This week saw Chinese mobile devices company Infinix Mobility unveil its latest smartphone, the Infinix Note 3, in the Kenyan market.
In Nairobi to officially launch the device was none other than the company’s co-founder and Managing Director, Benjamin Jiang. We caught up with him a day after the launch to get to hear more about his wider perspective of the direction the mobile industry is taking and his vision for the company he co-founded 4 years ago.
In Jiang’s own words, Infinix is in Kenya and Africa to stay. The company which was established in 2012 and started operations in February 2013 is out to change the perception that one needs to spend a fortune in order to get a desirable experience on any mobile device they are using.
Even though the company does not have immediate plans to venture beyond smartphones and wearables at the moment, it is keeping all its doors open and experimenting here and there with the latest in the tech world. In short, it is keeping its ears to the ground so that it remains relevant and is able to go to market with solutions that address specific needs of the customer.
Infinix is keenly watching the virtual reality space but won’t get in just yet
According to the Infinix boss, the company is already testing several prototypes of virtual reality kits in-house and is particularly keeping a close eye on the direction Google Daydream, Google’s VR platform, takes. In fact, Jiang told us, he’d only been to the search giant’s offices in California the previous week. For context, two other Chinese device brands, Huawei and Xiaomi, have already publicly disclosed their plans to release Google Daydream-ready smartphones before the year ends.
However, before Infinix can get to a point where it is supplying VR kits to its growing customer base in over 40 countries across several regions – Latin America, South East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East – it first has to satisfy their needs. This, he says, has been the company’s single most important mission and it is what drives the company’s broad vision of being a powerhouse in mobile internet services.
In order to be the go-to mobile internet services company like Google and Apple are, one needs to start somewhere. For Infinix, that somewhere is mobile. The smartphone is their starting point and from there the company hopes to grow to become the go-to place for news, ads, videos, music and games. Why mobile, though? Because you can’t start hawking internet services when no one has an idea of what you are capable of. And since the world is very mobile today… As such, the company has focused on, in the last 3 years, delivering the best possible experience on its mobile devices. At least that is what the company believes it has been doing.
If users like the phones then Infinix can make the next step: provide content they will also want to consume thus edging the company closer to its ambitious goal of being a leading mobile internet company
In order to deliver an experience that resonates with the expectations of the market, Infinix is on a never-ending quest to improve the features on its devices. This means a better camera, battery life, display and performance with every iteration of a device they release to the market. Lately, as evidenced by the company’s decision to include fingerprint scanners on its latest devices, it is responding to an industry shift to security and user privacy.
However, so that the company does not just bundle features for features’ sake and to keep costs down – else the devices would not be easily affordable – it has to be very keen on what makes the cut and what does not. The end result is the omission of certain features, like unnecessary sensors, on its devices deemed not in demand. “We try to launch (include) something when it matters,” he tells us. “Only make the consumer spend money on necessary features.”
With the hardware pieces slowly falling in place, the company’s focus is increasingly moving to the software where, as can be seen in the company’s recent devices, there’s been an influx of what I like referring to as X-something apps. The X-things. XHide, X-Club, XOS… This is because, in Jiang’s opinion, there’s only so much differentiation that they can do as far as the hardware goes.
Concentrating on making the best affordable smartphones seems like a tough job when one factors in the demands for better features that work without fail at a fraction of the price it would normally cost but Jiang says that isn’t really the case for him and his team. He has 13 years’ experience in the mobile industry having started interacting with the mobile world back in the day when pagers were cool and seeing the Infinix brand through its tough early months when it was heavily reliant on the technical know-how of another notable mobile phone brand from a past era, France’s Sagem.
With 700 engineers in its Shanghai hub in China working day and night on the next big thing and 3,000 other employees keeping the assembly lines going, he believes that Infinix is well equipped to still be around building devices that will power the future. “We don’t look at short-term growth because we know how people fail in China. Although we’ve only been around for 3 years in Kenya, we’re very serious.”
Infinix is considering opening an innovation centre in Africa that will host a design and innovation team for the brand. One of the challenges Infinix as a company and a brand faces daily is being able to connect with the customer at a deeper level and making sure their needs are directly addressed in the kind of products it fronts to them. An innovation centre at the heart of one of its biggest markets in the world, he believes, will give Infinix an edge over its rivals in the industry as well as shift focus away from sales. “You cannot do the right thing for this market if you are very far from this market. Sometimes you do it right, sometimes you do it wrong,” the Infinix boss says. Here’s the best part: Infinix is considering Kenya as a possible host of the innovation centre.
Something interesting comes up when talking to the Infinix head about the company he fondly refers to as his “baby”. He does not believe Infinix, at least on the African continent, is a brand meant for the extremely budget conscious. The brand’s overall product focus, he says, is purely informed by a number of factors and devices being affordable is as much a matter of the company’s positioning and strategy as it is about directly wooing the customer. He sees Infinix as a mid-range smartphone brand not one that focuses on entry-level devices. This, he argues, can be seen in the way the company’s products like the Note 3 are priced. They are not so cheap and they aren’t expensive either. In fact, he reveals, the company’s next flagship device (the Zero 4?) may just be the first to cross the Kshs 20,000 mark.
With that in mind, then, why doesn’t Infinix make high-end devices? “A brand is like a baby. You cannot go too fast. You cannot make it in one day. Apple even took over 20 years.”
Long term, Jiang sees Infinix as a premium brand that will still be able to deliver high-quality experiences without blowing past its mid-range price ceiling. That will definitely require some tough balancing but he believes the company’s decision to focus on features that people want and different go-to-market strategies will help the company stay competitive even as times and customers change.
The different go-to-market strategies for various markets mean that certain Infinix products hit certain markets well before others or never at all in other markets. The Hot S which will be showing up in Kenya by next month after being on sale in Nigeria since late July is a good example. This not only plays out to the company’s advantage when it comes to being able to provide what the customers want/expect but also enables the company to cut on unnecessary added costs as a result of the inclusion of features users are not interested in.
Hardware-wise, that may mean differences in memory, device size and network access. Software-wise, that may mean access to different sets of pre-bundled apps. For instance, when one selects Kenya as their location when setting up a new Infinix device, they will have the Jumia Kenya app on their app launcher while their counterpart in another part of the world like Indonesia, will get the local e-commerce store’s app preloaded.
As we’ve seen before with the exit of some brands from the Kenyan market and others being on the brink, it is a tough space to be in. We sought to know some of the challenges that Infinix has encountered besides having to find ways of bridging the gap between its research and development teams in China and customers in places like Kenya. Like we heard when we talked to Infinix’s Country Manager Carter Tang, grey imports top the list.
Infinix has built a successful model that mostly utilizes online sales channels thereby doing away with the middlemen who are largely responsible for the high prices of most devices entering the market. All that is put at risk when individual dealers import their own consignments and start selling them locally since the quality and after-sales support is not guaranteed in such cases. That brings up the other matter Jiang identified as a challenge to Infinix: counterfeits. “They give us a lot of headache. A lot of people complain because they’ve (unknowingly) bought the wrong phone and they cannot get the proper experience or service.”
The other challenge Infinix has to deal with on the African continent is the presence of suitable telecommunications infrastructure. At the moment, the company is pushing 4G LTE devices. As per the latest State of LTE data from Open Signal, there’s still a long way to go in matters LTE network coverage on the continent. Since Infinix, as per Jiang’s own admission, is keen on scaling up in more mature markets on the continent, throw in the network infrastructure factor and the company has little to work with at the moment. Using online channels for sales is only effective in certain areas and Infinix has been keen on such but that means there’s still more ground to be covered. More work to be done.
We asked Jiang to give us the one lesson he has learnt in the last 3 years of heading Infinix’s global operations as the Managing Director and this is what he had to say, “Do not chase short-term sales or profitability. Let yourself grow as per your own capability.”
Apparently, in the early days of Infinix setting up shop in Kenya, the brand expanded too fast and had to deal with several nightmares regarding customer support and the need for service centres. For a young brand, that can be a matter of life and death as reputations are on the line. For Infinix, it’s been a lesson and as Jiang steers the company towards its vision of being a top mobile internet company, it is taking one step at a time. For a company whose name literally means infinity, the possibilities are endless.