Barra Leaves Post as Xiaomi’s International Point Man

Almost four years after being poached from a critical post at Google to join Chinese upstart Xiaomi, Hugo Barra on Monday announced he will return to Silicon Valley in February.

Barra, who led the Xiaomi’s overseas expansion as vice president, international, explained the move largely as a desire to reconnect with his family and restore a sense of normalcy to his life.

However, it also coincides with a widespread perception that Xiaomi’s international growth has run into a great wall.

“The last few years of living in such a singular environment have taken a huge toll on my life and started affecting my health,” Barra wrote in a Facebook post. “My friends, what I consider to be my home, and my life are back in Silicon Valley, which is also much closer to my family.”

Senior Vice President Xiang Wang reportedly will take over Barra’s post at Xiaomi.

Barra thanked company CEO Lei Jun, calling him a mentor and friend, and noted that the executive has asked him to stay on indefinitely as an advisor to the firm.

US Launch, Chinese Market

Barra’s move comes just weeks after the firm made its long-awaited debut at CES in Las Vegas, where it introduced Mi TV 4 and a white version of the Mi MIX smartphone for the Chinese market, along with a range of products for the Mi Ecosystem.

His decision is certain to have far reaching implications for the company, which was considered one of the fastest-growing smartphone makers in the world. Barra, who was vice president of product management at Google before leaving in 2013, is widely credited with helping Xiaomi reach a global valuation of US$45 billion, introducing its products into key international markets across Asia and Europe.

However, Xiaomi recently has stumbled. The has lost market share to competing firms, including Vivo and Oppo, in its core Chinese market. Oppo became the leading smartphone maker in China, growing mainly due to increased offline sales that were less dependent on operator subsidies, according to an IDC report released last fall.

During his tenure, India became Xiaomi’s largest international market, with $1 billion in annual revenue, faster than any company in the country’s history, Barra noted. The company also expanded into Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia on his watch, and recently added 20 other new markets including Russia, Poland and Mexico.

Xiaomi also worked with Google to launch its first-ever official product in the U.S. at CES 2017.

Mixed Legacy

“It’s an interesting move, especially as he was the lead spokesman for Xiaomi internationally,” said Ryan Reith, program vice president for worldwide mobile device trackers at IDC.

Barra has been a key figure in the company’s patent acquisition strategy and was the point person in the company’s relationships with foreign telco firms, Reith told the E-Commerce Times.

Despite those successes, Xiaomi’s decision to hire Barra was problematic, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, who described it as a “bad skill match.”

Xiaomi stumbled in a couple of key areas during Barra’s tenure there, and it is still feeling the ramifications of those mistakes, Enderle told the E-Commerce Times.

“It is a far different thing to convince OEMs to use [Android], a free OS that was modeled after one they couldn’t license, iOS,” than it is to sell phones to end users, Enderle said, referring to Barra’s prior tenure as part of Google’s Android expansion team.

“On the one hand, you are giving people something they want for free, and on the other hand you are competing with a bunch of folks for a limited set of far less sophisticated buyers,” Enderle observed.

Xiaomi wasted resources on the international expansion, he maintained, while failing to pay enough attention to domestic sales and product development in its own home market, which caused the company to bleed market share.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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