SG50 Business: Here Comes a New Challenger

by Valerie Chee (15S07B), Melissa Choi (16S06B), Esther Gao Yanxin (16S03N), Collin Teo (16S06Q) and Dominique Zhao (16S05A)

This article is a preview from the upcoming Issue #5 of the Rafflesian Times, slated for release this week.

Min-Liang Tan, CEO of Razer. ()

Min-Liang Tan, CEO of Razer. (source)

One of two masterminds behind the creation of Razer, the world-leading company for gamer products, Tan Min-Liang is a man who can proudly claim to have excelled at something he truly loves. Ever since he daringly quit his job in law and ventured into entrepreneurship, Min-Liang has attained worldwide fame through unbridled creativity and sheer passion for his work.

Now with annual sales rumoured to be in the triple-digit millions and the brand’s snake logo eternalised in the form of tattoos on the skins of hundreds of devoted fans, the company has achieved unprecedented success in the gaming industry. What made Razer the gaming hardware powerhouse it is today? What impels such enduring dedication to a brand? Rafflesian Times speaks to Tan Min-Liang, co-founder, CEO and Creative Director of Razer Inc., to find out.

THE MAN
Far from being the exacting, super-formal CEO one might expect as the head of a multinational, globally renowned company, Min-Liang proved, during our interview, to be a fun-loving entrepreneur who dared to challenge the status quo. For him, ‘every day is an exciting challenge’ and ‘is so much fun’. It’s no wonder that he loves what he does, so much so that he does not even consider it work.

Min-Liang’s passion for competitive gaming started when was a kid, having ‘played a lot of Quake and Unreal Tournament’. At the age of six, he and his older brother were exposed to the world of gaming and spent all their spare time there. Ironically, he was rejected by the computer club in RI, but assures us that he is not bitter, albeit remembering this even twenty years later.

Even in his Junior College days, he exemplified a key trait of an entrepreneur – not giving up in the face of setbacks. ‘My results at the end of my first year was F-O-O-D (equivalent to USSD today) – FOOD, so I can remember that, and I had to argue my way to be promoted to J2 – but that was pretty funny.’ Eventually, he made colossal improvements and bagged 4A‘s for his A Levels.

Later, Min-Liang graduated from the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law in 1995 and practised as a lawyer for a couple of years, before making the daring switch to entrepreneurship. Not long after, he designed and tested the world’s first gaming mouse, the Razer Boomslang, which was launched in 1998, taking the world of high-performance gaming by storm. The company’s formative years in the early 2000s were punctuated with sizeable struggles – a blur of designing products he wanted to use and selling them directly to gamers online. In assembling his team, he disavowed focus groups or market research, instead assembling it like a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game.

In 2005, after conquering the odds of the burst of the dot.com bubble and repeated factory shutdowns, Min-Liang took the helm as CEO of Razer with his American friend Robert Krakoff as President. This was just the beginning of his success story. As recognition for his revolutionary work and originality, Business Insider named him one of ‘The 25 Most Creative People in Tech’ in 2013. And in March this year, he became a Board member on the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.

A stark contrast to his seemingly spontaneous, off-the- cuff personality, Min-Liang’s role supervising and directing the design and development of all products requires meticulous attention to detail and a degree of control that few can pull off. He declares that till today, ‘Every single outward facing design, whether it’s a poster in Poland, a retail shelf in the US, or even a little card, I still approve every single thing. I’m a bit of a control freak.’ According to him, even their name cards (pictured right) ‘are printed in specific places in world’, and ‘with the same card stock.’

Min-Liang’s combination of audacity and unconventionality is unique – he tells us that he still doesn’t know many people who have switched from professional careers to more unorthodox ones. Even more laudable is the fact that he fully respects the choices his peers make. He professes, ‘I don’t believe that there’s a “path less travelled”, as everybody chooses their own path.’ To him, the most important thing is that ‘whatever path that you’re in, you do well in it.’ In fact, for many of his RI classmates, ‘the traits that they had back in the day are making them incredible at what they do today.’

EMINENCE OF THE TRIPLE-HEADED SNAKE

‘I think we’ve created a phenomenal brand, today we’re the leading brand for gamers, everywhere in the world… you don’t need to show them [gamers] the logo – you show them the black and bright green accent, they go like “Hey, that’s a Razer thing!”’

As Razer contends for international recognition, the proliferation of its distinctive logo has served to showcase exactly how much the company has grown over the years. Min-Liang attributes ‘only constant reinforcement and adherence to the company philosophy’ to building the brand of the company, and ultimately amassing a global following. He remarks that ‘for us [Razer], the vision has always been pretty straightforward – we focus on the gamers. “For gamers, by gamers”. That single vision has really helped us.’

‘Many of them [other gaming companies] have tried to replicate what we do. They can’t replicate cool. I think it’s because of our focus and that we are gamers ourselves.’

Min-Liang further claims that authenticity has turned out to be the prevailing quality and winning attribute of the company. Indeed, it has allowed the team at Razer to put themselves into the shoes of the gamer in order to perfect and optimise what consumers get to enjoy and experience.

He concurs with pride, ‘We’re deeply, incredibly passionate about the products we make. And it’s not just about products, it’s about the packaging. It’s not just about the packaging, it’s about when you read the Press that we do, or the marketing, or even when you step into the office. Every single thing has a very unified approach and vision.’

When questioned on how exactly he manages to bring this authenticity across to such a global audience, Min-Liang cites an obstinate refusal to cut corners. ‘For us, we have literally, for example, destroyed hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars of product, even when the smallest items are not up to par… When the designers or new engineers come in, they go like “What’s the big deal about it? Nobody’s going to see it.” And our point is, we know it, and we’re going to nuke $750,000 worth of products because we didn’t do this well.’

BEHIND THE SCENES
In the past, a main priority for Tan Min-Liang used to be vetting the hiring processes for the company. However, he conceded with a mild sense of disappointment that in recent years, the process of painstakingly vetting every single candidate has turned out to be, simply put, too time-consuming. Despite this, Min-Liang still strives to source for the best, strikingly unique talents to join his company.

Future Razer aspirants, take note. He listed ‘hunger, passion, and of course, smarts in what they do’ as the top qualities that stand out amongst future members of the Razer team. Notably, Min-Liang has even offered jobs to independent creatives that simply did ‘something cool on Youtube’. Hiring creative, self-motivated individuals has added dynamism to the company’s talent pool, taking it to greater heights.

Aside from their ultimate goal to wow, Razer epitomises the phrase ‘work hard, play hard’, embracing it as part of their work culture. Min-Liang ensures a healthy balance by consistently pushing for top-notch, quality performance (Razer has taken top honours at the International Consumer Electronics Show for five consecutive years) while fostering a relaxed and laid back atmosphere within the workplace, introducing unconventional measures such as allowing employees to play computer games such as Defence Of The Ancients (DOTA) during office hours. To the justified jealousy of gamers everywhere, he even handed out personal Blades (Razer laptops), to each and every member of the company, at the expense of a $2 million dollar hit to the company. His rationale?

‘The only mission that we have for everybody is that we’re giving everybody a Blade, so that you guys can play computer games. And that’s what we do.’

SETTING UP BASE
Apart from his astute and steadfast management of the company’s inner workings, Min-Liang has developed a keen understanding of the business scene that Razer thrives in. Back when Razer officially entered the business world ten years ago, start-ups, quite frankly, ‘weren’t sexy’. Without any .coms coming out of Singapore, nor any mega companies, introducing yourself as an entrepreneur or technopreneur was typically met with a glaring lack of interest.

Even to date, Singapore has yet to be the birthplace of any mega companies, or ‘unicorns’. So while Min-Liang acknowledges that things have improved and changed dramatically in the past couple of years, Singapore is, in actuality, ‘still very far from that Silicon Valley culture’. One thing he likes to tell the government bodies he sits on is that this is mainly a cultural issue. ‘If I’m in San Francisco and I’m grabbing my Starbucks in the morning, more often than not, the guy behind me is saying “Hey look! Have you seen the new app?” or “I’ve got this new idea I’m pitching to a VC (Venture Capitalist).”… Over here, usually what I hear in the morning when they’re buying breakfast is “eh, what are you going to have for lunch ah?”… In the Valley, it’s all about trying to find the next round of funding, the great idea. Here, I think the perspectives are very different.’

Although startup culture in Singapore evidently differs vastly from that in the USA, Min-Liang emphasises that it is not at all a negative thing – merely a cultural disparity. In fact, he remarks that ‘Today, it’s actually easier to start-up in Singapore, with all the grants and stuff like that. The question is whether it’s easier to succeed in Singapore.’

But it’s not just Singapore’s business scene that has evolved over the years; inevitably, the people in it have changed as well. The influx of millennials into the workforce has been accompanied by no shortage of criticism and derisive labels – ‘the strawberry generation’, ‘Generation Me’, and so on. Yet, Min-Liang has remained unabashedly optimistic in his view of the millennials throughout his experiences working with them, even going so far as to predict that “this generation is going to be truly phenomenal.”

‘A kid today with a smartphone has more information in his hand than the president of the US fifteen years ago. Literally with that in mind, I think the millennials are a hugely exciting group of people,’ he points out. Even the widespread sentiment that Generation Y is ‘soft’ and ‘coddled’ does not seem to apply to Razer’s employees at all. ‘Do we give them a hard time? Hugely so.’ says Min-Liang. ‘We scream, we yell at them, whatever it is. But they don’t break down – in fact they come back, and they’re hugely passionate about the products.’ It seems that the millennials working for Razer do not live up to the bad name which the public so often labels us with. ‘The difference is when they get an opportunity to be a part of something much greater and contribute back,’ Min-Liang reflects. Or, as he jokingly puts it, ‘Maybe it’s because they get to play DOTA at the office all the time.’

MEMORIES OF RAFFLES
Speaking to Min-Liang, his ample love for his alma mater is almost instantly clear. His years in RI being one of the best times of his life, he asserts that ‘it’s the friendships that you make, and the clowns that you meet, and the people that you fight with’ that made RI what it was for him.

In addition, Min-Liang reminisces that RI used to be a great social leveller. He pointed out that ‘you get guys from all sorts of backgrounds’ and that even till today, many of them still remain as great friends, despite their differing backgrounds. Testament to this is the fact that the current Chief Finance Officer of Razer used to be Min-Liang’s Secondary 1 classmate.

Till this day, Min-Liang frequently meets up with his friends from RI for hearty chats. He tells us ‘I don’t remember the Chemistry lessons, or whatnot that I’ve gone through. What I do remember, are the people.’ Perhaps most moving of all is the love he has for Raffles, best embodied by this quote: ‘My admin always turns away most of the press interviews I do, and she was like “Why are you doing this?” because she turns away like everything else. I said “because it’s RI and I am happy to do something for RI.”’

CONCLUSION
Today Razer is larger than ever – and in huge part thanks to the work of Tan Min-Liang. If there’s anything that can be learnt from his story, it’s that an undying passion for the unorthodox, thinking out of the box and the will to push through with it is what creates success. As Rafflesians, we’ve always prided ourselves as the ‘thinkers, leaders and pioneers’, but how often is it that we truly dare to challenge the status quo and try something new? Min-Liang’s journey has shown that taking the path less travelled has its payoffs, albeit with much struggle and difficulty. Nevertheless, it’s this attitude of entrepreneurship that we should aspire to emulate.

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