Van Halen always represented heavy metal excess, but at its peak the band was the American dream in a nutshell. It encompassed the hard-working immigrant story via the Van Halen brothers, Eddie and Alex, sons of a classical musician who emigrated from the Netherlands to the San Fernando Valley. It also represented the classic P.T. Barnum showman story in the person of the band's original lead singer, the audacious David Lee Roth. Basically, Van Halen was the skinny Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis and the fat Las Vegas Elvis rolled into one. The boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last March.
Along the way, Van Halen also served as muse for a classic American entrepreneur story, helping to launch the career of Jerry and Mindy Harvey, co-founders of Ultimate Ears.
Inspiration arises from the craziest places, even backstage amidst the never-ending drama of one of the best-selling groups of all time. This is the story of a band, a company, an eardrum-saving audio device, and enough ups and downs to fill a month of VH1 programming.
Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rock?1
The year was 1995, and Alex Van Halen was fed up with all that noise.
That wall of sound Van Halen creates is murder on the ears. It wrecks them physically, and at the same time it makes it damn near impossible for the musicians to parse out their individual instruments to know if they're in sync on "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love." It's an age-old problem that inevitably leads to the "gas fires," as Alex calls them: Everyone onstage tries to play louder than the guy next to him, and before you know it, each amp, speaker, and microphone goes to 11.
"Ed and I play together the most," says Van Halen, "and if he and I are off in concert, it's apparent." What Alex wanted was a device that could isolate the sounds. He threw down the gauntlet during the rehearsals for the band's Balance tour, and Van Halen's primary audio engineer, Jerry Harvey, took up the challenge.
Harvey was an industry veteran who had traveled the world mixing sound for performers including Kiss, Morrissey, the Cult, Van Halen, and also David Lee Roth, who at this point had been out of the band for a decade.2 Harvey first met Roth at a bar in the 1980s, and he's been linked to Van Halen in one way, shape, or form ever since. "'Hot for Teacher' has been paying my bills since 1986," says Harvey. From his perch on the left side of the stage behind a black drop, Harvey's job, essentially, was to make sure the band members liked what they heard (as opposed to the person behind the big board out in the crowd, who only has to please the drunken audience). Harvey says the job was half engineering, half playing psychiatrist to rock stars, and well worth the occasional raging monster ego. "There is nothing like the adrenaline of 14,000 fans screaming when the house lights go down," he says. "I love mixing."
A tinkerer by nature, Harvey started spending his free time out on the road trying to solve Alex's sound issues. In Japan he found tiny electronic components; in the States he found a speaker designed for a pacemaker. He mixed and matched pieces until he had a prototype for an in-ear speaker system. He connected the earpieces via thin cables to a small receiver (the technology for which already existed) that Alex could wear on his belt. The receiver picked up the signal wirelessly from Harvey's mixing board.
His invention functioned as an in-ear monitor, basically a miniaturized version of the traditional onstage monitors--the speakers that point back at the band. These in-ear monitors had dual drivers--that is, two little speakers--to separate the output volume into low (for bass) and high (for treble) frequencies. And they fit into shells made from impressions of Alex's ears. The monitors used the ear's naturally closed system to lock out ambient noise, allowing the drummer to hear the instrument mix clearly and quietly, by metal standards anyway. "It was like night and day," says Alex.
Skid Row was opening for Van Halen on the tour. Sebastian Bach and company wanted the device. Unlike the guinea pig freebies Alex received, however, Skid Row paid $3,000 cash for six pairs. After a third client--Englebert Humperdinck, as it happens--requested his invention, Harvey sensed an opportunity. He decided to set up an S corporation. Thanks to a late, late, late night of spitballing over tour bus cocktails, the company already had a name. Within weeks, word started to spread throughout the rock-and-roll community about Ultimate Ears, the earpieces that would eventually change the music industry for the better.
Harvey was living his dream job, and actually running a company was as far from his reality as windmilling a guitar in Wembley Stadium would be from yours and mine. His wife, Mindy, though, was back home in St. Louis, working as a sales manger for a large office equipment supplier and looking for a change. She was the only woman on the sales force and was unhappy with the boy's club mentality. A former model who had once spent her nights at Studio 54, Mindy had more or less been on her own since the age of 16, and was taken with the idea of running a small business.
The Harveys were entrepreneurial novices, but they believed that rock star support meant the proof was in the product. "I love Ultimate Ears; they're nothing short of incredible," says Alex Van Halen. And if an exacting musician like Alex Van Halen approved, there was an untapped lucrative marketplace and only one thing to do.
Might as well jump.3
To set the stage, here's a quick story about Jerry Harvey and his Trans Am. In 1980, the Grand Slam Superjam tour, starring April Wine, Judas Priest, and Sammy Hagar, stopped at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Harvey's hometown. The Red Rocker wanted to make a memorable entrance to celebrate his anthem "Trans Am (Highway Wonderland)." Hagar's people scoured the streets until they found Harvey tooling around in his 1978 red Pontiac Trans Am. They pulled him over. He gladly turned over the keys in exchange for tickets to catch Hagar driving his car onto the stage.
It was the beginning of Harvey's music career. He landed a job as a gopher with the local promoter of that show. That led to a gig humping gear for a local band called the Agents, which saw him becoming the light, and ultimately the sound, guy. "I was underage at the clubs knowing I wanted to be in the biz," says Harvey. "I was so in awe of the big rock show."
His career ultimately proved the old Journey axiom that the road ain't no place to start a family. What Steve Perry neglected to mention, however, is that it can be a great place to start a business.4
Shortly after founding the company in 1995, the Harveys dedicated themselves to establishing the brand by sacrificing their marriage. Unlike the Van Halen-Roth, Van Halen-Hagar, Van Halen-Cherone (don't ask) divorces, the Harveys' breakup went smoothly and was honestly better for all parties involved. They had met in 1985 at a Knack show that Jerry was mixing, and wed in 1990. Jerry was supposed to slow down, but he lives for the thunder and couldn't stick to the plan. Mindy decided that she didn't want a rock-and-roll husband anymore.
A rock-and-roll business partner, however--that could be a very good thing. "Ultimate Ears is the child we never had," says Mindy, "and in the big picture, getting divorced was the only way to spread the word about the company." To be close to the action, the Harveys moved themselves (separately) and the company to Las Vegas and ran Ultimate Ears out of Mindy's house.
After the Balance tour wrapped up, Jerry joined up with K.D. Lang on the All You Can Eat tour and later with Motley Crue for Generation Swine. He was messianic about spreading the word band by band, although--every marketplace has its points of resistance--he usually had to work to convince rock stars their Ultimate Ears wouldn't look like a couple of hearing aids. To make the monitors, Ultimate Ears contracted with Westone, a Colorado Springs manufacturer of custom-fit earpieces. All the artists had to do was get a couple of ear impressions and send them along to Westone. A few weeks later they'd have their Ultimate Ears.
Back home in Sin City, Mindy handled marketing, finance, and rock star relations. "It worked great," says Jerry. "Mindy and I were able to run Ultimate Ears without having to see each other every day. That never would have worked."
A custom pair of Ultimate Ears went for $700 to $900. The money was collected up front, so the company never ran a day in the red, even if it didn't make a significant profit until 1998 with the introduction of Harvey's fifth-generation model, the UE-5. Artists took to the earpieces because of the dual drivers and because they can take a beating. And not only do Ultimate Ears eliminate onstage monitors, opening up more room for martial arts moves and backup dancers, they also provide much-needed audial safety by reducing volume and stress. "I've lost 60 percent hearing in my left ear and 30 percent in my right," says Alex Van Halen. "I absolutely wish these things had been around in the beginning because you don't get dizzy or noise drunk." By 2000, Ultimate Ears was becoming as central to the rock-and-roll experience as pyrotechnics, groupies, and gratuitous bass solos.5 Acts as varied as the Rolling Stones, Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were fans and customers.
Up until the end of 2001, the partnership with Westone worked fine. Ultimate Ears continued to grow by adding some 200 artists, including theatrical productions like Cirque du Soleil, television shows like the Late Show With David Letterman, and large houses of worship like the Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. ("Churches were an unknown market, but some of them have $200,000 sound systems and spend money like rock bands," says Mindy.) The Harveys assumed they had done everything right by outsourcing the manufacturing and accruing no debt.
Unfortunately, Jerry was soon forced to retire from mixing the big rock shows when he discovered Ultimate Ears just might be running with the devil.6
If VH1 were to do a Behind the Music about Ultimate Ears, the first seven years would be its meteoric rise to stardom and 2002 would be when it all came crashing down. It wasn't sex, drugs, or mainlining Jack Daniels7 that brought the company to the brink, but rather the nefarious problems of intellectual property battles.
At some point in 2001, the relationship between Ultimate Ears and Westone soured. Jerry says Westone had begun claiming the custom designs as its own; he heard through the touring grapevine that Westone was trying to set up separate European distribution. Mindy visited Westone with an attorney and was told that Westone owned all trademarks and patents associated with Ultimate Ears. One thing was certain: Jerry had no patent protection. (He's since rectified that; he holds three patents and has applied for 10 more.)
The recollections of rock-business lifers tend to be…shaky, and Jerry has been known to take the same scorched-earth approach to business affairs as the members of Van Halen. So not everyone agrees with Jerry's version of events, which is basically that he trusted Westone and the people there ripped him off. Lynn Kehler, president of Westone, says his company and Ultimate Ears co-developed the UE-5. "We are a straight and narrow company with a stellar reputation going back to 1959," says Kehler. "I don't agree with Jerry's remarks, but challenging them to set the record straight is unproductive."
Jerry's instinct after the Westone crisis was to take total control by building the products himself. There was a major rub, though: He had always designed the interior circuitry of the monitors, but he had no clue how to make the acrylic shells. Oh, and Westone had all the rock star impressions. Needless to say, it's yeoman's work getting dudes like Scott Weiland8 to come in and sit still for a fitting.
Mindy's conservative business acumen called for finding a new manufacturing partner, but Jerry didn't think a new manufacturer could handle the intricate technological advances he envisioned for the next model. He wanted Ultimate Ears to have its own lab, and he told Mindy he needed $5,000 for a trip to Florida to research hearing aid manufacturing. It was the biggest fight the Harveys ever had, marriage included. "My fear was that we would spend all of our resources, put our houses up, and I would get stuck with the responsibility of running a manufacturing plant with no experience," Mindy says. She acquiesced on one condition: that Jerry retire from touring (more on that in a bit) and commit full-time to running the lab.
Jerry agreed. "We would have been out of business in 60 days because our relationship with Westone was so deteriorated," he says. "It was do-or-die time."
Right now, hey, it's your tomorrow.9
Jerry spent two weeks in a hearing aid crash course in Orlando, where he stumbled upon his secret weapon, Chomphorn "Noy" Soudaly, a hearing aid technician from Laos who was one of the instructors. Without consulting his partner, Jerry hired Noy at double his salary to help build, staff, and run the lab they planned on setting up in Las Vegas. "With Mindy it's always better to ask for forgiveness than permission," Jerry says.
The Harveys kept the Ultimate Ears offices in Mindy's home and leased space for a lab. Jerry gave himself three months to turn Ultimate Ears into an earpiece manufacturer. "Noy and I had 100 days of hell," says Jerry. They worked 16 hours a day in research and development while simultaneously fulfilling orders, attempting to perfect the new models before the official launch date of April 4, 2002. The upgraded earpieces shipped on time.
Ultimate Ears was up and running, but there were still the legal wranglings with Westone. Eventually, the parties settled out of court. Ultimate Ears won a small royalty fee, but most important, Jerry and Mindy walked away with the brand intact. "It was a fight we had to win because we had worked so hard to build the brand," says Jerry. "Ultimate Ears is me."
In the interim, Mindy went about cajoling and explaining the situation to their renowned customers when they would call in for repairs or new earpieces. She told the rock stars that Ultimate Ears was now on its own and that if they wanted Jerry's handiwork, they had to either call Westone to get back their ear impressions or let Ultimate Ears send out an audiologist to get a new one. About 90 percent of the artists remained loyal to the Harveys. "They were all rooting for us because they consider Jerry one of their own," says Mindy. "Guys like Gene Simmons loved the idea of us as rebellious outsider entrepreneurs."
By 2003, Ultimate Ears was a solid operation with five employees and close to a million dollars in revenue. The company estimated it had 80 percent of the professional market. Noy took over the operations of the lab, Jerry continued to work on enhanced custom models, and Mindy handled everything else. The turnaround time for a new set of earpieces was down to a couple of weeks. Things were clicking, and Jerry was itching to come out of retirement. Mindy understood the need for grass-roots marketing, so she acquiesced when Linkin Park--kind of a Van Halen for a new generation--came calling.
Going back out on the road would take the company in a whole new direction, eventually leading to an Ultimate Ears eruption.10
Jerry was milling around before a Linkin Park gig when a member of the band's production staff handed Jerry a music device that he was unfamiliar with. An iPod. It blew him away. He left the tour early; he had to get back to design a less expensive version of Ultimate Ears aimed at everyday audiophiles.
In January 2004, the $550 UE-5c model debuted, featuring dual drivers tuned specifically for digital devices. The earpieces were a smash hit and doubled company revenue.
So why would the Harveys pack up in 2005 and take the show on the road, moving the company from Las Vegas to Irvine, California, in the heart of suburban Orange County? Perhaps to heed the 1988 Van Halen challenge: Come on baby, finish what ya started.11
When the Harveys first toyed with the idea of making lower-cost custom earpieces, they recognized that Ultimate Ears needed outside capital but weren't quite sure how to proceed. Jerry eventually talked to Matt Bruck--Eddie Van Halen's guy at the 5150 studios--while making arrangements to ship Alex's newly upgraded earpieces, the UE-10s. Bruck turned out to know a guy who knew a guy who had helped bring Jabra cell phone headsets to market.
The guy was Bob Allison, owner and CEO of the investment holding company Innovate Partners. Allison felt that the rock-and-roll community's embrace of Ultimate Ears validated the technology. He was thinking bigger than just custom designs, though, and wanted to talk to the Harveys about a low-cost entry into the mass consumer market. The Harveys were game. Innovate agreed to put the money behind development and use its industry connections and knowledge from the Jabra experience to set up a manufacturing operation in China. Allison is not a particularly hard-rocking guy, but he's now the CEO of Ultimate Ears. Mindy is the president, Jerry the chief technical officer.
In April 2005, Ultimate Ears came out with the Super.fi 5 Pro, a $250 unit that was its first universal-fit product. Allison says 2006 revenue was in excess of $10 million and the 2007 plan is to grow to $22 million. Ultimate Ears has three new products coming out this year--one custom, two universal--and has entered into co-branding partnerships with the speaker company Altec Lansing and the pro-audio company M-Audio. Ultimate Ears products now begin at $79.
Getting the word out is still vitally important. Allison estimates that 8,500 artists in the music industry and another 3,000 audiophiles currently use the top-of-the-line customs, but there are plenty of big-time acts to woo. "A lot of our bands are still the early adapters, and we get their repeat business," says Allison. "There is a lot of room for deeper penetration with our stunning new product." He is referring to the UE-11, a $1,000 custom design featuring Jerry's first triple drive, which further separates the low-end frequencies. The company will be expanding the base while expanding the bass: The first performer to give the UE-11s a go is platinum-selling country artist Kenny Chesney.12
There are always up-and-coming bands like Fall Out Boy13 discovering Ultimate Ears. And if the rock market ever gets saturated, there's also the biggest music genre in the universe to tap. "We haven't had a lot of luck in the hip-hop community yet," says Mindy, "which is too bad because Ultimate Ears really bring out the bass."
Ultimate Ears is living the fast life even as Jerry and Mindy slow down. The company's 30 full-time employees share its Irvine headquarters with Innovate Partners and a few of Innovate's other companies in a nondescript office park. "We're a tad less rock-and-roll these days," says Jerry. "But I haven't changed, I'm still the same guy with a sleeve of tattoos."
The music still bounces off the laboratory walls; it's just that now it's played closer to a doctor's office level, per Mindy's request. Growing up happens to the best of us. Sammy Hagar turns 60 this October. But don't think for a second that Mindy and Jerry aren't enjoying their second act. For starters, they both had love come walking in.14 Jerry got married for a third time, moved back home to St. Louis, and has a young daughter, Katie. It's only a temporary domestication, he says, because if the rumors are true, Van Halen will be going out on tour this fall after Eddie gets out of rehab.
As for Mindy, well…"I swore off men in the music industry," she says, "but at least he is a drummer and only works a couple hours a day so it's a lot more user friendly." Her boyfriend of many years was based in Vegas, hitting the skins as a member of the Blue Man Group band, but he recently joined the touring edition and is headed out on the road. What's a corporate president gonna do?
It's fortunate for the Harveys' sake that Alex Van Halen doesn't charge royalties--though it goes without saying that he gets first crack at all new models. "Ultimate Ears is a dream come true," says Mindy. "I love watching the little rock-and-roll company Jerry and I started take off."
And in the end, on dreams we will depend. 'Cause that's what love is made of.15
Patrick J. Sauer is a regular contributor to Inc. He saw Van Halen at the Metra in Billings, Montana, in 1986.
1 If not, we suggest putting on "Unchained," track 5 on Fair Warning.
2 Roth famously quit the band in 1985 after years of in-fighting and was replaced by Sammy Hagar, who in turn split from Van Halen, twice. The 33-year soap opera didn't keep the band from becoming a 2007 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it did keep every founding member from attending the ceremony except for bassist Michael Anthony…who was replaced in the band last year by Eddie's son Wolfgang.
3 Worshipped by synthesizer disciples everywhere, "Jump" is the only Van Halen song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
4 Journey still uses Ultimate Ears. Steve Perry, no longer a member of the band, does not.
5 There is no other kind of bass solo.
6 The first track off Van Halen's diamond-certified (10 million-plus in sales) self-titled debut album, Runnin' With the Devil, introduced the band as a bunch of hell-raisers with an affinity for the sounds of freight trains and foghorns.
7 See Behind the Music: Motley Crue.
8 The troubled former lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots now fronts supergroup Velvet Revolver, the band that was chosen to cover Van Halen cuts at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. David Lee Roth was reportedly upset that he wouldn't be allowed to sing his own songs; he skipped the ceremony altogether.
9 "Right Now," track 9 off For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, was famous for two things: a video that featured cryptic messages such as "Right now, God is killing moms and dogs because he has to," and for being used in the ads for Crystal Pepsi, which, right now, is not available at your local grocery store.
10 "Eruption," the virtuoso Eddie Van Halen solo on the debut album, popularized the two-handed "finger-tapping" technique, to the delight of guitar gods and geeks everywhere.
11 Track 6 off of OU812.
12 Alex and Eddie Van Halen came out of seclusion in June 2006 to join Chesney on stage for "Jump" and "You Really Got Me."
13 Your 13-year-old daughter loves them.
14 The power ballad "Love Walks In" is track 7 on 5150, the first Sammy Hagar-led Van Halen album. It is named for the California police code for a crazy person.
15 Amen, Van Halen. Amen.