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Reaching the apex in a game of innovation

The Business Times | Amit Roy Choudhury | Monday, Feb 6, 2017

Mr Tan says: We’re also often mistaken to be a (pure) gaming company – when we’re in fact a brand for gamers, a subtle but important distinction. While our products are used regularly outside of gaming – in the military, healthcare and finance sectors, for example – we have little interest in branching outside of entertainment.”

Photo: Courtesy of Tan Min-Liang

THE Singapore flag flew high last month at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, thanks to gaming company Razer.

Project Ariana, Razer's latest piece of innovation and a gaming projector, won the official "Best Gaming" show award. It also bagged honours as this year's "People's Choice" from Engadget, the official awards partner of CES. Engadget also nominated the device for "Best Home Theater Product" and "Best Disruption Tech" awards.

The projector takes environmental information from within a video game and projects it around the room, virtually engulfing a player in real-time action, creating an ambience previously only possible for on-screen viewing.

"We see Project Ariana as the future of immersive gaming and a great showcase of what Razer Chroma lighting technology can do," says Tan Min-Liang, Razer CEO and co-founder. The Razer Chroma lighting technology combines with laser sensors, 4k video projection technology and game code integration (within the video game), in partnership with game publishers, to produce this effect.

Razer has now won "Best of CES" awards for seven consecutive years, breaking its own record in the 50-year history of the trade show, the biggest in the world, which annually showcases more than 20,000 products.

Razer's past "Best of CES" honours include "People's Voice" in 2011 and 2012; "Best of Show"; "Best Gaming" and "People's Voice" in 2013; "Best PC" and "People's Choice" in 2014; "Best Gaming" and "People's Choice" in 2015; and "Best PC" and "People's Choice" in 2016.

Taking the plunge

Even though the company is headquartered in San Francisco, Razer hasn't forgotten its strong Singaporean roots, thanks to local boy Mr Tan who founded the company along with Robert Krakoff.

Mr Tan, who studied at Raffles Institution and graduated from the National University of Singapore's faculty of law, worked as an advocate and solicitor at the Supreme Court of Singapore for some time.

It's been quite a journey for him - from a lawyer handling briefs to becoming the CEO of a hotshot technology company.

"I enjoyed my work as a technology lawyer. I had the opportunity to work with some of the best lawyers in the industry who continue to be close friends. That much said, while I was passionate about the law, regulatory work and what it entailed, I must say gaming won out as my Number One passion," says Mr Tan.

In a conversation with The Business Times, the Razer CEO says that the idea for the company came about quite some time before he actually took the plunge to form a start-up. "Back in the late 1990s, I met my co-founder Robert online whilst playing Quake. We chatted between games, joking about how the world needed a mouse that didn't suck, an input-output device that provided the responsiveness, accuracy, and speed to keep up in-game with our actions in real life.

"That's how we started on the road to designing the world's first gaming mouse. We had no idea how huge an impact the Razer Boomslang mouse would have on gaming; we were just excited to dominate tournaments and for our friends to get their hands on what we'd created. Between the two of us, we made something that turned out to be quite special. It was an interface that connected gamers with their games like nothing else on the market.

"We pretty much bootstrapped the company from day one as we were unable to raise funding in the early days given that we were in the gaming and hardware industries - both of which only became popular in recent years with financial investors.

"Finally, we got funding from 15 angels in Singapore who believed in our story - and thereafter, we had institutional investors like IDG-Accel Partners and Intel Capital who invested in the company.

"Without the 15 angels at the start - incredibly astute Singaporean investors like Lim Kaling and Koh Boon Hwee, who didn't just invest money but also lent their time, support and referrals - we would never have been able to achieve what we've got today."

Today, he says, Razer is the leading lifestyle brand for gamers and one of the world's biggest brands for youth.

For Gamers. By Gamers - "it's probably one of the most recognisable mantras in the gaming industry today and it is, in a single line, our mission. Every single thing we do at Razer is for the gamer - our customer - and it is done by the gamer - ourselves", he says.

Talking about his move to the US, Mr Tan notes: "While I'm Singaporean, the first thing I did when I founded Razer was to leave Singapore and set up our headquarters in California because I was focused on the global markets as opposed to just Singapore."

The Razer co-founder notes that it's much easier today for a startup to gain traction in Singapore. He cites "intangible" aspects, such as the creation of the Block 71 community and a dedicated space for entrepreneurs and startups.

Noting that the government has now recognised the need to encourage entrepreneurship with subsidies, grants and tax breaks, among others, Mr Tan recalls his own experience: "A funny anecdote that I can share is that in the early days, when I sought start-up support from NUS, I was rejected as the guidelines back then only provided for funding of engineering graduates and not law graduates.

"Things came full circle when they gave me the NUS Innovator's award a few years ago and I'm pleased to say that we are one of the top employers of NUS engineering students in Singapore today."

Helping Singapore start-ups

He continues: "That much said, I do think that there's a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction within the government to focus on early-stage start-ups. And while allocating budget to fund and support early-stage startups is important, what is just as important is to focus on mid-stage and late-stage companies that have the potential to evolve into global champions."

Razer is doing its bit to help fledgling Singaporean start-ups with its zVentures fund. zVentures plans to invest up to US$30 million and focus on early-stage start-ups, with the size of investment typically ranging from US$100,000 to US$1 million.

"We are looking to support companies in gaming software technology, software and analytics, eSports, Internet of Things (IoT), advanced manufacturing and engineering, VR/AR (virtual reality and augmented reality) and robotics. In particular, we are interested in companies that will have a role to play in the extension or development of Razer's range of product offerings."

He adds that he is interested in emerging companies with opportunities for massive growth and improvement, particularly in areas where Razer is able to value-add by offering its own experience and expertise including in the areas of engineering, supply chain management, sales and marketing and raising capital. The target companies would be able to tap the extensive networks and resources available throughout the wider Razer eco-system.

Asked about Razer's future, Mr Tan notes that since the company started, it has gone from a start-up comprising three people to a global operation with close to 1,000 people.

"One of the things that hasn't changed is the drive to create phenomenal products that delight gamers. We encourage crazy ideas, because the next great innovation may very well come from the professionally unconventional mind of a gamer.

"We're still incredibly nimble and can shift and move at the drop of a dime. We've also been fortunate enough to attract some of the top talents in the industry."

He rues the fact that the company is often mistaken as a hardware company. "We also have one of the biggest gaming software platforms in the world with millions of gamers who log on to our platform daily.

"We're also often mistaken to be a (pure) gaming company - when we're in fact a brand for gamers, a subtle but important distinction. While our products are used regularly outside of gaming - in the military, healthcare and finance sectors, for example - we have little interest in branching outside of entertainment.

"There are now an estimated two billion gamers in the world, making it one of the biggest TAMs (total available market) out there. As a platform, we don't just focus on one game or another - but we are focused on the entire two billion-gamer TAM in the world."

Acquiring Lucasfilm's THX

He says the company also has ambitions in other areas of the entertainment sector. "A good example of our intentions can be seen from our recent acquisition of Lucasfilm's THX - one of the biggest brands in the movie and music space. We believe that we are well poised, not just to be a gaming juggernaut, but one that will dominate the entire entertainment industry in the years to come."

For Singapore, Razer's success is important. Fledgling local technology start-ups now have a role model to emulate and aspire to.


This article was first published on Feb 6, 2017.
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