You may not have heard of LeEco yet, but you'll likely be hearing a lot about it soon. The Chinese company, founded in 2004 as LeTV.com, is rapidly growing into tech sectors including smartphones, TVs, and even electric cars. It's also a content provider—a streaming media company that makes movies and TV shows in its native China.
Exhausted yet? There's more. LeEco (short for Le Ecosystem) has also bankrolled U.S. films and it just opened its own Hollywood studio. "Le" does not come from the French, but from the Mandarin word for happiness or joy. Today in San Francisco, the ambitious company threw its own debutant party, formally announcing that it has arrived in North America, with plans to set up shop in Silicon Valley where it will employ up to 12,000 people. For good measure, it also introduced two phones, four TVs, and an autonomous electric car.
"Whether you love us or hate us, you can’t ignore us," said a surprisingly frank video played at the event.
LeEco (pronounced like "lu eeko") started as "the Netflix of China," as some have called it, with LeTV.com. It has since become—or at least aspired to become—the Sony of China, both making consumer electronics and now owning a U.S. movie studio, Le Vision Entertainment. It's the Tesla of China, too, having debuted an electric self-driving car, the LeSEE Pro, at its event today. It's also a bike maker, a car-share company, and an e-commerce site—in short, a conglomerate.
Flying in the face of China's pervasive culture of piracy, LeEco has managed to convince consumers there to pay for online video. The LeTV.com site now has over 730 million monthly users, says LeEco, which claims that it has the largest catalog of online video content in China. Like Netflix, the company is also an original content creator, launching Le Vision Pictures in 2011. It became famous for the Tiny Times franchise: a coming-of-age movie series about four women friends growing up through high school, college, and post-college life.
Also like Netflix, which launched its own streaming media players, LeTV.com launched internet-connected TVs in 2013. Netflix spun off its device maker, Roku; but LeTV.com has held onto its smart TV brand (which it claims is the biggest in China), while also buying U.S. smart TV maker Vizio.
Not only is LeEco a big TV maker, it's a maker of big TVs, unveiling the 85-inch (that is, seven feet) uMax85 model today for $4,999, which is technically cheap for such a monster. It also introduced three moderately priced smart TVs, the Super4 line, from 43 to 65 inches, priced from $649 to $1,399.
LeEco also announced a giant content service to watch on the sets, as well as phones and even screens in its car. The service includes MGM, Lionsgate, Showtime, A&E, Magnolia, Vice, and SlingTV, among others. Pricing is confusing. Some of services are free. Some are included for customers in its membership program, and some may be included in a "disruptive" media program the company plans to unveil on November 2.
The phone division, while tiny by global standards (with a 1.7% market share), is the fastest-growing smartphone maker, according to research firm Strategy Analytics, Shipments have ballooned from 3.9 million (0.3% of the market) in 2015, when the brand launched, to an estimated 25 million for this year. The newest, announced today, are the high-end LePro3 for $399 and the Le S3 for $249. Rob Chandhok, head of R&D for North America, talked about the 36-step process to produce the brushed-metal black in loving tones reminiscent of Apple's Jonny Ive.
Oh, and the company teased a VR headset that the phones will fit into.
LeEco's founder and CEO, YT Jia, isn't modest, boasting that he can remake media in the U.S., as well. "We are not just another technology company who says we think differently. We really do think differently," he bragged in a blog post yesterday. Jia claims that LeEco will break down all these darn silos between content and devices, owning the whole product chain. That's not so different from Sony, which owns a movie studio and music label and sells cameras and TVs. Sony isn't doing so well these days, but it also doesn't have bikes and cars. LeEco purchased Hollywood's Dichotomy Creative Group in September, incorporating it into Le Vision Entertainment.
Together with Legendary Entertainment, Le Vision produced The Great Wall, the biggest Sino-US film project yet. Debuting in December, the Matt Damon fantasy adventure flick looks like Game of Thrones in ancient China.
Up north, LeEco purchased 49 acres of land from Yahoo in Santa Clara to build its EcoCity—a kind of tech and media wonderland that will have offices for 12,000 employees, plus public venues for music and sports. "Some say that LeEco is crazy for going to the backyard of these companies to get a piece of their pie," said Jia (through an interpreter), while onstage in San Francisco. He dissed rival Apple as a closed system, but LeEco is also closed, just bigger. Apple doesn’t have a car (yet), or TV and movie studios, or bikes, or on online mall.
LeEco is also taking on Amazon with its own e-commerce site, LeMall.com. It's a place to buy the company's products and also subscribe to its online services. Like Amazon Prime, LeEco has a program called EcoPass that includes discounts on its products, extended warranties, unlimited video viewing, unlimited photo and video storage, and extended warranties on products. EcoPass offers "rebates," like $100 on its phone, that can be spent on—you guessed it—other LeEco products in its mall. LeEco claims the program is worth $1,000 per year. Buyers of TVs and phones will get from 3 months to a year of EcoPass access, and Le Eco may eventually sell access to the program a la Amazon Prime, says chief revenue officer Danny Bowman. More will be revealed on November 2, when LeMall has its first flash sale.
Jia and LeEco go to pains to explain how there is an integrated vision uniting all of its products, but that seems like a stretch as you get to bikes and cars. The one unifying feature, perhaps, is that they have batteries. The bike sports LED headlights and rear lights and a handlebar computer with GPS, workout tracker, a bike-to-bike intercom, and a find-my-iPhone style tracker if it's stolen (it comes with a year of 3G data service). Otherwise, it's a very nice hybrid bike with a carbon-fiber frame and 30 speeds. The company hasn't announced a price or even when it will start selling in the U.S. For now it will give bikes to a few people who enter an online lottery.
LeEco debuted a concept electric car in April and showed off the mass-market model today, the LeSEE Pro. The company didn't name a price, but it likely won't be cheap. The car is a collaboration with secretive American electric carmaker Faraday Futures and Aston Martin—James Bond's favorite car brand. The car will be decked out for entertainment, with backseat (and possibly front seat) screens that have access to LeEco's streaming services.
Jia spent about half his time on stage with a long explanation and apology that he couldn't get the car on stage. He'd planned to have the autonomous car drive him onto the stage, but it got stuck in traffic coming from the airport. Jia said that he wouldn't have had the problem had there been an autonomous electric plane that could have flown the car directly to the event site. He seemed to be joking about the plane. But given Jia's propensity to get into just about every product category, who knows?