Tan Min Liang needs a coffee – black with no sugar, just like the T-shirt that he’s always photographed in; just like the walls of the boardroom we are seated in for this interview; just like the Razer gaming product that is scanned, purchased and bagged at the cashier every four seconds.
That’s the jet-lagged consequence of having to straddle three countries across two continents. Tan flies between San Francisco, Taiwan and Singapore every month, and has been doing so for the past five years.
“I don’t think I’ve remained in a single city for more than five days in the past half decade,” says the founder of Razer, the man single-handedly responsible for catapulting what was once a sub-culture into the front pages of business newspapers and magazines worldwide. Razer was given “unicorn” status by Fortune at the beginning of the year. In non-mythological terms, it means the company was recently valued at a billion dollars by public and private investors.
You’d think Tan would get excited at the mention of that. Perhaps if he’s had more caffeine in his system. For now, all he can muster is lip service to the numbers being bandied around. Of course, there’s also the small matter of legality that’s keeping him from discussing business details.
Finally he throws me a tidbit by sharing about the one time, eight years ago, when a large tech company was looking to buy Razer. Its CEO had approached Tan with an ultimatum – Razer could either allow itself to be bought or he would assemble a team of his own, enter the gaming market and crush Tan’s dreams.
Naturally Tan was worried. In the business world, money talks and the CEO was holding a far larger megaphone than the one in Tan’s hands. “So, I decided to go for a chat with the head of the gaming division of the company and he told me something that has stuck itself in my head ever since. He said, ‘You know this gaming thing? I would never allow my son to do it. It’s such a waste of time.’”
Tan had heard all he needed to hear. He showed himself out and returned to Razer’s office, sauntering through the front door. The anxiety had left him. In its place was the quiet confidence of a man who knew he held the trump card in his back pocket. “I told my people we had absolutely nothing to worry about, that the big fish would never swallow us,” Tan recalls.
The tech company carried out its threat and assembled a team to enter the gaming market, but it neither managed to come close to Razer’s bottom-line or its appeal with the gaming community. Therein lies the key to cracking the world’s fastest-growing but incredibly obscure market – being a gamer yourself. It’s a world that has its own culture, operating in a language that is moulded by a rabid community that is both demanding and discerning.
A World First
Tan has been a part of that community for a long time, even before he founded Razer. It’s a fact he makes blindingly obvious in his communication channels and in the many interviews he’s given, including this one. He constantly makes veiled references to the virtual characters he’s levelling up and regularly regurgitates how much time he spends playing games while running a billion-dollar company. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic; Diablo 3; Left 4 Dead 2.
It’s a smart marketing strategy and a subtle tip of the hat to the millions of gamers around the world, telling them that, yes, it is possible to become rich and wildly successful from increasing your stat points or killing zombies.
The foundations of Razer were created in a gaming server. Tan and his friend Robert Krakoff had created a working prototype of a gaming mouse and Tan decided to give it a whirl in Quake, a first-person shooter video game that was popular with gamers at that time for its ground-breaking multiplayer mode. Tan joined a server with other gamers and went to work blasting the pixelated heads off his opponents. Now, Tan is a decent player but during that particular match, he found himself almost untouchable. Think of your Western pistol duels. Two men standing back to back take 10 steps in tandem away from each other before the turning around to fire at the other. It was a match of who is quicker. Tan wasn’t just quicker than his opponents, he was crushing them, sending them to their virtual graves even before they had the chance to draw their weapons.
“I actually got kicked out and banned from the server hosting the game because it thought I was using an aimbot hack!” reminisces Tan, his eyes lighting up with delight at the memory. That was when the penny dropped for Tan and Krakoff. The mouse had given Tan an unfair advantage, albeit a legal one, which was exactly what gamers all over the world craved for. So, in 1998, they officially released the Razer Boomslang, becoming the world’s first mass-produced computer gaming mouse. Tan named it after a poisonous tree snake because “snakes ate mice” and Tan wanted the Boomslang to eat up the competition.
Bring On The Next Level
Razer’s rise to the pinnacle of the industry was not without challenges. In fact, the bursting of the dot-com bubble followed by the devastating earthquake that shook Taiwan in September 1999, just before the turn of the millennium, decimated the company.
During those troubled times, Tan had not yet been appointed CEO. He was just the lead designer and in-house gamer and the business of running the company was left to the bean counters and professional managers, all of whom had left by 2004, leaving Krakoff and Tan to pick up the pieces. Lesser men might have crumpled at the grimness of the future and the asperity of the challenge and while I’m not suggesting that Tan was the business equivalent of the Second Coming of Jesus, the second gaming mouse he personally designed and launched – the Razer Diamondback – did singlehandedly drag Razer out of the financial mess it was in and became one of the highest selling gaming products of all time.
The next gaming mouse to roll off the production line, the Razer Copperhead, also enjoyed the same success as the Diamondback. The board of directors was now convinced that the company should be led by a gamer and installed Tan as the head honcho of Razer.
The challenge did not daunt Tan one bit. “I’ve never seen setbacks or obstacles as negative events. I relish them. I tackle them from a gaming perspective. It’s like fighting a tough boss in a particularly hard level. You keep dying and restarting, doing everything you can to defeat the boss so that you can move on to the next stage. You might find a walkthrough for the game or call a friend for help but you don’t give up,” Tan articulates.
“I guess,” Tan ponders, “if it’s not challenging, then there might be something wrong. I’ve always looked forward to the next challenge, of thinking about what’s the next big thing that Razer is going to take down.”
Disrupting Your Life
That next big thing has actually been wrapped around Tan’s right wrist throughout the interview. It’s a nondescript black band that betrays nothing of its insides but it is Razer’s first attempt to merge gaming with the mundanity of day-to-day living. Named the Razer Nabu, it is the company’s first stab at the burgeoning wearable tech market. But unlike the others in the market that purportedly makes life more convenient, Tan has a different idea.
He wants to disrupt life.
“We were thinking of a way to blur the line between real life and the gaming world. After all, life is essentially just a game right? When we are away from our systems, we are divorced from gaming. So, we started thinking: ‘What is the best way to tether ourselves back to the game?’”
Late last year, the public got a glimpse of Tan’s vision when Razer announced it had partnered with Tencent Games, a huge mobile games publisher in China, to link the Nabu smart-band with the grammatically butchered mobile platformer Timi Run Everyday.
“If you get a good night’s sleep, you get more lives. If you run or walk a certain number of steps a day, you get a distance boost. If you burn a set number of calories, you get coins to spend on in-game items. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a lot more lined up,” says Tan cryptically.
It’s undoubtedly an ambitious concept and one that may not catch on as rapidly as Tan would like since early reviews of the two versions of the Nabu have been lacklustre.
But, Tan has been here before in this exact position, being pelted with criticism and words resembling faint praise. The year was 2012 and Razer had just released the first true gaming laptop in the form of a lightweight ultrabook.
While gaming laptops are a dime a dozen now, many computing experts had opined at the time that it was impossible to fit enough power to run a game smoothly into such a small package. But, where naysayers saw an unscalable brick wall, Tan saw it as another level in a game he had to overcome.
While he and his team of engineers did successfully break down the wall and moved on to the next stage, it wasn’t without casualties. The first edition of the Razer Blade, while lauded for its ingenuity, was pummelled by critics and fans alike for its exorbitant price point (it cost an incredible $4,000 when it was first released) and outdated specifications. Tan was undeterred. Year after year, the company released improved iterations of the Razer Blade at lower and lower prices. It slowly began garnering new fans and positive reviews, and this year, the fifth generation of the gaming laptop has been dubbed by many as a “portable masterpiece”.
“What we are great at in Razer is inventing not just products but new categories. It’s because, at the end of the day, we are our own customers and I believe that is truly important in business,” Tan says.
The Business Of Fun (And Yelling)
It would not be a stretch to say Tan pioneered the tech rock star approach before it became part of the Silicon Valley rhetoric. Before The Zuck, before Dorsey of Twitter fame, before Travis Kalanick, there was Tan.
Looking at Tan now, you may think that creating a successful tech business is just about having an idea and convincing the world that they need this product or service. It does sound easy, especially since we’re in a era of start-ups getting millions and millions of dollars of funding without actually having to prove themselves or bring in a lick of actual revenue. Behind the glamour and regular business class flights though was a slog that lasted for more than a decade.
Tan tells me about the time when 12 people worked in an office barely more than the size of a janitor’s broom closet. “I appreciate the fact that it was really hard for us in the early days but I’m not bitter about the situation now. It’s an exciting time for entrepreneurs in Singapore; they are doing incredible work and are going to go so much further that where we have gone,” says Tan.
He even predicts that it will only be a matter of time before another billion-dollar company emerges from Singapore’s business ecosystem. He might not be far from the truth. The current government, for all its foibles, understands how critical it is for the country and its people to adapt and evolve. It regularly gives financial grants to businesses that are just starting out and encourages a risk-taking attitude in the usually risk-averse citizenry. Even President Tony Tan chose to invite Tan together with 10 other Singaporean entrepreneurs from more traditional business fields for a tea session at the Istana.
Tan, being Tan, of course decided to wear his signature black T-shirt and jeans ensemble while the other attendees dressed in their business best. “He’s such a cool guy,” says Tan, describing his presidential counterpart, “and he knew everything about Razer. But more importantly, it signifies such a shift, even in the open culture of Singapore today that you can succeed at what you do, and that success isn’t necessarily found at the end of the well-worn path. If you’re truly passionate and you truly believe in what you do, you can do great things.”
Being great also means being the occasional jerk. Tan yells at his people all the time, he admits. Just as gamers flame a teammate when he or she misses an opportunity for a kill or a goal, Tan rages if his team isn’t able to meet the standards he has set. Even his leadership style is a personification of gaming.
“I expect everyone to pull his own weight and be world class, just like in a multiplayer team game. At the same time, I also want everyone to play fair. We are super aggressive and hyper competitive but I want to make sure that we are playing within the rules and that we remain ethical.”
This honest philosophy is what, Tan reckons, keeps Razer ahead despite the stiff competition. And boy, the gaming market has exploded in the past couple of years. Triple-A game launches, which are the ones with the highest development, marketing and promotion budgets, have consistently outperformed the opening weekend receipts of Hollywood blockbusters. Such numbers mean that a slew of tech companies have released their own range of gaming keyboards, headphones, mice and other peripherals. It’s a crowded market with barely any elbow space, and yet, in spite of all that, Razer is still the clear leader.
“The Chinese have asked me whether I’m afraid of somebody counterfeiting my products and I tell them: ‘You can counterfeit the look and the technology. But, you can never counterfeit the culture.’ Our culture is what keeps us ahead,” explains Tan.
Razer has also invested substantially in research and development since the very beginning and hired some of the best engineers, which is why it has leapt leagues ahead from a technological perspective.
But, perhaps an MBA student wishing to use Razer as a case study in business need not have to delve so deep. The coffee that Min imbibed did not wake him up. No, it was only when we started talking about fun and games that he began to perk up. And ultimately, that’s what he wants his legacy to be – that he had fun working while running Razer. “And that I kicked ass in Left 4 Dead 2 too!”