The call of the world's biggest smartphone market is proving irresistible for entrepreneurs in China, where even purveyors of concrete mixers, refrigerators and rock music are mimicking local trailblazer Xiaomi with their own handsets.
But the market shrank in early 2015 for the first time in six years and sales have fallen at one-time leader Xiaomi. That sudden about-turn raises questions over whether there is any chance for the likes of construction machinery maker SANY Group, Gree Electric Appliances and veteran rockstar Cui Jian.
The slowdown may be too much for all but the largest handset makers, much less a plethora of me-toos, some analysts say. In a crowded market plagued by price wars, entrants will have to convince buyers to abandon established brands with phones that surpass even premium models, US research firm Gartner said.
"It's not that easy to go bankrupt making phones, but it's also not easy to be profitable," said Taiwan-based Gartner analyst CK Lu, who covers the mainland smartphone market. "If you don't have good differentiation, you're putting yourself in a saturated market."
China had 155 smartphone brands selling over 1,000 handsets a month as at end of March, from 110 two years ago, said analyst Neil Shah of Counterpoint Research. In neighboring India, there were 103 brands, over half of which are Chinese.
But small players compete for just one-fifth of the market as the rest is occupied by the 10 biggest incumbents - including Apple, Samsung, Lenovo, Huawei and Xiaomi - according to Gartner.
Bringing a smartphone to market in China costs as little as a few hundred thousand dollars, with money going on licensing and off-the-shelf designs from manufacturers. For greater scale, involvement in design, marketing and offline sales distribution send costs into the hundreds of millions of dollars, said Shah.
Few entrants are likely to last without mass sales, like Xiaomi, or other businesses to support money-losing smartphone divisions, like Lenovo. Their best chance is to link handsets to new sectors such as wearable devices and smart home appliances, analysts said.
But new hopefuls are lured to the market by the fairy tale success of Xiaomi. In December, investors valued Xiaomi at US$45 billion less than five years after its founding, making the firm one of the world's most valuable startups.
Chinese startup Smartisan was established in 2012 and, like Xiaomi, has gained popularity based primarily on social-media marketing and word of mouth, rather than expensive advertising.
"Xiaomi's phones were definitely already successful (in 2012)," a Smartisan spokeswoman said in an email. "Because of that, getting investment and bringing in talent for smartphones became much easier... Before Xiaomi, this would have been very difficult."
Next: Attack of the clones