Playing Around

Tan Min-Liang Doesn’t Care What You Think

Unless you’re a gamer, that is. And it is precisely his straight-talking, witty, and often irreverent interactions with his customers that have won over a growing horde of authenticity-seeking, video game-loving millennials.

Tan Min-Liang Doesn’t Care What You Think

“You’re lucky today. I’m not in a mildly annoyed, random mood where I give very stupid answers just to make it difficult for the reporter,” says Tan Min-Liang. The candour is disarming, but it’s part of the charm. That, and his easy smile, perfectly enunciated words and the perceived invulnerability he gives off as the head of what’s arguably the only gamer brand around.

The CEO and creative director of gaming hardware company Razer is the face of a new breed of gamer. Being a fan of video games no longer means having to battle the archetype of glazed eyes, days-old clothes and dingy basements. Thanks to the explosive popularity of e-sports and Razer’s shrewd targeting of a tight but previously much-ridiculed demographic, gamer culture has, according to Tan, essentially become youth culture.

Parents who would otherwise be aghast at Tan’s decision to leave the law industry shortly after graduation to pursue a career making gaming accessories can now look at his net worth of US$560 million ($772 million) and trust that pursuing a geeky passion may not be the end of the world after all.

Tan isn’t just wealthy. He’s also frighteningly influential. When he tweets, people pay attention. And by people, we don’t just mean his legion of fans, some of whom have gone as far as to tattoo his name and face on their bodies. We’re talking about exchanges between Elon Musk and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Tesla’s CEO offered to connect Tan with Tesla Energy to power Razer’s upcoming Southeast Asia headquarters in Singapore, to be completed next year; while Tan boldly responded to PM Lee’s 2017 call for a unified e-payment system with a promise to have one rolled out in 18 months. PM Lee has promised to seriously consider the proposal if Razer sent one, and things are looking propitious: the Razer Pay mobile wallet launched in Malaysia last year, and beta testing is still ongoing in Singapore.

Tan’s company, which he co-founded in 2005 with Robert Krakoff, has clearly come a long way from its beginnings as a manufacturer of fast-tracking gaming mice. It has become a full-blown lifestyle brand, with a portfolio that now includes wearables, laptops, mobile phones and, following a collaboration with a Chinese automobile company, a limited-edition electric car.

But the sheer pull of the Razer brand can be gleaned from a fan-driven campaign to get the company to make a Razer toaster — yes, the appliance that makes bread crunchy. One off-hand joke about a Razer-branded, gamer-grade toaster in 2013 sent the fan base into a tizzy, prompting one fan to create a “Give us the Razer Toaster” Facebook page. Five years and 12 toaster tattoos later, the page hit the required 1 million likes gauntlet that Tan threw down, with the CEO announcing this April that the toaster is underway.

Brands know that connecting with their audience is vital to success, but not every CEO is willing to make himself as accessible as Tan has. “I don’t really see it as a job,” he counters. “I talk to our users like I would my friends. I can swear at them because it’s not a very corporatised kind of thing. I just run it like a personal Facebook page.”

While he is known to interact regularly with users online, Tan believes in establishing offline connections, too. Razer is actually planning to open more physical retail spaces and its largest store yet just opened in Las Vegas in September. This brings the shop total to just four, including those in Hong Kong, Taiwan and San Francisco, but it is testament to Tan’s faith in the Razer lifestyle, especially in a landscape where traditional retail is languishing. “It’s a bit like a temple. It’s a place we can all come together and play and hang out. Our San Francisco store is always packed.”

By taking brand communications into his own hands, Tan is to gaming what Steve Jobs was to tech: a cult leader. We sit down with the similarly uniformed CEO to see just how much of his online persona is real. (Spoiler alert: pretty much all of it.)

You’re fairly active on social media. Do you see it as a way of easily steering or stirring conversations?

It’s important for us to be able to communicate with our users. Our slogan is “For Gamers, by Gamers”, so we’ve always wanted to get spontaneous feedback. Social media just affords me a better platform to be able to do so. Before all that, we spent a lot of time in group chats on game servers. It’s just evolved from that. Management should spend more time engaging with customers because if you aren’t part of the community, it’s hard to understand what to do or how to grow as a business. Ian [Tan, associate vice president of Global Marketing] is on Reddit right now as we speak.

But do you actually enjoy it?

Yeah, it’s good fun. Just yesterday, a friend of mine was talking about how stupid it was that some of the new solar-powered dustbins here were being placed in the shade. It reminded me of a Stephen Chow movie that had a solar-powered torchlight. I thought the idea was super funny so I posted on my social media that if we get 10,000 likes for that post, I will make a Razer solar-powered torchlight. By the end of the day I think we got 9,700 likes. Things like that amuse me. I run my own social media channels so it’s a good and bad thing. If I say something stupid, Ian just has to handle it.

You know you’re just encouraging people to get torchlight tattoos now, right?

People are very passionate about things coming from Razer. We’ve become a lifestyle brand for the youth and I think it’s because we’ve always been very authentic. Going public in 2017 on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange didn’t change who we fundamentally are. I still see Razer the same way as I did since day one: just two guys working in a garage trying to get this done. Well, the garage is slightly larger now and we’ve got more people, but our vision hasn’t changed.

What has, then?

The gamer demographic. Our target audience used to be between the ages of 10 and 20, but the demographic has evolved. Gamers are now between 10 and 40 years old, there are more female gamers and more casual gamers, but we’ve stayed true to the cause regardless. Even today, if someone sees you using a Razer product, the first thing they will think is, “Are you a gamer?”

So you don’t think it’s necessary for people to vet your posts before they go on?

Wouldn’t that be weird? Shouldn’t I be the one vetting my staff’s posts instead? No, I post my own shit. And I’ll do it when I feel like it. If I’m ultra busy, you may not see me post anything for two to three weeks. When I’m less so, I’ll post random crap.

How do you deal with the inevitable criticism?

I tend to ignore all of that. I’m glad that in our business, we can focus on the product, which speaks for itself. I actually feel sorry for political figures and celebrities because they have a tough life. Public opinion is important for them. It doesn’t bother me because I think it’s not really relevant for us; or maybe it is and I just ignore it.

Tell that to the people who’ve had your likeness inked on their bodies.

I’m quite bemused by a lot of it. When I see a guy who had my name tattooed on him I go, “Wow, that’s kind of crazy”, then I move on. I don’t dwell a lot on the past if I can help it. I’m always about looking forward to the next cool thing in gaming.

The next cool thing seems to be e-sports. Do you think it will ever make it into the Olympics?

I will bet you every single dollar I have that it will at some point. Or at the very least be an IOCsanctioned activity in the next 10 years. We no longer have to try and convince people that e-sports is a real sport. There are more people watching e-sports than traditional sports, and The International (TI) Dota tournament prize pool hit US$32 million. You can either embrace it or bury your head in the sand, but you have to accept that e-sports is now a fact of life.

Despite the popularity of Razer’s products and the company’s role in getting e-sports into the SEA Games this year, you still wouldn’t call Razer a gaming company. That’s because we don’t do content or develop games. There’s a bit of a dichotomy there. So we call ourselves a gamer company, and to be candid, there’s no one like us. There’s only one true gamer company and that’s us.

You don’t consider anyone competitors?

We could either have a lot of competitors, or none. You have companies like Logitech, ASUS and MSI making gaming products, but they’re more like a mouse or laptop company. They’re very good at what they do but we have built a whole ecosystem around the gamer. We’ve just launched an energy drink [Razer Respawn]. But would you drink a Dell drink? So no, I don’t see them as competition, not because we think we’re above them but because we cater to completely different crowds.

In your commencement speech to the graduands of Singapore Management University in August, you spoke about everyone’s moral and ethical duty to give back. How has this ethos translated into your work at Razer?

We are the only company in the world that makes lefthanded gaming mice. We made three, actually, and each one loses helluva lot of money for us to make. We’ve expended hundreds of thousands, if not single digit millions, into making mice to cater to a very small and specific group. They make no economic sense at all but it’s because I think it’s important for us to give back. I would love to do more on this front.

Given your influence in a target market dominated by young and impressionable minds, do you think you have a responsibility to speak out on touchy subjects?

I’m not a very responsible person. It’s a problem when people expect me to set a good example, or when I’m told I can’t speak in a certain way or do a certain thing because I should be a role model. But I never wanted to be a role model and I never will. I don’t f**king care. I don’t know why people assume I have to be a certain way. If I don’t have anything to contribute to a conversation, I just keep my mouth shut. More often than not, I just don’t have an opinion. I’m not a very interesting person. I can go on forever about e-sports but if you ask me what I think about the political climate in Singapore, I’ll tell you I don’t really care. I like what’s happening, the roads work, the people are generally happy, so I’m fine. I like to keep my mind very focused on what I’m interested in, which is convenient because I don’t get into trouble.

So what’s in the pipeline for Razer?

We want to continue thinking about what kind of cool stuff we can do for gamers. I don’t think we’re looking to expand our business beyond that, but we will probably be doubling down on Razer FinTech in the next couple of years. Cloud gaming and 5G are going to be one of the biggest game changers and I think more tech companies should be looking at 5G right now. Even though it’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem where the network and the devices both need to be ready for it, I’d love to see what’s going to happen with it here.

This story first appeared in the October issue of A.

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