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Tan Min-Liang

Become – High Profiles
February 12, 2016

The Boomslang is part of the Colubridae snake family, and unlike most of its genus, is notable for its slow-acting venom, swallowing prey whole—small mammals like mice, and it did—spawning an entire Gaming peripherals industry. In the process, Tan Min-Liang created a global brand and company, with a rabid fan-base, hundreds of who have tattooed the bright green three-headed snake on various parts of their bodies—a literal stamp of approval and staunch association—more than that, a baptism which says: I AM RAZER. “Today, we are the biggest lifestyle brand for gamers,” says the former IP lawyer. “When somebody sees the Razer logo, they know it is a symbol and beacon for all gamers in the world.”

Nowadays, Razer does not just eat mice, but also headsets, keyboards, keypads, laptops, GPUs, and it has got its crosshairs trained on an elephant—the PC industry. As PC giants such as Dell and HP “ceased to innovate”, he sees a huge opportunity for Razer to carve out market share. “We are putting guys like Dell and HP on notice that we are here.” Razer wants to “completely disrupt” the PC industry, he says, with “premium and innovative products, and with great value per dollar”. At CES this year, the Blade Stealth, Razer's first mainstream laptop, won the very best of CES 2016, along with numerous other awards. “The Blade Stealth is our first truly mainstream product which can be used for gamers and non-gamers,” he says. “This is a great opportunity for us to become one of the biggest PC OEMs in the world.”

The Company, often dubbed the ‘Apple of Gaming’, reportedly valued at more than a billion dollars, is one of Singapore’s prominent tech successes, with revenues in the “hundreds of millions”. But Min-Liang has little concern for these measurements—he just wants to have fun. “Well—not all aspects of life,’ he hedges just slightly. “With the way we run the company, and how we make certain decisions—we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” In many ways, this irreverence has helped Razer stand out the same way it has other technology companies, but in gaming, having fun is certainly part and parcel. There is another reason for this irreverence which reveals a more spiritual side. “At the end of the day, all this is transient to a great extent, and if we don’t do the best possible thing for ourselves, the last thing we want is to regret.” And the only thing he might regret is not having enough fun.

He is more selective of the games he plays now because of time constraints, and hectic schedule shuffling between Singapore, Taiwan and the US. A few months ago, he was hooked onto the Overwatch beta. On the road, he plays Civilisations, and the occasional shooter. He is looking forward to XCOM 2, which will keep him busy over the Chinese New Year. “94 per cent on PC Gamer—Holy Shit, I’m looking forward to it!”

Conversations with Tan Min-Liang

CEO & Co-Founder, Razer
Text by Yong Hui Yow
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

YONG HUI YOW: How many mice has Razer sold?

MIN-LIANG TAN: We have shipped tens of millions of devices, but we don’t disclose the exact numbers. We ship a Razer device every couple of seconds, which is pretty cool.

YONG HUI: Do you think gaming as an industry is immune to the ups and downs of the economy?

MIN-LIANG: To a certain extent, I think gaming as an industry is counter-cyclical. When things go bad, gaming is one of the most cost-effective ways to be entertained. To put things in perspective, Singapore is probably one of the most expensive places in the world to watch a movie. You buy a ticket, popcorn, and a drink, which might set you back about fifteen bucks—thereabouts. Many games today are free-to-play. You can have boundless amounts of entertainment without spending a single dime, except of course, bandwidth, but that’s largely a given today, especially in Singapore. Games have done phenomenally well, even in bad times. More people watched the finals of the League of Legends World Championships last year than the finals of the FIFA World Cup or the NBA Finals. Think about that—it is truly phenomenal.

YONG HUI: Why didn’t you make a game?

MIN-LIANG: I enjoyed playing so many different games. For me, I wanted a better way to play them, as opposed to creating an ultimate game. No single game can give you that ultimate gaming experience. People enjoy different games. Some enjoy strategy, others shooters. I wanted the best gear so as to have the best possible gaming experience and advantage for any game.

YONG HUI: Why the mouse though?

MIN-LIANG: There was very little innovation for the mouse back then. More importantly, no one had really designed a mouse for gamers. To put things in perspective, by inventing the first true gaming mouse, we created an entire multi-billion dollar industry. Everything you see today—gaming mice, keyboards, headphones, has have originated come from our first gaming mouse, the Boomslang. When I go to big consumer technology shows like Computech and E3, and I see all these gaming brands out there, it’s pretty crazy how we created this entire industry.

YONG HUI: How did you get the first prototype?

MIN-LIANG: We got an industrial design guy, another friend of mine who was into optics, and a couple of engineers. We basically taught ourselves hardware design and engineering, and we produced a patched-together prototype—that worked! The fun thing was we were probably crowdsourcing before such a thing existed. Today, crowdsourcing is effective because of the internet, but back then, it was via game servers. We just told people about our prototype, and a few of us in the same clan expressed interest. Later, some said our mouse actually helped them game better, and so more people wanted the mouse. Some of the more hardcore ones even wanted backup mice. It was probably one of the earliest instances of crowdsourcing.

YONG HUI: What was the insight that you had about the mouse which others did not?

MIN-LIANG: Precision. Back in the day, all mice were about 400 to 800 DPI. Today, whether it’s Logitech or Microsoft—everybody talks about Enhanced Precision DPI [Dots per Inch]. That was the first thing we realised. Why was it only 400 or 800? It was not capped necessarily. Now, it has gone beyond that to 16,000 DPI. That’s what we continue to do—to push the limits to get more precise.

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When somebody sees the Razer logo, they know it is a symbol and beacon for all gamers in the world.

YONG HUI: How much is the long-term growth of Razer dependent on PC usage growth?

MIN-LIANG: Millions of people use our PC products and mobile applications, but we’ve also moved into Android TV with our partnership with Google. We have also invested heavily in VR with OSVR [open-source virtual reality], which is probably the third largest VR platform right now. Gamers are a multi-platform group. Today, we are the biggest lifestyle brand for gamers. It does not matter whether it is for the PC or mobile. When somebody sees the Razer logo, they know it is a symbol and beacon for all gamers in the world.

YONG HUI: Will the mouse and keyboard become obsolete?

MIN-LIANG: In the long-term, everything becomes obsolete, but the mouse and keyboard are here to stay for a very long time to come. Their demise has been pretty exaggerated throughout the years. We now sell more mice and keyboards than ever before. They continue to be the most efficient ways of inputting information into any system. Of course, some things change when the form factor changes—we have gone from mainframes, to PCs, to laptops, to mobile devices—and you still see keyboards in one form or another, and you still see pointing devices. A mouse-less form factor would essentially be a touch screen.

YONG HUI: How will the form factor of mice change?

MIN-LIANG: I would say it’s not going to change dramatically, primarily because of ergonomics. It is designed for the human hand. It may change when the human hand evolves, but we’ll see. It also depends on the future applications of it.

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Fundamentally, gaming hasn’t changed all that much; for example, the essence of levelling-up, being more precise, competition, strategy, winning—all these have stayed the same.

YONG HUI: Where do you see the long-term gaming experience to be?

MIN-LIANG: Virtual Reality is definitely a big platform we are excited about, but it is really about enhancing the immersive experience. Games could be delivered in a multi-platform way where the game follows you from a PC screen, to a mobile screen, to a VR screen. These are the methods of delivery. Fundamentally, gaming hasn’t changed all that much; for example, the essence of levelling-up, being more precise, competition, strategy, winning—all these have stayed the same. Human beings like to compete and win, and they like to have fun! These have remained the same, but games have become more visceral, immersive, and engaging, and that’s how I see gaming progressing through the years to come.

YONG HUI: What does VR mean for Razer’s future business?

MIN-LIANG: It is still a nascent platform, but we have invested in VR for a very long time now. If VR is going to be the massive new platform, we want to make sure it is open to every single person, and not be exclusive to one single company or group of companies can dominate and block out everyone else, and that’s why we made it completely open sourced.

YONG HUI: Will you launch your own HMD [Head-mounted Device]?

MIN-LIANG: We have launched a development kit for OSVR [Open-sourced Virtual Reality], along with a consortium of over 300 major tech companies in the world. We are exploring, and perhaps some time in the future, we may do a consumer HMD, but it is not in our plans in the near-term. However, we are very excited about what Oculus, Valve and HTC are working on. At the moment, we feel VR is at a stage where all of us should get involved together.

We are putting guys like Dell and HP on notice that we are here to disrupt the PC industry.

YONG HUI: The Naga phone was an April Fool’s joke. Any chance it might not be a joke in the future?

MIN-LIANG: This is something I get asked almost every single day by fans, but our focus now is on disrupting the PC industry with premium products with great value per dollar. Many of the PC giants such as Dell and HP have ceased to innovate, and we see this as a great opportunity to carve out market share and become one of the biggest PC OEMs in the world. At this year's CES, held in Las Vegas, the blade stealth won the very best of CES, as well as other awards. We are putting guys like Dell and HP on notice that we are here. The Blade Stealth is our first truly mainstream product which can be used for gamers and non-gamers alike. It holds the record for the most power per cubic inch for any laptop at this point in time.

YONG HUI: Everybody should use a Razer laptop.

MIN-LIANG: Yes, in short. In the past, we were very focused on hardcore gamers who demand the best gear, which was great because it allowed us to make the best products. But now, we also want to put a Razer laptop in every conference room, college dorm room, school, office, and government organisation.

YONG HUI: Does this mean Razer is going mainstream?

MIN-LIANG: We have a rabid fan base larger than many mainstream brands, and our social media reach is phenomenal. People say Razer could be fifty or a hundred times larger if only we dumb down our products to reach a broader audience, which we don’t intend to ever do. What we want to do is to bring the mainstream to Razer. For example, while we have designed the Blade Stealth to be ultra-high quality and a premium product, we give you options: for example, with the core, so that even if you are a non-gamer, you can experience the very best Razer has to offer.

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At Razer, we are like the labs of Tony Stark—we make whatever we want as long as we are excited about it.

YONG HUI: Which organisations use Razer?

MIN-LIANG: There are military and security organisations that use our products, and I’m not at liberty to talk about them, but they are not Singaporean.

YONG HUI: Financial institutions use your products for executing trades.

MIN-LIANG: Yes, they use our keypad for faster inputs. We also supply space programmes for precision work. Somebody just tweeted that a drone programme also uses our keypads. We recognise our products are being used by many institutions that require high-end hardware—the military, financial institutions, and design houses, but our focus has always been, and will always be gamers.

YONG HUI: Do you mean the drones they use in Iraq?

MIN-LIANG: I cannot tell you which military, but drones with strike capability, and they are definitely concerned about having the best product in the world.

YONG HUI: Razer drones?

MIN-LIANG: [laughs] I think just gaming products at this point in time.

YONG HUI: How has being a gamer helped in business?

MIN-LIANG: As gamers, we like to compete and win. It is the same in business. In many ways, allocating resources and business strategy is a little bit like a RTS [real-time strategy] game. You build the units you think are important—sometimes you build a battle cruiser, other times you build a destroyer. Every aspect of the business requires a different strategy. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. If you lose, hopefully, you re-spawn and try again.

We are just gamers at heart, but with a lot more resources to make the things we want for ourselves.

YONG HUI: How does Razer think of new markets?

MIN-LIANG: We think about markets differently from most companies. At Razer, we are like the labs of Tony Stark—we make whatever we want as long as we are excited about it. For example, we made a laptop because I’ve always wanted a laptop of my own. Gaming laptops were too thick and heavy and I thought they weren’t good enough. So we acquired the best talent in the world to build a laptop, spent tens of millions of dollars, and years of research and development. As a result, we invented the world’s first true gaming laptop—super thin, super powerful. We are just gamers at heart, but with a lot more resources to make the things we want for ourselves. Right now, a third of our business is in the US, a third in Europe, and a third in Asia. We have got ten offices worldwide, and we are actually trying our best to manage as much as it as possible now, and meeting the demand, as opposed to expanding right now.

YONG HUI: How does product development work at Razer?

MIN-LIANG: Our motto is For Gamers, By Gamers, so everyone in the company is able to input ideas for new products, because we are all gamers. Often times, the gaming community also provides us with ideas. We go from ideation to prototyping, testing, and it is this constant process of iteration which allows us to create great products that are loved by gamers.

YONG HUI: Has 3-D printing changed the way you prototype?

MIN-LIANG: We have been using 3-D printing way before it became popular, and we have our own 3-D printers in all our design centres. Our product designers are constantly printing and trying out new moulds and ideas. 3-D printing is good for prototyping on a very superficial level, so we also do soft moulds, which are really expensive, and sometimes, even hard moulds, which can go into hundreds of thousands of dollars just for testing and prototyping purposes. You have to get to a hard mould in order to get to the final nuts and bolts of a product. Sometimes, even after spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, if we are not happy with a prototype, we get rid of it, and start over. This constant iteration is part and parcel of the Razer design team.

YONG HUI: You don’t do focus groups.

MIN-LIANG: We don’t do focus groups—we don’t do any of that, primarily because we know what gamers want, and we have proven that—even before they can vocalise it.

It is this relentless pursuit towards achieving the ultimate gaming experience, which fuels everyone within the organisation.

YONG HUI: As the company grows, how have you been able to keep it product-centric?

MIN-LIANG: To a great extent, for us, Razer is not a business; it is a passion, and it has been that way since the day we started. Don’t get me wrong, sales is the lifeblood of the company, but we don’t sell to get rich. We sell so we can continue to make great products. From the profits, we can do more research and development, and from there, we can make greater products, and the circle of life goes on. It is this relentless pursuit towards achieving the ultimate gaming experience, which fuels everyone within the organisation.

YONG HUI: What’s your product design philosophy?

MIN-LIANG: At any point in time we are tempted to add or take away certain things, we remind ourselves of what the product was intended to do in the first place, and for whom—that, I think is the single hardest thing to do.

YONG HUI: Is life a game for you?

MIN-LIANG: It is—I mean, not all aspects of life, but with the way we run the company, and how we make certain decisions—we don’t take ourselves too seriously. At the end of the day, all this is transient to a great extent, and if we don’t do the best possible thing for ourselves, the last thing we want is to regret.

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YONG HUI: What might you regret?

MIN-LIANG: Not having enough fun!

YONG HUI: As Razer grows, how do you keep every employee feeling that he or she is adding value, and not just going through the motions?

MIN-LIANG: We do our best, and it is difficult. We have gone global so fast that we have created little microcosms of cultures everywhere we are. So today, we put a greater emphasis on HR and our on-boarding process to do this better. Culture is one of the most important things for us now, and we try to bring in people to focus on it. That said, we have a very diverse mix of 50 nationalities.

YONG HUI: You’ve hired a lot of talented people. People always say there is a dearth of talent in Singapore. What’s your take on that?

MIN-LIANG: I don’t necessarily think Singapore lacks talent. Many of our most talented people are from Singapore. The big difference is exposure. Anyone who joins us has to completely change their mindset if they want to do well here. Most people would come in with a slightly smaller view of the world markets. Gaming as an industry is global. A Singaporean company today would say: I will start in Singapore today, and if I’m really aggressive, I’m going to South East Asia, and if I do super well, I will look at China. For us, we start with—okay, you will manage Asia-Pacific overnight, and by the way, you get no guidance, because that is life. Some people are not able to cope with that, and need people to tell them what to do.

YONG HUI: What is your oldest employee’s age?

MIN-LIANG: Robert [Krakoff] should be 77 years old.

YONG HUI: What does he do?

MIN-LIANG: He is Razer’s Co-Founder and President Emeritus. He is our key guy to evangelise our corporate culture, which is so important to us.

YONG HUI: What is the culture of Razer?

MIN-LIANG: At heart, it is not merely good enough to be good or great—everything has to be executed to a phenomenal level, and that is a very painful process, because levels of phenomenal can differ from person to person. Second, working as a team is incredibly important, and part of that is to see our customers as part of Team Razer. Finally, as the organisation grows, ethics and our social responsibility to the world become very important. For example, we have recently donated the proceeds of a game we funded, Dragon, Cancer, to children’s charity, in remembrance of the kid who very unfortunately passed away due to cancer, and was the inspiration for the game. We also served pancakes in all our offices in remembrance. Things like that are incredibly important for the company. It is not just giving back to the charity, but also making it a part of the entire company culture as much as we can. Some people will truly understand the meaning behind it; some others I suspect just went for the pancakes, but as long as we can reach more people, we do it. We also donated money to the motor-neurone disease fund, and fund kickstartr projects.

YONG HUI: Did you do the ALS challenge?

MIN-LIANG: I did not do it while it was all the craze and I think many people did it for the fun of it. One of our biggest fans happens to suffer from ALS, and he wanted to fly over from China to meet me. He happens to run a mega-forum in China discussing Razer products. By that time, most of his body had already been paralysed unfortunately, and when I finally met him, I had first-hand experience how debilitating the disease is, so we announced a S$10,000 donation to the ALS foundation. It isn’t about going through the motions—and if I may say, the vast majority of the people who did the challenge did not contribute any money whatsoever, and it could have been fifty dollars. In this case, I thought it was a meaningful thing for us to do.

YONG HUI: What advice do you have for people ‘addicted’ to playing games?

MIN-LIANG: Everything in moderation. But if you look at many of the great entrepreneurs today, including Elon Musk, he first started a gaming company. Mark Zuckerberg too, was a gamer and programmed games while his designer friends designed characters.

We do make u-turns from time to time, but we move at the speed of light, and we expect everyone to do that too.

YONG HUI: What is your management style like?

MIN-LIANG: I like to hear feedback all the time on any decision, but once we make a decision, the entire company moves forward with it. We do make u-turns from time to time, but we move at the speed of light and we expect everyone to do that too.

YONG HUI: Going public?

MIN-LIANG: We remain opportunistic about the capital markets, but we have no comment on when and where we might explore it.

YONG HUI: What games do you play nowadays?

MIN-LIANG: I play a lot of strategy games like Civilisations when I’m the road, Fallout 4, and shooters from time to time. I enjoyed Dying Light a couple of months ago. It depends on what games are out there, but I’m a little bit more selective now because my time is really limited. I was playing a heck lot of Overwatch when the beta was out. Now, I’m looking forward to XCOM 2, which I think should be released any day now, so I’m planning to spend my Chinese New Year playing it—it is coming out on 5th of February! It has a 94 per cent rating on PCGamer—Holy Shit, I’m looking forward to it!

YONG HUI: What makes you really happy?

MIN-LIANG: I like designing things—as simple as that. At Razer, we have the opportunity to make a huge impact on the world and human race, whether it is delighting them with entertainment, or in terms of the computing devices and technology we bring to them. This opportunity is something I’m hugely grateful for, and it is a huge responsibility.

YONG HUI: At heart, you are a product designer.

MIN-LIANG: At heart, I’m a gamer. In mind, I’m a product designer.