23 January, 2017

How a Gangster Rapper Hustled a Corporation & Became a Billionaire

Beats Electronics LLC is the subsidiary of Apple Inc. that produces audio products.  The company was founded as Beats by Dr. Dre was formally established as a company in 2006.  It was founded by well-known music producer and rapper, Dr. Dre and former Interscope Geffen A&M Records chairman Jimmy Iovine.  Beats Electronics LLC has a US market share of at least 60% for headphones priced over US$100., and an estimated market valuation of US$1.5 billion.

The story of how Beats by Dr. Dre became Beats Electronics LLC is the story of how a gangster from the streets outmanoeuvred two major corporations for market domination.  In short, Dre hustled and succeeded.

The official story on Wikipedia and the company web site is that Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine thought Apple’s earbuds were inadequate.  They said that if their music was going to be pirated, then people should, at least, listen to it with the best equipment possible.  Allegedly, Dre said to Iovine, “Man, it’s one thing that people steal my music; it’s another thing to destroy the feeling of what I’ve worked on.”  This is the publicity spiel.

The story of the rise of Beats Electronics LLC is the story of the demise of Monster Cable.  Monster Cable was founded by Noel Lee in the late 1970s, and made its name in overpriced cables and litigation.  The company was a corporate bully.  Monster sued everybody that had “Monster” in its name.  According to the US Patent and Trademark Office and court records, Monster Cable has gone after a mini-golf course, a thrift shop, a used clothes shop, Walt Disney Co. and Pixar Animation for their film, “Monsters, Inc.,” Bally Gaming International Inc. for its Monster Slots, Hansen Beverage Co. for a Monster Energy drink and even the Chicago Bears, whose nickname is “Monsters of the Midway.”  This aggressive legal strategy did not make them any friends.  And people who have no friends, no matter how big, are vulnerable.

Monster Cable did the actual engineering of the headphones for Beats by dr. Dre.  Monster Cable had built its market domination more on marketing than product quality.  Its market share was built on the uncertain foundations of brand familiarity.

As an extension of their aggressive litigation strategy, Monster Cable was notorious for claiming patents on basic technological concepts.  An example can be seen in the response from Blue Jeans Cable, from the 28th March, 2008: “Monster Cable recently wrote to us claiming that we had infringed various design patents and trademarks owned by it or by its intellectual property holding company in Bermuda, Monster Cable International, Ltd.  We reviewed the patent and trademark filings submitted by Monster Cable, and found that Monster’s claims were completely frivolous - so frivolous, in fact, that there was something amusingly appropriate about the fact that Monster's letter had arrived in our mailbox on April Fools’ Day.”

In all this, Monster Cable’s products were notoriously no better at doing their jobs than coat hangers, as can be found in this example: Audiophile Deathmatch: Monster Cables vs. a Coat Hanger.  And when there are articles like these, all the litigation in the world is not going to protect the brand.  The cables were copper wires sheathed in plastic.  There is only so much that can be done to make them work better.  The best marketing does not change basic physics.  But that marketing cost was passed on to the consumer, raising the price of a mediocre product exorbitantly.

Thus, Monster Cables had painted themselves into a corner and needed Beats by Dr. Dre more than the latter needed it.  Monster Cables thought that the hype of a celebrity endorsement and the promise of further celebrity endorsements by contacts in the entertainment industry would overcomes the negative image it was beginning to develop.  Unfortunately for Monster Cables, Dre and Iovine know exactly who held the cards here.  I would not be surprised that these two had identified this weakness and played Monster Cables from the beginning.

The Beats headphones were terrible.  To quote a passage in How Dr. Dre’s Headphones Company Became a Billion-Dollar Business, Burt Helm wrote that Iovine said, “We got dumped on by audiophiles on Day One.”  He continued, “We wanted to recreate that excitement of being in the studio.  That’s why people listen.”

The story here is a that Beats headphones “were not tuned evenly, like the usual high-end headphones.  They were tuned to make the music sound more dramatic.”  “More dramatic” is an euphemism for “they cranked up the bass.”

It was a rubbish product, but consumers fell for the hype, and from its launch in 2008, the company grew exponentially.  In 2010, Taiwanese consumer electronics manufacturer, HTC, bought out Beats by Dr. Dre for USS309 million.  This buy out is noteworthy because, under its terms, Dre and Iovine eventually actually gained executive control of the company from Monster Cables: After HTC Sale, Dr. Dre & Jimmy Iovine Gain Control of Beats Headphones.

By the 23rd July, 2012, HTC sold half its position to Dre and Iovine, allowing them to control 75% of Beats by Dr. Dre, leaving HTC with the remaining 25%.  Not only that, HTC revealed that it had lent Beats by Dr. Dre US$225 million.  In effect, Dre and Iovine bought those shares from HTC with money they borrowed from HTC through Beats by Dr. Dre, and then loaded the liability on the company they now controlled.

With HTC, themselves a manufacturer, invested into Beats by Dr. Dre with a combined stake of almost half a billion in both equity and debt, Monster Cables were no longer needed.  Monster were understandably unhappy with this and agitated for a better return on their investment – greater market visibility and a substantial payout.  In response, Beats by Dr. Dre ended their partnership with Monster Cables: Monster Will No Longer Make Beats Headphones.

On the surface, it looked counterintuitive, but it was a calculated move.  Monster Cables did not own the rights to a single drawing, idea or even the diagrams for the plastic parts: The Exclusive Inside Story of How Monster Lost the World.  From the very beginning, Monster Cables were outmatched.  When Kevin Lee, son of founder, Noel Lee, went to Los Angeles to negotiate, he had only a bachelor’s degree, no business experience outside of working for his father and no legal support.  He went into a meeting alone, against two men and an entire corporate team.  And in their desperation to enter a new market before their old one collapsed, got into a partnership where they built a business for a rival for free and never realised it until it was too late.

A few months later, Dre and Iovine took advantage of HTC’s financial struggles and bought the remaining 25% from them for US150 million.  Considering the market share and the actual value of Beats by Dr. Dre, this was a bargain.  Dre and Iovine had full control of the company now, which was the next part of the plan.

Ending the agreement with Monster Cables cost them hundreds of millions, and they did not take it kindly.  Considering their litigation history, they predictably tried to sue.  Before the case could go to court, in January 2014, Beats by Dr. Dre revealed its streaming music service.  This was the business they actually set out to build, instead of questionable headphones.  It was a hit with critics, and its success brought a bigger fish to the table: Apple.  Before June 2014, Apple agreed to buy Beats by Dr. Dre for US$3.2 billion, making Dre and Iovine billionaires, and changing the company name to Beats Electronics LLC.

Monster Cables filed a suit, claiming, among other things, that Beats by Dr. Dre stole proprietary headphone technology, that Beats by Dr. Dre unilaterally ending their partnership was illegal, and that Monster Cables were entitled to a portion of the billion-dollar Apple deal.

Here, Monster Cables had not considered the consequences of its actions.  It was outplayed, and still refused to accept that it was outplayed.  Apple was brutal.  Monster Cables had its rights to manufacturing Apple’s products revoked: Apple Revokes Monster’s Authority to Make Licensed Accessories.  How bad is this?  Consider this: Apple Revokes Monster's 'Made for iPhone' License Following Beats Lawsuit, where “According to Monster, 900 of its more than 4,000 products produced since 2008 have been made under the MFi program, and the company has paid out more than $12 million in licensing fees since that date.  Monster lawyer David Tognotti says the move is excessive and ‘shows a side of Apple that consumers don’t see very often.’

David Tognotti, the man who justified Monster Cable’s litigation excesses against smaller businesses, finally said, “Apple can be a bully.”

On the 30th August 2016, not only did Monster Cables lose its suit against Beats Electronics, Beats Electronics countersued for legal costs.  And this is how a hustle works on a massive scale.

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