Remember the time when Nokia had innovated some music phones and gaming phones and marketed them as one of the best?
Then Sony Ericsson came along and said, “Hey, we’ve made this pocket boombox that’s better than yours. Can you beat that?”
I remember owning one of those Nokia music phones (the angular one in black) and I would always blast my favourite songs in class during recess time. My classmates and I would sing along and the other classmates would also play their music from their side.
Good, chaotic times.
Later on, I switched to a white and gold slider phone by Sony Ericsson – yes, the Walkman phone – that comes with a better camera. It was also because it was more chio.
Even with all that marketing and collaborating with respectable audio companies, critiques and self-proclaimed audiophiles still strongly believed that good stereo music should be played on real, quality speakers.
So, how do we combine good quality speakers that are portable and do not require yards of wires?
This local OG portable speakers company has the answers.
They May Be Small But They Are Loud
Did you know that local audio company, Xmi, creators of the X-mini capsule speakers, actually started out by developing wearables?
Founder and CEO of Xmi, Ryan Lee candidly revealed this lesser-known fact to us just recently.
He started the company with his brother, Reuben Lee, who was a lawyer then.
Now, Xmi is best known for their portable capsule speakers, the X-mini. The palm-sized, burger-like speaker is their big break into the global market.
The reason why their wearables – specifically, a watch – did not take the spotlight was because of the high cost of producing it.
The watch had an OLED screen and back then, it was still new technology so the “cost of building it was astronomical”.
Ryan believed that they weren’t wrong about the watches at that point in time, but they focused on the portable speakers instead for the above reasons.
He has been in the tech industry since 2002, when he worked for his first company that made a smartphone. Ryan then went to Mongolia to sell Sony electronics with his friend, then he returned and worked with Qool Labs.
He traded with many international customers and accumulated experience and exposure at international trade shows. It opened doors for him, like CNET, T3, Stuff, and “all the major tech editors then”.
Unlike other audio and electronics firms that created products that focused on the bass or treble, Ryan said that Xmi prides itself on their signature sound.
We focus more on a balanced, good quality sound, instead of just a loud volume. […] We believe that good sound is producing whatever was recorded in the first place or (when) you heard it ‘live’ – you don’t add bass, you don’t add treble, you don’t add anything. We try to create a balanced, accurate sound.
He described competitors’ speakers being “bigger (in) sound, bigger (in) bass, (with) boomier speakers” and that Xmi also pushes for true wireless stereo in their speakers “instead of putting two tweeters together” like their competitors.
It wasn’t always melody to their ears in their early days. “When we started, the first Capsule Speaker was sold at USD $48, which was really high for a wired, pocket-sized speaker,” Ryan reminisced.
The X-mini speakers happened at the right place at the right time as even though it was “sold at a pretty high retail price”, there were “no real good pocket-sized speaker in those days” so sales did well.
What’s The Secret To Staying Alive?
For a ‘Made in Singapore’ brand to become this well-known and trusted took a lot of hard work and effort. I think Singaporeans can be rather skeptical when it comes to our homegrown brands, “Are you sure they’re not made in China?”
From just selling the X-mini capsule speaker to now, a variety of products like the X-mini KAI X3 and X-mini EVOLVE 2 headphones, Ryan is still very much in tune with the ever-changing industry.
He believes in being diverse, saying that,
If you can make good portable speakers at pocket-size, at a 36mm, 40mm, or 42mm driver, the same technology applies to a 70mm and 100mm tweeter. The same kind of energy efficiency and the thought process we’ve put into developing pocket-sized speakers, goes into bigger speakers as well.
Xmi creates and tries to target different categories of portable speakers. They made a decision to expand their range firstly, to be more competitive in the market, and secondly, for the retail presence.
Ryan acknowledged that while they were good at what they did with the original Capsule Speakers, they had to keep up with the times.
“Technology improves, so we are able to make better drivers, lower profile drivers that create equally good bass even without the extension, the Bass Xpansion System,” he explained.
They took two years to conceptualise and produce to current products. The EVOLVE, EXPLORE, and EXPLORE PLUS were “transition” products to prepare them for this year’s release that was unveiled during CES earlier in January.
The founders focused on their key competencies, like the sound, the tweeters, the hardware, the integrated circuit board, the audio engineering, and the software engineering.
This is where they are different from their competitors.
We are also challenging the idea of portability, which is why we have made the X-mini INFINITI, something at that size at a 100W, and yet portable. That in itself, makes it stand apart from a lot of (our) competitors at that price range and category.
They are confident that their new portable speakers, the X-mini CLICK 2 and X-mini XOUNDBAR, are still their most popular range.
“We have provided a speaker in almost every sort of category as well. Down to the bedside or pocket-sized portable or the X-mini KAI X series, which is more for sound,” he added.
The X-mini INFINITI was made to be portable enough that it can be moved around the house because it is rather unusual to be moving a regular sound bar around the home; you’d have to fix it up, plug it in somewhere, and drill holes in the walls.
The INFINITI is probably the first kind of product to be trialed and tested as a portable home speaker, and it uses the USB Type-C cable to charge which is easier to use.
Even though the company’s products are evolving, Xmi does not stop there. Ryan said that smart speakers are definitely the future.
“Voice user interface” is useful for computer users. He mentioned that when Windows and Apple first came out with the graphical user interface, that was when computing took off.
Previously, you need to type “dir/”, just to get somewhere. Voice user interface is just like the graphical user interface, but this time with voice. Even if you don’t know how to spell a word, you might be able to pronounce it, which make [using] the computer even easier. […] I think that the portable speaker will play a key role moving forward.
Ryan went on to further explain that phones “will be limited by how good a speaker you can have inside because of the size”. He stands by the notion that “there is no way that the phone will be better than a standalone portable speaker”.
Life At Xmi
Ryan said that there were definitely highs and lows of the business.
For him, he revealed that there was a period of time the company expanded to fast too quickly and they “lost a certain kind of dynamism”.
With a smaller team, it is easier to manage and they were able to be more efficient.
Within the company, Ryan said that they’ve always wanted to maintain a very flat hierarchy.
We’re a creative business basically, so you need a difference in opinions to build better products. We don’t want to hire, we want to inspire; because we want people to be inspired to do well on their own.
He explained that the freedom to grow in a small company like Xmi as compared to bigger companies is greater because employees wear many hats and are “thrown in the deep end”.
Ryan said that they believe in the idea of “people before profit, because [the] people are the ones who make the products; they would sell it, they would brand it, everything”.
“So treat the people well, and the company grows along with it.”
On hindsight, he said that he could’ve done things better and made better decisions, “but that’s just the process of growing”.
When asked about his thoughts on how another ‘Made in Singapore’ consumer audio brand, like Creative, can make it big locally and overseas, he said regardless of the kind of products they sell, “they have to start thinking global because there is just not enough market in Singapore”.
He revealed that Singapore is the sixth country he sold to, selling his products to five Western European countries first.
A Caucasian friend of his, a distributor in Singapore, had asked him why they weren’t selling in Singapore. His response was that the market was too small, so his Caucasian friend offered to sell it.
I think whether its audio or other tech products, a Singapore tech company, unlike the Chinese or the American companies, you can’t depend on your domestic market. So there is a need to start on that footing, […] thinking global instantly and start international sales immediately.
Growing the business locally before exporting overseas works for European and American businesses because they are sizeable.
He is positive that the portable speaker market will only grow despite people saying initially that the audio industry has always been saturated.
“At the end of the day, it is how we innovate our products, we have to… [kill] our own product line, and not let other people do it for us. Just like how we move from the Capsule Speakers into true wireless stereo audio speakers,” he noted.
He left us with good chunks of advices as an entrepreneur.
Having a good product is one thing, [because] you can have a good product that nobody buys. […] A lot of entrepreneurs are product people, and the commercialisation of their ideas and their products fall short; they don’t think far ahead of how to sell the product. I have seen really innovative companies fail.
Adhering to a timeline is key because entrepreneurs tend to want to perfect a product that they “fall back in their time to market” and production drags on.
He explained the short lifespan of tech products and the need to develop new and innovative ones continually, “The minute you launch a good idea, you just have to be prepared that it’s going to be copied over and over again. If it was a truly bad idea, nobody would be copying, that’s why you’ve got to think ahead; this is tech.”
Persistence is key when it comes to entrepreneurship. He said that he likes the product development and design part of the process but “95% of the time” he’s doing things he doesn’t like which he accepts as part of the role.
You [have] to be persistent to continue and do even the things you don’t like to do, and get better at it. As an entrepreneur, people only see the good side, they don’t see you failing half the time, so it’s the ability to fall and keep climbing back up. Keep moving forward.
Ryan praised the government’s efforts in helping businesses integrate into the local market, saying that IE Singapore is a good source to get help with internalisation.
But still, it is always best to rely on your abilities and carve a name for yourself.
“Your idea isn’t a good idea because you have government grant, your idea is a good idea because somebody bought it; local companies need to start thinking that way. Even without government grants or heavy investors’ funding, can you still make this happen? If you can’t, then your idea isn’t good enough.”
Featured Image Credit: Xmi Pte Ltd