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RYAN LEE

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BIG DREAMS FOR X-MINI

Big Dreams for x-mini

How did you bring x-mini to life?

It started with $30,000 loaned from my brother. I had worked in the technology industry for about six years, so I got together with some friends from industry to start the business.

Our first office was a fake office – we had an office you could rent for the day with no signs, so when someone comes along you shake hands and they think you’re Mr Big. We started with very limited resources. We got another $50,000 investment, so the total investment was $80,000 in the first year. And it went on from there.

You call yourself The Dreamer – if you are The Dreamer, what was the dream?

On my business card my title is The Dreamer, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the vision – how do we want to grow our business in future.

We didn’t know what the product would be when we wanted to start a tech company – we launched a few different products at first. But the portable speaker took off, so we decided to focus our resources on that.

We’re still working on the dream – I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where we feel we’ve reached it. So we are conscious the success doesn’t go to our heads, and we stay down to earth. I keep telling myself to keep it real while things are growing at this fast pace. We’re always thinking about competition, how to build this business and how to keep it growing.

There’s a big difference to having a dream and having your products in over 80 countries. What were some of the fears and risks you faced when starting out?

Finding the right people has always been important. We’ve always tried to maintain a meritocracy in the business itself. The people we hire, they were not just in it for the money. We try and make sure that most people are here because they want to do well, whether they are a designer or in marketing or an engineer. We try to create an environment that when you do better for the business, you do better for yourself.

You have a young team – what were your experiences of taking on leadership at a young age?

It’s hard to get people to take you seriously sometimes. Sometimes the people you meet in other businesses have years of experience and you worry that you’re not up to the mark.

Sometimes you have to excuse yourself – just say, “I’m young and I didn’t know that”. The benefit of being young is that if you fall you can pick yourself back up. This is the first time I’m starting a business so if I fail, that’s life, and I know that I was meant to learn these things. Maybe if I started a business at 50 years of age, I may be more afraid, and so I would reduce risk. When I’m young, if I fall, I can pick myself up again.

The fear of failure is interesting.  Failure can also be a key learning experience – what has failure taught you?

To be honest we’ve had a multitude of failures. It looks very sweet on the outside, but you fail multiple times on the inside. You might have chosen the wrong things for the business; we’ve had staff who have been dishonest.

We had a lot of fakes come onto the market six months after we started. Initially we started suing a lot of people, but after we sued a few people we realised the only person you’re really paying is your lawyer. China is a very difficult market to work with. Sometimes you’ve got to take things with a pinch of salt over there.

After a while we realised we were doing it the wrong way – we were throwing so much money on the legal side.

What we should have done was pay our engineers more and get them to innovate even faster. And that’s what we learned: the way to work against counterfeits is to innovate even faster.

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This interview was conducted for an RMIT alumni in-conversation event in Singapore. Don’t miss future events.

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“Our first office was a fake office – we had an office you could rent for the day with no signs, so when someone comes along you shake hands and they think you’re Mr Big.”

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RYAN LEE

So investing in your own people?

We have a different system of paying our engineers. We make sure our engineers are also shareholders in the business, they get paid according to how many units we sell – and so we can train a lot of talent because we can pay them well. And that’s also why we make such great products.

How do you maintain the self-belief necessary to run a company?

There are times I have doubts about what decisions I made. All entrepreneurs stick to their gut, good and bad. We have a lot of wise and smart people working for us, and having their input always helps. You kind of mitigate the risk of making the wrong decision. You try to make as few mistakes as possible but still expect that you will.

Loyalty is important. We treat the company a lot like family. We try and make sure the hierarchy is very flat and open; everyone is open-minded to raising ideas. If I make a mistake, we are all okay with it. If I am doing something wrong, staff are okay telling me I’m doing something wrong. I’m open-minded enough to know I’m not perfect, and I make mistakes. I appreciate that staff are able to speak their minds to me. So it’s a creative community.

How do you manage rapid growth?

We are growing quite quickly, so when we hit an obstacle, it hits really hard. As we got bigger, the mistakes and repercussions were bigger. So we realised it’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes and hear their advice. I think that’s when we really grew in the business. We learned not to be stubborn. We learned to listen to more people, and understand how they did things, how we should be doing things.

I’d rather make a quick decision that is wrong, than never make a decision at all. We don’t dwell on mistakes, we don’t worry about who was wrong, what was wrong, we learn from our mistakes and move on. It’s not to say that making a mistake doesn’t hurt you – it does. But you need to move on quickly, on to your Plan B, your Plan C.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in leadership?

Different folks, different strokes. There are many people with different personalities working with you. They may not suit you and there may be times of conflict, but a key factor in being a successful leader is the ability to adapt to as many different kinds of people as possible.

So whether you can relate to a CEO or a cleaner or a factory worker – how you relate to every different level of society is important. A leader needs to lead a whole team. If a leader is put on a pedestal and everyone has this fear of talking to them and relating to them, that’s not a good recipe for success.

You work in such a competitive industry, how do you maintain constant innovation?

We do a lot of research and development before we make products.

I’m very updated on online reviews – the good reviews and the bad reviews as well. We do substantial research. We look for feedback everywhere, even from our distributors on the front line, our suppliers, we get feedback from everyone in the product development process.

We take a lot of pride in the product itself. There’s a lot of techies working in the company, and a lot of musicians as well. We’ve got DJs, we’ve got people who play the French horn. We feel that our speakers help share music – rather than just listening by yourself.

If we wouldn’t buy the product ourselves, we won’t launch it. Even if we spent a lot of money on research and development, if the product comes out and we are not proud of it, we would rather lose the money on product than launch it. That can be a costly decision because you’ve spent a lot of money on a product that you never commercialise. But your brand needs to mean something. If you launch a product you’re not proud of or a shoddy product, it will damage your brand reputation. It’s better to cut it off and take the loss, rather than take a bigger loss to the brand.

How important is your connection with RMIT?

My time at RMIT was a great experience. I majored in business and finance.

One of the most useful things I studied at RMIT was philosophy. Philosophy is part of everything – part of the brand of your business. We have this saying, people before profit. Because the people who make the products, they design the products, they brand the products. If you focus too much on the profit, you are missing the key part of the business, which is the people who create the product. You want to make sure you can keep your promises to people in the business.

Studying business and finance was helpful – I knew enough not be bamboozled by accountants and banks when I was starting out.

What’s next for XMI?

We are diversifying our product line. We are looking at wi-fi speakers. We are also moving to slightly bigger speakers.

We are talking to other local entrepreneurs. We don’t want to just be a tech company, we want to be a tech company that merges other start-ups in Singapore. Singapore only has five million people, so it’s very difficult just to sell to Singapore.

We realised we have really good distribution channels, good media contacts, good factory contacts in many different countries. So it’s easy for us to incubate other start-ups. So if you’re a start-up, I can help you sell your product through my channels. You don’t have to go through all the grief that we went through, you can just leverage what we have. Before I sold x-mini to Singapore I sold to five other countries first, because we knew we needed quantities to be viable.

“Whether you can relate to a CEO or a cleaner or a factory worker – how you relate to every different level of society is important. A leader needs to lead a whole team.”

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RYAN LEE

 Which leaders inspire you in business?

I am really inspired by Google, it’s a great business model, to try and create the best environment to work in, and at the same time it fattens your profits and helps you create great products. So Google is a very good inspiration. I read a lot about other entrepreneurs, and I’m always inspired how they take something very small and make it good. I’m also a believer that no man is an island. When you create a really great business or product, you need a whole team of people. That’s the most important part of the job, ensuring that everyone feels strongly about the objective of the business.

Pictured: Ryan Lee in his Singapore office with his signature product, the x-mini speakers. Photos by Danny Lim.