Lunch With Sumiko: One great idea later, Secretlab CEO Ian Ang has 70% stake in multimillion-dollar business

When he was 22, Ian Ang set out to build the perfect chair for gamers. Secretlab, which he co-founded, has since sold more than one million chairs.

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Sumiko Tan meets Secretlab co-founder Ian Ang, who is the youngest winner in 18 years of the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year award. He talks about the secrets behind the gaming chair maker's — and his — runaway success.

Ian Ang doesn't do business lunches and he's not making an exception for this interview.

His public relations people have not been able to tell me why he wants to meet over tea instead.

When we meet, the 28-year-old co-founder and CEO of gaming chair company Secretlab explains that a full meal means he won't be able to concentrate later.

He usually has lunch in his office too, and prefers to keep to this.

"I try to eat very few carbs for lunch to avoid food coma so I can continue working after," he says.

"I eat the same thing every day. Codfish and chicken teriyaki, and just a little bit of rice. I don't want to deviate from this daily productive routine, hence I don't have business lunches on weekdays."

So here I am, at Starbucks in Tekka Place at 3pm on the eve of Deepavali. Traffic in the area is jammed up.

A few of his people have come early to make sure we have seats. He arrives soon after, having taken a taxi from the Secretlab office in the Bendemeer industrial estate nearby.

In 2014, when he was 22, Mr Ang had an idea of producing a chair that computer gamers like himself needed. He roped in fellow gamer Alaric Choo, and they set up Secretlab the next year.

It has since sold more than one million chairs in more than 60 countries.

When Temasek subsidiary Heliconia Capital Management took a minority stake in it in August last year, the company was valued at between $200 million and $300 million.

Public records show that Mr Ang owns a 70 per cent stake. Mr Choo, 32, has 25 per cent.

In contrast to other hyped-up start-ups, Secretlab has been profitable from its early days.

Its chairs, priced from $499 for synthetic leather to about $1,000 for leather designs, have received good reviews for comfort and back support from tech sites like PC Gamer and CNet.

Unlike boring, functional versions in the market, Secretlab scores high on desirability with its collaborations with brands like HBO's Game Of Thrones.

Focusing on one product and selling it directly to customers is Secretlab CEO Ian Ang's strategy. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Covid-19's work-from-home movement has also been a boon. It hastened the brand's move from gaming chair to something anyone could use.

Revenue this year, the company says, is on track to exceed $350 million.

Earlier this month, Mr Ang was named Singapore's EY Entrepreneur Of The Year by professional services organisation EY, beating more experienced businessmen.

Among other things, the judging panel spoke of how he "displays the business acumen of a seasoned entrepreneur", despite his youth.

Assured air

Like in publicity photos I've seen of him, Mr Ang is well groomed in person, with thick, coiffed hair and neat eyebrows. He could pass off as a Mediacorp actor.

He's wearing an all-dark ensemble, including what is becoming a trademark cardigan.

I find out later that it is a Tom Ford cashmere design that Mr Choo gave him one Christmas. He liked it so much, he bought two more and wears the cardigan almost every day.

We queue up to order, and when our turn comes, I get a chai latte and a red velvet cake.

He gets a green tea latte and asks for a red velvet cake too.

Sorry, says the cashier, only one slice left.

You have it, I say. No, you have it, he replies. I concede, and he gets a New York cheesecake instead.

We head back to our high table flanked by bar stools.

While you don't do lunch, you do do tea, I ask him.

Yes, he says. In fact, he had wanted to meet at a cafe called Bloomsbury Bakers in Bendemeer.

"They are a very small cafe but their cakes are really amazing and their coffee is pretty good," he says.

Having our interview there would mean the cafe gets featured in The Sunday Times, and he liked the idea of giving a local business publicity.

But the downside was that with safe distancing measures, it would be a tight squeeze if all of us - video and photo teams on my side and his PR people - converged on the cafe.

"Other customers wouldn't be able to go in. I don't want to trouble them also," he says.

Earlier this month, Mr Ang was named Singapore's EY Entrepreneur Of The Year by professional services organisation EY. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Mr Ian Ang and Mr Alaric Choo set up Secretlab in 2015. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

So he decides to meet at Starbucks, which he also likes.

"A lot of people think that maybe Starbucks is a waste of money and whatnot. I think that's not true. I'm paying for the consistency, and that itself has value. You never have to worry about it tasting different."

He has a likeable, down-to-earth air and answers questions patiently. His manner is assured but not arrogant. In fact, there's a hint of vulnerability - maybe it's his youth - like when he becomes more self-conscious once the video camera starts rolling.

But behind the dimpled smile, there's no doubt a killer instinct, discipline, and something of a perfectionist streak.

"We would rather die than fail," he says at one point when talking about how he and Mr Choo approach the business.

At work, I am told, he talks to his staff about "deliberate practice", that is, to keep going at whatever you are doing until it is perfect.

Even in his personal habits, he displays a calculated fastidiousness.

He's not having coffee during our interview because he's had his day's quota, I find out.

"Coffee is a productive tool for me. Four hours of focus," he says. "But I'm also aware not to be addicted and build a tolerance to it, so I limit it to a cup a day."

At a photo shoot later when we adjourn to his Bendemeer office, he takes care to make sure there is no lint on his clothes when the picture is taken.

Hooked on gaming

He grew up in the Sembawang area, the younger of two children.

His parents run a car workshop in Yishun with a branch in Ang Mo Kio. His sister, older by two years, is a digital marketing manager at a watch company.

Because his parents were busy working, he was looked after by an aunt and spent most of his childhood at her flat in Chong Pang.

He attended Chongfu Primary School, then Orchid Park Secondary School, in the neighbourhood.

He wasn't a good student. He played softball and football and was hooked on computer games.

When he was 18, he became more serious about gaming and played the individual-based game StarCraft II competitively.

After earning a business studies diploma at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, he entered national service, during which he was a military policeman.

He stopped gaming after NS. "I wanted to be serious about life and make something of myself."

He enrolled in an Infosys business degree course while working in business development at Aftershock, a gaming laptop start-up.

He dropped out of his course in 2015, soon after Secretlab's launch.

Secretlab came about when his parents renovated their house.

"I was decorating my room, so I had this whole gaming set-up - gaming keyboard, gaming mice, gaming PC and all. The only thing missing, I realised, was the chair."

As a gamer, he knew what he wanted: something he could sit on comfortably for long hours, looks good, has strong wheels and a local warranty.

Since he couldn't find such a chair, he decided to make one himself.

Mr Ang grew up in the Sembawang area, the younger of two children. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Mr Ang with ST's Executive Editor Sumiko Tan. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

He asked Mr Choo, whom he knew through gaming, to join him. A National University of Singapore sociology graduate, the latter had founded modbot, which custom-paints gaming equipment.

"He's really same-same but different," Mr Ang says of his partner, who is now chief strategy officer.

"On top of that, I knew that he was very good with his hands, good at building stuff and very good with people. I identified those things as what I wasn't that great at."

Is there rivalry?

"There's no ego between us," he says.

When I'm at their office later, I meet the friendly Mr Choo. They seem to have good rapport.

They chose the name Secretlab because "secret is one of the most alluring words in the English dictionary and lab echoes Alaric's and my approach - we love R&D".

They put in an initial sum of $50,000. Most of it came from savings, and his parents also helped with some cash flow.

"Bootstrapping has allowed us to make sure we spend efficiently and within our means."

Staying focused

Two things guided their plan.

The first was to focus on that one product - the gaming chair - and get it right.

Gamers were that 1 per cent of extreme chair users. At the back of their minds, they knew that if this group found their chairs comfortable, others would too.

They worked with manufacturers and took about six months to create the first prototype. The first 200 units were sold within a week and the chairs got good reviews.

Mr Ang notes that when they had their early success, they were asked what new products Secretlab would expand to next.

Instead, they focused on getting new markets for their chairs.

"We have a golden winning product and instead of trying to force another product out - that may not be as good, right? - why not expand your customer base by a hundred or a thousand times? The world is huge."

The second strategy was to market online and direct-to-consumer. There are no bricks-and-mortar Secretlab shops, although their office has a showroom.

Among other things, this allows them to bypass middlemen, avoid additional mark-ups, respond directly to customers so they aren't "bounced back and forth between distributors and retailers", and also have an overview of the stock.

I ask him about online complaints about some of their synthetic leather chairs "peeling".

He tackles the issue head-on, describing this as one of the most challenging aspects of the business.

The peeling is related to the tropical climate of South-east Asia - "humidity plus perspiration plus constant skin rubbing".

In the early days when they were new in the business, they had accepted the certification on material abrasion tests, he says, and also hadn't considered the effects of extreme humidity.

The company has been heavily investing in R&D to improve the materials used and tests conducted.

It has also launched a "Peel Protection Guarantee" and a replacement programme at subsidised rates for the old models in Singapore that have the peeling problem.

While profits have been coming in, Mr Ang wants Secretlab to retain its start-up spirit of being innovative, taking risks, being agile and running with good ideas no matter who they come from.

Mr Ang, who is attached but does not want to reveal more, says he and Mr Choo have always believed they would step aside if someone more capable can lead Secretlab.

"At the end of the day, it's just about the company being successful."

What does he see himself doing in 10 years' time when he will be all of 38? Why not cash out now?

"Ten years is a long time and we don't plan that far ahead. We like to plan 12 and 36 months ahead as things can change. This year alone, Covid happened," he says.

"But, yah, in 10 years' time I hope to be still running Secretlab."

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