Some successful tech entrepreneurs can pinpoint the exact moment they realized they wanted to start a company. For Lei Jun—whose company Xiaomi is gearing up for a massive IPO in Hong Kong—it all started with a book.
In 1987 Lei was a student at Wuhan University’s computer science department, which he enrolled in because his friends did so. His passion for tech entrepreneurship only truly emerged when he came across the book Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer in the library.
First published in 1984, the book recaps the origins of the PC with a focus on Apple and Microsoft. In addition to other areas of computing history, it recounts the now-famous stories of how Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded their company on April Fool’s Day, debuted the Apple I at a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club, and built 50 computers in 30 days to fill their first order. The book became the basis for the 1999 film Pirates of Silicon Valley.
In the book Seizing the Opportune Moment (link in Chinese), which follows Lei’s career, Lei says that Fire in the Valley changed his life. “That book from the 80s, the printing was blurry, and the translation was different from what it was today, but reading it made me unbelievably excited,” he said. “Fire in the Valley gave me inspiration: If you have a dream you might as well go for it, maybe you’ll end up creating a world class company.”
In his last year of college, Lei launched his first company producing chips that made it easier for computers to process data in Chinese. The business failed—at the time, there were already competing products on the market from Chinese companies Lenovo and Kingsoft (where Lei later became CEO). Yet he attributes that first venture to inspiration from the figures in Fire in the Valley.
“At the time I thought Jobs and Gates were successful right out of school, so why couldn’t I be? Just thinking about this, my blood rushed and I got dizzy. Looking back on it now it was so strange, we basically never discussed when starting a company who would invest, how to open a bank account, or how to make money,” Lei says.
Xiaomi is going public on the back of a business strategy which, in many ways, is the opposite of Apple’s, by selling its products as cheaply as possible and to as many people as possible. But Lei’s admiration for Jobs and Apple has been noticeable throughout Xiaomi’s rise. The company aggressively courted comparisons to Apple in its media and promotional materials, and Lei has aped Steve Job’s signature “one more thing” announcements at Xiaomi’s product launches.
Ziyi Tang contributed to this piece.