Wed, Oct 23, 2013 | 04:21 BST
Razer is the “mad scientist” of computers, “always pushing against market expectations”
Razer’s Min-Liang Tan is used to being laughed at and described as crazy, but in his chat with VG247 the CEO explained the company’s constant commitment to doing what it wants to – not what seems most sensible.
“You’ll find a lot of other gaming companies you’ve got a CEO whose never played a game in his life. People ask him, ‘What kind of games do you play?’ And he’ll say ‘Go ask my marketing guy, he’s the gaming person’. Once they have to do that? It means that the entire company is not fully aligned behind what they want to do.”
Although it’s now one of if not the market-leading performance gaming peripheral manufacturer, when Razer was founded in 1998 it didn’t even have a market to lead; not the most auspicious beginning
“I think from the very day we were founded we were always pushing against market expectations. When we invented the first gaming mouse, everyone thought we were nuts. Mice were like $10. Nobody wanted a performance mouse. We knew as gamers we wanted one, so we built one,” Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan told VG247 recently.
“People thought we were nuts to do a gaming keyboard. I’m surprised they thought we were still nuts when we did a gaming laptop; everyone in the industry laughed. But now we’re seeing copycats come from everywhere – the same people we approached many years ago to help us build one who laughed us and threw us out of their offices are the same people copying us right now.”
Tan said people call Razer staffers “the mad scientists of gaming”, and seemed quite content to accept this title; his ambition is just to keep making the products he wants to use himself, even if people think he’s lost it.
“You’ll find a lot of other gaming companies you’ve got a CEO whose never played a game in his life. People ask him, ‘What kind of games do you play?’ And he’ll say ‘Go ask my marketing guy, he’s the gaming person’. Once they have to do that? It means that the entire company is not fully aligned behind what they want to do,” he added.
“Everybody at Razer is committed to one thing – to build really great product.”
This ambition comes at a cost, and that’s something new employees have difficulty adjusting to. Razer’s ethos of “create great things” has no room for Key Performance Indicators and other tools of the corporate trade. And Tan, for all his friendliness and commitment to quality rather than profit, may not be the easiest man to work for; his insistence on perfection sends products back to the drawing board over and over again.
“There are prototypes that I’ve seen in the company that have been there for like five years, six years, that we constantly improve. It’s hard to tell when we look at it and go ‘Wow, it’s ready’. Even the version before this? The prototype before this? Was just a hair thicker, was at 21mm. Fully working, ready to launch, last year for Ivy Bridge. But I still killed it, because there was just something I felt that we could do better. 16.8 was the magic number. 21 was just a bit too thick.
“I remember our engineers going ‘Min – how do you tell? What are you going to do? Why is 16.8 any better than 21?’ I don’t know. I just think that 16.8 is the magic number. And we started all over again; we just tried to do it. They said it was impossible, but we did it, and that’s cool. And that makes it easier every time somebody says ‘It’s impossible’, I say, ‘That’s what you said the last time. Get back to your room.’”
The executive has “seen grown men cry” when he’s killed their products; staff who have been with the company for years but are yet to see their products on a store shelf.
“The thing about hardware is that there is a point of what we call tooling or molding that is the most expensive. Usually millions of dollars is spent at that time. 99.98% of companies, once they’ve reached that point – because all of the investment has gone into that – they launched a product. We kill products really regularly even after that point. And it’s insane,” he said.
Back to the drawing board
Just how much money does Razer spend on products that don’t make it to market? We’ll probably never know, since it’s privately held, but in our last chat with Tan he noted that Razer products ship at a loss.
“Nobody does that in the industry because it’s too expensive; it doesn’t make any sense at all. You’re just ready to ship it, but still we believe until a product is perfect we don’t want to launch it. If it’s not perfect we won’t launch it. And that’s the ethos of the company.”
It’s an ethos that can be frustrating for Razer’s talented pool of designers and engineers, but Tan believs he has a responsibility to consumers.
“The YouTube videos we see of people unboxing the product; people write to us; people tattoo logos on themselves for Razer. It’s cool, but it’s a huge responsibility. It means that we have a responsibility to these guys to never, ever do anything against our own ethos,” he explained.
“There are two technology companies in the world that people tattoo logos of on themselves. One of them is Apple and the other one is us. We view it that every single product we ship is a huge responsibility. These guys have basically told us, ‘We believe in you, to the extant that I’m ready to believe in you for life.’ And that’s what we wanna do, to make sure that we have something constantly that we can stand by; that we’re shipping the very best.”
Tan said that when the Blade was first announced, even Razer’s hard-core fans were scathing; he compared its initial reception to that of Steam, noting that in both cases, the negative faction was proved incorrect, and now people don’t even remember the hue and cry.
“They stuck at it, and they managed to see things through, Likewise for us, we believe in our design vision; that we’re doing the right thing for gamers in general.”