Jack Wong is a very lucky guy. Or you can say he's very unfortunate. On one hand, his eight-year-old Meizu label -- literally meaning "the captivating tribe" -- has rapidly become one of the most popular brands amongst Chinese gadget lovers, yet all he's producing right now is just the one phone: the M9. On the other hand, the now-discontinued M8 had notoriously caught unwanted attention from Apple, and even the recent M9 launch saw accusations of Meizu hiring people to stand in line. But the latter points are irrelevant for now -- what we're really interested in is how a teensy MP3 player factory managed to outpace its numerous competitors to become a reputable smartphone maker with a huge fan base. To help us understand what drives the company, we decided to pay Meizu a visit. Go on, you know where to click.
A humble beginning
What followed then were various MP3 players that didn't aesthetically stand out from the crowd, yet Wong stayed faithful to his belief and put minimum effort on commercials for his new company. Even though Meizu only produced one or two devices a year (discounting its OEM clients in the early years), it continued to thrive by engaging with its customers on its forum, as well as keeping them in the loop of product development and frequent firmware updates. Hell, we've even seen Wong teasing us with the M9II before the M9 was even released, and at one point he also simultaneously dished out multiple M9 firmware releases for his geekier fans.
Word of mouth
With Wong's active online engagement, Meizu's fan base grew steadily over the years. A quick glance on the forum will reveal all sorts of shout-outs for the big cheese: "JW," "J.Wong," "Big Brother," "Boss," or even just his Chinese name "Huang Zhang." With a bit of luck, you might get a colorful response from Wong, but don't be alarmed if his words are too raw for your eyes -- he's known to be very direct and personal when ranting about certain news, dealers, or even customers. It's no wonder that the company doesn't need commercials -- the forum itself is colorful enough to attract public attention.
Like his boss, Marketing Director Hua Hailiang believes that word of mouth comes before marketing. "We used to have TV commercials, but hardly any," said a proud but casually dressed Hua, in sandals. "The sum of all the money we've spent on ads so far is nowhere near any company's annual budget for that. We had two in 2005 or 2006, which is significantly fewer than other MP3 or mobile phone companies. We haven't had any ads over the last two years, not even a penny spent there. Maybe some sponsorship for the odd media events, but that's it."
Another area where Meizu does spend money on is the welfare of its employees, and this leads us to the factory.
Coincidentally, our visit was actually only five days before the M9 launch (we weren't told this prior to our arrival), so it was a good chance to see Meizu running in full capacity. But before we got to the assembly lines, we were first shown around the executive office on the fifth floor. We were asked not to use our cameras there, but there wasn't much to see anyway. Like any standard corporate office, you could see all the cubicles across the room, and the only section that was isolated behind glass was the design room, which was understandably out of bounds for us. Interestingly, Jack Wong doesn't have his own desk, let alone a room. "He doesn't come in much these days," said Marketing Manager Wan Zhiqiang. "He only comes in for meetings to plan new products. He works from home most of the time."
It should be noted that the actual Meizu stores -- as shown in our Shenzhen feature and the video above -- look nothing like Apple's, and likewise with the rest of the factory. Even though the small customer service center (yes, there's such a thing at Meizu HQ) next to the experience center was still in operation that day, the latter and the lights in the corridor were all switched off until we entered. The folks told us this was to reduce the chances of a power failure while electricity is in high demand at the assembly lines. We know from first hand that this power-saving tactic is in fact very common amongst Shenzhen factories, especially during the summer when the offices are using air-conditioning. We guess the solar-powered water heaters are also for the same purpose, if not to reduce the electricity bill.
We dropped off our gear at a security checkpoint where we were given a lab coat, a hat, and some funky blue bags that a machine wrapped around our shoes for hygienic reasons (yes, we totally filmed this device in action). After stepping through a metal detector, we found ourselves stood in a sterile-looking room no larger than a basketball court. In front of us were two long SMT machines that were taking in blank printed circuit boards, placing solder onto the appropriate points, then carefully placing tiny components onto the boards, and finally lock them in place by running the boards through an oven. Of course, there were workers present to ensure the machines were running fine, as well as checking the soldering points under magnifying glasses.
The only floors that we missed were the storage facility and another workshop that was developing Meizu's next generation device. Sorry, no scoops here, but it's probably just the M9II for the time being. What we do know, though, is that Meizu currently has no interest in expanding to the overseas market, which would explain its absence in CeBIT and CES in recent years. "Right now we just want to do well in the Chinese market," said Hua. "We never wanted to compete with the other big players -- there's no way for us to do that, so we'll just focus on our products and after-sales service. We are definitely more diligent when it comes to customer service, compared to most other Chinese manufacturers."
We then touched upon the sensitive topic of lookalikes, and this got Hua fired up. "We're already doing our best to set our own style on our products. Of course, we don't want to clash with anyone, and as a small player, we don't want the trouble. We really don't. If anyone insists ours is like Apple's, I'd agree that they both have big screens, but wouldn't the same apply to Motorola? And Sony Ericsson? And Samsung? There are bound to be similarities between cellphones." We could tell the recent M8 lawsuit's been very troubling for these guys; but in our opinion, the M9 is well away from this danger zone.
Just to give you a rough idea on how long ¥300 can last you in Meizu, here are the charges at its canteens: the main one (pictured above) charges between ¥3 ($0.46) to ¥5 ($0.76) per dish, and you can help yourself to as much rice and soup as you want; whereas the quieter buffet canteen -- serving similar dishes from the same kitchen -- charges ¥20 ($3.03) for lunch and ¥15 ($2.28) for dinner. So assuming you spend about ¥6 for two dishes per meal at the main canteen, you can easily get up to 50 meals there, with ¥500 of cash left to spend on evening entertainment, like karaoke perhaps.
We recall Jack Wong once boasting about the food quality in his factory, so we stayed on to get a taste of some fine Meizu cuisine. Our hosts were intrigued by our motives, but they happily obliged and sat down with us at the buffet canteen. While we have little experience in factory dining, what we had was pretty good and the range was just as impressive: roast duck, steamed egg, stir fried pork, stir fried beef, two soups, etc. "I usually go to the main canteen, though," Hua told us. "The dishes there usually suit my taste better." Too bad there was a long line and we had a ferry to catch.
With these many benefits, we can imagine joining the Meizu family is no easy task, and to make matters worse, the company favors Meiyou before everyone else -- we're guessing the HR department checks the applicants' activity on the Meizu forum to begin with. To our surprise, Wan is one such example: he was just Meizu's forum moderator before he took up his current position. "We want to hire people who truly understand our company," Wan said, while taking us back to the ferry terminal. After a friendly farewell, he returned to the factory to join Hua for the late shift.
Our Hong Kong editor Stone Ip contributed to this report.