They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But if you mentioned the clichéd idiom to SOL Republic founder and former Beats By Dr. Dre exec, and current CEO of upstart headphone company SOL Republic, Kevin Lee, he’d proudly tell you the apple never fell and that It's still there—just swinging from a different branch. Those who have worked closely with Kevin during his Monster days can attest to the uncanny business acumen and familial bond shared between him and his father, Monster founder, Noel Lee.
Noel Lee has come a long way since he began building wired cables in his family's garage in the late '70s. He fought a long, hard battle to get electronics stores to sell his products even though there was no real market for high-quality cables. Since then his company, Monster, has conqured the home theater and audio accessories markets, as well as, most recently, the consumer audio segment with its partnership with legendary producer Dr. Dre. If you, like many others, have become a fan of the Beats by Dr. Dre line, you owe Noel and Kevin a debt of gratitude.
In their first-ever interview together, the Monsters chop it up with COMPLEX, while welcoming special guests Earth, Wind & Fire to sit in, as we discuss humble beginnings, the Monster legacy, competitive rivalries, the Beats project, and the future of headphones. Listen up.
Like Father, Like Son
Did you envision yourself grooming Kevin for the industry, or was he given the freedom to make his own decisions?
Noel: When I had my son, I was still trying to teach me. Forget about teaching him [Laughs]. When I started the company, I wasn’t in a place while he was growing because I was learning. An engineer who’s never been to business school has a lot to learn about business—leadership, finance, accountability, inventory, employee hiring, marketing, and all that other stuff. Those kind of things were not taught to me. So it was trial by fire, just learning.
Those days, I couldn’t get a credit card because there weren’t any. No Internet. It was just an Apple II computer when I started. It was crazy. When I first had Kevin, it was just the thought of having a son/father relationship. But business really didn’t enter into it because we were scrapping. I couldn’t even say we had a business. Today I can say we have a business, but in those days, no.
Do you think you could have accomplished what your father did during that time period?
Kevin: No way. I hope to be very successful in this new business, but I could never for a nanosecond say that I did it under the same circumstances or went through the same things my Dad did. I mean, from scratch with no money, as a Chinese guy in 1979, trying to convince half-priced stores to sell cables that they were giving away for free, and no credit—it took nearly 10 years before Monster became successful. So I don’t take the same sense of accomplishments in what I’ve done in the company so far, as I would credit my father for. I should be able to figure things out because I grew up under his wing.
Not many people know about Monster’s early beginnings. You originally started building products in your garage. When you look back, even though they were hard times and you were hustling to make ends meet, what goes through your mind after achieving so much prosperity?
Noel: I can’t image that’s where it started because it was so hard during those days. I don’t think I could do it again, now. But you had to be young, inexperienced, foolish, and think that there was nothing you couldn’t get done, which comes with not knowing. But when you look at other businesses that started that become larger, I’m sure a lot of the owners would say that was a time that could never be duplicated again. I had a good job. I was working for Laurence Livermore Laboratory doing research as an engineer.
Here’s what sons of Asian immigrants do: you become lawyers, accountants, or engineers. And it used to be where you got SAT credits if you were Asian. Today, you get minus SAT credits because there is so many of them. Asians aren’t entrepreneurs, that’s why there are so few Asian leaders outside of China—so few in Silicon Valley. I was one of the ones who said I wasn’t going to work for somebody anymore, I just said I don’t belong here.
Kevin: Can you imagine my Dad having a boss?
After hearing his incredible come up, getting the grand tour of the Monster offices, and checking out his insane car collection: I'm surprised he ever reported to everyone [Laughs]. He's a smart man. A leader, hustler, and go-getter.
Noel: Before that, I was a musician and went out on the road, that’s when he had a whole different degree of independence. I dragged Kevin with us everywhere and he slept inside the drum set.
Kevin: The bass drum, that’s what I used as a pillow.
Noel: You didn’t know what the future was going to be. Then you had these sleazy club owners who didn’t pay you. That’s when I learned about business, it was like an initiation. I ended up negotiating one of the best contracts in Hawaii: a year contract. It took a long time of getting kicked around. But I would of never learned business if I was still working for somebody. And how to handle yourself and negotiate, save, work and not work, but every musician knows that.
Speaking of bosses—how was it working under your pops?
Kevin: I hated every day of it [laughs]. Nah, the father and son relationship that we’ve had is the best. And on the work side, it was good and bad. I know exactly what he’s thinking, what he wants right. When he says, “Kevin, you gotta get this done,” he feels confident that I’ll give him exactly what he wants and get it done. On the other hand, he knows exactly what he wants.
They say the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. I say I’m the apple that never fell far from the tree—I’m just on a different branch. So sometimes I see things different. But like my father, if I’m passionate about something, I want it done that way too. The good thing for me is I know my dad was always supportive of me growing, and while he’s the boss, he was always supportive of my personal and professional growth. Even with things outside of the company. So any opportunity in the company that I wanted to try and do, he was like go for it. When I wanted to do my own entrepreneurial thing a decade ago, he was supportive.
When you brought Kevin into the company, was it ever in the cards to pass the baton and crown him the Head Monster?
Noel: Well, that was always the plan. But it doesn’t have to be the plan. You have your kids taking over and that’s both good and bad because sometimes they screw it up. And if he was ever going to do that, not to say it’s never going to happen because I ain’t dead yet: he’d have the experience. You have to meet certain guidelines, which if he didn’t have that good accountability, he probably wouldn’t do a good job running the company. Right? If it was his first main voyage out and he didn’t have that experience, the measures of success are capped. So if anything, he’ll have the experience, and if the time ever came that he was going to run Monster, he’d be well equipped to do so.
How would you feel about possibly running your father’s empire in the near future?
Kevin: One, I’d be honored. Cut me open, I’m a monster and will always be a monster. Doing that and being apart of the ongoing future of Monster, also running the company as good as he did, or even better, I would want to make him even prouder. On the other hand, like my dad said, he ain’t dead yet. He’s a workaholic and he’s gonna work till that day. I’m not like my dad in that sense. I always joke with him and say “Pops, we’re gonna retire together.”
So you don’t see yourself in the business or working as hard as your father when you reach his age?
Kevin: I have a balanced appreciation for all aspects of life including work. My dad has an imbalanced appreciation. He’s wired to work. If the day did come, I’d be happy to do it. But like he said, everyday I run this new company is another day where I feel more comfortable in my ability to run Monster if that day came.