More than 500 people around the world have proudly tattooed the firm’s three-headed snake logo on their skin. Fans have created memes of Tan as the saviour-like character Neo from The Matrix movie series. And, when he takes to the stage to talk about Razer, Tan, who turns 38 in November, is met with adulatory crowds. The opening of the first Razer Store in Taipei in May saw such massive crowds that the mall’s management had to suspend launch activities.
Tan is as adored in the media and corporate worlds, consistently being named one of the world’s best bosses, with Razer as one of the best companies to work for. Recently, he was ranked No. 3 among the world’s top tech leaders by UK-based Juniper Research, beating bold-faced names like Alibaba’s Jack Ma (#6), Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (#8) and Tesla’s Elon Musk (#9). Only Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (#1) and Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief (#2), were ahead.
Razer today is considered a “unicorn”, a term for companies that are valued at US$1 billion (S$1.25 billion) or more. Its influential backers include investment firm Intel Capital and Temasek Holdings subsidiary Heliconia Capital Management.
Asked how it all began for him, and Tan says: “I wish I could tell you that a radioactive spider bit me. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It was pretty straightforward.”
Since he was a child, the youngest son among four children of a real-estate consultant and homemaker has been obsessed with video games. He started playing Lode Runner on his father’s computer when he was five or six years old, and moved on to games like Counterstrike when he was a teenager. He once played World Of Warcraft for three days straight. Even after he graduated from the National University of Singapore and was working as a lawyer, he was playing computer games after office hours.
But he yearned for something more. When he had the chance to become an entrepreneur, he took it, first setting up a law firm with friends, then leaving that to head to San Diego to start a gaming-related business.
He bought a one-way ticket to California, made contacts, and eventually partnered tech veteran Robert Krakoff to create a specialised computer mouse for gamers. The two started Razer in 2005.
Tan recalls: “We set up a firm to do work that we truly enjoyed – hard-core tech work – we were coders, designers.” From that mouse, Razer’s product range has grown to encompass gaming systems, keyboards, software, wearables and even a clothing line. To date, the company has sold 16.1 million connected devices, with 13.5 million registered users in total.
“We are the fathers of the whole gaming-peripherals industry,” says Tan matter-of-factly. He has built an empire from his passion, forsaking a stable career in law to do so. Aware of his unconventional career path, Tan says: “The things that I wasted most of my time on in my youth have probably become the most constructive for me today. I don’t believe that anything is a waste of time.” Another giant in the technology industry said the same thing awhile back. His name was Steve Jobs.
SINGAPORE AS A TECH HUB
To some in Singapore, Tan is the Sim Wong Hoo of his generation, a Sim Mach 2, if you like, after the innovative founder of Creative Technology. But Tan bristles at a full comparison with Sim, who turns 60 this year, insisting that he is not a “poster boy” for Singapore’s technology industry. “We didn’t build the company in Singapore. Sim did,” he says curtly.
It’s just the laws of probability, Tan surmises. “I don’t necessarily think location makes a difference, but talent pool. There are four or five million people in Singapore. If you have a much larger pool or a bunch of engineering talent in a single location, then the chances of getting more start-ups or engineers are higher.
“You see a lot of entrepreneurs here, primarily because of the nature of the talent. You get a lot of finance and real- estate people, but not much engineering. That’s how it is.”
So what does he think about Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s comment that Singapore can never produce a Steve Jobs? “I don’t know if anyone can produce a Steve Jobs or Nikola Tesla or a Thomas Edison in any place in the world. Every single person is unique,” says Tan. “Trying to replicate a person is incredibly difficult. It’s impossible, given the circumstances of nature versus nurture, et cetera.
“I don’t think it’s specific to Singapore. Can you produce another Steve Jobs out of Silicon Valley? I really doubt that. Can you get another Elon Musk (from Tesla)? I don’t know, but, if we’re talking about, say, getting a business leader with a tech perspective from Singapore, it’s possible. Now, how great, who knows?”
It becomes clear during the interview that Tan is uninterested in traditional formulas of success. Asked if he could share any lessons he has learnt along the way, he says: “No lessons.”
After some prodding, he adds: “We don’t really look at challenges as such. It’s like gaming – you see a challenge, not an obstacle. It’s fun for us. We address it. We move on.
“We’re always looking forward to what’s next, what else are we going to conquer, what else are we going to take over, what great things can we do in the next five to 10 years. I worry if there’s a day I look back and start patting myself on the shoulder – that’s the day I think it would really suck.”
Tan admits to still feeling like he’s 15 – after all, he has a job most teens would die for. He has an apartment in Orchard Road and another in San Francisco, but admits that he still behaves like a teenager, preferring to stay with his parents in their house off Holland Road when he’s in town.
He says: “I like staying at home with them because I get free food. I’ve tried to stay alone but it’s such a pain to have to take care of myself. I like to stay with my parents. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.”
Tan, who still spends about an hour every day gaming, is a busy man. As Razer’s creative director and chief gamer (yes, it’s a title), he oversees all of the design work. He shuttles between his California and Singapore offices, flying every three to four days to work from there, meet the global press and launch products. “I like to be connected all the time. It’s just a facet of work, and until we get true virtual reality happening, nothing can replace actually seeing or touching a product.”
He saves mental energy on the aspects of his life within his control, like the colour – black – of his everyday attire, office decor and products. “It’s a very clean approach to life. It’s very utilitarian. We are just very single-minded.”
Probe a little bit more and he shows himself to be a fun yet demanding boss. The Razer office in Chai Chee seems to be set up like those of employee-friendly tech giants Google and Facebook, with its skate scooters, free lunches, non-existent dress code and pool table. The lounge has gaming stations for staff to play on during breaks.
Yet, there are stories of him flinging away unsatisfactory products in front of staff. It’s his determination to do better, says Tan, who swears he doesn’t need downtime. “I never needed it when I was a lawyer. I don’t see why people are so obsessed with it.” For him, it boils down to probability again.
“I don’t insist that people not have a work-life balance, but I believe that if you invest in work, it will do well for you. Statistically, the person who puts in more hours to do something is more likely to do it better than someone who puts in less. Of course, you get the guys who are phenomenally talented with incredible amounts of productivity, but these are the outliers.”
TO INFINITE REALITIES AND BEYOND
The next frontier for the company looks to be virtual reality. Tan is a founding member of the Open Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) platform, which aims to create a common standard for VR program design. (It has been touted by TIME to potentially topple the wildly popular Oculus Rift.) The platform now has more than 120 partners, including 20 to 50 universities and colleges. He hopes to create an entire virtual-reality industry, whose prospects, he says, are “phenomenal” in entertainment, health care and military applications.
Besides gaming, he is interested in sustainable energy and transportation such as space flights, and has invested in some start-ups that work on these issues. He also admits to owning dinosaur fossils, which he keeps in his apartment in the US. Tan plans to keep doing whatever he wants, and not necessarily with or for Razer. He says: “The way I see it, 10 years from now, I’ll still be doing whatever I feel like. It could be, I don’t know, a spaceship or whatever.”
It all sounds very nonchalant, but one can bet that whatever project that holds Tan’s attention, whether developed spontaneously from play or strategically for market domination, he will not rest until it succeeds.