Playing the game to win
Business Times Singapore
By Francis Kan
April 8, 2014
After helping grow one of the world's top gaming brands, Razer co-founder and CEO Tan Min-Liang is looking to be a dominant player in the fast-growing Internet of Things industry, reports FRANCIS KAN
VISIT any computer gaming community anywhere in the world, and you're likely to spot at least a few enthusiasts sporting a tattoo of a triple-headed snake. This menacing symbol is not some badge of gang allegiance, but rather, a dramatic, and very permanent salute to a brand.
That brand is Razer, a maker of high-end gaming hardware and software that has achieved cult status among its growing army of fans who use its sleek mice and laptops to gain an edge over virtual rivals.
The San Francisco-based company was co-founded in 2005 by Singaporean Tan Min-Liang, who together with partner Robert Krakoff, grew it from a two-man operation into a global business with offices in nine countries and revenues in the hundreds of millions.
“We have fans who have set up shrines to Razer in their bedrooms. It's cool to see someone get a tattoo of your brand, but it's also an incredible responsibility to keep up with expectations. We have to make sure that when we ship something, it's worthy of the Razer brand,” says Mr Tan, 42, who spoke with The Business Times during a recent visit to Singapore, where one of the company's three design centres is based.
Dressed in his signature garb of black tee, jeans and sneakers, he explains that the company's products are designed “for gamers by gamers”.
He also said expectations among fans and industry watchers continue to rise with each new offering from Razer. The firm's products have won top honours four times at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the industry's most prestigious trade show.
Mr Tan himself has been hailed as a rising star in the technology business. Among other accolades, he was named as one of “The 25 Most Creative People in Tech” by Business Insider together with luminaries such as Apple's design guru Jonathan Ive.
Success has brought fortune to Razer and its founders, but fame has largely been confined to the gaming world. That might change with the recent launch of Nabu, a wearable smart wristband that, among other applications, can track how many steps you've taken, give you directions or detect other users in the vicinity.
The groundbreaking product won the Best of CES People's Choice Award earlier this year, and represents a new product category for Razer that is targeted at a broader audience. Indeed, celebrities like pop star Rihanna have been spotted wearing the smartband.
Nabu has garnered the company more than the usual hype because of its place in the tech world's latest obsession: The Internet of Things (IoT). This refers to all sorts of everyday products that have web connectivity built into them; from “wearables” such as glasses and watches to kitchen appliances and consumer electronics.
Imagine your refrigerator being able to not only tell when you have run out of milk, but also automatically places an order to replenish the item at your online grocery store. It's that alluring mix of cool and convenience that has got everyone from Wall Street analysts to Silicon Valley investors in a tizzy over any IoT-related business. And it's not all just talk. In January, Google paid US$2.3 billion to acquire Nest, a company that makes connected thermostats and smoke alarms.
As more players enter this space – no doubt eager to attract the attentions of other tech giants – Razer enjoys one key advantage. Long before Internet of Things entered the geek lexicon, the company was already making what it terms as “connected devices”, or gaming gear that is linked to the Internet. The firm is now bringing that expertise to more mainstream products like Nabu, which has the potential for a host of applications outside of gaming.
“We have a million users logged on to our platforms, all using our smart devices that are individually tuned to the user. We were building these connected devices, which they now call the Internet of things,” he says.
Mr Tan was playing video games long before he ever thought of becoming an entrepreneur. His family's first computer was an Apple II, and the first game he remembers playing was the 1980s classic Lode Runner. That early boyhood passion turned into a full-blown obsession, and by the nineties he was navigating first-person shooter games like Quake in professional tournaments, squeezing in time to play even while holding down his day job as a technology lawyer.
After two years practising law in Singapore, he felt an itch to create something of value, and pursuing a trade he was passionate and knowledgeable about seemed logical.
“I enjoyed my time as a lawyer, but one day I decided that I wanted something different that was more than just pushing paper and moving things around. So I made a change,” he says. That change involved buying a one-way ticket to Silicon Valley, convinced that whatever he was seeking would be found in the mecca of the technology universe. After several years immersing himself in the community, he joined forces with Mr Krakoff, an industry veteran and currently the company's president, to produce a computer mouse specifically designed for gamers – the Razer Diamondback. At a time when a mouse could be bought for under $10, they priced theirs at $100, and to their delight found many willing takers.
Since that first offering, the company has added an array of award-winning products such as the Razer Blade, the world's thinnest gaming laptop. According to Mr Tan, the firm's competitive advantage lies in the fact that many Razer employees, himself included, are first and foremost gamers who continue to play in their free time.
The company's website even touts their CEO's willingness to “happily lay the smack down on you in Quake Live”. This deep link to the community that makes up their core market allows them to understand their needs on an intimate level.
“Our customers tend to be casual gamers or professional gamers who play for millions of dollars. We give them an unfair advantage with products that help them win,” he explains.
Razer is now a bona fide global enterprise, with 500 employees housed in offices from Seoul to Hamburg. It also has three design facilities located in California, Singapore and Shenzhen. The company's revenues are split roughly between markets in Asia, Europe and North America.
To stay ahead of the competition, Mr Tan has tried to foster a start-up mindset across his sprawling enterprise. To that end, he looks to identify talents that are unshackled by convention, and welcomes them into an environment that celebrates creativity and independence.
That has resulted in some unconventional recruitment practices. He once employed someone from China after seeing a demonstration of something the person invented on YouTube. In other instances, he has hired people without first knowing what role they would play in the company.
Despite his background, he doesn't agree with the perception of him as a maverick entrepreneur who was forced to break the bonds of straight-laced Singapore to make his fortune in a more creative environment. “I dislike it when people say I made it myself. I was born in Singapore, and I had the benefits of access to the Internet, of not having to worry about the next meal. It creates a foundation for people to do what they want to do,” he says.
Mr Tan is now focused on the next stage of Razer's evolution. While gaming continues to be a cash cow for the company, it is its foray into the IoT realm that could see it become a leading player in the tech world; the way Sim Wong Hoo's Creative Technology dominated the sound cards and MP3 player business in the 1990s.
He is looking to expand in this area by tying up with other big technology companies to offer a comprehensive range of wearables. Nabu has also put Razer in the sights of investors hungry for a slice of this latest craze, and he admits they have received various offers to buy the company. He also reveals that an initial public offering is on their radar, although he is unable to reveal any details for now.
“We receive offers quite often, but it's not about the money, it's about changing things. We've become a cult brand of sorts. We have five million followers on Facebook. It's also about the shareholders and the staff,” he says.
Among the various investors and venture capitalists that have ploughed money into the company over the years, he credits Singapore's Koh Boon Hwee as one of the most inspiring. The former chairman of Singapore Airlines and SingTel is one of the country's most high profile angel investors in tech start-ups.
Mr Tan makes it clear that 2014 will be a crucial year for the business, and one that will see it emerge spectacularly from its comfort zone and into the mainstream consciousness. To do that, the Razer team will have to continue its remarkable track record of creating well-designed products that are also deeply satisfying.
“The perception of the company will change. There are no sacred cows that cannot be slaughtered at Razer, we want to create something that is phenomenal.”
RAZER'S TAN MIN-LIANG ON GOING FOR AN IPO
'Right now, we're focused on designing phenomenal products and recruiting the best talents and ultimately believe that those are key to a successful business, and the IPO process will sort itself out.'
ON BECOMING AN ENTREPRENEUR
'I enjoyed my time as a lawyer, but one day I decided that I wanted something different that was more than just pushing paper and moving things around. So I made a change.'
ON THE INTERNET OF THINGS
'There is a lot of excitement about us as an Internet of Things company. We are one of the most anticipated companies coming out of the Valley.