Sound system

 

He started his business juggling credit cards to pay staff wages. Now Monash graduate Ryan Lee is a multi-millionaire selling tiny speakers to the world.

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Sitting in his office in the heart of Singapore's Chinatown, Ryan Lee gently smiles as he produces a portable media player from his pocket.

With a few buttons deftly pushed, a distorted rendition of the latest pop hit (turned up full-volume) blasts from the unit's inbuilt speaker.

The smile widens to a grin as the young Monash graduate connects his invention - a small but high-quality portable speaker - to the digital player. The tune becomes progressively clearer and louder with each speaker he connects, until sound from the tiny device fills the room.

At 32, Ryan is the CEO of XMI the company he founded in 2006. At first he survived on savings and juggling bank credit. This year the company has more than a dozen staff and is expected to turn over S$12 million.

The key to his success is the tiny speaker design, dubbed the X-mini. The capsule features a patented vacuum tube that expands like an accordion, which provides greater low-end bass response and can be collapsed into an egg-like sphere for storage and travel. The result is a pocket-sized speaker system with a sound that defies its size.

Ryan, a Monash University Master of Applied Economics degree graduate and a self-confessed gadget nut, said he came up with the idea when he couldn't buy a quality pocketsized portable speaker.

With an estimated one billion portable devices - used for music, games, DVDs and computing - across the world, Ryan has tapped a massive market.

The capsule speakers sell for about $50 and are available in 58 countries on six continents. They are sold in-flight by up to 40 airlines worldwide for music on the move and have been sold to companies like Nokia, Google, Apple, Vodafone, O2, RIM and Canon.

Multiple speakers can be connected together like a daisy chain. Ryan is considering a Guinness book of World Records attempt after successfully connecting 200 speakers to the one digital player.

Ryan said he enjoyed his Masters study at Monash University in 2001, particularly its strong focus on practical learning.

"I didn't need a degree to start the business," he admits, "but to be honest, a degree was part of the learning process. I think the degree has definitely helped in running the business and understanding the economics of that side of things," he said.

"It's given me a better general view, a better macro view. You are able to have a much better grasp of the whole picture."

His success has also been recognised within his home country. He was recently recognised in Singapore's Top Ten Emerging Enterprise Awards in 2009; received a specially created award for product innovation by the same judging committee of the Emerging Enterprise Awards, 2009 (Singapore) and was nominated Asia's Best Young Entrepreneur in 2008 by Businessweek.

Ryan's blend of business sense and creativity means he is already working on a number of ideas to capture new niche markets and hoping to bring a smile to the face of the next generation of gadget lovers.