply the best option within the lowest price segment, but the best option, period.
So, who are some of the players within the Chinese consumer electronics ecosystem, and why are they so competitive?
It’s tempting to conclude that Chinese companies have a leg-up when it comes to hardware, because they are headquartered where all that stuff is made anyway.
More than anything else, though, I think Chinese consumer electronics companies realized that to succeed, they can’t treat software as a nice add-on to be half-heartedly sprinkled on top of the finished hardware – it’s table-stakes to stand out against established brands.
As a result, they’ve become superb at writing capable software to complement their hardware. And they’re iterating relentlessly on the user facing client apps that run on their customer’s smartphones, too.
So, the more consumers get used to having their smartphones as the principal tool to handle parts of their daily routines, the more glaring the outdated attitudes of established brands like Philips, AEG & Samsung become.
Software also isn’t something that companies suddenly and magically become good at. There’s a chicken and egg problem at play here: you need great developers for a proper engineering culture. Likewise, you need a proper engineering culture to attract great developers. So, if a company missed the boat, it usually finds it’s pretty hard to dig itself out of the hole that it dug itself into.
Chinese brands have no existing board of middle-aged managers they need to convince to build a proper app in-house. By virtue of being young and nimble, they simply know that they need great customer experience, rapidly iterted on, to win against larger, more established (and better funded) players. Let’s have a quick look at some of them.
Founded in 2016, Oclean produces smart electric dental care products: sonic toothbrushes, irrigators and accessories. I recently bought their Oclean X Pro model to replace my old one from Philips, since that one broke down after around 3 years of use (see a pattern there?).
In Europe, you can order them off of Amazon, AliExpress or their website.
The experience so far has been flawless: from packaging & pricing to the toothbrush itself (low noise, high-quality brush heads). A particularly nice idea is the magnetic wall-holder, saving some space on the bathroom sink.
While the reMarkable tablet popularized note-taking eInk tablets, Boox is the original gangster in this space — their first device came out in 2011, five years before the reMarkable Kickstarter campaign kicked off.
They specialize on eInk devices to this day. What I find appealing about them is their no-nonsense value proposition:
- cutting-edge eInk displays (they are usually among the first companies to adopt a new eInk generation)
- running on a recent version of Android (meaning you can install a wide array of apps)
- enhanced with an excellent, proprietary apps for reading and note-taking (seriously, their NeoReader reading app has some of the best PDF reflows I’ve seen thus far)
Their staff is also quite responsive on reddit. A niche company that’s hyperfocused on solving a particular problem well.
In Europe, you can order them off Amazon or their website.
Probably the biggest (> 30 Billion USD market cap as of Sept, 2022) and best known company on this list.
Despite their size, they remain community-focused, sourcing ideas from Xiaomi-customers in their own official forums or at fan-gatherings. They even have their own community app.
Apart from their community focus, two things stand out with Xiaomi:
- They started out with software (their MIUI used to be a pure aftermarket Android ROM for flashing onto e.g. a Samsung smartphone) and only then branched out into making their own hardware. Their founder and CEO, Lei Jun, is also a software entrepreneur at heart, having been CEO at KingSoft, a software company, for almost a decade. So, while Xiaomi is seen as a hardware company, there’s a fair amount of software DNA in the company, and its management. This becomes apparent when using MIUI or their Xiaomi Home app, which are both polished and intuitive products.
- They make everything from razors to vacuum cleaners, smartphones, TVs, LED lights, washing machines, air conditioners, among other products. This might seem like a lack of focus at first, but if you look closer, you’ll see there’s actually an ecosystem of partner companies involved. Xiaomi offers distribution expertise (especially for international expansion), capital and brand trust. Companies like Mijia in turn design, produce and iterate on e.g. electric scooters in a more focused way than Xiaomi could if they’d do it all themselves.
- Supernote: similar to Onyx Boox, but more focused on the note-taking side. Running its own proprietary software instead of Android.
- SwitchBot: smart home gadgets to retrofit e.g. standard light switches into app-driven ones.
- Xpeng: China is home to a slew of EV companies, Xpeng being one of them. If you’re in the market for an EV, I’ve found that this YouTube channel has great coverage & reviews of Chinese EVs.
- Haier: One of the first internationally successful Chinese brands. Besides their products and commercial performance, Haier is noteworthy for their corporate culture, dubbed “Rendanheyi”. The company is composed of micro-enterprises. Each of them has its own P&L and maximum autonomy. Team members are renumerated based on their team’s performance.
- OnePlus: predominantly known for smartphones. Started to branch out to accessories (wireless ear buds, for example), too.
- MouldKing: Strange name, but they evidently sell decent plastic construction toys at a significantly better price than Lego.
Most of the companies on this list are younger than 10 years. Their business model and product palette is a result of short supply chains and local hardware talent who work within rapid feedback loop informed by internet-first marketing & distribution. They’ve come a long way in a mere decade — I suspect their competitors will be in for a wild ride in the next one.