HONG KONG—Eight years ago, before China’s Xiaomi Corp. had sold a single smartphone, 56 of the earliest employees pulled together $ 11 million to invest in the startup. Rank-and-file workers dipped into savings and borrowed from parents. One receptionist tapped her dowry.
Today, they’re the Lucky 56. Xiaomi is one of the most successful smartphone makers in the world and it’s prepping a blockbuster initial public offering (IPO). Their stake in the company may soon be worth $ 1 billion to $ 3 billion (U.S.), depending on the stock sale. That works out to $ 36 million each at the midpoint.
The fortuitous decision began with workers such as Li Weixing, an ex-Microsoft engineer who was employee No. 12. Back in 2010, staffers were working seven days a week out of a bare-bones Beijing office park to get the unknown mobile phone maker up and running. When word spread that Lei Jun and his co-founders were chipping in their own money for a venture financing round, Li and others wanted to join them.
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Li, who helped create Xiaomi’s mobile operating system, had around 500,000 yuan ($ 79,000) saved up. “It wasn’t enough to buy a house, so he asked if he could invest in Xiaomi instead,” CEO Lei said in a March interview at Beijing headquarters. “We said, we can’t let only Weixing invest, so we let everyone in.”
Some early Xiaomi employees were already wealthy, including Lei, who made his first fortune leading software developer Kingsoft Corp. and investing in Chinese startups. But many staffers in those days had to scrape together cash to participate. Li and others preferred investing in an effort they knew rather than the uncertain stock market. Now Li stands to make $ 10 million to $ 20 million, depending on Xiaomi’s IPO value.
It was employee No. 14, a receptionist now working in Xiaomi’s human resources office, who contributed her dowry of around 100,000 to 200,000 yuan. That stake could be worth between $ 1 million and $ 8 million. Xiaomi declined to make her or other early employees available for interviews. Li declined to comment.
After a first surge of interest, Lei decided to cap rank-and-file investments at about 300,000 yuan each to limit risk and stop employees from taking out loans to invest. “The interest was overwhelming, but we put a cap on it because we worried, if everyone put in too much money, it would be very bad if the company failed,” said co-founder Li Wanqiang in a March interview.
The group collectively stands to gain as much as $ 3 billion if Xiaomi floats 15 per cent of the company at a $ 100-billion valuation when it goes public in Hong Kong later this year, according to calculations based on Xiaomi’s prospectus. A more conservative estimate would yield a $ 1.4-billion payout for the 56 employees if Xiaomi floats 25 per cent of the company at a $ 50-billion valuation. (Calculations assume existing shareholders haven’t sold their stakes and the $ 11 million from employees was invested during what Xiaomi’s prospectus refers to as Series B-2.) Employees stand to make roughly 200 times their original investment. A greater number of Xiaomi’s workers should be enriched through stock options, which don’t require capital upfront.
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Lei and his co-founders put in the heftiest amounts in that round and stand to make far more than the average. Five are poised to become newly-minted billionaires, according to Bloomberg calculations, and Lei’s stake, accumulated over several investment rounds, could be worth $ 27 billion. Investment powerhouses from Qiming Venture Partners to Morningside Group are also expected to reap megareturns when Xiaomi goes public this year in what may be the biggest IPO since Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s 2014 debut.
None of this was obvious in 2010. Back then, Xiaomi was really just an idea in Lei Jun’s head, said Hans Tung, one of his earliest backers. Lei was a local tech celebrity with a million follows on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, but it was far from clear he could compete with Apple Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and Huawei Technologies Co. He would host smoke-and-booze-filled meetings at Beijing hotels, showing up with bags of cellphones and gadgets for his friends to try.
But after Lei lured seven co-founders away from cushy jobs at Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google in a matter of months, Qiming, where Tung worked at the time, and Morningside decided to bet on him. They led fundraising rounds in late 2010 and early 2011 that valued the company at about $ 250 million. That’s when employees put in their $ 11 million too. Now Xiaomi is the fourth-largest smartphone maker in the world and likely will be valued at more than 200 times that amount.
“Lei Jun is the founder. He could afford all the capital. But why did he share with everyone?” said Morningside co-founder Richard Liu. “He has a vision and he can build up that strong belief and people are willing to take the huge risks.”
Silicon Valley is known for its secret millionaires who were early joiners at companies such as Facebook Inc. Among the more famous examples is Bonnie Brown, the massage therapist who bargained for stock options to accompany the $ 450 a week she was making at her part-time job at Google. She retired a millionaire after five years at the company.
In China, such riches are virtually unknown. “These employees already had enough risk working for a small, untested startup and it showed this great enthusiasm,” Tung said. “They turned out to be right.”