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Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: Razer founder Tan Min-Liang's 'insane drive to be the best'

Tan Min-Liang, founder of gaming company Razer, attributes his success to his parents

Tan Min-Liang doesn't care much about food.

He's asked to meet at McDonald's because he likes its burgers and eats a lot of them.

But the day before our lunch, he changes his mind and invites me for lunch at the office of Razer, the gaming company he founded in 2005 when he was just 27.

So here I am on the seventh floor of a flatted factory building in Chai Chee Lane, sitting in the reception area waiting for him.

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The PR guy had said it's their "Batcave" and true enough, the lights are dim and the walls are black. Around me are men and women, many in black Razer T-shirts.

A black wall is plastered with Razer's distinctive logo - an acid-green, triple-headed snake. A monitor embedded at the reception counter flashes information like the number of registered Razer users around the world (35.4 million and growing) and where they come from (America is No. 1 with 8.73 million).

Word comes that Mr Tan - or Min, as everyone calls him - is ready and we head to his office.

He jumps up from his chair when he sees me, voice booming, hearty and friendly, and greets me with a strong handshake.

  • WHAT WE ATE

  • Razer founder Tan Min-Liang grew up playing computer games and has turned this passion into a global gaming company that is now seeking to go public in Hong Kong. Last week, he was named No. 41 on Forbes' 50 Richest Singapore list with an estimated n

    RAZER ASIA PACIFIC

    Block 514, Chai Chee Lane

    Chicken rice

    Rochor Beancurd tau huay

    Pokka Mixed Berries

With his gelled-up spiky hair, black T-shirt, Levi's jeans and adidas sneakers, the 39-year-old looks as cool as his photos on the Internet.

Hi, hi, he says, handing me his name card, and we head for the dining area.

Razer provides lunch for its 800 employees around the world. Today's menu is chicken rice and Rochor Beancurd tau huay. We sit with the other employees who don't seem uncomfortable with his presence.

There's no chilli sauce with his chicken rice (or mine, actually) because he doesn't eat spicy.

"I don't really care about food, which is the unfortunate thing about my life. Good food is wasted on me, like really wasted," he says, laughing.

"I eat the same thing every day, I wear the same thing every day, I'm kind of boring from that perspective," he adds self-deprecatingly.

But from all other perspectives, his life is insanely - a favourite word of his - exciting.

Top on the list is a listing in Hong Kong. Razer has filed for an initial public offering (IPO) that could value it at US$3 billion (S$4 billion) to US$5 billion, say reports.

Last week, Forbes' 50 Richest Singapore list placed him at No. 41, with an estimated net worth of US$700 million. It's his second year on the list and he and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin are the only under-40 on the chart.

FOR those not into computer gaming, Razer might need some introduction.

In 2005, Mr Tan, an avid gamer since primary school, and Mr Robert Krakoff, an American gamer he had met online and who is now in his 70s, launched Razer in San Francisco. The company's motto is "For Gamers. By Gamers."

Razer founder Tan Min-Liang grew up playing computer games and has turned this passion into a global gaming company that is now seeking to go public in Hong Kong. Last week, he was named No. 41 on Forbes' 50 Richest Singapore list with an estimated n
Razer founder Tan Min-Liang grew up playing computer games and has turned this passion into a global gaming company that is now seeking to go public in Hong Kong. Last week, he was named No. 41 on Forbes' 50 Richest Singapore list with an estimated net worth of US$700 million (S$950 million). PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Among their products was a gaming mouse called the Razer Boomslang, which was more responsive and accurate and faster than what tech companies then were producing.

In the years that followed, Razer got more funding and came up with more cool stuff like headsets, a handheld gaming device, the Razer Edge gaming tablet computer and Razer Blade laptops.

It also released software and, more recently, acquired audio tech company THX and Android phone maker Nextbit. A mobile device is said to be on the cards.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, it showed off a triple-monitor laptop concept known as Project Valerie, and a fully immersive gaming projector concept known as Project Ariana. Project Ariana won a Best of CES award, a title Razer has won a record seven years in a row.

The company's investors include IDG-Accel, Temasek Holdings, Intel and Mr Li Ka-shing's Horizon Ventures. Its products are priced high, going up to more than $200 for a mouse and more than $6,000 for a laptop, but the brand enjoys cult-like status among gamers. Fanatics have tattoos with the word "Razer" and even Mr Tan's name. The brand's Facebook page has 7.8 million fans and even Mr Tan's own Facebook page has close to 600,000.

ALL this and he's not even 40.

You are very over-achieving, I say.

He ponders this remark and says: "I don't know. I just like to do cool stuff."

The real overachiever in his family, he adds, is his elder brother Min-Han, a medical oncologist whom he describes as "insanely smart". In fact, he comes from a family of achievers. Besides his brother, he has two older sisters: E-Ching, a family physician, and E-Fang, a lawyer.

He attributes what he has achieved to his parents, telling me several times that they are the most important and influential people in his life.

"I owe everything to them," he says, simply.

His father, Mr Tan Kim Lee, is a semi-retired real estate consultant, and his mother, Madam Low Ken Yin, is a housewife.

Razer founder Tan Min-Liang grew up playing computer games and has turned this passion into a global gaming company that is now seeking to go public in Hong Kong. Last week, he was named No. 41 on Forbes' 50 Richest Singapore list with an estimated n
PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAN MIN-LIANG

VERY IMPORTANT PEOPLE

I owe everything to them.

MR TAN MIN-LIANG, on his parents (above), Mr Tan Kim Lee and Madam Low Ken Yin.

Both are in their 70s.

He grew up in a semi-detached house off Holland Road and while he and his siblings never wanted for anything, they were taught to be frugal.

He remembers only one family holiday, to Thailand, when he was about seven, and how the children knew they should try to get into a local university because it would be less expensive.

His parents placed great store on education. "They had a very clear vision of what they wanted us to do, but at the same time not to the extent where they were cramping our style, but really kind of guiding us to do a couple of things, yeah."

All four went to Nanyang Primary as their parents believed that learning Chinese was important.

They then went to Raffles Institution/Girls' School to be immersed in an English-speaking environment, and then it was back to a more Chinese world at Hwa Chong Junior College. He did law at the National University of Singapore.

While his father was more of a disciplinarian, his mother was the nurturer and enabler, and "the balance worked out very, very well".

"My mum had a way with her. She would be able to guide us to certain conclusions without us feeling like it was forced upon us," he says.

"It wasn't like, you must be a doctor, you must be a lawyer. It was more like, look at the people you can help as a doctor, and look at what you can fundamentally do as a lawyer to help," he says.

"And she was always talking about how my dad was doing real estate as a businessman and trying to inspire us from that perspective too. I think that's really the right way to do it, you know, inspiring people and moving them in that direction."

His parents are the reason Mr Tan - who is single - still lives at home, in his old bedroom, whenever he is in town. Razer has dual headquarters, in San Francisco and Singapore, and a design centre in Taipei. He spends about a week each month here and divides the rest of his time between the other two cities.

Him living with his parents is something of a joke among his American colleagues.

"But I love living with my parents," he says. "My parents are getting older, right? I can play computer games and my mum gets me food. I mean, that's a horrible way of putting it, but it's the truth," he says, laughing. "Like she'll say, 'here, have your coffee' and things like that. I say 'sure'."

His parents are also the reason Razer has a base in Singapore.

"I hate to say it but it's the truth. There are a lot of other logical places to set up shop, right, Shenzhen or Taipei, but yeah. The real basis for me to be back here in Singapore is spending time with my parents. That's the most important thing for me."

LIKE many guys of his generation, he and his brother played a lot of computer games. He remembers their father taking them to a video arcade in Colombo Court. And when their dad bought an Apple II computer, they would hog it, then rush to cool the machine down with a cold cloth before their mother came home, as she didn't like them playing too many games.

Were you a computer geek? "I wasn't athletic but nor was I like a bookish person," he says. "You know, I hate to make it sound very colourless but I wasn't like a coding genius either. I like computers because of playing games. I've always liked to have fun, to have a good time."

He has somehow turned having fun into a billion-dollar business.

During our lunch, the word "mentor" crops up a lot. He has had many and is generous in paying tribute to them. He cites businessmen Lim Kaling and Koh Boon Hwee, as well as his chief operating officer Khaw Kheng Joo, as mentors he has learnt a lot from.

I'm struck by how he seems to immerse himself and enjoy whatever task is at hand. He says he had fun in school, loved his time in the army where he was an artillery officer, loved studying law and practising it.

"Maybe it's what my mum has done to me, like everything that you do, if you're going to be in that position, you might as well do the best that you can," he says. "So whether I was in the army or whether I was a lawyer, maybe it's just this insane drive to be the best."

Razer founder Tan Min-Liang grew up playing computer games and has turned this passion into a global gaming company that is now seeking to go public in Hong Kong. Last week, he was named No. 41 on Forbes' 50 Richest Singapore list with an estimated n

It helps that he has a "great memory" and learns quickly. "I suck up as much information as I can in a short amount of time."

I ask him about his wealth and he says the IPO is a means to an end - having the funds to do more great things for gamers. "Life is very simple, right? I don't really care about the food I eat and the clothes I wear or stuff like that. I'm just passionate about work and gaming."

While he does have trappings like a Porsche and an Audi R8, it's more an attraction to product design than driving. And once something fits, he tends to buy it in bulk, like his adidas shoes. "Life is more straightforward" like that.

Clearly, he lives and breathes Razer, where he still leads product design, and he reveals he has not taken a holiday since 2009. "We've got customers who believe that we are always going to do great stuff and it's a huge responsibility for us to be doing that."

I ask what he sees himself doing in 10 years' time and he says "exactly the same thing but hopefully on a different scale".

And while he might not be living at home in his old bedroom then, he does want to be with his parents.

"My hope is that I get a place that my parents will want to stay with me. That's my vision. But so far, I'm actually pretty happy."

Twitter @STsumikotan


Sumiko Tan will be at the Singapore Coffee Festival next Sunday at 12.30pm in a session titled Coffee With The Columnists. Details here: http://sgcoffeefestival.com.sg/

She will also be at Kinokuniya Main Store at Ngee Ann City on Aug 26 at 4pm, and Popular at Jurong Point on Sept 16 at 4pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline ''An insane drive to be the best''. Print Edition | Subscribe