The Gaming Guru
How Razer's CEO turned his passion for gaming into a global business with more than US$700 million in revenue last year
Min-Liang Tan’s “pretty traditional” parents gave him and his three siblings two career choices: doctor or lawyer. Two became lawyers, two doctors.
Tan chose law, but there was a detour. “They didn’t come to know about it (career change) for three years. By the time they figured it out, Razer had become something,” says Tan, co-founder and chief executive of gaming hardware maker Razer.
Today, almost two decades later, Tan is one of the most high-profile tech entrepreneurs from Singapore, and Razer, with a market value of US $2.2 billion and cult following of over 60 million users spread across every continent, has earned itself the title of “Apple of gaming”. To put into context, of the 7.3 billion people on Earth, more than two billion people are active gamers, or those play a game once a month or spend at least an hour a week playing. And Tan plans to target “each one of them”.
Let the Fun Begin
Gaming has long been Tan’s passion. During the 1980s, the preschooler, along with his brother (now a famous clinician oncologist), would spend hours playing Rescue Raiders or Prince of Persia on his father’s Apple II computer. “I was always on the computer, like any other gamer child. My parents used to yell so much,” he recalls.
The playing didn’t affect his studies, though. After finishing one of top all-boys secondary schools, Raffles Institution, in Singapore, he took up law at the National University of Singapore in 1998. The same year, while playing the online first-person shooter Quake, Tan met Robert Krakoff, a man in his sixties.
A year later, the two joined hands to create world’s first gaming mouse. “We had no reports or studies since the gaming world (at that time) was more community based. We started Razer on a hunch. We planned to make just one product, the mouse. Mouse is perhaps one of the most important weapons in a game’s arsenal. We wanted to create a mouse that could destroy competition,” says Tan. It was a runaway success, especially since traditional technology companies were ignoring the mouse.
Soon, the company was churning out legendary mice like the Krait, Diamondback and Copperhead. Now, it sells everything from laptops, consoles, PC peripherals and accompanying accessories to smartphones. It also offers Cortex, a “game booster” for optimising users’ experiences in games, as well as virtual credit, payment (Razer Pay), and sales services.
Razer, headquartered in San Francisco and Singapore, has achieved a following that few tech companies can match—people have entire rooms dedicated to the company's products and some have even tattooed the company’s neon green three-headed snake logo on their bodies.
In its annual report for the year ended 2018, Razer mentioned that the group reached an all-time high of US$712.4 million, with year-on-year growth hitting a three-year high of 37.6 per cent.
Part of Razer’s success is its focus on one kind of user—the gamer. “Our motto is for gamers, by gamers. We just build all the products around the gamer, and they appreciate that. We are one of the two consumer's brands in the world that people tattoo logos of themselves. One of them is Apple, and the other one is us," says Tan, 41, who splits his time between Singapore, San Francisco and Hong Kong, overseeing a workforce of around 1,000.
Geek No More
If you think gaming is a “geek thing”, consider this: Gaming is a $130 billion industry, much bigger than the global movie business. “Gaming has not only outgrown the global movie business, it is already bigger than both the movie and music industries combined – and it remains the fastest growing entertainment segment. We live in a world that is completely connected through social media and streaming. This drives lots of attention to gaming and esports, which are truly inclusive, global phenomena. Simply put, gaming has become a mainstream activity,” explains Edwin Chan, Razer’s chief financial officer and executive director and Tan’s school friend.
The world, too, is taking gaming seriously. When Tan listed Singapore-born Razer in Hong Kong two years ago, it raised more than US$500 million and made him one of the richest self-made Singaporeans at the age of 40.
“People’s perception has changed over the years. It’s no longer just entertainment. It’s a serious industry that offers an actual job that pays well. Asia especially is seeing tremendously growth,” says Tan.
Over the years, he has secured the backing of leading investors, including Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, and Lee Hsien Yang, youngest son of Singapore’s first prime minister. In March, he collaborated with Chinese tech giant Tencent on optimizing the Chinese tech giant’s mobile games for Razer’s platforms, and also explore monetization opportunities for mobile gaming. The same month, Tan announced the Razer Turret, a wireless keyboard and mouse for the Microsoft Xbox One video game console. “We are going to supercharge the mobile gaming industry,” says Tan, of the recent collaborations.
When it comes to competition, Tan doesn’t think “much of it”. “We are focussed on ourselves because we are one of a kind...we offer both hardware and software. I think that really confuses a lot of traditional companies around us because they ask me who our competitors are. Is it HP, is it Dell , is it Logitech? I say no. We are our own competition.”
Another reason for Razer’s popularity is the connect Tan has with his 560,000-plus Facebook, 254,000 Twitter and 103,000 Instagram followers. He handles his own social media, is present each time the company opens a store (it has shops in Hong Kong, Taipei, San Francisco and Shanghai, among others), and does his own personal outreach in trade shows. “To succeed in the gaming business, as a brand or as a personality, authenticity is key. ... Min personifies that 100 per cent. His tenacity, honesty, authenticity and no-compromise approach to everything is highly appreciated by the global base of gamers and youth,” says Chan. “It’s a huge responsibility to keep up with. You have to be true; people can easily spot your lie,” says Tan.
He also lives the life of a gamer. Always in his signature black T-shirt and jeans and adidas sneakers, Tan is either attending meetings, working on products and their design or playing video games. He doesn’t follow the early-morning gym-meditation-yoga routines popularized by Jack Dorsey or Tim Cook. “I don’t wake up at 5 in the morning and go for a run. I cannot do that,” says the self-professed “zhainan”—Chinese slang for a homebound nerd.
Tan wakes up at 8am most days, checks email in bed before going to work. “I’m awake till 3-4am, playing games (like PUBG and Apex).” His stress-buster? “Playing games.” Weekend activity? “Playing games for more hours. Well, gaming is my life.”
A stickler for details, Pooja Singh likes telling people stories. She has previously worked with Mint-Hindustan Times, Down To Earth and Asian News International-Reuters.