LeEco’s wild launch event made ‘Silicon Valley’s’ craziness look tame


The press event was more over the top than anything from Pied Piper

As I sat through LeEco’s lavish press event on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think that I was an unpaid extra in HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

For a company that is basically selling TVs and phones over the internet, LeEco has outsize ambitions. The company literally describes itself as Apple, Netflix, Amazon and Tesla all rolled into one.

It talks in gushing terms about a business model in which users have a say in everything from pricing to product design and everything is an open ecosystem where content players can have a direct relationship with consumers.

LeEco, which began life as a Chinese content company more than a decade ago, has hired 500 people in the U.S., but talks about wanting to employ 10,000 or more and has spent $250 million to acquire a 48-acre Yahoo campus in Santa Clara.

It’s also announced — but not yet closed — a $2 billion deal to buy TV maker Vizio in an effort to get its hands on an established U.S. brand that has relationships with U.S. retailers.

In addition to the phones and TVs it actually makes, LeEco and its more secretive corporate cousin Faraday Future also want into the autonomous electric car business.

A new LeEco concept vehicle was supposed to drive onstage as the cherry on LeEco’s sundae. However, the car was damaged on its way to the event. (I’m told it was being transported, not involved in a car crash.)

Instead, the company flew in a second concept model that was being used in a “Transformers” movie shoot in London.

There’s no timetable of when to expect either the LeEco or Faraday Future cars to actually be available, though LeEco chief Jia Yueting said to expect more news at CES in January.

Given that I was having trouble separating fact from fiction, I thought readers might want some help, too. After the event, I caught up with former Samsung and Sprint executive Danny Bowman, who is chief revenue officer for LeEco’s North American operations.

Here are a few things I was able to nail down for sure.

• LeEco plans to start selling two phones and four TV models via its website, starting Nov. 2. The phones are based on models in China but use Qualcomm processors, something that should help the company defend itself on the intellectual property front.

• The company also plans to start selling a new version of its Android-powered bike on Nov. 2, though the company says that will be a test program for enthusiasts, similar to what Google did with Glass, rather than true commercial availability.

• LeEco has its EcoPass subscription business to go with its hardware, which includes five terabytes of cloud storage and other perks, but it isn’t saying how much that will cost. Between three months and a year of that service will come free with the purchase of a TV or phone, depending on the model. The company planned to announce a bundle combining EcoPass with a subscription to an unnamed content partner, but that announcement is now coming Nov. 2.

As for the future, Bowman said he is looking beyond an online-only approach. Bowman said to expect LeEco products to be in 200 locations during November and December, so that consumers can get some hands-on time, while longer-term relationships with mobile operators and retailers should come in the first half of next year.

He didn’t specify a market-share goal, but Bowman said that a year from now he would hope that both mobile carriers and major retailers are carrying his products. And he also hopes by then that people don’t think he works for an obscure French company.

“Success would be I don’t have to say ‘LeEco who’” he said. “People actually know who we are and they understand our business model.”

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