Razer CEO Tan Min-Liang’s Plans To Conquer The Digital Universe
What do young people want? The answer to that turned Razer's Singaporean co-founder Tan Min-Liang from a lawyer to a tech titan, and could soon make him the banker for a new generation
In 2019, Razer co-founder and CEO Tan Min-Liang posted an April Fool’s joke on his Facebook page: “Given that I’ve created the entire gaming peripherals industry, reinvented the gaming laptop industry, kickstarted the entire gaming phone category and steadfastly refused to create the gaming kitchen appliance industry... I believe my time here is almost done. Am taking applications today April 1 for all those interested to be the next Razer CEO.”
It was a typical move from the famously cheeky Tan, an avid gamer who set his career as a lawyer aside (and didn’t tell his parents for a while) when he decided to start Razer in 2005 with his American online gaming pal Robert Krakoff. Other recent headline-grabbing exploits include a 2017 tweet addressed to Singapore’s prime minister that declared Razer could get a nationwide digital payment system rolled out within 18 months; and a 2019 announcement that he was committing SG$10 million in funding for gaming and esports activities in Singapore, in part to troll a newspaper forum letter writer who felt that esports, or competitive gaming, was not a sport.
Tan can back up his bravado. Starting with a highly responsive gaming mouse, Razer did spawn a whole new industry of gaming equipment that offered gamers faster processing power, lusher graphics and juicier audio—all coveted qualities not just for more immersive gaming experiences but, as even casual Candy Crush players can surmise, also ones that give players a winning edge as they try to level up in the virtual universe of their choice. Along the way, Razer’s triple-headed snake logo became so celebrated among gamers that some tattooed it onto their bodies.
Tan himself has sometimes been described as the Steve Jobs of gaming. But even that comparison has a blinkered Western-centric frame of reference that is of increasingly little utility, as key innovations from infrastructure (see 5G) and zeitgeisty social networks (see TikTok) emerge from Asia to set the tech agenda once seized by the likes of Jobs’ Apple. For that matter, gaming itself is an industry whose outsized and growing impact hides in plain sight only if you are still seeing the world in traditional paradigms. In 2019, the global games market is expected to reach US$148.8 billion in revenue, according to gaming researcher NewZoo, as compared to a global box office revenue of US$42.5 billion for movies.
Investors such as Singapore’s state-owned fund Temasek Holdings and Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing have recognised the potential of the sector and of Razer, which went public in Hong Kong in 2017 and made Tan Singapore’s youngest self-made billionaire at the age of 40. But today, in our phone interview, he doesn’t dwell on past milestones.
“I rarely look backwards,” he tells us, demurring to answer a question about the achievements he regards as his personal best to date.
“I’m always looking to the future.” Perhaps we caught him in a more serious mood.
After all, it's been a sombre year, to say the least. While he is often based in California, where Razer is headquartered (it also has an upcoming Southeast Asia headquarters at Singapore’s One-North tech business park), Tan decided to fly back to Singapore when the Covid-19 situation started to develop and has been in his hometown since. “I thought it was probably safer here than in the United States,” he explains.
Contributing to the fight against Covid-19
Razer is doing its part to make Singapore even safer. In March 2020, the company converted some of its existing product manufacturing lines in China to make masks, donating them to many countries, including Singapore. On April 1, in what was decidedly not a prank, Razer announced it would set up a fully automated mask production and packing line in Singapore, to manufacture masks for the domestic market as well as Southeast Asia. In May last year, these masks started appearing in vending machines all over Singapore. Razer plans to give away five million masks to Singapore residents aged 16 and above, who can redeem them by using the Razer Pay wallet app to verify their identity. The move met with some public criticism, but Tan justified the use of Razer Pay as necessary for preventing fraudulent claims of free masks.
“We didn’t have manufacturing facilities in Singapore before this, so we pretty much built a production line from scratch to help ensure that we had a domestic supply of masks,” says Tan. That took just 24 days, not least because the company knows how to make things—a capability that has new urgency in this Covid-19 landscape of uncertain supply chains. “I do think there is going to be a growing appreciation for not just software, but also for hardware and the ability to produce critical items in a very short amount of time. That’s going to be a big fundamental shift.” In fact, he muses, “Now that we have learned a lot about our capabilities in medtech, we may be able to expand into new areas, if need be.”
The move towards banking
Razer is still often described as a gaming hardware manufacturing firm, but Tan prefers the description of youth lifestyle company. This puts the emphasis on not just its laser focus on its core demographic but also leaves room for the growing diversity of its ecosystem.
This includes Razer Gold, a virtual currency used for digital content in 130 countries. There’s also Razer Fintech, an offline-to-online Southeast Asian digital payment network that processed over US$2 billion in payments in 2019. Both are involved in Razer’s other pandemic-related initiative, a US$50 million Covid-19 Support Fund deployed to support its business partners.
“We realised a lot of our partners needed not so much cash, but cash flow,” says Tan. “Because they have been our customers for some time, we can see how much they need and advance it to them accordingly—a lot faster than a bank would be able to. The response has been pretty phenomenal. The whole industry is pulling together to get help to the right people.”
It is a relatively rare moment in the spotlight for these less-discussed aspects of Razer’s business. “We just moved to where our customers wanted us to be. We are very focused on listening to our customers. When they want something, we build it for them.”
That could well include building them a digital bank. Earlier this year, the company applied for a digital full bank licence in Singapore. “Many youths and millennials are disillusioned or uncomfortable with how traditional banks have not really taken their needs and wants into consideration,” Tan believes, but is otherwise tight-lipped about what a Razer bank would do differently.
But even as it branches into new territory, the company that made “for gamers, by gamers” its guiding principle will continue to make sure its connection with the gaming community stays strong. Covid-19-induced lockdowns, in a strange way, could portend a new chapter of growth for the industry. “With many people stuck at home, gaming has become one of the biggest sources of entertainment,” Tan notes. “On our platforms, activity has really gone through the roof, and we see a growth in the user base as well, with many more customers who may not have been gamers previously.”
That broader base potentially bodes well for another of his favourite causes—e-sports. Razer successfully advocated for its inclusion in the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, and “it did incredibly well, the following was phenomenal”, says Tan. Building on that momentum, the company held a SEA-Invitational tournament in June for national esports athletes and teams from 10 Southeast Asian nations, and continues to push for the inclusion of e-sports in the Olympics.
In fact, Tan believes that esports is already mainstream. “There are now more viewers of esports than many other traditional sports. I wouldn’t even say it’s the future—it’s the only sport being played at this point of time, and it will just keep growing. It’s inevitable. We have been very fortunate to be one of its pioneers, and we expect to be a critical part of its growth.” In this, and in tech’s overall prospects, Tan sees cause for optimism even in these uncertain times.
“You see tech everywhere in this crisis, in medtech, in Zoom, and other ways of communication. Everybody can understand that technological innovation is incredibly important for future growth and we’re seeing innovation happening now more than ever.”
See more of Gen.T's stories on Leadership.