William Li is being mobbed. At a gala dinner in Shanghai, the founder of Chinese electric carmaker Nio Inc. can barely move forward in the buffet queue before being stopped for another selfie, handshake or hug. Swapping his usual attire of jeans and a T-shirt for a tailored grey suit and blue dress shirt, the tall 46-year-old happily obliges with a smile.

Li manages to spoon a small amount of fried rice and vegetables onto his plate, but he’s not here for the food. Over the next three hours, Li poses for hundreds more photos, chatting with customers of the automaker he started just over six years ago and has built into a way of life — at least for the people who buy his cars — with clubhouses, a round-the-clock battery recharging service and even clothing, food and exercise equipment, all decked out in Nio’s geometric logo. As Li works the room, a video backdrop shows six performers, each wearing a different-colored Nio hoodie, singing a self-composed song dedicated to the company. "Meeting with Nio, we want to be better selves,’’ the not-so-catchy ditty goes.

While other billionaire executives may cringe at spending their down time glad-handing customers, for Li this is core. Nio’s business model relies on creating a sense of allegiance among buyers, who then spread the word about its cars to friends and family. Dubbed "Rippling Mode,’’ the strategy invokes the ever-widening circles caused by throwing a single stone into a pond, Li says. The scene in Shanghai was just what he was aiming for: a passionate customer base with the loyalty of Apple Inc. fans — and a dash of Elon Musk cult-of-personality thrown in.