How I Built Razer Into A Company For Gamers, By Gamers
And why running a company is like playing a real-time strategy video game
Min-Liang Tan, co-founder and CEO of Razer CREDIT: Kevin Lee
Min-Liang Tan is the co-founder and CEO of Razer, a firm that produces hardware, software, and services for gamers. Razer sold more than half a billion dollars of products in 2017 alone and has over 50 million users on its software platform. Razer services include zGold, one of the world’s largest virtual credit systems for gamers, with over 4 million registered users. In 2017, the firm released its first smartphone and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange with a multi-billion dollar valuation. Tan says being an entrepreneur, in many ways, resembles playing a sophisticated video game. It requires making hard choices — quickly, regularly, and with incomplete information.
—as told to Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh
Management is like playing a real-time strategy video game. You allocate resources, find the right people, move things around, bet on the right paths. Boom, you cross your fingers and watch the battle play out. Shit happens…Then you go address that. You just keep building, amassing different troops, doing what you need to do.
If we can’t get into the US market this way, we’ll try another way. If we can’t get into the Chinese market this way, we’ll “switch weapons,” we’ll “upgrade” our marketing. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it.
Sometimes you have to change strategies because you have a different competitor or antagonist on the other side. You have to make very quick, committed decisions without full information.
You learn the process as you try it again and again. So if you fail once, you get more information and figure out another way. Or you pivot your strategy very quickly, when you realize a certain strategy isn’t working.
In the 1980s, my father took me for my first video gaming experience at a basement arcade in Singapore — twenty cents a pop. He later bought an Apple II computer. I’m sure he had some proper business use for the computer, but once it got home, it was just all games, games, and games with my older brother, my partner in crime. We would even wipe down the sides of the CRT monitor with wet towels to cool it down so my mum wouldn’t find out we had been using it.
Like any Asian parent, they told us not to play too many games, it’s never going to get you anywhere.
We were so institutionalised — by parents, by teachers, by society — to think that gaming is a waste of time; that doing anything else is infinitely better than playing computer games. Now there’s less of that because it’s more socially accepted; Razer likes to claim a little credit for that.
I grew up playing games such as Lode Runner and Rescue Raiders on a monochrome computer. Currently, I’m playing PUBG (Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds), Clash Royale on my mobile phone, and They Are Billions and Civilizations 6 on a PC. The feeling of playing video games is exactly the same back then as it is today. It’s fun. It’s immersive. It’s engaging.
There’s a romanticised story going around that I didn’t enjoy law and ditched it to start a company around gaming. That’s not true. I enjoyed all the milestones of my life in my journey to Razer. After junior college I served my mandatory two-and-a-half years of national service as an artillery officer, then I enrolled in law at the National University of Singapore (NUS). After graduation, I practised in Singapore for a few years. Through all that, I continued gaming.
Law taught me the importance of attention to detail, which has informed my product design. My experience in tech regulatory law is particularly beneficial now, following Razer’s purchase of MOL Global, the largest e-payments network in Southeast Asia. All of a sudden, I’ve got to engage with regulators.
I’ve never really thought of Razer as a company. Razer was never founded to be a business per se. There was an idea that we wanted to create something cool for ourselves, and we just had to find a way to cover the cost of making it.
Word spread on early Internet chatrooms that we were trying to build a better mouse. People I met online said they wanted to put in an order. Some of the people who bought it, like a guy from Brazil, are still our friends. It just took off from there. It was crowdfunding from the very inception.
Today, there’s a proper structure to crowdfunding. In 2005, it was like, “Dude, if you want it, you better give me your money first.” There was a lot more trust on the Internet back then than now.
We knew that our mice were going to kill the competition. So when deciding on names, we wondered: what animal eats mice? That’s how we started naming all our mice after snakes. Later for our keyboards, we noticed that a gamer’s fingers resemble a spider as his hand hovers above the WASD keys. That’s how we started naming all our keyboards after spiders.
That’s how Razer was born, almost subconsciously, without too much planning or thought. We were living day by day, product by product.
Everyone asks me about the “Eureka” moment that led me to co-found Razer, but the truth is I just found gaming fun. It felt like a great idea at that point in time. I jumped right into it. Who else gets the chance to play games, design great products, and have fun while doing it? That’s the most fun I can think of.
We were a lot ballsier in the old days. We were coming up with all kinds of crazy shit. Now, we have to deal with scale: every time we ship, we ship to millions of people. We spend a lot more time making sure all the “T’s” are crossed and “I’s” are dotted.
As a company we have matured, not in a way that cramps our innovation and style but in a way that we feel a lot more responsible at making sure that we get the right people and the right go-to-market strategy in place before we launch.
We’re still known as the number one innovator in this space. For example, even though we didn’t launch any new products at Computex this year, a CNET article pointed out that you can still see our influence across the whole show floor, from copycat gaming phones to laptop brands borrowing our features. We can’t afford to slow down, or we’ll lose the top spot.
We know how passionate our customers are about the brand. I first noticed this in 2006 to 2007 when people started tattooing the Razer logo on themselves. Thousands of people camp overnight to get a first look at our events.
I knew back then that we had a strong brand, but tattooing is on a whole other level. It signifies something deeper. Then they started tattooing my name, and last year one fan even tattooed my face on his calf to try to get a free Razer Phone out of us.
The serious thing, as I tell our designers and engineers, about people permanently tattooing our logo on their skin, is that they believe we will consistently do good work for life and serve them without fail. You have to always go above and beyond to live up to their expectations.
I feel very close to our fans. If you look at the entire industry, most of our competitors, if not all, their CEOs don’t play games, or maintain a personal connection to their fans on social media. They look at it as a business. We fundamentally do not look at it as a business. That is our biggest asset and our biggest problem at the same time.
We design products that we want for ourselves as gamers; that’s why every time we come up with something new people are incredibly excited about it.
Over the years, some investors have told me, “You’re too focused, you’re too niche. Your current market is just toys, just fun. You have to broaden your brand.” Some even asked me to make office mice!
Above all, the question I get asked the most is, “When are you going to go mainstream?” And I’ve always replied, “We don’t need to go mainstream. The mainstream is going to come to us.”
Think about it. In less than a decade, the notion of nerdy 15-year-old kids living in their parents’ basements eating Cheetos and playing computer games has been completely disrupted.
Today, there are 2.1 billion gamers around the world. Fifty percent of gamers are female. It’s a $100 billion industry. By staying true to our mantra “for gamers, by gamers,” we’ve let the mainstream come to us, rather than the other way round.
I continue to play games to keep in touch with the young gamers of today. I could be playing League of Legends or Arena of Valor with somebody thirty years younger. This arms me with insights into how I can better serve the next generation of gamers.