Su Jun: From professor to entrepreneur, all because he is a “product geek” at heart.
In 2016, 2 million sets of Xiaomi Air Purifiers were sold, ranking first among similar domestic products. Behind this outstanding performance stands an enterprise in the Xiaomi Ecological Chain: Smartmi Technology. Su Jun, CEO of Smartmi, has a different venture development experience than most corporate managers. Where he once was the former director of industrial design at the North China University of Technology, Su Jun is now an entrepreneur involved in business operations, which is an extremely rare identity change within the industry. As a designer and a teacher, why has he chosen to abandon academia and throw himself into the private sphere? What has he experienced through the development of his enterprise?
Quitting a secure job to make a business out of being a “product geek”.
Before the establishment of Smartmi, Su Jun was an associate professor, postgraduate tutor and department head whose life was completely structured around academics. During his time as a teacher, Su Jun participated in many design projects and acted as a design director for several famous companies. He has participated in many projects ranging from daily necessities to high-speed locomotives. However, a fateful day two years ago completely altered what seemed to a fantastic academic career.
At the end of 2013, Liu De, then joint founder & Vice President of Xiaomi, contacted Su Jun and proposed a new future for him. "This is only 100 million Yuan. Do you know how big 10 billion Yuan is?” If you can come up with an air purifier, I promise you will be making 100 million within three years. ”
At the time, the Xiaomi Ecological Chain program was just starting to emerge. Liu De hoped Su Jun would join in this program and create a venture company, with that company’s first product being his air purifier.
After returning home from the meeting, Su Jun did not sleep all night. Although he had never previously considered founding an enterprise, Su Jun accepted the olive branch offered by Liu Deng the very next day. Su Jun went on to led a small team to miraculously create 1.5 billion in revenue in just two years, meeting Liu De’s 100 million Yuan promise ahead of schedule.
When Su Jun made the decision to leave his university, many colleagues and friends did not understand his decision. Not only are there huge risks associated with entrepreneurship, but also less personal time; had he chosen to stay on campus, Su Jun would not only be able to control his time freely, in the future he could become a professor, or even the vice president of the university. So the question became, why sacrifice this kind of job security to pursuit entrepreneurship?
Initially, Su Jun struggled to answer this question, right until he finally decided that while it was great having in-depth discussions with his students in the classroom, his true passion was creating good products that enhance the quality of life of ordinary people.
Thus, after a short hesitation, Su Jun firmly decided to change his life path and engage in the smart household appliance industry. "Having people around the world use your products... that is the dream of all designers and engineers," Su Jun said, "a person who is confident in himself should continue to find a more challenging developmental direction. Why settle for holding a secure job?”
In his view, there are both similarities and differences between designers and entrepreneurs. Design is the intersection of technology and humanities; excellent designers can understand humans and understand human nature, which creates a natural advantage in the pursuit of becoming an enterprise manager. Entrepreneurs with backgrounds in design will focus on the user experience of products, pay attention to aesthetics, and put more emphasis on the product’s technological specifications. Many enterprises are putting technology to good use, but their products do not sell well. This is because these enterprises lack insight into consumers, and lack understanding of human nature and user experience.
On the other hand, entrepreneurs provide a solid guarantee for design. Entrepreneurs must be able to find talent and find funding. Only once they have resources can they meet their own design needs. Su Jun identifies as both designer and enterprise manager to make a business out of being a “product geek”.
Grasping the "opportunity of an era" to create one billion US dollars in two years
Su Jun established Smartmi in June 2014. One year later, Smartmi’s valuation exceeded 1 billion US dollars, becoming one of the four “Unicorns” in the Xiaomi ecological chain. In 2016, sales of Xiaomi air purifiers totaled more than 200 million sets, ranking first in the domestic air purifier sales market. Aside from air purifiers, Smartmi has also introduced products such as a DC frequency conversion floor fan, a PM2.5 detector, and an anti-bacterial humidifier.
It is worth noting that the appliance industry is already in a very mature stage. Compared with traditional household appliance enterprises, Smartmi lacks their decades of experience and large staff. Under these circumstances, how did Smartmi obtain such excellent market performance amid fierce competition in the market in just a little more than 2 years? Su Jun believes that the secret lies in releasing the right product at the right time.
In the last round of changes, several major household appliance giants at home and abroad have created a normalized market that has been stable for the past 30 years. When will this steady state be broken? In the eyes of Su Jun, the time is now.
"This is not an opportunity for one company or one person, it’s an opportunity for an era" Su Jun said. With the rise of living standards, people are more able to improve their own lives, and consumers are demanding products that are easy to use instead of simply “usable”. When consumers lack access to products matching their needs, they have to turn to Japan or the United States in order to satisfy their desire for good products; this lack of high-quality domestic products provides an opportunity for Su Jun and his team.
On the other end, if one does not seize the opportunity presented by this increase in consumption, their enterprise could easily fall into decline. In recent years, the domestic traditional household appliance industry market has developed slowly, thus allowing cheap, low-quality products to set the market standard. Despite being a manufacturing power with advanced manufacturing technology, it is difficult to find good products in China; on the other hand, the increase in operating costs has accelerated the decline of the household appliance industry in Japan. Japanese household appliance enterprises that once used to flaunt their superior design and quality now have no choice but to produce cheap products as alternatives in order to compete with state-owned enterprises.
Having been immersed in the household appliances market for many years, Su Jun felt great regret for the hollow heart of the domestic industry, and the decline of the Japanese industry. He became determined to increase investment in research and development as well as product quality control. Relying on the Internet and the platform advantages of Xiaomi, Su Jun intends to bring emphasis on design and quality back to the household appliance industry, and regain his backbone and pride as a "product geek".
Emphasis on properties, robust infrastructure, and offline business were the outstanding features of the traditional household appliance industry. Su Jun believes that Smartmi must find a new smaller, lighter, faster model. In this respect, the platform effect of Xiaomi’s ecological chain plays an important role.
Throughout the project approval process of Xiaomi Air Purifier 2, Su Jun hoped that this product would demonstrate Smartmi’s special design characteristics while maintaining high quality and fine workmanship. With such harsh requirements, cost is often difficult to control. However, the Xiaomi Air Purifier 2’s launch price was still a very reasonable 699 Yuan while earning a good reputation among users, and keeping a failure rate lower than 0.34%.
This seemingly impossible price came from the support of the Xiaomi ecological chain platform. Through the Internet, the channel cost of products between the merchant and consumer is very low. If there was no Internet, independent media platforms，or e-commerce and internet payment, the cost of the product could not have been reduced.
With the reduction of channel costs, the Smartmi team was able to devote more energy and money into industrial design and process optimization, which is exactly what is being ignored by traditional household appliance enterprises.
This intensive model of the Xiaomi ecological chain not only allows consumers to buy better products at a reasonable price, it helps democratize consumption, and helps conserve resources and energy.
For the Xiaomi Air Purifier 2, Su Jun’s trump card is his "HOT product". As sales and production increases, unit cost will decrease even further. As premium costs reduce, average consumers will be able to afford better air purifiers. There are hundreds of small companies making air purifiers on the market that are having difficulty reaching large-scale production; with their high production costs, their prices cannot compete with Smartmi products.
Designers meet entrepreneurs - Only an advanced dimension of products can move people.
Smartmi has a slogan called "Making household appliances that move people". In the eyes of Su Jun, practicality and functionality are only basic dimensions, a product’s ability to move people is an advanced dimension. When consumers buy a good product, they can’t help but to think about who the product was created by, and how it was made. This kind of thinking will make people feel excited and fluttered, and a product that can move someone like this is very different from a product that simply performs well, and stands up to wear.
Here, Su Jun reveals yet another facet of being a "product geek": To take a product and turn it into something magnificent, something that can move people, is to turn it into a work of art.
What kind of products can move people? Su Jun usually answers with: “The kind that people can’t bear to part from. The kind they want to hold while they sleep.”
A product is not a sculpture, nor is it a toy. To give products this advanced dimension, one must consider how difficult that product is to produce. With regards to the production process, Su Jun and his Smartmi team have a lot of stories to tell. Their “small hole” story is very representative of their experiences as a whole.
In the eyes of ordinary people, the small holes in the lower part of the Xiaomi Air Purifier seem to only be for decorative purposes, but in the design process of these holes, Su Jun almost drove the engineers and supply chain crazy. The Xiaomi Air Purifier absorbs air and particulate matters in the room through those holes. If the hole diameter is too small, ventilation quantity will be reduced, and this will affect purification efficiency; if the hole diameter is too large, ventilation quantity will increase, but it would have a negative effect on aesthetics. In order to find the optimal balance between aesthetics and performance, the engineering team had to repeatedly increase the hole size by increments of 0.2mm, and for each increase make a new mold and carry out tests. Smartmi invested a lot of money, and put a lot of pressure on the supply chain to get these small holes right, all so they could offer the best possible ratio of functionality and style to their customers.
Another recent improvement in user experience came from the adoption of a laser sensor in the MIJIA Air Purifier Pro, and a real-time PM2.5 index display. The LCD screens used by traditional white appliances do not possess full lamination technology, and have letter boxes at the edges of their screens. If the Xiaomi Air Purifier Pro used these existing LCD screens, it would have affected the aesthetics of the product. In order to better integrate the round screen, Smartmi engineers chose the kind of OLED screens that are generally used in mobile phones .
Until then, such technology had never been used in white appliances, so there were no existing OLED screen components in the production line. The Smartmi team contacted mobile phone suppliers while engaging in joint R&D with manufacturers, and spent more than half a year implementing OLED technology.
There are many similarities among the products launched by Smartmi, such as the natural wind randomness algorithm pioneered in the Smartmi DC frequency conversion fan, and the top-down water refill design in the Smartmi anti-bacterial humidifier. When a traditional humidifier runs out of water, you have to lift up the water tank and turn it over to pour water in. In order to improve customer experience, the Smartmi anti-bacterial humidifier optimized water flow design, increasing physical and capacitive sensors in order to control water flow, and allow one to refill the humidifier by opening the cover on top. The Smartmi anti-bacterial humidifier has been designed with UVGI sterilization equipment to prevent bacteria from entering into the air, and avoid the trouble of having to replace supplies.
The joy of entrepreneurs comes from "patience" and "restraint"
As of June 2017, Smartmi will officially enter into its third year, which is also Su Jun’s third year of Su Jun as a CEO. When it comes to being an entrepreneur, Su Jun, who has also been a teacher and a designer, is occasionally frank about his discomforts; as Su Jun the designer, he wants to listen to music, draw sketches and refine product details; as Su Jun the teacher, his steady, but free lifestyle was the envy of many; but as Su Jun the entrepreneur, he must often be patient. Understanding design is an advantage, but design work is not the main task of an entrepreneur and he can not participate in all details of product research and development.
For Su Jun, managing an enterprise allows him to join in a more macro level, create good products from a higher dimension, and sell to customers so as to improve their quality of life. From this point of view, a certain degree of restraint reaps rewards at the enterprise and industrial levels for Su Jun, which is precisely the joy he receives as an entrepreneur.