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BlackBerry's brush with fame: reaching Justin Bieber, discos, and the NFL

BlackBerry's brush with fame: reaching Justin Bieber, discos, and the NFL

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BlackBerry Bold (STOCK)
BlackBerry Bold (STOCK)

With BlackBerry falling apart day by day, fans have never been more eager to reminisce on the pioneering smartphone maker's rise. While it's easy to forget the celebrity that the BlackBerry brand once held, Bloomberg Businessweek spoke with a number of old employees — most having worked there when it was still named RIM — who remember it well. "There wasn’t a meeting I couldn’t get," Vincent Washington, a BlackBerry business development manager with the company between 2001 and 2011, tells Businessweek. "All I had to say was, 'Hey, I’m bringing the BlackBerrys.'"

"Hey, can I get your PIN?"

The excitement quickly extended to customers. At launches in Jamaica and Trinidad, BlackBerry owners were reportedly invited to discos where they could get temporary tattoos that, when scanned, revealed their BBM PIN. "People would say, 'Scan me, scan me.' And as the evening went on, people would get more risqué and put the tattoos on different parts of their body," Lidia Feraco, a BlackBerry marketing manager with the company between 2005 and 2011, tells Businessweek. She says that instead of asking for each others' phone numbers, the classic pickup line morphed into, "'Hey, can I get your PIN?'"

While public figures from President Obama to Kim Kardashian have been known to use BlackBerrys, at some point BlackBerry missed out on a shot at one other big name: Justin Bieber. "He said, 'Give me $200,000 and 20 devices, and I’m your brand ambassador,'" Washington tells Businessweek. The pitch wasn't well received, despite Washington speaking in favor of it. "[Marketing] said, 'This kid is a fad. He’s not going to last.' I said at the meeting: 'This kid might outlive RIM.'"

One of Washington's more successful ventures was getting BlackBerrys in the hands of nearly every NFL team. Washington tells Businessweek that he played college football and that many of his former teammates had gone on to play and coach in the NFL. "They were always reaching out to me and saying, 'Hey, can you send me a BlackBerry?'" Washington says. "So I was like, why don’t we just go after the NFL as a business?" After meeting all 32 teams at an NFL tech summit, he was reportedly able to get 31 on board — the Cowboys were the only holdout.

Michael Dell bought a BlackBerry a week after launch

Despite its impressive cultural presence, Businessweek reports that BlackBerry started out small: its office was above a pizza shop, and one early employee's first task was to build his own desk. Once the BlackBerry came around, the situation seemed to change quickly. Dell founder Michael Dell reportedly ordered one around a week after launch and in an email to BlackBerry said he was "super excited" to get it.

But the company may have grown too quickly once its popularity exploded. Ex-employees tell Businessweek that BlackBerry went from having 2,000 to 12,000 employees in just four years, and that a lot of it was management. One ex-employee says that at one point he'd heard that only around 5 to 10 percent of the company's employees were in engineering. Another employee suggests that the company just didn't know how to appeal to customers. "Being successful at RIM was all about being close to the carriers," Paula Dymond, a BlackBerry sales team employee with the company between 2004 and 2011, tells Businessweek. "I’m not sure what we were doing to get customers in the door."

As for how such a successful company could fall apart, a professor who works at the Balsillie School of International Affairs — named after BlackBerry's departed co-CEO Jim Balsillie — tells Businessweek an anecdote that might shed some light. He heard Balsillie speak about the company in 2010, as it was beginning to fall apart. "A lot of people who are involved in building a $60 billion company like to look back and attribute their success to smart moves along the way," he recalls Balsillie saying. "What I’m going to tell you is a story about luck — and extraordinary luck at key moments along the way."

Update: an earlier version of this article stated that BlackBerry executives were seen carrying iPhones. That was incorrect — the BlackBerry employee recalled seeing executives at other companies using iPhones.