Manu Kumar Jain, 33, head of India operations at Xiaomi Corp., the Chinese smartphone maker, almost looks like a weary traveller, who is visiting New Delhi for official meetings. Sipping on his coffee, he replies to mails and plans for meetings later in the day. Two Xiaomi phones are placed upside down on the table—one with a rather attractive back panel. “I am a huge Iron Man fan," he says, showing off the superhero artwork on the panel. Unfortunately, this accessory is not available in India, yet. “We are working on ramping up smartphone production first, later we will focus on cases and other stuff," Jain says.

It was in mid-2013 that Jain, then co-founder of the online fashion retailer Jabong, came across Xiaomi’s business model, while researching smartphones. Though he had never heard of the company, their ideas around online-only sales seemed fascinating. So fascinated he was, that he went backpacking to China, and ensured that he fixed a meeting with Bin Lin, the co-founder and president of Xiaomi. A few months later, they got in touch. The company was planning to enter the Indian market, and needed someone to head the operations. Xiaomi is the largest smartphone manufacturer in China and the fifth largest in the world.

Jain is seen here with Mi Bunny, a soft toy that Xiaomi makes and sells globally, but not yet in India. Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Jain is seen here with Mi Bunny, a soft toy that Xiaomi makes and sells globally, but not yet in India. Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

The Bangalore-based Jain was born in Meerut. “I had a rather unique family," he says. “A lot of second and third cousins lived in the same locality and I would proudly go around telling people in school that I have 50-60 brothers and sisters."

Having been a “mediocre student", Jain says he was clueless about what he wanted to be even in class XII. “There were only two options—doctor or engineer—and I had no interest in either stream," he says. Jain forgot to fill the entrance exam forms for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in 1998. His father got a form for the Uttar Pradesh state combined-engineering entrance exam and Jain got admission in the computer science stream.

“This was a moment of realization for me, that if I can achieve something good with such little effort, things would be significantly better if I tried harder." A year later, Jain dropped out of college to prepare for the IIT entrance. He studied B.Tech in mechanical engineering at IIT, Delhi.

He graduated in the midst of the global financial crisis of 2002-03, just when the job market started to shrink rapidly. Many companies that hired graduating students from the campus, either shut down or simply withdrew their offers. Jain’s batch did not have the usual luxury of “choosing from multiple offers" so he interviewed with TechSpan, a Bangalore-based firm developing software for investment banks, started by Arjun Malhotra, one of the founders of the software services firm HCL Technologies. “They were paying really well compared to the rest, and said they were financial consultants. That sounded cool, rather than the boring software developers pitch," Jain says with a grin.

In 2005, he decided to move on. “The next step usually, for most people in India, is to get back to studies," says Jain and that is exactly what he did. People usually dress up in formals for the interview rounds, but Jain walked into the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad in a kurta-pyjama. “Kurta is formal Indian wear, and I wanted to see if this shift from the usual made a bit of difference for me," he says. Jain went on to study at IIM Calcutta. There he met his would-be wife Minu, who was in the same batch.

In 2007, Jain joined the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and was posted in Zambia for six months. Minu had joined Nokia in Mumbai the same year. Every other week, he would take leave on Friday and fly to India. He had to change three flights each way, and the travel would take about 24 hours. After the six-month tenure, Jain focused on operational and strategy consulting, which involved working with chief executive officers (CEOs) and chief operating officers (COOs), as well as ground operations teams.

In 2011, he took a break from McKinsey, and was a “clueless entrepreneur". “The person who really helped me was Naveen Tewari," he says. Tewari is the CEO and founder of InMobi, a mobile advertising network. At the same time, Jabong was starting up and Praveen Sinha approached Jain. Sinha had studied with Jain at IIM-C.

“At that time, online shopping in India was very small," says Jain. He joined Jabong as a co-founder in 2012. “I had never realized the power of e-commerce till now," he says. It was a major change for Jain, because all his work at McKinsey was tailored for brick-and-mortar clients. Jabong had a very humble beginning. There would be days when Jain and Sinha would pray for 100 transactions, but quickly, they touched 1,000 transactions daily. He says they achieved big numbers “way before we expected it".

Jain believes there were two reasons online shopping became so big in India. For metros and bigger cities, e-commerce offered an escape from traffic and parking issues. For smaller towns, convenience and availability were big factors. “Will someone find the latest Nike shoe in a smaller town?"

It was after his China trip in 2013—where he met Xiaomi’s top brass—that Jain decided to leave Jabong. He still retains a very small equity share in the company.

His enthusiasm for creating things is what took him to Xiaomi. “It is truly amazing what we have been able to do in such a short time, with limited budgets," Jain says. But he admits there is a lot of work to be done, particularly with regard to service quality.

“E-commerce allows us to make these handsets a lot more affordable, as compared to brick-and-mortar stores," he says, and selling through physical stores is completely out of the question.

Xiaomi had underestimated the Indian market, and now wants to scale up operations. “We want to eventually build our own e-commerce operations in India, in addition to our partners," Jain says.

Despite working for a smartphone company, Jain is not really a gadget freak. He was a Nokia loyalist for a long time, before he switched to BlackBerry and the iPhone. Along the way, he added an iPad to his arsenal. At home, he uses a simple home theatre set-up to enjoy movies on his flat-panel television, but nothing too complicated. He says his study table boasts of a couple of speakers that hold water inside—which comes out as a fountain and whose flow depends on the beats of the music playing at that time.